No Spiritual Hearing Without Listening
This may seem an odd topic to bring up in a study of Scripture Reflection and Meditation: it is! But it is worthwhile spending a little time on the ways certain words are used in Sacred Scripture ― in this case the different uses of: to listen and to hear. These words ― both of them ― are used at very special moments in the long, unfolding history of God’s Plan of Salvation.
In everyday conversational language the words listen and hear can mean very different things, but they can also, depending on the context, mean much the same; that is, they can be interchangeable.
In our context of the Jewish-Christian Scripture, however, our knowledge and understanding need to be informed by the specific use of these words in the Scriptures. The subject is well covered in articles and books on Jewish-Christian studies and spirituality, and thus our aim here, is to give just the brief essentials for Scripture reflection and meditation. Many of our own articles touch on the topic so that, gradually, one builds up a practical understanding the more one gets involved in personal study and enquiry. In summary, in the Biblical context, our most common use of the words is simply:
We listen in a spiritual way in order to hear the true message God
desires us to understand and act upon.
A God Who Speaks and Listens
From the beginning of the Book of Genesis, we are introduced to God as One Who calls things into being by a word. In the second and third chapters of Genesis, God does not call Adam and Eve into existence by a word, but by personally designing them with His own Hands and breathing life into them. They are given a beautiful garden to live in and to care for ― a place where God chose to walk in the cool of the evening and converse with them. Thus they are close friends with One who delights in speaking and listening. Even after they were expelled from Eden, God’s speaking and listening continued: Adam and Eve remained confident that they would hear Him when He called, and that He would listen when they spoke.
The Psalmist captured this confidence beautifully in his song:
Come and hear, all you who fear God, while I recount what
has been done for me.
I called to the Lord with my mouth; praise was upon my tongue.
Had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard.
But God did hear and listened to my voice in prayer.
Blessed be God, who did not refuse me the kindness I sought
(Psalm 66: 16 ― 20)
Notice how this Psalm closes with a traditional blessing of God Who graciously heard the psalmist’s prayer, listened to what he was asking for and granted his request.
Created in God’s Image
We believe we are, as it is written in Genesis 1: 27: created in the image of God. We are more like God ― not when we can do whatever we want (as Eve found out ― Genesis 3: 16) but when we emulate the qualities of God. We must therefore seek to be listening and thus able to hear. In the Biblical vision, these are sacred skills and thus to become more truly God-like we need to:―
• seek to learn how to listen to God and hear the real message
in His words;
• nurture an attitude of reverence for the things of God;
• immerse ourselves in what God has caused to be written down for us,
and thus grow spiritually;
• allow ourselves to be formed by His Sacred Word.
This is normally the result of sincere and sustained
Scripture based meditation.
The lesson from Sacred Scripture is that if we maintain these attitudes and practices, we will assuredly be restored more closely to the image of God in which He created us.
The obligation to listen to God so that we hear the inner content or message in what He speaks, is most apparent in Deuteronomy 6: 4 ― when Moses passes on God’s strictest instructions:
″Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!″
This is part of the passage known as the Shema after the first word: Shema ― Listen or Hear. The opening words: Shema Yisrael mean only one thing: ″Israel, pay attention!″ Then comes the number one priority which is never, ever superceded:
The LORD is our God, the Lord alone.
(New American Bible and Jewish Publication Society)
In other word, your first duty is to give your full attention to what God has to say and be constantly reverencing His Word. Above all else, there are to be no other gods but the One Who speaks, and Who listens. Every idol must be destroyed so that nothing can impede our inner hearing of the Divine Word.
Thus we are not merely commanded, but are graciously invited to listen to our Creator ― to be of one mind with the speaker so as to carry out the Divine Will, in a generous response rather than at the level of enforced obedience of a servant.
The much acclaimed Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathon Sacks expresses this magnificently:
Listening is an art, a skill, a religious discipline, the deepest reflex of
the human spirit. One who truly listens can sometimes hear, beneath
the noise of the word, the deep speech of the universe, the song
creation sings to its Creator:
The heavens declare the glory of G-d,
The skies proclaim the work of His hands.
Day pours forth speech to day,
Night communicates knowledge to night.
There is no speech or language
Where their voice is not heard.
In the silence of the desert (midbar) the Israelites were able to hear
the word (davar). And one trained in the art of listening can hear not
only the voice of G-d but also the silent cry of the lonely, the
distressed, the afflicted, the poor, the needy, the neglected, the
unheard. For speech is the most personal of all gestures, and listening
the most human ― and at the same time, the most divine ― of all
gifts. G-d listens, and asks us to listen.
That is why the greatest of all commands the first Jewish Words we
learned as children, the last words spoken by Jewish martyrs as
they went to their deaths, words engraved on the Jewish soul, are
Shema Yisrael, “Listen, O Israel.” And now too we understand why,
as we say those words, we cover our eyes ― to shut out, if only for
a moment, the world of sight, so that we can more fully enter the
world of sound, the world not of Creation but of Revelation, not of
G-d’s work but of His word — the world we cannot see but which, if
we create an open, attentive silence in the soul, we can hear.
(Covenant and Conversation — Listen O Israel — Lord Rabbi Sacks)
So we are a listening people; a people thereby attuned to hear God’s message in the depths of our being ― and to ensure it remains ever present there. It is no less than the Presence of the One who speaks ― present to us as we to Him.
Yes, God hears our prayers because He is ever listening for them and wanting always what is best for us ― and indeed, what we ourselves would want if we knew what He knows.
Let us join the psalmist who proclaimed from the depths of his soul:
Blessed be God, who did not refuse me the kindness
I sought in prayer.