The way the verb ‘to hear‘ functions in most modern languages is merely denoting the brain registering sound via the ears.
This is not how we are to understand to hear when we read it in the Bible. Whereas translators in many instances take this into account for the obvious situations, it is helpful to keep this in mind when looking at the less obvious ones.
Both the Hebrew equivalent שמע (in the OT) and the Greek equivalent ακουω (in the NT) have a wider meaning which should be taken into account.
This post looks at the Hebrew and the Old Testament. A separate post will follow on the Greek and the New Testament.
Below are some examples of passages in the OT where שמע has the transparent meaning of ‘to obey‘. The instances are marked in bold.
1 Sam. 8:7:
7And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.
30When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice.
18Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.”
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice,
20 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he said, “Because this people has transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice,
It is transparent that in these instances the more precise translation is ‘to obey‘ and not the simple ‘to hear’, just as the ESV has translated.
Here follows some passages where the ESV has translated ‘to listen’ or ‘to hear’ when in fact the implication of what is being said is ‘to obey’. The instances are again marked with bold:
3You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
1 Kings 12:24:
24‘Thus says the LORD, You shall not go up or fight against your relatives the people of Israel. Every man return to his home, for this thing is from me.'” So they listened to the word of the LORD and went home again, according to the word of the LORD.
12But Moses said to the LORD, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?”
There is a reoccurring sense in which listening means much more than just hearing, in our sense of the word – obeying is being implied. In Jer 11:3 it is understood that the one who does not obey is cursed, not the one who does not listen. This is confirmed in Gal 3: 10 when Paul quotes this verse:
10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Also in Gen 3:17, Adam committed no sin in listening to Eve, but is was by obeying her that he came to eat of the fruit and sin. In 1 Kings 12:24 they did not listen to the word of the LORD only to go out and fight but they obeyed the word of the LORD and did not go up to fight. The same is true for Ex. 6:12; surely the people had heard Moses, the issue was that they did not obey him.
There are of course many cases in which there is no deeper meaning to שמע than ‘to hear’ such as Gen 3:8:
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
Other instances are more complex such as Deut. 6:4:
4“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
There is nothing to obey, only something to listen to. However, the passage continues with commands that are to be obeyed. (Deut. 6:6-9):
5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Thus the “Hear, O Israel…” encompasses both meanings in the imperative: Hear!, Obey!
Another meaning of שמע in Hebrew is ‘to give heed‘ or ‘to consent‘.
21Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”
17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh.
14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments,
17“I will show you; hear me, and what I have seen I will declare
As we see the line between consent/give heed and obey is fine. For example, it could be argued that Lev. 26:14 is about obedience if it is seen as a mere prelude to “do all these commandments…”.
What is clear however is that except for instances with the plain meaning of hearing a sound, all other uses of שמע that we have seen has that in common that a response (or lack is) is implied with the word.
When you hear you either obey or disobey, give heed or ignore.
The Bible, within which we’ve been looking at this word, teaches us that it is so with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Once heard it does not leave anyone neutral – it demands a response.
And we are all either saved or condemned on the basis of what that response is.
Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?