The casual reader of the Bible may find the descriptions of God in terms of human bodily parts to be confusing. For Jesus told the Samaritan woman that, “God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).1 Our study seeks to acquaint our readers with some of the imagery relative to God. We hope that in meditating upon these figures each reader will come to some understanding of why God chose to reveal himself in such a manner. In so doing, we trust that this study will give each one a renewed and deepened appreciation of just who God is and what he desires each of us to become. Only to God be the glory!
1 All scriptural citation in this study are taken from the NET unless otherwise noted. Reference is often made to the original Hebrew (MT), or Greek (Grk) where the image is more distinctly present. The reader is also encouraged to consult the many helpful footnotes in the NET where the force of the original text is discussed.
Have you ever wondered what God looks like? Or what he sounds like? Does he really have eyes to see us and ears to hear us? Does he really smell the “sweet aroma” of our prayers? What does it mean that humans are created in the image of God? Does that mean that God has eyes and ears? Or when the writer of Genesis goes on and says, “In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27)? Does this verse mean that our gender reflects gender in God? How are we to understand these expressions about God, when we know that he is a Spirit and does not have a body? Are they merely the way uneducated people in ancient times spoke about things they did not understand? Are we too sophisticated and educated today to pay any attention to these expressions? In short, why are all the human images of God in the Bible, and what are Christians to learn from them in the twenty-first century? This book attempts to answer these questions, and many like them, as we examine the human images of God in the Bible and what they have to say to us today.
We begin with several passages from the Bible for your consideration. These passages are taken from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels, a New Testament epistle, and the book of Revelation. As such, they represent a cross-section of the writings in the Bible. Here they are.
“The LORD will fight for you, and you can be still” (Ex. 14:14).
“As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
“Loyal love and faithfulness meet; deliverance and peace great each other with a kiss” (Ps. 85:10).
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Ps. 23:1).
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11).
“This is what the LORD says: ‘The heavens are my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where then is the house you will build for me?” (Isa. 66:1)
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (Jn. 2:19).
“I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:48).
“But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).
“Then I saw standing in the middle of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the middle of the elders, a Lamb that appeared to have been killed. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6).
These are all familiar images from the Bible, so recognizable that it is difficult to think of the Bible without them. These images are so common to us that we have memorized some of them from our earliest days in Sunday School. But look at them again. What strikes you about them as you read them? What do they all have in common? One important feature they all share is that they use figures of speech to express theological truths. That is, they all use non-literal language to make a point; they all use comparisons between physical objects and spiritual truths. In short, they use figures of speech; they are figurative. It may surprise you to know that fully one third of the Bible is figurative in one way or another, and it is not just in the poetry that we find figures of speech. We find figures of speech in the Old Testament history books as well as the Psalms, and the New Testament epistles as well as the gospels. What would the book of Revelation be without its figures of speech? It would hardly be recognizable to us at all.
How would the Bible be different if we did not have figures of speech in the books of the Old and New Testaments? Take another example, this one of wisdom as personified in Proverbs 8:
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the top of the elevated places along the way,
at the intersection of the paths she takes her stand;
beside the gates opening into the city,
at the entrance of the doorways she cries out
This passage personifies wisdom as if it were a woman out in the streets, beckoning to those who would listen. The extended personification of wisdom continues for seven more verses and suggests many divine characteristics, or attributes. Wisdom, after all, comes from God, and in fact “the beginning of wisdom is to fear the LORD” (Prov. 9:10). In the twenty-third Psalm, the divine attributes are developed as variations on another image, that of the Lord as a shepherd tending his sheep—providing for them, protecting them, encouraging them. These are only two images of God in the Old Testament; there are many others.
How often in the Old Testament is Yahweh presented to the reader in such images as a King ruling the universe? “This is what the Lord says: ‘The heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where then is the house you will build for me? Where is the place where I will rest?’” (Isa. 66:1; cf. Pss. 47:8; 97:2; 99:1). In the great declarations of comfort to his people in the book of Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly calls himself Israel’s King (e.g. Isa. 43:15; 44:6). The earth is the Lord’s kingdom, and in a special way, Israel is God’s kingdom. Likewise in the Old Testament, God is a warrior, defending his people. “The LORD will fight for you” (Ex. 14:14), Moses writes, and again, “The Lord your God is about to go ahead of you; he will fight for you, just as you saw him do in Egypt “ (Deut. 1:30). A king and a warrior—two images of Yahweh that echo throughout the pages of the Old Testament and promise God’s people his provision and protection.
In the New Testament, we find figures of speech beginning with the gospels and appearing throughout the other books as well; Christ’s many “I am’s” in the gospels are all figurative. The day after he fed the 5000 and walked on the water, Jesus preached again to the multitude, offering them eternal life and forgiveness of sins. How does he make the offer of eternal life “accessible” to the people who hear him? He uses the image of the bread of life. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells the crowds, “The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35). Referring to the everyday need for bread and water and speaking directly to the needs of the people seated on the ground before him, Christ offers satisfaction for spiritual “hunger” if they will trust in him as the giver of life. Here again we have spiritual truths being expressed in physical terms. Or, to put the other way around, physical objects are used to represent spiritual truths, making them immediate and relevant to those who heard Christ speak these words. These are figures of speech.
Later in his discourses, Christ uses another figure of speech and explains the extent of his love for the people in the image of the good shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). While the people did not understand him to be speaking of his impending crucifixion when they heard these words (cf. Jn. 10: 6), the image is nonetheless significant. When we read the image today, it seems perfectly obvious that he was speaking of Calvary where he would indeed lay down his life for the people. In the epistles, Christ is the church’s bridegroom (Eph. 5:25-32), purifying for himself a people. These are the people, John tells us in the apocalypse, who will “eat” with Christ at the “wedding celebration of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Simultaneously inherent in the marriage supper imagery are two important theological truths: (1) the intimacy of a personal relationship (for Yahweh is our father), and (2) the theology of the atonement in the image of the sacrificial lamb. We simply cannot avoid literary language if we are to read the Bible well—that is, the way it was composed and written.
Since so much of the Bible is figurative, we need to understand some of the essential characteristics of figures of speech. A figure of speech is a literary device involving comparison of dissimilar things: two objects or ideas, which we call “terms,” that are logically distinct are found to be similar in an imaginative way. That is, by bringing the two dissimilar ideas together, they are shown to have something in common after all; this is the point of comparison in all figures of speech.
In the opening statement from the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd,” the two terms are “shepherd” and “LORD.” Were this statement to be taken literally, it would be absurd—for the Lord is certainly not a literal shepherd. Brought together in the figure of speech, however, the Lord and shepherd are found to have certain similarities, and these are detailed in the remainder of the Psalm. In other words, in a figure of speech, two logically-distinct terms are found to be imaginatively similar. It is this similarity that produces the idea that the figure of speech expresses. In the comparison of the Lord with a shepherd, the Lord Provides for us (vv. 1-2), gives us rest (v. 2a), meets our spiritual needs (v. 3), protects us in trouble (v. 4), and gives us eternal life (v. 6). All of these theological truths are contained within the comparison of the Lord to the shepherd. The comparison of God to a shepherd allows the reader to see something about his relationship with his people—in this instance the many ways in which he provides for and protects his own. Besides, who cannot remember the image of the shepherd with his sheep that runs throughout Scripture? The figure of speech is more memorable than the theology, and easy to memorize.
What are some of the primary figures of speech used in the Bible? E. W. Bullinger identifies some 200 figures of speech in the Bible.2 In his popular book on the subject, Basic Bible Interpretation, Roy B. Zuck mentions a short list of the devices he regards to be some of the primary figurative devices in the Bible; Zuck’s short list comes to twenty-five separate devices.3 For our purposes, however, we will name only three devices of comparison in the Bible and concentrate on the last of these, anthropomorphisms—the subject of this book. Accordingly, we will mention simile, metaphor and anthropomorphism as some of the primary figurative devices in the Bible.
1. Simile. A simile is a comparison of two objects or ideas which uses like or as. It is the easiest figure of speech to recognize because it signals itself with the comparison words, like or as. If you think of a simile in mathematical terms, you might say, “(a) is like (b).” By way of example, “her eyes are like stars” is a simile, comparing the brightness and beauty of a woman’s eyes to stars in the sky. To take an example from the Bible, Psalm 1 tells us that the godly man “is like a tree planted by flowing streams; it yields its fruit at the proper time and its leaves never fall off” (v. 3). That is, the godly man is stable, strong, productive, and blessed. Is it not easy to remember the comparison of the godly man to the strong tree and, earlier in the same psalm, to see the contrasting godless man who progressively walks, stands, and finally sits with mockers? The similes help us remember the theology.
2. Metaphor. A metaphor is the imaginative identification of two objects without using like or as. In other words, the one object is imaginatively associated so closely with the other that they are seen as one. Put mathematically, we might say, “(a) = (b).” A metaphor is a stronger, tighter comparison than a simile. For instance, in Psalm 100, “we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (v. 3). Believers are compared to sheep in this metaphor; believers are sheep in the terms of the metaphor—those for whom he provides. The effect of the metaphor is to intensify the theology of the psalm: God is the lord in believers’ lives, and in turn they are the objects of God’s special love and Provision.
3. Anthropomorphism. In anthropomorphisms, God is spoken of as if he had human characteristics—such as eyes, ears, face, heart, hands, mouth, and nose. Put mathematically, “(a—human) stands for (b—God).” For example, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place,” the writer of Proverbs states, “keeping watch on those who are evil and those who are good” (Prov. 15:3). It is not that God has literal eyes, as we do, with which he physically observes the people of the world. Rather, it is that the anthropomorphism (or the human image) of God’s eyes helps us understand that God is omniscient; he “sees” everything. Such a thought is comforting to the believer who is the “good” man of the comparison, but surely the same thought is terrifying for the “evil” man—if he only could see his peril. We are to be encouraged and warned by the writer’s statement that God “sees” everything. The human image helps us understand something about God, who, if He had not communicated it to us, would be unapproachable. In short, anthropomorphisms allow us to draw near to God and see Him for who He is.
These three figures of speech are enough to illustrate that figurative language works by bringing dissimilar objects and ideas together in such a way as to produce a new idea or insight. Why are they important to us when we read the Bible? We can suggest at least three reasons here. First, they encourage us to read actively. Second, they make the abstract concrete and accessible to us. And, third, they bring us closer to God than theological statements alone would allow. In short, figures of speech are necessary if we are to understand the Bible.
What do figures of speech do in the Bible? One of their important functions is to produce meaning by bringing a new idea out of the comparison of two dissimilar ideas. The meaning of figures of speech is different in significant ways from logical statements of the same or a similar idea. In fact, the ideas in the two types of language (logical and figurative) are similar, but not the same. Take for instance the logical statement that Christ’s death was a sacrifice of himself for sinners and put it alongside the figurative image of Christ as the Lamb of God. Both the statement and the image speak to the same theological doctrine—that of the substitution of Christ for sinners—in short, the atonement. The logical statement expresses the theology of Christ’s death. The figurative image, however, nuances and extends the logical statement to include the whole range of Old Testament sacrifices and the New Testament representations of Christ as the Lamb on the throne of the universe. The image incorporates a host of meanings and experiences that would take volumes of theological dogma to assert in logical prose. In short, the figurative image of the Lamb says something more than the logical statement alone.
Consider another illustration, this time the comparison of Christ to the vine and believers to branches (Jn. 15:1-7). There are two pairs of comparisons in this passage. First, Christ is compared to the vine and, second, believers are compared to the branches of the vine. Every reader recognizes instantly that the statement is not literal, for the statement would be meaningless and absurd if it were interpreted literally. So how does the figure of speech create a new meaning? The metaphor expresses a new meaning by creating a new idea—in this case, two new ideas: (1) the “Christ-vine” and (2) the “believers-branch.” That is, in the comparison of Christ to a vine, we understand that Christ gives believers spiritual life, and in the comparison of believers to the branches we realize that they are entirely dependent on Christ for everything. This is the idea in the twin comparisons of the vine-branch metaphor. It is the comparison of Christ to the vine and believers to the branches that creates the understanding. Isn’t the image of the vine and branches easy to remember? Isn’t that image a permanent part of your mental furniture, forever comforting you in difficult times?
How do figures of speech work in non-biblical literature where the texts are not the inspired Word of God? A few examples from such literature might help us understand how figures of speech work in the Bible. We will consider three examples of one particular device, namely personification. Personification is a special type of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to a non-human object. Personification is also a close cousin to anthropomorphism in that it assigns human characteristics to any nonhuman object or being, while anthropomorphisms assign human characteristics to God.
Our first personification is of the season of autumn as a harvester and gleaner from John Keats’s “To Autumn”:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours4 (12-22).
Keats first pictures the season of autumn as a tired worker, lounging on the “granary floor,” perhaps at noon while he takes a short, mid-day rest from the day’s work in the field. Or perhaps he is resting on his tool handle half-way down a furrow. Later he is working diligently, gleaning the best from the pressed apples as he collects the juice for cider. In all of these comparisons, the season of autumn is compared to a person doing the work of the autumn harvest. These are all personifications (comparing an inanimate object—autumn—to a human being—a harvester). The personifications have the effect of making the work of the harvest vivid and personal for the reader. The speaker in the poem actually addresses the autumn/harvester in the stanza quoted above, further personalizing the impression the harvest makes on him. The poem involves at least three of our five senses to create the desired impression. We see the harvester resting and gleaning; we hear the sound of his tools swishing as he cuts the crop; and we smell the apple juice as it is pressed into the vat. In these ways, the personification of autumn as a worker involves the reader in the experience of the harvest, making the season more memorable to us in Keats’s description.
Consider another personification, this one William Wordsworth’s view of the city of London, England, early in the morning, in his poem, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” As you read the lines, remember that this is the early nineteenth century, and as the day progressed the smoke from countless coal and wood fires would fill the air.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky.
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air5 (1-8).
Wordsworth admires the beauty of the city of London while it is still silent in the morning—before the commercial crowds come to do their business and the dirty smoke fills the air. It is the solitude that impresses the poet as beautiful. Notice the personification of the city as a person wearing a garment. The garment in this case is “the beauty of the morning”—the quiet solitude of the city as the sun rises. The effect of the personification is to make the city seem like a living being who has chosen the morning as a special garment of beauty. The fact that Wordsworth admires the city is all the more remarkable because he is the Romantic poet of nature. How beautiful must the picture have been for him that September day in 1802!
One final example will suffice to illustrate how figures of speech work in secular literature. This time, we reference John Donne, a seventeenth century English poet and, later in life, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne wrote a number of “Holy Sonnets,” the tenth of which is based on 1 Corinthians 15:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so,
For those whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou are slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.6
Donne’s point in the poem is that the believer will live forever; he will die only once and will live again after that death. The unbeliever is born once and dies twice (physically and spiritually). For the believer, however, it is death that “dies”; the believer is born twice (physically and spiritually) and dies only once (physically). The effect of the poem is to reduce the fear and terror believers have of death to a healthy level. Donne accomplishes this effect by personifying death and thereby bringing it “down to size”—the size of just another human being, not a fearsome superhuman foe. Donne reduces death even further by stating that he keeps bad company, for he is a “slave” to undesirables (9) and keeps company with low-life’s (10). Why should he (death) be so proud, then, Donne asks? He can do us no harm. The personification of death in this poem helps the reader to understand that it is not so fearful for one to die, if he is a believer.
In all three of these poems, we have seen personifications. In each case, the reader understands the poet’s point by seeing the object—the season of autumn, the city of London, and death—as a mere human being with whom he can communicate and to whom he can relate. In the Bible, the writers compare God to human beings. We call such comparisons “anthropomorphisms.” They make God more accessible to our limited human understanding and relate us to God in ways that reflect our humanity.
When we turn to God—and everything else in the spiritual domain for that matter—all language has to be figurative. Apart from the ways he discloses himself to mankind (as he does in the words of the Bible), God is transcendent (the term itself is a figure) and therefore ultimately beyond (another figure of speech) full human comprehension. Such a condition exists even more than man’s original capabilities entailed. For, although the Bible declares that man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), hence capable of full fellowship with him, due to his fall (Gen. 3:1-19) man’s personal make-up has become altered. “If we choose to investigate the Bible’s depiction of man, we find that man today is actually in an abnormal condition. The real human is not what we now find in human society. The real human is the being that came from the hand of God, unspoiled by sin and the fall.”7 It is true that fallen man still bears the image of God, which forms the basis of the dignity of man and demands a high view of human life and reputation (James 3:9). Yet that image is so marred that Paul speaks of the natural man as having a darkened mind, degraded emotions, and a sin-dominated will (Eph. 4:16-19). The believer is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and is being renewed (Col. 3:16) after the image of Christ, the full image of God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). Yet in his finitude he still can only apprehend what God comprehends (1 Cor. 13:12; cf. Job 38-39).
In one sense, then, all language about God must be metaphorical because “God is so far above us that we can only approximate his glory.”8 Rather than being understood as mere decorations and ornaments that display the writers’ skill and adorn the theology, images and metaphors in the biblical texts “demonstrate that the consummate glory of God is too great for human words to capture.”9 God is entirely “other” (separated from us and above us—another figure of speech), and we must approach him only in the terms he prescribes—and those terms are necessarily metaphorical. Tremper Longman helps us understand how figures of speech about God work. He writes, “…images, particularly metaphors, help to communicate the fact that God is so great and powerful and mighty that he can’t be exhaustively described…. Metaphor preserves the mystery of God’s nature and being, while communicating to us about him and his love for us.”10 For Longman, metaphors help bridge the gap (note the image) between finite man and infinite God. Human language can only “come close” to describing the supernatural and God. Figures of speech are one form of language which allows us to come close to what we need to know about God.
One of the ways God is accommodated to the reader in Scripture—the divine to the human—is in the many anthropomorphisms (human images) in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments. If we take just one human feature and reflect on some of the passages in which the writers of Scripture apply it to God, we can learn something of how these human images work. By way of illustration, we will consider the eye in reference to God. To begin, God’s “eye” suggests his mercy. The psalmist writes, “The LORD looks down from heaven at the human race, to see if there is anyone who is wise and seeks God” (Ps. 14:2), figuratively associating God’s mercy with the image of human eyes to underscore God’s active seeking of the lost (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). Again, the Psalmist rejoices, “The LORD pays attention to (lit,: eyes of the LORD are toward) the godly and hears their cry for help” (Ps. 34:15). And when he dedicates the temple, Solomon petitions the Lord, “Night and day may you watch over this temple, the place where you promised you would live. May you answer (lit., listen to) your servant’s prayer for this place” (1 Kings 8:29; cf. v. 52).In the images of seeing and hearing this passage suggests that God regards his people with favor he does not extend to others. The concrete image of the eyes makes the theology of hesed love concrete.
The human image of the eyes also expresses God’s protection of his people. While an army cannot ultimately save God’s people, the Lord can—and does—preserve his people. In this regard, the psalmist writes, “Look, the LORD takes notice of (lit., the eye of the LORD [is] toward) his loyal followers (lit., those who fear him), those who wait for him to demonstrate his faithfulness” (Ps. 33:18). The sharp contrast in the psalm between the vincible human army (vv. 16-17) and the invincible eye of God highlights God’s effective protection of his people, even when their own devices cannot save them. All it takes, as it were, is the eye of God to do what whole armies cannot do. Again, as a parent watches over a child, or as a shepherd keeps his eye on a lamb, so God watches his people with his eyes to ensure their safety. In the same manner, God’s provision for “all creatures great and small” is figured in eyes. As a child looks to his mother for food, so all creation looks to God for sustenance: “Everything looks to you in anticipation (lit., the eyes of all wait for you), and you provide them with food on a regular basis” (Ps. 145:15).
What is true about figures of speech and God is also true of everything else that is not physical—that is, all spiritual and supernatural things. Whenever we would say anything about non-physical objects, we must necessarily speak in figures. Often we do not have the option of substituting a more literal speech for a metaphorical one. When we speak of spiritual things, we must speak in a “grammar of metaphor,” comparing spiritual things with physical things; this way, we can easily understand what is otherwise difficult to understand.
Think of the Scriptures without figurative language. One third of the inspired texts would disappear, and much of the meaning of the texts would shrivel. Without figures of speech, the Bible would be a book of theological proof texts that only the theologically-educated could understand. Without figures of speech, our understanding and appreciation of God’s condescension to us in Christ and the words of Scripture would be impoverished. How we read the Bible would be altered beyond recognition, for biblical figures of speech reflect God’s accommodation in his self-revelation to us in language that we understand. The Bible simply would not be the book it is without figures of speech.
In the chapters that follow, we turn to the many ways in which the biblical writers picture God in human terms. Each chapter will consider one human feature as it is applied to God. Chapter Two examines the feet of God and what it means for the believer to walk with God. Chapter Three turns to the hands of God and what they mean in Scripture—both about God the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ; in turn, this chapter reflects on what it means to have hands that work for God. Chapter Four considers the face of God and places the believer face to face with God. Chapter Five looks at the mouth of God and ponders how believers should use their words to honor the Lord. Chapter Six focuses attention on the eye of God and contemplates how believers are to live in the light of God’s watching them. Chapter Seven examines the ear of God and what it tells us about our prayers. Chapter Eight turns to the heart of God, focusing attention on his character—who God is—and his actions—what he does for his people. Each chapter will conclude with a consideration of what the specific human feature of God means for the believer’s relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. In chapter nine, the conclusion to the book, we consider what we have learned in the book and relate it all to our Christian lives. Throughout, the book highlights some implications, which we can draw from the many human characteristics of God in the Bible and suggests some practical applications for believers’ lives. Each chapter looks simultaneously in two directions—first, toward God and what we learn about him in the human images and, second, toward how we might live a faithful Christian life in the light of what we learn about God. With the psalmist of old, then, we will seek the face of the Lord with all our heart (Ps. 119:58).
2 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, Explained and Illustrated (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968), xix-xlvi.
3 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1991), 148-161.
4 John Keats, Keats: Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 218-219.
5 William Wordsworth, Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson and revised Ernest DeSelincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 214.
6 John Donne, “Holy Sonnet 10,”in Donne: Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Grierson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 297.
7 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1985), 496.
8 Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 40.
9 Ibid., 40-41.
10 Tremper Longman, III, How To Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 121.
The Lord’s declaration through his prophet Isaiah (Isa. 66:1) reminds us that the foot is used quite commonly in figurative expressions. Indeed, the foot is used in many different ways. A parent who pays for his child’s education is said to “foot the bill.” The foot can indicate that which is opposite. The foot of the bed is at the opposite end of its head. A serviceman’s footlocker sets at the foot of the bed. The foot of the statue points to its base, while the foot of the mountain stands at the opposite end of its peak.
The foot occurs in many idioms expressing human relationships or situations. When a man is said to have “feet of clay,” it is acknowledged that he is fallible. To be on a “firm footing” is to enjoy a stable position as in business or a personal relationship. If we “get off on the wrong foot,” we are placed in an unfavorable position. An employee who is “given the foot/boot” is discharged. Someone who “plays footsie” with another person or a given situation is having an intimate relationship, perhaps flirting with disaster. Someone who is “foot loose,” however, is unattached.
If we “put our foot in our mouth,” we blunder by making an embarrassing or troublesome remark. “Putting one’s best foot forward” signifies doing one’s best. To “put one’s feet to something” is to act on the basis of prior information or convictions. “Getting a foothold” on a problem secures a firm basis for solving it. If we “put our foot down,” we make a firm decision with regard to something or someone. To “follow in one’s footsteps” is to emulate another’s example or occupy his/her former position. To “leave one’s footprints” is to provide an example or an impression.11
Likewise parts of the foot also become employed in everyday speech patterns. If we “cool our heels,” we wait for a time but if we “kicked up our heels,” we indicate that we had a lively or merry time. A storm that follows another occurs “on the heels of the first one.” A person who is “under someone’s heels” is under another’s stern authority. Calling someone a “heel” can indicate that we think of him as an unscrupulous person or cad.
The toe is also used in figurative language. To have “a toehold” on a situation may indicate a person’s entry into it. If we “step on someone’s toes” we offend them. If we “toe the line,” we follow set guidelines or orders and if we are “on our toes,” we are mentally alert.
“My Feet Have Followed His Steps Closely”(Job 23:11)
Many of the figurative uses of the foot noted above are also found in the Scriptures.12 Thus as the children of Israel were camped before Mount Sinai, Moses “built an altar at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 24:4).13 A portion of the southern boundary line for the tribe of Benjamin “descended to the edge (lit., foot) of the hill country near the Valley of Ben Hinnom, located in the Valley of the Rephaites to the north” (Josh. 18:16). Pharaoh used the expression “hand or foot” in emphasizing Joseph’s total authority over “all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:43-44). By foot a narrator can intend the whole person.14 For example, the prophet Ahijah tells Jeroboam’s wife, “As for you, go back home. When you set foot in the city, the boy will die” (1 Kings 14:12). Obviously more than the foot of Jeroboam’s wife would enter the city!
“You caused my feet to stand in a wide place”(Ps. 31:8, MT).
We often hear remarks such as, “I wouldn’t set foot in that place!” Like the English idiom, “setting foot in” can also signify entering a place in the Bible. The author of Proverbs warns, “Don’t set foot too frequently in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and hate you” (Prov. 25:17). It is a wise person who knows when not to “drop in” at a neighbor’s house, or not to overstay his welcome at a friend or relative’s home. Job spoke of those who work in mines as laboring in places “forgotten by the foot” (Job 28:4, MT) and where “proud beasts have not set foot on it” (Job 28:8). Traveling on a previously unknown road can be expressed as proceeding on a way where one has not gone with his feet (Isa. 41:3, MT). Even a lifestyle may be expressed in this way. Thus the wise father warns his son against throwing in his lot with sinners; rather he should withhold his “foot from their paths” (Prov. 1:15, MT; cf. 4:14).
The idiom “setting foot on/in” can occur in both positive and negative contexts. Should they love the Lord and walk in all his ways, God assured Israel they would possess the Promised Land: “Every place you set your foot will be yours … from the River (that is, the Euphrates) as far as the Mediterranean Sea” (Deut.11:24). The “treading of the land” can signify possession and dominion. On the other hand, Israel was denied possession of Edomite territory for Esau’s sake, “Because I am not giving you any of their land, not even a footprint” (Deut. 2:5).
“They fall at my feet”(Ps. 18:38).
An important use of the foot image can be found in figures of speech implying victory or conquest. In an exaggerated boast the Assyrian king Sennacherib (721-705 B.C.) declared, “With the soles of my feet I dried up all the rivers of Egypt” (2 Kings 19:24). This statement is simply pompous propaganda, however. Although Sennacherib’s annals record eight military campaigns, no mention of his penetration into Egypt is recorded. This feat remained to be accomplished by Esarhaddon (671 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (667, 663 B.C.). The boast may have reflected Sennacherib’s future intentions, which apparently were an “open secret” to God. Indeed, God knows the innermost thoughts, desires, and intents of men (Pss. 44:21; 139:2, 23).
This image can be seen in the victorious conqueror’s putting his feet on the neck of his vanquished foes. In the biblical record, after their defeat at the Battle of Gibeon, five Amorite kings of the land fled to the Cave of Makkedah. When the forces of Israel arrived at the cave, they brought those kings before Joshua. Then Joshua summoned all the army commanders and instructed them to “come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings” (Josh.10:24).
When the coming Christ “stumps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful” (Rev. 19:15), the long-awaited fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to David’s heir that he would “put your enemies under your feet” (Mt. 22:44; cf. Ps. 110:1) will be realized. Similarly, Isaiah predicts that one day Israel’s enemies “will bow down to you and they will lick the dirt on your feet” (Isa. 49:23).
“I fell down at his feet as though I were dead”(Rev. 1:17).
Closely related to the above idioms depicting conquest or victory is the ancient Near Eastern practice of falling at or bowing down at the feet of another. The practice was a mark of submission to authority. Many of the texts record instances of such submission. In many cases, however, the language appears to be merely idiomatic, reflecting standard diplomatic reporting. A few examples will illustrate. From the records of ancient Mesopotamia we learn that the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal frequently speaks of the submission of his enemies as “kissing his feet.” For example, he boasts that the Elamite king Tammaritu “kissed my royal feet and smoothed (brushed) the ground (before me) with his beard.”15 A similar idea occurs in the texts of ancient Egypt. Thus the victory hymn supposedly coming from the god Amon Re to Thutmose III declares, “I have felled the enemies beneath thy sandals.”16
In a Phoenician inscription discovered at Karatepe the royal servant Azatiwada boasts, “In places where there were evil men, gangleaders, … I, Azatiwada, placed them under my feet.”17 The Ugaritic goddess Asherah bows down at the feet of the god El “and does him reverence.”18 Correspondence between royal officials and the king often contains a statement of the official’s prostration before the king. Thus an unnamed Ugaritic official greets his king with these words: “Seven and seven times I fall at the feet of the king, my lord.”19 Such diplomatic protocol is typical of this type of correspondence, whether addressed to the king, the queen, or even individuals. Indeed, the language could become quite flowery at times. Note the following cases from the Amarna texts of ancient Egypt:
To the king, my lord, my Sun-god, my pantheon, say: Thus Shuwardata, thy servant, servant of the king and the dirt (under) his two feet, the ground (on) which thou dost tread! At the feet of the king, my lord, the Sun-god from heaven, seven times, seven times I fall, both prone and supine.20
To the king, my lord, my pantheon, my Sun-god, the Sun-god of heaven: Thus Widia, the prince of Ashkelon, thy servant, the dirt (under) thy feet, the groom of thy horse. At the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times verily I fall, both prone and supine.21
If such practices and the idiomatic speech associated with them were so widespread in the ancient Near East, it could be expected that the people of the Bible would likewise act and speak in this way. And so they did. For example, in order to save her wicked and foolish husband from David’s vengeance, Abigail goes to David with a generous gift and in full submission to him “bowed to the ground, falling at his feet” (1 Sam. 25:23-24). Confessing her husband’s wickedness, she reminded David of his God-given destiny to be king over all Israel and suggested that if David were to slay her husband Nabal, it would weigh heavily on his conscience (vv. 30-31).
Both submission and authority can be felt in many cases. For example, Esther recognizes that King Xerxes alone could counteract the plan of wicked Haman to destroy the Jewish people: “Esther again spoke with the king, falling at his feet. She wept and begged him for mercy, that he might nullify the evil of Haman the Agagite, which he had intended against the Jews” (Esth. 8:3).
Not only submission and authority but also reverence can be intended. When the Apostle John saw his beloved risen Jesus, he reports: “I fell at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said, ‘Do not be afraid! I am the First and the Last, and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive--forever and ever--and I hold the keys of death and Hades!’” (Rev. 1:17-18). Here the Lord Jesus is pictured in the familiar biblical motif of the right hand marking identity and or intimacy. In so doing he identifies himself with John and not only assures John that He is the ever-living Lord but the One in whom the issues of eternity are found.
What a blessed reunion that must have been—heavenly Master and earthly disciple together again. He who lay on Jesus’ bosom (Jn. 13:23) now lay at his feet in full recognition of his deity and in humble reverence to his Redeemer. Herein perhaps we may see a fore-gleam of that day when “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7) and every believer “will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). May each of us so live in reverence to the Lord and in loving submission to his authority that one day we may hear him say, “Well done” (Lk. 19:17).22
“A Thick Cloud Was Under His Feet” (Ps. 18:9)
With all of this background, it is not surprising that God would reveal himself in human terms as having feet, particularly since the people of the Old Testament were active partakers of the world around them. But does God really have feet as we do? The pivotal text is found in Exodus 24:9-11.
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear like the sky itself. But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites; so they saw God, and they ate and they drank.
Taken at face value, these verses seem clearly to indicate that God has both hands and feet.23 In gaining a clear understanding of the meaning of the text, however, it must be kept in mind that the Scriptures contain distinct statements that no man has seen God at any time. God himself told Moses, “No one can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). The Lord Jesus declared: “No one has ever seen God, the only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (Jn. 1:18). Therefore, Paul could rightly affirm that God is one “whom no human has ever seen or is able to see” (1 Tim. 6:16).
Therefore, what Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders saw was a description of God in human terms. Such cases are instances of the attributing of human characteristics to God. To be sure, it was God appearing in royal splendor before his people (a theophany). Yet the text says nothing concerning the essence of God himself. What better way could God find to communicate himself to mortal man in all his limited human imagination? Such seems certain as well from the choice of names used for God here. “It is not stated ‘and they saw YHWH’, using the name that belongs specifically and exclusively to the Lord All-glorious Himself, but only and they saw the God [̉Elōhīm] of Israel, … nor is there any reference to the likeness itself that they saw, but only to what they saw beneath God’s feet.”24The description in this passage is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision of the living creatures: “Then there was a voice from above the platform over their heads when they stood still. Above the platform over their heads was something like a sapphire shaped like a throne. High above on the throne was a form that appeared to be a man” (Ezek. 1:25-26).25
In these cases as well as others God simply shows himself in a form most readily understandable by man. In this way you and I can begin to grasp something of the indescribable glory and works of God.26 Since in the case of Ex. 24:9-11 the focal point of what the Israelites beheld was the base of the appearance, the term “foot” would take on a double significance both as part of the anthropomorphic description of God and as the lower part of what was seen.
In the inspired record we are not confronted with a deity who is revealed as merely a super-human being as commonly conceived by the ancients. Therefore, we can be assured that other passages in the Scriptures dealing with God’s feet contain similar imagery, though often of an elevated nature. For example, the psalmist (Ps. 18:9) portrays God as parting the heavens and coming down with “a thick cloud … under his feet.” The prophet Nahum declares, “He marches out in the whirlwind and the raging storm; dark storm clouds billow like dust under his feet” (Nah. 1:3). Ezekiel predicted that the future Temple in Jerusalem will become God’s residence on earth, “the place for the soles of my feet” (Ezek. 43:7). The Ark in the Temple was also portrayed as God’s footstool (1 Chr. 28:2; Pss. 99:5; 132:7), as was Jerusalem (Lam. 2:1), and the earth (Isa. 66:1; Mt. 5:35; Acts 7:49). Activities associated with the feet also are picturesquely ascribed to God. He “marches on the heights of the earth” (Am. 4:13; cf. Mic. 1:3) and “treads on the waves (lit., high places) of the sea” (Job 9:8).27
What do all of these passages regarding God’s “feet” tell us? Such texts are not without meaning. When we read that the storm clouds are like dust under God’s feet (Nah. 1:3), we understand that he is the possessor and Lord of the natural world. As such he who is the Divine Warrior is able to use the thick clouds under his feet (Ps. 18:9) as weapons in his mighty arsenal.28 When Ezekiel (43:7) describes the Temple as the place for the soles of God’s feet, he indicates that it will be the appointed place par excellence where God is to be worshiped (cf. Deut. 12:10-14). But it also stands as a reminder that God is sovereign. God’s treading upon the waves of the sea (Job 9:8) testifies to God’s creativity and divine rule over the nations, while his treading upon the high places of earth adds the further thought that as the mighty Divine Warrior, he can descend in judgment against the world (Am. 4:12-13).
Thus each of the figurative contexts dealing with God’s feet carries distinct meaning that transcends ordinary language. But there is more! They also carry truth in the sense that the meaning conveyed in each of the contexts points to truth—truth that is revealed elsewhere in the Bible. Thus the picture of the clouds as “under God’s feet” reinforces the biblical truths of God as Creator and Controller of the universe (Gen 1:1) and of planet earth in particular (Ex. 19:5; Ps. 104). His use of the storm clouds and his treading of the high places of earth are in harmony with the scriptural teachings that although God transcends the universe he created, he is present in its activity (Ps. 115:12-16; Mic. 1:2-4).29
Moreover, God “is the sovereign Lord of history, nature, earth and its peoples. He acts, He conquers, and judges.”30 The description of the Temple as “under the soles of God’s feet” (Ezek. 43:7) or as “God’s footstool” (1 Chr. 28:2), and of Jerusalem (Lam. 2:1) and the earth as “God’s footstool” (Isa. 66:1) are in harmony with the scriptural record that the Lord is the sovereign king and ruler of all (Pss. 24:7-10; 29:1-10), and Israel’s king in particular (Isa. 41:21; 43:15; 44:6). The picture of God putting Israel’s enemies under his people’s feet and of making Messiah’s enemies a “footstool for your feet” (Ps. 110:1) supports the truths that God is faithful to his people (Isa. 49:1-7) and will be active in bringing earth’s history to its climax in accordance with his purposes for the distant future (Isa. 46:9-10).
The figurative language relative to the foot noted in connection with God is often applied to Jesus Christ. As the promised Messiah he puts his enemies under his feet (cf. Ps. 110:1 with Mt. 22:44; Acts 2:35; Heb. 1:13; 10:13). Such passages testify to the truth that Christ is Israel’s promised Messiah and Lord (Acts 2:36). As the Divine Warrior he is also the final vanquisher of death (1 Cor. 15:25-27) and triumphant conqueror of all rebellious and sinful forces as he “stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful” (Rev. 19:15). These latter two passages testify to the truth of a realized redemption in Christ’s finished work on Calvary. They are also a reminder of the truth that Christ, the Divine King, will judge sinful men and nations.
“Your Word Is a Lamp to My Feet” (Ps. 119:105. MT)
An appreciation of how God inspired the biblical writers to use such imagery in reference to God is surely important. Not only do such texts detail truths about the person and work of God but, as creatures made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), they remind us of our responsibilities to live in accordance with the high standards that God expects of us.
Thus preserving sound spiritual judgment and discernment will give a sense of security to the believer, for his foot will not stumble (Prov. 3:23). Nor will his feet become ensnared, for God will be his guide and protector (Prov. 3:26). Spiritual integrity and security for God’s people come by humbly giving glory to God so that their feet do not stumble (Jer. 13:15-16). In similar sentiment the psalmist exclaims, “You deliver my life from death. You keep my feet from stumbling, so that I might serve God as I enjoy life” (Ps. 56:13).31
The wise person’s pursuit of spiritual maturity and moral purity is enhanced by making level paths for his feet and not deviating from them (Prov. 4:26-27; cf. Ps. 26:1-2). Indeed, the faithful believer’s feet will not stray from God’s path (Ps. 44:18, MT). Such a course of action may even help assist others to keep from spiritual or moral failure (Heb. 12:13). As well the believer should control his anger so as not to “give the Devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27). It is especially true that the believer is to direct his footsteps in accordance with God’s Word (Ps. 119:133). In sum, it may be said:
Obedience to God guarantees that one’s feet will not slip (Ps 17:5).
for God is said to guard the feet of his saints (1 Sam 2:9). This is related to the desire for feet to be on level ground (Ps 26:12; Prov 4:26; Heb 12:13) in a spacious place (Ps 31:8) on firm ground (Ps 40:2) and guided by the lamp of God’s Word (Ps 119:105).32
Some texts using the foot, however, warn of the failure to meet God’s standards. The slipping feet can signify failure or ill success (Pss.17:5; 38:16), anxiety (Ps. 94:18), or wavering faith (Ps. 73:2). The psalmist pictured his distress as being trapped in the watery deep, “where there is no place to stand” (Ps. 69:2, MT). Sinful behavior can also be described as someone having proud feet (Ps. 36:11, MT), or as feet that trample the pasture or muddy the water of the underprivileged of society (Ezek. 34:18-19).
The godless are depicted as those who do not restrain their feet (Jer. 14:10, MT). They are the ones whose feet rush to sin (Prov. 1:16; Isa. 59:7) or evil (Prov. 6:18), or are “swift to shed blood” (Rom. 3:15). Their lives are characterized by walking in falsehood and feet that hurry after deceit (Job 31:5). But Job’s friend Bildad observed that wicked individuals will have their own plots backfire against them: “His own counsel throws him down. For he has been thrown into a net by his feet … A trap seizes him by the heel; a snare grips him” (Job 18:7-9). The feet of the adulteress are typical, for they have feet that “go down to death” (Prov. 5:5). Particularly odious are those who fellowship with us yet “lift up their heel” against us (Jn. 13:18, Grk).
Unfortunately, habitual sinners deliberately turn their back on the knowledge of the truth and keep on sinning. In so doing, they trample the Son of God under foot, thereby earning the certain judgment of God (Heb. 10:26-31). Such individuals are described as lost sheep (Jer. 50:6) that Christ came to save (Mk. 10:45; Jn. 10:11). Therefore, because of mankind’s lost condition, the Bible teaches us of the necessity to have busy feet—feet that bring good tidings, especially of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Such feet are described metaphorically as beautiful feet (Rom. 10:15).33 Indeed, in God’s mercy the promised Messiah has come to banish spiritual darkness and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:78-79). One day Israel, too, will “know my name” and will welcome the beautiful feet of the messenger who “announces peace, a messenger who brings good news, who announces deliverance, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:6, 7).
Beautiful feet have a past, present, and future significance. In earlier days a messenger heralded the good news of Nineveh’s defeat (Nah. 1:15). The news of Nineveh’s fall and that of Assyria meant that the threat of Assyrian invasion would never again trouble God’s people. In a future day “an oppressed Israel shall be freed at last from oppressors and invaders, and its people shall not only hear the message of the Lord’s salvation but also experience the everlasting serenity that comes with His presence in royal power in their midst (Isa. 52:1-10).”34
Paul later builds on the theme of the message of good news by pointing out that Christ’s finished work challenges all believers to bear the good news of salvation in Christ to a perishing mankind:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How timely [or beautiful] is thearrival [Grk, are the feet] of those who proclaim the good news (Rom. 10:13-15).
Thus “beautiful feet” have a present, yes timeless, significance. May we each have “beautiful feet” that carry us to bring the good news of the gospel to a lost and needy world. Frances R. Havergal put it so simply and so well when she wrote, “Take my feet and let them be swift and beautiful for thee.”35
“You… Kept My Feet From Stumbling” (Ps 116:8)
What have we learned about God’s “feet?” What does the revelation of God as having feet mean to us as mere mortals and believers in particular? We noticed in our earlier discussions that God’s “feet” underscores the fact that God is the sovereign possessor and controller of the world and its history. Furthermore, he has assigned the final consummation of earth’s history and the judgment of all mankind to Jesus Christ.
We also saw that those who have received Jesus as Lord and Savior are to have “beautiful feet”—feet that bear the good news of salvation in Christ to a lost and unbelieving world. For lost men, women and young people face the danger of a great final judgment. True enough! But texts relating to the “feet” of God tell us more. The activities associated with God’s “feet” also serve as an example for believers to act in such a way as to reflect God’s character and actions.
Although God is said to walk on the vault of heaven (Job 22:14), that the dark storm clouds billow like dust under his feet (Nah. 1:3), and that he treads upon the waves of the sea (Job 9:8), he also is portrayed as walking on earth. Thus he walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8, MT).
He also “walked” about in the Israelite camp in order to protect them and give them victory over their enemies (Deut. 23:14). God assured the Israelites that if they would follow his decrees and keep his commands, he would “walk” (or be present) among them (Lev. 26:12). God’s presence among his people not only guaranteed them safety and success but provided the opportunity for his people to sense his love, concern, and desire for fellowship with them. Indeed, some righteous men of old were even said to “walk with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24; 6:9).
The image of God walking amidst his people serves as a reminder to people that he is ever present, and is a witness to the activities and even the thoughts of mankind (Isa. 66:18; Ps. 113:4-6). Therefore, people, especially believers, are to walk “before” or “with” him humbly (Mic. 6:8, MT) faithfully (2 Kings 20:3, MT) and blamelessly (Gen. 17:1). This means walking in accordance with the standards of the Word of God (Ezek. 18:9, MT). If they do, they may live in security (Prov.10:9, MT) and peace (Isa.57:2), and they will be able to meet the tasks of everyday life (Isa. 40:31). They will proceed in the way of understanding (Prov. 9:6) and walk in wisdom (Prov. 28:26). Moreover, as those who serve the sovereign Lord of the universe, believers are to be submissive to him (Ezek. 1:28; Rev. 1:17), worship him (Job 1:20; Ps. 95:6), and conduct themselves in accordance with the high standards (Prov. 8:20) that God has set (Deut. 8:6). This involves living lives of moral purity and growing spiritual maturity (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:8-10; cf. 2 Pet. 3:18).
Perhaps the best known Old Testament text concerning the walk of the righteous believer is found in Psalm 1:1-3:
How blessed is the one who does not follow (MT, walk) the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the pathway of sinners
or sit in the assembly of scoffers!
Instead he finds pleasure in obeying the Lord’s commands;
he meditates on his commands day and night.
He is like a tree planted by flowing streams;
it yields its fruit at the proper time,
and its leaves never fall off.
He succeeds in everything he attempts .
The psalmist reports that the blessed man avoids the downward spiral of bad associations (cf. Prov. 22:24-25). He who is pictured as walking in the advice of the godless could soon find himself having common cause with open sinners and worse, jointly participating with those who actively oppose the things of God. As the apostle Paul points out, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33).
The man who instead takes full pleasure in God’s words and standards is he who worships the Lord and therefore is blessed (Ps. 89:15). He can find prosperity and true spiritual success. Indeed, this kind of believer possesses genuine faith. Intellectually, he has put his complete trust in the Lord; emotionally, he finds constant delight in the Lord; and volitionally, he commits his entire live to him. Therefore, he can rest securely in God’s providential care and leading (Ps. 37:3-7).
From the New Testament we learn that such a life is fully available to all in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:6). Jesus himself declared, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). Thus believers walk not in spiritual darkness (1 Jn. 1:6) but in the light (Eph. 5:8). By abiding in Christ we find our way through this sin darkened world illuminated by God’s revealed truth (2 Jn. 4; 3 Jn. 3-4). Indeed, we need no longer walk “according to the flesh” as we once did in unbelief but rather we can walk “according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). We can now live so as to please the Lord (1 Thess. 4:1). For we walk in his presence, observe his commands, and live according to the pattern that Christ has left (1 Jn. 2:3-6). “As long as the Christian walks ‘by faith and not by sight’ he is to endeavor to please his Lord (2 Cor. 5:7ff.). He must continually be re-examining ‘what is pleasing to the Lord’ (Eph.. 5:8ff., 15), so that he may conduct his life in a way that corresponds with his calling (Eph. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:12; Col. 1:10).”36
What a comfort it is to know that as believers in Christ we truly are able to “walk” in a worthy manner. We can walk in the light of God’s revealed truth (1 Jn. 1:7) and in the reverential fear of God (Neh. 5:9, MT). All of life at last makes sense; we can enjoy the grand life that God intends for mankind (Eph. 2:1-10). Life now takes on a purposeful goal toward which we “run” (1 Cor. 9:24-26; Phil. 3:12-14). And for those who achieve that goal, living faithfully before the Lord, there is the fond hope of joining with the faithful who lived in ancient Sardis, to whom the Lord promised, “They will walk with me, dressed in white, because they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4).
Thus what was stated negatively for the blessed man of the first psalm can also be observed from a positive perspective. The Christian believer who walks in the Lord (Col. 2:6-7, Grk) and in accordance with Christ’s commands (2 Jn. 6), and stands firm in the Lord (Phil. 4:1) and in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13), will as an overcomer one day be granted to sit with Christ and reign with him (Rev. 3:21; cf. 2 Tim. 2:12). But before that grand day, believers need to have feet that carry out the first two positive principles of walking and standing. It means that they must walk as Jesus walked or as the Apostle John expresses it, “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked”(1 Jn. 2:6). To be sure, we presently walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). If we walk uprightly along the course that he has set for us, we can have the constant joy of the warm fellowship of the Lord’s presence (2 Cor. 6:16).
We have spoken at some length in the previous pages concerning such activities of the feet as spiritually walking and running for the Lord. Nevertheless, there are times when the feet must stand for the Lord. That standing may be passive or active. At the Re(e)d Sea the Israelites were told, “Do not fear! Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD” (Exod. 14:13). Thus they would be delivered from the pursuing Egyptians. So it is that at times we simply need to stand in awe (Ps. 22:23) of God’s working (Job 37:14; Hab. 2:1). Yet it is often the case that believers are to take an active stand for the Lord. Thus Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians, “So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
In the succeeding chapter Paul returns to the need for standing firm in the faith and in so doing points out that there is a corresponding need for watchfulness and strong courage: “Stay alert, stand firm in the faith, show courage, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). The phrase “men of courage” is a particularly interesting word. This Greek word occurs only here in the New Testament but it has a rich spiritual history. It appears often in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), especially with some accompanying word meaning strong. The terms together thus indicate strong or good courage.
Moses urges Israel and Joshua in particular to “be strong and courageous. Do not fear or tremble … for the LORD your God is the one who is going with you. He will not fail you or abandon you” (Deut. 31:6; cf. 31:23; Josh. 1:6-7). As Joshua assumed full command of all Israel, they swore their allegiance to Joshua and urged him, in turn, to be a courageous leader (Josh. 1:16-18). Later, in the campaign for Makkedah Joshua gave charge to his army with similar words (Josh. 10:24-28). Still later Hezekiah similarly encouraged his forces in the face of the invasion of the feared Assyrian king Sennacherib (2 Chr. 32:7).
This injunction was used not only of physical courage but also of that spiritual resolve that puts God and his Word first in the life. Thus the Lord solemnly charged Joshua to pay attention to “all the law” (Josh. 1:7-8). David challenged Solomon with putting God and his Word first in his life so that he might do God’s work with good success (1 Chr. 22:11-13; 28:20). David knew well by experience that such was the proper course for life, for only by so doing had he been blessed with God’s protection and deliverance. Accordingly, he could exclaim,
Where would I be if I did not believe I would experience
the LORD’S favor in the land of the living?
Rely on the Lord!
Be strong and confident!
Rely on the Lord! (Ps. 27:13-14)
Love the LORD, all you faithful followers of his!
The LORD protects those who have integrity
but he pays back in full the one who acts arrogantly.
Be strong and confident,
all you who wait on the LORD! (Ps. 31:23-24)
In encouraging the Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:13) to “show courage; be strong,” Paul was drawing upon a charge portrayed boldly throughout the course of Old Testament history. The believer’s challenge, then, is to conduct himself in his Christian life in such a manner that God’s will, God’s Word and God’s work that he has been given to do become his all-consuming resolve.
Perhaps no finer example of that basic commitment of the whole life to Christ can be found than in the second century Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp. Ancient tradition has it that Polycarp was born toward the end of the first century and had been the disciple of the beloved Apostle John. He was to become the foremost teacher and spiritual leader of the church in Asia Minor.
During the persecution of the church in the mid second century, Polycarp was at length apprehended and led into the stadium at Smyrna before a howling mob and the Roman proconsul. The Roman official urged Polycarp to renounce Christ by saying, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent, say ‘away with the atheists.’” Polycarp turned to that lawless crowd and, waving his hand at them, cried out, “Away with the atheists!” And, turning to the Roman proconsul he boldly testified, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant him (Christ) and he has done me no wrong. How, can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
The source of his courage is not difficult to find. Tradition reports that as Polycarp was led into the stadium amidst the deafening din of the bloodthirsty throng, a voice from heaven said to him, “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.” Such he had done and so he was to do further, for before that day had ended, the life-blood of Polycarp lay spilled on the ground. Although condemned to being burnt at the stake, the grisly deed was finally concluded only by stabbing the aged servant to death. Through it all Polycarp had been “a real man.”37
In the critical years that lie before the church of our day some of us may, like Polycarp, be faced with being “real men” (that is, courageous believers) in the face of martyrdom. Certainly most of us will face testings of various kinds frequently in our service for Christ. But whether it be in perilous times or in the normal course of our lives before God, may we resolve so to live as to keep God’s will, honor his Word, and walk faithfully before him. May we be courageous believers, for only then can we be assured that God will be with us wherever he calls us to serve.
The hymn writers remind us that whether walking, standing, or sitting, ours is to be a faithful, productive, and growing experience in Christ:
“Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee”38
“Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross”39
“Sitting at the feet of Jesus, O, what words I hear him say!”40
11 The foot and related terms also occur in several technical expressions. Thus in architecture an enlarged foundation or base, known as its footing, is designed to distribute the weight of a structure and thus prevent its settling. In literature the placement of stressed syllables in a poetic line is measured in “feet.” Ionic feet consist of two long or two short syllables (a major ionic foot) or two short together with two long syllables (a minor ionic foot). Foot can also designate a unit of measurement. Not to be forgotten is Carl Sandberg’s well-known description of fog as “creeping in on little cat’s feet.” See C. Sandburg, “Fog,” in American Poetry and Prose ,ed., 3d. ed., vol. 2, Norman Foerster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), 1317.
12 For the widespread use of foot/feet in figurative expressions in the Old Testament see F. J. Stendebach, “regel,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Fabry, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 317-22.
13 Unless otherwise noted, all citations are taken from the Holy BibleNew International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
14 The use of a part of something when the whole is intended (or vice versa) is called technically a synecdoche. The use of two contrasting parts to express totality or a whole is a type of synecdoche known as a merism. The previous example of “hand or foot” is just such a case (cf. Ps. 139:2): “You know when I sit down and when I get up.”
15 David D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria, vol. 2(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 303.
16 James H. Breasted, ed., Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 2 (London: Histories and Mysteries of Man Ltd, 1988), 263.
17 Franz Rosenthal, Azatiwada of Adana, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3d. ed., ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 654; see also K. Lawson Younger, Jr., “The Azatiwada Inscription,” in Context of Scripture, eds, William W. Hallo and K.Lawson Younger, Jr., vol.2 (Leiden: Brill 2000), 149; H. Donner and W. Röllig, eds., Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften, vol. 1(Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1966), 5, #26, lines 15-16.
18 H. L. Ginsberg., “Poems About Baal and Anath,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3d. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 133; see also Michael D. Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 99-100.
19 William F. Albright, “The Amarna Letters” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 484; see also, Hallo and . Younger, Jr., eds., vol. 3 Context (2002), 104.
20 Albright, “The Amarna Letters,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 487.
21 Ibid., 490. Such examples could be multiplied many times over and can be noted in the various lexicons, word studies and texts dealing with the ancient Near East and the Old Testament.
22 A further example comes from the early church at Jerusalem. There the apostles authoritative position was recognized when the believers “who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales and placing them at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:34-35). Authoritative position and its attendant responsibility could also be expressed as being “under the foot/feet.” Thus the psalmist reports man’s God-given authority over and responsibility for the natural world by observing, “You appoint them to rule over your creation, you have placed everything under their authority” (lit., “feet”; Ps. 8:6).
23 Exodus 24:1-11 bristles with textual, compositional, and theological problems, which have often been discussed. These are not the object of this study, however. For details, see George Bush, Notes on Exodus, reprint edition (Minneapolis: James Family Christian Publishers, 1979), 57-66; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, reprint edition (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1974), 310-15. For verses 9-11, see Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 124; Walter. C. Kaiser, Jr., More Hard Saying of the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 88-90; E. W. Nicholson, “The Interpretation of Exodus XXIV 9-11,” Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974): 77-97; “The Antiquity of the Tradition in Exodus XXIV 9-11,” Vetus Testamentum 25 (1975): 69-79.
24 Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 314.
26 Millard J. Erickson (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985], 268) expresses it well: “There are, of course, numerous passages which suggest that God has physical features such as hands or feet… . It seems most helpful to treat them as anthropomorphisms, attempts to express the truth about God through human analogies.”
27 All three texts have been understood as referring to the back, that is, of God’s enemies much as in Babylonian mythology. See Marvin J. Pope, Job, The Anchor Bible(Garden City: Doubleday, 1963), 69. Although such need not be the case in any of these three texts, it is interesting to note that in drawing upon Ps. 110:1 Christ is portrayed as performing a similar act as His enemies (Mt. 22:44). Here, too, mythological associations need not be present, for the idiom is common enough in idiomatic expressions implying conquest and/or victory over one’s enemies.
28 See the description by Konrad Schaefer, Psalms, Berit Olam(Collegeville, MN; The Liturgical Press, 2001), 42. For the Divine Warrior motif see Tremper Longman, III and Daniel G. Reid, God Is a Warrior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
29 On the other hand, Stendebach (“regel,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 321) points out that when Exodus 24:10 “describes only what is touched by God’s feet,” it “emphasizes God’s transcendence.”
30 Kenneth L. Barker, “Micah,” in Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 50.
32 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, eds., “Feet,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 280.
33 See the NET note for full details.
34 Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Chicago: Moody, 1991) 46.
35 Frances R. Havergal, “Take My Life and Let It Be.”
36 G. Ebel, “Walk,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 945.
37 Citations taken from “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, 2d ed., ed. Michael W. Holmes; trans., J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).
38 Frances R. Haverga Take My Life, and Let It Be.”
39 G. Duffield, “Stand Up for Jesus.”
40 “Sitting At the Feet of Jesus” (Anonymous).
The Lord’s further word through his prophet Isaiah (Isa. 66:2) informs us that like the foot (cf. Isa. 66:1), which we considered in the last chapter, the hand is used in normal communication in a figurative way. In fact foot and hand often occur together. For example, to wait on someone “hand and foot” is to provide diligent care for or service to him. But the hand itself often occurs figuratively in familiar idioms. Thus many a child has worn “hand me downs” clothes of an elder sibling.
Among the many uses that could be cited we may note the employment of the hand with various prepositions. An event that is “at hand” is close to occurring. To “hand in” a paper is to submit it, while to “hand out” an item is to distribute it. Teachers often prepare “handouts” for their students in order that they may have helpful additional information. If we “hand on” or “hand over” an article we pass it on or surrender it to another. In football a quarterback “hands off” the football to a running back. In another context an employer who takes a “hands off” approach to a project delegates responsibility to his employees. A “hands on” approach, however, would indicate his close involvement in it. A person who is “in another’s hand” is under his control.
Many times “hand” is employed in idiomatic phrases. A person who “takes a hand in” or “lends a hand” in a project or cause is actively involved in helping with it. If we “have our hands full” we are very busy or have many tasks to perform. A suitor who proposes to his loved one will ask her father “for her hand.” If we tell someone “I’ve got to ‘hand it to you,’” it means that we are giving that person credit for his or her accomplishment. An actor who says that the audience was “eating out of my hands” indicates that he was in control of the performance. But to be eating “hand to mouth” is to be surviving on meager rations. If we “wash our hands” of a situation, we refuse to continue in it or deny responsibility for it.
Likewise the fingers of the hand play a role in our figurative expressions. If something is liable to “burn your fingers,” there is the possibility of danger or getting into trouble. If we “keep our fingers crossed,” we are hoping for a satisfactory outcome. To “have a finger in the pie” is to indicate participation in something, while “not lifting a finger” means that we fail to exert the slightest effort to help. Failure to remember something can be expressed by saying, “I can’t quite ‘put my finger on it’” and “pointing one’s finger” at someone may indicate an accusation or an attempt to identify him.
It may be noted in passing that the arm is also used in a figurative way. We can speak of an “arm” of the sea or a sofa and military weapons are termed “arms.” If we greet people “with open arms,” we welcome them warmly but if we keep them “at arms length,” we don’t allow them to get too close to us. To walk “arm in arm” with another is to have a close relationship with that one. Potential lawbreakers need to be aware of the “long arm of the law” to enforce proper compliance with the standards of society.
As the above examples demonstrate, we employ hands, fingers, and arms quite freely in a figurative or idiomatic way. Such usages are simply common to human expression. It should come as no surprise, then, that the ancients, including those who penned our inspired Scriptures, used bodily parts in a similar fashion.
“Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
The original authors of the Bible often speak of the hand or arm in terms of common everyday speech. Thus when the attendants of Pharaoh’s daughter are reported as “walking along the riverbank,” literally they were going “along the hand of the river” (Ex. 2:5). When Jonathan stood beside his father King Saul, he was standing “at his hand” (1 Sam. 19:3). The side projections of the Tabernacle were called its “hands” (Ex. 26:17, 19) and the “road signpost” for the king of Babylon was called a “hand” (Ezek. 21:19). Breadth or length of hand could indicate ample space for human occupation (Gen. 34:21).
“Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10)
In the Scriptures the hand was employed in relation to one’s work ethic. Where there was a mind or willingness to work, especially for the Lord, such a one would receive God’s blessing (Deut. 2:7; 30:9). Indeed, “diligent hands” bring wealth (Prov. 10:4b, MT) and/or a position of leadership (Prov. 12:24a, MT). The virtuous woman is a case in point: “Her hands take hold of the distaff and her hands grasp the spindle. She extends her hand to the poor and reaches out with her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:19-20). Such a woman is not only efficient in her work but sees to its successful conclusion. She is also a caring and compassionate person, for she gives of herself to provide for the needs of her own and those beyond her family unit (vv. 21-22). Indeed, “She is the walking example of Proverbs 11:25 which says: ‘Be generous, and you will prosper. Help others, and you will be helped.’”41 The attributes of the virtuous woman ought not to be lost on today’s society.
The hand also appears in contexts dealing with worship or spiritual activity. Putting the hand over the mouth signified silence in the presence of God (Job 40:4), while the uplifted hand could be a gesture of prayer (Ps. 28:2; Lam. 2:19; 1 Tim. 2:8) or praise (Pss. 63:4; 134:2; Neh. 8:6). Several other figurative and symbolic uses of the hand are also connected with worship or spiritual service. Thus when Aaron and his sons were ordained to the priesthood, certain parts of the ram of consecration as well as the prescribed bread offering were first placed in their hands, then burnt on the altar and subsequently returned to them for their consumption. By this symbolic act Aaron and his sons were aware from the beginning that their sustenance would come from the Lord in association with their consecrated service (Ex. 29:22-26).
The laying on of hands could symbolize not only the bestowal of a blessing (Gen. 48:13) but also a commissioning to the Lord’s service (Num. 27:18; 1 Tim. 4:14). In this way the early church at Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). The laying on of hands in ordination was viewed as a serious matter. Only those who demonstrated a prior calling by the Lord were to be commissioned to his work: “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22)
Pontius Pilate disavowed responsibility for Jesus’ death by symbolically washing his hands saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt. 27:24). The washing of hands, however, could accompany true repentance and confession of guilt or sin, thus rendering one fit for service or worship. The Old Testament priests literally washed their hands as a sign of spiritual cleansing before officiating at the various sacrifices (Ex. 30:17-21). James applied the practice figuratively in urging those in spiritual need to “cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded” (Jas. 4:8). A person with such a renewed heart attitude could be able to say with David of old, “The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness, according to the purity of my hands he has rewarded me” (Ps. 18:20 ).
“Open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are the poor and needy” (Deut. 15:11)
A number of the figurative uses of the hand or arm deal with inter-personal relationships or activities. Thus the hand can indicate helpfulness toward another: to “open the hand” entails giving to a person in need (Deut. 15:8-11); by way of contrast, to “shut the hand” is to withhold giving (Deut. 15:7, MT).42 The prophet Isaiah urges his hearers to “strengthen the hands that have gone limp,” for God would one day come to save his people (Isa. 35:3-4). Jeremiah condemns the prophets of his day, however, as those who “strengthen the hands of evildoers” (Jer. 23:14, MT). Especially noteworthy is the virtuous woman: “She extends her hand to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy” (Prov. 31:10). On the other hand, dropping of hands indicated an unwillingness to help (Josh. 10:6).
The uplifted hand was used in the act of praying, as we noted above, but it was also employed in bestowing a blessing (Lev. 9:22), the giving of an oath (Gen. 14:22), or the communication of judgment (Lev. 24:14). Elsewhere it could also signify hostility (2 Sam. 18:28, MT; Zech. 14:13, MT). “Laying hands on” someone could have both a positive or negative connotation as to whether it occurred in a context of worship activities (as noted above) or denoted doing harm or even killing someone (Gen. 37:22, 27). Indeed, the murderer has “bloody hands” (Gen. 4:11).
The hand is used in figures dealing with possession. Thus the Israelites took the territory east of the Jordan River “from the hands of” the Amorite kings (Deut. 3:8,lMT). Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, bought Joseph “from the hand of” the Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1, MT . But the hand could signify authority as well. By God’s grace Joseph rose to a position of authority in Egypt. For Potiphar eventually put him in charge over his household affairs, giving “everything that he had into his hands” (Gen. 39:4, MT).43 Still later Pharaoh gave Joseph such authority over Egypt that without Joseph’s order no one could “lift hand or foot in all Egypt” (Gen. 41:44). In a wider sense all creation is “given into the hand of” mankind to rule (Gen. 9:2).
Those who submitted to another’s authority “gave their hand” to them (1 Chr. 29:24, MT). Some were duly commissioned “by the hand” of a superior. Thus Nebuchadnezzar gave instructions concerning Jeremiah “through the hand of” his commander Nebuzaradan (Jer. 39:11, MT). Others offered to serve the one in authority by using the figure of the hand. For example, Abner pledged his service to David saying, “Make an agreement with me and I will do whatever I can (lit. “my hand will be with you”) to cause all Israel to turn to you” (2 Sam. 3:12).
The most dominant sense in which the hand or arm figures is that of strength or power.44 Indeed, “The notion of a bodily limb recedes entirely into the background, generally speaking, giving way to the meaning ‘strength’, which belongs to the hand as the primary means of power; for example, the Hebrew ‘hand of the tongue’ … in Prov. 18.21 must be translated: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.’”45 Thus Moses performed awesome deeds in Egypt by his mighty hand (Deut. 34:12, MT). Israel’s military strength grew increasingly strong against Jabin: “Israel’s power continued to overwhelm King Jabin, of Canaan until they did away with him” (Judg. 4:24). Moses’ “outstretched hand” demonstrated God’s power in the plagues against Egypt (Ex. 10:12-25), as well as in dividing the waters of the sea that lay before the Hebrews during the times of their exodus journey (Ex. 14:16-18) and in the bringing back of those waters over the pursuing Egyptians (Ex. 14:26-28). Lack of strength or power, however, would be indicated as “a hand that had gone away” (Deut. 32:36, MT) or a broken arm. Thus the “arms of the wicked will be broken” (Ps. 37:17, MT), Moab’s “arm will be broken” (Jer. 48:25, MT), and God broke “the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Ezek. 30:21).
Especially significant is the use of the right hand to represent distinct identity or emphasis.46 Those worthy of honor were seated at the right hand of the one in charge. Solomon’s mother, for example, occupied a throne at the right hand of the king (1 Kings 2:19). The royal bride stood at the king’s right hand (Ps. 45:9) and the risen Christ laid his right hand upon the prostrate apostle John (Rev 1:17).47 In sum, “In social concourse, oaths and agreements were affirmed with the right hand (Gen 14:22; Ezek 17:18; Dan 12:7, expressions of fellowship were sealed with the right-handed handshake (Ezra 10:19), and giving and receiving were done with the right hand (Ps 26:10; Gal 2:9).”48 This custom cast light on the assassination of King Eglon of Moab. Because protocol demanded that the king would receive the Hebrew judge Ehud by extending the right hand to the one granted an audience, he would not anticipate that Ehud, who was left-handed, would be able to inflict harm upon him. The unsuspecting Eglon was certainly caught off-guard (Judg. 3:19-21).
“The hand of the diligent brings wealth” (Prov. 10:4)
We have noted previously the case of the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:18-22) whose caring and compassionate heart enabled her to have an excellent attitude toward her work and to prosper in it. The case is far different for the lazy person. The slothful man has “hands” that “refuse to work” (Prov 21:25). So lazy is he that he “buries his hand in the dish,” because he is too lazy to “bring it back to his mouth” (Prov. 19:24). So it is that lazy hands make a man poor (Prov. 10:4a) or make him to end up as part of the slave labor force (Prov. 12:24b).
Other idioms and figures relative to the hand also speak of a person’s personal make-up, as does the figure of the broken arm (Ps. 37:17). Those who are “small of hand” are “powerless” (2 Kings 19:26). This verse speaks of God’s preordained work in the life of Sennacherib, even though the Assyrian king was not aware of it. “Sennacherib had been able to wreak havoc on people who were totally powerless and as helpless as tender herbage and plants before the blasts of the Sirocco. No, Sennacherib should not boast as though what he had done was either self-generated or self-accomplished. It was God’s divine government that was at work; Sennacherib was but God’s instrument of correction for Israel and the nations.”49 People who are “high-handed” can be obstinate or defiant in the face of God’s clear precepts. Such a one “sins defiantly” and insults” the LORD … because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment” (Num. 15:30-31). The “wave of the hand” (Zeph. 2:13; NET, “shakes his fist”) can show contempt or ridicule. Thus Zephaniah prophesies that the once mighty and proud city of Nineveh will fall and be reduced to rubble.50
The compassion noted in the virtuous woman’s concern for the poor and downtrodden is absent in the case of the merciless, however. Thus Jesus speaks of those who callously burden down others and who “refuse to touch the burdens with even one of youe fingers!” (Lk. 11:46). Job’s friend Eliphaz reminds him that his words and actions have often “strengthened feeble hands” (Job 4:3). Job himself later protests his innocence of any wrong doing against the helpless by swearing, “If I have raised my hand to vote against the orphan, when I saw my support in the court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let my arm be broken off at the socket “ (Job 31:21-22). Isaiah also commends those who do not oppress the poor or bring railing accusations against them with a pointing finger and malicious talk (Isa. 58:9). Solomon warns against such a person.
A worthless and wicked person,
walks a round saying perverse things,
he winks with his eyes,
signals with his feet
and points with his fingers,
he plots evil with perverse thought in his heart,
he spreads contention at all times. (Prov. 6:12-14)
Yet such an individual ultimately brings disaster upon himself: “Therefore disaster will come suddenly; he will suddenly be broken and there will be no remedy” (Prov. 6:15).
Far better is it to be a righteous person who maintains a proper perspective and way of life toward God and his fellow man. For “The righteous holds to his ways, and the one with clean hands grows stronger” (Job 17:9).
Divine power and authority are often associated with the figure of the hand in the ancient Near East. In ancient Mesopotamia human success could be attributed to the “hand of a god.”52 A god could be beneficent toward a man; he could “put his arm on my arm, saying: My hand is in your hand.”53 “Diseases, however, are often referred to as ‘the hand of Ishtar (or Ninurta, etc.),’ and the hands of demons often bring disaster.”54 Moreover, a god could be invoked to bring sickness upon another: “May an unremitting illness be in his body through the hand of Gula.”55 Thus the great law codifier Hammurapi invoked divine curses against the one who would disregard his law by asking his beloved Ishtar to “deliver that man into the hand of his enemies and lead him in bonds to a land at enmity with him.”56
In Egypt the Pharaoh was considered to be the god Horus incarnate. A hymn to Sesostris III praises him as the one “Who holds the Two Lands in his arms’ embrace, [Who subdues foreign] land by a motion of his hands.”57 In a stele found at Karnak the god Amon Re declares that it is through his favor that the great Thutmose III has experienced health and victory: “My hand have endowed your body with safety and life… . The princes of all lands are gathered in your grasp, I stretched my own hands out and bound them for you.”58
It would be natural, then, that God would reveal the truth through the authors of Scripture and would do so in a way that would be familiar to those who heard and read it. Because figurative language utilizing the hand, fingers, and arm was so well known throughout the area, it served as a ready vehicle for communication.
The most common use of these bodily parts to express God’s character and attributes revolves around the twin concepts of strength and power (1 Chr. 29:12). So it is that the psalmist can sing of God’s mighty arm and hand: “Your arm is powerful; your hand is strong, your right hand victorious (Ps. 89:13). It was God’s mighty hand that brought the universe into being. God himself declares: “I made the earth, I created the people who live on it. My hands stretched out the heavens, I gave orders to all the heavenly lights” (Isa. 45:12).59 The psalmist observes that the very heavens were “ made by God’s fingers” (Ps. 8:3). Indeed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Not only did God create all things but everyone and everything on earth is under his jurisdiction: “I made the earth and the people and animals on it by my great power and great strength (lit., outstretched arm) and I give it to whomever I see fit (Jer. 32:17).
God’s mighty hand and arm were also in evidence when he brought his people out of Egypt. God told Moses,” I will extend my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders” so that Pharaoh would be compelled to let the Israelites go (Ex. 3:19-21). God repeatedly assured Moses that his strong hand (Ex. 6:1) and outstretched arm (Ex. 6:6) would deliver his people from Pharaoh and the Egyptians.60 Even the Egyptian magicians came to recognize that the wondrous plagues came by the finger of God (Ex. 8:19). What God promised he did (Ex. 13:14; cf. Deut. 9:26, MT) with “a mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deut. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 26:8, MT) and “uplifted arm” (Acts 13:17)
What God did for Israel that first Passover night in bringing his people out of Egypt was to be commemorated with proper observance through the succeeding generations (Ex. 13:9, 16). God’s mighty power against Egypt was not finished that night. Later at the edge of the sea that lay before the Israelites on their journey toward the Holy Land God’s people were menaced by pursuing Egyptians. Here, too, God instructed Moses: “Lift up your staff and extend your hand toward the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites may go through the middle of the sea on dry ground. As for me, I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after them, that I may be honored because of Pharaoh and his army and his chariots and his horsemen” (Ex. 14:16-17). And everything came to pass exactly as God had promised (Ex. 14:26-31). Moses would later sing of that great event in his great victory song saying, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you —majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” (Ex. 15:11-12). So great was the deed that God had done that those nations and peoples that lay ahead on Israel’s journey would hear of it and be afraid (Ex. 15:16; cf. Ps. 106:9-12).61
The figure of the outstretched hand/arm of God appears in other ways as well. By his outstretched hand God controls the affairs of earth’s history, including the rise and fall of nations (Isa. 14:26; 25:10-11; Jer. 6:12). By that same mighty hand and his outstretched arm with which he brought his people out of Egypt he would one day judge his sinful people and scatter them among the nations. Yet in a future time he will regather a then purified people to their Promised Land (Ezek. 20:33-36; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-38; 37:21-28).62 The outstretched arm of God assures believers that everything is in accordance with God’s just administration of the world (cf. Isa. 51:5; 59:15-19) not only among the nations (Isa. 63:5-6) but also with his own people (Jer. 21:3-5).
The symbolism of God’s omnipotence is strongly felt in the figure of the right hand (Ps. 118:15-16). Not only God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm but also his right hand “was majestic in power” against the Egyptians during the exodus; by them God “shattered the enemy” and “the earth swallowed them” (Ex. 15:6, 12). It is by God’s right hand that he saves (Ps. 98:1) “those who look to him for protection” (Ps. 17:7). With his right hand God will lay hold on all his enemies (Ps. 21:8, MT) and protect (Ps. 138:7), sustain (Ps. 18:35) and guide (Ps. 139:10) his own. In him alone the believer has the sure hope of eternal bliss and pleasures at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11, MT).
God’s activities and relations with his people in times past are frequently expressed in figures utilizing the hand or arm. As already noted, it was God’s powerful hand that brought about the deliverance of his people from Egypt (Deut. 4:34; 7:8; Ps. 136:11-12) and preserved them through the Red Sea (Ps. 106:9-10). He would deliver his people repeatedly in the days and years that followed (e.g., Judg. 3:7-11; 6:14; 2 Kings 19:19,MT; cf.2 Kings 19: 35-36).
God’s providential care could be expressed as his “gracious hand” upon them.63 In 458 B.C. it was God’s “gracious hand” that gave Ezra protection and guidance all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus of Persia (464-424 B.C.; Ezra 7:9; cf. 8:22). About a decade later Nehemiah similarly experienced God’s “gracious hand” when he approached the Persian king for permission to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild its fallen walls (Neh. 2:8). Both men experienced God’s gracious sustaining hand for the work that he called them to do.
Not only did God’s hand sustain his own but at times it “fell upon” or “came to” selected ones whom he called for special service. For example, a call to be God’s prophet came to Jeremiah: “Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, I will most assuredly give you the word that you are to speak for me. Know for certain that I hereby give you the authority to announce to nations and kingdoms that they will be uprooted and torn down, destroyed and demolished, rebuilt and firmly planted” (Jer. 1:9-10). God’s prophets often felt the hand of God as they ministered. Thus the hand of God was upon Elijah as he “ran ahead of Ahab” from Mount Carmel to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:46, MT). The hand of the Lord came upon Elisha so as to give the Lord’s instructions to King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah during the Edomite campaign (2 Kings 3:15). Several other prophets report a divine hand upon them (e.g., Isa. 8:11, MT; Jer. 1:19; Ezek. 1:3; 3:22; Dan. 10:10).
The call to special ministry was particularly marked in the promise that one day the heir of David par excellence would come to give his people a full and final deliverance, and to rule over them forever in a grand new covenant (Ps. 89:20-27, 35-37). Surely every believer’s heart yearns for that day when David’s heir, the Lord Jesus (Mt. 1:1-17; 17:5; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:5; 2 Pet. 1:17) will assume his rightful rule over all the earth (Phil. 2:5-11; Rev. 11:15; 22:20).
“The Father has placed everything in his hand” (Jn. 3:3, Grk)
The foregoing truths with regard to the Lord Jesus stand as a reminder that he is Lord of all and fully divine. Moreover, the fact that many of the figures of the hand that are used of God the Father are attributed to Jesus gives further evidence of his deity. Thus of David’s heir it is said: “Sit down at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1). Jesus challenged the Pharisees to explain how the one who was David’s son could also be called Lord. In so doing he attests both the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 and his own position as Messiah and Lord. As Don Carson rightly points out, “What Jesus does is synthesize the concept of a human Messiah in David’s line with the concept of a divine Messiah who transcends human limitations (e.g., Ps. 45:6-7; Isa. 9:6; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zech. 12:10, MT; 13:7 [NASB]).”64
In harmony with the previous text is the truth that Christ, the divine Messiah, is the judge of all. John the Baptist warned that Jesus’ “winnowing fork is in his hand” (Mt. 3:12), while John sees Jesus future coming in judgment “with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Rev. 14:14). Jesus confirms the fact of his divine role as Son of God and coming King when he tells the high priest, “I tell you; from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on theclouds of heaven” (Mt. 26:64).65
The figure of the hand thus attests Jesus’ deity. As our Lord, Christ has absolute authority. God has “given all things into his hands” (Jn. 13:3, Grk). Therefore, the Apostle John could rightly declare, “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands” (Jn. 3:35). He is the long-expected deliverer of Israel (Lk. 1:71, 74) and head of the church (Rev. 1:16; 2:1), as well as its coming King. It is small wonder, then, that the mother of James and John requested of Jesus, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and the one at your left, in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:21). Even Satan recognized (Mt. 4:6) that the angels ministered to his needs (Ps. 91:12).
“My times are in your hands” (Ps. 31:15, MT)
The symbolism of the hand, arms, and fingers ought not to be lost for believers. The figure of God’s hand/arm/fingers in relation to the personal ethical qualities of believing Israelites has already been noted. Here we examine several texts that remind believers of all ages of their high value and the blessings of their life before God. Indeed, the Scriptures provide the authoritative guidebook for the believer’s life. Moses declared that the Ten Commandments, which gave God’s standards relative to human relations with God, were written by “the very finger of God” (Deut. 9:10). The rest of the Bible is no less of divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16). Many passages in God’s Word tell of his care for his own. He protects and delivers believers from “the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 97:10, MT; cf. Ps. 31:15, MT; Jer. 15:21, MT) and at times even delivers the enemy into the hands of his people (Josh. 2:24; 6:2, MT).
But it is not alone for perils and difficult times in our lives that God’s concern can be felt, for he sustains his faithful one in the everyday affairs of his life: “The LORD grants success to the one whose behavior he finds commendable. Even if he trips, he will not fall headlong, for the LORD holds his hand” (Ps. 37:23-24). Indeed, God has “engraved” his own on the “palms” of his hands (Isa. 49:16). How grand for the believer to know that as the heir of Christ’s salvation he or she is safely in the hands of both Christ and God the Father. “They will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (Jn. 10:28-30). The Apostle Paul could rightly declare therefore, “Nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord: (Rom. 8:39).
As with Ezra and Nehemiah of old, then, all along the way, through good times and bad, the believer may be assured that “the LORD holds his hand” (Ps. 37:24), wherever that may take him (Ps. 139:7-10). Surely the Lord takes his own “by the arm” (Hos. 11:3).
As we have noted, the dominant image in the figure of the hand/arm is that of power. To Israel it was promised: “Look, the Sovereign LORD comes as a victorious warrior; his military power (lit., arm) establishes his rule. Look, his reward is with him; his prize goes before him. Like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers up the lambs with his arm; he carries them close to his heart” (Isa. 40:10-11). We may remind ourselves also that the Lord Jesus Christ is the promised shepherd of the New Covenant (Ezek. 37:24). Moreover, he is the good shepherd who layed down his life for the sheep (Jn. 10:11-12). As the great shepherd who rose from the dead (Heb. 13:20), he is also the chief shepherd who shall come again for his own (1 Pet. 5:4). Therefore, as the true “shepherd and guardian” of the believer’s soul (1 Pet. 2:25), today’s believer, no less than Israel of old, may also partake of the psalmist’s testimony and praise:
But I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your wise advice,
and then you will lead me to a position of honor.
Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
My flesh and my heart may grow weak,
but God always protects my heart and gives me stability (Ps. 73:23-26).
Accordingly, the believer’s attitude and desires should be examined. Because Christ is all-powerful, believers are challenged to be his faithful witnesses and obedient servants (Mt. 28:18-20). Too often we live as those who are masters of our own destiny. To the contrary, our very times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15, MT).66 Rather than fixing our hearts on selfish desires or the things of this world (1 Jn. 2:15-16), we have need to heed the Apostle Paul’s challenge to holy living: “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Keep thinking about things above, not things on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).
May we ever be those who have “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4, MT) and who commit our lives into the Lord’s hand (Ps. 31:5). Indeed, how could we be in better hands than his? The old spiritual says it so simply: “He’s got you and me in his hands; He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
“In your name I will lift up my hands” (Ps. 63:4, MT)
What does the biblical teaching concerning God’s hands, arm, and fingers tell us as believers? Does it really matter to us that God is portrayed in this way? Let’s review a few matters and suggest some further applications.
We saw previously that God’s “hand, arm, and fingers” spoke of his great power and strength. This was especially pronounced in the motifs of his outstretched hand/arm or his right hand. We saw also that the “hand of God” emphasized his authority, and his just government and providential activity. God’s hand was truly in evidence in the redemption of his people out of Egypt and his guidance of their destiny throughout their history. From among his people he at times called some to be special ministers of his grace.
Of special importance was the promise of the coming Messiah, David’s heir. We saw that this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, to whom all authority and judgment are ascribed. Jesus was shown to be fully divine and the One who is the long-awaited deliverer and head over all things, including his church. Because it is to him that all humanity will bow one day, his followers are to be sensitive to live worshipful lives before him, and to live in holiness as obedient and faithful servants. As they do, they can be assured of God’s guidance and protection all along life’s journey.
Yet there is more to be noted concerning the images of hand, arm, and fingers. We shall see that they serve as reminders that such bodily members are working parts. It was for that reason that we began chapter three with a quote from Isaiah 66:2: “Has not my hand made all these things?”
“I have opened up the place where my weapons are stored” (Jer. 50:25)
Indeed, the Scriptures often record God’s working. This includes the creation and sustaining of the world (Gen. 1:1; 2:2-3; Pss. 89:8-12; 104; 136:5-9) and of all mankind (Gen. 1:26; 9:6). Moreover, God’s “work” “stands for God’s work over and above the creation, and then principally means the acts of Yahweh in history, through which he demonstrates to Israel his covenant faithfulness.”67 As we have noted, this was often said to be done by his hand(s), arm, or even his fingers. Consider Moses’ testimony to Israel concerning God’s deliverance of the Hebrews out of Egypt: “You saw the signs and wonders, the strength and power (lit., strong hand and outstretched arm), by which he brought you out” (Deut. 7:19). Knowing God’s mighty deeds and great works, Moses prayed to the Lord, “O LORD God, you have begun to show me your greatness and strength (lit., strong hand). (What god in heaven or earth can rival your works and mighty deeds?” (Deut. 3:24).68
All of God’s works are clearly discernable to the careful observer (Pss. 46:8; 66:5; Eccl. 7:13). The people of Israel who served the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime and beyond saw all the great things that the Lord did for Israel (Josh. 24:31). They were amazing (Josh. 3:5; Ps. 78:12), often miraculous (Ex. 11:16), deeds. Indeed, his innumerable (Ps. 104:24) works are both wonderful (Ps. 139:14; Rev 15:3) and unequaled by any other (Ps. 86:8). Moreover, they are done in truth (Heb. 6:18-19), and righteousness and justice (Pss. 103:6; 111:7; Dan. 4:37). Truly, “As for the Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. He is a reliable God who is never unjust, he is fair and upright” (Deut. 32:4). Because God’s work is done on the basis of his gracious concern, compassion, and love, his people will praise him (Jer. 51:10). Thus the psalmist declares, “The LORD is merciful and compassionate; he is patient and demonstrates great loyal love. The LORD is good to all, and has compassion on all he has made. All he has made will give thanks to the LORD. Your loyal followers will praise you” (Ps. 145:8-10). David also proclaims that “The LORD’s decrees are just, and everything he does is fair.. The LORD promotes equity and justice; the LORD’s faithfulness extends throughout the earth” (Ps. 33:4-5).
God’s work also involves the providential care and control of all of earth’s history (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 103:19; Isa. 19:25; 28:21; 48:14), including especially the lives of his own (1 Cor. 12:6; Eph. 1:11; Phil. 1:6; 2:13; Heb. 13:21). In accordance with his revealed word and purposes he declares, “In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isa. 55:11). God has made known (Am. 3:7) his will and standards via his Word (Isa. 40:8; 1 Thess. 2:13), which is unalterably effective (Heb. 4:12) and intended for man’s benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
“My Father is working … and I too am working” (Jn. 5:17)
Central to God’s work was the power that he exerted in the miraculous ministry (Acts 2:22) and resurrection (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 4:10; Eph. 1:20) of Jesus Christ. It is he whom God has made the judge of all so that all may “honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (Jn. 5:22-23). All authority and power have been granted to him (Ps. 2:6-9; Mt. 28:20). In accordance with God’s plan to culminate earth’s history by bringing in a new heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17-18; Rev. 21:5) filled with those who will worship and serve the Lord (Isa. 66:22-23), God has exalted his Son Jesus Christ: “As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Certainly Jesus was aware of his divine mission (Jn. 9:3-5). For he himself declared that “The deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete—the deeds I am now doing—testify about me that the Father has sent me” (Jn. 5:36). Christ’s work was nothing less than a completing of God’s the Father’s work (Jn. 4:34; 5:17; 10:36-38). This included not only the performance of good deeds (Acts 10:38) and miracles (Mk. 6:14; Jn. 2:11; 10:25) but also especially his work of providing for the believer’s salvation (Heb. 1:3) through his sacrificial death (Heb. 7:27) and resurrection (Jn. 10:17). These demonstrate that Christ is the Savior (Heb. 7:25; 1 Pet. 1:3) and the architect of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike. Therefore, he is both “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), as well as the guarantor (Heb. 7:22) and mediator (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15; 12:24) of the better, New Covenant in his blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Although he is now seated in the heavens making intercession for believers (Heb. 7:25), one day he shall return “and transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21; cf. 1 Jn. 3:2-3).
“The hand of the LORD was with them” (Acts 11:21)
It is thus obvious that God has made splendid plans for those who have accepted his Son as Savior and Lord of their lives (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 4:9-10; Rev. 21:1-4). On their part believers are expected to do spiritual services for the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58; 16:10). Among those who work for Christ some are teachers (Eph. 4:11) from whom others are to learn (Phil. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:2; cf. Ex. 18:20) and in turn pass the truth on to subsequent generations (Deut. 4:10). Yet all mankind is to consider what God has done (Eccl. 7:13-14) and praise him for it (Job 36:24) so that they might “fear” and “proclaim what God has done and reflect on his deeds” (Ps. 64:9).
It is certain that people of genuine faith should perform spiritual service for God, because “faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself” (Jas. 2:17; cf. 2:20-24). Indeed, the Scriptures repeatedly point out the necessity for the believer’s faith to be accompanied by good works (Pss. 34:14; 37:27; Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim. 5;10; 6:18). In so doing unbelievers “may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears” (1 Pet. 2:12). Accordingly, the Lord Jesus urged his followers, “Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
Good works spring from a heart that is committed to God (Prov. 16:3) and overflows with love (Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 16:14; Gal. 5:6). They are to be deeds of honesty (Ps. 15:2) and righteousness (Ps. 18:20-21). Thus Zephaniah urges his hearers, “Seek the LORD’s favor, all ye humble people of the land who have obeyed his commands! Strive to do what is right! Strive to be humble! Maybe you will be protected on the day of the LORD’s angry judgment” (Zeph. 2:3). “Zephaniah intends all who will respond with poverty of soul in humility and submission to God. He urges them to react to his pleas with the two qualities necessary for spiritual productivity: righteousness and humility. By the first is meant those spiritual and ethical standards that reflect that nature and will of God, by the second submission to and dependence on God.”69
Such good deeds are to be done moreover through God’s power (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:28-29) and with a genuine concern for the needs of others (Jer. 22:3; Mt. 6:1-4; cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Tim. 5:3-16; 6:17-19; Jas. 1:27). Above all, the believer’s works are to be out of concern for the truth (3 Jn. 8) and for the advancement of the kingdom of God (Col. 4:11; 3 Jn. 5-8). Accordingly, believers are not to be negligent in doing the Lord’s work (Jer. 48:10), even to those who appear to be enemies (Rom. 12:20-21; cf. Prov. 25:21-22).
The believer’s work is also to be done in accordance with God’s will (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 7:17) and as unto Christ (Mt. 25:40). Indeed, it is because God has extended his grace in order that men may be saved through faith and be taken into union with the risen Christ that any believer is enabled to do good works (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:4-10; cf. Jn. 14:12-14). So it is that the believer’s capacity for doing God’s will and work is limitless (Phil. 4:13). It is his part to make himself available (Rom. 12:1-2), to stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 15:58; 16:13) and press on (Phil. 3:12-14) in order to be faithful to the end (Rev. 2:10) even as God is faithful to him (1 Cor. 1:7-9). As the anonymous poet has expressed it:
Lord, let me not die until I’ve done for Thee
My earthly work, whatever it may be.
Call me not hence with mission unfulfilled;
Let me not leave my space of ground untilled;
Impress this truth upon me that not one
Can do my portion that I leave undone.70
One of the greatest of all good works that a believer may do is to share the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 2 Tim. 4:5) and the truth of the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:15). Believers should never be ashamed of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) but be willing if necessary to endure suffering in connection with their Christian service (1 Pet. 3:12-16). Such faithful service will earn God’s blessing both in this life (Deut. 2:7; 14:29; 15:10) and the next (1 Cor. 3:12-14; 2 Tim. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10). Because in the ultimate sense all that we are and do and have is by God’s grace (Rom. 2:4; Eph. 1:7, 18; 2:7; Phil. 1:6; Jas. 1:17-18), believers may humbly pray, “May our sovereign God extend his favor to us! Make our endeavors successful! Yes, make them successful!” (Ps. 90:17). Believers know that such prayers will be answered when their hearts and wills are blended with his, for they have come to realize God stimulates a desire and ability in us to accomplish his work and will “for the sake of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). How grateful we should be to have the privilege of carrying on the work that the Master has given us to do (Jn.14:12; 20:21)!
Creation’s Lord, we give Thee thanks
That this Thy world is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshaled ranks,
That work awaits our hands and feet;
That Thou hast not yet finished man,
That we are in the making still,
As friends who share the Maker’s plan,
As sons who know the Father’s will.71
41 Robert Alden, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 221.
43 The use of the hand to express authority, possession, or custody is also attested in texts from the ancient Near East. For example, an Akkadian text deals with the case of a child that has died “in the hand of” the wet nurse, that is under her care. Another cases speak of monies, property, or people that are delegated to a person’s custody or jurisdiction. See Erica Reiner, et al, The Assyrian Dictionary, Q, vol. 13 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1982), 189, 190. Human agency can also be expressed with figures relative to the hand. Thus a fire that swept through the land is attributed to the hand of bandits (Ibid, 193).
44 Accordingly, the Hebrew word for hand (yad) is often rendered “power” in the NET in accordance with the force of the context.
45 Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 68.
46 Ben Johnson (“The Masque of Hymen”) spoke of his beloved son as the “child of my right hand and joy.”
47 It is interesting to note that in Jesus’ teaching concerning the judgment of the believers (sheep) and unbelievers (goats) the sheep are placed on the Savior’s right (Mt. 25:31-33).
48 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds, “Right, Right Hand,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 727.
49 Hermann J. Austel and Richard. D. Patterson, “Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol.4(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 267. Both Ps 37:17 and 2 Kings 19:26 speak of God’s overpowering action in rendering the wicked powerless.
50 Zephaniah’s prophecy literally came true. “About 200 years after its devastation, Xenophon passed by its site without realizing that the ruins were the remains of haughty Nineveh (Anabasis III, 4, 10-12). He calls the territory Mespila. Lucian (Charon, c. 23) declares: ‘Nineveh has perished, and there is no trace left where it once was,’” Walter A. Maier, The Book of Nahum (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 135.
52. Reiner, Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Q, 187.
53 Ibid, 186.
54 Wolfram von Soden, “dy*” yad” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 397.
55 Reiner, Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Q, 186.
56 G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol . 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 105. In his prologue Hammurapi maintains his piety to all the gods, in one case describing himself as “the prince pure (in heart) whose hands uplifted (in prayer) Adad regards” (vol.1, 11).
57 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 198.
58 Ibid, vol. 2 (1976), 36.
60 See the interesting study by James K. Hoffmeier, “The Arm of God vs the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives,” Biblica (1986): 378-87.
61 For a literary comparison of the prose and poetic accounts of Israel’s adventure at the Red Sea, see Richard D. Patterson, “Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (2004): 42-54.
62 For the relation of these passages to the establishment of God’s New Covenant, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31-34,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972): 11-23; Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 231-35, 242-44.
63 A familiar Spanish farewell invokes God’s holy hand: Dios te tenga en su santo mano (God keep you in his holy/blessed hand).
64 D. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, et al., vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 468. The author of Hebrews also draws upon Psalm 110 in pointing out Christ’s superiority to the angels (Heb. 1:13).
65 Not only is the right hand motif used with regard to Jesus but it may be significant that like God the Father, Jesus is said to “stretch out his hand” in times of healing others (Mk. 1:41; cf. also Mt. 9:13).
66 The apocryphal The Wisdom of Solomon observes that “the souls of the just are in God’s hand.” See D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979). 124-26.
67 H. C. Hahn, “Work,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 1148.
69 Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 330.
70 “My Work,” in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, ed., James D. Morrison (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 372.
71 W. De Witt Hyde, “Creation’s Lord, We Give Thee Thanks,” in Masterpieces, 306.
The apostle Paul’s reminder to the Corinthian Christians (1 Cor. 13:12) is reflected in the words of the well-known hymn: “Face to face with Christ my Savior, face to face what will it be?”72 This question is especially meaningful because the face plays an important role in our everyday experiences. If we say that we wish to see someone “face to face,” we may mean that we desire to have a meeting with that person. We could also mean to have a “face to face” confrontation with that one. If we report that we said something “to his face,” we indicate that we spoke openly in that person’s presence.
The face can reveal many things concerning someone’s inner feelings. A “long face” betrays a sense of gloom, while a “shining face” displays a sense of happiness or contentment. If someone “puts on a bold face,” he attempts to appear confident. A “false face,” however, indicates an attempt to hide one’s feelings or opinions. To “make a face” at another can indicate contempt.
The face appears in many of our idioms. If we “face up” to a problem, we confront it in an effort to solve it. To “fly in the face” of prevailing opinion suggests a course of action contrary to an accepted policy, belief, or standard, while “setting one’s face against” someone indicates open defiance or determination to oppose that person. If we “show our face” at an event, we attend it or perhaps allow ourselves to be seen there. By doing so we may either “lose face” or “save face,” that is, we may lose or maintain our respect. An anonymous person at such an event, however, may be said to be “faceless.” The face can also be used for the surface of a thing such as a clock. The “face value” of a document or a coin is determined by what is written on it. Climbers at times scale the “sheer face” of an outcrop of rock. A king, queen, or jack in a deck of cards is called a “face card.” A stock that seems advantageous to buy may to all appearances be a good prospect “on the face of it.” Even the sun is said to have a face and Keats spoke of “the nights’ starr’d face, huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.”73
One of the most distinctive features of the face is the nose. A reporter who “has a nose for news” is able to track down the desired information. He may “ follow his nose” in gathering the details. A “nosey” person, however, pries into others’ affairs and is said to have “poked his nose” into them. A close victory can be expressed as “winning by a nose.” Those who pay an unreasonable price for something have “paid through the nose.” If we “count noses” we tally the number of people in attendance or who can be counted upon to support our position.
Something “under my nose” is in plain sight. Rude or tactless people can “rub someone’s nose in it” by reminding him of his mistakes. They may “look down their noses” in disdain while doing so. Some people may “have their nose out of joint” that is, be unduly displeased about something. Likewise someone can “cut off his nose to spite his face” by doing that which is injurious to his own welfare. To be “led by the nose” is to be dominated by someone else.
The nose’s sense of smell is also used figuratively such as in “smelling” danger or “smelling out” the facts in a given situation. It could be hoped that in using the sense of smell figuratively we would not mix our metaphors in doing so such as in the case of the British parliamentarian who remarked, “I smell a rat, I see it floating in the air, and I’ll nip it in the bud.”74 The wide use of facial features in figurative expressions should alert us to expect to find them in God’s communication to us. We shall see that the Bible uses many of them.
“Cause Your FaceTo Shine” (Ps. 80:3, MT)
The face is associated with many inanimate objects in the Bible. Thus Cain complained to the Lord that he was driving him from the “face of the land,” to places where he would disappear from God’s sight and possibly by the victim of some person’s murderous act (Gen. 4:14). Jeremiah speaks of “the face of the kingdoms which are … earth” (Jer. 25:26) and Moses warned his people that God would remove the disobedient from the (face of, MT) land (Deut. 6:15). Indeed, it was the Lord who scattered the post-deluvial population “across the face of the entire earth” (Gen. 11:8).75 Jehu, the founder of the fourth dynasty in the Northern Kingdom, gave instructions concerning the remains of Queen Jezebel’s body to the effect that it should lie “like manure on the surface (lit., face) of the ground” (2 Kings 9:37). Not only the land but also the surface of the sea could be termed its “face” (Gen. 1:2, MT; Job 38:30, MT). Similar terminology is used of the horizon of the sky (Mt. 16:3, Grk).76
“Face” can also be used in connection with an object such as a scroll (Ezek 2:9-10, MT), a building (Ezek. 40:7-8; 41:14, MT), or even a tent (Ex. 26:9, MT). The face also appears in giving directions. Thus the twelve bulls, on which the basin known as the Sea rested, were arranged “three facing northward, three westward, three southward, and three eastward” (1 Kings 7:25). In Jeremiah’s opening vision he reports having seen a boiling pot “tipped toward us from (lit., its face from the face of) the north” (Jer. 1:13).
The Bible describes many kinds of faces. Solomon pointed out that “a joyful heart makes a face cheerful” (Prov. 15:13). On the other hand, there are times when sadness of face is good for the heart (Eccl. 7:3, MT). At still other times a “sad face” can betray sorrow (Gen. 40:7, MT) or a heartfelt need. Thus Nehemiah’s face of sadness brought such concern to the Persian king that he sent him back to Jerusalem to oversee the repairing of its walls (Neh. 2:1-9).
A “hard” face is indicative of defiance (Jer 5:3), impudence (Prov 7:13) ruthlessness (Deut 28:50). A “shining” face is evidence of joy (Job 29:24). A “shamed” face points to defeat, frustration, humiliation (II Sam 19:5). A “flaming” face is one convulsed by terror (Isa 13:8). An “evil” face is a face marked by distress and anxiety (Gen 40:7) A “fallen” face stems from
very strong anger or displeasure (Gen 4:5).78
“He sees God’s face with rejoicing” (Job 33:26)
The face appears in various figurative expressions involving personal emotions or attitudes.79 Covering the face can indicate grief. When king David learned of the death of his son, he “covered his face and cried aloud, ‘My son, Absalom! Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 19:4). God commands Ezekiel to “cover your face so that you cannot see the ground because I have made you an object lesson to the house of Israel” (Ezek 12:6). By this act he was to symbolize the fact that although the king would attempt to flee the coming captivity of Jerusalem, he would neither escape nor see the land in which he would be held captive (vv. 12-13). Such indeed proved to be the case, for Zedekiah was blinded by his captors and led away in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-7; Jer. 39:4-7). He would also never see his own land again, for he would die in captivity (Jer. 52:11). Thus Ezekiel’s covering of his face in this context symbolized not only grief but also shame, and a sentence of judgment ending in doom.
Covering the face as a sign of shame occurs in other texts as well (cf. Gen. 38:15). Thus the psalmist implores God that when he judges Israel’s enemies to “cover their faces with shame so they might seek you, O LORD” (Ps. 83:16). The face could also be covered in the awesome presence of the Lord God. For example, Elijah “covered his face with his robe” when he heard a gentle whisper and recognized it as the voice of God (1 Kings 19:13). The angelic seraphim also covered their faces with two of their wings in the presence of the Holy One (Isa. 6:2).
Bowing down with one’s face to the ground/floor or falling on one’s face appears in many contexts whether to indicate honor or respect (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:14; Dan. 2:46), especially of a king (2 Sam. 9:6; 14:4; 18:28; 1 Kings 1:23, 31), self-humbling (Num. 14:5; 16:4), or worship/reverence in the presence of God (Ezek. 3:23; Lk. 5:12; 1 Cor. 14:25; Rev. 11:16). At times this indicates a prostration in prayer (Mt. 26:39). Prayer may also be expressed as “lifting up the face” (Job 22:26-27), “seeking God’s face” (1 Kings 13:6; Ps. 27:7-8; cf. 2 Kings 13:4), especially in repentance and submission (Hos. 5:15), or “putting the face between the knees” (1 Kings 18:42).
Submission or respect for a superior or elder was demanded in the Old Testament. “Stand up in the presence of (lit., the face of) the aged, show respect (lit., honor the face of) for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32). At times this was expressed by “bowing one’s face to the ground.” Thus Joseph, in seeking his father’s blessing for his two sons, “bowed down with his face to the ground” (Gen. 48:12). Nabal’s wife Abigail performed the same act before David (1 Sam. 25:23). Falling on one’s face to the ground, however, could indicate being terrified or frightened (Dan. 10:7-9; cf. 8:17, MT).
“Seek his presence (lit., face) always” (Ps. 105:4)
To be sure, the figures and idioms employing the face in the previous section also involved activity in some cases. Nevertheless, we have preferred to group the above examples in accordance with the attitude or emotions behind the actions. Although attitudes will also be evident in some of the following cases, our emphasis here is on the activity itself. Thus to “set the face” toward some place involved physical movement. As Jacob fled from Laban, his father-in-law, he “headed for (‘set his face toward’) the hill country of Gilead” (Gen. 31:21).80 After capturing the town of Gath, the Aramean king Hazael “turned to attack (‘set his face toward’) Jerusalem” (2 Kings 12:17). When Balaam the hireling prophet “saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned (lit., set) his face toward the wilderness” (Num. 24:1). A far different prophet of the Lord, the prophet Daniel, reports, “I turned to the LORD (lit., I set my face toward) my God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).81
Activities represented by the face may be positive or negative. In the former category we may note that a bright or shining face may reflect approval or being pleased: “In the light of a king’s face there is life” (Prov. 16:15).82 Similarly, “A joyful heart makes the face cheerful, but by a painful heart the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13). Washing the face indicates purity or happiness. Accordingly, Jesus advised that fasting ought not to be undertaken with external accompaniments such as a disfigured face or somber look. Such is a hypocritical observance. Rather than drawing attention to oneself, one should wash his face so that only God would be aware of the person who fasts (Mt. 6:17). Thus what Jesus “condemns is ostentation in fasting. Moreover he forbids any sign at all that a fast has been undertaken. Because the human heart is so mixed in the motives that the desire to seek God will be diluted by the desire for human praise, thus vitiating the fast.”83
A further positive note is the scriptural prophecy that God would send “my messenger, who will clear the way before me” (lit., my face; Mal. 3:1). Although this one is later identified as the translated prophet Elijah (Mal. 4:5-6), Jesus declared that this prophecy was fulfilled in John the Baptist (Mt. 11:9-10). Since John knew categorically that he was not Elijah (Jn. 1:21, 23), his mission was but in the spirit and power of Elijah, who is yet to come. Scholars generally concede that Malachi’s prophecy concerning Elijah has to do with the prophetic line that culminates in the eschatological era.84 The application of Malachi’s prophecies concerning Elijah thus gives positive assurance that the final fulfillment of the prophecies will definitely take place and thus of the truthfulness and divine inspiration of the Bible (Ps. 119:160; 2 Tim. 3:16).85
Another positive text including actions and the face is found in Elisha’s instructions to Gehazi, his servant, to run ahead and lay Elisha’s staff on the face (i.e., the body) of the Shunamite’s dead lad (2 Kings 4:29). “The staff as the symbol of God-given prophetic power (cf. Ex. 4:1-4; 17:8-13) signified Elisha’s faith that God would stay further physical degeneration until he could come.”86 With the reviving of the lad a positive result occurred so that the power of God through his designated prophet was displayed. Truly the power and spirit were shown to reside in Elisha (cf. 2 Kings 2:9-15). And what a positive and powerful ministry Elisha was to have!87 Here indeed was a man of prayer (2 Kings 4:33; 6:17-18). Surely God’s faithful servant must have received the divine blessing concerning which David would later write: “ Such godly people are rewarded by the LORD and vindicated by God who delivers them. Such purity characterizes the people who seek his favor (lit., face of), O God of Jacob” (Ps. 24:5-6).
Some actions in which the figure of the face is found were negative in nature, however. Thus spitting in the face was a sign of public rebuke and shame (Num. 12:14; Mk. 15:19). In most cases a literal act is involved. A particularly prominent case involved the situation of brothers living communally together. If one of the brothers died, it was the prescribed obligation of the surviving brother to marry the widow. If he refused to do so, however, a public ceremony was to follow during which his brother’s widow was to approach him “in view of the elders, take off his sandal, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to any man who does not maintain his brother’s family line’” (Deut. 25:9). To be sure the face is understood to be literally involved in the action but the deed symbolized something greater. Indeed, the brother’s failure to perform the required obligation was considered a serious breach of Mosaic Law. Eugene Merrill describes the rationale behind the stipulation: “The sandal, again, represented forfeiture by the derelict brother of any claims he might have had to his departed brother’s estate. The act of spitting displays the utmost disdain or contempt.”88
A still more poignant case is that of God’s servant. Although he is faithful and obedient, he is mistreated with severe disrespect and insulting behavior: “I offered my back to those who attacked, my jaws to those who tore out my beard; I did not hide my face from insults and spitting” (Isa. 50:6). As Edward Young points out, the description of this servant goes far beyond any human sufferer: “It would be impossible for any sinful human being, no matter how fine a person he was, to undergo the sufferings herein described without a spirit of rebellion welling up within him… . The only One who can so patiently suffer is the One without sin, the Christ of God.”89 Indeed, Isaiah goes on to describe this One in terms that surely can apply to no one other than the Messiah, God’s son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Isa. 53:3-12).
Therefore, the apostle Paul can rightly say, “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus himself predicted, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him severely, and kill him. Yet after three days, he will rise again” (Mk. 10:33-34). Such literally came to pass (Mk. 14:65; 15:19; 16:1-8). It is of interest to note that although the practice of spitting in the face was designed to be symbolically negative, in God’s providence this odious act was overcome through the suffering of the triumphant Christ. Negative deed became changed to positive outcome. Such a despicable act may account for Job’s feelings of mistreatment by his former friends and neighbors: “He has made me a byword to people. I am the one in whose face they spit” (Job 17:6). Whether Job’s words are to be understood literally or figuratively (or both) is uncertain.90 If Job’s words are to be understood figuratively in an attempt to describe the general public contempt he feels, the figure is certainly a strong negative one.
A particularly graphic figure utilizing the face is that of “pulling up the skirt over the face.” The image is related to the act of harlotry. Thus in prophesying concerning the fall of Nineveh Nahum charges the Assyrian capital city with being a “wanton prostitute” (Nah. 3:4). “Nineveh is here seen as using both immoral attractions (the city was a center of the cult of Ishtar—herself represented as a harlot) and sorcery (Assyrian society was dominated by magic arts …) as a means to enslave others. The metaphor is very close to the reality.”91 Therefore, the punishment would fit the crime: “‘I am against you,’ declares the LORD who commands armies. ‘I will strip off your clothes (lit., lift your skirts over your face)! I will show your nakedness to the nations and shame to the kingdoms’” (Nah. 3:5).
Nineveh’s fate was also pronounced against God’s own people because of their religious harlotry in entertaining false gods (2 Kings 21:1-11; Jer. 32: 26-35). Accordingly, God declared their just judgment: “I will pull your skirt up over your face and expose you to shame like a disgraced adulteress! People of Jerusalem, I have seen your adulterous worship, your shameless prostitution to and your lustful pursuit of, other gods. I have seen your disgusting acts of worship on the hills throughout the countryside” (Jer. 13:26-27). How shameful that God’s people would leave the source of true life and turn to other fascinations! Well does the apostle John warn today’s believers: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21).
The figure of the face may be seen in still other settings. Armies are said to face each other (2 Kings 14:11). In such circumstances it is reassuring to be aware of the Lord’s presence (2 Chr. 20:17). In addition to hostile situations like open warfare, the idiom “to one’s face” can indicate rebuke. Thus Paul writes of a situation that caused him to oppose Peter. For at Antioch Peter had withdrawn from fellowshipping with Gentile believers because of the arrival of emissaries from James. Because of Peter’s actions, “I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong” (Gal. 2:11). Indeed, Peter should have known better, for he himself had been used to minister the Gospel to a Roman centurion named Cornelius at Caesarea. At that time he confessed, “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter’s rebuke and James’ own words stand as good advice to all of us: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show prejudice” (Jas. 2:1).
“I hope to come visit you and speak face to face” (2 Jn. 12)
The face often appears in contexts involving personal relationships. For example people are often said to meet one another “face to face.” Jeremiah predicts that Zedekiah will be captured and will speak to the king of Babylon “face to face” (Jer. 32:4; cf. 34:5). In discussing the case concerning the apostle Paul the Roman official Festus points out to the Jewish king Agrippa that “it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met his accusers face to face” (Acts 25:16). King Amaziah of Judah at one time sent a military challenge to king Jehoash of Israel saying, “Come face me on the battlefield” (2 Chr. 25:17).
Those officials who enjoyed special access to the Persian king were said to “see his face” (Esth. 1:14, MT). Joseph denied access into his presence to his brothers by telling them, “You will not see my face unless your brother is with you” (Gen. 43:5). Paul made mention of those in Laodicea who had not “met me face to face” (Col. 2:1). The image here is that of a personal meeting or relationship. As he writes to the Thessalonians, Paul tells them that he had been “separated from you … for a short time in presence (lit., face) not in affection” (lit., in heart; 1 Thess. 2:17) but was praying “ earnestly night and day to see you (lit., your face) and make up what may be lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:10). Likewise, John wrote to his friend Gaius that he hoped “to see you right away and we will speak face to face” (3 Jn. 14).
It should be noted that in some of the texts mentioned above that the face could stand for the whole person. Simian-Yofre notes that the face is often used to represent the whole person, especially in constructions where “face” is followed by the controlling noun. He lists such instances as: Isaac (Gen. 27:30) and Joseph (Gen. 44:26), the poor (Lev. 19:15), and the aged (Lev. 19:32), servants (2 Sam. 19:5), priests (Lam. 4:16), and kings (1 Sam. 22:4) such as Solomon (1 Kings 10:24) and Pharaoh (Ex. 10:11), and the wicked (Ps. 82:2). He goes on to point out that in most of these cases to translate the Hebrew noun as ‘face’ or ‘countenance’ is improper92 Similarly, Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to “join in helping us by prayer so that many people (lit., many faces) may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).
A closely related idea is seen where face occurs in combination with certain prepositions indicating a sense of presence such as “in the face of” to point to the whole person or object (i.e., before someone or something). “So Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before (in the face of) Pharaoh” (Ex. 11:10). As Simeon cradled the infant Jesus in his arms he remarked, “My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence (before the face/presence) of all peoples” (Lk. 2:31). ).93
The face is often used for certain verbs expressing personal relationships or encounters. One would “seek the face” of someone in an authoritative position. For example, “Everyone in the world wanted to visit (lit., seek the face of) Solomon to see him display his God-given wisdom” (1 Kings 10:24). The author of Proverbs appropriately observes, “Many people seek the face of a ruler” (Prov. 29:26). If one turns his face to/toward someone, he pays attention to or addresses that one (1 Kings 8:14, MT) but to turn the face can mean rejection. Indeed, the sinning Israelites “turned away (lit., their faces) from the Lord’s dwelling place and rejected (lit., turned their backs on) him” (2 Chr. 29:6). Similarly, “hiding the face” can display displeasure or revulsion (Isa. 53:3).
To “lift up the face” to/toward someone can indicate showing respect to him or currying his favor. Thus Jacob sought Esau’s good reaction to his coming by sending gifts ahead with his servants. He thought, “After that I will meet him (lit., see his face). Perhaps he will accept me” (lit., lift up my face; Gen, 32: 20). Not “to lift up the face,” however, indicated disrespect. Israel was told that their disobedience could bring God’s judgment in the form of a fierce nation coming against them that had “no regard for (lit., will not lift up the face of) the elderly” (Deut. 28:50). To “lift up the face” can also indicate partiality. Indeed, “It is terrible to show partiality to (lit., lift up the face of) the wicked” (Prov. 18:5; cf. Ps. 82:2). One should not pervert justice by showing “partiality to (lift up the face of) the poor nor honor (lit., honor the face of) to the great: (Lev. 19:15). “Lifting up the face” could also indicate the granting of a request (Gen. 19:21, MT) but “turning back the face” meant refusal.
The author of Kings makes an interesting play on the word face in relating the incident when Adonijah’s plot to secure his father David’s throne failed. At that time he approached Bathsheba and pled with her saying, “You know that the kingdom was mine and all Israel considered (lit., set their face to) me king. But then the kingdom was given to my brother, for the LORD decided it should be his. Now I’d like to ask you for just one thing. Please don’t refuse me” (lit., turn back my face; 1 Kings 2:15-16).
It can be seen, then, that the figure of the face was widely used by God’s people in many varied contexts. We turn next to note those passages that speak of the face of God.
“Moses, Who Knew The LORD Face To Face” (Deut. 34:10)
One of the most intense experiences in the life of Jacob occurred as he was returning with his family toward his homeland. He had served Laban for many years and now faced the prospect of meeting his brother Esau whom he had defrauded so long ago. As we have noted, in preparation for that meeting he sent gifts ahead so as to conciliate Esau hoping that Esau would “lift up the face” of Jacob (i.e., receive him cordially). Now on the night before that dreaded meeting, he found himself alone. Suddenly, “A man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Gen. 32:24). That opponent turned out to be an angel from whom he received a blessing, “‘No longer will your name be Jacob,’ the man told him, ‘but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed’” (Gen. 32:28). The eighth century prophet Hosea, looking back on that night, wrote, “He struggled with an angel and prevailed; he wept and begged his favor” (Hos. 12:4).94 Jacob himself was so overcome by the events of that night that he “named the place Peniel, explaining, ‘Certainly I have seen God face to face, and survived’” (Gen. 32:20).
Did Jacob really see God “face to face”—really see God’s face? In the first place, the text appears to indicate that it was pitch black that night—so dark that he could not even recognize his opponent (cf. Gen. 32:29). As we have noted before “face” can figuratively represent the whole person. It is likely, therefore, that “face to face” in this context describes a personal encounter between two individuals (i.e., person to person).
Confirmation of this understanding comes from Moses’ encounter with God before Mount Sinai. On one occasion in a tent of meeting, which lay outside of the Israelite camp, God was said to “speak to Moses face to face the way a person speaks to a friend” (Ex. 33:11). In that same context the Lord assured Moses, “My Presence (lit., my face) will go with you and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14). Moses understood God’s presence well, for he pleaded with God further, “If your Presence (lit., face) does not go with us, do not take us up from here. For how will it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people?” (Ex. 33:15-16). Clearly, then, it is God’s personal presence with his people that was essential and the Hebrew word in question in this context is not to be understood literally as “face.” Further confirmation of all of this comes from Moses’ own later words to the Israelites: “Because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants who followed them and personally (lit., by his face/presence) brought you out of Egypt with his great strength” (Deut. 4:37). To the same effect Isaiah writes, “Through all this that they suffered, he suffered too. The messenger sent from his very presence (lit., face) delivered them” (Isa. 63:9).
Sadly, God warned the sinning Israelites of Ezekiel’s day that in a future time he would send them again into exile among the nations: “And there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. Just as I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you” (Ezek. 20:35-36). God’s personal presence with them would surely not be a pleasant one. Yet it would involve a purification that would bring them into a new covenant relation with God and “then you will know that I am the LORD” (Ezek. 20:38).
In all of these cases God’s “face” means his personal presence in accomplishing his purposes and especially his power as the means by which God accomplished his mighty deeds. The same idea may be seen in the case of unbelievers in the great tribulation period that will climax earth’s present history. Those who fear the awesome power of God’s presence in judgment are portrayed as crying, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Rev. 6:16).
Neither God’s essence nor his literal face can be intended for no one should (Ex. 33:23) or could (Ex. 33:20) see God. In fact no human has ever seen God himself (1 Tim. 6:16). Rather, it is in Christ supremely that God has been known and seen (Jn. 1:18; 6:46; 1 Jn. 4:12). “A man must perish if he looks on or even hears God (Ex 19:21). For this reason Moses (Ex 3:6), Elijah (1 Kgs 19:13), and even the seraphim (Isa 6:2) cover their faces in God’s presence.”95
Therefore, instances in which a believer is said to have seen God and yet lived involved either a manifestation of God’s glory and majesty (Deut. 5:24), a revelation through the Angel of the Lord (Judg. 6:22-33; 13:20-22), or a visionary experience (Isa. 6:1-5). Leon Wood rightly points out that the latter two cases were situations in which the men involved felt strongly their sinfulness in the presence of the divine appearance.96 William Dyrness points out further that the term “face” is commonly used “of God’s face in a metaphoric way for his presence in general.”97
The figure of God’s face is used in many contexts in which his divine actions are involved (Ezek. 20:35). As in the case of human activity in which the “face” is utilized, the action may be positive or negative. For example, God provided comfort and enjoyment to his people by giving instructions as to how Aaron was to bless the people: “The LORD bless you and protect you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26). A believer may seek the “face” of God and pray, “Lift up upon us the light of your face, O LORD” (Ps. 4:6; cf. Pss. 67:1; 80:3; 119:131) but should realize that God is “aware of our sins; you even know about our hidden sins (lit., what we have hidden to the light of your face)” (Ps. 90:8).
Sin can cause fellowship with God to be broken so that the Lord will hide his “face” from his people (Deut. 31:16-17). In such cases not only will pain and sorrow follow (Ps. 13:1-2, MT) but dire circumstances can occur. For example, the psalmist prays, “Do not reject me (lit., hide your face from me) or I will join those descending to the grave” (Ps. 143:7). Yet “God is merciful and compassionate; he will not reject you (lit., turn his face from you) if you return to him” (2 Chr. 30:9). God warned the nation Israel through his messengers that if his people sinned against him, judgment would surely come, whether upon individuals (Lev. 17:10) or the nation: “I have determined not to deliver this city but to bring disaster on it (lit., I will set my face against the city for evil and not good)” (Jer. 21:10). So also Ezekiel prophesies concerning Jerusalem, “I will give it to foreigners as loot … I will turn my face away from them, and they will desecrate my treasured place” (Ezek. 7:21-22).
Such literally came to pass in the fall of Jerusalem to the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians) in 586 B.C. and the carrying away of God’s people into exile. Even then God gave a gracious promise to his people through Ezekiel that a day was coming when he would make a new covenant with a repentant people and “I will not leave any of them in exile any longer. I will no longer hide my face from them, when I pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezek. 39:28-29). Indeed, when God’s people pray for cleansing, they may anticipate God’s forgiveness so that they rejoice in his presence. Thus the psalmist prays, “Hide your face from my sins! Wipe away all my guilt!” (Ps. 51:9). “The imagery here personifies God in his turning his back on sin and thereby not being able to see it again.”98
A common phrase indicating God’s actions is that of “lifting up the face.” This idiom can imply favoritism or partiality. God’s impartiality was demonstrated in the judgment and exile of his people: “The LORD himself (lit., the face of the Lord) has scattered them; he no longer watches over them. They did not honor the priests; they did not show favor to the elders” (Lam. 4:16). The apostle Peter also came to realize that “God does not show favoritism (lit., receive the face/respect the person) in dealing with people but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him” (Acts 10:34; cf. 1 Pet. 1:17).99 Paul also recognized that God’s judgment is just for Jew and Gentile alike, “For there is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11; cf. Col. 3:25).
Clearly, then, the figure of God’s face is not to be construed in physical terms. Rather, it is given for mankind in order that people may understand his active presence in world affairs, particularly in connection with his own people. He reminds all men that warm, active fellowship with God is possible but warns all people that sin can mar that fellowship and bring God’s just judgment.
“Smoke Ascended From His Nostrils’ (Ps. 18:8)
Before turning to examine texts that remind us of our obligations before God, we pause to look at what the Bible says concerning one of the prominent features of the face—the nose. Perhaps the most prominent image relative to the face is that of the hook in the nose. “Biblical imagery of the hook in the nose symbolizes mastery or forced leading. Prophets have used this image to warn nations of God’s wrath and of their coming doom (2 Kings 19:28; 2 Chr. 33:11).”100 Thus God denounces the mighty Assyrian Empire and its king Sennacherib in particular: “Because you rage against me and the uproar you create has reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bridle between your lips, and I will lead you back by the way you came” (Isa. 37:29). Such metaphors suggest that God views himself as Sennacherib’s master. Much as an owner puts a bit and bridle on his animal so as to make it do his bidding, so God is really the one who is in charge of Sennacherib. Sennacherib is virtually likened to a stubborn beast, which must be put under restraint by the Lord.101
A still more important text concerning the nose or nostrils is found in the Genesis account of man’s creation: “The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). It can be observed that, “every living thing has the breath of life in its nostrils, but only man has the breath of God in his nostrils.”102 Elsewhere the figurative use of the nose revolves around the sense of smell. The psalmist points out the impotence of idols by noting, “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see, ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell” (Ps. 115:5-6).
Several texts speak of God’s nose or nostrils. Most commonly they are employed in connection with God’s pleasure with the sacrifice that is being offered to him. For example, after the great flood, Noah “built an altar to the LORD. He then took some of every kind of clean animal and clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma and said to himself (lit., in his heart), ‘I will never again curse the ground’” (Gen. 8:20-21). Once again we see a poignant image. God is likened to one whose nostrils smell a very fragrant and pleasing aroma. Pleasing aromas are reported in connection with the Levitical sacrifices well over a dozen times. Even as late as Ezra’s time the importance of sacrifices being pleasing to God was recognized (Ezra 6:10). Both the offering and the offerer’s attitude in presenting the offering were deemed acceptable and satisfactory to God. Particularly satisfying was the life and propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. For by these he demonstrated that he “loved us and gave himself for us as a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God” (Eph. 5:2). Christ’s substitutionary atonement on Calvary stands as the culmination and completion of the Old Testament sacrificial system that pointed to it. As such it was most pleasing to God and a “sweet savor” offering. As the writer to the Hebrews declares, “But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice. And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment, so also, after Christ was sacrificed once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation” (Heb. 9:26-27). Far greater than the Old Testament offerer, Christ’s attitude was also one that was pleasing and acceptable to God (Mt. 26:42; Heb. 10:5-7).
The nose and nostrils of God, however, are also used to indicate God’s displeasure, wrath, and judgmental power (Lev. 26:31; Isa. 65:5). Indeed, it was a mere blast of God’s “nostrils” that caused the waters of the forbidding sea to pile up and provide a safe passage for the Israelites as they fled from the pursuing Egyptian forces: “By the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up, the flowing water stood upright like a heap, and the deep waters solidified in the heart of the sea” (Ex. 15:8). 103
“Seek His Presence (lit., Face) Continually” (Ps. 105:4)
The image of the face of God has momentous importance for the believer. Faithful believers in Old Testament times looked forward to that day when they might see God’s face—a hope that lay beyond this life (Job 19:25-27; Pss. 17:15; 49:10-15). For the New Testament believer, however, there is a more immediate realization of that hope. For Jesus told his disciples, “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God--he has seen the Father” (Jn. 6:46). Because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn. 10:30), he that has seen Jesus has seen God the Father also (Jn. 12:45; 14:9). By divine revelation the apostle Paul declared that Jesus Christ is the very image of God (2 Cor. 4:4), in whose face we have “the light of the glorious knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 4:6). Grand as it is, this is but an imperfect foretaste of a glorious future (1 Cor. 13:8-12) when believers shall enjoy his presence and behold “the throne of the Lamb and … they will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4).
Because God is righteous (Deut. 32:4), the believer is to live a righteous and faithful life (Heb. 2:4), looking to him in order to be upright in his sight: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are not ashamed” (Ps. 34:5). Those who look to the Lord and spend quality time in God’s Word and in prayer will find the psalmist’s words to be true. For example, Jonah was God’s prophet but he attempted to run away from God’s will for his life and wound up in the belly of a great sea creature. Although he was thus out of fellowship with God, God now had his attention. And so Jonah turned to God in anguished prayer. In doing so his prayer was framed by many phrases drawn from the Psalms. As a result God heard his prayer, delivered him from his dire circumstances, and reinstated him to his prophetic office. Unfortunately, although Jonah went on dutifully to deliver God’s message in Nineveh, he remained unhappy with any ministry to the Assyrians, however successful it proved to be.
Despite Jonah’s somewhat tenuous example, it remains true that time spent in God’s Word can enable its reader to understand his person and purposes. He can therefore be prepared for those dangerous periods on life’s journey. Actually, such is a continuous quest that is to be entered into on a daily basis. The psalmist’s experience needs to be that of every believer: “I find delight in your statutes; I will not forget your instructions” (Ps. 119:16; cf. 2 Tim. 2:15). Indeed, the believer who spends quality time in God’s Word will be aware of his presence and through Christ grow increasingly like him (2 Cor. 3:12-18). Unlike those who lived under the old covenant, whose “minds were closed” so that even now “whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds” (2 Cor. 3:14-15), believers who have been taken into union with Christ through the New Covenant “with unveiled faces [are] reflecting the glory of the Lord [and] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).104 “So far from losing its intensity or luster, the glory experienced under the new covenant progressively increases until the Christian finally acquires a ‘glorious body’ like that of the risen Christ (Phil. 3:21).”105
Time spent in prayer is also essential for the faithful believer (cf. Dan. 9:3). King David expressed it so well: “Seek the LORD and the strength he gives! Seek his presence (lit., face) continually” (1 Chr. 16:11; cf. Ps 105:4). One should not pray just in difficult times (Pss. 34:4; 69:17). Rather, it remains always true that “the prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness” (Jas. 5:16). Prayer is often the key to the perplexities of life: “Many say, ‘Who can show us anything good?’ Smile upon us (lit., make the light of your face rest upon us) LORD” (Ps. 4:6). David’s prayer is reflected elsewhere in the sixty-seventh psalm: “May God show us his favor and bless us! May he smile upon us! (Selah) Then those living on earth will know what you are like; all nations will know how you deliver your people” (Ps.67:1-2).
In another setting David expresses his heart’s desire for God and his longing for fellowship with his Lord. Thus he prays,
Hear me, O LORD, when I cry out!
Have mercy on me and answer me!
My heart tells me to pray to you (lit., seek his face),
and I do pray to you, O LORD (lit., your face, LORD, I will seek).
Do not reject me (lit., hide your face from me)!
Do not push your servant away in anger!
You are my deliverer!
Do not forsake or abandon me,
O God who vindicates me. (Ps. 27:7-9)
Here as in several places in the Scriptures we have an example of the well-known call- answer motif. Taken together calling and answering become woven into a standard motif to express close fellowship and intimate communion, especially in times of great distress (Pss. 17:6-12; 81:6-7; 102:1-2; 138:8). God’s availability to the believer is not just for seasons of difficulty. The great Creator and Controller of this world invites you and me to receive instruction and guidance from Him for our daily lives. “I say to you, ‘Call on me in prayer and I will answer you. I will show you great and mysterious things which you do not know about” (Jer. 33:2-3). And not only for this life, but the call-answer motif assures God’s servant that at death his communion with God will go right on in all fullness of fellowship (Job 14:14-15; cf. Ps. 73:23-26).
The combination of prayer and the Word of God thus commends itself for godly living and communion with the Lord. What must be avoided is prayer that is made on the basis of one’s own selfish interest rather than in accordance with the mind of the Lord.106 The hymn writer expresses it well: “Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord; abide in him always, and feed on his Word.”107
As believers live out their lives in God’s presence (before his face), they must, as does he, be careful not to show partiality or favoritism. This standard was true for Old Testament believers (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 10:16-19). It is not less true for today’s believers, whether in the socio-economic world (Eph. 6:9) or in the church. There will always be those who love to have special prominence (3 Jn. 9) but the Bible reminds us that such ought not to be the case: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism” (Jas. 2:1).
Remembering that God shows no partiality, Peter challenges the believer to live in reverential fear before him (1 Pet. 1:17). Indeed, as did Jesus (Lk. 9:51), believers must “set their faces” resolutely determined to fulfill God’s appointed task for them. And such can prove to be a joyous task. To be sure, “To behold the face of God is in itself impossible to mortals without dying. But when God reveals Himself in love, then He makes His countenance bearable to the creature. And to enjoy this vision of God softened by love is the highest honour God in His mercy can confer on a man; it is the blessedness itself that is reserved for the upright.”108
Meanwhile, each believer needs to keep reminding himself that because of God’s daily blessings, his life is to be one that is satisfying and pleasing to God, as well as a testimony to the world. Paul speaks of us as being in Christ’s “triumphal procession” (2 Cor. 2:14). “For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing—to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former, a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Not only in sharing the knowledge of Christ but the Christian has the privilege of helping to support those whose special mission is to take the Gospel to all quarters of the earth (Phil. 4:18). Above all, the believer’s life is to be an exemplary one. Properly applied, Job’s declaration should be ours: “While my spirit is still in me, and the breath from God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness and my tongue will whisper no deceit” (Job 27:3-4). May we make the prayer of the hymn writer ours:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
… … … … … … … … .
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Till all this earthly part of me,
Glows with Thy fire divine.109
“The Upright Will Experience His Favor (lit., See His Face”, Ps. 11:7)
Face, nose, nostrils—what can they tell us concerning God and our relation to him? What possible importance can images such as these have upon the realities of everyday living before “the face of God?” Quite a good deal! Let us remind ourselves first of all of some of the information we have gathered from our study of God’s face.
We noted previously that texts in which God is said to have a face referred primarily to his personal presence. Whether in passages dealing with a personal theophany or in his providential activities, God’s majesty and power can be felt in each instance. God’s actions were seen to be both positive, consisting principally of comfort and assurance to his people, or negative. The latter cases involve broken fellowship due to man’s sin. Under those circumstances God is said to “hide his face” from his people or bring his judgment. Whether against his own people or the unbelieving world, such situations demonstrate that mankind is to learn that God is no absentee person. Quite the contrary, he is present and sees all that comes to pass in this world, and at times must intervene in accordance with his own holy and just purposes.
We also noted that in some texts God is represented as having a nose. Particularly important were passages that spoke of God’s pleasure concerning the proper sacrifices made to him. Such were said to be “a soothing aroma to the Lord” (Lev. 2:2). This was supremely true of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice for all mankind (Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26-27). The “nose” or “nostrils” of God were also seen at times to indicate God’s displeasure or judgmental power. Such were in evidence at the time of Israel’s passing through the sea (Ex. 15:8). Whether face or nose, these texts assure us of God’s mighty power. Moreover, they stand as reminders that all people live in the presence of the omnipotent God of the universe.
We noted as well that the image of the “face” of God is especially meaningful for believers. It is believers who are sensitive to the fact of God’s presence. That means that because they know that God is a righteous God, they will seek to live upright and faithful lives before him. God’s “face” also reminds believers that God is available in their everyday lives, whether in his self-revelation in the Scriptures or in their daily communion with him in prayer. Further, as united to Christ whose sacrifice was a “pleasing aroma” to God the Father, believers can live lives that are satisfying and acceptable to God—all the while looking forward eagerly to that glorious day when they shall enjoy his blessed presence for all eternity. Augustus M. Toplady expressed it so well:
Lord! It is not life to live,
If Thy presence Thou deny;
Lord! If Thou Thy presence give,
‘Tis no longer death—to die.
Source and Giver of repose,
Singly from Thy smile it flows;
Peace and happiness are Thine,--
Mine they are, if Thou art mine.110
Toplady’s reference to God’s smile reminds us of some of the things a face may do. William Cowper also speaks of God’s face in his well-known hymn: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” Particularly noteworthy in the Bible are three psalmic texts that speak of God laughing. In each case they deal with God’s judicial activity. Thus although the wicked nations and people defy him, and cast insults with their mouths at him, “You, O LORD, laugh in disgust at them; you taunt all the nations” (Ps. 59:8). God can laugh at their wicked insolence and attempts to defy him, for he is in control of the course of earth’s history. They will surely be judged and one day submit to the One whom he has installed as king over all:
The One enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the Lord taunts them.
Then he angrily speaks to them
and terrifies them in his rage, saying,
“I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps. 2:4-6).
And even now their day of reckoning draws ever near: “The Lord laughs in disgust at them (i.e., the wicked), for he knows their day is coming” (Ps. 37:13). What a comfort it is to know that God stands against the wicked but is on the side of the believer (Pss. 27:1-3, 13; 56:9-11).
Indeed, “God is our strong refuge, he is truly our helper in times of trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Moreover, even in time of trouble, “You prepare a feast before me in the plain sight of my enemies” (Ps. 23:5). Truly, all our living is in the very presence of God and calls for worshipful lives. Worship should not be reserved for Sundays, but should be a part of our everyday experience. Such is our privilege and high calling, and our eternal blessedness, for David speaks of our “absolute joy in your presence (lit., face, Ps. 16:11).
The promise of the blessed presence of God is not simply reserved for this life, however. For as David declares elsewhere, “And as for me, because I am innocent, I will see your face; when I awake, you will reveal yourself to me” (Ps. 17:15). David’s present hope as a righteous one was to live in the presence of a righteous God even after death. As Willem VanGemeren suggests, “It seems that the psalmist by inspiration is looking for a greater experience with God that can only be a part of the postresurrection world.”111 Certainly David was confident of fellowship with God after death, for he declares, “So my heart rejoices and I am happy (lit., my tongue rejoices); my life is safe. You will not abandon me to Sheol; you will not allow your faithful follower to see the Pit. You lead me in the path of life; I experience absolute joy in your presence (lit., face); you always give me sure delight” (at your right hand, MT) (Ps. 16:9-11).112
All believers can have that same assurance that David proclaimed (2 Cor. 5:1-9). Some may even be present when the Lord Jesus returns (1 Jn. 3:2-3). May that hope of seeing Christ be lived out by all Christians in righteousness so that they may sing with joyous anticipation the familiar words of the hymn writer, “Face to Face with Christ, My Savior, … Face to face in all his glory, I shall see him by and by.”113
72 The words of this familiar hymn were penned by Carrie Breck and set to music by Grant Tuller. For details, see Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1965), 85-88.
73 John Keats, “When I Have Fears,” cited in Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th ed, eds. John Barlett and Justin Kaplan (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), 417.
74 Stuart Briscoe, The One Year Book of Devotions for Men (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2000), 201.
75 Interestingly, the Canaanite god Baal is called the “Lord of the Surface of the Earth”; see P. Kyle McCarter, “An Amulet from Arslan Tash,” in The Context of Scripture, eds., William W. Hallo, and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., vol. 2, (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 222-23. For the text itself, see H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften , vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1966), 6, #27, lines 14-15.
76 In a similar vein it is probably Utnaphishtim, the Sumerian flood hero and wise man, who observes, “The dragon-fly [leaves] (its) shell that its face might (but) glance at the face of the sun.” See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 92.
77 The author of The Admonitions of Ipuwer complains, “Lo, the face is pale, the bowman ready, crime is everywhere, there is no man of yesterday.” See Miriam Lichtheim, “The Admonitions of Ipuwer,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 151. To be noted also is the Egyptian phrase h£r nb (every face), which commonly means “everyone.”
78 V. P. Hamilton, “Pa„ni„m. Face,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (eds., R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 727.
79 For the idiom to “set the face” as signifying determination, see the next note.
80 One may note the same idiom in an Old Babylonian letter in which a man writes, “When you have set your face to go to Sippar, …”; see F. R. Kraus, Briefe Aus Dem British Museum (Altbabylonische Briefe, Heft II (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), 112, #175, lines 5-6. Scott Layton (“Biblical Hebrew ‘To Set the Face,’ In Light of Akkadian and Ugaritic,” Ugarit-Forschungen 17 : 169) points out that the use of the phrase “to set the face” is so abundantly attested in Akkadian that “an independent treatment would be required to do justice to that phrase.” Layton’s incisive study (pp. 169-81) presents a wide-ranging examination of the phrase, in which he suggests several categories of Old Testament usage including motion towards, looking upon someone/something favorably or unfavorably, and determination. See also the helpful review by A. Leo Oppenheim, “Idiomatic Akkadian,” Journal of the American Society 61 (1941): 256-58.
81 One may also detect a sense of determination here. This same emphasis occurs frequently in the Code of Hammurapi. For example, paragraph 141 reads: “If a married lady who is dwelling in a man’s house sets her face to go out (of doors) and persists in behaving herself foolishly wasting her house (and) belittling her husband, they shall convict her” (etc.). This idiom occurs frequently in other cases involving personal determination as well; see paragraphs 144, 145, 148, 168, 172, and 177. For details, see G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).
82 It is interesting to note that the ancient law codifier Hammurapi calls himself, “The enlightened prince who enlightens the face of Tishpak.” Driver and Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol. 2, 12-13.
83 Donald A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein, et al., vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 175.
84 See E. Ray Clendenen, Malachi in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 459-60. See also Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 108-09.
85 Several Old Testament prophecies may be viewed as fulfilled but not exhausted in their New Testament setting. We follow R. T. France (Jesus and the Old Testament [London: Tyndale, 1971], 162) in calling this type of prophetic fulfillment “fulfillment without consummation.” It should be noted, however, that France (p. 155) treats the prophecy relative to John the Baptist somewhat differently.
86 Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein, et al., vol 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 186.
88 Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 328. See also, Donald A. Leggett, The Levirate and Goel Institutions in the Old Testament (Cherry Hill, N. J.: Mack Publishing Company, 1974).
89 Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 301.
91 Carl Armerding, “Nahum,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. F rank E. Gaebelein; et al., vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 481.
92 See H. Simian-Yofre, “Pānîm,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds., G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Josef Fabry, Vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 594. The list cited above does not exhaust all of the author’s examples.
93 The same thought is conveyed in other ancient cultures. For example, the Egyptian “in the face of” (m h£r) can mean “in the sight of” (or “before”). Thus the man who was contemplating suicide laments, “ Death is before me today like a man’s longing to see his home when he has spent many years in captivity.” See Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1, 168. To be noted also is the Egyptian [r]diÃm h£r n, “give [a command] to the face of,” indicating an order given to an individual. See further Robert O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: University Press, 1962), 174.
94 For Hosea’s use of the events in the life of Jacob, see Richard D. Patterson, “The Old Testament Use of An Archetype: The Trickster,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (1999): 389-92.
95 Victor P. Hamilton, “Pānâ,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, eds., R. Laird Harris, Gleason J. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 727.
96 See Leon Wood, Distressing Days of the Judges (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 207.
97 William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), 42.
99 For details concerning the Greek term involved, see James B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 78-79.
100 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds, “Nose, Nostrils,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1998), 597.
101 John N. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 663) suggests that this is a “vast come-down” for this arrogant Assyrian ruler who assumes that he has accomplished everything according to his own power.
102 Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, III, “Nose, Nostrils,” 597.
104 Charles Hodge (An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.], 72) remarks, “So long as the people were turned from the Lord, the veil was on their heart; they could not understand the Scriptures; as soon as they turn to the Lord, the veil is removed, and all is bright and intelligible.”
105 Millard J. Harris, “2 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, et al., vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 338.
106 See further, Stuart Briscoe, The One Year Book of Devotions for Men (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2000), 252.
107 W. D. Longstaff, “Take Time to Be Holy.”
108 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on The Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 191.
109 Edwin Hatch, “Breathe On Me, Breath of God.”
110 A. M. Toplady, “Lord! It is not Life to Life,” in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, ed., James D. Morrison (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 74.
111 Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein et al., vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 167.
112 At Pentecost the apostle Peter pointed out that David’s hope for immortality lay in the Greater David, the resurrected Christ.
113 Carrie E. Breck, “Face to Face with Christ, My Savior.”
This familiar prophetic declaration (e.g., Isa. 1:20, MT) reflects the fact that the mouth is used figuratively to express various thoughts and activities. Following our examination of the face in chapter four, in this chapter we shall examine several different parts of the face that also occur in well-known figurative expressions. Thus we shall consider the mouth, lips, and tongue as well as activities that take place in relation to them such as speaking and tasting.
Each of these facial features is commonly employed in familiar figurative expressions. For example, many things are said to have a mouth such as a cave or a river where it empties into another body of water. When someone is discouraged, he may say that he is “down in the mouth.” If we say that something that someone has said is a “mouthful,” in any case that this person has pronounced a long word, or a series of words that are difficult to say, or perhaps that he has expressed a valid opinion or needful suggestion. A person who is a “loud mouth,” however is not appreciated for his loud irritating talk. He is liable to be viewed as “mouthy.” Someone who has “mouthed off” has spoken in a disrespectful manner.
The lip likewise appears in figures. It can describe the tip of a problem or an edge of an object. We commonly “smack our lips” to express satisfaction, particularly at the thought of some savory dish. If we “keep a stiff upper lip,” we display courage or steadfastness in the face of danger, pressure, or difficulty. A father who tells his child, “I don’t want ‘any of your lip,’” may be reminding him or her that he will stand for no disobedience or disrespect.
The tongue can describe a language or a distinctive shape, such as a narrow strip of land protruding into water. Shoes are said to have a tongue. The tongue also is used in various matters involving speech. If we “bite our tongue,” we refrain from speaking that which we would like to say. If we “hold our tongue,” we remain quiet, but if we “find our tongue,” we express our opinion. Something that is “on the tip of my tongue,” may indicate that I cannot quite recall that which I wish to say. A “tongue twister” is a phrase that is difficult to say. Someone who is said to speak “with a forked tongue” is understood to speak deceitfully. A person with a “glib tongue” talks in a smooth or flattering manner. If someone speaks that which is “on everyone’s tongue,” he or she may be expressing a prevailing opinion or simply gossiping. The mother who gives her child a severe scolding is said to give him or her a “tongue lashing.”
Relative to the mouth is the matter of taste. If someone has an appetite or desire for something, he or she is said to “have a taste” for it. Someone who has “good taste” has an appreciation for the lovelier or finer things of life, or acts in a decorous manner. The opposite is expressed as acting “in bad taste” or as being “tasteless.” The lady who is dressed “in good taste” does so in a stylish manner or modestly.
One can “have a taste” (or desire) for many things. What pleases a person is “to his taste.” A certain object, activity, or result may be so desirable or anticipated so strongly that the person “can just taste it.” “Just a taste,” however, indicates a small amount of something or a slight experience with something such as a job skill, activity, or condition such as freedom or danger. A person who has “tasted” freedom, however, has experienced it.
Even the teeth appear in contemporary idiomatic speech. Thus the teeth may betray a broad grin or “toothy smile.” A lady can be so beautifully attired that she is “dressed to the teeth.” Well-equipped military forces, which are fully prepared for combat, are “armed to the teeth.” If a speaker “casts something in another’s teeth,” he slanders or insults him, or possibly issues a public reproach. One can stand firm “in the teeth” of a storm, a difficulty, or prevailing opinion. If we are absorbed with a field of interest, we have found something we can “sink our teeth into.”
“My Mouth Is Filled With Your Praise” (Ps. 71:8, MT)
The image of the mouth can occur in a number of settings indicating an opening of some kind. Thus we read of the mouth of a well (Gen. 29:3) and the cave (Josh. 10:18, 27), the Jordan River where it enters the Dead Sea (Josh. 15:5), and the ground as it formed a grave for the sinning Korahites (Num. 16:30-32). Elsewhere the grave is called the pit (Ps. 30:1-3), in the wicked, whose “bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol grave” (i.e., the place of the unbelieving dead; Ps. 141:5-7).114 Still other objects are said to have a mouth: a sword (Gen. 34:26, MT), a sack (Gen. 42:27; 43:12; 44:2, 8), a garment (Job 30:18, MT), and a lion’s den (Dan. 6:17, MT). Even difficult times or situations can be said to have a mouth. Elihu advises Job that “God is wooing you from the jaws (lit., mouth) of distress to a specious place free from restriction (Job 36:16).
“A wise person’s heart makes his speech wise” (lit., makes wise his mouth; Prov. 16:23)
By speaking of various kinds of mouths, the authors of the Scriptures describe the character of the individual involved. The mouth can bring forth empty (Job 35:16) or foolish talk (Prov. 15:2, 14). The author of Proverbs warns of the mouth of fools: “The mouth of a fool is his ruin and his lips are a snare for his life” (Prov. 18:7). Jesus observed that “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person” (Mt. 15:18; cf. Mt. 12:34). Indeed mouths can be corrupt ( or perverse, Prov. 6:12, MT), hence can spew forth perversity (Prov. 4:24; 8:13, MT), lies (Ps. 144:8) or deceit (Zeph. 3:13), and evil (Prov. 15:28). Such mouths are not trustworthy (Ps. 5:6-9, MT). To be watched carefully are those whose “mouths speak with arrogance” (Ps. 17:10, MT; cf. Prov. 14:3, MT) or flattery (Prov. 26:28).
Far different is the case of the righteous, for “the mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just” (Ps. 37:30). Their mouths are free of deceit (Isa. 53:9, MT; cf. 1 Pet. 2:22; Rev.14:5) and perversity (Prov. 10:31, MT). Rather, the righteous person fills his mouth (NET, lips) with God’s Word (Josh. 1:8, MT). Because of this, he is wise and his “heart makes wise his speech (lit., mouth”; Prov. 16:23). “The believer’s speech is characterized by his praise of God. Yahweh’s praise shall continually be in my mouth (Ps. 34:1; cf. 49:3; 51:15; 63:5; 71:15).”115 Therefore, his mouth becomes a veritable fountain of life (Prov. 10:11, MT). Indeed, the believer can truly say, “He placed in my mouth a new song, praise to our God” (Ps. 40:3, MT). Because believers have experienced the goodness of the Lord, they can say with the psalmist, “Our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with a shout” (Ps. 126:2, MT; cf. Job 8:21). By way of contrast, in times of deliverance from trials or personal mistakes they do not open their mouths to claim the credit, for they know that God is “the one who accomplished the deed” (Ps. 39:9).
“I will be with your mouth” (Ex. 4:12)
The mouth can serve as a mighty weapon. “Those who are guilty attempt to pervert justice with their words, they condemn the innocent to death. Those who are innocent can defend and deliver themselves by speaking the truth ([Prov] 12:6; 18:7). Careful attention to one’s speech is therefore a matter of life and death; the fruits of the mouth are either beneficent or deadly.”116 Words from the mouth can serve as evidence (Deut. 19:15, MT; cf. Mt. 18:16) that can trap the one who spoke them (Prov. 6:2, MT).
The mouth can also reflect authority. Thus Pharaoh told Joseph, “You will oversee my household, and all my people will submit to your commands (lit., kiss [you] on your mouth; i.e., “be obedient to your mouth”—LXX). Only I, the king be greater than you” (Gen. 41:40).117 By Pharaoh’s command Joseph was given extensive authority not only to carry out his program for the food supplies of Egypt but also to be virtually second in command in the land of Egypt. The Bible reports that godly men of old served as God’s authoritative spokesmen through whose mouths came marvelous prophetic words. It was such prophets who spoke of Christ’s suffering (Acts 3:18; 4:25) and through him, as David’s heir, the deliverance of God’s people (Lk. 1:69-71) and the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) in the end times.
“I will make war against those people with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16)
Direct conversation is said to be “mouth to mouth,” whether between human individuals (Jer. 32:4, MT; 34:3, MT) or between God and man (Num. 12:8, MT). An area could be so crowded that it was said to be filled “from end to end” (lit., from mouth to mouth; 2 Kings 10:21). Judah’s king Manasseh was so wicked that “he stained Jerusalem with their blood from end to end” (lit., from mouth to mouth; 2 Kings 21:16). To be told to be quiet, however, is “Put your hand over your mouth” (Judg. 18:19; cf. Job 21:5). Out of respect for Job, the chief townspeople at one time refrained from speaking and covered “their mouths with their hands” (Job 29:9). After his ordeal, a repentant Job said to the Lord, “I am completely unworthy—how could I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth to silence myself. I have spoken once, but I cannot answer; twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-5). In like manner the psalmist’s prays to the Lord that he might not speak that which is sinful or evil: “O LORD, place a guard on my mouth. Protect the opening of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
Amazement is sometimes expressed as “laying hands on the mouth” or “shutting the mouth.” Thus Isaiah predicted that because they will misunderstand the extensive suffering and later exaltation of Messiah, they will be astonished and, “Because of him, kings will shut their mouths” (Isa. 52:15, MT). In a still future day when Christ returns in great power and glory, “ Nations will see this and be disappointed by all their strength, they will put their hands over their mouths” (Mic. 7:16). “The miraculous deeds will make such an impression, that the heathen nations who see them will stand ashamed, dumb and deaf with alarm and horror… . Laying the hand upon the mouth is a gesture expressive of reverential silence from astonishment and admiration.”118
God’s speeches to mankind are often recorded as being from “the mouth of the LORD” (e.g., Jer. 23:16, MT).120 The speeches of the prophets, the Lord’s servants, are likewise God’s words. For it is God who put the words in their mouths: “I place my words in your mouth, I cover with the palm of my hand” (Isa. 51:16). Indeed, many prophecies are cited as being God’s. For example, “The splendor of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the LORD (lit., mouth of the LORD) has decreed it” (Isa. 40:5; cf. Isa. 58:14). Because of this, the prophet’s words were authoritative, for they were nothing short of God’s own words: “Turn to me so you can be delivered, all you who live in the earth’s remote regions! For I am God, and I have no peer. I solemnly make this oath—what I say is true and reliable (lit., a word goes out from my mouth [in truth] and will not return)” (Isa. 45:22-23). They were also effective: “I announced events beforehand, I issued the decrees (lit., my mouth announced them) and made the predictions; suddenly I acted and they came to pass” (Isa. 48:3).
Thus God’s commands issue from his mouth (Ex. 17:1-2; Num. 3:16; 33:2; Josh. 19:50; 22:9—all MT) and are to be obeyed lest his judgment come (Isa. 1:19-20, MT). In such cases the mouth of the Lord can be said to be the vehicle of God’s judgment (Job 15:30). Such was the case for disobedient Israel and Judah (2 Kings 24:2-4, MT; cf. 2 Kings 17:7-20). Indeed, God himself pointed out to his people that because their love for him evaporated all too quickly, “Therefore, I will certainly cut you into pieces at the hands of the prophets; I will certainly kill you in fulfillment of my oracles (lit., the words of my mouth); of judgment; for my judgment will come forth like the light of the dawn” (Hos. 6:5). God’s word through his prophets predicts that his judgment will come through his servant the Messiah who will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and order the wicked to be executed (lit., and by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked)” (Isa. 11:4). This servant of the Lord declares, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword” (Isa. 49:2). This One is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ who will overthrow the lawless one, the antichrist with “the breath of his mouth” (2 Thess. 2:8) and whom the apostle John sees coming on a white horse and “from of his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations” (Rev. 19:15).
But God’s mouth is not always associated with his judgments. From his mouth men learn knowledge and wisdom for living, “For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). At times that wisdom comes in the form of wise sayings transferred from one generation to another. Thus the psalmist Asaph pleads with his hearers to hear his words: “I will sing a song that imparts wisdom (lit., I will open with a wise saying my mouth) I will make insightful observations about the past. What we have heard and learned—that which our ancestors have told us—we will not hide from their descendents. We will tell the next generation about the LORD’s praiseworthy acts, about his strength and the amazing things he has done” (Ps. 78:2-4). Matthew sees in these words an analogy to Jesus’ teaching and ministry (Mt. 13:35). Although his teachings might seem obtuse to the masses, “the hidden things, or parables, are the hidden treasure of the kingdom. One finds and gains the kingdom by understanding the parables; but to false disciples, who are ignorant their meaning stays hidden.”121 Yet it is through the mouth of the Lord that knowledge of God’s will (Lev. 24:12) and an understanding of the flow of history are perceived (Jer. 9:12-16, MT).
“ I Will Sing (lit., with my mouth I will make known) Continually About The LORD’s Faithful Deeds” (Ps. 89:1)
Because the words of the mouth of God are authoritative (Isa. 62:2, MT), they provide sustenance and true living (Deut. 8:3; Prov. 30:5-6; Mt. 4:4). Therefore, from the mouth of the wise believer will come learned words of wisdom (Ps. 49:3; Prov. 10:31, MT)—words that contain truth and righteousness (Prov. 8:7-8). The believer’s speech is to be filled not only with wisdom but faithful instruction (Prov. 31:26). Moreover, the believer knows that the words of God’s mouth are to be obeyed (Deut. 30:14-15), remembered (Ps. 105:4-5, MT), and treasured (Ps. 119:72, MT). In that regard Job declares, “I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my allotted portion” (Job 23:12). As a result the godly believer’s speech will gain for him good things rather than ruin (Prov. 13:2-3, MT).
Above all, the believer should spend time with God in prayer (Ps. 54:2, MT) and be ready to share God’s Word (Ex. 13:9; cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). By these he may prove to be a source of help to those who are perishing (Prov. 12:6, MT). The mouth of the believer should be ready to share the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus (Acts 15:7, Grk) in order that those who know him not may confess their sin and accept Christ as Savior and Lord. Thus Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10). In every way, then, the faithful believer should always be ready to share and live out David’s prayer: “May my words (lit., words of my mouth) and my thoughts (lit., the thoughts of my heart) be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my sheltering rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).
“O Lord, Open My Lips” (Ps. 51:15, MT)
The lip figures prominently in the Scriptures as the organ of speech (e.g., Num. 30:12, MT; Deut. 23:23, MT; Job 13:6; 32:20; 33:3). Many types of lips are mentioned in the Bible. There are lips of fools (Prov. 18:6) and of the wise (Prov. 15:7). The lips of the fool contain no knowledge (Prov. 14:7) but those of the wise preserve knowledge (Prov. 5:2).
The lips can be categorized as to whether they are used negatively or positively. To the former category belong lips that are evil (Prov. 17:4,MT), deceitful (Ps. 17:1, MT; Prov. 24:28,MT), lying (Pss. 31:18; 120:2; Prov. 12:22, MT; Isa. 59:3), poisonous (Ps. 140:3; Rom. 3:13), arrogant (Prov. 17:7,MT), and unclean (Isa. 6:5). Such lips can be filled with trouble (Ps. 140:9) and deceitful flattery (Ps. 12:2-3). Particularly to be avoided are those that are filled with evil fervency (Prov. 26:23) such as those of the adulterous (Prov. 5:3).
In the latter category are lips that have been purified (Zeph. 3:9, MT), for they belong to the righteous, those who “know what is pleasing” (Prov. 10:32). Such lips are honest (Prov. 16:13) and truthful (Prov. 12:19). They are filled with graciousness (Ps. 45:2; Eccl. 10:12), great joy (Job 8:21; Ps. 71:23), and praise (Ps. 119:171) and glory to God (Ps. 63:3).
Since there are lips that can be described negatively and positively, it may be expected that the actions that are associated with them share the same qualities. And such indeed proves to be the case. One can sin (Prov. 12:13,MT) or not sin (Job 2:10) with the lips, tell lies (Isa. 59:3), and speak arrogantly (Ps. 13:4), rashly (Num. 30:7, MT; Ps. 106:33, MT), or corruptly (Prov. 4:24). Mocking behavior can be described as “separating with the lip” (Ps. 22:7, MT) and arrogant, sinful talk can be likened to swords, which come from the lips; “Look, they gush forth with their mouth, swords [are] in their lips” (Ps. 59:7, MT). A day will come, however, when the false religionists who seem to be wise will “cover their mouths” (lit., lips) because they receive “no divine oracles” (Mic. 3:7).
The lips can also be a positive influence (Song 4:11). By the proper use of the lips a person may find nourishment both for personal growth (Prov. 18:20) and the good of others (Prov. 10:21, MT). Because his lips are filled with wisdom (Prov. 10:13, MT) and knowledge (Prov. 20:15, MT), he can impart knowledge to others (Prov. 15:7), thus providing proper instruction (Prov. 16:23, MT). It is especially true that rulers should make wise and just decisions (Prov. 16:10, MT).
The lips should thus be those that have confessed sin and therefore found grace in God’s sight. Then a person can offer the fruit of his lips (Hos. 14:2), even praise to the Lord (Ps. 51:15, MT). Such a person will keep wickedness from his lips (Job 27:4) and experience the joys of success through answered prayer (Ps. 21:2, MT).
“He Will Strike The Earth With The Rod Of His Mouth” (Isa. 11:4)
In a few texts God is also said to have lips. Thus Zophar unfairly chides Job as follows: “But if only God would speak, if only he would open his lips against you, and reveal to you the secrets of wisdom--for true wisdom has two sides—so that you would know that God has forgiven some of your sins” (Job 11:5). Because God’s people were unresponsive to his revelation and unfaithful to his teaching, they were to suffer punishment at the hands of a foreign people. Thus Isaiah reports, “For with mocking lips and foreign tongues he [God] will speak to these people” (Isa. 28:11).
When next God appears to Israel, it will be to a repentant and redeemed people. At that time they will rejoice in his coming and the unbelieving nations of this world will be judged so severely that it will resemble a terrible storm:
Look, the name of the LORD comes from a distant place in raging anger (lit., his lips are full of anger) and awesome splendor. He speaks angrily and his word is like destructive fire (lit., his tongue is like consuming fire). His battle cry overwhelms like a flooding river (lit., his breath is like a flooding river) that reaches one’s neck. He shakes the nations in a sieve that isolates the chaff; he puts a bit into the mouth of the nations and leads them to destruction. You will sing as you do in the evening when you are celebrating a festival. You will be happy like one who plays a flute as he goes to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock who shelters Israel (Isa. 30:27-29).
This will happen at the end of earth’s history when God’s servant, the Messiah, will come. As our opening scriptural quote declared, he will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and order (lit., with the breath of his lips, he will slay) the wicked to be executed” (Isa. 11:4).
“My Lips Will Shout For Joy!” (Ps. 71:23)
The thoughtful believer should not only follow the positive courses of wisdom and righteousness mentioned above, but will pray for God’s direction and enablement in his life: “O LORD, place a guard on my mouth! Protect the opening of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). That is because “all the lips in Scripture appear in the context of a righteous God who loves true words and hates false ones, and who evaluates what comes from the lips according to what is in the heart.”122 Believers should be wary of those who would lead them into wickedness (Prov. 5:3) and even be careful to choose wisely (lit., guard the doors of your mouth) the words they employ with those who seem to be close friends (Mic. 7:5).
All of this believers can do if they hold to the standards of God’s Word (Ps. 17:4, MT). Not only should they practice those standards but pass them on to others (Deut. 31:19). Like David of old, believers should find their full satisfaction in glorifying and serving the Lord: “Because experiencing your loyal love is better than life itself, my lips will praise you. … As if with choice meat you satisfy my soul. My mouth (lit. lips) joyfully praises you” (Ps. 63:3, 5). They should live consistent lives before God (Jer. 17:16-17) and like faithful shepherds, live so as to represent the Lord well, rejoicing in his goodness to us in Christ Jesus (Heb. 13:15).
“The Tongue Of The Wise Treats Knowledge Correctly” (Prov. 15:2)
Another prominent feature of the face found in the Bible is the tongue. The chief words for tongue in the Old and New Testaments occur well over one hundred times, often in a figurative sense. The tongue is at times employed in the sense of a language, whether human (e.g., Esth. 1:22, MT; Isa. 28:11; Acts 2:11 (Grk); 10:46; 1 Cor. 14:27; Rev. 10:11 [Grk]) or angelic (1 Cor 13:1). The tongue can also signify a small body of water projecting from a larger one, such as a bay (Josh. 15:2, 5, MT). Thus Isaiah prophesies, “The LORD will divide the gulf (lit., tongue) of the Egyptian Sea; He will wave his hand over the Euphrates River and send a strong wind, he will turn it into seven dried-up streams and enable them [the returning Israelites] to walk across in their sandals” (Isa. 11:15). As he had done in the past (Ex. 14:21-22), so once again in the future the Lord will dry up the waters before the returning exiles of Israel from the lands into which they had been scattered.
The tongue can also be likened to a bar of gold (Josh. 7:21, MT) or the shape of fire (Isa. 5:24, MT). Such occurred on the day of Pentecost when “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on” those gathered together in one place in Jerusalem (Acts 2:3). The fire represented the divine presence (cf. Ex. 3:2-3; 13:21; 24:17; 40:38) and the tongue-like shapes, which separated and fell on those gathered, possibly spoke of the divine message expressed in the many languages of the people represented there. “Fire purifies by consuming the evil… . Here however it is rather the light of divine inspiration. For it appears in the form of tongues and its effect is speech.”123 Like the mouth and the lips, the tongue may be employed in a negative or positive way.
“Their tongues are like deadly arrows; they are always telling lies” (Jer. 9:8)
The tongue can be used for evil purposes (Ps. 34:13). Crafty tongues (Job 15:5, MT) speak for sinful reasons (Ps. 39:1) such as: lying (Ps. 109:2, MT; Prov. 6:17; 12:19, MT; 26:28; Isa. 59:3; Jer. 9:3) and deceit (Pss. 50:19; 52:2; 120:2-3; Mic. 6:12; Zeph. 3:13), perversion (Prov. 10:31, MT) and all sorts of mischief (Ps. 10:7, MT). The tongue can be employed in many unjust ways (Job 6:30, MT) such as slander (Ps. 15:3, MT; Prov. 25:23), and false accusation (Isa. 54:17, MT) or be used unethically such as in flattery (Ps. 5:9; Prov. 28:23) and insolence (Hos. 7:16). Poor behavior is especially prominent in the malicious and hateful gesture of sticking out the tongue (Isa. 57:4), as well as the beguiling speech of the adulterous (Prov. 6:24; cf. Prov. 2:16; 5:3).
A bad tongue can be described as a sharp sword (Ps. 64:3).124 The psalmist complains to the Lord, “I am surrounded by lions; I lie down among those who want to devour me—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are a sharp sword” (Ps. 57:4). The tongue can also serve as a “deadly arrow,” which “speaks with deceit” (Jer. 9:8) or as a stinging whip that brings a hostile accusation (Job 5:21, MT) or be likened to a venomous snake (Ps. 140:3). In all of the above the tongue serves as a source of wickedness (Isa. 59:3). In sum, it may be said, “The tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions… . And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrong doing among the parts of our bodies… . But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:5-8).
“A tongue of healing is a tree of life” (Prov. 15:4, MT)
In stark contrast to its inappropriate or sinful uses the tongue can speak sweetly (Song 4:11). A righteous tongue can be as precious as choice silver (Prov. 10:20, MT). It can speak wisely (Prov. 15:2) and with justice (Ps. 37:30, MT). Though it may speak gently, it “can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15; cf. Prov. 15:1). A truly wise person has a tongue that brings healing (Prov. 12:18, MT), and is filled with godly wisdom and faithful instruction (Prov. 31:26). Because of the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness, the tongue can be happy and burst forth into joyful song (Ps. 126:2) founded on genuine hope (Acts 2:26).
Although God’s people will some day bask in the righteousness that God has provided (Isa. 45:23-25), unbelievers will know the agony of everlasting separation from God in a place where the tongue feels as though it is on fire (Lk. 16:24). How important it is, therefore, to know and confess now what every person will surely come to acknowledge; indeed “every tongue” shall “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).
“His Tongue Is Like A Consuming Fire” (Isa. 30:2, MT7)
It is the mouth and lips that are customarily used of God rather than the tongue.125 Nevertheless, as the above citation from Isaiah declares, the future judgment of the nations, however, is said to be accomplished by the awesome power of God and his fiery tongue: “Look, the Name of the LORD comes from a distant place in raging anger and awesome splendor. He speaks angrily (lit., his lips are full of anger) and his word (lit., tongue is like) is a destructive fire” (Isa. 30:27). The tongue here is used metaphorically, likening God’s coming in judgment to that of a terrible storm, which includes heavy wind, cloudbursts, hail, thunder and lightning. As for the imagery of the lips and tongue, J. Oswalt points out, “While it is undoubtedly true that the imagery of thunder and lightning plays a part here, it is also clear that the OT writers considered that the decree of the God who speaks was ultimately the power which held all things together and which could plunge all things into dissolution.”126
At this point we must pause and note that in several biblical passages the mouth, lips, and tongue are used interchangeably or in combination with one another to represent the character, attributes, or actions of the whole person. Thus the combination of tongue and mouth may be noted numerous times. Psalm 126:2 (MT) is typical: “Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with a song of joy.” Likewise, the tongue and lips occur frequently in parallelism. For example, the psalmist prays, “May praise flow freely from my lips, for you teach me your statutes. May my tongue sing about your instructions, for all your commands are just” (Ps. 119:171-72).127 The occurrence of the mouth and lips together is also common enough, as we noted in Psalm 141:3: “O LORD place a guard on my mouth! Protect the opening of my lips.”128
All three organs of speech can be attested in combination together as well. Thus David in his great penitential psalm prays, “ Save me, from the guilt of murder, O God, the God who delivers me! Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your deliverance! O LORD, give me the words (lit., open my lips). Then my mouth will praise you” (Ps. 51:14-15). Here, based upon God’s gracious forgiveness of his past sins, David promises the Lord that he would testify of God’s righteousness. As C. B. Molle observes, the righteousness of God is not just “that tempered by grace and changed into mercy … or that bestowed upon the sinner by grace … but that attribute of God by virtue of which He gives everyone his dues.”129 A. R. Faussett adds, “The ground on which it is righteous that God should forgive the penitent is the atonement and righteousness of Christ, less clearly shadowed forth in the Old Testament but revealed fully in the New Testament.”130
David’s proclamation of God’s righteousness is a sincere one. He emphasizes his total dependence upon God. Although his tongue will sing of God’s righteousness, it is only because God has first opened his lips and enabled his mouth to declare God’s praise. “God acts graciously toward the penitent, and the penitent is enabled to respond.”131 The image of God-enabled praise is thus heightened by the three organs of speech: the loosened tongue, the opened lips, and the words of the mouth, the three together emphasizing that David personally will respond to God’s gracious dealing with him.
Therefore, it is certainly likely that the image of the tongue as well as the mouth and lips, can be felt in God’s communications to mankind in passages where God is portrayed as speaking. The Scriptures often affirm that the revelation contained in them comes ultimately from the Lord: “Thus says the LORD.” The Bible records that God , whether the Father, the Spirit, or the risen Christ often spoke to various ones; for example, to Abraham (Gen. 12:1; Lk. 1:55), to Moses (Ex. 6:2; 40:1), to Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:13; Lev. 15:1), to Israel (Deut. 5:4, 22), to Joshua (Josh. 1:1), to Samuel (1 Sam. 3:17), to David (1 Kings 5:5) and his prophet Gad (1 Chr. 21:9), to Solomon (1 Kings 11:11), to Hezekiah (2 Chr. 32:24), to Ahaz (Isa. 7:10), and to God’s prophets (Isa. 8:5; Jer. 1:9, 11; Ezek. 3:4; Hos. 1:4; Am. 7:8; Jon. 4:4; Heb. 1:1). God also spoke to Simeon (Lk. 2:25-26), the Lord’s disciples (Mt. 17:5), Paul (Acts 9:4-6), Peter (Acts 10:19), and to the apostle John (Rev. 1:17-18). At times he spoke through angels (Dan. 9:21-22; Lk. 1:13, 28; Heb. 2:2)
Many sections of the Old Testament record God’s words through his prophets whom he called (Ezek. 2:1) and empowered (Jas. 5:10). Through them he spoke messages of coming judgment (Jer. 46-51), not only against the unbelieving nations (Ezek. 25:3) and cities (Nah. 1:1) but also against his own people Israel (Am. 3:1). He also sent messages of “encouragement and consolation (Isa. 7:7; 10:24; 28:16; 43:1; 44:2; 49:7; 66:12), of restoration and salvation (Isa. 49:8; Jer. 30:18; 31:23; Ezek. 36:33; 37:12, 21; 39:25).”132 Above all, when the Lord is said to be speaking, it is an authoritative message (1 Kings 17:2-4; Isa. 42:9). Such is often delivered with great power as at the creation (Gen. 1:3) but at other times in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:12).
It has been calculated that the formula “and God said” appears 3808 times in the Old Testament alone. Such repetition gives the readers of the Bible assurance that the Scriptures are indeed the words that God has revealed through chosen human authors. Whether by mouth, lips, or tongue, the Lord has spoken! And as Jesus affirmed, God’s Word provides a life changing opportunity (Jn. 6:63). Indeed “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
“My Tongue Will Also Tell About Your Justice” (Ps. 71:24)
Of all people, believers must be those who have learned to control their tongues (Jas. 1:26; 3:9-10). They are to be those who keep their tongues “from evil” and their “lips from uttering deceit” (1 Pet. 3:10). The person whose tongue is filled with God’s Word (2 Sam. 23:2) and lives in close communion with the Lord will know how to speak wisely (Prov. 16:1). The believer will realize that speaking “recklessly is like the thrusts of a sword, but the words (lit., tongue) of the wise bring(s) healing” (Prov. 12:18). The proper use of the tongue can provide a life-changing experience for those to whom its words are addressed (Prov. 15:4, MT) but a tongue that speaks empty words is devoid of genuine sincerity and love, and is of little value. Therefore, “Let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18).
If, then, we have “tasted” that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8) and know that his authoritative and effective Word (Isa. 55:11) is “sweeter in my mouth than honey” (Ps. 119:103), we can be sure that we can find spiritual nourishment and direction for life in it (1 Pet. 2:1-3). Further, because we know that Jesus Christ has tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9) and that having believed on him we shall never taste death (Jn. 8:51), our lives need not be tasteless (Mt. 5:13). Because we know that “every tongue will give praise to God” (Rom. 14:11) and everyone will stand before God’s judgment seat, we should be concerned to carry the Gospel message to all so that they may confess their sins and receive Christ as Savior (cf. Rom. 10:9-11). Because of who God is and all that he has done, our tongues should be filled with praise to God for his righteousness (Ps. 35:28, MT; 51:14) and with songs of joy (Ps. 126:2, MT). Perhaps we may even be among those who use their tongues to join in that grand heavenly chorus, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
“He Will Yet Fill Your Mouth With Laughter” (Job 8:21)
Bildad’s aphoristic observation to Job is a reminder that mouth, tongue, and lips are often used interchangeably or in combination with one another. For he goes on to say, “And your lips with gladness.” Let us examine further what we have learned concerning the mouth, lips, and tongue. In connection with the scriptural teaching concerning God, we noted that God’s “mouth” appeared prominently in connection with his divine revelation, whether in his own speeches or those of his prophets. From his “life mouth” come words of advice for wise living, including his revealed standards for a godly life. We also noticed that whether by “mouth,” “lip,” or “tongue,” God is seen to pronounce judgment against sin and rebellion. This is felt especially in the pronouncements of God’s judgment that will culminate earth’s history. In connection with the events that accompany that judgment we read of his awesome power and just dealing with mankind. We also saw the interchangeable use of mouth, lips, and tongue in connection with God’s speaking. In all such cases the word of the Lord is authoritative. The cumulative effect of these contexts is to demonstrate that the Holy Bible is the inspired revelation of God. Therefore, its teachings are to be accepted and followed. In passages where God’s “mouth” is featured the believer understands that God’s words are to be obeyed and his standards reflected in his daily living before God.
Whether in man’s initial confession of sin and turning to Christ or in his communion with God, man’s mouth is to be used in such a way as to be pleasing in God’s sight. We recall also that all three of these facial features are associated with speaking. Words of truth, righteousness, and spiritual wisdom should especially come from the believer’s mouth. Likewise, the believer’s lips should be filled with praise and glorification of the Lord, and his tongue should serve positive purposes. The believer must learn to control his tongue, keeping it from evil speech. Rather, his tongue should be exercised with matters such as confession of sin and praise to the Lord. The word of God and the Gospel message should also find their place on the believer’s tongue. Like David of old, his tongue should sing of God’s saving work and with open lips his mouth should declare God’s praise (Ps. 51:14-15, cf. MT).
As believers who live out our lives faithfully before the Lord, may we keep our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit (1 Pet. 3:10). For God knows our innermost motives and thoughts (Prov. 16:1-3) and is aware of what a person says and intends to communicate, even as the psalmists declares, “You know when I sit down and when I get up; even from far away you understand my motives. … Certainly my tongue does not frame a word without you, O LORD, being thoroughly aware of it” (Ps. 139:2, 4). May we, therefore, speak always with the realization that whatever we say, we speak in the presence of God (2 Cor. 2:17). As an interesting aside, it may be recalled that in instructing drama players how to speak and act properly before the king, (Hamlet, 3:2:1) tells them, “Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue.” Thus they were instructed to speak easily yet humbly in the king’s presence. Believers are reminded that, in a far greater way, we speak and conduct our lives before the King of kings. May our speech therefore always be with grace (Col. 4:6), accompanied by words that are beyond reproach (Tit. 2:8). Let us always say that which is true (Eph. 4:25) and in harmony with sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1)—and always in love (Eph. 4:15). As we gather together from time to time in Christian fellowship may we be careful to follow Paul’s admonition to speak “to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19; cf. Col. 3:16-17).
Indeed, believers can and should sing praises to the Lord (Ps. 92:1) for all his wonderful acts (1 Chr. 16:9; Pss. 92:4; 138:1). For by his great might and strength (Pss. 21:13; 81:1) he has given his people victory over their enemies (Ex. 15:1, 21; Ps. 20:5). Therefore, his name is to be exalted, honored, and praised (Pss 61:8; 68:4) because he has vindicated and redeemed his own (2 Sam. 22:50; cf. Rom. 15:9).
Accordingly, all believers everywhere can sing a new song (Pss. 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1; Isa. 42:10).133 They can rejoice with thanksgiving (Pss. 28:7; 30:12) and sing joyfully (Pss. 71:23; 132:9), whether in the assembly (Pss. 22:22; 100:2; 107:22) or individually (Ps. 63:5). They can tell of his love in the morning (Ps. 59:16). Throughout the day they may sing of his goodness (Pss. 13:6; 135:3), faithfulness (Ps. 89:1), and saving righteousness (Pss. 7:17; 51:14). Even at night God’s great salvation will often be remembered (Ps. 149:5; cf. Ps. 63:7). Believers are to sing praises from their whole soul (1 Cor. 14:15). Not only for that God has done but for who he is, believers should go on singing the Lord’s praises and remain ever close to him (Ps. 63:5-8). May the psalmist’s heartfelt declaration be ours:
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I exist (Ps. 104:33).
Above all, may we be quick to share the word of God with courage (Phil. 1:14), ever ready to “give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). May we always be ready in bold witness for the Lord to spread the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 6:19). As we consider the various aspects and features of the face, let us follow the psalmist’s admonition:
Give thanks to the LORD! Call on his name!
Make known his accomplishments among the nations!
Sing to him! Make music to him!
Tell about all his miraculous deeds!
Boast about his holy name!
Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
Seek the LORD and the strength he gives!
Seek his presence (lit., face) continually! (Ps. 105:1-4).
As we sing the following familiar words to the hymn penned so long ago by Frances Havergal, may we do so from the heart: “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak in living echoes of Thy tone; As Thou hast sought, so let me seek Thy erring children lost and lone.”134
114 For Sheol as the grave as well as the abode of the unrighteous dead, see Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University Press, 1963), 171-91.
115 John A. Thompson and Elmer A. Martens, “Peh,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis , ed. Willem A. VanGemeren; vol. 3,.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 583.
116 F. Garcia-López, “Peh,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds., G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Fabry , vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 501.
117 The Egyptian term would be h£ry-tp n t` r d£r.f, “chief over the entire land.”
118 C. F. Keil, “The Twelve Minor Prophets,” in Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament, vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954, 513-14.
119 See further the NET text note.
120 The people of the ancient Near East commonly conceived of the gods in very human terms including having a mouth. In ancient Egypt the priests performed a daily ritual called the opening of the mouth ceremony by which the god was enabled (magically, spiritually) to partake of the food offerings set before him. See George Posener, A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization (London: Methuen, 1962), 196; S. Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 78-90. In ancient Mesopotamia the god Illil could be invoked to open his mouth and bring judgment to an offending party. See G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 100, 101. In ancient Ugarit the death god Mot is said to have a mouth as well as lips, tongue and jaws. See James B. Pritchard, , Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton: University Press, 1969), 138.
121 Robert H. Gundry, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 270.
122 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, eds., “Lips,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 515.
123 Richard B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles, 14th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1951), 19.
124 It is of interest to note that the tongue and sword occur together in the well-known Hadad Inscription. There the assumed author, one Panamuwa, the king of Ya`udi boasts: “I cut off war and slander (lit., sword and tongue) from the house of my father.” See K. Lawson Younger, Jr., ed., “The Hadad Inscription,” in The Context of Scripture, vol.3 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 156. For the full text of the inscription and the commentary, see H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäsche und Aramäische Inschriften vol .1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1966), 309-11; see also vol. 2, 214-23.
125 In the Egyptian Memphite Theology the god Ptah£ was considered the head of the Ennead (or nine gods) and was considered to be the tongue of the other eight gods. “It is Ptah, the very great, who has given [life] to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue.” See Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 54.
126 Johm N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 566.
127 See further, Mitchell Dahood, “ Ugaritic-Hebrew Parallel Pairs,” in Ras Shamra Parallels, ed. Loren R. Fisher, vol.1 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1972), 368.
128 Note also the wise counsel in this Akkadian admonition: “Let your mouth be controlled and your speech guarded; Therein is a man’s wealth—let your lips be very precious.” See Walter G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 101.
129 C. B. Molle, “The Psalms,” in Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, reprint edition, 1971), 327.
130 A. R. Faussett, Job-Isaiah in A Commentary Critical Experimental and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint edition, 1948), 214.
131 Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 201.
132 Jerome A. Lund, “`mr” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, ed., Willem A. VanGemeren, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 445.
134 Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak.”
The figurative use of eyes (e.g., little one, daughter of an eye; Ps. 17:8, MT) is evident in the picture of the eyes of the glorified Jesus Christ that begins the book of Revelation, for “his eyes were like a fiery flame” in the midst of the lampstands (Rev. 1:14). Eyes and sight are frequently used in figures of speech throughout the Bible and in our everyday lives, indicating how we perceive God. When our attention is attracted to something remarkable, we call it “eye-catching,” or an “eye-opener.” When we watch something carefully, we are said to “keep our eye on the ball,” or are asked to “keep our eyes peeled” for the object we seek. When a person is skilled at a task, he is said to “have an eye for” it, as when an interior decorator “has an eye for color.” In the Bible the eye is the organ of perception, and perception involves more than physical sight.
Eyes and sight are often used figuratively to indicate understanding or ignorance. When we understand a point that a teacher makes, we say, “Oh, I see now.” When we do not plan ahead, we are said to be “short-sighted,” or conversely when we do plan strategically, we are “far-sighted.” When we ignore an action, we “turn a blind eye” toward it, and when we disapprove of an action, we “take a dim view of” it. When we supervise a project, we take “oversight” of it.
Eyes and mental understanding are frequently associated in the Bible and in secular literatures—along with light (knowledge) and dark (ignorance). The blind poet John Milton asked God to “shine [his light] inward and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate” so that he might have the wisdom to write his great poem, Paradise Lost (3. 52-53).135 In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark tale of life in Puritan New England, “Young Goodman Brown,” darkness is associated with evil. The newlywed Young Goodman Brown ventures into the “deep dusk in the forest” to meet with the devil in the darkest part of the woods.136 Likewise in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, sin is concealed by the night until finally in the bright light of day the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale (note the “darkness” of sin suggested by the name), confesses his sin in public before everyone. So it is with J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings; the evil Sauron is surrounded by thick darkness. And when the prophet Isaiah speaks of the time when the Lord will reveal Messiah to them, he writes, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2). In all these instances, knowledge and wisdom are associated with sight, ignorance and sin with darkness.
Eyes find their way into our descriptions of objects and natural phenomena as well. When we track a hurricane, we send meteorologists into the “eye of the storm,” the calm center around which the winds swirl. When we thread a needle to sew, we thread it through the “eye of the needle.” Potatoes have “eyes” which can be planted, and one of the fine cuts of beef is known as the “eye of round.” We have a pair of teeth we call the “eyeteeth.” And when we speak to someone face-to-face, we do so “eyeball-to-eyeball.” When C. S. Lewis talked about reading literature, he said reading allows us to see with others’ eyes.137 We “see” eyes everywhere, as it were, and that is not surprising, for the physical eye is arguably one of the two most important sense organs, along with the ear, we possess.
In addition to the many references to the eye as a physical organ, many texts reveal that the eye played a prominent role figuratively in Egyptian religion and mythology. “Eye” became a metaphor for the sun, which was the formal cause of creation. It was for the sun that space was created ant Atum, the sun god, gave birth to the other most ancient deities.
In time Re replaced Atum as the active sun god in Egyptian mythology. Then the sun itself was termed the “Eye of Re,” while the moon was called the “Eye of Horus” (great heroic falcon god). Egypt itself was called the “Eye of Re” and by his two eyes Re illuminated the entire land. The Eye of Re’s judgment was also against his enemies.138
In human affairs the term “every eye” (irt nb) meant everyone.139 In the political realm the epithet “eyes of the King of Upper Egypt” could sever as an honorific title of high officials.140 In a well-known poem a lovesick youth cries, “When (I) see her, then (I) am well. If she opens her eye, my body is young (again).”141 In yet another poem he praises his love with these words: “She casts the noose on me with her hair, She captures me with her eye.”142 In the business realm an honest measure was known as “the eye of Re”: “Beware of disguising the measure so as to falsify its fractions…Measure according to its true size…The bushel is the Eye of Re.”143
In the language and culture of ancient Mesopotamia a “bright eye” indicated a happy face, while a “sharp eye” indicated intelligence. An “evil eye,” however, could denote anger or the intention to do harm. Thus both pleasure and displeasure could be expressed by the eye. “Someone who has won favor is described as… ‘pleasing to the eye of PN.’ Goodwill and the like are indicated by the expression…’raising of the eyes.’”144 A very brief time could be called “the twinkling of an eye.”145 Idiomatic expressions employing the eye include watching (“keeping an eye”) on someone and the indication of knowledge: “I did not do anything without the knowledge (lit., in the eye) of my lord.”146
In the mythology associated with Mesopotamian religious beliefs Marduk defeated the sea goddess Tiamat and afterwards, “He [Marduk] made the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow from her [Tiamat’s] eyes.”147 The moon god Sin was termed “the Eye of Heaven and Earth.” Despite their frightening appearance, the gods could nonetheless extend a kindly eye toward some people: “The kindly eyes of the god will eeek out the man again and again.”148
In the language and culture of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit the eye served in familiar idioms. In the well-known Aqhat Epic the noble Dan’el the Rephaite “judged the cases of widows, presided over orphans’ hearing. Then he raised his eyes and looked: a thousand fields, ten thousand acres at each step, he saw Kothar coming, he saw Hasis approaching.”149 “Between the eyes” indicated the forehead. Thus in his victory over the sea god Yamm Baal whirled his club in his hand and letting it go, it “struck Prince Sea on the skull, Judge River between the eyes.”150
“One Thing I Do Know, That Although I Was Blind Now I Can See (Jn. 9:25).
“Every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7).
The first instance of the eye in Scripture is simply as a physical organ, the organ of sight. When Job laments his condition to his friends, he says, “My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow” (Job 17:7). The eye here reflects the oppression that the body feels. Likewise, Jeremiah laments the fact that Judah will not listen to the warning from God and heed the judgment to come. “I will weep bitterly,” Jeremiah says, “and my eyes will overflow with tears because you, the LORD’s flock, will be carried into exile” (Jer. 13:17). In Job’s case, the dim eye reflects the physical suffering, and in Jeremiah’s situation, the tears signal the spiritual sorrow the prophet has over stiff-necked Judah’s rejection of God’s grace. When the psalmist considers the evil and arrogance of those who will not bow to God, he speaks literally of their eyes bulging with fat (Ps. 73:7.151 For the writer of Proverbs, a mischievous person “winks” with his eyes, causing harm to others (Prov. 10:10). Conversely, those who call out to the Lord for help remain awake at night, with their eyes open (Ps. 77:4). Finally, when Christ returns, “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7). Even in his despair, Job knew that he would see his Redeemer at the end of time, “whom my own eyes will behold, and not another” (Job 19:27). The certainty of Christ’s return is attested to by everyone’s seeing him with the eyes of their resurrected bodies. These, and many other such references in Scripture, begin with the eye as the organ of physical sight, but they often are extended to express the moral or spiritual attitudes of those they describe.
“Why do you seek the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own?” (Mt. 7:3)
Often in Scripture, eyes indicate people’s character. Included in these uses are personality traits people possess, as well as their moral condition. As we might expect, the book of Proverbs comments frequently on the character of godly and ungodly people alike. It is the charitable eye of the generous man that indicates his liberality (Prov. 22:9).152 On the other hand, it is the miserly eye of the stingy man that describes his parsimony (Prov. 23:6).153 For the Hebrew, the eye indicates the character of the man—in this case, either his generosity or his stinginess. The humble man who is brought low is described in the book of Job as having downcast eyes (Job 22:29).154 In contrast, the arrogance of the proud man is portrayed in his “haughty eyes” (Prov. 6:17).155 Like the tax collector in the Gospel (Lk. 18:13), the humble man acknowledges his humility by looking down toward the ground, while the proud man lifts his eyes up in arrogance. Indeed, the day will come when the proud will be brought low. Isaiah states that “the proud men will be brought low (lit., the eyes of the pride of man will be brought low), arrogant men will be humiliated” (Isa. 2:11),156 and the psalmist asks that he not have “haughty” eyes (Ps. 131:1). Finally, the lustful women of Zion are said to “flirt…with their eyes” (Isa. 3:16), while Job in contrast declares, “I made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I look lustfully at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). Indeed, Christ teaches that adultery rests in the lustful look even before the act is committed (Mt. 5:27). In the Scriptures it is often in the eyes that the character is expressed.
A significant part of a person’s character is his moral condition,157 and in Scripture the eye often expresses the moral attitudes of a man. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ uses the eye—whether it is full of light or darkness—as the symbol of the moral quality of a man’s heart (Mt. 5:23-24). In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis compares even our feeble attempts at virtue to light and our “indulgence” in sin to “fog.”158 And in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, Marlow travels up the Congo River to find himself and, when he does, he sees that his heart is evil—a “heart of darkness” within, a heart that no civilized customs can finally sugarcoat or conceal. In our moral lives, we either serve God (light) or Satan (darkness).159
When Christ speaks of hypocrisy and lack of forgiveness, he references the eye again in a classic hyperbole from the gospels, “Why do see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own?”(Mt. 7.3) Peter speaks of false teachers who infiltrate the church as having “eyes full of adultery” (2 Pet. 2:14). The eyes truly are the “windows to the soul” in Scripture, exhibiting the condition of people’s moral character, and Christ often fingers his hearer’s moral condition with the image of the eye.
A final way the Scriptures use eyes is to indicate whether a person is inclined toward God or away from him. When God confirms Joshua as Moses’ successor, he tells Joshua, “This very day I will begin to honor you before (lit., in the eyes of) all Israel so they will know I am with you just as I was with Moses” (Josh. 3:7). In effect, God aligns the spiritual attitudes of the Israelites with his own approbation of Joshua and his anointing of him for his role as leader of God’s people into the Promised Land. Jeremiah uses the eye to confront God’s people when they refuse to respond to the Lord’s gracious invitations; Jeremiah indicts them as people “who have eyes but do not discern” (Jer. 5:21). They choose not to respond to God. In the gospels, Christ meets the spiritual needs of people, sometimes accompanying the spiritual healing by restoring sight to the blind—as he does with the two blind men in Matthew’s Gospel.160 We should not be surprised at the association of restored physical sight with spiritual healing, for that is exactly what Christ promised to do early in his ministry in Nazareth (Lk. 4:18).
At times the Scriptures speak of God’s hardening the hearts of people and causing them not to respond favorably toward his grace as their being blinded by God. Immediately after Isaiah sees the Lord “seated on a high, elevated throne” (Isa. 6:1), God tells him, “Make the hearts of these people calloused; make their ears deaf and their eyes blind” (Isa. 6:10). Through his prophet Isaiah God dulls the people’s understanding so that they do not respond to him in faith. “For Isaiah to declare faithfully what he knew to be so would not result in an admission of guilt and a turning to God. Rather, it would bring about a more adamant refusal to recognize need.”161 Later, God speaks to Isaiah of his people choosing of their own free will not to respond. “They do not comprehend or understand,” God declares, “for their eyes are blind and cannot see; their minds do not discern” (Isa. 44:18). The blind eye in these cases refers to the spiritually-dead person who will not respond to God in faith and gratitude.
On the other hand, God often prompts his people to respond to him in faith. In the dramatic story of Balaam and his donkey, “the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand…” (Num. 22:31). Likewise, the Lord opens Elisha’s servant’s eyes so that he might see the “chariots of fire” all around him, protecting them from the enemy (2 Kings 6:17). God’s grace is likened to his opening the eyes of his people so they might see what he is doing for them.
The eyes in Scripture represent variously the character of a person, his moral condition, or his disposition toward or away from God. The writer of Proverbs reminds us, “The ear that hears and the eye that sees—the LORD has made them both” (Prov. 20:12). We are responsible for how we use our eyes—that is, how we live our lives before the Lord.
“Look, the LORD takes notice of (lit., the eye of the LORD [is] toward) his loyal followers, those who wait for him to demonstrate his faithfulness” (Ps. 33:18).
Sometimes eyes are used in reference to God. Of course God does not have physical eyes as a person has. References to God’s “eyes” are used as human images to help us understand something about God. “The use of anthropomorphisms such as ‘the eyes of the LORD’”, Allan Harman writes, “is used [sic] to teach concerning God’s nature in terms that are intelligible to us.”162 In Paradise Lost, John Milton has to find a way to make God the Father “visible” to his readers, and so he presents God as a character in Book 3.
Now had the almighty Father from above,
From the pure empyrean where he sits
High throned above all highth, bent down his eye,
His own works and their works at once to view (3.56-59).
Milton presents God as a king on his throne, looking out over his dominions. He presents him in human form to make him accessible to his readers and to allow him to speak to his son. Because we are not God, then, there are times he needs to be represented to us in human terms. Harman goes on to state, “They [that is, the human images of God] are intended to bring God close to human beings in the fullness of his personal revelation.”163 Because God is so entirely unapproachable apart from his self-revelation to us, the writers of Scripture speak of him as having human characteristics to help us understand something about him. Anthropomorphisms are used so frequently in Scripture, in fact, that they account for one-quarter of all the references to eyes in the Old Testament.164 What then do the “eyes” of God teach us about him?
“Does the one who forms the human eye not see?” (Ps. 94:9)
The eyes of God teach us first that he is omniscient. In a rhetorical question, the psalmist asks if the one who created everything understands everything. “Does the one who makes the human ear not hear?” the writer asks, “Does the one who forms the human eye not see?” (Ps. 94:9) Of course he sees; he sees everything. It is not just things that exist at the present time that God knows about, however, for he knows about everything everywhere without regard to time. Take for instance the fact that God knew us when we were in our mother’s womb. “Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb,” the psalmist declares. He even knows the day of our death before we are born: “All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence” (Ps. 139:16). He knows our beginning and our ending. God’s “sight” then is not limited by time or place; he “sees” everything. Of course such omniscience is necessary if he is sovereign, and it is likewise essential for him if he is to know us in Christ before the worlds began, as indeed he does (Eph. 1:4). God sees all physical things—things which were, which are, and which are yet to be.
God’s omniscience extends beyond seeing mere physical presence, however. God’s sight includes knowledge of the inner thoughts and motives of all people. He knows the nations, for instance, and foresees their plans; he does not allow the “stubborn rebels” to “exalt themselves” against him (Ps. 66:7). God superintends international affairs in his sovereignty, “watching” the nations throughout history. Likewise, he turns the king’s heart in the way he wishes, thereby effecting his sovereign will in international affairs (Prov. 21:1). God’s eyes on the nations lead him to judge them and even affect and control their decisions.
As he knows the nations, so God knows individual people. God knows their innermost thoughts. “The eyes of the LORD guard knowledge,” the writer of Proverbs states (Prov. 22:12), and he sees if there are any offensive or evil thoughts in us (Ps. 139:24). In these illustrations, God’s eyes represent his righteous judgment of sinful people and nations; his eyes represent his pure justice in the affairs of men. The adulterer is foolish if he thinks God does not see him (Job 24:15), but the righteous enjoy God’s sight, for “Look, the LORD takes notice of (lit., the eye of the LORD [is] toward) his loyal followers, those who wait for him to demonstrate his faithfulness” (Ps. 33:18). In fact, all living things—whether they know it or not—look to God for their needs to be satisfied: “Everything looks to you in anticipation, and you provide them with food on a regular basis,” the psalmist declares (Ps. 145:15). God’s providential care of all people is signified by his eye watching over them.
When it comes to discerning evil, it is God’s omniscient eyes that search it out. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,” the writer of Proverbs states, “keeping watch on those who are evil and those who are good” (Prov. 15:3). God distinguishes between right and wrong, and in his sovereign wisdom leads both evil and good people for his purposes. From the beginning he knows the evil of his people. When he warns them not to turn to idols, he states, “After you have produced children and grandchildren and have been in the land a long time, if you become corrupt and make an image of any kind and do other evil things before the LORD your God (lit., in the eyes of the LORD)..., you will quickly perish from the land” (Deut. 4:25). God searches out the evil of his people for their own good—that they may prosper in the Promised Land and enjoy his eternal blessings. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah telling his people to “remove [their] sinful deeds from [his] sight” (Isa. 1:16). It is his eyes that discern the evil and warn his people against it; he does not wish so much as to look on their sin. When God wishes to bless his people and forgive their sins, however, he promises that their past sins will be “hidden from [his] eyes” (Isa. 65:16, MT)—in other words, forgotten entirely. Forgiveness is as if God cannot see the sins of his people; he removes his people’s sins from before his eyes and “sees” them no more.
God’s omniscience is associated with his eyes in the descriptions that Zechariah and John use to symbolize the glorious Lord, especially in his office as redeemer. When the Lord graciously cleanses Joshua to serve as high priest, he announces, “‘As for the stone I have set before Joshua – on the one stone there are seven eyes. I am about to engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord who rules over all, ‘to the effect that I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day’” (Zech. 3:9). The stone with seven eyes symbolizes God’s future promise of forgiving grace in Jesus Christ. At the end of history, in the Apocalypse, John writes of a vision in which he sees the reigning Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (Rev. 5:6-7).165 The Lamb symbolizes the victorious Christ who died for his people’s sins and now reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. It is the eyes of these images that, among other attributes of God, underscore his omniscience. He “sees” all of history, all time, every event, individual human hearts, and he brings them all to the glorious foreordained conclusion. Nothing is hidden from his sight (Job 24:1; 1 Cor. 4:5).
“This is an easy task for (lit., in the eyes of) the Lord” (2 Kings 3:18a).
It is not just God’s omniscience that is indicated in God’s eyes in Scripture; his omnipotence is sometimes imaged in eyes as well. When God chooses the people of Israel out of the world’s nations, he finds them in “a desolate land, in an empty wasteland where animals howl” and “He continually guarded him [Jacob] and taught him; he continually protected him like the pupil (lit., little man) of his eye” (Deut. 32:10). Seen against the setting and background of the desert and wasteland, the picture of Israel as the apple of God’s eye shows how gracious his provision for and protection of his people are. The psalmist reminds us, “The LORD pays attention to (lit., the eyes of the LORD are toward) the godly, and hears their cry for help” (Ps. 34:15; also quoted in 1 Pet. 3:12). God’s omnipotent care for his people and protection of them from their enemies are shown in his eye watching them. The writer of the Chronicles wants us to know that God’s protection of his people is not merely passive guarding, but actively searching. “Certainly the LORD watches the whole earth carefully,” the writer asserts, “and is ready to strengthen those who are devoted to him” (2 Chr. 16:9). The Lord seeks out his people and protects them wherever they are. He withholds rain from Moab, yet the valleys are full of water and rain. “This is an easy task for (lit., in the eyes of]) the LORD,” the writer states, “he will also hand Moab over to you” (2 Kings 3:18). God’s power extends to all things. If miracles are no problem for the Lord, how can our concerns ever cause him difficulty? It is comforting that God’s omnipotent eye watches over his people.
“The LORD pays attention to (lit., the eyes of the LORD are toward) the godly and hears their cry for help” (Ps. 34:15).
The last figurative use of God’s eye we will consider is its expression of his unfailing love (hesed) for his children. God cares for all his people with the special love of redemption and fatherhood. Called variously God’s “mercy” (KJV), his “unfailing love” (NIV, HCSB), “lovingkindness” (NASB), or his “steadfast love” (ESV), all these terms relate to God’s hesed, or covenant, love for his people. In promising the land of Canaan to his ancient people, God speaks of “a land the LORD your God looks after. He is constantly attentive to it (lit., the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it) from the beginning to the end of the year” (Deut. 11:12). God shows his favor toward his people Israel in the image of his continually watching over the land of promise for them, even before they arrive to inhabit it. He prepares the land for them, allows pagan nations to tend it so that it is not wild when the Israelites arrive to settle it, and fills it with milk and honey for when they do arrive. Inherent in these acts of God’s kindness toward his people is his sovereignty over those nations already living in the Promised Land, for he ultimately disinherits them from the land and settles the Israelites in their places. It takes God’s sovereignty over other nations to secure Canaan for his people—so powerful and purposeful is his hesed love.
The image of God’s eye of unfailing love toward his people Israel is often focused in his blessings on King David. When David’s men trap the sleeping King Saul in the cave and David spares Saul’s life, he says to Saul, “In the same way that I valued your life this day, may the LORD value my life and deliver me from all danger” (1 Sam. 26:24).166 The fact that David extends mercy to Saul reflects God’s mercy to David and the people of Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and establishing them as his favored people. David plays the godly man, created in the moral image of God, as it were, and shows mercy to Saul.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord condemns Israel as being spiritually obtuse. “Listen, you deaf ones! Take notice, you blind ones! My servant is truly blind, my messenger is truly deaf” (Isa. 42:18-19). The blind eyes and deaf ears symbolize the people’s spiritual apathy, indicating that they have intentionally turned away from God (cf. Rom. 1:18). In gracious response to their spiritual dullness, however, Yahweh (“the LORD”) promises to redeem Israel out of their sin, calling them “precious and special in [his] sight (lit., eyes)” (Isa. 43:4). We still use the idiom of something or someone of value spoken of as esteemed in our eyes today, but how much more significant is this idiom when it represents God’s special love for his people and his willingness to pay to redeem them (Isa. 43:4-9).
The imagery of the eyes is used in Isaiah’s oracle in reference to Israel’s Messiah, the servant of Israel who will “restore Jacob to himself [God], so that Israel might be gathered to him” (Isa. 49:5). In his role as redeemer, the servant-Messiah is “honored in the LORD’s sight (lit., the eyes of the LORD)” (Isa. 49:5). Messiah’s favor in God’s sight assures Israel of their favor with God as well. They too are approved in God’s sight, his chosen people who are the apple of his eye. So favored are they that even the deaths of his saints are precious “in his sight, (lit., in the eyes of the LORD)” (Ps. 116: 15, MT). God watches our birth and death, graciously considering the latter as important in his sight. God’s eye of hesed, covenant love is ever open toward his people because it is ever on their servant-savior, Jesus Christ.
The Lord sets his eye on Israel by establishing them in the Promised Land, driving out the pagan nations before them and settling the Israelites in their place. He watches over King David, through whom he blesses Israel in the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, and through whom Messiah will eventually come. Messiah is spoken of as finding favor in God’s sight, and his favor extends to the people.
A final way God shows his love toward his people is in his sheltering them from physical and spiritual troubles. When King Solomon, David’s son, finishes building the temple for the worship of God, he brings the ark to Jerusalem and places it in the Holy Place (1 Kings 8:1-13). Once the ark is in its position, Solomon dedicates the temple. Part of his prayer of dedication invokes God’s blessing. Solomon uses the image of God’s eyes when he asks for God’s favor to rest upon Israel. “Night and day may you watch over this temple,” Solomon prays (1 Kings 8:29), and again he asks God, “May you be attentive to (lit., may your eyes be open to) your servant’s your people Israel’s requests for help, and may you respond to all their prayers to you” (1 Kings 8:52). God’s hesed—in this case his favor toward the nation of Israel—is represented in the image of his eyes being open to Solomon’s invocation. They are fixed on the ark in the temple and hence on all the people who worship there.
The psalmist expresses God’s compassion for his people in their times of trouble with the image of God looking down upon his people with mercy. No army will save Israel, David warns the people, “Look, the LORD takes notice of (lit., the eye of the LORD [is] toward) his loyal followers, those who wait for him to demonstrate his faithfulness” (Ps. 33:18). Think of the sharp contrast between the frantic military preparations of a nation (vv. 16-17) with the simple declaration that God’s eyes alone are enough to rescue his people from their trouble (v. 18). The antithesis underscores the power of God which is available to help his people in times of trouble. Again the psalmist writes, “The LORD pays attention to (lit., the eyes of the LORD are toward) the godly and hears their cry for help” (Ps. 34:15). In both of these psalms, David rests secure in God’s protection because he “watches” over his people with his eye, and that is enough to protect them against any enemy who might attack.
“Protect Me As You Would The Pupil (lit., little one, [the] daughter of an eye) Of Your Eye” (Ps. 17:8)!
Scriptures use our eyes as indicators of our relationship with the Lord—whether we are believers or not and, if we are believers, whether or not we are living our lives for the Lord. Unbelievers have “undiscerning” eyes toward the Lord and are unable to “see” him (Jer. 5:21). Believers on the other hand have eyes that can “see” God—because he has opened their eyes by grace to understand their need of Jesus Christ as their savior. In his trial before Agrippa, for instance, Paul reports that the Lord sent him to the Gentiles in order to
open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18).
Faith is likened to open eyes, unbelief to blind eyes. The gospel is likened to the light that shines in open eyes, and unbelief to the darkness produced by the power of Satan. Eyes symbolize our spiritual condition before the Lord.
“Proud men (lit., the eyes of the pride of men) will be brought low, arrogant men will be humiliated (lit., the arrogance of men will be brought down)” (Isa. 2:11).
In the Scriptures, eyes can be used to sin or to glorify the Lord. We choose where we look, and where we look indicates the attitude of our hearts. The psalmist, for one, chooses not to be tempted and says so in the image of the eyes: “I will not set before my eyes a worthless thing” (Ps.101:3, MT). Sin is a choice. If we choose to “look” in its direction, we should not be surprised when we succumb to the temptation.
One sin that is often associated with eyesight is the sin of idolatry. A “violent” or disobedient child “oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery” and “prays (lit., lifts up his eyes) to idols” (Ezek. 18:12). An idol is something we set before our eyes rather than the Lord; we “look” to it in sin. Idolatry is the act of misperceiving something else as God. God’s condemnation of Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks of idolatry in terms of eyesight as well. “This is what the Sovereign LORD says,” Ezekiel reports, “You eat meat with the blood still in it, pray (lit., lift up your eyes) to your idols and shed blood. Do you really think you will possess the land?” (Ezek. 33:25) Idolatry is a deliberate sin, a turning of the eyes away from God to something else. There is an irony inherent in the ancient writers using the eyes as an image of idolatry, for the idols themselves cannot see. “Their idols are made of silver and gold,” the psalmist writes, “they are man-made. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see” (Ps. 115:4-5; cf. 135:16). How pathetic that people should “look” to idols, which in turn cannot see.
It is with the eyes that we commit the sin of lust. Christ warns men not to look lustfully after women (Mt. 5:28), but even a woman can fall into the sin of lust, as Potiphar’s wife demonstrates (Gen. 39:7). Lust is not restricted merely to wrongful sexual desire, however; rather, it includes an inordinate desire for anything that is not rightfully ours. Lot, for instance, lusted after the better land when he and Abraham went their separate ways. “Lot looked up,” the writer tells us, “and saw the whole region of the Jordan. He noticed that all of it was well watered…like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, all the way to Zoar” (Gen. 13:10). Lot saw and lusted. On the other hand, Job made a conscious decision not to lust after women (Job 31:1). We are so sinful that our sins continue throughout our days. The wisdom writer observes, “As Death and Destruction are never satisfied, so the eyes of a person are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20). It is as if death is not satisfied until everyone has died; so too our eyes look to sin all the time. John speaks of the “desire of the eyes,” along with “the desire of the flesh” and “the arrogance produced by material possessions,” as the sources of our sin (1 Jn. 2:16). We can choose whether we let our “eyes” look to lust or not.
Perhaps the root sin is pride. As we might expect, Scripture associates pride with our eyes. The wisdom literature and the prophets are full of warnings against pride. “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight, (lit., prudent before their [own] faces)” the woe oracle in Isaiah admonishes (Isa. 5:21, MT). Twice in this warning—eyes and sight—the Lord rebukes the people’s pride. In the Proverbs, personified Wisdom warns against pride: “Do not be wise in your own estimation (lit., in your own eyes); fear the LORD and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7). Being “wise in our own eyes” amounts to pride, for we set ourselves up against others and even God. On the other hand, the psalmist who is preparing to worship the Lord in Jerusalem proclaims, “O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor do I have a haughty look (lit., my eyes are not lifted up)” (Ps. 131:1). He approaches the Jerusalem temple with the proper humility, evidenced in his eyes that are not proud. There is only one who is worthy of being reverenced, and it is not ourselves. “The LORD alone will be exalted in that day,” Isaiah records (Isa. 2:11). C. S. Lewis hated pride, for “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”167 We are to keep our eyes from pride.
“I look up (lit., lift up my eyes) toward the hills. From where does my help come?” (Ps. 121:1)
But sin is not the only application of the eyes in Scripture; they are also used to symbolize the believer who glorifies the Lord. The humble man is known by the way he uses his eyes, as in the case of the tax collector in the gospels who, unlike the self-righteous Pharisee, “stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am’” (Lk. 18:13). The repentant tax collector who knew his sin to be offensive in the sight of God cast his eyes to the ground, signifying his humility and sorrow for his sin. In this instance, humble eyes look down; proud eyes look up, but not to the Lord, and boast. Even in looking up, however, we can show an attitude that glorifies the Lord. When he acknowledges the Lord’s provision of every one of his needs, the psalmist declares, “I look up (lit., lift up my eyes) toward the hills. From where does my help come?” (Ps. 121:1) When we look up to confess our dependence on God, we honor him. Eyes that look up can signify pride (as in the self-righteous Pharisee) or gratitude (as with the psalmist).
A final way the eyes can indicate a life pleasing to the Lord is the believer who, seeing God for who he is, acknowledges his utter worthlessness and yet offers himself a living sacrifice to the Lord. In the temple in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord that transformed his life. He saw God as the holy one, whose glory fills the whole earth (Isa. 6:1-4), and he was overwhelmed with his sin (v. 5). When he saw God as he is, Isaiah worshipped him. Likewise for believers today, we “see” the Father if we have “seen” the Son. Christ said, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (Jn. 14:9). When we see Christ by faith and trust in his finished work at Calvary for our salvation, we are assured that he will never leave us nor forsake us. In the New Jerusalem, there will be no lights to light our way, “because the glory of God lights it up, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23). Then we will literally see the Lord. Faith will have become sight.
“The Person Who Has Seen Me Has Seen The Father!” (John 14:9)
So said Jesus Christ about himself. If we will look to Jesus we will see the Fa
ther. How do we look to Jesus? By faith. When we think about what we have learned about the eyes of God in this chapter, we will see that everywhere we are brought to the point of faith. If we could literally see God with our physical eyes, we would not need faith. Someday we will see him as he is. Horatio G. Spafford captures the Christian’s attitude in the last stanza of his great hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul”:
O Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend
“Even so”—it is well with my soul.168
Until then, however, our eyes look to him in faith while we thank him that it is indeed well with the soul of the one who has trusted Christ as his savior.
What have we learned about God by studying his eyes? We have learned first that God is omniscient—he knows everything. God’s eye looks over the world, as it were, observing everything that goes on at all times. He sees what goes on in the darkness as well as in the light (Ps. 139:11). God’s omniscience is not limited to seeing physical things and people. He sees the internal thoughts of every human being who has ever lived, or is living today, or will live in days to come until the Lord returns. God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7). He knows who we are, and we cannot deceive him by our outward appearance of goodness or even our deliberate hypocrisy. When God looks at the heart, he sees our true moral and spiritual condition, and he knows our sin better than we know it ourselves. How can this be? It is so because sin begins in the heart where only we and God can see. Sin is expressed in our lives when we consent to the sin inside (cf. Matt. 6:28). We are reminded of David’s great psalm of confession (Psalm 51), in which he acknowledges that God looks on the inward man (v. 6) and sees nothing but sin (v. 5). Before we despair, however, we must read the rest of the psalm, for in it David is forgiven. David confesses his sin for what it is—an affront to God himself (v. 4)—and then experiences God’s forgiveness as he is cleansed and washed (v. 7), and given a “new” heart (v. 10) that results in restored joy (v. 12) and a renewed ministry (v. 13). God not only sees our sinful hearts; he provides the remedy for them in Jesus Christ.169 God’s omniscience then is a comforting thing for those who love the Lord and truly repentant for their sin.
God’s eye teaches us secondly that he is omnipotent, or all-powerful. He has created everything that is and he sustains it by the word of his power (Col. 1:17). God’s power in creation should be enough to bring anyone to him in gratitude. It prompted Stuart Hine to write the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!170
But there’s more! The miracles in the Bible give further testimony to God’s omnipotence, for what is a miracle but something that is impossible for us to do, but something that God can do? In the Old Testament, he brought the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, even killing the firstborn in all the houses without blood on the doorposts (Ex. 12:22-23). He parted the waters of the Red Sea, led his people across on dry land, and then drowned the pursuing armies of Pharaoh (Ex. 14:21-29). He fed the multitudes in the wilderness for forty years. In the New Testament, he incarnated his Son in human flesh without a human father (Matt. 1:18-23). Jesus fed the multitudes, healed the sick, and cast out demons. He was transfigured before his disciples (Luke 9:28-36). Finally, he was raised again from the dead. Are these things difficult? No; they are impossible. God alone has such power, and it is often pictured for us in his eye. As the hymn writer puts it, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”171
Thirdly God’s eye teaches that he loves us with an everlasting love. He watched over the ancient Israelites in Egypt and as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During all that time, his eye was always on the land of promise (Deut. 11:12) to preserve and prepare it for his people when they arrived. Ultimately, God’s love for his ancient people Israel is expressed in the fact that Messiah—Jesus Christ—found favor in his sight (Isa. 49:5) and was sent at just the right time (Gal. 4:4). Christians are of course recipients of God’s love in Jesus Christ, for he sent him to pay the price for their sins (Rom. 3:21-26; 10:9-13) and offer eternal life (John 3:16). God watches us with his eye, bringing us to the point where we accept his grace in Jesus Christ. We could have died at any time prior to our conversion, but God in his grace and mercy preserves us until that moment when we trust Christ. Even this protection shows God’s everlasting love for us.
Studying God’s eye leads us to examine our own eyes to see if we are rightly related to God. Unbelievers, atheists and scoffers are blind toward God (Isa. 43:8; Jer. 5:21; Isa. 42:20). With their eyes they practice idolatry (Ezek. 18:12), adultery (Matt. 5:28) and covetousness (Gen. 13:10). Their eyes are full of pride (Isa. 5:21). Perhaps our common expression, “The eyes are the windows of the soul,” is more accurate than we think, for we betray the sin of our hearts by what our eyes look after sinful things. As the child’s song has it, “Oh be careful, little eyes, what you see.” While unbelievers are blind toward God and use their eyes in sinful ways, believers look toward God as the source of their life (Ps. 25:15; 121:1; 141:8). Indeed, it is God who brings us out of darkness and into his light (Acts 26:18). The eyes show the attitude of the heart, whether or not it is inclined toward the Lord. When we understand that we have nothing to offer God (Rom. 3:10-18), we can learn to be humble and, like the penitent tax collector, not so much as lift up our eyes (Lk. 18:13). God sees the attitude of our hearts and, when we are “poor in spirit” (that is, repentant), he will bless us with the “kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
How then do we finally think about our eyes? Ultimately, it is we who will choose which way our eyes will look, whether toward God or toward sin. If we choose sin, we follow the “desire of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) and allow ourselves to look on those things that we ought not to look at. Conversely, we can choose to submit to God. We can look and live (Num. 21:4-9; John 3:14). When Paul reports his conversion to Agrippa, he tells him that Jesus told him that he would send him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18). Salvation is like turning our eyes from our sin (darkness) to God (light). So too as believers, we can worship God when we “see [him] in the sanctuary” and behold his power and glory (Ps. 63:2, MT). When we acknowledge God’s power and glory, we demonstrate godly humility that honors the Lord and attracts others to Christ. The hymn writer asks us the important question:
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.172
How will we choose to use our eyes?
135 John Milton, Paradise Lost (London: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd, 1968), 564.
136 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” in The Novels and Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 1034.
137 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 141.
138 See James P. Allen, “From Coffin Texts Spell 76,” in The Context of Scripture, eds. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 1:37.
139 Robert O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: At the University Press, 1962), 25.
140 See F. J. Stendebach, in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, (eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Fabry, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 29.
141 John A. Wilson, “Love Songs,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd. ed., ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), f469; see also Michael V. Fox, “Papyrus Chester Beatty I,” in The Context of Scripture, vol. 1, 129.
142 Miriam Lichteim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 187.
144 Stendebach, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 30.
145 G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 100, 101.
146 Erica Reiner, Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 1 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1960), 156.
147 Ibid., 154.
148 Ibid., 155.
149 Michael D. Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 35; see also the examples in G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 58, 59; 60, 61.
150 Coogan, Stories, 89.
151 Rendered in the NIV, “From their callous hearts comes iniquity” (Ps. 73:7). Compare “Their eye bulges from fatness” (NASB), “Their eyes swell out through fatness” (ESV), and “Their eyes bulge out from fatness” (HCSB).
152 Lit good of eye. Compare the “bountiful eye” of the KJV and ESV, and the “generous” man of the NASB, NIV, and HCSB.
153 Lit evil eye, as in the KJV.
154 F. J. Stendebach in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds., G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren and H-J Fabry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 11:34. Lit bowed of eyes; compare the “cast down” of KJV and NASB, and the “brought low” of NIV.
155 NIV, NASB, and ESV. Compare the “proud look” of KJV and the “arrogant eyes” of HCSB.
157 Stendebach, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 11: 34, 36.
158 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 95.
159 For a discussion of the darkness theme in the Bible, see R. D. Patterson, “Deliverance from Darkness,” The Southern Baptist Theological Journal 8 (2004): 74-88.
160 Mt. 9:27-31; note especially in v. 29 the exercise of faith associated with the new eyesight.
161 J. N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 189.
162 A. Harman, “`yn,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. W. A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:388.
163 Ibid., 388.
164 Ibid., 388.
165 See further, M. F. Unger, Zechariah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 66-68.
166 Compare 1 Sam. 26:24 in the following translations: “And, behold, as thy life was much set by this day in mine eyes” (KJV); “Now, behold, as your life was highly valued in my sight this day” (NASB).
167 Lewis, Mere Christianity, 110.
168 Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
170 Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art.”
171 Civilla D. Martin, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” Trinity Hymnal (Atlanta: Great Commission Publications, 2000), 618.
172 Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”
God listens to his people all the time. “He hears their cry for help,” David tells us (Ps. 34:15b), he hears their petitions, and he understands their needs before they ask. References to the ears of God and the ears of people—those who believe and those who do not believe—recur throughout the Bible, telling us about God’s power and love on the one hand and his judgment on the other. Believers are “the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3), and they listen to the good shepherd’s voice, for “he calls his own sheep by name” (Jn. 10:3). The image of God’s ear indicates his attention to everything, good and evil alike.
Ears are used figuratively in our everyday lives because the ear is as important as the eye to our lives. When someone does not pay attention to what we are saying, or we sense that he rejects our advice, we might say something like, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” or “Haven’t you heard a single word I’ve been saying?” The tone of these expressions indicates exasperation and frustration, for the auditor has clearly heard the words with his physical ears, but he has not responded in the way we might wish. Indeed, when someone ignores another person, he is said to “turn a deaf ear,” using an idiom of physical deafness to express the listener’s lack of attention to the speaker. Alternately, when someone wishes to let the speaker know that he does not intend to act in the way the speaker wishes, he might say, “I hear you,” in order to bring the conversation to an end. The implication is, “I hear you, but I’m not going to do what you ask.” Even in these common figurative uses of the ear, we express some rather subtle interpersonal relationships and dynamics, often relying on the tone of voice to carry the intended meaning.
When a speaker wishes people to pay attention to him, he might address “all those within the sound of [his] voice” and ask them to listen to him. Though old-fashioned now, it is not so long ago that people would speak “in your hearing,” indicating that the auditor had indeed heard the statement and was responsible to act accordingly. Again in the past, we might have asked someone to “give ear” to us when we speak. In these cases the speaker is asking the auditors to pay attention to what he is saying and consider his words. In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, when Brutus wishes the Roman citizens to listen to him after he and other conspirators have killed Caesar, he shouts to the crowd, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! / I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (3.2.73-74). Shakespeare’s image is effective, for Brutus wishes the attention of the crowd for only a short time, long enough to convince them that the murder was justified and even necessary. Once the crowd acquiesces to the murder, Brutus thinks, he can dismiss them. In all these instances, we use the physical ear as an idiom for paying mental attention to what a speaker has to say.
“My Cry For Help Came Before Him (lit., His Face), Into His Ears” (Ps. 18:6, MT).
God communicates to people through the words of Scripture, through Jesus Christ as the “Word” (logos” of God, Jn. 1:1), and through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christianity is a religion of the word; Christians are people of the word; and Christians evangelize the lost by spreading the seed, which is the word of God (Lk. 8:11). Paul reminds us, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), emphasizing the hearing of the word in salvation. Again, Paul emphasizes the need for the preaching of the word if people are to hear and respond in faith to the gospel (Rom. 10:14). David underscores the significant difference between the general revelation of God in nature and his special revelation in the Scriptures (Ps. 19) and dedicates himself to use words that would please the Lord. He concludes his psalm with the prayer, “May my words and my thoughts be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my sheltering rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). In his assessment of the churches in the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ concludes his exhortation to each church with the command, “The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says …” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:13, 22). It comes as no surprise then to hear the admonition throughout the Scriptures that people are to hear what God has to say. The ear—whether the physical ear hearing the word preached or spoken, or the spiritual “ear” taking to heart the word of God—is used frequently throughout Scripture in God’s communications with people.
God takes the initiative in approaching man and speaking to him. God is of course the one who created the ear. He has a right to ask us to hear him when he speaks. The psalmist writes, “Does the one who makes the human ear not hear? Does the one who forms the human eye not see?” (Ps. 94:9). God made the ear of man to hear his word, and it is as if God has an ear to hear man’s prayers to him in turn. From the beginning God calls man to hear him. It is God’s call that inaugurates salvation history, for he takes the initiative in calling Adam (Gen. 3:8), Noah (Gen. 6:13-21), and Abram (Gen. 12:1-3). To illustrate from one of these men early in salvation history, Abram responds to God’s word in faith by obeying the call of God, “and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). So too with David; after God initiates his everlasting covenant with David by promising him a seed (Jesus Christ), King David responds in faith, praying “So now, O LORD God, make this promise you have made about your servant and his family a permanent reality.” (2 Sam. 7:25). God speaks; man listens.
Consider as one example of God’s speaking and man’s hearing the striking picture of the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley that come to life at the command of God. “Prophesy over these bones,” the Lord directs Ezekiel, “and tell them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breathinto you and you will live. I will put tendonson you and muscles over you and will cover you with skin; I will put breathin you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord’” (Ezek. 37:4-6). In this picture of the dead bones hearing the word of God, God gives new life to his ancient people Israel. So it is with all those who believe; when we hear the word of God, he quickens it in our hearts and gives us new life in Christ (Rom. 10:17). Like the dry bones of old, we need to hear the word of God and respond in faith.
It is only the Lord who can raise the dead to life and give new life in Christ to those who are spiritually dead. How foolish it is then that so many ancient people prayed to idols and gods, which had no ears and could not hear. Even as the people speak to God in prayer, they are amazed that the nations worship idols. They say of the nations’ gods, “Their idols are made of silver and gold—they are man-made. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see, ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell...” (Ps. 115:4-6). The gods who cannot hear—these are no gods! Think of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long they call on their god, dance and shout for his attention, but he cannot hear! “... he may be deep in thought,” Elijah taunts the false prophets, “or perhaps he has stepped out for a moment or has taken a trip. Perhaps he is sleeping and needs to be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Baal is no god, and that is proven by his deafness. In the rest of the story, think next of Elijah, who pours water on the sacrifice and the wood three times (vv. 33-35), and then calls once on the name of the Lord, “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, provetoday that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are the true Godand that you are winning back their allegiance” (vv. 36-37). Immediately the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and even the soil are consumed by fire from heaven (v. 38), proving that Yahweh—the one who hears—is the only true God. Because God hears, all the nations know that he alone is God. So it was with Pharaoh in Egypt when the Lord hears Moses and Aaron’s prayers and brings the plagues to verify that he alone is God (Ex. 7:17; 8:10, 23; 9:14, 16, 29). God’s glory is all the greater in these plagues when we remember that earlier Pharaoh had told Moses and Aaron that he had never heard of Yahweh and would not obey him (Ex. 5:2). When God hears and answers Moses and Aaron’s prayers, however, Pharaoh comes to know who the Lord is—and he is forced to obey him. God’s glory is closely connected with his hearing and answering the prayers of his people.
So it is that God’s people call on the Lord and ask him to hear. The Psalms are full of such prayers. “O God, listen to my prayer! Pay attention to what I say!” the psalmist prays (Ps. 54:2). And again the psalmist says, “O Shepherd of Israel, pay attention (lit., lend an ear; i.e., hear), you who lead Joseph like a flock of sheep! you who sit enthroned above the winded angels, reveal your splendor…Come and deliver us” (Ps. 80:1-2). David is confident that God hears, for he says, “the LORD responds (lit., will hear) when I cry out to him” (Ps. 4:3). Confident also is the psalmist’s declaration of his faith that God will hear his people when they are in distress. “LORD, you have heard the request of the oppressed,” the psalmist affirms, “you make them feel secure because you listen to their prayer” (Ps. 10:17). God’s ear is open to the cries of his people, as it is to King David. In one of his penitential psalms, David begs God, “O LORD, hear my prayer! Pay attention to my cry for help! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me!” (Ps. 143:1). Even in his lament, David knows that God does not owe him anything for his goodness (for he has none), but that it is God’s faithfulness and righteousness that will prompt him to answer his prayer. God does indeed answer David’s petition. We might further note that the petition is actually a statement of praise, for inherent in the prayer is the confidence that God will hear and answer his people’s prayers. This is one of the reasons we turn to the Psalms so often in our own daily Christian lives: in the Psalms the writers speak their petitions in God’s ear, and we use their words to give voice to our prayers. We can be confident that God will hear these prayers when we pray them for his glory, for they spoken in the words that the Holy Spirit inspired in the ancient writers.
Finally, in the New Testament, the deity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is attested to by the ear. Jesus answers John the Baptist’s disciples’ question as to whether or not he is the Messiah with the words, “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Mt. 11:4-5). Why did Jesus choose these proofs that he is the Messiah? Because Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would perform such miracles (Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1-2), and Jesus’ miracles fulfill those prophecies, thereby proving that he is the Messiah. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father’s voice comes from heaven as a witness to all who hear, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Lk. 3:22). When Jesus speaks of John the Baptist and affirms, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness clear a way for the LORD’” (Isa. 40:3), he ends his declaration with the invitation, “The one who has ears had better listen!” (Mt. 11:15). On the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father announces his approval of his Son with the voice speaking from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!” (Mt. 17:5). How often throughout the gospels does Christ offer the good news to all those who will hear, reminding us again of the important link between hearing and faith.
“Call on me in prayer and I will answer you. I will show you great and mysterious things which you still do not know about” (Jer. 33:3).
Where would we be if God did not have “ears”? What would life be like if he did not hear us when we called out to him? The Scriptures are full of promises that the Lord will hear our prayers and answer them. Indeed, through Isaiah the Lord promises, “Before they even call out I will respond; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isa. 65:24). The ear of the Lord promises not only that he hears his people’s prayers, but that he graciously and lovingly answers them for their good (Rom. 8:28). God’s ear therefore points to his omniscience and his unfailing love. We will consider the ear of God as it relates to his omniscience first.
“Respond to (lit., Listen to, Hear) the request of your servant and your people Israel for this place. Hear from inside your heavenly dwelling place and respond favorably (lit., hear and forgive]” (1 Kings 8:30).
We begin with God’s omniscience as it is suggested in the image of the ear. It did not take long after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea for the people of Israel to grumble. They complained that God had brought them out into the wilderness to destroy them (Ex. 16:1-3). In one instance of the Hebrews’ complaining, God sends fire among them. “When the people complained it displeased the LORD (lit., it was evil in the ears of the LORD),” Moses writes. “When the LORD heard it his anger burned, and so the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outer parts of the camp” (Num. 11:1). God knows his people’s complaints and he knows their sin. By the same token, when Moses asks the Lord to spare them, God hears his prayer and responds immediately by removing the fire (Num. 11:2-3, 18). The Lord knows everything; he even hears the murmur in the desert. God hears the Israelites’ grumbling against Moses when they complain that Moses is surely not the only one who hears God (Num. 12:1-2), and he knows their endlessly rebellious attitudes throughout the wilderness wanderings. “When the LORD heard you,” Moses writes, “he became angry and made this vow: ‘Not a single person of this evil generation will see the good land that I promised to give your ancestors. The exception is Caleb son of Jephunneh’” along with Joshua (Deut. 1:34-35, 38). God hears our sin.
Not so the idols so many people worship, for they are deaf and dumb. We have already mentioned Baal’s silence on Mt. Carmel when God hears Elijah’s prayer and sends down fire from heaven, consuming the sacrifice, the stones, and even the soil (1 Kings 18:16-40). Why would anyone continue to worship Baal when he does not hear the people’s prayers? As remarkable as the idol-worshipers of the Old Testament are, people continue to this day to worship idols of their own making—money, power, prestige, sex, drugs, alcohol, and even knowledge and wisdom (cf. Jer. 9:23-24). Amazing as it is, people who experience the plagues of the book of Revelation continue in their worship of gods who do not hear. John writes, “The rest of humanity, who had not been killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so that they did not stop worshiping demons and idols madeof gold, silver,bronze, stone, and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk about. Furthermore,they did not repent of their murders, of their magic spells,of their sexual immorality, or of their stealing” (Rev. 9:20-21). How sinful is the human heart (Jer. 17:9-10; Rom. 3:10-18) that, faced with the horrible judgment of God, people do not repent. God hears our petitions, but idols do not.
David was one who did indeed understand God’s omniscience. He writes, “Certainly my tongue does not frame a word without you, O LORD, being thoroughly aware of it” (Ps. 139:4). David recognizes that we can go nowhere to escape God’s hearing (cf. vv. 7-12). Neither the darkness nor the Sheol (v. 8) can conceal our words and thoughts from God, for he “hears” them both. In Psalm 139, David praises God for his omniscience, for it means we can trust him to search our hearts, cleanse us from sin, and lead us “in the reliable ancient path!” (Ps. 139:23-24). So God’s omniscience cuts both ways: we can be certain that he hears our sin, but we can also know that he hears our prayers of repentance and answers them faithfully (cf. 1 Jn. 1:9). The sinner can be assured that God will hear the prayer of repentance uttered in faith and that he will most assuredly save him, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). God’s omniscience is a comfort to the sinner who wishes to be saved from his sin and to the believer who confesses his sin and petitions the Lord for the needs of this life and for spiritual blessing. God hears the prayers spoken (or even thought silently) in faith and answers them according to his will.
“LORD, consider (lit., hear) my just cause! Pay attention to my cry for help! Listen (lit., Give ear to) the prayer I sincerely offer!” (Ps. 17:1)
Closely linked to God’s omniscience is his holiness. When the people of Israel were waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, they became impatient and turned to idolatry. At the people’s request, Aaron fashioned a golden calf, and the people worshiped it, dancing and going about wildly in the camp (Ex. 32:8, 19, 25). When Moses came down from the mountain, he immediately prayed for God’s mercy. God heard Moses’ prayer asking him not to kill his people, and thereby give the Egyptians cause to mock him, and spared his people accordingly (Ex. 32:11-14). James reminds us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness” (Jas. 5:16), but God will not hear the prayer of the ungodly (Deut. 1:45-46).
Before we are quick to question God’s judgment of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness—or even “judge” God for what we might perceive to be unfairness—we should remember why God brought his people out of Egypt. In the immediate context of the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, there are at least two reasons why God redeemed his people out of Egypt: first that they might worship him and, second that Egypt (and the nations with her) might know that he alone is God. Moses and Aaron speak God’s word to Pharaoh repeatedly, “Release my people, that they may serve me in the desert” (Ex. 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:13; 10:3). In his grace, God called his people to worship and serve him (the two are always closely connected in the Exodus narrative, even interchangeable). Likewise God calls Christians today to worship and serve him. It is this great truth that Jesus Christ uses to rebut Satan’s temptation to worship him rather than God and so receive the kingdoms of this world. In the wilderness temptation, “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him’” (Lk. 4:8, referencing Deut. 6:13). We were created to worship God, and it is his grace that calls us to do so in Christ.
The other reason God redeemed his people out of Egypt was for a testimony of his grace to the nations. God tells Moses that he will judge Pharaoh and exalt his name among the nations in so doing. “I will reach into Egypt,” God says, “and bring out my regiments, my people the Israelites from the land of Egypt with great acts of judgment. Then the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I extend my hand over Egypt and bring the Israelites from among them” (Ex. 7: 4-5; cf. 7:17; 8:22; 9:14, 16, 29; 11:7). We need to read this declaration in the light of Pharaoh’s arrogant mockery of God earlier, when he said to Moses, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him by releasing Israel? I do not know the LORD, and I will not release Israel” (Ex. 5:2). Pharaoh—and all Egypt with him—refused to recognize Yahweh as the one true God. The plagues that lead to Israel’s rescue out of slavery in Egypt attest to the fact that there is no god apart from the Lord. Indeed, it is God’s grace in hearing the cries of his people enslaved in Egypt and answering those prayers that leads to the call on Moses’ life to lead the people out of Egypt. When God calls Moses at the burning bush, he tells him, “The Lord said, “I have surely seenthe affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows.I have come downto deliver themfrom the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious,to a land flowing with milk and honey,to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Ex. 3:7-8). Much is at stake in Pharaoh’s hearing the word of God through Moses, and his refusal to obey it results in God’s glory. We might think of it in two ways. First, in calling Moses to this task, God fulfills part of his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7). Second, everyone who has heard any Bible stories knows the story of the Exodus. Has not God given himself a testimony to the nations?
“He satisfies the desire of his loyal followers; he hears their cry for help and delivers them” (Ps. 145:19).
The Bible is full of stories in which God provides for his people and protects them. God takes Abram out of a pagan land, brings him to the land of Canaan, and gives him descendants too numerous to count. Along the way, he protects Abraham from the pagans in the land. David, sinner though he is, finally secures the united kingdom of Israel and Judah in peace because the Lord defeats his enemies. Even in captivity and exile, God protects his people: Joseph in Egypt, Nehemiah on the walls of Jerusalem, Esther in Persia, Daniel in Babylon, and even Naomi in Moab and Ruth gleaning corn in Boaz’s fields around Bethlehem. Fully one fifth of the Psalms acknowledge God’s provision or protection or ask him to provide and protect. The psalmist says on numerous occasions that God hears the cry of his people “and saves them.”
As Psalm 104 tells us, God provides for everything he has made—wild animals, birds, domestic animals, and man. “All of your creatures wait for you to provide them with food on a regular basis” (v. 27). Even the seasons attest to God’s bountiful provision; their regularity and dependability give testimony to God’s faithfulness to his promise to Noah (Gen. 8:22). And Paul states clearly that Jesus Christ “is before all things and all things are held together in him” (Col. 1:17). Jesus Christ sustains the whole natural creation; there is not a molecule in the universe that does not fall under his sovereignty. C. S. Lewis reminds us, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”173 It is “the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:2) who provides for his people and protects them.
In his general grace, God provides for all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Witness his particular care for Ishmael, who was not the son of promise to Abraham, but for whom God provided abundantly anyway. When God promises the aged Abraham and his barren wife a child to be named Isaac and Abraham mocks God because such a thing would be impossible, God assures him that he will take care of Ishmael (though he will not give him the covenant). At this critical juncture in redemptive history, God tells Abraham, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will indeed bless him, make him fruitful, and give him a multitude of descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes; I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 17:20). Years later when it appears that Hagar and Ishmael would die in the desert, God sends an angel, saying, “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. Get up! Help the boy up and hold him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 21:17-18). Outcast though she was, and jealously hated by Sarah, Hagar’s cry rises to God’s ear, and he saves her son.
In general grace yet again, God exercises justice in the affairs of men, and James speaks of God’s ear that hears the cries of the oppressed. “Look!” James says to the greedy rich people who extort work unfairly from their laborers, “the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (Jas. 5:4-5). God hears the cry of the oppressed and answers their petitions for justice.
In particular, God hears the prayers of his own people and provides for them. Leah knew that God hears and answers prayer. Despised by her husband who loved Rachel more than her, Leah gives birth to her second son Simeon and acknowledges, “Because the LORD heard that I was unloved, he gave me this one too” (Gen. 29:33). God hears Leah’s prayer, honors her with a son, and raises up one of the patriarchs of old. Nehemiah, cupbearer to a pagan king, realizes that God will keep his covenant with his people and prays accordingly, “Please, O LORD God of heaven, great and awesome God, who keeps his loving covenantwith those who love him and obeyhis commandments, may your ear be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayer of your servant that I am praying to you today throughout both day and night on behalf of your servants the Israelites” (Neh. 1:5-6a). Nehemiah goes on to confess his sins, “I am confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have committedagainst you – both I myself and my familyhave sinned” (v. 6b), for he knows God will hear and will honor himself in answering. So it is throughout the Old Testament. God provides for his people when they cry to him for relief.
When God hears, he protects. Psalm 20, following immediately after the great declarations of God’s glory in creation and revelation in Psalm 19, David’s opening words announce God’s desire to protect his people. David prays, “May the LORD answer you when you are in trouble; may the God of Jacob make you secure” (Ps. 20:1). This prayer is offered in confidence that God will answer it, for David says later in the psalm, “Some trust in chariots and others in horses, but we depend on the LORD our God” (v. 7). Inherent in the prayers in the psalms is the trust and assurance that God—the covenant making and covenant keeping Lord—will hear his people’s prayers and will keep his promises. One of those promises is that he hears his people in their distress and protects them. In fact, it is fair to say that he protects us even when we do not know we are in trouble. How often has he spared us accident and injury on the highway? How often has he protected our children when we did not know they were in danger? God hears and protects us.
Even when we face enemies, God protects us. While most Christians in western countries may not face enemies on their home soil, there continue to be military skirmishes and wars all around the globe, and the war against terrorism is unending. Is God aware of his people in the military forces overseas in the Middle East and Asia? Of course he is and he can protect them, just as he did the Israelites of old. When the Edomites refused safe passage through their land to the wandering Israelites, Moses told them of how Yahweh redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt (Num 20:15-16) and protected them from Egypt’s pursuing armies by drowning them in the waters of the Red Sea (Exod 14:1-31). Why is this event recorded for us? Surely one reason is to assure us that the same God who protected his ancient people can protect us today. So important is God’s protection that the psalmist says it assures God’s glory throughout the nations:
The account of his interventionwill be recorded for future generations;
people yet to be born will praise the Lord.
For he will look down from his sanctuary above;
from heaven the Lord will look toward earth,
in order to hear the painful cries of the prisoners,
and to set free those condemned to die (Ps. 102:18-20).
When we think of the stories in the Old and New Testaments when God protected his people, we are to be encouraged that he will do the same for us. Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, John, even Jesus experienced God’s protection, as did the disciples as they traveled throughout the Mediterranean world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. “The LORD’s angel camps around the Lord’s loyal followers and delivers them” (Ps. 34:7).
Finally, God’s ear of protection assures us of his love of justice and his compassion for the victims of oppression. In the Book of the Covenant that God gave Moses after he spoke the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:22-23:33), one of the laws for the Israelite society offers protection for the widow and orphan—that is, those who cannot protect themselves and are vulnerable to evil people. God commands, “You must not afflictany widow or orphan. If you afflict themin any wayand they cry to me, I will surely heartheir cry” (Ex. 22:22-23). The clear implication is that God will protect the helpless. In the same passage, God promises that he will protect the one whose cloak is given in pledge for a loan. God’s word on this is, “If you do take the garment of your neighbor in pledge, you must return it to him by the time the sun goes down, for it is his only covering—it is his garment for his body. What else can he sleep in? And when he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am gracious” (Ex. 22:26-27). Justice for those who cannot protect themselves and compassion for the disadvantaged—these are evidences that God hears the cry of distress and answers it.
“When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and stars, which you set in place, of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them? Of what importance is mankind that you should pay attention to them?” (Ps. 8:3-4)
Who are we that God should hear our prayers? He made the heavens and the earth by the word of his power. He sustains the universe. He is righteous and holy. He is the God of the nations. Why would he listen to any one of us? Because he loves us. We call the love that God lavishes on his people hesed love. “It means variously forgiveness, goodness, and love”174 and is translated as “unfailing love” (NIV, HCSB), “steadfast love” (ESV), “lovingkindness” (NASB), and “goodness” or “mercy” (KJV). This love saves and forgives us, sanctifies us, and provides for us. This is the love that allows us to call God “our Father,” for it places us in God’s family. And it is because of this love (and not because of anything good in us) that God hears us when we call upon him.
The first reference in the Bible to God’s hesed love is in the story of Abraham and Isaac. As Abraham is dying, he makes his servant swear that he will find a wife for Isaac from among his relations and not one from among the pagan nations who live around them. When the servant arrives at Nahor, he prays to the Lord that he will show him “kindness” in providing a wife for Isaac. “I will say to a young woman, ‘Please lower your jar so I may drink.’ May the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac reply, ‘Drink, and I’ll give your camels water too.’In this way I will know that you have been faithful to my master” (Gen. 24:14). Of course, this is exactly what the Lord does, for it is Rebekah who comes to draw water, and she does exactly as the servant had prayed. God showed his hesed love to Isaac in providing for him the very wife he wished him to have to carry on the story of redemption to the next generation. God’s special love always meets our needs.
At first glance, our next picture of the special love of God may seem a bit odd, but it is perfectly in keeping with God’s love. The specific instance is the giving of the Ten Commandments. As we read the account in Exodus, it is perhaps easy to skip over the declaration that opens the Ten Commandments. The first words God speaks to Moses when he gives him the Decalogue are these: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). God then proceeds to proclaim the Ten Commandments themselves. God’s first words are noteworthy because they indicate that we are to understand the law in the context of relationship, specifically the relationship of the people with their God. That is, God declares the law on the basis of his having redeemed his people out of their slavery in Egypt. God’s laws, then, are evidence of his gracious love for his people and they are intended to bless their lives on this earth. We must understand the Ten Commandments as an expression of God’s hesed love for his people.
In the Deuteronomy account of the events at Mt. Sinai, the writer reports that the people are so terrified by the presence of God that they ask Moses to intercede with God for them. They state further, “You go near so that you can hear everything the Lord our God is saying and then you can tell us whatever he says to you; then we will pay attention and do it” (Deut. 5:27). Their hearts, at least, are right for they wish to hear in order to obey. Moses’ reply to the people’s request is noteworthy, for he states, “When the Lord heard you speaking to me, he said to me, ‘I have heard what these people have said to you – they have spoken well’” (Deut. 5:28). God hears the people’s concern—that they could not survive hearing God for long—and graciously answers their prayer by speaking to them through Moses. What is more, God further affirms the people’s wish because he says that their prayer is “good.” Here is an instance of God’s special love for his people: first, he reveals himself to them at Mt. Sinai, calling them his own people; and second he accedes to their wish that Moses might intercede. God hears their concern and responds to them in grace and love.
God offers his special love—his hesed —to David when he makes his covenant with him. In the covenant with David, God promises that he would (1) establish David’s house (or, put another way, give him descendants); (2) establish his kingdom (that is, a people to be ruled by a king); (3) provide a throne; and (4) establish the kingdom forever. These promises are fulfilled in Jesus Christ who is the descendant of David and who will rule God’s people forever. Here is the last part of God’s promises to David:
But my loyal love [hesed] will not be removed from him [David], as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will stand before me permanently; your dynasty will be permanent (2 Sam. 7:15-16).
Like Abraham and Moses before, God calls David and promises him his love and mercy. His eye is open to him, his ear attentive to his prayer.
As these instances demonstrate, God shows his hesed love to Abraham, Moses and David. God shows his special love to Abraham by providing the right wife for Isaac and thus carrying out part of the fulfillment of his promises to him in Genesis 12:1-3. He shows his love to Moses when he gives him the Ten Commandments and when he mediates his commands to the Israelites through Moses. And with David, God promises him that Messiah—Jesus Christ—would be descended from him. These are three important events in redemption history—the covenant with Abraham, the covenant laws at Mt. Sinai, and the covenant with David. At a later important event in redemption history, this time Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, Solomon reminds God of the promises he made to his people. After building the Temple according to God’s plans, Solomon calls “the whole Israelite assembly” together (2 Chr. 6:3) and dedicates the Temple to God’s glory. He concludes his prayer by invoking God,
Now, my God, may you be attentive and responsive to the prayers offered in this place.
Now ascend, O Lord God, to your resting place,
you and the ark of your strength!
May your priests, O Lord God, experience your deliverance!
May your loyal followers rejoice in the prosperity you give!
O Lord God, do not reject your chosen ones!Remember the faithful promises you made to your servant David! (2 Chr. 6:40-42)
Solomon’s prayer marks the first time God’s ear is associated so closely with his special love for his people. Solomon asks God to see the Temple and hear his prayer and, in turn, bless the people. The basis on which Solomon asks God to hear his prayer is the “great love” (v. 42) God promised David. This prayer is a model for all our prayers in the sense that it recognizes that the basis of our praying is the character and promises of God. It is because God is loving and faithful to his promises that we can expect him to answer our prayers when they accord with his will (as Solomon’s does in this instance). God hears our petitions and, because he loves us and promises good to us, he answers them according to his will. When we remember that the Temple is the place where God promised to meet with his people in Old Testament times, Solomon’s prayer asking God to hear and bless him assures us that God will fulfill his promises to his people.
How does God’s special love relate to us as Christians in the twenty-first century? We are not one of the patriarchs or kings of old; we are no Abrahams, Moses, or Davids. Will God’s ear be open to us? Yes. God does not change; he still loves his people and he still hears and answers their prayers. He answers the sinner’s prayer for salvation (Rom. 10:13), and he answers the Christian’s prayer of repentance (1 Jn. 1:9). He works all things together for his glory and the good of his people (Rom. 8:28). In all of these important matters, he hears our prayers and answers them graciously. Why else would we pray? If we did not think God loved us and could answer our prayers, we would be either fools or hypocrites to pray, would we not? Fools if we thought he would answer when he would not do so, and hypocrites if we knew he would not answer and we still prayed anyway. The very act of praying affirms our faith that God’s ear is ever open toward us as his children. The fact that he hears us, however, also places us under obligation to him.
“LORD, in the morning you will hear me; in the morning I will present my case to you, for I am praying to you” (Ps. 5:3).
It is difficult to separate God’s ear from the believer’s ear, for the two were meant to be open to each other. When we say that God is faithful to hear and answer our prayers, we say something not only about God, but also about the believer, for the believer must exercise the faith to pray. God invites us to pray to him, and, in turn, the believer hears God’s word prompting him to pray. Much of what we have written about God’s ear, then, relates to the believer as well. In this section, we will draw explicit attention to some themes that relate directly to the believer and his relationship with the Lord.
To begin, believers are to listen to the words of God as they are recorded in the Bible, for it is the Word of God. “Listen, Israel,” God proclaims, “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You must love the LORD your God with all your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength. These words I am commanding you today must be kept in mind, and you must teach them to your children” (Deut. 6: 4-5). From Genesis to Revelation the Bible communicates the character (attributes) and actions of God. Because the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, we are to listen to it. Just as the Bible is God’s word, so too is Jesus Christ. We are told that he is the Word of God incarnate (Jn. 1:1). We would do well to heed the words Mary said to the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, “Whatever he tells you, do it” (Jn. 2:5), and the words God the Father announced at Jesus’ transfiguration, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!” (Mt. 17:5). We are to listen to his words as recorded in Scripture. Believers are to use their ears to hear the Word of God—and to obey it.
The flip side of our responsibility to hear is that God hears our prayers and meets our needs. David says, “Realize that the LORD shows the godly special favor; the LORD responds when I cry out to him” (Ps. 4:3). In this statement, David implicitly lays claim to being one of “the godly,” for his use of the pronoun “I” later in the sentence places him in that category. We need to be careful to realize that David’s claim here to be righteous is not an expression of arrogance on his part. Rather, it represents a simple acceptance of what God had promised him when he called him to be king of Israel (2 Sam. 7:1-16). David’s confidence that God would hear his prayer simply takes God at his word and trusts him to fulfill that word.
Is it only the kings of old whom God will hear? Is God’s hearing limited to the Old Testament? Does he hear us today? God hears believers today, just as he did the kings of old. Christians today are no more arrogant than King David was when they say that they are “righteous” or “godly,” for when we claim to be righteous or godly, we merely express by faith what God said he would do for all who trust Jesus Christ as their savior. When we trust Christ by faith, God declares us righteous in Christ (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). We can lay no claim to any innate righteousness, for “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11). There is no room for arrogance here. The righteousness we possess is all God’s work on our behalf when we accept by faith what he has done for us in Christ. The New Testament assures us that we can be certain that God hears our prayers. To take just one instance, Peter quotes David to say, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Pet. 3:12, quoting Ps. 34:15) and applies the promise to Christians. God hears our prayers. If he did not, why would he invite us to pray to him? Remember the words of James, “The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness” (Jas. 5:16). God’s ear is open to our prayers because he promised it would be so, not because we compel it so by anything good in us.
Why would God listen to our prayers at all, if we have no righteousness that would make him love us? One answer (of many) to that question is that he is good. Another answer is that his testimony is at stake: he promised he would answer our prayers in accordance with his will. We think of Daniel—known to all as a worshiper of Yahweh, the one true God—who ends his prayer with these words:
O LORD, hear! O LORD, forgive! O LORD, pay attention, and act! Don’t delay, for your sake, O my God! For your city and your people are called by your name (Dan. 9:19).
Why should God answer Daniel’s prayer? Because Daniel is a spiritual giant that deserves to have his prayer answered? No. Daniel asks God to answer his prayer so that God’s testimony among the nations would not be impugned. When God promises that he will do something, he obligates himself to do it. When he promises, for instance, to save the sinner who calls on Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, we can be absolutely certain that he will hear the prayer and save the sinner. Does not Paul tells us, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13)? We have God’s promise; it is more certain than the next breath we take. God hears the sinner’s prayer, just as he hears the prayer of the believer who cries out to him in distress.
Are there any conditions under which God will not hear our prayers? Most certainly there are. When Isaiah promises that God’s arm is strong enough and his ear attentive enough to answer our prayers, he goes on to remind us that, if God does not answer our prayers, the fault is not with him; it rests with us. Isaiah writes, “But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God; your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers” (Isa. 59:2). What terror attends these words! God will not hear the prayer uttered in sin; he will turn a deaf ear. To pray for sinful desires to be met—to pray for instance that someone might be hurt so that we can prosper—these are prayers we can be certain God will not hear. He does not answer sinful prayers.
Nor does he answer rebellious prayers. We cannot turn our back on what we know to be God’s will—in short, consciously rebelling against his clearly-revealed will—and expect him to honor our prayers. As is so often the case, the experiences of the ancient Israelites come to mind. When they sent out the spies into Canaan to see if they should enter it, all but two recommended that they not enter Canaan (Deut. 1:26-28), but the Lord had promised to give the land to the Israelites, even with the opposition and difficulties in the land itself (Deut. 1:28-31). Yet even in the face of God’s clear promise and command, the Israelites rebelled and chose not to enter the Promised Land at that time. What was the result? God refused to hear the prayers of the rebels. Moses pronounces God’s decision, telling the people, “Then you came back and wept before the LORD, but he paid no attention to you whatsoever (lit., did not hear your voice and did not turn an ear to you)” (Deut. 1:45). If we are in a rebellious state, we should not be surprised if God does not answer our prayers. The prophet Isaiah warned the people in his day of the same danger. “When you spread out your hands in prayer,” God says to the rebellious nation in Isaiah’s day, “I look the other way (lit., will hide my eyes from you); when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen” (Isa. 1:15). Rebellion and sin separate us from God. If God does not hear our prayers, it is our fault not his. His ear is ever open to the penitent and the needy.
What does God’s open ear finally mean to the believer? It means that God is faithful in all things and that we can trust him entirely. Psalm 5 shows us the pattern. David begins by asking God to hear his prayers (vv. 1-3), and he ends with the assurance that God hears and answer his prayers:
But may all who take shelterin you be happy!
May they continuallyshout for joy!
Shelter themso that those who are loyal to youmay rejoice!
Certainlyyou rewardthe godly,Lord.
Like a shield you protectthemin your good favor (vv. 11-12).
It is because of who God is that we can trust him. He hears our prayers; his ear is ever open.
“O God, Hear My Cry for Help! Pay Attention to (lit., Listen To) My Prayer” (Ps. 61:1).
What have we learned about God in our study of his the ear? With David of old, we have learned that we can ask the Lord to hear our cries and our petitions and we can trust him to answer us according to his will. He is faithful to his Word and to his character. What then does the ear of God tell us about his character? First, it tells us that he is omniscient. He hears our grumblings, as he did when the Israelites of old complained (cf. Num. 12:1-2). Conversely he hears our prayer of confession and answers them by forgiving our sin (1 Jn. 1:9). In fact, he hears us before we speak (Ps. 139:4). God knows more about us than we know about ourselves. The amazing thing is that he still loves us (1 Jn. 4:9-10). God’s omniscience should be an encouragement to us for he loves us even though we do not deserve it.
Second, God’s ear speaks of his holiness. He will not hear the prayer of one who lives in sin and prays for personal gain (cf. Deut. 1:45-46). If the sinner wishes to repent, however, God will most assuredly hear that prayer (Rom 10:13-14), as he will the believer’s prayer of confession (1 Jn. 1:9). In fact, he will even hear the prayer of a believer who intercedes on behalf of another according to his will. James tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness” (Jas. 5: 16). Who is righteous? The righteous ones are those who have been declared righteous when they place their faith in Jesus Christ and him alone (Rom. 3:21-26)--in short, Christians. God will hear and answer the Christian’s prayer according to his will. God demonstrates his holiness, as well as his mercy, when he answers the believer’s prayer.
Third, God’s ear teaches us that he is our great provider and protector. In regard to the whole natural creation, God provides for all creatures. In Psalm 104, the psalmist acknowledges that God provides for the beasts of the field, the wild animals (v. 11), the birds of the air (v. 12), and man (v. 14-15). In summary he states, “All of your creatures wait for [lit.: look to] you to provide them with food on a regular basis” (v. 27). God sustains the natural creation. In fact, were he not to do so, everything would fly apart instantly (Col. 1:17). These truths encourage the believer and invite the sinner. They encourage the believer because he knows God will meet his need (cf. Phil. 4:19—in the context of giving faithful tithes and offerings to the local church), and they invite the sinner because he is invited to enter into his rest in salvation (Heb. 3). God provides and protects in answer to our prayers.
We learn at least one other truth about God when we study his ear. We learn that he loves us with an everlasting love. God’s provision and protection certainly express his love toward us, as do his forgiveness and grace. We might add here that Jesus Christ’s role as our great high priest, seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, is also an expression of divine love, or hesed. While God’s love for the world is evidenced in his sending his Son to die for us (John 3:16), his love for believers is demonstrated in Christ’s role as our advocate with the Father. “But if anyone does sin,” John tells us, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One (1 Jn. 2:1). Christ’s role as our advocate is one dimension of his function as our great high priest who “always lives to intercede for” us (Heb. 7:25). We need an advocate, for we sin daily (and even frequently throughout the day). Christ’s defense of us before the Father when we confess our sin is one more expression of his love for us.
The ear teaches us that God is omniscient, holy, and loving. He provides for us and sustains us. He forgives us in Christ. But what does the ear teach us about believers? As with the eye in the last chapter, the ear teaches us about the relationship of believers and the Lord. With the eye, we are to look toward God in faith. With the ear, we are to respond in obedience to what we are told. As the hymn writer encourages us:
We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to ev’ry land, climb the steeps and cross the waves;
Onward! ‘tis our Lord’s command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!175
The word of salvation is joyous news indeed, news we should proclaim to people we know.
The ear speaks of relationship. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1:1-14), the one through whom the Father is finally revealed to men (Heb. 1:1-3). The Bible is the Word of God written, teaching us, correcting us, and training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Why does God use the image of the “Word” when he speaks of the Son and the Bible? It is because these are two of the primary ways in which God communicates with us. The expression Word implies relationship—that of a speaker or a writer on the one hand and listener or a reader on the other. How are the two related? They are related through the mediation of the words used. Just so, God communicates with us in Christ and in the Bible, and that communication puts everyone who hears or reads in a position of responsibility. Simply put, God’s communication with us demands a response from us; we must choose to obey or disobey what we are told.
In this regard, the law laid down in the Old Testament for Hebrew servants (or slaves) illustrates our need to obey. In the Covenant Laws given after the Ten Commandments were declared, one of the first issues that God’s instruction addresses is the matter of slaves. Specifically, if a Hebrew slave who has earned his freedom by serving for seven years, chooses to remain a slave to his master, he may do so. Why would a man choose to remain a slave? He might choose to do so because he has a family he does not wish to leave (Ex. 21:4-5). Whatever the case, if he chooses to remain a slave, his master “will bring him to the door or the doorposts, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever” (Ex. 21: 6). The pierced ear symbolizes relationship and obedience—the relationship of a permanent slave to a master, and the requirement of obedience to that master. So too with believers. God is interested in our willing obedience, not our sacrifices and ceremonies. In this regard, David writes:
Receiving sacrifices and offerings are not your primary concern.
You make that quite clear to me!
You do not ask for burnt sacrifices and sin offerings.
Then I say, “Look! I come!
What is written in the scroll pertains to me.
I want to do what pleases you, my God.
Your law dominates my thoughts (Ps. 40:6-8).
Here again is the image of a pierced ear associated with willing obedience. This passage is primarily Messianic; that is, it applies to Jesus Christ, as the writer of Hebrews makes clear when he quotes this passage and applies it to Christ (Heb. 10:5-7). Still, there is a human dimension to Psalm 40 as well. God does not desire our elaborate religious rituals; rather, he simply wants us—our willing submission. The attitude of willing obedience is symbolized by the pierced ears of the believer. Believers are like the Old Testament Hebrew slave who chooses to remain a slave; they choose to serve Jesus. How can we do less when we consider what he has done for us?
How then do we finally think about the ear in Scripture? God’s ear demonstrates that his attention is turned toward us, for he listens to our cry. The believer’s ear is “pierced” in obedience to please the one who saved us from his sin. And the sinner’s ear is made to hear the gospel message so that he might respond in faith. The hymn writer invites us to Christ:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!176
May we respond in faith and gratitude when we hear Jesus calling.
173 C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 33.
174 Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 124.
175 Priscilla J. Owens, “We Have Heard the Joyful Sound.”
176 Will L. Thompson, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”
When we turn to the heart of God, we turn to the center of all he is and all he does. The biblical writers understood the heart to be at the focal point of all we do as humans. So it is with God; as he purposes in his heart, so he does. When we speak of the heart, we are not speaking of the physical organ in the chest. Rather we are speaking of the seat of all our thoughts, emotions, will and moral state. We still speak the same way today, even though we know that our thoughts, emotions and will are generated in our brains. Paul tells us in the New Testament that we ought to praise God with all that we are and have (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).
Think of the many ways we use the heart in our daily lives, even in the twenty-first century. Someone who tends to be emotional “wears his heart on his sleeve”; that is, his emotions are an open book, obvious to anyone who knows him. When we are in love, we might speak of our lover as a “heart-throb,” indicating in the very least that they are important to us. Again, we might say, “My heart beats for you.” To be sure, this is a hyperbole (or an exaggeration), for our physical heart would continue to beat if the lover were not around. The idea in the expression is that lover is important to us. When we declare our love for someone, we might say, ‘I give my heart to you” or “My heart is yours.” Both of these expressions indicate that we pledge our faithfulness to the other person; with our heart comes our whole being.177 When a person is happy, he might be said to be “lighthearted.” Implicit here is that the weight of the world is lifted for the moment.
Alternately, when we are hurt, sad or downcast, we use the heart to indicate these emotions as well. We indicate our hurt by saying we are “brokenhearted”; indeed, to be brokenhearted is to be wounded emotionally. When we are discouraged, we may say we are “disheartened,” or “heavyhearted.” We might even say, “our hearts are heavy” with the burden we carry. We do not carry a physical burden, of course, but rather an emotional, psychological, or spiritual burden; that is why our “heart” carries it. In the same way, when we are spiritually drained or emotionally sad, we might say our “heart aches.” Again, it is not that the physical organ in the chest hurts physically—we call that angina—but that the center of our being is affected. When he was dying with tuberculosis, John Keats wrote, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk.”178 Again, we might say we are “heart weary” or “heart sick” with what is going on in a particular circumstance, by which we mean that we are upset or concerned. When we are afraid or fearful, we might say that our “heart is in our throat”—indicating worry or anxiety about an upcoming event. When our “heart is in our boots,” we indicate discouragement, for we are cast down, as it were, with the fear that besets us.
At the other end of the spectrum, we use the heart to show courage and confidence as well. In fact, the English word courage derives from the French word coeur and the Latin cor which both mean “heart.” Courage literally means strength of heart and it involves mental and emotional determination, not just physical stamina. When we say of someone, “He has lots of heart” or even “He has heart,” we mean that he is courageous in the face of adversity. Similarly, we might encourage someone to be brave by saying, “Put your heart into it, man” or “Give it your whole heart.” In all of these expressions, the heart represents courage and bravery.179
Finally, we speak of the heart as the center of our moral and spiritual lives. There is good reason for the common expression, “Here we come to the heart of the matter,” for the heart is who we are. Throughout the Bible (as well as often in the Ancient Near East) and in the writings of philosophers and poets down through the ages, the heart is regarded as the seat of all our faculties. By this we mean that the heart is the seat, or home, of our moral being, our intellect, our emotions and our will. Think of it: the heart is the seat of sin (Mt. 15:19), and it is the heart that is Christ’s throne in the believer (Rom. 10:10). When we speak of the heart, then, we mean everything that we are. No wonder the writer of Proverbs states, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life” (Prov. 4:23). Notice how emphatic this statement is: the heart is the most important thing, and therefore we ought to guard it “with all vigilance.” What could be plainer? What we are in our heart is who we are before God. God knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves (Jer. 17:10).
The heart is the center of the circulatory system. As such, its task is to pump blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. It is not an exaggeration to say that each cell is dependent on the heart performing its function. It is of course true that when the heart ceases to beat the body dies. In speaking of heart patients, Dr. Greg Rose, Cardiologist with Wake Heart and Vascular Associates at Wake Medical Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, describes a serious problem called “Silent Ischemia.” Silent Ischemia is a situation in which, because they feel no chest discomfort, patients may not realize they are developing clogged arteries. Left unchecked, of course, clogged arteries can lead to Myocardial Infarction (that is, sudden cardiac arrest, or a heart attack) and death. The patient simply does not realize that he or she is in danger until a heart attack occurs. In many cases, however, clogged arteries produce chest discomfort; a patient might think something like, “I feel like there’s an elephant sitting on my chest.” The discomfort in turn is a warning sign that the patient needs to heed and should lead him or her to seek immediate medical attention. Ignoring the symptoms of chest discomfort is a recipe for potential disaster. In this case, (deliberate) ignorance is not bliss. Heart attacks are the number one cause of death in the United States.180
But the risk of heart attacks can be reduced. If we modify our risk factors (such as improving out diet and engaging in regular and effective exercise), we can reduce the risk of premature death because of a heart attack. With right diet and exercise, we can even “clean out” our hearts and improve cardiac health. So it is with our spiritual hearts; David prayed, “create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).181 The diagnosis is in: our hearts are sinful (Jer. 17:9). But the prescription is available in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, which forgives our sins and places us in a right relationship with God (cf. Rom 3:21-26; 10:9-13). If we will pay attention to the Word of God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we need not fear spiritual “silent ischemia” for we can know the problem and the solution.
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants” (Prov. 21:1).
The heart is at the center of who we are as human beings, and God’s heart is expressed throughout Scripture. In this section, we will mention some of the passages that speak of God’s heart in general terms. To begin, God’s heart expresses his compassion for people, even his enemies. As Christians, we are to love our enemies, not hate them (Mt. 5:43-48). We might even be tempted to think self-righteously that loving our enemies is a step forward for Christians over the Old Testament Israelites who sought an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But the Old and New Testaments are in agreement on how believers are to treat their enemies. God commanded his people even in the Old Testament to love their enemies as well as their neighbors. God’s heart in this matter is explicit:
“If you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, you must by all means return it to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen under its load, you must not ignore him, but be sure to help him with it” (Ex. 23:4-5).
God gives specific commands and particular examples of how his Old Testament people were to love their enemies. The writer of Proverbs admonishes God’s people to help their enemies, not just their domestic beasts, when he writes, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).
It should come as no surprise to us, then, when we read in the Old Testament that God has mercy and compassion even on his enemies. God’s compassion for Moab is a case in point. Moab is the son of Lot from his incestuous relationship with his daughter who made him drunk and lay with him (Gen. 19:30-38). The Moabites were always an enemy of Israel, leading the Israelites into sin (cf. Num. 25:1-3). Why should God care for such people who spurned him and even led his people into sin and idolatry? Yet God can say, “So my heart constantly sighs for Moab, like the strumming of a harp…” (Isa. 16:11; cf. 15:5). How can God “lament” for his enemies? He laments his enemies because he loves them with compassion and wishes to see them turn from their sin. God’s heart is full of love, even for his enemies—and we too were God’s enemies before we believed in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 5:8). If God’s heart were not full of love for his enemies, none of us would be saved.
In the New Testament, Christ’s compassion for the masses is evident throughout the gospels. He invites everyone who is crushed under a heavy load, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29). The very Son of God is “humble in heart” and invites us to give him our spiritual burdens. Think of it: the creator of the universe is the lover of our souls! His heart is humble enough to receive sinners and give them “rest” from their sin. The same compassion is evident in his cry in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Now my soul [lit.: heart] is distressed” (Jn. 12:27), as he faced Calvary, but he went the way of the cross willingly to pay the price for our sins. Christ’s heart beats for the sinner. Indeed, all sinners who believe on Jesus Christ in their hearts and trust in him alone for salvation will be saved (Rom. 10:9-10).
As with Christ in the New Testament, so it is with God’s heart in the Old Testament; it is full of compassion and love for his people. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God chastises his people and pronounces judgments on them for their sin. At the same time, God speaks comfort to his people through Jeremiah as well. At one point God declares:
“Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
they are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them.
and will surely have compassion on them” (Jer. 31:20).
God’s love for Ephraim is so great that he longs to show compassion to him. As parents, we may sometimes have a small inkling of what such longing is like, as we wish a child to return to the Lord. God, however, longs for all his people this way; he “yearns” for them. In a similar vein, God wishes his Old Testament people to have shepherds after his own heart (Jer. 3:15) so that they may be fed spiritually. Ultimately, of course, the chief shepherd Jesus Christ will be the one to feed God’s people, as Ezekiel’s prophecy makes clear (Ezek. 34:23-31).
In the sections that follow, we will consider the heart of God and the heart of believers. We will see God’s great love for us (and more) in the section on the heart of God, and we will see the believer’s responsibility to God in the section on believers’ hearts. The issues of eternity turn on the relationship of the heart of each one of us with the heart of God.
“Like a shepherd he tends his flock: he gathers up the lambs in his arm; he carries them close to his heart; he leads the ewes along” (Isa. 40:11).
It is a bit surprising to know that not many of the references to “heart” in the Old Testament and New Testaments relate to God’s heart; most of these references say something about the heart of man. Only 26 of 598 references to heart in the Old Testament allude to God’s heart.182 While there are not many references to the heart of God in the Old Testament, we would do well to pay attention to the ones we have. These references are particularly important because they tell us something about the Lord and they also tell us of his attitude and actions toward believers and unbelievers alike.
“I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them; I will remove the hearts of stone from their bodies and I will give them tender hearts” (Ezek. 11:19).
The heart of God is used first to indicate the will of God. The will of God, expressed in the heart of God, is made clear in the way he behaves toward people. God’s will cuts both ways, of course, for he takes pleasure in his people and he judges their sin and the sin of unbelievers. At times, God expresses his pleasure in his people when they obey. Such is the case in the “statues, regulations, and instructions” of Leviticus (Lev. 26:46), when he pronounces blessings on those who obey him (Lev. 26:1-13). On the other hand, God also pronounces judgment on those who disobey him (vv. 14-39). At other times, God blesses his people simply because of his unconditional love for them and not because of their obedience (Lev. 26:40-45). All of these instances refer to God’s will as he expresses it in his actions.183
God shows his heart of judgment and also of blessing in the story of the family of Eli the priest. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were evil men, even though they were priests in the house of the Lord at Shiloh. “The sons of Eli were wicked men,” the writer tells us; “they did not recognize the LORD’s authority” (1 Sam. 2:12). Hophni and Phinehas were such wicked men that they even “used to have sex with the women who were stationed at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (v. 22). To make matters worse, Eli did not do enough to restrain his sons, thereby allowing their sin to pollute the service of the Lord (vv. 22-25). What a desecration of Yahweh’s testimony! As a judgment for their sin, God pronounces the death of the two sons on the same day (v. 34). In the next declaration, God says, “Then I will raise up for myself a faithful priest. He will do according to what is in my heart and soul. I will build for him a secure dynasty and he will my chosen one for all time” (v. 35). It is God’s will to raise up Samuel to serve him as a priest, and he expresses his will by stating that it is in his heart and mind that he has purposed it. God’s heart is the seat of his will, and in it he plans judgment for Eli’s family and blessing for Samuel. Like King David to follow, God plans blessing and grace for his people.
God blesses Samuel as a priest and he blesses David as a king. When God establishes his covenant with David, he promises him a perpetual throne (referencing of course Jesus Christ who is King David’s greater son). David’s line was to lead to Jesus Christ, who would sit on the throne of David forever. When God makes his covenant with David, David responds with a prayer of gratitude for God’s gracious will toward him, for he knows that he has not earned God’s favor. David prays in part, “For the sake of your promise and according to your purpose (lit., heart) you have done this great thing in order to reveal it to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:21). The Hebrew word, leb, is translated here with the word “purpose,” whereas the King James Version translates it as “heart.” The King James Version is the more literal translation of the two in this instance, but the different translations point out the close connection between heart and purpose, or will. The heart of God is used here to represent his will—in this case, his gracious choice of David to be his servant. David’s prayer is not so much a prophecy of God’s future blessings on his behalf as it is simply a statement of his gratitude for God’s good will toward him.
God purposes in his heart to bless David, but he also purposes in his heart to judge actions against his will. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pronounces judgment on the vile practice of human sacrifice that his people had allowed in their midst. As difficult as it is to imagine, the Israelites had been influenced by the abominable customs of the pagan nations around them and gone so far as to sacrifice their own children to idols. God says, “They have also built places of worship in a place called Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire. That is something I never commanded them to do! Indeed it never entered my mind (lit., heart) to command such a thin!” (Jer. 7:31). The NET Bible uses the word “mind,” while the King James Version uses the word “heart” (again, the KJV is the more literal of the two translations). The point of the passage is the same, however, whichever translation is used. God never intended to have his people sacrifice their own children. In fact, God’s condemnation of murder pre-dates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20), for he tells Noah that the murderer shall be executed because he has destroyed a person made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). It is not God’s will for there to be murder. Two later passages in Jeremiah (19:5 and 32:35) use the word “mind” in both the King James and the NET Bible to represent the will of God that is opposed to human sacrifice. Whether for blessing or judgment then the heart of God represents his will.
“For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?” (Isa. 14:27, MT)
Closely related to God’s will is “the plan of his future actions” (emphasis the author’s).184 That is, God’s decisions regarding the future are represented at times as thoughts in his heart. Wolff notes that God’s decisions about the future involve both judgment and blessing.185 On the one hand, there is judgment symbolized by God’s heart. When God denounces the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, he states in part, “The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has fully carried out his intended purposes (lit., the purposes of his heart)” (Jer. 23:20). In this passage God’s anger proceeds from his heart It is not the emotion of anger, however, that the reference emphasizes; rather, it is the will of God—his plan to deal with the lying prophets—that is at stake. It is purpose, not feeling, that the reference to God’s heart means here. On the other hand, blessing for his people is also included in God’s heart. In the same breath that God announces that vengeance is his alone, he pronounces blessing on his people. “For I looked forward to the day of vengeance (lit., the day of vengeance was in my heart),” God states” (Isa. 63:4). God purposes vengeance on his enemies and redemption for his children. Blessing and judgment both proceed from the heart of God.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).
An important part of the heart of God for Christians is his faithfulness. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ promises his presence to believers (Mt. 28:20), and Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise who takes up residence in their hearts (Eph. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19). In the Old Testament, God does what he says he will do. In a word, God is sovereign. Faithfulness to his word is a dimension of his sovereignty, and it is expressed in regard to believers, the unbelieving nations, and the whole human race. First, in regard to believers, God promises Israel of old that he will bring them to the land of promise, just as he had said. “I will take delight in doing good to them;” God promises, “I will faithfully and wholeheartedly plant them firmly in the land (lit., with all my heart and with all my soul)” (Jer. 32:41). God’s gracious purpose is made more forceful in this reference as he states that his blessing comes from both his heart and soul; the double image is emphatic, providing assurance that he will do as he promises. Once Israel had inhabited the Promised Land and King David had built Jerusalem and established the united kingdom in peace, his son Solomon planned to build the temple for the Lord. At the dedication of the temple, God says to Solomon, “I have your prayer and your request for help that you made to me. I have consecrated this temple you built by making it my permanent home; I will be constantly present there (lit., my eyes and my heart will be there all the days)” (1 Kings 9:3). When the Lord says he will put his “Name” in the temple, he is indicating that he will always be present there; the Name symbolizes God’s presence. Think of how important this must have been for the people at that time, for they had wandered in the wilderness and now had a permanent dwelling where the priests could meet with God. By means of the image of the heart in this statement to Solomon, God emphasizes that his presence will be with them at the temple. His heart is faithful.
Second, in regard to the unbelieving nations, God will bring to pass the plans he has made for them since before the worlds were created:
“The LORD frustrate the decisions of the nations;
he nullifies the plans of the peoples.
The LORD’s decisions stand forever;
his plans (lit., the thoughts of his heart) abide throughout the ages” (Ps. 33:10-11).
The psalmist emphasizes God’s faithfulness to fulfill his plans by stating the point negatively and positively. Negatively, he states that God will undo the plans of the nations that are against his will. Positively, he states that God will fulfill his plans now and forever. These are “the purposes of his heart.” God’s plans for his people are always good (cf. Rom. 8:28-30). Ultimately, his plans for the nations are good as well, for in them he intends the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone to be declared (Mt. 28:18-20). Even his judgments are acts of mercy and grace, for they bring unbelievers face to face with their sin and encourage them to realize their need of a savior.
Third, in regard to the human race at large, we have one of the great statements of God’s heart early in the Old Testament when Noah sacrifices burnt offerings to the Lord after he has brought him safely through the flood:
“And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma and said to himself (lit., in his heart), ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, even though the inclination of their minds (lit., the heart of mankind) is evil from childhood on. I will never again destroy everything that lives, as I have just done’” (Gen. 8:21).
It is as if the persons of the Trinity are communing with one another in this quotation. The Lord purposed “in his heart,” as if he were celebrating his promise to mankind himself. God must have enjoyed making this promise to Noah (and through Noah to us) because the passage reads as if he savored the promise with all his heart. This passage shows the close relationship between the heart of God and his will; indeed, here they are one.
“I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Look, I will heal you” (2 Kings 20:5).
It remains to write a word about the instances in the Bible where it seems that God is said to change his heart, or his mind. The quotation just noted from 2 Kings is part of God’s response to Hezekiah when he “changed his mind” and told the king that he would heal him. The questions that come immediately to mind in a passage like this are whether or not God knows everything to begin with and if his plans depend on something or someone other than himself. If God changes his mind, does it mean that he acts in response to us, that his actions depend on us, or that he makes up his mind as he goes along? The question of God’s “changing” heart or mind is a vexed one in modern scholarship, most notably in the debate about “Open Theism.”186
We cannot explore the issue substantially here even if we were to limit it to its treatment in Open Theism thinking, but we will consider one of the situations in the Bible where it appears that God may have “changed” his heart. One situation that brings the issue of God’s foreknowledge and purpose to the fore is the flood in Noah’s day:
“But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds (lit., thoughts of his heart) was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them’” (Gen. 6:5-7).
At first glance, it appears in this passage that God changed his mind about human beings and, because of their great evil, decided at this point in time to destroy them. In fact, however, the passage is not intended to suggest that God gave up on man after he had done his best to help him, but rather to emphasize how sinful man had become. The point of the passage is that man’s evil and sin so outraged God that he would be justified in destroying everyone. The passage is an example of a literary device we call anthropopathism. Anthropopathism is a device in which the writer ascribes human emotions to God. In using this device the writer is trying to help the reader appreciate the seriousness of the situation; he is not suggesting that God is fickle. Here the emotion of regret is ascribed to God. The literary device underscores how abominable man’s sin had become to God. This passage and others like it, which seem to suggest that God changes his mind over time or in changed circumstances, are typically examples of human emotions ascribed to God to help us—the human readers—better appreciate the plan of God. God is not compelled to change his mind by any circumstances in human lives; his actions are not contingent upon ours. He does, however, graciously answer our prayers in accordance with his will (cf. Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23). Whether it is set on blessing for his people or judgment for sinners, the heart of God is turned toward man. In it we discover the purposes of God toward us.
“He has also placed ignorance (lit., set eternity) in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives” (Eccl. 3:11b).
With the heart of God and the heart of the believer—and the relationship of the two—we come to the core of life. The heart represents the personal identity of a person, thoughts, emotions, and will of a person. The heart also represents the “religious and ethical realm” of our relationship with God.187 Scripture has much to say about the heart in these ways. God is interested in the heart of man, not the exterior appearance (1 Sam. 16:7; Gal. 2:6). It is in the heart that man sins (Jer. 17:9; Mt. 5:28), and it is with the heart that he believes in Jesus Christ and is saved (Rom. 10:10). What could be more important than the heart of man?
“With my heart I will meditate and my spirit will search diligently” (Ps. 77:6, MT).
We begin with the heart as the center of our thoughts—the heart as the seat of the intellect, or cognition. Solomon, the wisest of men, thought with his heart, as it were. As he ponders “everything under the sun” in the book of Ecclesiastes, he writes, “I thought to myself (lit., said in my heart)” (e.g. Eccl. 2:1; cf. v. 15), and then turns from one philosophy or view of life to another, finding them all “vain,” or meaningless and unsatisfying. Apart from Scripture, our understanding of everything is inaccurate; all philosophy is deceptive apart from the plumb line of the truth of Scripture (Col. 2:8). By the same token, when we hear a true statement outside of the Bible—as we might in a scientific discovery or alternately in the right perspective on a moral or social issue, for instance—we recognize it to be true because we know biblical truth beforehand, and it corresponds with what the Bible has declared to be true or with the way God created the natural world. “All truth is God’s truth,” it is true; put another way, no statement is true unless it agrees with what God says in the Bible or it corresponds to the way he designed the universe to operate. If we make a statement such as, “Left to themselves, all natural systems tend to wear down,” (the law of entropy), for instance, we know the statement to be true because it corresponds to the physical reality around us. Entropy is true of reality because God made natural systems that way. We “muse” and “inquire” then with our hearts, whether it is about the spiritual doctrines of the faith or the physical realities of the universe around us. We “think” with our “hearts.”
“My heart is full of joy” (Ps. 28:7).
Oh, we think with our hearts, to be sure. However, we are more accustomed in our culture to say that we “feel” with our hearts. No one would argue that the heart is the seat of our emotions. Quick to mind is February 14th, Valentines Day, and the ubiquitous hearts that symbolize the love of a man and a woman. In the popular mythology, Cupid shoots his arrows into the heart, and a man is smitten with love for a woman. To this day, images of a cherubic angel, little wings sprouting from his back and holding a bow and arrow in his hands, fill the media in preparation for Valentines Day. Love is not the only emotion, however, that the heart produces.
A very different feeling than love is the emotion of fear. It too is symbolized by the heart. When Moses sent out the spies into Canaan to see if the people of Israel should cross over to the Promised Land, two of them brought back a good report about the land (Deut. 1:25), but the people rebelled. “Our brothers [those who counseled not entering Canaan] have drained away our courage (lit., made us lose heart),” (Deut. 1:28) the people tell Moses, and they do not go into the Promised Land at that time. They were afraid. Fear filled their hearts—so much so that they say they had “lost” heart, or courage, and would not go in. Something like this same paralyzing fear must have filled David’s heart when he penned the words, “My strength drains away like water; all my bones are dislocated. My heart is like wax; it melts away inside me” (Ps. 22:14). Like wax before a flame, fear saps the courage of David as he faces his enemies. The heart melts.
As we noted earlier, the word courage is related to the French and Latin words for heart; the man who lacks courage, then, lacks a heart. The lion in “The Wizard of Oz” is an example in modern pop culture. Or, to use the idiom of Moses and David, they “lose heart.” Contrariwise, David uses the heart to symbolize courage in the face of overwhelming adversity. When enemies surround him, when evil men advance against him, and when an army besieges him, David says, “I do not fear” (Ps. 27:3). His heart is brave. Psalm 27 expresses David’s confidence in God and courage in the face of his enemies, both those traitors within Israel and the armies encamped around Jerusalem to attack it. Why is David’s heart so courageous in the face of such difficulties? Is it because of his armies? No. It is because he trusts in God who sets his unfailing love on him. “When David looks out and sees his desperate situation, he does not rush to prepare his military defenses. Surprisingly, he simply asks for Yahweh’s presence and for the opportunity to worship him in the tabernacle.”188 God alone provides the courage David needs to face the armies arrayed against him and the betrayers inside the nation of Israel. God alone is all we need today to overcome our fears as well, for “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). We need not fear spiritual battles, for they are not ours; they are God’s. His love casts out our fear.
Trusting in Jesus Christ does not simply remove our fears; it replaces them with joy and trust. Listen to the words of David again, for he knew heartfelt joy in God:
“The LORD strengthens me and protects me;
I trust in him with all my heart.
I am rescued and my heart is full of joy;
I will sing to him in gratitude” (Ps. 28:7).
What is the source of joy and peace in David’s heart? It is the work of God on his behalf, even in difficult circumstances. God protects him and helps him. Because of what God has done for him, David’s heart overflows with joy. In a similar vein, Jesus said, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10), or, as the King James Version has it, life “more abundantly.” Much of what Jesus meant by the abundant life is the spiritual joy that comes from knowing him as Lord and Savior. Our hearts respond in joy to the work of Christ on our behalf.
“Guide your heart on the right way” (Prov. 23:19).
While modern people often think of the heart as the seat of emotions and nothing else, the Bible sees the heart as the center of the will. We can know that theft or lying is wrong and still commit the sin. We can know that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and eternal life and still die in our sins. How is this? How can we know how to be saved, even feel emotionally good about salvation, and still die without Christ? It is because we do not submit our will to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Jesus Christ himself said, “For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Mt. 15:19). Sins come from a will that is turned against God and toward the self. The heart is the seat of the will.
What does the Lord require of our wills? He requires that we choose to be faithful. After all, God is faithful to us; why should we not be faithful to him in return? When David is beset by disaster, when ravenous beasts (by which he symbolizes his enemies who wish him harm) surround him, he asks for the Lord to be faithful to him and protect him. Think of Psalm 57, which begins as a prayer for protection but turns to praise and thanksgiving. As soon as David finishes his prayer for protection, he proclaims, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make music” (Ps. 57:7, MT) and then proceeds to praise God for his glory (vv. 8-11). What does David think the Lord requires of him? Faithfulness—a steadfast heart. He learned his lesson well, for how often did God tell him not to be afraid in the face of his enemies, but that he was with him in his battles (1 Sam. 30:6; 2 Sam. 5:19)? After marveling in Psalm 8 that God places his love and attention on mere men, David declares in the next psalm that his heart is full of praise. “I will thank the LORD with all my heart! I will tell of your amazing deeds!” (Ps. 9:1). Praise wells up in David’s heart. So it is with us; praising God is a choice we make. To be sure, the Holy Spirit prompts our praise, but we can choose to stifle it if we wish. What is the result of a heart inclined to praise God? That person will tell of God’s wonders—he will give testimony to God’s grace in his life. The Lord is looking for people with steadfast hearts that freely offer him praise.
Closely related to a faithful heart is integrity of heart. In a nuance of Bible translations, the King James Version calls “uprightness of heart,” what the NET Bible sometimes translates as “inner uprightness” (cf. Deut. 9:5). David calls upon the “upright in heart” to praise God (Ps. 64:10, MT), indicating that integrity of heart comes first from a right relationship with God, one in which we keep short sin accounts and have our sins forgiven immediately (1 Jn. 1:9). When God called David’s son, Solomon, to be king, he admonished him to walk in the integrity of his heart (1 Kings 9:4). The instruction is significant, for Solomon was to build the temple when his father, a man of battles and blood, could not (1 Kings 5:3-5). It was important to the Lord that Solomon should maintain a right heart if he was to build the temple. Solomon himself understood the importance of integrity before the Lord, for when he asks the Lord at the beginning of his reign for wisdom, he prays in part, “So give your servant a discerning mind [lit.: heart] so he can make judicial decisions for your people and distinguish right from wrong. Otherwise no one is able to make judicial decisions for this great nation of yours” (1 Kings 3:9) He got it right! How ironic is Solomon’s request for a discerning heart, when later in life he was faithless, following the idolatrous ways of his pagan wives (1 Kings 11:1-6). The warning for us is that our hearts will not remain upright without due diligence. Our sin hampers our walk with the Lord so easily that we need to consciously ask the Holy Spirit to keep our hearts pure.
As this brief discussion shows—and it is already obvious in our everyday experience—the heart is the seat of sin. The heart is deceptive (Jer. 17:9), we are to be reminded, and can lead us astray. Sometimes the heart tricks even Christians into believing a lie and committing sin. We do not need to blame Satan for most of our sins; we sin readily enough when our heart desires something that is not rightfully ours or when we desire a good thing, but do so in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons (cf. Jas. 4:3). Such sinful desires originate in the heart.
The heart is deceptive in a second way, for we can use it to trick others and defraud them for our own gain. What is a hypocrite but someone who appears on the outside to be something different than he really is in his heart? A hypocrite, David tells us, is someone with a “smooth lip, with a heart and a heart [i.e., a double heart]” (Ps. 12:2, MT). The heart can deceive its owner. Equally fearful is the fact that we can deliberately conceal the true feelings of our heart when we wish to deceive another person. Such deception is a type of fraud, for we pretend to be something we are not in order to gain something not rightfully ours. If we are not vigilant, the heart deceives us into sin before we realize it.
The heart can lead us astray in a third way, for we can harden our hearts to the things of the Lord. Pharaoh hardened his heart on numerous occasions when Moses and Aaron appealed to him to let Israel go and worship God (Ex. 5:2-9; 8:15, 32; 9:34). To be sure, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 6:1; 9:16; 10:12, 20; 11:10), but Pharaoh made his choice against God from the beginning (see Ex. 5:2, where Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Yahweh, setting the stage for his later disobedience and arrogance). Before we are too quick to vilify Pharaoh for hardening his heart, we should remember that the people of Israel also hardened their hearts at Massah and Meribah when Moses struck the rock with his staff and water gushed forth (Ex. 17:7). The psalmist comments on the Israelites’ sin when he warns people not to harden their hearts against the voice of God when he offers spiritual rest (Ps. 95:8, 10). The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95, making the connection between unbelief and a hard heart explicit in the New Testament (Heb. 3:7). A hard heart will not respond to the gospel or feel repentance for sin.
How can we avoid hard hearts when we sin so easily and set ourselves against God? We need to cultivate soft hearts toward the Lord and pray that sinners would do the same when the gospel call is given to them. God promises not to turn away the person with a truly repentant heart (Rom. 10:13). “The LORD is near the brokenhearted,” David tells us; “he delivers those who are discouraged” (Ps. 34:18). Jesus Christ teaches the same truth in the Beatitudes (or simply, the “Blessings”), where he tells us that the “poor in spirit” will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3) and that those who mourn “will be comforted” (v. 4). Those who realize their spiritual poverty (that is, those who are “poor in spirit”) and are brokenhearted over their sin (that is, those who “mourn,” for it is their sin they regret) are the ones who will be blessed by God. Having our spirits “crushed,” to use David’s term, is not an unkindness on God’s part; rather it is an act of grace on his part that he would so reveal himself to us that we would see our sin for what is and turn to him in repentance and faith. In fact, the softened heart is what the new covenant is all about—God softening our hearts to respond in faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Jer. 31:33). Repentance is the hallmark of the Christian life.
The intellect, the will and the emotions—these are what the Bible means by the heart of man. Can there be any more important part of who we are as human beings than the heart? All we think, feel, and desire originates in the heart. It is the heart that devises sin, and it is the heart that responds in faith to God’s grace in salvation and sanctification. It is the heart that is the residence of the Holy Spirit. No wonder we should guard our hearts well, for our heart is who we are (Prov. 4:23).
“But If You Seek The Lord Your God From There, You Will Find Him, If Indeed You Seek Him With All Your Heart And All Your Soul” (Deut. 4:29).
The heart is the human image (anthropomorphism) of God that unifies all the other images of God in the Scriptures. The human heart is important as well, for it represents our thoughts, emotions, imagination and will. Who we are in our heart is who we are in reality, no matter how we present ourselves in public. God looks on the heart and is not partial when he does so. With the image of the heart, we come to the center of our study. What have we learned first about the heart of God and secondly about the human heart?
We begin with the heart of God. We know that God is altogether holy and righteous. We know also that God is merciful and good, extending his unfailing love (hesed) to all who will respond in faith to the Gospel invitation. It should be said here that these two pairs of God’s attributes—his holiness and righteousness on the one hand and his mercy and love on the other—do not conflict with each other. For instance, God does not “forget” his righteousness when he forgives a sinner, “sweeping the sinner’s sin under the rug,” as it were. Oh no! God satisfies his righteousness when he forgives a sinner because the sinless son of God, Jesus Christ, paid the penalty for sin at Calvary (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). God’s holiness and righteousness are married to his mercy and love in the heart of God.
Though we cannot enumerate all the attributes of God represented by the image of the heart, we can mention an Old Testament and a New Testament reference that remind us of the heart of God. In the Old Testament, God’s love for King David shows us something of his heart for his people. God calls David from tending sheep and anoints him king over Israel. In his covenant with David, God promises that his people will have a home in the Promised Land and that David’s kingdom will never end (2 Sam. 7:8-16). Jesus Christ fulfills the latter promise of course who, as David’s heir, reigns eternally as King of kings and Lord of lords. In the same manner, Jesus Christ fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant because he is the blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:2-3). When God makes this covenant (or promise) with David, he already knows that David will sin grievously by committing adultery and murder, yet he still makes the promise to David and keeps it forever. Here is an example of God’s gracious and loving will toward his people—God’s love and mercy despite David’s sin. David understands that God’s heart (or will) extends mercy to him, for he says, “For the sake of your promise and according to your purpose [lit.: heart], you have done this great thing in order to reveal it to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:21). God’s will toward David (and through his son Jesus Christ to all believers) is loving and merciful. This is God’s heart.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ’s love for his disciples shows God’s heart toward us. Shortly before he ascends into heaven, Jesus commissions (or commands) the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). We have our marching orders, as it were. But Jesus does not stop there. He finishes the command with a promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). Jesus Christ is faithful to us; he will never leave us nor forsake us (cf. Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5). What is more, he has given us the “promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Once we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit resides in us, never to leave us. In other words, the Father has promised that he will always be with us; Jesus Christ has promised to remain with us; and the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of these promises. God is faithful to us, and his heart is always inclined toward us for our good and his glory.
What have we learned about the human heart in the Scriptures? The heart is the seat of all that is important in us. We think with our heart. The psalmist, for instance, mused in his heart on God’s unfailing love while he lay awake at night (Ps. 77:6). It is easy for us as modern people to realize that we express our emotions with our heart—fear, courage, and love. Our modern view of love is so attenuated, however, that we think it is nothing but a feeling of the heart, when at its best love is more properly understood as a conscious and deliberate choice on our part to place someone else before ourselves. Love is a choice of the will. Whether it is the emotional side of love or the volitional side of love, we love with our hearts. Indeed, Scripture makes it clear that the heart is the seat of our wills—our choices to serve self or to serve God—to sin or to glorify God. As Cleland B. McAfee states in the well-known hymn, we are to desire to be “near to the heart of God:
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God
O Jesus, blest redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.189
Sin originates in the heart (Matt. 15:19), and so does repentance (Matt. 5:3). When Christ blesses the “poor in spirit,” he means those who know they have nothing to bring to God but repentance. Sin and repentance—these are the stuff that decisions for eternity are made of, and they are found only in the human heart.
“You Must Love the LORD your God with Your Whole Mind (lit., With All your Heart)” (Deut. 6:5)
If the heart is so important, what does God require of our hearts? We can answer the question in three parts. First, we are to focus the thoughts of our hearts on the Word of God so that we can be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:1-2). Just because we are Christians does not mean that we think “Christianly.” We have to deliberately and consciously study the Word of God and allow its truths to change our thinking if we are to become Christ-like in our lives. Second, we are to stabilize our emotions on the teachings of Scripture so that we are not “tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). When our hearts are settled on the teachings of the Bible, our emotions are stable. Finally, we are to purpose in our hearts—we are to choose—to glorify Jesus Christ in everything we say and do (1 Cor. 10:31). It is simply true that our hearts were created to praise God. In effect, if our hearts are to please the Father, we will think, feel, and choose the Son, and we can only do so by the work of the Spirit. Such is the human heart after God’s own heart.
177 Thus Hammurapi invokes the prayers of the oppressed man to be done “with his whole heart.” See G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 92 (lines 45-46).
178 John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” in Keats: Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (New York: Oxford UP, 1867), 207.
179 In ancient Egyptian bravery is described as “thick of heart” (cf. English stouthearted). See Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: University Pres,, 1962), 60. Those who are familiar with the musical romance, “The New Moon,” will remember the song “Stouthearted Men” written by Oscar Hammerstein II and set to music by Sigmund Romberg.
180 My comments on the physical heart in this paragraph and the next are based on conversations with Dr. Gregory Rose. Any errors in medical information are my own.
181 NIV “pure heart” is rendered in the KJV, ESV, NASB, and HCSB “clean heart.” The parallel is that forgiveness of sin cleans the spiritual heart, just as diet and exercise clean the physical heart.
182 Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 40.
183 There are of course numerous instances throughout the Old Testament in which God either judges or blesses his people. We have referenced Leviticus 26 here because all three expressions of God’s will are found in the one chapter, and their proximity to each other serves to illustrate the point well. A further point of these references is that God’s will, symbolized by his heart, is expressed in his actions.
184 Wolff, 56.
185 I am indebted to Wolff for the discussion in this paragraph.
186 In regard to the debate over Open Theism, the following references address the issue in its modern forms. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998) presents the case for Open Theism. Helpful discussions against Open Theism include Normal Geisler, The Battle for God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), with Wayne House; and John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishers, 2001).
187 For these categories of the “heart” in the Old Testament, I am indebted to Heinz-Josef Fabry, “leb,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgrin and Heinz-Josef Fabry, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 412-434.
188 Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 212.
189 Cleland B. McAfee, “Near to the Heart of God.”
Our scriptural journey toward knowing the Lord better has taken us along a biblical information highway lined by “houses” (texts) where figures of speech reside. We have stopped and knocked on many of their “doors”—passages in which God is spoken of as having human characteristics. We saw that technically these particular figures of speech are called “anthropomorphisms”—an attempt to understand God in accordance with human terms. As mere mortals it is simply true that we assimilate and apply abstract ideas more easily through figurative speech. We have noticed many of these figures of speech that are so common to our English language at the beginning of each chapter. Perhaps the need for figurative language is the reason why God saw to it that his Word, the Bible, was communicated in a myriad of such figures. Because this is so, the Bible becomes alive and real to those of us who read and profit by its pages.
We have noted that each of the figurative descriptions of God’s bodily parts tells us something special and important concerning the person, character, and work of God. We saw as well that by learning about them we gained insight as to how man is expected to conduct himself. We remind ourselves first of all of some of the many things we have explored in the preceding pages. So, what have we learned in all of this?
In chapter two we saw that the figure of God’s feet spoke of his sovereignty and claim upon our lives—a fact that calls us to live in accordance with the high standards he has set. In chapter three we became acquainted with passages that tell of God’s hands, arms, and finger. Here we noted that these figures remind us of God’s authority, power, and mighty deeds—work that will find their completion through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We saw also that through God’s working through us that we can accomplish the work, which he entrusts us to do.
In chapters four and five we examined the many facets of God’s face. We learned that by “face” is often intended God’s active presence in the world of mankind. His nose or nostrils reminded us that man’s very life is by the breath of God and that Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us was a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Because of all of this, believers are called upon to live their lives in God’s presence and in accordance with his good pleasure. From the human side this means a life that is filled with all the potential and pleasure, which only God can give. We also noted that several other features of the face, namely the mouth, lips, and tongue were used of God’s revelation, whether in God’s own speeches or through those who were inspired to deliver his message. Since this is true, God’s Word is to serve as man’s guidebook for successful living. Through its teachings people learn of the high standards of God in order that they may receive instruction as to successful living both now and forever.
We also saw that the Bible warns of God’s severe judgment for sin. We learned as well God’s remedy for man’s sin problem in the salvation that is available only through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the resurrection. We were reminded of the need to let our mouths, lips, and tongue proclaim that message to a lost and needy world.
In chapter six we were confronted with God’s eyes. We saw that this figure reminded us that God sees all that happens. We noted as well that in his great love he intervenes on behalf of his own. Therefore, as believers we should humbly conduct ourselves in accordance with his righteousness, avoiding all sinful practices.
In chapter seven we heard of the ear of God. Here again we were reminded that God is aware of all that takes place. As a God of absolute pure holiness he acts in love to provide for the needs of his own and protect them. Particularly meaningful is the realization that his ear is open to mankind’s cries, petitions, and prayers. Believers are especially to hear God’s demand for absolute devotion and are to “listen” to his instruction in his revealed Word, the Bible. As well, they have the high privilege of praying, knowing that a loving and merciful Lord is ever open to their needs, whether in confession of sin or in concerned prayer on behalf of others.
In chapter eight we came to the very heart of God. Here we learned that God is faithful to his word and his promises. He is faithful to his people. We learned as well that God alone knows the future and that his plans for his people’s future are good for them. Believers’ hearts are important too, for the heart is the seat of all that is important in us—our thoughts, emotions, and will. Sin originates in the human heart (Matt. 15:19), as does repentance (Matt. 5:3). When the human heart responds in repentance and faith to God’s heart, a sinner is saved; when believers submit their wills to God to do his will, they bring glory to God and good to themselves. Nothing is more important in life than the issues of the heart.
Although all of this is richly rewarding in itself, there is another dimension to consider before concluding our study of God’s “bodily parts.” We have seen through the figurative language that God chose to reveal to us something of the nature of God, his person, and his work. We learned of their importance to us as believers living in his presence. And all of this is well. But are these merely idealized portraits designed for devotional response? We have hinted that there is more.
Perhaps it is because as human beings we identify more with information that is gained via figurative expressions. It may be that this is why God did not choose to reveal a distinct treatise of systematic theology through his human authors of the Scriptures. Although the truths concerning God’s person and work are stated in various literary settings throughout the Bible, no formal theology per se is found within its pages. Thus Ralph Smith wisely points out that “no inherent or ‘natural’ method [of theology] is suggested in the Old Testament itself.”190 The same may be observed with regard to the New Testament, although obviously its theological perspective centers in the culmination of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Yet here too it can be said that “we are bound to understand as best we can what God has communicated to his people through its pages.”191 For within the pages of the New Testament we find that God has revealed himself in writings whose contents, purposes, and forms are quite varied.192
Indeed, a mere perusal of the varied and conflicting results achieved by the authors of systematic and biblical theology provides ample proof that the absolute truths concerning God are too immense to be encapsulated by any one person.193 All of these present various approaches and viewpoints, some of which are more helpful than others. None of these authors, however, can claim to be the authoritative and final source of knowledge concerning God. To the contrary, the variety of theological approaches illustrates the fact that God has revealed himself, accommodated himself if you please, in different ways that communicate effectively to different peoples, cultures, and educational levels.
And in the end all of us can at best only apprehend what God comprehends concerning the true reality of things. Mankind’s finitude and diversity of make-up render this certain. As Gibson points out, it’s just the nature of things; we are shut-up to human experience and thinking. Therefore, of necessity our descriptions of God remain metaphorical at best.194 It is for all the above reasons that the figures of God that we have examined are so helpful to us. “Apart from his self-disclosures to mankind, God is transcendent (the term itself is a figure) and therefore ultimately beyond all human comprehension. In one sense, then, all language about God must be analogical and metaphorical because ‘God is so far above us that we can only approximate his glory.’”195 Nevertheless, the literary figures concerning God help us in finite proportion to grasp something of the infinite glory of his character and work.
When it comes to defining just who God is, among the many suggested definitions perhaps that of Augustus H. Strong, despite its limitations, is still as good as any: “God is the infinite and perfect Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.”196 Although the definition lacks a Trinitarian component and could founder on the problem of evil among other matters, it does provide a good working basis from which we can categorize the biblical truths, which lie behind the figures of God that we have been examining.
Surely God has revealed himself as an infinite being. He is bound neither by time (Ps. 90:2) nor space (1 Kings 8:27), though he can enter, and has entered, the world that he created (Pss. 104; 113:4-6). Indeed, the Bible reveals that he is an omnipresent God (Ps. 139:7-9). Interestingly enough, the figures we have studied underscore this very truth, the figures making this abstract truth more vivid to us as human beings.
Something of the infinite nature of God was seen as we studied the figures of God’s feet, hand, arms, and finger. We saw that although God walks on the “vault of heaven” (Job 22:14) and that the clouds are like dust under his feet (Nah. 1:3), he also is present on earth (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14) in mighty power, directing its affairs (Jer. 27:5). These facts are in harmony with the truth that although God transcends the universe he created, he is also immanent in its activities (Ps. 113:4-6).
As well, the Lord is an omnipresent God, a truth that is often expressed in the Scriptures. For example, the psalmist says,
Where can I go to escape your Spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there.
If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be (Ps. 139:7-8).
Paul tells the Athenians that God “is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). He goes on to point out that this truth accounts for our very lives (v. 28). The truth concerning the omnipresence of God contains both a warning and a blessing. For the unbeliever, it is a reminder that there is no place he can go to escape or hide. The all-seeing God is everywhere present (Heb. 4:13). For the believer, God’s omnipresence is an assurance that he is available to him in his everyday activities. Such should serve as a source of encouragement to walk carefully before the Lord (Gen. 17:1; Deut. 8:6; 10:12), mindful that whatever happens and wherever he goes, God is present with him (Pss. 66:8-12; 91:5-16).
Several of the figures relative to God’s “bodily parts” are linked to the truth of his eternity. Such is the case with the figure of God’s arms sustaining the believer, for it is linked to the truth of his eternity (Ps. 90:2). Accordingly, Moses blessed Israel saying, “The eternal God is a refuge, and underneath you are his eternal arms” (Deut. 33:27). We are also reminded that God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11).197 Thus mortal man has a capacity for understanding the concept of eternity and has a longing for it even though he cannot fully grasp the truth of it in the way that the Eternal One does. Yet it is the Lord who has made provision for a believing mankind to spend eternity with him (Jn. 3:16). The truth contained in this most familiar biblical text indicates that those who truly believe in Christ will never perish spiritually but will have eternal life. This means that not only in the ages to come but already he enjoys that quality of life that flows from it (Jn. 5:24; 6:40; 10:28). Throughout his pilgrim walk, then, the believer may open his mouth and let his tongue declare, “His right hand and his holy mighty arm accomplish deliverance” (Ps. 98:1).
Moreover, the fact that God has set a capacity and longing for eternity in man should provide a stimulus for all those who have entered into a believing relationship with God. There should be a desire to exercise “beautiful feet” (Rom. 10:13-15) in telling unbelievers of God’s plan of salvation in order that all people may come to know Christ and enjoy everlasting life with him (Jn. 17:3).
Our study of the figures relative to God’s “bodily parts” also taught us to view some of the elements of God’s perfection. In our examination of the figure of God’s eyes and ear we noted that a holy God sees all that happens on earth. As well, his ear is open to the prayers of the penitent. Because he is a holy God (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:1-2), he demands a holy walk in his sight: “Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! Learn to do what is right!” (Isa. 1:16-17). The Lord also hears the prayer of those who in true repentance confess their sin (1 Jn. 1:18-19). Those who maintain a holy lifestyle may with confidence call upon the Lord and expect his answer (Ps. 17:1-6).
An important element of God’s holiness is his righteousness. The Bible clearly proclaims that God is essentially a righteous person (Ps. 11:7; Dan. 9:14). All that he does reflects that righteousness: “His work is majestic and glorious, and his faithfulness (or righteousness) endures forever” (Ps. 111:3).
A related element of God’s holiness is found in his administrative (Lev. 19:1-37) and judicial (Neh. 9:33; 2 Tim. 4:8) holiness, or his justice. Righteousness and justice serve as the twin foundations of his throne (Ps. 89:14). God judges the world in righteousness (Ps. 96:10). So it is that by these he both administers events of earth’s history and is its only Lord and Savior (Isa. 45:21). The classic text that expresses all of this is found in Deuteronomy 32:4:
As for the Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are just.
He is a reliable God who is never unjust,
he is fair and upright.
We have seen these expressions of God’s attribute of holiness in several of the figures that we have considered. We noted that because believers have been made a living spiritual temple built of living stones (1 Pet. 2:5), holiness should pervade the church’s atmosphere. When this is so, God will walk in its midst and enter into fellowship with the believers. But such a promise demands a proper response in lifestyle and conduct. Thus Paul delivers the Lord’s message saying,
Therefore, “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord,
“and touch no unclean thing,
and I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,”
says the All-Powerful Lord (2 Cor. 6:17-18).
So it is that the believer should “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) in accordance with the way that Jesus walked (1 Jn. 2:6). One distinct path to doing so is by studying God’s Word and making its precepts a veritable road map to the pathway of life. By doing so the believer may proclaim with Job of old, “My feet have followed his steps closely; I have kept to his way and have not turned aside” (Job 23:11).
We noted as well that God’s judgment must come when sin has violated his holy and righteous standards. Thus the Lord warned Jerusalem that he would in complete justice “set his face” against it (Jer. 21:10, MT ) and “turn his face” away while foreign nations despoiling it (Ezek. 7:21-22). Those nations that God uses to chastise his people should in turn realize that the Lord is righteous (Ps. 7:9). Should they not meet the revealed holy standards of God (Prov. 14:34; cf. Jer. 25:31), they will also face God’s punishment (Ps. 9:15-19; Isa. 45:5-9). In the day of their judgment they will see the severity of his justice, for he will come against them with “lips full of anger” and a tongue that is “like consuming fire” (Isa. 30:27, MT).
The Apostle John describes that day when the Lord Jesus will come with his holy angels to judge the heathen: “From his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful” (Rev. 19:15). How much better, then, for people to let God’s holiness and righteous standards guide their lives. As did Peter, the wise person will heed the psalmist’s (Ps. 34:12-16) advice:
The one who wants to love life and see
good days must keep his tongue from
evil and his lips from uttering deceit.
And he must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are upon
the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil (1 Pet. 3:10-12).
Our study has also touched on figures that underscore God’s love. Love is that attribute of God’s perfection whereby he is moved to communicate himself toward mankind. The Scriptures repeatedly affirm that God’s very nature is love (e.g., Ps. 89:2; 2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Jn. 4:8). As we have seen, the Bible records God’s love for Israel, his covenant people: “I have loved you with an everlasting love. That is why I have continued to be faithful to you” (Jer. 31:3). The word translated “faithful” (lit., with loving-kindness) here is the same one that was discussed at length in chapters six and seven in connection with the figures of God’s eyes and ears: Hebrew hesed. It is used of God’s “loyal love” (Ps. 36:7), a love that is better than life itself (Ps. 63:3).
As we noted, this word has been translated variously but it is especially significant as God’s covenant love toward his people Israel. It was on the basis of God’s love that he redeemed his people, bringing Israel out of Egypt (Ps. 136:10-22). Then he guided them into the Promised Land. Israel was his special treasured possession (Ex. 19:15; Deut. 7:6; 14:1-2; 26:16-19; Ps. 135:4). So it was that the psalmist could pray, “Your love is before me (lit., my eyes), and I walk continually in your faithfulness” (Ps. 26:3. MT). On another occasion the psalmist petitioned the Lord, “Listen (lit., incline your ear), O LORD! Answer me!” For the Lord is one who is “kind and forgiving,” and shows “great faithfulness (hesed) to all who cry out to you” (Ps. 86:1, 5). It is no surprise, therefore, that the Lord cries out to all, “Turn to me so you can be delivered, all you who live in earth’s remote regions. For I am God, and I have no peer” (Isa. 45:22).
In the New Testament God’s great love for all is attested, as we have seen, in the well-known John 3:16. The unique Greek construction in this text emphasizes that God gave because he loved. By its use John lays stress on both the cause and results of God’s love: God gave because he loved. John’s construction suggests that the giving is equally as important as the loving. This is of vital importance. It immediately draws our attention not only to the kind of God the Lord is, a God of love, but to the actual fact of the incarnation of the Son. In that act God in love gave the Savior.
Paul points out that for those who believe they, like Israel of old, experience God’s great kindness (Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4-7). New Testament believers also become part of God’s family with all the privileges granted to his Old Testament people (cf. Gen. 12:1-3 with Gal. 3:26-29), including being his precious people (cf. Ex. 19:5-6 with 1 Pet. 2:5, 9-10).
How great, then, is God’s loving-kindness! It makes all who are the recipients of his grace his earthly family. It is interesting to note further how appropriate this is, for the English adjective “kind” is related to a root that has also produced our English noun “kin.” Both words are ultimately linked to a root meaning, “to produce,” as well as the German word “kind” (child). God’s love for a needy world truly is wondrous.
God’s love, its from eternity;
so great was God’s love, Jesus went to Calvary.
God’s love it reaches to you and me;
by knowing God’s love, it makes us family.
Therefore, when we contemplate the ears and eyes of God, let us remember that among the several truths concerning the nature of God it points to, it also demonstrates his holiness, righteousness, justice, and love. Well did the psalmist proclaim:
O LORD, your loyal love reaches to the sky;
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your justice is like the mighty mountains,
your fairness like the deepest sea;
you preserve mankind and the animal kingdom.
How precious is your loyal love, O God! (Ps. 36:5-7).
Our figures also provide a guide to God’s mercy and grace, grand elements of his love. So it is that the psalmist declares, “I love the LORD because he has heard my plea for mercy” (Ps. 116:1). Here the outcry of the psalmist catches the “ear” (MT) of God (v. 2). That is because, “The LORD is merciful and fair; our God is compassionate” (v. 5).
The preceding discussion makes it abundantly clear that God is a person with an emotional make-up: God loves, is gracious, merciful, kind, and compassionate. The verses we have just considered also provide an entrance into two more aspects of God’s personality: his intellect and his will. These are traditionally designated omniscience and omnipotence. As we consider each of these we must keep in mind that although we can contemplate the various attributes of God in distinction from one another, yet as a perfect being all of God’s nature works in perfect harmony. Yes, even God’s love is more than an emotion; it is a reasoned and self-determined love, his whole personality working in perfect symmetry: intellect, emotions, and will.
The Scriptures clearly reveal that God is omniscient. He has perfect and complete knowledge and wisdom. He knows all things. Even the thoughts (Pss. 44:21; 94:11; Isa. 66:18; Lk. 11:17), desires (Ps. 38:9), and motives (Pss. 7:9; 139:2; Prov. 16:1-2) of man are open and known to the Lord. He sees all that happens (Prov. 15:3), every single act (Ps. 139:1-4; Mt. 10:30). He even knows the end from the beginning (Ps. 139:16; Isa. 45:21; 46:10; Rev. 22:12-13). We have seen something of God’s omniscience in the study of the eye and the ear. We noted the psalmist’s rhetorical question that implied, “Yes, God hears and sees everything” (Ps. 94:9). We saw in our discussion that the eyes of God point to a great truth: “No creature is hidden from God’s sight, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:13).
Likewise we noted that the figurative use of the ear speaks of his awareness of all things everywhere. He heard the groaning of his people in Egypt (Ex. 2:24; 6:5) and their complaints on their journey to the Promised Land (Ex. 16:1-5; cf. Ex. 14:13). He heard the boasts of King Sennacherib when he came against Jerusalem (Isa. 37:24-25) as well as the prayer of Hezekiah with regard to the problem (2 Kings 19:20). We saw that David understood that God could know and hear his thoughts even before they were formed on his tongue (Ps. 139:2).
The realization that God knows our desires and needs and will hear our prayer provides a great stimulus for us as believers to spend time in prayer communing with the Lord. For he knows what is best for us (1 Jn. 5:14-15). Therefore, as the Scripture declares, believers ought to always to pray (1 Thess. 3:10; 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:8), for God’s ear is always open to them. Employing the well-known call-answer motif, the Lord invites his people to commune with him: “Call in prayer to me and I will answer you. I will show you great and mysterious things you do not know about” (Jer. 33:3).
The third component of God’s personality is God’s omnipotent will. By his omnipotence, we understand that God is all-powerful in all things. We have noted repeatedly in looking at the various figures relative to God’s “bodily parts” that he is the sovereign Lord of the universe. He directs all things everywhere, including planet earth, in accordance with his own will. This means that he has the authority and power to do whatever is consistent with his perfectly wise and holy nature.
God’s feet reminded us of the truth that he is the Creator and Controller of the universe, and that he directs all things according to his divine purpose. God’s hands picture his omnipotence not only in creation but his providential control of all his own people. The figure of God’s face tells of his glory and majesty as well as his active presence in the world. God’s mouth, lips, and tongue declare his sovereign authority and will in all things. God’s eye points to his authority and directing of the affairs on earth in connection with his divine government. God’s ear gives assurance that the Lord has the power to provide for the protection and needs of all creation, particularly his own.
How wonderful and rewarding to know that God has revealed himself in this fashion. The study of the figures of speech relative to God’s “bodily parts” yields not only a description of God’s power and activity but points us to deeper truths concerning his character and attributes. The texts that contain these figures may not be formed as propositional statements but they nevertheless convey theological information. They do convey truth about God.198 Moreover, the information gathered from our examination of such figures is in harmony with theological truth presented elsewhere in other literary settings.
All of this makes us realize more clearly that the imagery that portrays God’s infinity, perfection, personality, and spiritual nature makes understandable that which is beyond our human capacity to understand fully (cf. Ps. 92:5; Isa. 55:8-9). These figures help us to appreciate that God is a real person who is both knowable and longs to have fellowship with a believing mankind, even though God’s people have not always responded properly to him or to his messengers (Jer. 7:25; 11:7-8; 25:3-4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14-15; 44:4-5).
Thus far from being merely another study of scriptural topics, the contemplation of figurative speech concerning God’s person and walk gives us better insight into how we should conduct our lives. By knowing what God is like we understand what he expects us to be and what possibilities a life lived on the highest plain can provide both now and forever. Such is only natural since God created us in his own image to be moral, rational, spiritual beings capable of fellowship with him (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:3; 1 Cor. 15:49).
Although it is true that as a finite being man can know God, yet at the same time he cannot know God exhaustively or comprehend God fully. We can only apprehend what he comprehends. As we have seen in the opening chapter, this is especially true of man in his fallen state. Nevertheless, God has provided a means for man to know him in a fresh and exciting way. Through the finished work of Christ man’s sin-darkened mind becomes enlightened, his degraded emotions uplifted, and his once sin-dominated will freed to worship God and serve him. Although the believer has not yet attained spiritual perfection (cf. Phil. 3:12), in a large measure God’s original purpose for man’s creation can now be experienced with new vitality and renewed intimacy of fellowship.
Herein our study of the various idioms and figures relative to God and the believer proves to be a tremendous aid. As we studied the various figures of speech relative to God we also noticed that much of the same imagery was used of Jesus Christ, God’s unique Son. It is instructive to note therefore that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3) and that as believers taken into an indissoluble spiritual union with the risen Christ (Gal. 2:20), we are being conformed to his very image (Col. 3:10). In this spiritual reality Christ and the believer exist in vital union with each other (Eph. 5:29-30), the believer receiving his life only in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:3-4).
As we are being conformed to our Lord’s image, we grow in grace and knowledge before him (2 Pet. 3:18). We learn to walk in purity and wisdom before the Lord (Gen. 17:1; Prov. 28:26) and to have our hands full in faithful service for him. We are challenged to commit ourselves daily into the hands of Christ and God the Father (Jn. 10:28-29). As believers we should “seek his presence (lit., face) always” (Ps. 105:4), live our lives in purity and reverential fear in his presence (2 Cor. 2:17; 1 Pet. 1:17), and let our mouths, lips, and tongue declare his praise (Pss. 22:22, 25; 51:14-15). As those who are God’s people, let us look unto the Lord (Heb. 12:1-2), keeping our eye fixed on “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), and our ear attentive to his Word (Isa. 1:10; 50:4-5; Rev. 2:7). And such we can do if we follow the Lord’s command, “Love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being and all your strength” (Deut. 6:5 cf. Mt. 22:37).
We took note of Frances Havergal’s poem “Take My Life and Let It Be” at the close of our discussion on the foot (Chapter 2). Having considered the truths relative to the description of God as having bodily parts and their implications for our lives, it seems only fitting to conclude with another look at her grand confession of consecration. Often referred to as “the consecration poet,” the words to this poem came to Havergal on a final night of her visit to a home where she was sharing her faith with many unconverted.199 Her expression of an unfeigned desire to give herself “ever, only, all for Thee” encourages us to do no less.
Truly, Havergal’s timeless words, now set in the familiar hymn tune by Cesar Malan and available in most every hymnbook, remind us that our very lives and all that we are belong to the Lord. For she speaks of the exercise of our bodily parts as empowered by God: hands and feet, voice and lips, together with our total personality: intellect, emotions (heart), and will—all of it poured out in loving service to the Lord. Surely Havergal has written in practical terms the outworking of what our study has shown us. All that we are—body, soul, and spirit—it’s all for him! And when this is real and true in our lives, we may with joy look forward to that day when we shall stand in his presence and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful slave … Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8). We close with a similar sentiment from Sylvanus Phelps:
All that I am and have, Thy gifts so free,
In joy, in grief, thro’ life, Dear Lord for Thee!
And when Thy face I see, My ransom’d soul shall be,
Thro’ all eternity, Something for Thee.200
190 Ralph L. Smith, Old Testament Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 80.
191 William W. Klein, “Exegetical Rigor with Hermeneutical Humility: The Calvinist-Arminian Debate and the New Testament,” in New Testament Greek and Exegesis, eds., Amy M. Donaldson and Timothy B. Sailors (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 36.
192 See Gerhard Hasel, New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).
193 In addition to the standard systematic and biblical theologies, note the varied conclusions found in The Flowering of Old Testament Theology, eds., Ben C. Ollenburger, Elmer A. Martens, and Gerhard Hasel; (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992).
194 See the informative discussion in J. C. L. Gibson, Language and Imagery in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 22-33.
195 Michael E. Travers, “Imagination as a Principle of Truth in the Bible,” paper read at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November, 2004. The enclosed citation is from Travers’ book, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 40.
196 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1907), 52.
197 See the discussion in the NET text note.
198 See the informative discussion by James Barr, “The Liturgical, the Allegorical, and Modern Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 44 (1989).
199 For details, see Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982), 239-41.
200 Sylvanus D. Phelps, “Something For Thee.”