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.
156 Compare Isa. 5:15.
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.”
169 For a further discussion of forgiveness in Psalm 51, see Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 252-267.
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.”