“O God, Listen To My Prayer” (Ps. 54:2): God’s Ear And Our Petition
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?
Provider And Protector
“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.
God’s Special Love For His People
“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.”