It Was Told Before It Was Written

Israel grew up listening to Scripture. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”(Deut 6:4). Hear. Listen. Allow the words to enter your soul through your ears. Before any of Israel’s stories of faith and formation were put on parchment, they were spoken and heard in the form of narratives, parables, and sayings. The Jewish scriptures were told for centuries before they were written down.

For forty years after Jesus resurrection, there was no written gospel of his life. People listened to it before they read it. The letters of the New Testament, written by the early apostles, were meant to be read aloud so people could hear them. In the ancient world, texts were written in such a way that they made for good listening.

Before Gutenberg revolutionized printing in the fifteenth century, the vast majority of Christians didn’t have a Bible, and most couldn’t read. After Bibles began to proliferate, literacy rates remained low. Even in the 1800s, eighty-five percent of the world was still illiterate. The way people engaged with Scripture was to listen as someone read it aloud. That means the majority of our Christian ancestors grew up listening instead of reading the Bible. Theirs was a listening life. That life is largely lost to us today—those moments when we hear God’s word read over us, when the words ring out in open fields or around the sanctuary or through miniature speakers aimed at our eardrums. This listening life, a life committed to soaking in Scripture, needs to be recovered.

Listening and Reading

The spiritual practice of listening to Scripture is significant not only because our Christian ancestors did it. It’s significant also because Scripture listening forms us in ways that Scripture reading cannot. When we read, our default tendency is to study. We tend to pull the text apart and piece it back together. We draw conclusions and make decisions—we put the text to work. We’re seeking comprehension. We’re searching to grasp with the mind, to sharpen our thinking, to gather, to learn, and above all, to understand. When we read, we want to get something out of it.

When we listen, we have to leave all that behind. We lose our ability to be precise, there’s no underlining, cross-referencing, consulting commentaries, starring, or highlighting. When we listen, our default tendency is to marinate—instead of reading the words, we steep in them. When we listen we’re gaining apprehension. We’re laying hold of something, or better said, something is laying hold of us. We’re seized, captured, engaged, engrossed. A similar thing happens to us while listening to music. We get lost or caught up in it.

Scripture listening puts our hearts in a position to simply soak in the Word. In essence, when we listen to Scripture we’re not trying to get something out of it, we’re trying to get into it—to inhabit it and ultimately to be inhabited by it.

Listening to Scripture need not diminish our practice of reading it. It’s essential to understand what the Bible means. As Martin Luther told us, “If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.” Gaining Biblical understanding through reading is foundational. The intent of this essay is to draw attention to the lost art of listening to Scripture.

Listening and Doing

One of the most important qualities of listening to Scripture is that we can listen while we’re doing something else—things like driving a car, lifting weights, folding laundry, or taking a walk. Our heart dwells on the Word while our body processes a routine. We’re hearing God and acting at the same time. There’s a wonderful phrase of Charles Spurgeon: “Be walking Bibles.” That picture represents what I want for my life with Christ—ongoing communion with God while getting on with the business of living.

When I listen to Scripture, it’s almost as if I’m in two places at once. I’m with Him and with the world. I’m in it, but not of it. I move through the outside world and at the same time nourish my inner world. Hearing Scripture accomplishes that. It deepens and strengthens our experience in the present moment.

Spurgeon again points the way forward. “Visit many good books,” he writes, “but live in the Bible.” A powerful way to live in Scripture is to listen to it right in the middle of our ordinary life.

A final note on the importance of listening. It changes the mentality in which we receive the Word—it puts us in a different state or mode. When we’re reading, we control the experience. When we’re listening, we are participating in the text rather than controlling it. We take the Word as it’s given to us. We’re less independent and more dependent. There’s a subtle surrender in listening, a letting go. Fresh furrows are plowed somewhere inside our soul. We bear fruit in new and unexpected places.

Israel grew up in a culture devoted to listening to the scriptures. They used their ears to hear God’s Word. And we should too. This doesn’t mean we read less—far from it. It does mean that we work to recover and cultivate the listening life, a life that’s committed to listening to Scripture, a life that experiences fresh growth and grace as we keep God’s Word in our ears. As we do we can increasingly become the kinds of people who can say with the young Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Originally published May 2019.