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

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