Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Pretty much every parent knows the art of repetition. And the more important something is, the more it gets repeated. So, when I find myself repeating myself--almost as a habit--to my son, I know that he is not listening and I've adjusted to his not listening by repeating myself yet again!
God repeats the Hebrew root for hearing/listening 11 times in the 22 verses of Isaiah 48! And it definitely comes across as a parent reminding a child of just how much they haven't been listening.
The reminders start right away, in verse 1:
Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel and come from the line of Judah...
This word, "listen," is the Hebrew word shama. As described here (https://www.pathofobedience.com/words/shama/), "It means to hear, to listen, to give attention, to understand, to submit to, and to obey. There is only one word in Hebrew for obedience, and it is this word – shama. This Hebrew word is also generally translated as 'hear.' "
To listen is to hear is to obey.
We find again that our English words betray us somewhat in our attempts to understand what God's word is saying. "Listen" and "hear" do involve behaviors in English, but they are fairly passive actions--although in their best forms, such as "active listening," they are crucial for optimal communication and showing interest and care. Still, these English words do not refer to someone automatically obeying in response to what they hear. In contrast, the Hebrew shama emphasizes action rather than just mental assent to what one has heard.
And so, God can call Israel out to say that they have not truly heard, which means they have also not obeyed.
There are 10 other instances in this chapter:
Four verses (3, 5, 6, & 20) translate as "showed" or "told/foretold." This is still shama, which also refers to making a proclamation that is heard.
Verse 6 has a double shama, actually, and God tells Israel, "You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them?"
Verse 7 talks about Israel not hearing before what God is now telling them. He's giving new information.
Verse 8 points out that it is new information because they weren't listening before! "You have neither heard nor understood; from of old your ear has not been open."
Verses 12, 14, and 16 all contain invitations for Israel to now listen and actually hear.
Strong's opening definition of shama is useful here: "to listen intelligently (often with implication of attention, obedience)."
I admittedly think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person; however, I am often not intelligent enough to actually listen intelligently to what God is saying! I am just as dense as Israel sometimes.
I suspect that there are many others who join me in this chosen deafness. When we wonder where God is sometimes, we may essentially be walking around with blindfolds that we have put on ourselves with our own hands stopping up our ears.
This week I had a lovely conversation with a friend who was encouraging me by sharing stories of two of her family members who either survived cancer or were currently doing pretty well with cancer treatment. She mentioned that it is times like these when we notice God most near and that we'd have to be blind to not see God's hand at work all over the place. While we look for giant miracles, we miss the mini ones every day when someone who is suffering can take another breath, or has a treatment that gives them relief for a time, or finds a doctor who makes a correct diagnosis. Our minds latch onto the negative of what we're going through and miss these little miracles.
God's words in verses 17-18 pointedly apply to us today as well:
I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
How many times have I been in that very situation--that in some terrible self-fulfilling prophesy, I was the cause of my own angst. By stopping up my ears and not listening to the Lord, I missed out on the peace and righteousness that could have been as refreshing as a river or sea.
I pride myself on not fully succumbing to the noise of this world--so much has been written about how we are currently eradicating silence and therefore true listening from our lives. We fill every waking moment with videos, music, and dialogue. How can we hear the Lord's voice in this cacophony? Even though I refrain from much of this, I still turn to these distractions enough that when I am tired or stressed they are my first go-to. I am easily overstimulated and somehow my answer sometimes is....more stimulation??
I know better than this, and was instructed by those living and no-longer-living to pursue solitude, silence, and attentive listening in order to connect with God.
20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote extensively about silence and solitude. For example:
The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living. Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person. He no longer lives as a man. He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost his spontaneity. He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself. (From The Silent Life)
And in Thoughts In Solitude, he writes,
Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.
We understand what it means for a soldier to stand at attention. I'm not sure many of us understand what it means to listen attentively to God. We fail at this in our prayer if the only prayer we do is supplication. We can listen by saturating ourselves in Scripture, since these are God's words. We can listen by sitting quietly long enough to put at rest our thoughts and concerns and to focus on God. We can listen by starting with surrender, just as Jesus taught in the Lord's prayer, which starts with adoration ("Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name") and then moves to surrender ("Thy kingdom come").
I know these things but it's not a shama type of listening if I don't do them!
I've written before about how Babylon is a stand-in for all sorts of evils. Verse 20 says to, "Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians!"
Leaving and abandoning whatever is holding us back from truly listening is the path of peace. As John of the Cross said,
It is best to learn to silence the faculties and to cause them to be still so that God may speak.
Or as James 1:19 reads, at the start of an excellent section on listening and doing,
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.