“When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord” (1 Sam. 8:21).
When is the last time someone leaned over to speak in your ear? Has anyone ever been close enough to God to speak in his ears? The first biblical reference to God’s ears asserts just that. After being ruled by God for centuries, the people of Israel make their demand known to the prophet Samuel: “Give us a king!” The people want to change their theocratic government to a monarchy. They want permanent human leadership to defend and provide for them. They want a king like all the other nations, even though they had a King like no other nation.
The request displeases Samuel, so he presents it to the Lord. The Lord concedes to give the people what they want, but tells Samuel to warn them of the price they will have to pay for a king: taxes, forced labor, and soldiers for war. Samuel relays the message, but the people persist, “No! But there shall be a king over us” (v. 19). And this brings us to the ears of God because “when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord” (v. 21).
This is not the first reference to God’s ability to hear, but it is the first mention of divine ears. Why now? What’s the significance of Samuel repeating the people’s words in the Lord’s ears? By referring to God’s ears, the author is emphasizing Samuel’s intimate relationship with the Lord. You can almost see it: Samuel leaning in to the Lord’s ear and reporting what the people said. Of course, God had already heard what the people said, but there was something intimate happening between Samuel and the Lord. Since Samuel was the Lord’s trusted messenger, the Lord gave Samuel his full attention. Just as we say “I’m all ears” when we’re ready to give our full attention to a speaker, the Lord was “all ears” to Samuel’s words.
God’s ability to hear is also emphasized in the stories of answered prayer. Let’s recount a few answers to prayer starting with Samuel’s birth (c. 1050 b.c.) found in 1 Samuel 1. Samuel’s father, Elkanah, was married to two women: Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had several children, but Hannah couldn’t conceive. Instead of showing sympathy, Peninnah exacerbated Hannah’s problem by provoking her. This mistreatment continued for several years until Hannah had had enough. While at the temple praying and weeping, Hannah made a vow to the Lord promising that if he gave her a son she would dedicate him to the Lord. The priest on duty, Eli, observed Hannah praying and thought she was intoxicated because her lips were moving but no sound could be heard. Hannah explaining that she wasn’t drunk, rather she was in great emotional turmoil. Eli accepted Hannah’s explanation and then gave her a blessing. In due time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son and named him Samuel which sounds like the Hebrew word for “heard of God.” A couple years later, Hannah returned to Eli and entrusted him with her son. Samuel went on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history anointing the first two kings of Israel. Samuel’s entire existence and ministry were due to God’s ability to hear.
In the Gospel of Luke, divine hearing is highlighted once again in a birth story which occurred about a millennium after Samuel’s. Jesus’ forerunner was a prophet named John the Baptist who like Samuel was also born in answer to prayer. While serving as a priest in the temple, John’s father, Zechariah received heavenly confirmation that his prayer was heard. An angel appeared to Zechariah and said, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (Lk. 1:13). Zechariah was startled, not only was he looking at an angel, but the angel’s words seemed to come too late. By this time Zechariah and Elizabeth were “advanced in years” (v. 7) and their prayers for a son must have been a thing of the past. Instead of being excited at the angel’s announcement, Zechariah skeptically asked, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (v. 18).
Zechariah and Elizabeth once had prayed passionately for a child, but there was no answer, so they waited. As time passed, their waiting probably turned to questioning: “What’s taking so long? Is there something wrong with us? Can God even hear us?” Confusion turned into discouragement and discouragement turned into hopelessness. When the answer finally came, Zechariah’s experience was so dark that he almost couldn’t see the light. But the angel’s words came true and Elizabeth conceived and gave birth and they named the baby, John.
The Bitterness of Infertility
We’ve now encountered two women in the Bible who had trouble conceiving. In a time when women were without the hope of fertility treatment, and many were uneducated and unskilled in the labor force, infertility was an extremely bitter hardship to suffer. Barren women giving birth in answer to prayer gives cause for great rejoicing and highlights three things: life is a gift from God, God cares for the brokenhearted, and God turns sorrow into joy. In response, we should praise the Lord for this particular act of divine mercy: “He gives barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!” (Ps. 113:9).
God’s ability to hear and answer is a constant theme in the book of Psalms. David, who reigned from about 1010 to 970 b.c., wrote many of the Psalms. The eighteenth Psalm is David’s song of jubilation written after he was delivered from all his enemies including King Saul. Saul, the first king of Israel, was jealous of David and for several years actively sought to kill him. But Saul was unsuccessful and David explains why: “From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears” (18:6). David’s cry for help ascended upward until it entered God’s ears. And divine hearing led to divine action: “He rescued me from my strong enemy” (v. 17). In Psalm 34, David writes “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). But as we’ve seen with Zechariah and Elizabeth, God doesn’t always answer immediately so patience is required, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Ps. 40:1). At times the waiting becomes almost unbearable, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). Struggling with unanswered prayer is a common theme in the lives of God’s people: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:2).
One of the most spectacular answers to prayer occurred on Mount Carmel, located on the northwest coast of Israel. The prayer was offered up by the prophet Elijah who lived about a century after David. While vestiges of faithfulness to the Lord remained in the southern kingdom of Judah, Elijah preached to the northern kingdom of Israel which had all but abandoned the Lord. At the time, Ahab, king of Israel, promoted and participated in the worship of Baal—the storm-god of the Sidonians depicted as a warrior holding a lightning bolt. Since Baal was credited with providing rain and fertility, he was a special temptation to Israel whose economy was based on agriculture and livestock.
The worship of Baal was so common in Israel during Elijah’s day that on one occasion Elijah single-handedly challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to a contest. The terms were simple: place a sacrificial bull on an altar, cry out to the chosen god, and the god who answers by fire is the true God. The prophets of Baal went first and “called upon the name of Baal” from morning until the time of the evening sacrifice. They even cut themselves to get Baal’s attention, “but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention” (1 Ki. 18:29). Elijah, then, stepped forward, repaired the altar of the Lord, drenched the altar with water, and offered up a prayer that takes less than a minute to read. And, “The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Ki. 18:38). Imagine the exhausted and wounded prophets of Baal slouched over with their sacrificial animal still lying on the altar while a few feet away flames engulf Elijah’s offering. The contrast was striking and everyone knew what it meant, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (v. 39). The Lord’s ability to hear and answer made him the indisputable victor in his contest with Baal.
The Church’s Prayer
We have another dramatic answer to prayer from the New Testament book of Acts. Acts records the first thirty years of Christian history after Jesus ascended to heaven. During those early decades, Jesus’ followers preached to crowds of people, performed miracles, and were beaten and imprisoned. In Acts 12, the apostle Peter was imprisoned and guarded by “four squads of soldiers” while awaiting execution. The end looked near for Peter, but there was a glimmer of hope because, “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (v. 5).
God heard their prayers and sent the answer in the night. While sleeping between two soldiers, Peter was awakened by an angel, his chains fell off, and he walked out of the prison with the angel beside him. After walking down one street together, the angel disappeared. Peter’s first stop was the house of Mary “where many were gathered together and were praying” (v. 12). Since Peter was a leader of the early Christian community, his imprisonment was presumably the focus of many of their prayers that evening. But when Peter knocked on the door, a servant-girl named Rhoda was so surprised to hear his voice that instead of opening the door she ran back to tell everyone that Peter was at the door. The prayerful group of believers responded, “You are out of your mind” (v. 15). But Rhoda insisted while Peter continued knocking. Finally, when they opened the door, “they saw him and were amazed” (v. 16). They weren’t expecting their prayers to be answered, at least not in that way. God’s hearing was better than they thought.
While God’s finely-tuned hearing is confirmed by the experiences of individuals, God’s ears are also in-tune to the prayers of a nation. About two hundred years before Hannah, the Lord responded to the cries of an entire nation. The book of Exodus opens with the people of Israel serving as slaves in Egypt. Israel had arrived in Egypt about four hundred years earlier to escape a famine. Egypt was initially hospitable, but they eventually pulled out the welcome mat from underneath Israel’s feet. The king of Egypt, Pharaoh, felt threatened by the extraordinary growth of the people of Israel so he set taskmasters over them and sentenced them to hard labor. And, “In all their work they [Egypt] ruthlessly made them [Israel] work as slaves” (Ex. 1:14).
What was it like to grow up in that environment? As a young child you probably would have heard your parents narrate the story of Abraham, your founding father, who obeyed the voice of the one true God leaving behind his homeland and false gods without knowing his destination. Abraham set out on a journey spanning almost nine hundred miles because he believed in the God who promised to give him land, countless descendants, and make him a blessing to the entire world (Gen. 12:1–3).
Abraham believed God’s promise, but he had to overcome adverse circumstances. His wife, Sarah, couldn’t conceive and her infertility persisted for years. Although God reiterated his promise, the years turned into decades. And then when all hope was lost, at the age of ninety, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son. They named him Isaac meaning “he laughs” (Gen. 21:3).
As the promised son, the Lord’s blessing to Abraham was passed on to Isaac. The Lord was with Isaac in his journeys and in the finding of his wife Rebekah. And when Isaac grew old, he gave the blessing to his son Jacob, the wrestler. Jacob had twelve sons, who became twelve tribes, who became the nation of Israel. So Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the patriarchs of the Hebrew people. And throughout the Bible, God refers to himself as their God, as if he’s proud of it, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). They weren’t perfect men, but they were chosen by God to bless the world.
That’s your heritage, but it doesn’t feel like it. You wake up every day only to be yelled at by your Egyptian master while laboring under the hot sun. Seeing a fellow Israelite whipped and beaten you wonder, “Where is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? If we are followers of the one true God, why are we being treated like this?” Instead of hearing the sound of laughter and play, you only hear the sound of groaning and pain. Your parents are suffering, you are suffering, and the pain persists year after year. You have wonderful stories from the past mixed with bitter suffering from the present. Do you still believe in the God of Abraham? Do you still think your people will bless the world?
It may not have seemed like it to them at the time, but God was paying attention to Israel’s suffering in Egypt. “The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning” (Ex. 2:23–24). While God didn’t respond immediately, he heard more than their prayers, he heard their groanings. His hearing was sharp enough to hear the cries that couldn’t be expressed in words. As David said, the Lord hears “the desire of the afflicted” (Ps. 10:17). And at his chosen time, the Lord rescued Israel.
The Lord’s ability to hear is good news for the oppressed, but it’s devastating news for the oppressors. In rescuing Israel, God crushed Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. But the oppressed are also capable of becoming oppressors, so God warned the people he rescued to be fair to foreigners, widows, and orphans. And God specifically threatened Israel with his ability to hear: “If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (Ex. 22:23). God’s hearing is sharp and impartial. If the people of Israel mistreated the weak, they too would be crushed like Egypt.
In the New Testament, James also refers to the ears of the Lord with the purpose of threatening the perpetrators of injustice. To the rich who were withholding the wages of the harvesters, James warns, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4). God’s ability to hear is the peril of powerful oppressors.
The Barrier of Sin
Why does God make us wait or even deny our requests? The Old Testament prophets consistently point to sin as a barrier between our prayers and God’s ears. In response to Israel’s rebellion, the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (Jer. 11:11). To Ezekiel, “Though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them” (Ezek. 8:18). And to Zechariah, “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear” (Zech. 7:13).
The prophet Isaiah insightfully writes, “the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:1–2). Isaiah makes several important points. First, although it may seem like God has a hearing problem, he doesn’t. Second, a separation has occurred between Israel and Israel’s God. Third, the separation is Israel’s fault, not God’s. And finally, what seems to be a divine hearing problem is punishment for Israel’s sin. While God can hear the prayers of Israel, he chooses not to respond when his people are living in rebellion. The prophets teach that under certain conditions, God plugs his ears when people pray. David said it this way, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18). This makes repentance and confession essential habits for God’s people.
While sin interferes with the effectiveness of our prayers, every answer to prayer is ultimately due to God’s mercy. And that’s because in order to answer us, the infinite God must stoop down to hear and care for his finite and rebellious creatures.
The biblical stories in this chapter stress God’s ability to hear—a good or bad thing depending on who we are. The stories also stress God’s desire to help those who genuinely call out to him: women needing deliverance from infertility, David running for his life, Elijah needing a dramatic answer, and Peter in prison. In one form or another, everyone needs help in this life. And these stories consistently point us to God as the one we should turn to for help with our earthly troubles. We can cast all our cares on God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).
But we need more than help with our earthly problems. We carry around the guilt of our sins, the expectation of death, and the sense of something beyond the grave. So to whom can we turn for permanent, eternal help?
In Paul’s letter to Rome (c. a.d. 60), he lays out the heart of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. In chapter ten, Paul asserts that believing in Jesus as the one whom God has raised from the dead results in salvation (v. 9). And that assertion is quickly followed by another: a genuine faith will flow out of our mouths, “Jesus is Lord” (vv. 9–10). Continuing his thought, Paul explains that our confession of Jesus begins with a call to Jesus. Just as we believe that someone will be there to answer and help when we call 911, so our faith in Jesus results in a call to Jesus. But why would we bother to call on Jesus? Because we believe that Jesus has the power to save us eternally. And more than that, we believe Jesus is willing to save eternally everyone who calls out to him. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (vv. 12–13).
The God who rescued Israel from slavery and gave Hannah a baby, can be trusted to save us. But we must believe in him and call out to him as they did. Calling on the name of the Lord for eternal salvation is effective because God’s hearing is sharp and impartial, and his desire to save is strong.
For an entire study on divine anatomy see my book Seeing the Invisible God: 52 Biblical Reflections on Divine Anatomy.