“The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).
Our examination of God’s eyes begins with a strange detail: God has seven eyes. In one of his prophetic visions, Zechariah (c. 500 b.c.) saw seven lamps resting on a golden lampstand. The explanation followed: “These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth” (Zech. 4:10). The Lord has seven eyes and all seven are on a global search.
The final book of the New Testament—Revelation—is reminiscent of an Old Testament prophetical book because it’s filled with visions and symbolism. In Revelation 4–5, John describes his awe-inspiring vision of God, God’s throne, and the creatures surrounding the throne. As he gazed at this incredible scene John failed to notice someone so an elder directed his attention to one called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David” (5:5). When John looked again he saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). The Lamb is Jesus Christ who earlier in the New Testament was called “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The Lamb, however, doesn’t look like an ordinary lamb because it had seven horns and seven eyes. John’s explanation of the seven horns and eyes parallels Zechariah’s: the seven horns and seven eyes are “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). We can conclude that, in both Zechariah and Revelation, the seven eyes of God and the Lamb indicate God’s worldwide awareness.
The Significance of Seven
Let’s take a quick detour to trace the significance of the number seven in the Bible. After creating the earth in six days, God rested on the seventh day giving the number seven the significance of completion or perfection (Gen. 2:2–3). The divine pattern of work and rest was intended to be a model for humans and codified in the Ten Commandments: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:9–10). Even the land itself was included in this pattern of work and rest as the people of Israel were commanded to observe a year of agricultural rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:4). Sowing, reaping, and pruning were prohibited: “in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev. 25:4).
We also find the number seven in the number of annual festivals Israel observed: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. It’s as if seven completes a cycle and all life should revolve around it. Seven is also the number of perfect purity: “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). The number seven is used most prominently in the book of Revelation where seven seals of a scroll are opened, seven angels blow seven trumpets and seven bowls are poured out on the earth. The seals, trumpets, and bowls are the symbols of God’s wrath. And when the seventh of each symbol is completed, God has completed that series of wrathful expression. With this background in mind it shouldn’t surprise us that God is described as having seven eyes. God’s seven eyes signify God’s exhaustive and perfect vision.
An Evil Perspective
Everyone, however, doesn’t believe in God’s all-seeing ability. After lying and crushing the helpless, the wicked say, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (Ps. 10:11). The evildoers “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive’” (Ps. 94:6–7). The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of seventy elders of Israel worshiping idols behind closed doors and reassuringly telling each other, “The Lord does not see us” (8:12). And that lie spread throughout the whole land of Israel resulting in murder and injustice (9:9). What we believe about God’s ability to see will affect the way we live.
A Righteous Perspective
Contrary to the claims of the wicked, the Lord’s eyes are in perfect condition and he sees everything, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3). “For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes” (Jer. 16:17). “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). The righteous believe that God is fully aware of what is happening. He sees it all.
Responding to God’s All-Seeing Ability
How does it make you feel to know that God sees everything? For some the thought of God’s all-seeing ability brings comfort. It’s good to know that someone who is just and powerful is watching all of the injustice in the world and will one day do something about it. It’s also good to know that God will reward all of those who have carried out kind and compassionate deeds.
For others, the thought God’s all-seeing ability is disturbing—like looking up and seeing a universal surveillance camera. After all, someone who stares seems intrusive and up to no good. But if “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:9), he only looks with the purest of intentions. The Father who sent his only Son to die for our sins does not look at us with sinister motives. He’s looking so that he can provide for both our temporary and eternal needs and that includes our need for final and perfect justice.
In addition, our actions may cause us to feel a bit unsettled when we think of God’s exhaustive vision. For example, I’m happy to see a police officer when a driver recklessly passes my car, but when I’m driving over the speed limit I’d prefer for the officers to be off-duty. Likewise, we hope God notices when we go out of our way for others, but when we cheat and gossip we hope he’s not looking.
Finally, the existence of evil and suffering can create more than a feeling of uneasiness at the thought of God’s all-seeing ability. If God is good and sees everything, why do we suffer so much? Why is he watching and not doing something about the evil in this world? Abuse, cancer, deception, murder—is it all just entertainment for him? Personally experiencing evil and suffering makes this question even more poignant causing some who suffer to conclude that “God isn’t watching” or “God is watching but he doesn’t care.”
God’s Vision and the Existence of Evil
We can find help with the challenge of evil from the book of Habakkuk (c. 500 b.c.). But in light of what we’ve already learned about God’s eyesight, the prophet Habakkuk’s words are at first glance perplexing: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (1:13). Did the prophet think God’s vision was limited? Does God not see evil? This brings us to an important interpretive principle laid down centuries ago: The clearer parts of Scripture should illuminate the more obscure parts. Since there are a plethora of Scriptures supporting God’s unlimited vision and Habakkuk worked within that framework of belief, his statement shouldn’t be understood to be a limitation on God’s vision. Instead Habakkuk must be speaking in another sense. We often speak in different senses. For example, we say, “What a pleasant breeze,” but in another sense, “The wind is a nuisance.” Words spoken in different senses may sound contradictory but they’re not.
Although Habakkuk’s statement appears to refer to God’s ability to see, it actually refers to God’s attitude toward what he sees. This is made clearer in other translations: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (1:13, NIV). “But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil” (1:13, NLT). Isaiah seems to be speaking in this sense as well when God declared through him, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you . . . your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15). God sees evil because God sees everything. In fact, the flood was set in motion by God’s ability to see human wickedness: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Gen. 6:5). Habakkuk’s point then is not that God doesn’t see evil, but that God doesn’t look approvingly on evil.
Unless we’ve become numb to viewing evil, we can relate to this concept. Even as imperfect humans we can’t bear to watch despicable acts of evil. If we can’t bear to watch evil what must the perfect God feel like when he looks down on the evil acts of humanity? God is not watching everything in the same way. He sees it all, but he doesn’t approve of it all. Habakkuk’s statement helps us to make a vital distinction between God’s attitude toward what he sees and God’s ability to see. And that distinction should alleviate some of the tension we feel regarding God’s universal vision and the existence of evil. Some of the tension, however, will remain because we must wait for God to fully express his attitude toward evil at the final judgment.
God’s Personal Vision
While God’s exhaustive vision is an important truth, it should be balanced with the truth of God’s personal vision. If God sees everything in essentially the same way—if he’s not differentiating and looking at us in a personal way—then we as individuals aren’t special to him. So in addition to believing that God sees everything, we must also believe that God sees us as unique individuals. God gives his personal attention to us and that’s why he saw us while we were still in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13–16), knows our words before we speak them (Ps. 139:4), and knows the number of hairs on our head (Lk. 12:7).
Have you had an experience that caused you to realize God’s eyes were on you? If so, write it out and share it.
Hagar, Leah, and Israel
God has been giving his attention to needy individuals for thousands of years. After Sarai, Abram’s wife, dealt harshly with her servant Hagar, Hagar fled to a wilderness. But the angel of the Lord visited her, told her to return to Sarai, and then announced the future of the son in her womb. Hagar responded by calling the Lord, “You are the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13 NIV). A few chapters later, we read of the rivalry between Leah and Rachel for their husband’s affection. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb” (Gen. 29:31). God’s ability to see the woman in the wilderness and the unloved woman led him to act.
The same kind of divine attention was shown on a national scale to a nation of slaves. The people of Israel were living in bondage in Egypt when God told Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt” (Ex. 3:7). The suffering that Israel was enduring was not hidden from God. He saw it and he set out to relieve that suffering.
Israel the Oppressor
The God of the Bible doesn’t show favoritism and that means he didn’t turn a blind eye to Israel’s cruelty. Around 700 b.c., God promised to judge the leaders of Israel because “‘the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ declares the Lord God of hosts” (Is. 3:15). God is paying attention both to humans who are suffering and to humans who are causing that suffering, no matter who they are. And therefore God’s watchful eyes guarantee final justice for all.
God’s Message to Samuel
Has anyone ever stared at you making you wonder, “What are they looking at?” We don’t really want to know what they’re looking at because we know they’re looking at us. What we want to know is, “What is it about me that you’re focusing on?” We’ve already established that God is looking at us to ensure our protection and justice, but when he looks at us what is he focuses on?
In the process of anointing the future king of Israel, the prophet Samuel (c. 1000 b.c.) learned an important lesson about God’s vision. Samuel was sent to Jesse’s house where all of Jesse’s sons were presented to him. Impressed by the height and appearance of Jesse’s son Eliab, Samuel was certain that he had found the next king of Israel. “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’” (1 Sam. 16:7). The Lord sees differently than we see; he sees deeper. While we’re often attracted to the surface, God is focused on what’s beneath the surface. God is looking at us and specifically God is looking at our hearts. And that means he cares not only for what we do, but for why we do what we do. As God declared through Jeremiah, “I the Lord search the heart” (17:10).
Jesus and Nathanael
From the start of his ministry, Jesus’ vision was focused like a laser on the human heart. As Jesus’ first followers were coming to him, he saw Nathanael approaching and said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (Jn. 1:47). This strange greeting stunned Nathanael who then asked, “How do you know me?” In their first encounter, Jesus was looking into Nathanael’s heart. Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus continued, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (v. 48). That statement by itself may not lead us to think Jesus’ vision was miraculous because we often see others without them being aware that we saw them. But Nathanael’s exuberant response implies that he thought Jesus’ ability to see him was miraculous: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49). If we were to ask Nathanael about Jesus’ vision, he would tell us that Jesus can see internally and miraculously.
Jesus and Peter
Peter, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, was also the recipient of a penetrating glance of Jesus. The glance came after Jesus was arrested and led away to the high priest’s house. As Peter waited for the outcome in the courtyard, he sat near a fire, where he too, was put on trial. Three times Peter was accused of being one of Jesus’ followers and each time he denied it. “Man, I do not know what you are talking about,” was his final reply (Lk. 22:60). And after the rooster crowed, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (v. 61). Then Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (v. 62).
Why did Jesus’ gaze cause Peter to fall to pieces? Prior to his arrest, Jesus predicted that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny him three times. Instead of believing Jesus’ prediction, Peter claimed that he was ready to go with Jesus to prison and to death. When Jesus, bound with chains, looked at Peter, Peter remembered Jesus’ prediction and broke down. Jesus was right about Peter—he knew Peter better than Peter knew himself.
What are we capable of doing in the future? Jesus knows better than we do. Jesus’ vision of us is more accurate than our vision of ourselves.
Jesus and the Pharisees
Jesus not only looked into the hearts of his followers, he also looked into the hearts of his detractors. Near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus compared the scribes and Pharisees—one of the main religious groups of his day—to “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” He then continued, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28). Jesus wasn’t impressed with their religious appearance because he could see within to the reality of their hearts.
God is looking at our hearts, but what is he hoping to find? The Pharisees performed their religious activities such as giving, praying, and fasting in public, but Jesus commanded his followers to do their religious activities in secret (Matt. 6:1–18). And the encouragement to obey that particular command followed: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). Since God gives us his personal and private attention, we don’t need to seek the attention of others by putting on religious shows. And since God sees our hearts, we certainly don’t need to try to impress him with religious performances. Jesus declared, “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (Jn. 4:23). God is on a mission to find hearts that are sincerely worshiping him. As David said, God delights “in truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51:6).
Around 900 b.c., the prophet Hanani rebuked Asa, king of Judah, for trusting in Syria’s protection rather than the Lord’s. Hanani said, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chr. 16:9). To be “blameless” doesn’t mean to be perfect. Instead blameless, in this sense, refers to a wholehearted commitment to the Lord.[i] The Lord is searching for people who are looking to him and him alone in their time of need. The Psalmist stated, “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Ps. 33:18). God isn’t looking for perfect hearts, but hearts that are loyal to him, hearts that are trusting in him. God is conducting a global search for these kind of hearts. Why? So that he can “give strong support” to them.
The Lord is also looking to find humility in the human heart. According to Isaiah, since heaven is God’s throne and the earth serves as his footstool, earthly temples are not objects of God’s desire. God’s attention is elsewhere: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2). God is not impressed with the outward appearance which, in this case, is a grand building. God’s attention is on humble human hearts: “This is the one to whom I will look.” As James said, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). But since most of us struggle with pride in one form or another, where does God find humble people?
God often finds humble people in humble circumstances. And at times, God places his people in humble circumstances in order to develop humility within them. Any number of circumstances may bring us low to the ground: stranded by the side of the road like Christy, being threatened, losing a job, being diagnosed with a disease, or losing a loved one. Israel’s humbling circumstance was a forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness. As that period was coming to an end, Moses commanded the people,
“And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you . . . he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt. 8:2–3).
God was leading Israel through dire circumstances in order to develop within them the humility and trust he wanted to see. While difficult circumstances cause us to wonder if God can see us, Israel’s experience shows that he not only sees us in those circumstances, but he’s placed us in those circumstances for a reason.
The People of Nineveh
Humble hearts can also be acquired through repentance. The prophet Jonah (c. 750 b.c.) was called by God to leave Israel and preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. But Jonah refused and went in the opposite direction. While on his rebellious journey, Jonah’s ship was interrupted by a great storm. When the end looked imminent, Jonah acknowledged to the sailors that the storm was God’s judgment for his disobedience and then he told them to throw him overboard and the storm would subside. When they did, a great fish came along and swallowed him. But Jonah survived in the fish’s belly and three days later he was vomited onto dry land.
A second time Jonah was given his divine commission to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeyed and when he arrived he declared, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Although the people of Nineveh were proud and wicked causing God to threaten them with judgment, after hearing Jonah’s message, the entire city repented (vv. 5–9). And “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (v. 10).
“God saw what they did.” God sees in different ways. He sees our wicked deeds with anguish, but he sees our repentance from those wicked deeds with great delight. In Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, after the prodigal son recklessly spent his inheritance, he decided to return home. “But while he was still a long way off, he father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20). “His father saw him” and the father’s subsequent actions show that this was a greatly relieved and joyful kind of seeing. The father is a picture of our Father in heaven. When God sees us return to him he leaps for joy.
God’s response to the people of Nineveh was contrary to what Jonah wanted and it caused him much distress. Jonah’s initial rebellion was due to fear, not of the Assyrians, but of God’s inclination to show mercy (4:2).
If we’re honest, we may have felt the same as Jonah. We would have wanted God to follow through with his threat against those who hurt us. But God is different than us. The God of the Bible is forgiving. Micah writes, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love” (7:18). God stands ready and willing to forgive. His eyes are merciful.
The seven-eyed God sees it all and that ensures final and perfect justice. Of course, not everyone believes in God’s exhaustive vision, but the righteous do. The existence of evil and suffering doesn’t pose a challenge to God’s all-seeing ability, because God doesn’t approve of everything he sees. In addition to seeing everything, God sees us as unique individuals—seeing us in our mother’s womb and knowing the number of hairs on our head. While we may feel like our suffering is hidden from God’s eyes, he sees and he cares. When God looks at us, he’s particularly focused on our hearts and Jesus demonstrated that same focus during his public ministry. God is looking for sincerity, trust, and humility in the core of our being. If we don’t have what he’s looking for he may see fit to place us in humbling circumstances. Finally, we can humble ourselves through repentance and find the merciful and joyful eyes of God.
[i] Bruce Waltke with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 289.
For an entire study on divine anatomy see my book Seeing the Invisible God: 52 Biblical Reflections on Divine Anatomy.