SPEAK, LORD; FOR THY SERVANT HEARETH
James Drummond Burns wrote a hymn which wonderfully captures the Old Testament account of the boy Samuel in the temple.
“Hushed was the evening hymn,
The temple courts were dark,
The lamp was burning dim
Before the sacred ark,
When suddenly a voice divine
Rang through the silence of the shrine.”
The hymn develops into a prayer, “O give me Samuel’s ear, The open ear, O Lord”, “O give me Samuel’s heart” and “Samuel’s mind” too. Listening to God is a vital part of Christian life. Listening in the quiet times, listening in the pressured moments of life, listening as worship in the Church.
Does God have anything to say to us about our listening to Him? Something to help us in this most important of disciplines? He does, and we shall try to listen well. From the very beginning God spoke to man. Also from the beginning, before His words had sunk into man’s heart the devil was there to steal it away. Our Lord’s parable of the sower confirms the devil is still active in this way. One of the first things to learn about listening to God is:
It involves a spiritual battle
The devil does not want us to hear, and since the Fall we do not naturally want to hear (1 Cor. 2:14). Battles require effort, exertion. We all know that real praying is hard work,
“What various hindrances we meet
When coming to the mercy-seat;
Yet who, that knows the worth of prayer,
But wishes to be often there!”
We must realise that listening to God involves hard work, but whoever knows the value of hearing Him will make the effort, and be rewarded.
Complaints that sermons are boring, hard to listen to and to understand, may have little to do with the preacher. Preachers may be at fault, but, often the problem can lie with the hearer’s own spiritual exertion or lack of it. We have to remember that we, our non-Christian friends and our unconverted children, have a natural disinclination really to listen to God. To listen to God we must brace ourselves for a battle.
Also at the beginning, God said, “Let there be light: and there was light”. Paul in 2 Cor. 4.6 reminds us that “God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This is spiritual illumination, God piercing the darkness of our minds and hearts with the light of truth. This gives us a second thing to learn about listening to God:
The absolute necessity and glorious reality, of the Holy Spirit’s power as we listen.
Many heard the Lord Jesus preach. Many of these left dissatisfied, but many found His words to be life to their souls. What made the difference? Our Lord tells us. In His prayer to His Father (Luke 10:21), Jesus “rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” In answer to Peter’s confession, Jesus said, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” The Lord opened the heart of Lydia so that she attended to the things Paul spoke. God made the difference, working from heaven, revealing the truth. Without this heavenly intervention listening becomes fruitless. It may be a moral or intellectual exercise, but not a spiritual one, and so it will be of no lasting value.
In listening we need the “Holy Spirit sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:13). I have been particularly impressed by the apostle Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1.16-19. It emphasises that even an inspired apostolic letter is of little profit without the complementary personal illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is as:
“the Spirit breathes upon the Word, and brings the truth to sight:” that “precepts and promises afford a sanctifying light”. William Cowper
O, how we need then, to pray for and expect the help of the Holy Spirit as we listen. How we need to appreciate that reading the Bible and listening to sermons are, above all, spiritual exercises. They go beyond ordinary reading and listening.
“O give me Samuel’s ear. The open ear, O Lord!” Paul tells us of the danger of having “itching ears”, ears open to whatever appeals and closed to anything else. We must beware of selective listening. I am thinking not so much of subjects we listen to but rather, selecting what we think is “God speaking to us” and what is not, “God speaking to us”. Let me try to illustrate what I mean. We remember Peter’s preaching to Cornelius: Peter unfolded the message of “peace by Jesus Christ”, he spoke of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and His being the Judge. Then Peter quoted the Old Testament promise, “Whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins”. With the quotation of this promise the Holy Spirit came down with confirming grace on all who heard.
We remember Stephen’s defence. It is a careful survey of the Old Testament days. The court listened patiently until the point of application when the message hit home (Acts 7:51-54). We remember Paul preaching at Athens, skilfully bringing his hearers from their agnosticism to a knowledge of God. They listened until he mentioned the resurrection, then the message became too telling and they stopped him.
In each message, Peter’s, Stephen’s and Paul’s, there came a point of critical significance to the listeners. A point when the message became tremendously real or unbearably uncomfortable.
We know that in reading the Bible and in listening to sermons, there are moments of critical significance, when there is an intense interaction between the message and ourselves. Our danger can be that as we listen, we are waiting for that intense interaction rather than listening to the message. Listening for a message rather than listening to the message.
We may be inclined to think. God is not speaking to us in the message until that special moment arrives.
A third thing then to learn about listening could be this:
We need to listen to the whole counsel of God, not just listen for selective sound-bytes.
As Peter preached to Cornelius’ household, it may well be that those few words of the gospel promise struck home to every heart. But that doesn’t detract from the rest of the message, as if it were, in some way, not God’s message. Peter as it were lays the fire, stick on stick, and with that final stick the whole fire ignites. God was as much in the laying of the fire as in the igniting of it. God would have us warmed by the whole fire not just one burning stick.
Preachers are taught, “A text, taken out of context, is a pretext”. God didn’t give us the Bible in lots of isolated texts. Each text is given in a particular setting, and its meaning can only be understood from that setting. If we give it a meaning that doesn’t fit in with the setting, we are obscuring the truth in order to favour our own ideas. As listeners we need to appreciate the same fact. God wants us to hear and understand the whole thrust of His message, not only to be impressed with highlights.
As we listen to God, let us avoid being selective listeners. Listening only for a “personal word”, while neglecting the whole message and thrust of Scripture. Or listening only for a general message while avoiding any personal challenge. We are not to dictate to God what we want to hear, rather we say, “What hast Thou to say to me!”
This leads on to a fourth lesson about how we listen. James tells us to “receive with meekness the engrafted word” and “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only. …” James 1:21-25:
Listening requires a servant’s heart
Samuel’s prayer showed he had such a heart, “Speak; for thy servant heareth”. If we think about it, pride and disobedience feed each other, and so do humility and obedience. If in pride we disobey, in pride we will defend our disobedience, this increases our pride making us even less willing to obey, and on and on it will go. If in true meekness we obey, we find “His commands are not grievous” and He is the kindest Master. Then we will the more readily listen and obey again. The Lord Jesus said “take heed how ye hear”; we may harden our hearts and make listening impossible. But if we listen with humility we will be given ability to listen even more.
The Lord also tells us, “If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” The simple verse, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”, is perfectly true.
Oh how we need Samuel’s heart and Samuel’s mind if we are to have Samuel’s ear. Good listening is a spiritual exercise and a spiritual battle. Good listening pays attention to the whole of God’s message and its personal implications. As we listen we must do so with hearts ready to obey.