Hear the Word of the Lord / Awake


The command, “Hear the Word of the Lord!” is common in the OT (e.g., 1 Ki. 22:19; 2 Ki. 7; 2 Chr. 18:18; Isa. 1:10; Jer. 2:4; Ezek. 13:2; Hos. 4:1;Amos 7:16, etc. ) but as far as I can tell, such a command does not occur in the NT, though there are other occurrences in the NT where it is said that people “heard the word of the Lord” (Act 13:44; 19:10., and see esp. Act 19:20- “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed”).

Now also observe that in the OT, it is curiously common in the poetic and prophetic literature to call upon God to “awake!” (e.g., Psa 7:6; 35:23; 44:23; Isa 51:9 [esp. urgent here!], etc). Yet curiously, as Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out, “Nowhere in the New Testament is God called on to awake. One might say, God is there presented as having already awoken, already acted.” (This same thing, I would add, could be said of the absence of the command “hear the Word of the Lord” in the NT; one might say, to paraphrase O’Donovan, that God is there as having already spoken.”)

On top of this all, we have the rather odd statement of Paul (who is apparently quoting someone else) in Ephesians 5:14, “Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” (NRSV)

So there we have it:

-In the OT, the prophetic call is to hear the Word of the Lord, but in the NT there appears (esp. in Acts) to be great evangelical confidence that the Word of the Lord is being heard and “prevailing mightily.”

-In the OT, the saints called upon God to Awake!, but in the NT we are called upon to awake, for God has already spoken in Christ (Deus Dixit). [On Deus Dixit, see especially the discussion by Karl Barth in Göttingen Dogmatics, §3, “Deus Dixit”, pp. 45-68]

And in that self-awakening (which O’Donovan calls “attending carefully to being attentive”) , the issue is not, “Has the Lord spoken?” or even “Where and through whom has the Lord spoken?” but perhaps more tellingly, “Why haven’t we heard? What is keeping us from hearing?”

If the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, the problem may not be in how often (or how little) God speaks through the preacher, but in how poorly attentive we are to hearing that Word. And, for what its worth, I believe a major contributing factor (and by no means the only one–there are many others I am sure) to inattentiveness to the Word of God in preaching is, ironically, our own theo-critical adeptness. We are so good at noting exegetical and theological problems in preaching (not that these problem are excusable as much as we allow ourselves so easily to be distracted by them) that we are thereby prevented from hearing–not because we are inattentive per se, but because we are attentive to things other than an attentiveness/wakefulness to Deus dixit.



5 thoughts on “Hear the Word of the Lord / Awake

  1. I am curiously reminded of Mark 4:35-41 where Jesus is having a good sleep in the boat until his disciples wake Him up. Apparently they thought they were going to perish in the storm. Did the disciples call on God to awake? Did the disciples know they had called on God to awake? Uhmm…

    What of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism or at the transfiguration? Did God the Father Speak?

    What of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus was known to say “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15). Is this not functionally the same as “Hear the word of the Lord”?

    As far as we being called to awake in the NT, this also appears in the OT. Is. 52:1 calls for Zion to awake, Joel 1:5 calls for drunkards to awake, and so it goes. If “awake” is a call to act, as it would seem to be in the Psalms, then the examples of Israel being called to “act” multiple greatly.

    All this to simply say, I’m not sure that it is that cut and dry, although it is convenient. It may be more of a use of language debate than it ought to be.

    It seems to me that instead of forcing a divide between OT and NT, we should instead consider how God has spoken in the incarnation (the Word became flesh) and how God speaks post ascension.(Yes this chronologically reflects the OT-NT grouping, but it is one narrative).

    I also must ask (ask myself at least), was not the Holy Spirit active before the incarnation? It would seem that the primary difference between pre and post incarnation is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (no big surprise here). So where the Psalmist often looked to how God worked in Israel’s past (the Exodus for instance) we look first to the incarnation, but we don’t do it alone.

    “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

    While arguably Jesus was speaking first to the disciples of Christ, it also speaks of the (‘a’?) post ascension means of God speaking to us.

    I agree that there is a problem in the hearing part today, but a quick survey of the OT and NT suggests this is not new problem. The obstacle, as you suggest, is ourselves. Do we expect to encounter the Word of God? Do we anticipate that the “Helper” will bring clarity to our hearing despite the fallible words coming from the pulpit? Are we, as you suggest, more interested in critiquing the preacher than hearing the Word of God?

    Then again, have our sermons become so far removed from the Word of God (by this I mean “preaching Christ”), that God wants little to do with them? Maybe there is nothing to hear.

  2. Bill, I think you are right that it is more accurately a distinguishing between pre- and post-Ascension that I was after. Beyond that your additional examples are important, especially the parallels between “hear the Word of the Lord” and “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Interestingly, the disciples called on Jesus in the boat BEFORE the ascension–I love that example.

    I hope you won’t read my book when it is done, Bill. I find writing an introductory text to be more challenging than I expected, mainly because one is generalizing all the time and one is bound to miss exceptions to the rule! But to be fair, my OT/NT contrasts, I would argue, are still in the main fairly consistent, providing we think of the division between pre- and post-Ascension.

  3. Oh don’t worry, I’ll read the book 😉

    I would agree that the OT/NT contrasts are at least a common division for discussion. What I am pushing against is an artificial disjunction between the OT and NT (not that I am saying that you are doing this, merely the…dare I say it…hermeneutical lens I am resiting). My personal conviction is that we must treat the OT & NT as a witness to one narrative, a narrative which continues to this day and beyond. It is after all…ahem…one election in Jesus Christ (see I was awake Friday mornings). That doesn’t of course mean that everything stays the same, but neither does every thing change.

    I would even push farther to suggest that I am increasing uncomfortable with the idea of studying either the OT or the NT apart from study of the other. This conviction is reflected in my preaching where I seldom if ever preach from a passage in one testament with out reference to the other (in effect, letting Scripture interpret Scripture at least to the extent this is possible). Somehow it feels incomplete if I don’t.

    By the way, thanks for the thought provoking posts!

  4. GMAC

    I, for one, am very susceptible to the problem you note in your last paragraph. I can’t seem to shut off my methodological critique, and so sometimes miss the heart of the message. I need an “Awake, O Sleeper!” reminder, so thank you for this. Yes, part of the problem is how poorly attentive I am to the preacher. On the other hand, if the medium is message…
    Maybe I can get at my problem with an analogy to my kid’s homework. Miriah brought home some math problems the other day, with a formula that we discovered was flawed. It took us an hour to find out that it was flawed because she arrived at the right answer for the first question by accident – it just happened to work. But then, it caused us an hour of distraction because we couldn’t arrive at the right answer for the following questions.
    Now then, when a preacher uses really bad methodology, but still arrives at the right answer, I have the hardest time getting past the flawed methodology!
    That makes me very worried because Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to cut right at the heart of this. They seemed to be focussed on a particular methodology that was acceptable, but when Jesus sliced through it, they rejected his message.
    I wonder if it’s a matter of humility. Perhaps the Pharisees took too much pride in their method/formula. Perhaps I take too much pride in the acceptable forms of preaching and so miss the message.
    I think this goes back to your post on the audacity of preaching. I’ve heard preaching that was so bad I’m not sure I could say it was the word of God. Didn’t the Bereans have something when they were praised for testing the message? How can I balance humility and critique and still stay attentive?

  5. ScaryBarry

    Howdy All,
    First, thank you Dave for your theommentary. Since graduation, I have missed the intense studying and reflection Seminary offered. While I continue to read and reflect on things beyond my intellectual level (Barth’s commentary on Romans), I really have appreciated your posts. In my neck of the woods where I pastor (maybe it is better referred to as “Redneck” of the woods, especially since our hobbies have a lot to do with shooting things), I find myself searching for opportunity to dialogue and be pushed out of my comfort zone. Which brings the challenge on the “how to integrate” theological studies into the church.

    As I have read through your post and the other comments made, I was struck and stuck on one thing: What can we “expect” when we go to church? Can we expect music, reading of God’s Word, preaching of God’s Word, or prayer perhaps? While these elements are important, I have found that people (in my congregation) expect the “form” and expect God to “act” through these forms. I have raised the question without trying to be too simplistic: “What is worship?” Is it the expectation of God acting through these forms to somehow change/challenge us? Is it the humility and submission to God, while expecting nothing in return? Can we expect anything of God or would that simply be an attempt to manipulate and control him in some way? When the preacher is preaching, can we expect God to work every time through his word?

    To get to the point, I am trying to poke at the expectations we place upon God, what attempts we must make to “hear” God, what limitations we have to hear it, and what role does God play to “enable” us to hear his Word.

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