In my recent reading of Jeremiah, I noticed a key theme in the book: God’s judgment on his people for failing to listen to (obey) him. In fact, the word “listen” appears in the ESV translation of Jeremiah 45 times (“hearken,” “obey,” or something similar in the KJV), more than in any other book of the Bible, and more than in every book of the New Testament combined.
From the very first page of the Scriptures, we learn that our God is a God who speaks. God’s speech sets him apart from false idol gods who have a mouth but cannot speak. The responsibility of God’s people is to listen to their speaking God. Listening to God is a mark of righteous character and covenant faithfulness.
Here are a few insights on listening to God from the book of Jeremiah.
Listening involves both hearing and doing God’s word. When my wife says, “You don’t listen!” she usually means, “You don’t pay attention!” When a parent says, “You don’t listen!” he usually means, “You don’t obey!” God wants us to carefully pay attention so that we can fully obey. Listening is synonymous with obedience in Jeremiah: “I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen.’ This has been your way from your youth, that you have not obeyed my voice” (Jer. 22:21).
Listening to God’s true voice is essential in a world where many false voices are speaking. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16). Every day, we are flooded with media that contains false messages, often delivered in the name of the Lord. Those who are not in tune to God’s voice are more likely to be tossed to and fro by deceptive doctrines.
It is impossible to listen to God when our hearts are unclean. “Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it” (Jer. 6:10). An uncircumcised heart cannot listen. Circumcision is used as a symbol for a clean heart: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jer. 4:4, cf. Jer. 9:25-26). We listen to what we love. We may need to work harder to listen (disciplined or dutiful obedience), but we need our hearts to be changed and our wills to be melted so that listening to God’s Word comes more naturally and more easily (delightful obedience).
If we do not listen to God, God will not listen to us. Jeremiah impugns God’s people for failing to listen, then records God’s message to them: “Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (Jer. 11:11). God even tells Jeremiah, “do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble” (Jer. 11:14). Peter warns that if husbands do not listen to God’s voice by loving their wives, their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7).
Children often listen better to their earthly fathers than God’s children do to their heavenly Father. Some children are rebellious, but many are obedient. This is the point of the story of the Rechabites, who refused to drink alcohol because their fathers instructed them to abstain. God contrasts them to the Israelites: “The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me” (Jer. 35:14).
Refusing to listen to God is the worst kind of stubbornness. God says, “every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me” (Jer. 16:12). “Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction” (Jer. 17:23). God grieves, “They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction” (Jer. 32:33). Jeremiah 7:13 laments, “when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer.”
God is surprisingly patient with those who do not listen. “You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets” (Jer. 25:4). Jeremiah told the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened” (Jer. 25:3). God’s judgment came after twenty-three years of persistently speaking to stubborn children who refused to listen. It is dangerous to test the patience of God, but I am thankful for his patience to me.
Refusing to listen to God is the ultimate foolishness, since it ends in our own harm. “Yet you have not listened to me, declares the Lord, that you might provoke me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm” (Jer. 25:7). This may be the key point in the book. Refusing to listen to the God who speaks is exposed as the ultimate foolishness, since it results in our own ruin. God is especially faithful to discipline his children when they do not listen; this is one of the signs that we are true children (Heb. 12:3-11). But those who refuse discipline will eventually face judgment.
God eventually judges those who refuse to listen. There comes a day when God’s patience runs out. The results are disastrous: “Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the disaster that I have pronounced against them, because I have spoken to them and they have not listened, I have called to them and they have not answered” (Jer. 35:17). God has good plans for us, but if we refuse to listen, he will not reward our disobedience. What is true for the nations is true for us: “if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:9-10).
If we hear God’s word, but only obediently listen when it is convenient, we will be undone. This is a key in Chapter 42, which tells the story of Johanan and the remnant of Judah after most were taken away in the Babylonian captivity. He asks Jeremiah to pray to God on behalf of the people and pledges, “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we are sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God” (Jer. 42:6). But when Jeremiah prays, God tells him the opposite of what Johanan was hoping to hear. God said, “Don’t go to Egypt; don’t be afraid of the Babylonians; I’ll protect you; if you go to Egypt, I will destroy you” (paraphrase). But since God’s word was not what Johanan wanted to hear, he insisted, “You are telling a lie. The LORD our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to live there” (Jer. 43:2). God’s word could not have been more clear. But Johanan refused to listen. God destroyed him and his insolent companions.
This is how many people “listen” to God’s word. They are willing to hear, but they are not willing to obey when it is inconvenient. Instead, they look for every possible excuse to obscure and dilute the plain voice of God in Scripture. God is patient with those who do not listen, but his patience eventually runs out. Refusing to listen to God is the worst kind of stubbornness and the ultimate foolishness, since it ends in our own harm: certain judgment by the hand of the Almighty.
The next time that you read the book of Jeremiah, try highlighting every occurrence of “listen,” “hearken,” “obey,” or similar words. But most importantly, actually listen!
Lord, help us to carefully pay attention to your words and totally obey your voice. Give us ears that are quick to listen and hearts that are diligent to obey.