One of the most prominent commands in the Bible is to “listen” to God. We see the primacy of listening to God’s word in the prayer the Jews called the “Shema” (which means ‘listen’) in Deuteronomy 6:5-6 which Jesus quotes as the single greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37: Hear (“shema”), O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, God told him to “stand in the gate of the LORD’s house” so that Judah could “hear (shema) the word of the LORD.” (Jer. 7:2) Many call this Jeremiah’s ‘temple sermon.’ Poised in the most conspicuous and spiritually symbolic location, Jeremiah proceeded to courageously preach a condemning message to a sinful people.
There was only one problem. God was commanding the people to do the very thing they consistently refused to do, that is, to “listen.” Sure, they heard the words but they had not listened to them in the way God wanted. The word “shema” does not simply mean to hear auditorily (Prov. 20:12) letting sound waves in your ears. “Shema” means to pay attention (Gen. 29:33), to respond (Psa. 27:7; Ex. 19:5), even to obey (Isa. 6:9-10; 43:8; Psa. 115:6; Zech. 7:11). This is what God was calling Judah to do: to listen and respond with obedience. God expects the same today (Jas. 1:22).
In one section, Jeremiah indicts his contemporaries for refusing to listen to God. Let’s take a look at Jeremiah 7:21-28 together.
First, the prophet attacks their sacrifices. God told them, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh.” (7:21) The Jews still observed the sacrificial system according to the distinctions specified in the Law but God said, at this point, with the way they were living, it really didn’t matter anymore. They could mix meat sacrifices up and cook it for barbeque and it would make no difference to God. Their sacrifices were profaned anyway by their way of life. Does God accept our worship?
Second, the prophet appeals to history. God said, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (7:22) God had commanded and required these important sacrifices but that’s not the first thing He did when He rescued them from slavery. Jeremiah is teaching them (and us!) to read their bible – in the right order! Upon redeeming them from Egyptian slavery, the first thing God required of Israel was not the sacrificial system but to listen to Him!
God simply said, “Obey (shema) My voice” (7:23; cf. Ex. 19:4-6). Only after establishing the covenant at Sinai which was agreed to by the people and sealed in blood (Ex. 19-24) did God speak about the tent, the altar and the sacrifices. God wasn’t minimizing the importance of sacrifices but rather showing the order of importance: obeying rules regarding sacrifices doesn’t do any good if one is not willing to listen to and obey God.
The events of the exodus show that God’s initiative of redeeming grace comes before the requirement of responsive obedience (Ex. 1-18) but it also shows that obedience in our personal life comes before the sacrificial system! The second is empty without the first. Yet, since the beginning, Israel had refused to listen to God’s voice (7:24-26).
The prophet rounds out this section of his sermon by outlining Judah’s persistent refusal to listen (7:27-28). The verb ‘shema’ is repeated five times in verses 21-28. Israel was deaf to God’s voice. No generation listened to voice of “prophets” (v.25) but Jeremiah’s generation was worse than them all (v.26). They refused to listen or answer when spoken to (v.27). They were thus defined by their deafness (v.28): This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth.
How would we like to be categorized as an entire generation who “did not obey the voice of the LORD”? Jeremiah was commanded to preach to those who refuse to listen. He was commanded not even to pray for them (7:16-20). One might wonder, why even preach to those you can’t pray for? Why speak to those who won’t listen?
Preaching God’s word reveals the condition of the hearts of the hearers. The hearts of Jeremiah’s generation were so hardened they were impervious to truth. Through hearing but not responding to God’s word, people condemn themselves and show their condemnation to be deserved (cf. Mt. 13:10-17).
Preaching God’s word also makes it clear that God never acts in judgment without warning. None of Jeremiah’s contemporaries would have the excuse of ignorance when Babylon’s army came knocking. God always gives warning before acting in judgment in the hope that some will ‘shema,’ repent and suspend judgment (cf. 2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
For the exiles reading Jeremiah’s book in Babylon and for us today, Jeremiah’s preaching carries with it a powerful subtext, “You refused to listen before; will you refuse to listen now?” These ancient texts are calling for us to respond. It is as if Jeremiah is speaking to you and I today, saying, “Listen to the LORD! Learn the lessons of history! God is giving you a chance to hear and obey Him every time you open up your Bible!” When we study God’s word let us hear and obey His voice.