Remember Job? Old Testament Job, just before the Psalms he crops up. Man with seven sons and three daughters, remember? Seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, that’s the chap. Greatest among all the people of the East. Anyway, the point is, having lost the lot through no fault of his own, our man sits down among the ashes scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery, as you do.
And as he sits there, scraping away and listening to his pompous windbag friends banging on about where he must’ve gone wrong, what is it that Job really misses about the good old days? What is it that sums up for him the depths to which he has sunk? It isn’t the loss of the chauffeur-driven camels or the fact that the Sabeans and Chaldeans have taken all his livestock between them: it’s the fact that people used to listen to him. “People listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel … They waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain.” [29.21-25] Now he’s reduced to listening himself, and to “men younger than I whose fathers I would have disdained to put with my sheepdogs.” [30.1] Really listening, it’s the ultimate mark of respect.
We listen to God because we respect Him: in biblical language we ‘fear’ Him. We don’t listen to see if we can pick up any tips to advance our welfare, or because we reckon that listening to God will somehow make us more ‘successful’ as a church or because we have an idea that we’re going to like what He has to say. We are listening because we fear Him, we respect Him. His is the voice that must be heard.
There is nothing speculative about that kind of listening. It’s not a case of ‘give it a go and see if you like what you hear.’ Israel learns this the hard way. Once you have heard His voice the only choice facing you is that between obedience and rebellion. What does God say when the Israelites refuse to advance and take the Promised Land? “How long will these people treat me with contempt?” [Nu 14.11] Disobedience is somehow worse than not listening in the first place. To hear someone out before rejecting their advice is to assert our superiority over them. That’s not respect at all; in God’s case it’s an insult.
We often say, ‘Go back to the last thing that you heard God say’ and that is sometimes good advice, but not when you’ve rebelled. Israel tries to do that in Numbers 14 and it doesn’t work. Why? Again it’s to do with listening and respect. When the Israelites belatedly head off to the high hill country it’s no longer obedience, it is now ‘presumption’ [14.44]. They’re acting as though his commands can be put on one side to keep and obey later. This just isn’t the case.
So in every way, listening to God is a fearful thing. We don’t know what we will hear, but we do know that once we’ve heard it, it has to be put into action. So do we trust Him? Listening to God is not a neutral activity it’s the action of real worshippers, committed to putting into practice whatever they hear. But this fearful listening is also the starting place for a life that we never regret because, as Job once said, “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom.” [Job 28.28]