The Lord Overhears
The Scriptures often tell us that the Lord hears our prayers when we cry to him. It is humbling, but encouraging, to know that we can come at any time to our Creator, share our burdens with him, and be assured of his attention. But this week, I was struck with a much smaller set of texts that emphasize that he hears even when we are not speaking to him. We might say that he not only hears us, but he overhears us.
These passages (and I found only three of them) are characterized by the statement that “the Lord heard” without any complement to the verb. At the end of this post I’ve described in more technical terms how I found them.
The first of these three passages is Num 11:1.
Num 11:1 And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.
The KJV reads, “The Lord heard it,” but the italicized “it” reminds us that the Hebrew simply says, “The Lord heard.” They weren’t talking to him. They were complaining among themselves. But nothing we say escapes the Lord’s attention.
Complaining was a favorite pastime of the children of Israel during the Exodus. Like children on a road trip whining, “Are we there yet, Daddy?” they complained repeatedly on the way to Mount Sinai. There is no record that they complained during the nearly ten months that they camped at the Mount (though they were hardly model children, as we see in the episode of the golden calf, Exod 32). But now, the instant they are back on the road, the complaints begin again. (You can read a summary of Israel’s mishaps in the wilderness in the Notes to Matthew 4.)
Travel is difficult. It’s much easier to settle down in an organized context, like the camp at Sinai, or even the slaves’ quarters in Egypt, than to be on pilgrimage. But that’s our calling.
We think of complaining as a fairly minor offense. The Lord took it very seriously, and sent judgment among the people. When we complain, even to one another, we are accusing the Lord of failing to guide us properly and provide for our needs. The root sin of the unbeliever is failure to glorify God and be thankful to him (Rom 1:21). Complaining about our circumstances is a serious sin.
The second use of this construction appears in the next chapter of Numbers:
Num 12:1 And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 2 And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard.
Whether in the home, or the workplace, or the church, complaints about the circumstances often lead to rebellion against those whom God has placed in positions of responsibility. Such rebellion is no more acceptable to the Lord than is complaining, as the sequel makes clear:
Num 12:9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed. 10 And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.
Twice at the outset of Israel’s history, the Lord overhears their negative speech, complaining about the inconveniences of their pilgrimage, stirring up discontent against their leaders. Twice he brings fearful judgments against those who speak amiss. This construction appears only one other time in the Hebrew Bible. Again the Lord overhears his people, and again he responds, but what a difference:
Mal 3:16 Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. 17 And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
The first two times, the speech that the Lord overhears when his people speak to one another is negative. They are complaining about their condition or murmuring against their leaders. Malachi has also heard this sort of speech, as the previous verses make clear:
Mal 3:13 Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee? 14 Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts? 15 And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.
But now he turns his attention to another group, characterized as “they that feared the Lord.” They are conscious of the Lord’s authority over them in every action of their lives, including their speech. This fear of the Lord does not silence them: “they … spake often one to another.” But their speech reflects their fear of the Lord. It would include such utterances as mutual encouragement, reminders of the Lord’s promises, and gentle rebukes and exhortations to godliness. This kind of speech does not bring down the Lord’s judgment. Quite the contrary, it brings him joy. He records their names in a special book, as his treasured possessions. Those whose words are “stout against” the Lord (v. 13) will suffer judgment, as the experience of Israel in Numbers 11 and 12 shows. But those whose speech shows their fear of the Lord will be spared in the day of judgment (v. 17).
The Lord overhears what we say to one another, and he cares about what he hears. Let’s be careful to show our fear of God in our conversations with one another.
Technical note: Grammatically, these texts are marked by the name יהוה as subject of the relative form of the verb “to hear” (וישׁמע), but with no verbal complement telling what he heard or to whom he was listening. I found them with the Bibleworks search in WTT,
This query turns up 44 hits, which I then reviewed manually to eliminate the ones where
- The Lord was not the subject of the verb (e.g., Gen 16:2; Exod 18:1; Num 11:10), or
- The verb had a complement (e.g., Num 20:16 “our voice,” Deut 9:19 “unto me,” 2 Chr 30:20 “to Hezekiah”)
Only three were left, which I have reviewed above.