We see God’s beauty and power in nature, but we hear of God’s grace only in his Word.
Sight or hearing. Which sense is more important for you? Well, that depends on the activity, doesn’t it? If your choice for entertainment is attending a concert of your favorite band, you may be fine sitting in seats with a partially obstructed view, as long as you can hear the music well. But if your activity is taking a sightseeing tour of a European city, hearing the sounds isn’t nearly as critical as seeing the sites of historic architecture, a majestic skyline, or a sunset reflected on the river running through downtown.
When it comes to communication, which is more effective: pictures or words? If you agree with the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, you probably prefer the picture—especially if you’re a visual learner. But is a picture always better? More often than not, motion pictures that are based on good books fail to live up to the written version. Too much of the story is lost: “It’s not as good as the book.”
What about the most important of all human activities: coming to know God so that we can relate to him? God engages both our eyes and our ears in revealing himself to us, yet one is far more essential than the other.
St. Augustine said that God communicates to mankind through two books: the book of nature and the Book of Scripture. You could say that one of the books was “written” primarily for the eyes and the other for the ears. One communicates God’s glory very well. The other communicates his grace.
A book for the eyes
In Psalm 19 King David captured what every honest person admits when pondering the silent witness of the countless wonders of nature. He wrote:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
The book of nature is God’s visual witness to his existence. This silent testimony is everywhere. But it’s more than just proof of God’s existence. Nature also reveals some of God’s characteristics. The power of a million stars cannot match the power of the One who created them. The wisdom it took to arrange the countless interactive systems of this beautiful working world—or even the marvel of the human body—is beyond measure. He’s a God of power, wisdom, and order. “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Romans 1:19).
Yet all we see in this book is not enough. Nature tells us nothing about God’s grace. God has another Book all about that. But that’s not what many are seeking. They insist that God should place even more evidence before their eyes. After all, seeing is believing. “If God performed a miracle in front of me, then I’d believe in him.” Never mind the audacity of demanding a personal miracle from God. It’s just simply wrong. There’s no Bible verse that starts, “Faith comes through seeing . . .” A relationship with God only happens through his other Book.
A Book for the ears
Jesus makes this exact point in his story of the rich man and Lazarus. From hell, the rich man begged that Lazarus be sent back from the dead and appear to his five brothers. They’d surely repent and believe after seeing such a miracle. But that’s not the answer. The parable reminds us of that Book for the ears: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. . . . If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:29,31). To believe, the rich man’s brothers had all they needed in the Book of Scripture (Moses and the Prophets). They just needed to open up their ears.
Jesus teaches the same thing in Matthew 12: Less eyes. More ears.
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42, emphasis added)
But it wasn’t just unbelievers who needed the reminder to shift from their eyes to their ears. Think of all the times that God redirected his prophets and apostles from their desire to see his glory to their need to hear his grace.
Moses asked the Lord to show him his glory on Mount Sinai. The Lord said he would instead proclaim his name in Moses’ presence (Exodus 33:12-23).
Elijah fled to the same mountain in need of the Lord’s strength. A whirlwind, a fire, and an earthquake impressed the eyes. But the Lord came to the prophet’s ears through a quiet whisper (1 Kings 19:9-18).
When both prophets appeared with Jesus to Peter, James, and John on another mountain, the three apostles were amazed at what they saw: Jesus in his heavenly glory. But that glorious sight was over in the blink of an eye. What remained was Jesus, his words of teaching, and the Father’s command still echoing in their ears: “Listen to him” (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).
On Easter Sunday afternoon, when Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples, he kept them from seeing his identity. This way they would listen without distraction to his teaching them from Scripture. When Jesus revealed his identity and disappeared, their first comments were about what they heard: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
And just to make it as plain as could be, Jesus said time and time again, “He who has ears, let him hear!”
Ask any pastor who has sat at the bedside of dying Christians whether it’s true that hearing is the last sense to go. It seems obvious why, doesn’t it? When we eventually close our eyes to the wonders of this world, our ears are still tuned into that Word of grace that will carry us home.
Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 108, Number 12
Issue: December 2021