How to Read the Bible with ‘Open Ears’—& What That Really Means

By Peter Leithart

How do we become good readers of the Bible? . . . 

We become good readers of the Bible in the same way that we become faithful followers: we become good readers of the Bible by having our ears open to God’s Word. I want to use that phrase, the “open ear,” in a couple of different ways.

How to read the Bible—step 1: Hear everything God says

. . .  We want to have our ears open to God’s Word in the sense that we want to hear everything God says to us.

How to read the Bible—step 2: Don’t put words in God’s mouth

. . . We want to hear precisely what God says to us. We don’t want to put words in God’s mouth, and when we read the Bible, and when we attempt to interpret it, we don’t want to read things into the text that he hasn’t actually spoken. We don’t want to make God say something that he hasn’t said.

How to read the Bible—step 3: Keep ‘open ears’

Be careful not to miss any nuance: fullness

At the same time, we want to make sure we’re trying to hear everything that he says to us. We want to hear every nuance of his voice. We want to hear every detail of what he has revealed to us. 

In Protestant circles—at least today—the problem at this point has more to do with our inability to hear everything God says than to hear it accurately. We are so concerned about accuracy that we sometimes miss the fullness of what God has revealed.

We need to have our ears open so that we can both hear what God says, and not put any words in his mouth but also hear everything he says. Hear it in its complete fullness. Hear it in all its beauty and all its power.

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Receive everything God says

Old Testament symbolism of the “open ear”

But the Bible speaks about the open ear in another sense. The open ear is a symbol of obedience. Psalm 40 talks about this. After Psalm 40 recounts the different offerings that God does not desire, Psalm 40 says, “But my ears you have opened.” 

The kind of sacrifice that God actually wants from his people is not simply to go through the motions of a ritual sacrifice. 

What God wants is the sacrifice of the open ear, and that means the sacrifice of obedience, the sacrifice of responsiveness to God’s Word.

Psalm 40 is alluding back to [Exod 21] and the ritual that was done for a servant who wanted to become a permanent servant in his master’s house. If a servant came to the point where he was going to be let go and decided he’d want to stay and serve his master for the rest of his life, he would be taken to a doorway and an awl would be poked through his earlobe, and that hole in his earlobe would be the opening of his ear as a mark of his permanent servanthood to his master. It’s an appropriate symbol. After all, he has just decided that his ear is going to be opened to his master’s voice forever. To symbolize that, he would poke a hole in his earlobe.

Priests were household servants in God’s palace, and so during the priestly ordination, their right ear was smeared with blood—a symbol of the open ear that they should have to the Lord and Master of the house that they were serving.

How to read the Bible—step 4: Obey God’s Word

To have an open ear means to be obedient to God’s Word. To become a good reader of God’s Word, we need to become obedient and faithful disciples.

The obedience-insight cycle

This has many different dimensions to it. There is a relationship between obedience and insight into Scripture. As we understand more of the Bible, as we plumb its depths more and more, the Spirit uses that to make us more faithful to God—but on the other hand, as we are obedient to Jesus Christ, as we follow him, as we risk ourselves and our reputation to serve him and to be faithful to him, then that gives us further insight into Scripture

There is a cycle between obedience and insight, between being an obedient hearer of the Word and being an attentive reader of the Word.

Obedience is exegesis

Obedience also is a form of exegesis. Exegesis is the process of interpreting the Bible, and when we obey the Bible, we’re not just basing that on an interpretation, but our actions are themselves a kind of interpretation of the Scriptures. The way we live together as communities of Christians, the way we live together as the Church, is an interpretation of the gospel. It presents to the world the truth of the gospel, and it presents to the world a good—or often a very bad—interpretation of what the gospel commands and what the gospel calls us to.

The fullness of obedience

Obedience should be understood in its fullest sense. When we think of obedience, we tend to think of God’s commands, and that’s appropriate. God does issue commands. He tells us things that we ought to do, and our ears should be open to those commands, and we should obey them and do what he says.

But obedience also means believing what he claims. 

Our ears are open to hear what he has to say to us. Obedience also means that our ears are open to his promises, so our only hope in life and in death is in Jesus Christ, who is the “Yes” and “Amen” of all of God’s promises.

Having an open ear also means that we receive God’s Word in order to sing it and to speak it. Singing the psalms, singing the hymns of Scripture, singing hymns that are based on Scripture is part of having an open ear because what comes into our ears comes out of our mouths as praise.

Having an open ear means trembling at the threats that God issues and the warning that God gives those who fall away and turn from him.

If we are going to be good readers, we need to have our ears opened by the Spirit so that the Spirit can write the Word of God on our hearts, so that we can be obedient to him.

***

This post is adapted from the course Typological Hermeneutics: Finding Christ in the Whole Bible, taught by Peter Leithart.

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