Word Study #27 — Hear / Listen / Obey

Is there a parent walking the earth, who hasn’t confronted squabbling kids with an annoyed “DID YOU HEAR ME?!!”  The question is not one of auditory acuity, although the sullen teenager’s “I heard you!” may try to confine it to that assumption.
We deeply value a companion who “really listens”.  And yet, when we’ve tried multiple times without success, to get Johnny or Susie to pick up their belongings, “LISTEN!” does not demand merely attention, but obedience.

All of these and more are encompassed in the use of the word akouo.  They always were.  Although akouo is the source from which our English word, “acoustics”  (which concerns primarily the transmission of sound waves) is derived, the classical writers also used it in a much wider variety of situations. The primary uses listed in the Oxford lexicon are:
— to hear: a sound, a message, or a reputation
–to pay attention, to respond to being called or summoned
— to hear and understand; to be the pupil of a teacher
Traditional English translators, for the most part, took no account of this breadth, using “understand” only once, and noted the expectation of response or obedience not at all, in the 415 uses of akouo in the New Testament, although 6 times they did substitute “hearken” where there was unmistakable “pay attention” flavor.

Although some clues can be found in the tenses of any imperative uses – i.e.,  an aorist could lean toward “sit up and take notice” and a present toward “keep on listening”, one must tread carefully here, since there is no definitive lexical or grammatical way to determine without question which aspect of the word was intended.  In examining the context in which the word appears, however, we must bear in mind that “Hear!” or “Listen!” refers to much more than simply bouncing sound waves onto eardrums.

The word “listen” actually does not occur at all in traditional translations.  “Obey” is only used when akouo appears with the prefix hup- (hupakouo), in which case it is the only appropriate choice.  However, obedience is certainly implied in a number of Jesus’ statements, as evidenced by the other verbs that are paired with akouo:
— Mt.7:24-26 – hear and do
— Mt.15:10 – hear and understand
— Lk.11:28 – hear and keep
— Jn.5:24 – hear and believe / become faithful
— Jn.5:25 – hear and live
— Jn.10 – hear and follow
His explanations of the Parable of the Sower/Seed (Mt.13:19-23 and parallels) focuses on people’s response to what they hear, as do his instructions to the disciples when they were sent out (Mt.10:14 and parallels).
Diakouo appears once (Ac.23:35) in the context of a court trial, in a usage similar to the more common diakrino (see W.S. #9), the implication being a careful examination.
Eisakouo (5 uses) has more of an implication of listening to a prayer (Zachariah and Cornelius), as does epakouo.  Please see the list of prepositions often used as prefixes in the Appendix to Translation Notes, for the meanings they can contribute.
In the Synoptic Gospels, slightly more than half of the occurrences of akouo refer simply to being made aware of information.  The balance shifts in John, especially when he is quoting Jesus.  Most of the Epistles speak mainly of hearing and listening or responding to information.  There are, however, several notable exceptions.
In addition to the prefixed form, eisakouo, the unaltered form is also used of prayer that is “heard” /answered  (Jn.9:27, Jn.11:41-42, and I Jn 5:14-15.)
The use of akouo in admonitions to heed the word of the prophets (Lk.16:29,31; Mt.13:13-15 and parallels) certainly implies obedience.

The flavor of teaching/learning shows up in Mark’s comment (4:33) that Jesus spoke to his disciples “as they were able to hear (absorb?) it”.  In his discourse in Jn.15:15 Jesus tells the disciples “Everything I heard from my Father, I made known to you,” and later, speaking of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to them (Jn.16:13), “He will not speak on his own, but whatever he hears, he will say.”

That people who gathered to “hear” Jesus teaching probably could have been sorted into several categories, is evident in his frequent repetition of “The one who has ears to hear, had better listen / pay attention!” (This is often cast as a third person imperative:  please see that form explained in the Appendix.)  A similar intent may exist in the “voice out of the cloud” quoted in all the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts (Mt.17:3, Mk.9:7, Lk.9:35), “Listen to him!”  Coming as it does right after Peter’s grandiose offer to build a memorial, it could even be read as “Shut up and pay attention!”

Jesus may also be intending such a nuanced understanding of akouo when he warns, “Take heed how (pos) you hear!” (Lk.8:18, KJV).  Since it immediately follows the parable of the Sower, the response to what one hears is clearly in view.  The parallel in Mk.4:24 (also KJV), “Take heed what (ti) you hear” (neither manuscript cites any textual variants) seems more likely to be calling for discernment as to what is worthy of one’s attention.  Both are legitimate concerns.

So this is one of those word studies that does NOT end up with neat categories or explanations.  Its value is rather to make us aware of greater breadth of meaning than we may assume in casual reading, and hopefully to encourage us to be selective in our hearing / listening, but to recognize also a call for response.

May we do so in faithfulness!

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