Biblical vocabulary: שׁמע (To hear and to obey)

Last updated on March 3, 2022

Shama and the different meanings

In Biblical Hebrew, regularly verbs occur that have several and different meanings, usually based on a general basic meaning; often they are meanings that complement each other, or meanings where one originates from the other. This group of verbs includes the verb שׁמע “shama”[1], which can primarily be translated with “to hear”. The basic meaning of this verb “shama” then implies auditory perception and refers to perceiving sound by hearing.

However, when it comes to words that are heard, then the mind becomes involved and so “shama” becomes listening. We find an example of this in the description of that event in Sarah’s life when she hears speaking of a Divine promise and her hearing becomes understanding listening (Genesis 18:10), to which she responds inwardly.

But “shama” also means: to listen to, to answer prayers, to perceive, to heed/to give ear, to obey, to pay attention. We thus see that “shama” has a wide variety of meaning aspects.

Shama and to obey

Significant is the meaning distinction of “shama”: to hear and to obey. This is an instructive difference in meaning, it being the case that obeying arises from “hearing” or “heeding/giving ear”. In this lies a deep spiritual lesson for us. How often must the Lord say to His people, yes to us, “… you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe Him or shama/hear/obey/ His voice.” (Deuteronomy 9:23). Without prejudice, this important lesson in life also applies to us: “… Behold, shama/to obey is better than sacrifice …” (1 Samuel 15:22). The Lord repeats this call over and over again because He wants to bless us and says urgently, “shama/obey/hear My voice, and I will be your God …” (Jeremiah 7:23).

Shama and the relationship with learning and doing

There is a clear relationship between “shama”/hearing, learning and doing. This is especially evident in the Bible book of Deuteronomy. For example, the Lord had said, “And now, O Israel, shama/listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them …” (Deuteronomy 4:1). “… that I may let them shama/hear My words, so that they may learn to fear Me …” (Deuteronomy 4:10). ““Shama/hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your ears today, and you shall learn them … that they may do them …” (Deuteronomy 5:1; 5:31). Like Israel, we too must realize that all of God’s people – men, women, the youth, the elderly – are called to submit to God’s Word “… that they may shama/hear and learn to fear the Lord your God …” (Deuteronomy 31:11-13). The spiritual learning process begins with the “shama”/hearing of God’s Word. When this “shama”/hearing also becomes and is obeying, then one also learns to do God’s Word by living and acting according to it.

Shama and God’s answering prayers

The Lord God always hears the prayers of His own. “Shama” then has the meaning of “answering prayers”. God Himself is the subject of this. David had experienced in deep distress that the Lord “shama”/hears those who cry to Him and saves: “This poor man cried, and the Lord shama/heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6; 34:18). Anyone conscious of sin and aware of their complete and utter ruin before God who then cried out to God and received His salvation through faith in Christ, can now sing along with the psalmist: “Blessed be the Lord! For He has shama/heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.” (Psalm 28:6). We can be sure, “O you who shama/hear prayer …” (Psalm 65:2).


[1] The verb “shama” has as its last root letter a guttural letter (áyin) which is not pronounced here and is therefore not rendered in this article (in the transcription).

© Copyright dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk

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