A horse can run—but it can also trot, gallop, canter, or buck. Which would you rather watch?
When I talk to a friend, I can chat, but I can also whisper, exult, grumble, drawl, or sing. They all mean something a little different, right? Any writer who has ever chatted, whispered, or grumbled with an editor knows that we don’t need adverbs if we use the best descriptive verb.
The Bible has some incredibly descriptive verbs. One of the things I love about studying the Bible is learning those verbs and discovering that God meant exactly what he said when he used them. Hebrew verbs have the beautiful quality of being active. One cannot love, listen, or believe without doing something about it. It’s like a perfect biblical equation. A + B = C, but you can’t get to C with both A and B. A + B define the essence of C.
God puts a few verbs in the Bible on consistent repeat. They seem to be the map keys we use on our journey of faith. Those verbs come up in some of Moses’ most important and beloved words to his people, Deuteronomy 6, but they resound and resonate throughout all of Scripture. They’re some of the most important verbs we can internalize for our discipleship. See if you can spot the four of them:
6.4-12 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
1. Hear. This word, also translated to listen, pay attention, or understand, is one of the most common in Scripture. It’s used 1050 times in the Old Testament. This section in Deuteronomy, perhaps the most important Scripture for a Jewish person’s life, is even called after that first word. They refer to it as the Shema—The Listen.
Another way to say this is “to give an effective hearing.” Well, what does that mean? It means not simply to let words go in one ear and out the other, but to allow them to sink deeply into our hearts, minds, and souls and change us.
When there is a cause, there is an effect. When tectonic plates shift, that’s a cause. Shaking buildings and mudslides are the effect.
God’s word is the cause—our actions of obedience are the effect. That’s an effective hearing. That’s the only way to truly understand the verb here in Scripture. Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear let them hear.” This is what he meant. Whoever truly listens to (shemas) me, let them follow and obey.
2. Be careful. Other ways we will see God say this is “observe,” “keep,” or “guard.” When we hear any of those words, it’s the same one. It means to have charge of, watch over, or exercise great care about.
When our children were small, we put them in car seats. We kept them safely guarded so that they had all the care we could possibly have given them in case of an accident. We were careful with those little lives.
When I bought a 2016 Cubs World Series Champion Christmas ornament, I decided to keep it in the original padded box rather than toss it in the general ornament storage. That ornament isn’t on a par with all the standard ones—it requires special protection because it represents something meaningful. I’m careful with it.
We only guard things we think are valuable. That’s why God let Cain know in Genesis that, yes indeed, you are your brother’s keeper. You are his guarder. We watch over that which really matters.
In Scripture, we are most often told to watch over other people or watch over our relationship with God. That makes sense since they are the two most valuable things we could ever encounter in this life. Often, the word “careful” is used in conjunction with the third word.
Be careful that you remember. Take care that you do not forget.
This is not my best skill. I forget birthdays. I forget where I put the cat food I bought last week. Before the struggles of quarantine, I forgot what day it was. I even forgot we had chocolate pie in the freezer from Christmas.
”Remember” is one of the most common verbs in the entire Bible, and that doesn’t count its corollary used here – “do not forget.” It’s almost like God knows we have a terrible memory. Individually and collectively.
The Israelites are constantly told to remember where they came from, where they are going, and who kept them in all those spaces. The most important truth they need to keep on repeating is God’s responsibility in bringing them to the promised land. When they prosper, they forget, and a whole lot of trouble ensues. Forgetting is costly. Ask any student of history.
The verb “teach” or “impress” was used to describe the sharpening of swords or arrows. As a (very) amateur archer, I recognize the importance of sharp arrows. A dull point will bounce right off the target, not strike true.
Interestingly, the word is often used in Scripture to talk about teaching the things of God to our children and their children and the following generations. The right verb here matters. We don’t simply pass down information to our children. Instead, we sharpen them. We help them be wise by giving them the tools they need to know what to do in a given situation. As a pastor, I want to teach facts about God to the people around me to impress on them the wisdom of remembering God.
Four verbs that matter. Four keys to our roadmap of discipleship. If I look at those four words alone every day and consider how I can follow Jesus in them, I’m doing discipleship right.
Just the right word in just the right place, as Mark Twain said, is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.
Photos by Jill Richardson