I’m sometimes annoyed and overwhelmed by voices. I don’t mean the way they sound; I just mean their number. There are so many voices asking to be heard. There are voices of institutions and companies: that text I keep getting from a local republican candidate, the social media post about LGBTQ+ celebration, the Nike running shoe ad that keeps popping up when I’m trying to read an article. Then there are voices of influencers: the tweet from Patricia Heaton complaining about Tim Allen not being cast as Buzz Lightyear in the latest Toy Story movie; the post about the latest Christian living book I just have to read; the prominent economist talking about how bad inflation is going to get. And then there are the voices of people in your life, the “real” voices, which seem to compete with all the others. But, thank God, those real voices call us back to the present, to the concrete world of hot coffee and melted butter, to the deep red Japanese maple leaves resting like watchmen over our mid-October lawn, to the smell of the summer grass freshly cut. But, more than all this, to the relationships that make all of these details relevant and meaningful. The real voices . . . they ground us. They stitch us like patchwork into the fabric of the day.
Yet, for Christians, these real voices still aren’t ultimate, and they aren’t unified either. They pull us in different directions, and we long for one voice to ring out louder than all the others—a church bell that chimes a kingly call over the bustling countryside. We want and need the voice of a king. We want and need one voice that can draw us up above the noise, that can call us beyond ourselves.
And we know whose voice that is: the voice of God in his word. But because we don’t hear divine vocal cords vibrating, because our memory hasn’t stored divine soundings from the heavens, because the voice is planted in letters and lines, we don’t fully believe we’re hearing it, do we? It’s hard for many of us to say with confidence that we hear the voice of God when we read the Bible.
How do we know we’re really hearing God’s voice, that it’s getting through our spiritual ear canals and moving our hearts? What might it look like to follow that voice in a sea of other voices?
Something to Follow
Though it seems embedded in our twenty-first century cultural context, this whole problem of hearing and following God’s voice is an ancient one. As I’ve been reading through Numbers and Deuteronomy, I’ve been struck by how frequently God’s voice is mentioned (Num. 7:89; 14:22; Deut. 4:12, 30, 33, 36; 5:22, 23, 24, 25, 26; 8:20; 9:23; 13:4, 18; 15:5; 18:16; 26:14; 26:17; 27:10; 28:1, 2, 15, 45, 62; 30:2, 8, 10, 20). It usually comes up in a moral context. “You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him” (Deut. 13:4).
Yet, the voice of God reverberates far earlier in the biblical narrative. And from the very beginning, voices were things that we followed. This is what Adam and Eve did in the garden. Adam’s curse was pronounced in the context of voice-following. “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you . . .” (Gen. 3:17). The Hebrew word for “voice” is qol, which is also translated as “sound.” It’s the same word used in Genesis 3:8, when Adam and Eve heard the “sound” of the Lord as he walked through the garden towards his rebellious image bearers.
But Genesis 3:8 alludes to the truth that this voice or sound of the Lord was not an intrusion. Surely, they must have heard and followed the voice of God in the garden together before. They knew the sound of God’s voice. And later in redemptive history, when God calls his people to follow his voice repeatedly, he’s calling them to do what they were meant to do from the start: chase his voice.
God’s voice for his creatures was meant to be a beacon of light, burning a path for their feet to follow. And as long as they followed, they were blessed and safe. As long as they followed, they carried the peace of God’s protection in their thudding hearts. As long as they listened, they were led.
The War of Voices: A Literary Example
The trouble for God’s people has always been the same: God’s voice isn’t the only one receiving attention. Other voices emerged, dissonant voices, each calling for allegiance. The portrait is painted literarily by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Silmarillion, his mythical origin story for Middle Earth. The Silmarillion opens with the music and vision given to the Ainur, the offspring of Ilúvatar, who is the sovereign in Tolkien’s fictional cosmology. These Ainur compose the themes that Ilúvatar has given to them, producing a deep and portentous music.
But then something changes when Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, introduces discord into the song. He’s grown impatient with the lack of actualized creation. The Ainur’s song, at this point, had not yet created the realm of Arda, but only anticipated its beauty. In this flawless and prophetic song, Ilúvatar was content.
But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.
Melkor, arguably representative of Satan in the garden of Eden, introduced his own voice in competition with that of his maker. The warring melodies in Tolkien’s creation scene echo the warring voices in Genesis 3. Just as Melkor fought for control of the creation and direction of Arda, the serpent fought for control of the creation and direction of earth. And he did that by introducing his voice. But there was already a kingly voice demanding full allegiance in Genesis. Adam and Eve then had to choose. Whose voice would they follow? Where would it lead them?
Eve followed the serpent’s voice; Adam followed Eve’s voice. No one chose to follow God’s voice. And the result was disastrous. When there are warring voices, we have to choose. We are choosing creatures.
The Voice in Numbers and Deuteronomy
Now, come back to the Pentateuch. In Numbers and Deuteronomy, the people are called to the ancient voice again and again, but what sticks out is their rebellion. The answer to that rebellion is always a matter of listening and obeying.
“None of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.” (Num. 14:22–23).
“Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 8:20).
“None of the devoted things shall stick to your hand, that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you and multiply you, as he swore to your fathers, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God” (Deut. 13:17–18).
Heeding the voice brings blessing; ignoring the voice brings curses. The path of the voice is constant; the feet of God’s people are not. Why?
Why did Israel not choose the voice of God? If all of life is a matter of voice-following, of chasing after the words of another, then Israel must have chosen to follow another voice, just as Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3, and just as we do today. In the war of voices, everyone follows someone. No one stands aloof. What were some of those voices for God’s people?
- The seductive voice of material comfort: The Israelites longed to go back to Egypt because of garlic and leeks, meat and fresh water.
- The voice of envy: The Israelites wanted gods like those of the nations around them, and they later wanted a king so that they could match their neighbors. They envied others.
- The voice of frustration with leadership: In their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites complained of Moses’s leadership, constantly discontent.
All throughout the Pentateuch and the Old Testament, the problem remains the same: in the war of voices, God’s people strive after the wrong ones (1 Sam. 15:19, 22; 28:18; 1 Kgs. 20:36; 2 Kgs. 18:12; Pss. 46:6; 68:33; 106:25; Isa. 30:30–31; Jer. 3:13, 25; 7:23, 28; 9:13; 11:4, 7; 22:21; 25:30; 26:13; 32:23; 38:20; 40:3; 42:6, 13, 21; 43:4, 7; 44:23; Dan. 9:10, 11, 14; Zeph. 3:2; Zech. 6:15). They don’t follow his voice; they follow others.
Our situation isn’t so different from theirs, is it? We still chase after voices that, from an eternal perspective, give us nothing and lead us nowhere. The voice of the Lord has always promised peace, joy, and fellowship for those who listen. What did God do in response to his people’s refusal to hear and listen? What does he still do?
The Voice of Jesus Christ
God’s mysterious solution to our problem was to offer a greater voice. He bent down to his people, put his lips to their ears, and said, “I’m here.”
After a 400-year-long deep breath (from the time of Malachi to the birth of Christ), God’s voice rang clearly in the Gospel of Matthew: “and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:17). The voice of our Father introduced the voice of his only Son, the one who is and always will be God’s greatest Word (John 1:1).
Jesus was the speech of God enfleshed. He was the all-powerful voice of the almighty wrapped in skin and buttressed by human bones. Jesus came as God-with-us, Immanuel.
And then came the test, throughout his earthly ministry, all the way up to his crucifixion, and then after his resurrection and ascension—would people finally listen? Do we listen, right now?
The jaw-dropping reality is that God takes the initiative even here, giving his Spirit to open our ears and draw our feet forward. You would think that the story of redemption is about God building up his revelation, giving us more and more until we finally have enough—enough sound and fury, enough direction, enough failed attempts—to hear and follow. But God’s revelation throughout redemptive history has always been sufficient. There was never a problem with the quantity or quality. Never. Our salvation, our following of the right and true voice of the eternal Shepherd, was never a matter of God building up the weight of his revelation to a breaking point, of increasing divine decibels until the spiritual wax in our spiritual ears finally cracked. God is never in the business of improving himself. He’s perfect, and his speech to us always has been.
The glory of our salvation is that it’s all a work of God. God works to speak to us clearly in Christ, but he also works in his Spirit to open the locked door of our hearts, because we couldn’t unlock the door on our own. We’re that helpless, and God is that gracious.
It’s the Spirit of God who regenerates us, who calls us out of the death of sin, who gives us the ears to hear and the feet to follow. That’s why the most appropriate response to salvation isn’t “I’ve been working so hard for this.” Instead, it’s just a long and deep “Thank you.” Gratitude for the gift of salvation is the best we can do, gratitude that God’s initiative is what enabled us to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, and to follow him.
Warring Voices and the Call to Choose
That doesn’t mean the war of voices is over. God’s voice cut a path for us straight through the fields of time, right into the narrow gate of eternity. The path is set; no one can alter it. But many will try to turn our feet.
The hard part, I believe, is that we don’t recognize the warring voices. Paul tells us that our war is “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Materialism doesn’t sound like a voice, but it is. Envy doesn’t sound like a voice, but it is. Discontentment doesn’t sound like a voice, but it is. These are the cosmic powers and the spiritual forces of evil. These are the sounds that call us away from the savior.
Every day of our lives, we choose. Even when we’re unaware of it, we’re always choosing a voice to follow—with our thoughts, words, and attendant actions. We choose not once, at the beginning of the day, but all throughout the day. We keep choosing. The hours of the day are knit together by a string of choices, by a pattern of voice-following.
But this is no call to gird up your loins and exercise your power to choose God’s voice. We have a painful history of failing at that. And God’s solution was never to give us more power; his solution was to give us more of himself. We’re saved and hear the divine voice because the person of the Spirit lives in us, because the person of the Son atoned for our sin, because the person of the Father chose us before the foundation of the world, long before we could even dream of choosing him.
Do you see the beauty of God’s sovereignty? That should give us great joy and unparalleled confidence—not that we can choose to follow God’s voice now, but that God acted on our behalf. He raised us from the dead, from a life of aimless wandering in the dark, from a labyrinth of poor choices to follow deadly voices.
God is at work in you, at this very moment. God is the one who speaks. God is the one, inside of you, who listens and brings you into holy fellowship with himself, who plants your heart in eternity and says, “Let me help you grow.” When you choose to follow God’s voice, that is God’s Spirit working in you.
God’s voice was always meant to be followed. That’s what voices do: they call for our feet. Each day, we’re going to have to choose what voice we follow. But we can have the confidence that, as we turn to God in prayer and ask his Spirit for help, we’ll hear and follow the voice of our Good Shepherd.
I opened with my annoyance at hearing so many voices each day. But the problem isn’t that there are so many voices in the world. God created many voices, after all. The problem is that we try to listen to the ones that can’t lead us closer to God, the ones that can’t lead us “further up and further in,” to use C. S. Lewis’s language. Thank God that in Christ, the most beautiful voice we could ever hear, we have the promise that God’s own Spirit will guide our feet to follow that one voice, right into the pastures of paradise.
Ten thousand voices buzz like bees—
The sound and fury fill my ears.
But the ancient voice who walked on seas
Always calls and guides and hears.
His speech is governing those bees
And asking every heart to listen.
Spirit, help me hear upon my knees,
And follow with the hope you christen.