“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise-up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NASB)
This is the first part of the Shema, an ancient Jewish prayer that is so enduring, it’s still said today. The Shema is the focus of morning and evening Jewish prayer tradition and even if you’ve never heard it by that name, the words probably sound familiar to you.
Scot McKnight wrote about the Shema in The Jesus Creed: Loving God and Loving Others and The Bible Project has videos that can help you learn more.
This truth is simultaneously foundational and climactic. Simple to understand and beyond the scope of comprehension. The love of God is profound. Once you see it here, you’ll see it everywhere.
My prayer is that this scripture will do for you, what it’s done for me, namely, create a new framework to hang life on. A newer and truer way of hearing God and loving him by loving people.
The Shema, however, doesn’t start with God’s proclamation of love for us, but a command that we love him. We’re going to discuss a command, a problem and a promise.
Part 1: The Command
Shema means “hear” and Jewish concept of “hear” means listen and obey. God is holy and has extended Himself mercifully and mightily to the nation He built from a seed planted in the womb of an aged, barren woman. He has given Himself freely and worked powerfully on behalf of Israel and He expects a response: Uncompromising obedience to His law.
The Shema is a succinct expression of the main ideas of Judaism:
Does God have the right to command our love?
It’s fascinating that God has granted humanity such a complex essence, that we even ponder a truth the rest of creation submits to unquestioningly. All of creation does what it’s told--except us. God built us with the ability (and responsibility) to make choices--
Which is why it’s wise to acknowledge Deuteronomy, the “second-law giving” is ultimately a book about grace. God’s laws are not burdensome but exist preserve our joy in Him. His commands create and protect life. And the longer we walk with Him and the Spirit re-orients our loves, the more we’ll live out this “real” reality.
The Shema is the command, the call, the reminder for Israel—as they stand on the banks of promise, to orient their affection on God and nothing less. And everything else is less.
Their hearts are to be devoted; their foreheads inscribed. They belong to YAHWEH alone and His presence dwells among them.
They are the redeemed, the delivered who knew well the story of God striking down the first- born of Egypt, those with unbloodied doorposts who did not obey the LORD.
God is creator and deliverer. Lawgiver and lawkeeper. The Book of Hosea gives us the metaphor of God as husband who seeks intimacy with His covenant-partner and desires the best for her and her children. My mom often quotes a friend who said, If I want to know what people truly think of me, I watch how they treat my kids. The Shema shows that God WANTS to bless our children and blessing often
comes through our obedience to His Word.
The blessing is God’s presence and all the power, contentment, fruitfulness and giftedness he extends to generations. Israel is to hear the call of her Beloved and respond with utter devotion--because through this tiny nation will come the GREATEST blessing for ALL nations.
This one God, desires one people who are wholly-holy and as they stand on the cusp of a new Eden, abundant and delightful, Moses offers a remedy for their self-destructive desire to serve anything or anyone but YAHWEH: the Shema.
We might read “love God with your heart, soul and might” like it’s a sentimental, moral ideal. But it’s so much more. Here’s what heart, soul and might mean in Hebrew. Feel the weight of the command:
My translation is this: Hear O ’Israel: The LORD is our God. The Lord is ONE. You shall love the LORD your God with all understanding, your whole self and every desire and you shall love Him with FORCE.
Part 2: The Problem
While some submitted their hearts to God most didn’t. God told Moses the people would break the covenant and Moses acknowledged that if Israel was rebellious during his lifetime, they would be worse after his death. (Deuteronomy 31:27)
According to the Shema, the routines of life are supposed to express devotion to God yet so often, they fall flat. Are we “shema-ing” the commands of life? And if not, how do we start? Can we ring love out of our hearts, like water from a sponge? Pray more? Give more? Give-up because it’s impossible?
Part 3: The Promise
In Mark Chapter 7 we’re told of a man who’s deaf and has a speech impediment. His friends bring him to Jesus, begging for healing. Jesus takes the man aside privately, puts his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue. Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighs and says “Ephphatha” which we’re told means, “be opened.” And he was. (Mark 7:31-37)
Notice the intimacy.
Jesus moves the man to a private location, so he won’t be scrutinized or shamed. Then he communicates in a way the disabled man will understand. The man can’t speak well or hear--but he can see and feel. Our Lord touches him. “Here?” The man nods. Just imagine them standing face to face. A disabled man before the God-Man. Imagine their eyes locking, tears streaming down cheeks as the broken man is seen, known, and loved in his sorry condition. Then looking up to Heaven, Jesus exhales. This is Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes up. Where does my help come from? From the LORD, the maker of Heaven and Earth.”
Then the command that creates life: “Ephphatha!” Be Opened! (Remember, God’s commands ALWAYS lead to life!)
You know that Jesus’ blood saves—but his spit is powerful too! There are three recorded miracles of Jesus’ healing saliva (Mark 8:23, John 9:6) Even so, this healing is unique and specific. Don’t you love a customized healing? Jesus knows what we need to be made whole!
With a face set towards the cross Jesus secures our salvation with his own blood. He ascends to the Father promising that the Great Helper will come next—and he does in fire and power igniting the hearts of blood-bought sinners empowering them with gifts to serve the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
The command of God becomes a promise in Christ.
In Christ the command “You MUST love God with your heart, soul and might” becomes the promise, “You WILL love God with your heart, soul and might.”
It will happen because He will do it: partially now, fully in eternity. Only God can obey God’s commands perfectly. Only God can satisfy His own judgment on sin. Only God in Christ can save. And that’s precisely what Jesus does. On the cross, he bled like a man but like God alone, his blood makes filthy souls white. And when a person grasps that by faith-- all Heaven breaks loose.
Remember Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew? This is the opposite. For our little bowl of faith, our modest scoop of obedience that we offer back to God we gain a “new-birth right” in Christ. Faith links generations. We the children’s children to whom the Shema was to be taught.
Here’s a foretaste of your inheritance:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
The Shema tells us, our God is one, that we’re united to Him and one another as we live out this sacrificial, kingdom-inspired, lifestyle-of-love, wherever we are, whatever the cost. We’re supposed to talk about it, write it down, tell our kids.
Loving God with our whole self involves serving Him with all the good stuff He’s blessed us with. Making space for others in our homes, at our tables, in our lives. But the Shema commands total surrender, total exposure, so God wants the “ugly” too.
He asked or for it, right? Bring Him your trauma, doubt, fear, disappointment, regret. Bring Him the “Lord if only you’d been here—” Bring Him the questions, “Why have you allowed this?” “Will you heal?” “Do you really care?”
He does care. He is the God of unsurpassed compassion.
He can heal and still does. Ask Him. Wait for Him. And trust Him when the healing you seek doesn’t come when you want or the way you want.
The Lord is our God. The Lord is One. We will love him with all our heart, all our soul and we’ll do it with power. That’s Jesus’ promise to us.
"Lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance the race set before you. "