I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. But my people would not listen (shama) to me; Israel would not submit (abah) to me. Psalm 81:10-11
The phrase translated above as “you would not submit” consists of the two Hebrew words for not + willing, many times translated “unwilling” in the Bible. You were unwilling. Unfortunately, those two words mostly come together in the Bible.
The willing part of the phrase is the Hebrew word abah, which literally means to breathe after. Figuratively, it means to acquiesce, consent, rest content, will, be willing, to desire. Two other Hebrew words come from abah – the word for “longing” and the word for “reed or papyrus” in the sense of bending toward. It’s one of those passionate Hebrew words. To breathe after – like panting after – longing for, desiring.
The word translated “listen” above is shama. It means to hear, listen to, obey. It is the first word and command of the verse Jesus identified as the most important: 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. (Deut. 6:4-5). Abah and shama come together a lot and while their meanings are complimentary, G. J. Botterweck[i] defines the difference.
“The difference seems to be that ‘aba denotes the first beginnings of a positive reaction, whereas shama’ indicates complete obedience.”
Abah, the first beginnings of desire, of longing for God, the bending toward God to catch that still, small voice. Shama, hearing God’s voice and obeying with all. The Spirit of the Lord in the Old Testament means the breath, mind, or spirit of God. If we are willing to obey, we “breathe after” God, or breathe his breath after him. We are one mind and spirit with him. His breath, his command, his Word becomes part of us.
It reminds me a lot of the practice of the presence of God. Breathing His breath; breathing in tandem with the Spirit. Or maybe like God blowing his breath into us, as at creation, and us breathing it out (Genesis 2:7). The Word, the Breath, the Life. Like mouth-to-mouth respiration. Open your mouth and I will fill it! Maybe we were never meant to breathe on our own. But, isn’t that amazing? The idea that being willing and obeying God is to breathe his very breath? Isn’t the image of opening your mouth, like a baby bird, the ultimate in trusting and yielding?
Why don’t we breathe after God? In the above verse it was because of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s because of fear, caring about what people think more than pleasing God, pride, the choking need to be in control. We keep our mouths tightly shut.
Bend toward. Breathe after.
This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
And I, I’m desperate for you
And I, I’m lost without you
–Michael W. Smith
I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Psalms 119:131
[i] G. J. Botterweck in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, I, p. 25.
Image copyright by Jack Bair