“Ears to hear…”

For a general English audience, would it be better to translate the Greek normally translated as “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” into:

Let this be a word to the wise?

One thing going for it is that the original is an idiom and so is the translation. Is the meaning accurate? If not, in what ways is it not accurate? In what ways is “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” not accurate?

For reference, here are the places I found in which the phrase “ears to hear” appears in the rather literal NASB:

    Deuteronomy 29:4
    Ezekiel 12:2
    Matthew 11:15
    Mark 4:9
    Mark 4:23
    Mark 7:16
    Luke 8:8
    Luke 14:35
    Romans 11:8

What are your thoughts?

19 thoughts on ““Ears to hear…”

  1. Carl W. Conrad says:

    I’m somewhat dubious about the suggestion, partly because it seems so clearly rooted in an oral culture and in the need to “think with one’s ears open,” and partly because, in its original setting in Mark 4 it underscores not just listening to Jesus but discerning what is critical in what one hears of what he says. I think it suggests not just getting the “kernel” of what is said but rather “reading between the lines” — or the oral equivalent of reading between the lines.

  2. codepoke says:

    It sounds like you’ve answered the biggest question. If this was an idiom in common use, then choosing a similar idiom makes good sense to me. I’ve always thought this was specifically not a common idiom, so using the literal words actually added to my confusion.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    What can I say?

    That the post appears unaware that this formula appears in Revelations 3:22?

    That the post appears unaware that “He who hath ears to hear, let him hear” is also an idiom in English?

    That the post appears unaware that the meanings of “a word to the wise” and “he who hath ears” are completely different? (The former refers to only a hint being required for the wise; that the latter indicates a remark of particular important.)

    A requisite for good Bible translation is an understanding of the target language.

  4. Nathan says:

    I wish it could be put “a word to the wise”. It makes so much more sense in my mind, because it’s a phrase I hear more often outside the Bible in the type of situations Jesus used it in.

    The construction “let him hear” creates perpetual grammatical conflict because it sounds like a command, but I don’t know who the subject is who is being commanded… is it the one who has ears to hear, or is it someone who would potentially distract him? At the root, I think it is a wish masquerading as a command (because it is commanding no one in particular). Then it would be parallel to the Lord’s Prayer “hallowed be your name” or “yuan ren dou zun ni ming wei sheng” (in Chinese, may all men hold your name most holy). An example in Spanish is the song “Ojala que llueva cafe” (oh-God that it would rain coffee).

    I agree with Theophrastus, though, that “a word to the wise” is not the most accurate translation, and here are my reasons:

    1. “He who has ears to hear” has entered the English corpus to some extent, because of the Bible’s influence, even if it’s not as common as “a word to the wise.”

    2. “A word to the wise” sounds more poetic, but it also makes the listeners feel more important. They are “knowing-ones”, not just “listening-ones”. Doesn’t this carry a different semantic connotation than the original? Or did Jesus equate the good type of listening with wisdom in the parable of wise and foolish builders? (hearing my words and putting them into practice : hearing my words and not putting put them into practice :: having ears to hear : not having ears to hear)

    3. And the idea of “to the wise” is expressed in Proverbs in different words, such as “let the wise listen and add to their learning” (Prov. 1:5). “Ears to hear” sounds like a direct allusion to Deut. 29:4 and Isaiah 6:9-10… “be ever hearing but never understanding.” This is a big topic in the New Testament, and it is best to keep the connection explicit.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    And I myself don’t have a heart to know, or eyes to see, how you can use “Let this be a word to the wise” in either Deuteronomy 29:4 or Ezekiel 12:2. Wouldn’t you have to load down both of these verses with additional, inelegant English proverbs that have no relation with one another?

    Like this?

    “Yet to this day the LORD has not said to you ‘you are in the know’, or ‘you are in the light’, or even ‘let this be a word to the wise’.” Dt 29:4

    “Son of man, you live in the midst of the rebellious house, who have not ‘seen the light’, ‘let this be a word to the wise’; for they are a rebellious house.” Ez 12:2

    But not only does this make for some awkward text-internal phrasings (in English) but it also makes inter-textual allusions completely (shall we say) “inaccurate.”

    For example, Mark 8 hearkens the readers ears and eyes back to (at least LXX) Ezekiel 12. And Mark (translating Jesus into Greek) plays on the Greek verb ἔχω /echo/ for “to possess” or “to have.”

    This works well in the context for Mark because the episode in the gospel is the one in which the disciples are focusing on what they do not “have.” And Jesus is trying to get them to remember how the crowds did not “have” food and yet he was able to give them more than they could eat or “possess.” Mark’s and Jesus’s allusion to the verse in Ez. is particularly important in the context too. Likely the disciples would have remembered it; and more likely Mark’s reader’s would have known it — the emphasis is on the rebellion of those who “have” something given by God but don’t use it. It’s important, I think, for those of us who have eyes to see the idiom in and between the verses, well, to see it:

    οἳ ἔχουσιν ὀφθαλμοὺς τοῦ βλέπειν καὶ οὐ βλέπουσιν καὶ ὦτα ἔχουσιν τοῦ ἀκούειν καὶ οὐκ ἀκούουσιν

    Καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἀλλήλους, λέγοντες ὅτι Ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχομεν [some mss ἔχουσιν]. Καὶ γνοὺς [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί διαλογίζεσθε ὅτι ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχετε; Οὔπω νοεῖτε, οὐδὲ συνίετε; [Ἔτι] πεπωρωμένην ἔχετε τὴν καρδίαν ὑμῶν; Ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχοντες οὐ βλέπετε; Καὶ ὦτα ἔχοντες οὐκ ἀκούετε; Καὶ οὐ μνημονεύετε;

    And it’s just as important to render the idiom some way in English. If “accuracy” is your goal in translation, accuracy with English idiom too, then isn’t it important to look at the entire phrasing of a verse and also the entire set of allusions across verses?

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    oops! sorry to comment so soon again but I missed bolding the second ἔχουσιν in the Ez verse. I think it does stand out both to eyes and to ears, which is another important (Greek) wordplay. If the English translator only hearkens back to the Hebrew (in the MT), then he or she loses what not only what the LXX translator(s) might intend but also what Mark is doing in the gospel (with his Greek). And “Let this be a word to the wise” fails the Greek (of Ezekiel and of Mark) and the Hebrew wordplay (of Ezekiel). Yes, I understand your point is not to have “accurate” English to reflect the Hebrew idiomatic repetitions in the verse. But to assume all that’s important to the Hebrew listener is that’s this is a pithy idiom seems a bit difficult. There’s at least a mnemonic device here in both the (MT) Hebrew and the (LXX and Mark’s) Greek that is not captured in our English “Let this be a word to the wise.”

  7. Marshall Massey says:

    I too feel this suggested paraphrase is inadequate. A further point that deserves mention is that “Those who have ears, let them hear,” can be equated to, “let them abandon their thinking and return to their senses” — ears, of course, being a metonym for hearing, which is one of the senses. The same point is also implicit in Christ’s comment that “You do not know how to discern the signs of the times” and, in Thomas, his comment that “The kingdom is spread out upon the earth, but you do not see it.”

  8. Nathan says:

    Marshall, “let them abandon their thinking and return to their senses”? That’s really deep.

    Here’s an additional paraphrase I would use: “Here this if you can,” or “Hear me if you can.” It implies “if you can hear” or “if you can take it”. The same pattern is used in English idioms like “catch me if you can.” In a noisy lecture hall, sometimes a public speaker will say, “If you can hear me, clap three times.” It’s the same kind of ironic, circular plea that Jesus used, knowing for many it was falling on deaf ears.

    It would only work for the imperative verses (he who has ears to hear, let him hear), not the indicative verses (the Lord has not yet given you ears to hear).

  9. Dannii Willis says:

    Thanks Mike, I think you’re on the right track, because I think you’re striving for a better Bible, which unfortunately I can’t say for some of the other commenters.

    Now based on the authoritative corpus of modern English, Google, tells me that this is a more widespread idiom in English than I had thought http://www.google.com/search?q=“ears+to+hear”. The overwhelming number of references are clearly Biblical, but there are a number of purely secular sources which also use the phrase. A number of those are political in nature, so I wonder if this phrase has moved slightly out of the Biblish realm into that of generic prophecy… it’s still not a common idiom though, and I personally find it very odd. (I wonder what the results would be with COCA…)

    Although I don’t like the phrase, I have to agree that the aural nature of it is significant. In some ways it is very confronting… presumably all of Jesus’s listeners both had ears and were hearing him loud and clear… I wonder if it was almost a veiled insult.

    But just because the aural nature is significant does not mean that the original words must stay, unless someone has evidence that in the Greek they too were odd and awkward! I quite like Nathan’s “Hear this if you can”. Perhaps even “Listen up! If you can that is…”

  10. Kirsty says:

    Surely “A word to the wise” means something completely different from “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”!

    One limits it to ‘the wise’, the other means ‘everyone’.

    It seems to me like an elaborate, poetic, interesting & perhaps even slightly humorous phrase, which has far more impact than just saying ‘everyone’. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine saying to a class of children (like asking ‘can you read?’ when they ignore a no entry sign.) What’s wrong with it?

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dannii says, “But just because the aural nature is significant does not mean that the original words must stay, unless someone has evidence that in the Greek they too were odd and awkward!”

    The phrase “ὦτα ἔχουσιν τοῦ ἀκούειν” seems Greek biblish to me, just looking at how uncommon it is in the biblical external corpus. (It seems Greek wordplay that hearkens to Hebrew wordplay as here in Ez 12:2 — לִשְׁמֹעַ וְלֹא שָׁמֵע )

    Nonetheless, Aristotle’s work of biology, “The History of Animals” on 492a, has this:

    “Ἀκίνητον δὲ τὸ οὖς ἄνθρωπος ἔχει μόνος τῶν ἐχόντων τοῦτο τὸ μόριον. Τῶν γὰρ ἐχόντων ἀκοὴν τὰ μὲν ἔχει ὦτα, τὰ δ’ οὐκ ἔχει,”

    “Of animals possessed of ears man is the only one that cannot move this organ. Of creatures possessed of hearing, some have ears, whilst others have none,” (as translated by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson)

  12. J. K. Gayle says:

    Dannii, also says, “I think you’re striving for a better Bible, which unfortunately I can’t say for some of the other commenters.”

    I think the Jesus Seminar is so striving too. And Kirsty’s astute comment above makes me think of the “Jesus” Seminar’s efforts. Note their initial idea to use an “English proverb [as] an excellent way to represent the sense of the Greek text.” Below is Robert Funk’s introduction to the “Jesus” Seminar’s “Scholar’s Version” of the gospels (Scholar’s Version = SV):

    ” Modern translations, especially those made by academics and endorsed by church boards, tend to reproduce the Greek text, more or less word-for-word. English words are taken from an English-Greek dictionary — always the same English word for the same Greek word — and set down in their Greek order where possible.

    ” In Mark 4:9 and often elsewhere, this admonition appears in the King James Version: ‘He who has ears to hear.’ In addition to being sexist, that is the rendition of a beginning Greek student who wants to impress the instructor by reproducing the underlying Greek text in English. One scholar among the SV translators proposed to make this substitution: ‘A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse.’ The [Jesus Seminar] panel agreed that this English proverb was an excellent way to represent the sense of the Greek text. However, the translators did not want to substitute an English expression for one in Greek. They decided, rather, to represent not only the words, phrases, and expressions of the Greek text, but also to capture, if possible, the tone and tenor of the original expression. As a consequence, SV translates the admonition: ‘Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!’ ‘Two good ears’ is precisely [i.e., accurately] what ‘ears to hear’ means, except that it is said in English, and ‘had better listen’ replaces the awkward English ‘let him hear.’ ‘Had better listen’ sounds like something parents might say to inattentive children; ‘let him hear’ would strike the youngster like permission to eavesdrop.

    ” The New Revised Standard Version also sounds quaint by comparison: ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen.’ But then the New Revised Standard Version is a revision of the King James Version.

    ” In addition, SV has attempted to reproduce the assonance of the Greek text. The term ‘here’ is a homophone of ‘hear’: because the two words are pronounced alike, one reminds the English ear of the other. ‘Anyone here with two good ears’ has the succession sounds –ere, ear, which suggests the assonance of the Greek text, which may be transliterated as ota akouein akoueto (the succession of akou-, akou-, and of ota, –eto, with a shift in vowels). The panelists were not always successful, but it does illustrate what they were trying to achieve.”

    Now, let’s make clear that Mike’s striving towards a better Bible, and the SV’s similar striving, does consider how good it may be “to substitute an English expression for one in Greek.” But there is still that important question that Dannii has raised about How common is this “one in Greek” and, thus, how common need it be in the English Bible? The Jesus Seminar considers the Greek phrase as entirely common, as part of “common lore,” since “[i]t also appears in the Sophia of Jesus Christ, a Nag hammadi treatise in the form of a revelation discourse addressed by the risen Christ to his followers” and “five times” in their fifth gospel (i.e., the gospel of Thomas).

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    Danii wrote:
    Thanks Mike, I think you’re on the right track, because I think you’re striving for a better Bible.

    Yes, exactly. And I’m looking for content-ful answers as I explore possibilities.

    J.K. Gayle:

    I hesitated simply listing the uses of “ears to hear” (which, Theophrastus, was the reason Rev. 3:22 was missed; it is curiously singular). The risk was that people would proceed too quickly to place the idiom into the referenced texts. For example, your rendering of Ezekiel 12:1-2 does that. It’s not surprising one can’t force an idiomatic phrase into a specific sentence. I would suggest something more like this:

    The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They can’t receive a word to the wise, for they are that rebellious. [I use ‘that’ since it appears to me the rebelliousness is quite salient. But, I could easily be wrong.]

    That’s a quick guess that is not informed by the Hebrew. I agree with you that the uses in the NT probably harken back to the Ezekiel use. In fact, I wondered whether the NT idiom was birthed by Ezekiel’s use.

    I don’t understand what Kirsty refers to. A word to the wise is addressed to everyone. The intention is that the previous statements are sound advice the wise already understand. Those who don’t understand should consider the implications of not understanding. Or, perhaps, consider the results of rejecting what they understand.

  14. Maureen says:

    “Let this be a word to the wise” doesn’t have the same authorative command as “He who has ears to hear let him hear”. Jesus taught in parables so that those who did not really want to hear the truth could avoid it. He knew that some people use their ears to filter and sift out what they don’t want to hear. (We all do it to some extent at times) If we look at the following verses in Mark 4:23-24 Jesus continues this thought by urging his hearers to make a great effort to hear, assuring them that what they receive would be proportional to their desire and effort. Really want to hear what He’s saying? Then pay attention, hear it even if it hurts, put some effort into understanding it rather than cherry-picking the words you want to hear and using ‘just a little God’ whenever it’s convenient. Well…that’s the way I read it. Maureen

  15. Mike Sangrey says:

    Maureen, you make a good point. I wonder if the original phrase had the same authoritative sound. It’s very, very hard to determine that (which argues for as well as against!). You say that Jesus goes on to urge his hearers. That also works for your point as well as against it. If the idiom is quite confrontational to begin with, then why the extra effort to make the point even more authoritative? And yet, I still think your observation is very worth considering.

    Thank you.

  16. Dannii Willis says:

    Kirsty asks “What’s wrong with it?”

    I think lots of things! I don’t think it is standard English. I don’t even think it’s good Biblish, and I’m struggling to parse it now. As the Jesus Seminar notes (oh dear, I’m agreeing with them!) it has a masculine pronoun and shouldn’t (though not because it’s sexist but because it’s inaccurate.)

    But I think the main problem is that it’s trying to use an infinitive clause as a relative clause. Maybe you can do that in Greek. You can’t in English.

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    Danni wrote:

    But I think the main problem is that it’s trying to use an infinitive clause as a relative clause. Maybe you can do that in Greek. You can’t in English.

    I think one of the problems we deal with in our pursuit of English translations that communicate more accurately is this: English is so flexible. I mean, you can verb nouns almost with impunity[1]. Many (but not all) people still understand what you mean in such non-normal uses. So, many people will not even notice what you just pointed out. And yet, if a particular translation wishes to stay close to being formally equivalent, it seems to me these larger form issues need to be cleanly dealt with.

    This reminds me of the Churchill quote: “[Ending a sentence with a preposition] is the sort of !%($#@&)% nonsense up with which I will not put.” Which I understand was his response to an editor forcing the Latin model onto English much like we force the Greek model onto English with our Biblish.


    [1] In fact, I could have probably said, “Without impunity” and many of you (but not all!) would have missed it. 🙂

  18. Donna says:

    I really like it.
    Why? Because the original Greek and your suggested translation :
    1. Both in their typical contexts are the type of thing you would say to insiders and not outsiders.
    2. Both allow the hearer to choose whether they will pay attention to the message that it is intended to emphasise.
    3. Both imply some sort of ominous warning that if you don’t listen to the message there will be consequences.
    4. Both allow the hearer to opt in or out (contra Kirsty’s comments, “a word to the wise” is not literally only speaking to the wise) it could be paraphrased as saying “you’d better listen to me, and if you do then you are wise” anyone can listen to Jesus and in doing so choose to be “wise”.

    I agree that you don’t need the “let this be” if you put it before the message it is intended to emphasise, you are more likely to need it if it comes afterwards.

    Great translation. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts.

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