What is the Shema in the Bible? In the Old Testament, the Shema was a confession of exclusive faithful obedience to Yahweh that would be passed on for generations to come. When the Shema was repeated or prayed, people were declaring their allegiance to love the LORD and follow in all his ways.
It can be so easy to veer off the path of devotion and obedience to the LORD our God. One thing that I am grateful for (that I don’t think about often enough) is growing up in a home with Christian parents and grandparents. They taught me about the saving power of the gospel, what it means to follow Jesus, and encouraged me to live the Christian life and not follow in wicked and destructive ways. What a major blessing that God gives! Because of my family and their passing along of the faith, I also want to continue and pass along the faith for future generations to come. Reflecting on this blessing reminds me of a key passage of Scripture in the Old Testament.
What is the Shema?
I don’t know about you, but one passage in the Old Testament that sticks out to me is Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (called “the Shema”). This passage has stuck with me ever since my freshman Old Testament history class at Ozark Christian College, and probably for good reasons. In the Old Testament, the Shema was a confession of exclusive, faithful obedience to Yahweh that would be passed on for generations to come. In other words, when the Shema was repeated or prayed, people were declaring their allegiance to love the LORD and follow in all his ways.
The Shema is quoted not just in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament by Jesus himself in two of the Gospels (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:28-30). The Shema is a famous prayer and tradition within Jewish history and circles. In fact, in Orthodox Jewish (traditional Jewish) circles today, the Shema (verses 4-5 of Deuteronomy 6) is still recited twice daily in prayers. The Shema is one of the most beautiful prayers in all of Scripture. It is a prayer that shapes the lives of people to pursue obedience because they love the LORD.
This passage in Deuteronomy sticks out to me because, in context, the LORD had delivered Israel, and it shows us what the LORD required of his people in accordance with the covenant faith. I love this text because it shows us heart devotion to the LORD. It is an essential piece of Deuteronomy and we, as Christians today, can also gain insight from this beautiful prayer into what devotion to God looks like practically.
What is the Shema in the Bible? “The Shema is quoted not just in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament by Jesus himself in two of the Gospels.”
To set up the text, Moses is speaking to the next generation of Israelites (since the old generation had died off in the wilderness as an act of faithlessness in the LORD; see Numbers 14:28-35) as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses is pleading with the new generation of Israelites not to make the same mistakes as the previous generation. Why? In order that the new generation of Israelites can enter the Promised Land and experience blessings in abundance. (To look ahead to the blessings of the Promised Land, see Deuteronomy 8:6-10.) In order to experience these blessings in abundance in the Promised Land, Moses gives the Shema, the call to listen to and to love the LORD from generation to generation.
The Shema: An Exclusive Devotion
This wonderful passage is the key and the heart of ancient Israel’s confession of and allegiance to God. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 begins with the word “hear.” Hear what? That the LORD is their God and that the LORD is one:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4, ESV)
Moses pleads with the Israelites to listen and to love the LORD because he does not want them to adopt the gods of Canaan. “Moses’ concern here is whether God’s people would remain devoted exclusively to Yahweh or be seduced by the gods of Canaan.” There is no room for the gods of Canaan and the LORD. God can be trusted so there is no need to trust in other gods.
This is a reminder of the first of the “Ten Commandments” given previously in Exodus 20:3 and again in Deuteronomy 5:7: “You shall have no other gods before me.” So when the Israelites would repeat or pray the Shema, they were declaring allegiance and exclusive devotion to the LORD who brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt and continually provided for them in the wilderness. It was an exclusive devotion to the LORD and to no other.
What is the Shema in the Bible? “When the Israelites would repeat or pray the Shema, they were declaring allegiance and exclusive devotion to the LORD who brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt.”
What did it truly mean to be exclusively devoted to the LORD? This is what Moses clarifies in the next verse. Moses calls on the Israelites to give a wholehearted devotion to the LORD. Moses continues in Deuteronomy 6:5:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5, ESV)
This “love” is not merely an “emotional love” but is a love that is seeking to please the covenant partner (the LORD). This love is rooted in the heart and extends to every part of our being. It is a commitment, a first priority, that involves everything that a person is. A person’s whole being is to love God and faithfully obey His commands.
The Shema: An Extensive Devotion
This commitment that is rooted in the heart and extends to every part of our being still doesn’t stop there. It extends even further into our everyday life. Moses gives us a picture of how a wholehearted devotion to the LORD should extend to everyday life. This is what Moses does in the last four verses. Here’s what Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:6-9:
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, 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. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9, ESV)
I may sound like a broken record, but I can’t express this idea enough: the point is exclusive devotion to the LORD. This calling—this deep and internal calling to listen to and to love the LORD exclusively is the heart of Israelite faith. It is not sacrifice or rituals that make up the Israelite faith, but exclusive devotion to the LORD. It is loyalty and anything that is less than exclusive devotion is a shared devotion, which simply does not work within a covenant with God.
What is the Shema in the Bible? “This commitment that is rooted in the heart and extends to every part of our being and extends even further into our everyday life.”
This exclusive devotion to the LORD also extends to family and public matters. Moses gives a picture of what it looks like when a person loves God and obeys His words with all their being. Love toward God means obedience, but it also means teaching the next generation of children. Once again, I’m so thankful that (both) sets of my grandparents are Christians and they passed on the faith to my parents, and they passed it on to my two brothers and myself. They are true examples of love and obedience to God. I can’t wait for the honor and privilege of passing on the faith one day as well.
Now, why is it important to pass along a call to listen and to love the LORD? It’s because the well-being of future generations is at stake. Passing along this habit of listening to and loving God perpetuates an attitude of love and obedience from generation to generation to generation and so on. Although I encourage you to read the entirety of Deuteronomy 6 sometime, let’s at least look ahead to Deuteronomy 6:20, 24-25:
“When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ . . . And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.” (Deut. 6:20, 24-25, ESV)
What is the Shema in the Bible? “It’s important to pass along a call to listen and to love the LORD because the well-being of future generations is at stake.”
When a person loves God and obeys His words with all their being, it is a constant topic of conversation in the home, along the way, and each night and day. God’s love and commands would be talked about regularly:
[You] 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. (Deut. 6:7b)
When a person loves God with all, as described in the Shema, then God’s love and commands are central in their life. The same goes for families dedicated to following him.
The Shema was also meant to be practiced publicly. For Jews, this passage (and Deut. 11:13-21; Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16) “was written on small scrolls, placed in small leather containers and bound on the forehead and the left arm when the Shema was recited.” There were even objects called phylacteries that were “worn by every male Jew during the time of morning prayer except on the sabbath and on festival days, which were signs in themselves.”
What is the Shema in the Bible? “When a person loves God with all, as described in the Shema, then God’s love and commands are central in their life.”
Why mention these practices? It’s to show how extremely significant a role the Shema played in daily life. This shows how serious the ancient Jews really were about keeping these words. Because there was a call to listen and to love the LORD, there was a desire for obedience. A desire to remember and constantly remind themselves what God had done. This is what would keep faith and exclusive devotion to the LORD alive: by remembering and passing along a call to listen and to love the LORD. This is the beauty of the Shema prayer.
What Does the Shema Mean for Us Today?
What wisdom from the Shema can be gained by Christians? How do we live out the Shema in our own time?
First, the Shema reminds us to love God. As it was for ancient Israel, love for God is essential in the life of the Christian and Christians are characterized by love. We see this idea emphasized by Paul in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians:
- And we know that for those who love.. (Rom. 8:28, emphasis added).
- But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Cor. 8:3, emphasis added).
- Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible (Eph. 6:24, emphasis added).
Second, the Shema reminds us that our love for God blossoms in obedience. It is a natural outworking for those who love God to live out the life of devotion described in the Shema. Fully loving God looks like obedience. In the Old Testament, the covenant between God and Israel was characterized by more than just words; it was a commitment of active obedience to God. In the covenant with Israel, God was faithful to His promises, and Israel was called likewise to be faithful to God through an obedience rooted in the heart and not just the mouth.
What is the Shema in the Bible? “In the covenant with Israel, God was faithful to His promises, and Israel was called likewise to be faithful to God through an obedience rooted in the heart and not just the mouth.”
If a child says “I love you” to their mom and dad but continually disobeys them, it is not a full love. If it were full love, the child would do their best to obey and honor them. In the same way, to fully love God is not just talk, but obedience. Jesus affirmed the same idea in John 14:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15, ESV)
One point of clarification may be useful here. Isn’t the new covenant all about grace and not about having to obey God’s commands? Aren’t the regulations and sacrifices a thing of the past since the new covenant is about what God has already done in Christ instead of what we are to do?
It’s true that “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8a, ESV). But let’s not forget what we are saved to in order to be able to do things: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, ESV). It’s also true that we leave ritual sacrifices behind in the past and that Jesus is our once-for-all sacrifice for sins. But does that mean that Christians aren’t meant to offer up sacrifices in the new covenant? Not at all, as Romans 12:1 describes,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1, ESV)
Love for God has always resulted in, and always will result in, obedience. The Shema reminds us of this.
What is the Shema in the Bible? “The Shema reminds us that love for God has always resulted in, and always will result in, obedience.”
How Do We Remind Ourselves of God and Our Commitment to Him?
The Shema prayer was a regular reminder for the people of Israel that they had committed to the LORD and to follow in all His ways. But, what about for you? What serves as a constant reminder of your commitment to the LORD? How, as described in the Shema, do you take these core truths and “bind them as a sign on your hand” and “write them on the doorposts of your house” so that you never forget your commitment to God? Here are some helpful possibilities:
Maybe for you, a regular reminder of your commitment to God is Scripture. Is there a scripture that reminds you of your commitment to the LORD? Is there a scripture that takes you back to when you first began to believe? For me personally, I’m constantly reminded about my commitment and devotion to the LORD in passages like Acts 20:24 and John 6:68.
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24, ESV). This verse guides my personal calling and conviction to do ministry for my whole life.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68, ESV). This gives voice to my personal commitment to the LORD. Eternal life is found in Him. Whom or what else would I turn to?
“Is there a scripture that reminds you of your commitment to the LORD? Is there a scripture that takes you back to when you first began to believe?”
Maybe for you, a regular reminder is worship. Are you reminded of a song that brings you back to remember your personal calling and commitment to the LORD? Maybe you heard hymns like “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” or “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” or “At the Cross,” or “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” (Yes, even as a young man, I do know hymns.) Or perhaps, for you it’s more contemporary songs such as “Lord, I Need You” or “Christ is Enough” or “Firm Foundation.” I can go on and on, but the key idea is identifying a worship song that reminds you of the moment you first believed in a personal God who loved and desired a relationship with you.
Maybe for you, you keep your commitment to God in mind through physical reminders. Maybe you wear jewelry with a verse of Scripture on it (whether a ring, a necklace, a wristband, etc.) that reminds you of your commitment to the LORD. Maybe it’s a tattoo of Scripture or a Greek or Hebrew verse, or some artwork that reminds you of your commitment to the LORD.
I would encourage you to find ways to constantly remind you of your commitment to the LORD. These are just three ways that I’ve seen most commonly, but there are numerous ways! The point is to find a way to remind yourself of your commitment to the LORD. Make it a priority.
“I would encourage you to find ways to constantly remind you of your commitment to the LORD.”
Final Thoughts on the Shema
The Shema is a call to listen to and love the LORD from generation to generation. Perhaps, as a Christian, you might implement the Shema into your prayers. Praying the Shema can help us remember our commitment to love the LORD our God and to walk in His ways because of that love. Jesus echoes the implications of the Shema in John’s Gospel:
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21, ESV)
Those who love…obey. It was true for the Israelites in the Old Testament. They were called to love the LORD and to obey all His commands. The same applies to us Christians as well. If we truly love Jesus, we will keep His commandments. Let us continually pray and live out the Shema—the call to listen to and love the LORD.
 Daniel I. Block, NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 182.
 J. A. Thompson, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 139.
 Thompson, Deuteronomy, 139.