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The Matter of the Heart

The place of the heart in Scripture

Posted Tuesday, June 21, 2005 by Brian Beers

A close reading of Scripture is a dangerous activity. A year ago, I was prompted to examine how the heart is discussed in the Bible. This prompting was to go beyond the direct statements about hearts such as Jeremiah 17:9 (The heart is deceitful above all things). What I found was disturbing.  The good news is that we already know that the heart is the “inner man.” The bad news is that those pesky Hebrews used “heart” in a way that doesn’t fit with my anthropology. The good news is that we have translations to smooth out the oddities and obscure otherwise distinctive differences between passages. The bad news is that I decided to dig into the actual Hebrew text. The good news is that I have decided to confess.

My preliminary observations have lead me to believe that the heart was not simply a vague notion of the “inner man.” In the Scriptural understanding of human nature the heart had a particular role. What also fascinates me is that Scripture describes God interacting with his heart in the same way it describes a man interacting with his heart. As we examine these passages, I challenge you to refrain from immediately Westernizing the Scriptures—reducing them to concepts that we already know. This can be disconcerting because they were written thousands of years ago and not according to Western sensibilities. But if we change their meaning by substituting a concept that is easier for us to understand, we forfeit the authority of Scripture.

Heart (lev or levav) is used 865 times in 784 verses. So I figure that if I address 10 occurrences a week, you will be completely fed up with reading about how the Hebrews talked about their hearts about 80 weeks before I finish…so I have decided to restrain myself. I will look first at places where the Scriptures use the phrase el lev “to the [my/his/her/your/etc.] heart.” This only happens 23 times. This first installment will cover occurrences in the Pentateuch. The first two verses are about God’s heart rather than man’s heart, but the role of the heart of God appears to be similar to the role  of the heart of man. I believe that this points out another way in which people are made in the image and likeness of God. After that we find the Pharaoh’s heart in God’s cross-hairs, and then Moses reminds the Israelites of God’s identity.

God’s grief

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.(Genesis 6:6 ESV)

This first passage is the opening death knell of the flood. The NIV renders this verse “his heart was filled with pain.” The ESV and RSV, however, are the only major translations to preserve the preposition el as “to.” In this verse el indicates the degree to which God was grieved as in, “He was grieved all the way to his heart.” This suggests that God’s heart is reserved, protected, and held away from the sorrows of this world. The wickedness of man was so great however, that it even caused grief “to his heart.”

In verse seven God speaks out because of this grief and promises to blot out man.

God’s promise

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in [to] his heart [el livo], "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21 ESV)

God smelled the barbecue, and “said to his heart” I won’t destroy everything this way again. This looks like a one-sided conversation. God’s heart doesn’t reply, but God is talking to his heart. I find it interesting that God’s heart was grieved in 6:6, but in 8:21 he speaks to his heart. Was God’s heart was not satisfied with how things turned out? Perhaps because man’s heart was still wicked so nothing was really fixed by this flood? Maybe God’s heart was concerned that things would go south again. Nevertheless we have God’s vow that he will not do this again.

The seventh plague

For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. (Exodus 9:14 ESV)

The ESV doubles up “you yourself” to bring out the significance of el livka “to your heart.” God tells Pharaoh that all these plagues will be sent “to your heart” to produce the knowledge “that there is none like me in the whole earth.” It isn’t simply that Pharaoh is to consider these facts and later inform his heart about his conclusions. The plagues are sent, signature required, to his heart. His heart is to perceive these plagues, realize the implications, and then inform Pharaoh that “Yes. God was right. There is no one like Him in all the earth. You had better walk softly because He carries the big stick.”

God did not want to dicker over the truth with Pharaoh. He did not want to have an intellectual discussion over whether or not He could prove His existence. God went straight for Pharaoh’s heart because the heart is the center of genuine, substantial knowing. If the heart knows something, a person makes decisions accordingly. If the heart is convinced of the existence and uniqueness of God. They surrender to his demands…at least temporarily like Pharaoh did.

Consider God’s Deity

Know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (ESV Deuteronomy 4:39)

The new ESV sets it clearest, “lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God.” The construction in Hebrew is so distinctive that there is no Western figure of speech that can be substituted. The heart needs to be allowed to process this truth that “the Lord, He is God.” Moses gave the Israelites a brief recap of their last forty years. He recounts episode after episode in which they witnessed God at work. He concludes by challenging them to turn this truth over to their hearts in order that it may inform their lives.

The first phrase of the verse gives us the shift in perspective from past actions on God’s part to how the Israelites should then live. The way that this was to happen was that their hearts were to be allowed to process this truth. Verse 40 holds the result of allowing their hearts to consider God’s actions and identity: “You will keep his statutes and his commandments which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you.”

The heart is where this processing takes place. It is not merely a mental activity, a recognition of a fact (know therefore today). The heart realizes the implications of the fact that “the Lord, He is God.” And if their hearts realize the implications, their lives will reflect this truth, and God will be pleased, “it may go well with you and with your children after you.”


I have suggested that the heart is more than simply a rhetorical device intended to represent the human mind. The heart has a profound decision-making role in a person’s life.

Thursday, June 23, 2005 1:26 PM

Sam wrote:  Brian...this is interesting...I'm curious, how many of the total uses have you looked at, and do they seem to correspond with your current understanding of the word?  Is the heart in the same category as the human spirit...are you a dichotomist, trichotomist, polychotomist?  I'm not trying to trap you...just understand your point...thanks.

Thursday, June 23, 2005 2:05 PM

Brian wrote: 

How many uses?
So far I have looked at 40 or 50 uses.

I believe that I fall into a trichotomist position: heart (maybe the same as soul), spirit, and body.

Thursday, June 23, 2005 11:49 PM

Adam wrote: 


   To probe a little bit about your post; why did you decide to look at el lev rather than just significant uses of lev or lev when used of persons, and aren't you being a little mechanistic to insist that lev must be used in one specific way, and a more than a little anthropomorphic to assume that descriptions of God's heart are analagous to descriptions of human hearts?

   It seems to me that the metaphorical useage of heart to refer to the center or the deepest place of something (Ex. 15:8; Deut. 4:11; 2 Sam. 18:14; Jon. 2:3, etc.), would support the notion that the heart, when used to describe humans, does indeed describe, not the mind, but the whole immaterial nature of humans. For God to be moved to his heart then is both highly anthropomorphic does not say so much about his heart as it does his grief.

   Likewise, lev is sometimes used reflexively as in Gen 8:21 or Ex. 9:14 (also Gen. 18:5; Jud. 19:5), so that again these passages don't seem particularly relevant to the subject of heart.

   Finally, Deut. 4:39, seems to be a clear case of poetic parallelism rather than describing two different types of knowing. I agree that this construction is an exhortation to know something really well, but aren't you making this text work a little too hard by trying to make a distinction of metaphysical function between the first clause and the second?

   I guess I don't see that any of these first texts prove, or even seem very useful in dicussing your thesis. In addition, you have such a mountain of evidence for seeing the heart as a reference to the immaterial nature of man that I don't see how you can possibly surmount it.

Saturday, June 25, 2005 9:52 AM

Brian wrote: 

The choice to look at el lev was downright arbitrary. I chose a grammatically related subset of the 800+ uses of lev. The preposition el provides a reasonable starting point in which the heart is related grammatically to something else. This relationship provides a broader foundation for understanding

I am sorry that I was not clearer in my thesis. I am suggesting that understanding lev as a metaphorical usage of heart is incomplete. According to our traditional understanding nearly every occurrence of lev should be categorized as metaphorical. Therefore it is meaningless a category.

I am contradicting the definition of the heart as simply a vague notion of the inner man – that there is no definitive Hebrew understanding of the heart of man. I have a gut feeling – so to speak – that there is more to the heart than a poetic reference to the deepest part of something. I suspect that the heart is a specific part of our immaterial nature with particular roles and functions in a person.

I can see that discussing God’s heart as though it is same as our heart may cause some heartburn, but I am operating with assumption that since we can speak of the mind of God corresponding to the mind of man, we may also speak of the heart of God corresponding to the heart of man. Again, I believe that this sheds light on another way in which man is “in His likeness”.

Now I want to understand your method for determining how a use of lev is irrelevant for understanding the Hebrew concept of heart. Deut 4:39 fits into a recognized literary pattern, and Genesis 8:21 has been categorized as a reflexive use of heart and therefore should not be considered as representative of the Hebrew concept of heart. At the very least it should not be used as evidence that the traditional Western category is weak or invalid.

Is that accurate? If so, I confess that I have chosen to take a somewhat inductive approach to this mountain. How do you propose to determine that certain passages are relevant to determining the scope of meaning for lev. I am suspicious of any assumption-based exclusion of any passages.

I do not believe that I am opposed to a mountain of evidence. I am opposed to a mountain of assumption that has been relied upon for many generations. In the past I have been comfortable with these conclusions, but recently I have observed some patterns that warrant further examination. I have chosen to examine the evidence considering untraditional explanations.

I expect that for quite some time I will appear to be out on a limb, perhaps working my lev too hard.  In the end, I will find the tree. It may be back in the direction traditionally understood, but it may be in the direction I am currently thinking.

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