9 The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
QUESTION FROM A READER
I have a Hebrew question for you. We’re all familiar with the passage in Jeremiah 17 which is usually translated “the heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick; who can know it?” And often this is used as a proof text that takes us back to the idea of “original sin,” in contrast with original wholeness. But this year, I learned a different take on this passage that I rather liked! It was that the Hebrew word translated “deceitful” is actually not a word that connotes negativity. “Mysterious” would be more accurate. And the word translated “desperately sick” is more accurately weak, vulnerable, and is actually used to describe the Messiah. So our teacher proposed this as a better translation: “The heart is deeper than all things and human, who can understand it?” And looking at this in context, it makes much better sense.
RESPONSE FROM BRAD
I must confess that I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I will share a few thoughts, for what they are worth.
Regarding this text in Jeremiah, I believe your instincts are right that it should not be used as a proof-text for original sin or total depravity, since total depravity is an ugly element of botched theological systems. But at the same time, I would avoid ‘spinning’ Jeremiah’s statement as more positive than it is. To be fair to the text, we ought to consider his negativity about hearts that turn away from the Lord (vs 5) into consideration, but not totalize it into a doctrine, because the heart may also trust in God (vs 7). But then God’s Spirit, not the human heart, must be the steersman of the soul.
So here is how I read verses 5-9 together in the context of our current cultural and spiritual climate:
The popular saying says, “Follow your heart!” I understand why, given the damage done by following repressive religious rules and cultural pressures. As Blaise Pascal once said, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Sometimes the heart needs to be heard because it is a treasury of God’s good gifts and deeper wisdom.
But what if your heart is saying “Follow me away from God into your own ways, follow me away from your marriage into your lover’s arms, follow me away from the troubles of this life into the sweet peace of suicide”? Yes, the heart will say such things.
Even the heart can be deceived and become a deceiver. Pascal’s maxim cuts both ways: the heart can be fickle and frail and operate on motives you’re not even aware about, on assumptions you’re not able to access or assess as wise or foolish.
So rather than simply following your heart, vs 8 tells us the best place to root ourselves (and our hearts) is in trusting God and following God’s Spirit along the Jesus Way. Bring your heart into his care and guidance and you’ll see it flourish. Let God’s Spirit shine in your heart and warm it, soften it, cleanse it and heal it so that your heart learns to instinctively trust and follow the Spirit’s impulses, even when they represent the hard way of the Cross.
I’m not settled on the traditional negative translation or on your teacher’s positive alternative. That’s above my pay grade. But I do sense in vs. 9 a caution (not a condemnation nor an affirmation) against trusting the heart vis-a-vis trusting God.
Maybe the sense is, “The heart is fragile, susceptible to deception and it’s motives hard to discern. (9) If it says ‘follow me,’ it may take you away from God (5-6), but if you plant it by the streams of God, it will flourish (7-8).
So, as I said in part 1 of this 2-part reflection, we listen to our hearts, but we follow Christ. Discerning between the two is important, but hopefully, as our hearts surrender to and trust in Christ, our hearts too will ultimately say, “Let’s just follow Jesus.”