A Tricky Heart: Jeremiah 17:9-10

 Our (western) culture loves to talk about the heart. We repeat the saying “follow your heart” and use the heart as a symbol of romantic love. While the heart pervades society as an image of bliss and goodness, the Bible paints a much bleaker picture of the heart,

“The heart is more deceitful than anything and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

I, Yahweh, search the heart and examine the mind [lit: kidneys]

And give to each person according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds.” 

This infamous saying from Jeremiah 17:9-10 is found in an oracle of Jeremiah speaking the words of Yahweh. The context of the Book of Jeremiah makes it likely this verse is referring to the idolatrous syncretism the Judahites practiced—while they worshiped the idols of Ba’al and Asherah (17:1-2), they believed that this was compatible with worshiping Yahweh.

Consulting several commentaries confirmed my hunch, Jeremiah 17:1-10 is a collection of wise sayings and not necessarily a cohesive passage.  While these verse groupings may have originated from separate oral traditions, God speaks them together in an intentional arrangement.

So while the verses we will study are rooted in the context of the Book of Jeremiah, it is challenging to firmly root them in context. It is my belief that verse 11, which speaks of gaining wealth through unscrupulous methods, is an example of the deceitful heart alongside idolatry and self-reliance (v. 5).

Tricky and Sicky

“The heart is more deceitful than anything and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

Verse 9 is self-explanatory: 1. The heart is deceitful 2. Its deceit is greater than all else 3. It is sick. The heart, representing the innermost thoughts and motives in ancient thought, is not inherently trustworthy. Not only can the deepest volition not be trusted, it is more untrustworthy than anything else. This is highly ironic—the deepest thoughts are of the deepest trickery. 

The rhetorical question “who can understand it?”, with an implied answer of “no one” (or only God) further highlights how severe the heart’s condition is—it's so bad, no one is able to understand its ways.

The Heart Searcher

“I, Yahweh, search the heart and examine the mind [lit: kidneys]” -10a

The concept of God being the searcher of people’s hearts and minds is seen several other times throughout Scripture, of note is Psalm 139 which I have written a full post on.

In this verse the heart, the seat of the innermost volition, and the “mind” (literally the kidneys or gut), the seat of the emotions, are presented as two separate entities. The focus is not on the distinction between searching the heart and examining the mind but on the fact that Yahweh is the one who does both. 

The level of deceit present in the heart, and implicitly the mind, means only the Creator God is capable of truly discerning them. This deceit may not only be for the person whose heart is deceitful, but for others surrounding this person. 

Outcomes Based on the Heart's Outflow

“And give to each person according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds”

Since only God can truly understand a person’s heart, only he is able to gauge a person’s “ways” and “fruit of their deeds”. He not only gauges, but he gives on the basis of the true nature of a person’s conduct. This could be blessing for honorable ways and productive deeds or punishment for evil ways that reap harm onto others.

Practical Application

While Jeremiah 17:9 could be read as a hopeless statement and verse 10 could be seen only about God, there is an unspoken, practical warning of these verses—why would God speak these words?

The key is in 10b where God gives based upon the outflow of a person’s heart. While the heart cannot be fully understood, the fact that God shares this helps to mitigate its deceit. If the heart is extremely deceitful and God gives according to its deeds, then one can intentionally act in a way worthy of good gifts.

The Judahite hearers (and us today) can ask God to give us our heart’s search results as it says in Psalm 139:24-25 (see full post)!

On the other hand, those who don’t use their actions as thermometer of their heart’s temperature will miss God’s blessing and experience the consequences that come from sin in itself.

God, please help us to be aware of our heart's trickery.


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