The Kidneys—Why Used Symbolically
THROUGHOUT the Bible, even as in everyday usage, the various parts of the human body are used in a symbolic or figurative way. Among these are the hands, the shoulders and the heart. Such figurative use of words not only is expressive and adds force to speech but often is quite enlightening. In particular is the heart used in a figurative way both in the Bible and in everyday language.
However, there are certain figurative expressions found in the Bible that have no counterpart in modern usage, at least not in English. Among these are the kidneys. In Biblical Hebrew the word for kidneys is kelayoth. Of the some thirty times it occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures about one-third of the times the reference is to kidneys in a figurative sense. Thus we read: “Examine me, O Jehovah, and put me to the test; refine my kidneys and my heart.” “Jehovah of armies is judging with righteousness; he is examining the kidneys and the heart.” “I, Jehovah, am searching the heart, examining the kidneys, even to give to each one according to his ways, according to the fruitage of his dealings.”—Ps. 26:2; Jer. 11:20; 17:10.
Why do the Scripture writers use the kidneys in a symbolic sense? For more than one reason. In cutting up animals for sacrifice—the kidneys are repeatedly mentioned in the Levitical code of sacrifices—the Israelites could not help noting that they came upon the kidneys last; they were buried the deepest. The kidneys would therefore well stand for or represent the deepest part of man, his inmost or deepest thoughts and feelings. That is why we read at Jeremiah 12:2: “They keep going ahead; they have also produced fruit. You are near in their mouth, but far away from their kidneys,” far away from the inmost thoughts and feelings of such wicked ones.
No doubt the kidneys were associated with the deepest emotions also because these emotions affect the kidneys. Thus authorities on psychosomatic medicine tell us that sustained emotional strain can well cause such disturbances as diabetes insipidous, in which the kidneys fail to function properly. (This should not be confused with diabetes mellitus or “sugar” diabetes.)—Emotions and Bodily Changes, Dunbar.
Because of this we find that various Bible dictionaries and commentaries have the following to say about the symbolic use of “kidneys”: “The kidneys were considered the seat of affections and emotions and the most vital and sensitive part of man.” “The kidneys, from the sensitiveness of that part of the person, were believed to be the seat of longing and desire.” “The Orientals regarded the kidneys as the seat of the desires and affections, and hence under them spoke of the soul in respect to its inmost purposes or cravings.” “The most secret workings and affections of the heart.”
In keeping with all the foregoing we note that in the New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, First Edition, whenever “kidneys” is used with this symbolic or figurative sense there is a footnote reading, “deepest emotions.”—Ps. 7:9; 16:7; 26:2; Prov. 23:16; Jer. 11:20; 12:2; 17:10; 20:12.
As for the use of “kidneys” in the Christian Greek Scriptures, the Greek word for “kidneys,” nephros, is found only once, at Revelation 2:23. There, in the New World Translation it is freely rendered “inmost thoughts.” “Her children I will kill with deadly plague, so that all the congregations will know that I am he who searches the inmost thoughts and hearts, and I will give to you individually according to your deeds.”
The word “kidneys” when used figuratively in the Scriptures has but the one meaning, that of deepest or inmost emotions or thoughts. Many modern translators render the Hebrew and Greek words for “kidneys” as “heart.” However, strictly speaking, “kidneys” used in a symbolic sense goes deeper than does “heart” when applied to the emotions, feelings. Thus both Job and Jeremiah spoke of being wounded in the kidneys, meaning a very deep wound.—Job 16:13; Lam. 3:13.
Whenever we ask Jehovah God, as did David, to examine our “kidneys” we mean for him to make a most searching examination, one that takes in the deepest emotions, thoughts, feelings. Being omniscient and omnipotent, Jehovah God has no difficulty at all in making such an examination. “All things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of him.”—Heb. 4:13.