The “Heart” in God’s Word, the Bible
THERE is no question that the human heart has received more attention in men’s thinking than has any other organ of the body. Both poetry and prose abound with references to it. It is therefore not surprising that the heart is made prominent in God’s Word. In fact, it is mentioned therein almost a thousand times in one way or another. What are we to understand, then, by the word “heart”?
In the Bible, it is not uncommon for a word to be used in a variety of ways with differing shades of meaning. Let us note, for example, the Bible’s use of the terms “heavens” and “spirit.” At times, “heavens” refers to the expanse, or atmosphere, above the earth in which birds fly. (Genesis 1:26) The entire physical universe, including the stars seen and unseen, is at times referred to as the heavens. (Psalm 19:1) At 2 Peter 3:7 the reference appears to be to the political heavens. However, “heavens” at times refers to the very dwelling place of Jehovah’s organization of spirit creatures. (Revelation 12:12) It can also refer to the heavenly Kingdom, as at 2 Peter 3:13.
It is similar with the term “spirit.” At times Jehovah God, Jesus Christ and the angels are referred to as spirit persons. (John 4:24; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Hebrews 1:13, 14) The life force actuating all living creatures is referred to also as “spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) The motivating force in a person is at times called “spirit,” as at Proverbs 25:28. And, most frequently, Jehovah God’s active force is referred to as “spirit” or “holy spirit.”—Genesis 1:2; Zechariah 4:6; Mark 13:11.
What, then, of the “heart”? At Exodus 28:30 the Hebrew word for “heart” refers to the literal organ. Here Jehovah God commanded that the breastpiece of judgment be placed over Aaron’s heart. That was the physical human heart. And obviously there is a literal application of Psalm 45:5, which reads: “Your arrows are sharp . . . in the heart of the enemies of the king.”
Then again, the heart is used to refer to the center, or midst, of a thing. At Ezekiel 27:25-27 we three times find the expression “in the heart of the open sea,” doubtless meaning in the very midst of the sea. Likewise, Jesus foretold that he would be in the “heart” of, in the midst of, the earth for three days and three nights.—Matthew 12:40.
The heart is also associated with our feelings of joy and of sorrow, or gloominess. We read at 1 Kings 8:66 that when Solomon’s temple was dedicated, ‘all Israel rejoiced and felt merry of heart over all the goodness that Jehovah God performed for his servant David and for Israel.’ At Nehemiah 2:2 we find King Artaxerxes asking Nehemiah why he looked so gloomy when he was not sick. “This is nothing but a gloominess of heart,” he concluded.
The heart is associated with our disposition, our attitude, whether lofty, proud, or lowly, humble. Proverbs 16:5 says that “everyone that is proud in heart is something detestable to Jehovah.” On the other hand, at Matthew 11:29, Jesus said: “I am mild-tempered and lowly [humble] in heart.”
Moral qualities—goodness, virtue, badness and wickedness—are said to reside in the heart. For example, at Jeremiah 7:24 we read of the Israelites’ “walking in the counsels in the stubbornness of their bad heart.” Jesus shows at Matthew 12:34, 35 that both good and bad things can be found in the heart.
Faith involves the heart, for Paul tells us at Romans 10:10: “With the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, but with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation.”
The heart is the seat of motivation. Exodus 35:21 explains that those making contributions for the tabernacle “came, everyone whose heart impelled him.” According to Hebrews 4:12, 13, Jehovah’s word is like a sharp sword, able to “discern thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Yes, the heart of a person is the source of motivation, influencing the mind for good or for bad. An example of the heart’s motivating God’s people to act with wisdom is found at Exodus 31:6, which reads: “In the heart of everyone wise of heart I do put wisdom, that they may indeed make everything I have commanded you.”
Above all, however, the emotions of love and hate are associated with the heart. The Israelites were commanded: “You must not hate your brother in your heart.” (Leviticus 19:17) We also read of the heart of the Egyptians hating the Israelites. (Psalm 105:25) On the other hand, Paul tells us: “Really the objective of this mandate is love out of a clean heart.” (1 Timothy 1:5) And Peter counsels us: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth . . . love one another intensely from the heart.”—1 Peter 1:22.
The Scriptures also speak of precious experiences as being stored in the heart. Thus we read at Luke 2:51 that Mary, Jesus’ mother, “treasured all these things [concerning Jesus] in her heart.”—Today’s English Version; New International Version; The New English Bible.
What an amazing number of different functions and capabilities are ascribed to the heart! Do all of these reside in the literal heart? That could hardly be so. This is indicated by those languages that make a clear distinction between a fleshly heart and a figurative heart. For example, both Chinese and Japanese use two characters, meaning “heart-organ,” for the literal heart. But in describing the qualities that emanate from the heart, only the first of these characters is used, in combination with other elements, to make up part of a more complicated character, in words such as love, hatred, intention and endurance. (See the accompanying box.) Thus a clear distinction is made between the physical organ and the person’s motivations and emotional qualities, though a relationship between the two is maintained.
It is enlightening to note also how other organs of the body are referred to in the Scriptures. Thus we find that upwards of 20 times the literal kidneys are referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly in the Pentateuch. Repeatedly we read about “the two kidneys and the fat” in connection with animal sacrifices required under the Law. (Exodus 29:13, 22; Leviticus 3:4, 10, 15; 4:9; 7:4) Unquestionably this refers to the literal kidneys. And the psalmist David doubtless was referring to the literal kidneys when he wrote: “You yourself produced my kidneys; you kept me screened off in the belly of my mother.”—Psalm 139:13.
However, was the prophet Jeremiah referring to the literal kidneys when he stated, at Jeremiah 11:20, that Jehovah “is examining the kidneys and the heart”? Further, could David have been referring to the literal kidneys when he stated: “Really, during the nights my kidneys have corrected me”? (Psalm 16:7) Surely our literal kidneys cannot correct us. To what was he referring? Does not Jeremiah 12:2 throw light on the subject? It reads: “You have planted them; they have also taken root. They keep going ahead; they have also produced fruit. You are near in their mouth, but far away from their kidneys.” Does not “kidneys” here indicate the person’s deepest emotions? This scripture seems also to parallel Isaiah 29:13, which Jesus quoted from, as recorded at Matthew 15:7, 8: “You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, yet their heart is far removed from me.’” No doubt Jesus was here referring to what sort of persons these wicked ones were deep down inside.
Another example that might be given is the Greek word for the intestines or bowels, splagʹkhna. It is used in a literal sense at Acts 1:18, where we read of Judas: “This very man, therefore, purchased a field with the wages for unrighteousness, and pitching head foremost he noisily burst in his midst and all his intestines were poured out.” However, though this word appears 11 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, only in this instance does it refer to the literal intestines. It is translated “tender” at Luke 1:78 and “tender affections” at 2 Corinthians 6:12; 7:15; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12 and at Philemon 7. At Genesis 43:30 and 1 Kings 3:26 ra·chamimʹ, the corresponding Hebrew word, is translated “bowels” in the Authorized Version, though it refers actually to the “inward emotions,” and is so rendered by the New World Translation.
It is the same way with the Hebrew and Greek words rendered “heart” in our Bibles. There are times, comparatively few, when the literal heart is referred to, for example at Exodus 28:30 and Psalm 45:5. However, in nearly a thousand other references to “heart” in the Bible, “heart” is obviously used in a figurative sense. This is not to say that there is no connection between the physical and the figurative heart. There is. For example, emotional stress can have a damaging effect on the literal heart, causing illness and even death. But, obviously, a distinction must be drawn between the heart organ and the figurative heart. As W. E. Vine states, “The heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life.”—An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Volume II, pages 206-7.
From all the foregoing it is plain that the Hebrew and Greek words for “heart” are used by Bible writers to refer to a number of emotional and moral qualities that go to make up the inner person. Clearly, by warning us of the importance of watching our longings, our yearnings and our motivations, God’s Word is helping us to “serve him with a complete heart.” It is equipping us for every good work. (1 Chronicles 28:9; 2 Timothy 3:17) Much good counsel along this line is contained in God’s Word.
[Chart on page 6]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Chinese characters that denote the heart
[Artwork—Chinese character] heart, usually figurative
[Artwork—Chinese character] heart-organ, physical
Note how the basic character appears in qualities associated with the heart:
[Artwork—Chinese character] love
[Artwork—Chinese character] hatred
[Artwork—Chinese character] forgiveness
[Artwork—Chinese character] sadness
[Artwork—Chinese character] worry
[Artwork—Chinese character] intention
[Artwork—Chinese character] anger
[Artwork—Chinese character] endurance
[Picture on page 5]
The heart is associated with human feelings, attitudes, faith, motivations and emotions