If someone wants to push back on seeing human beings in a positive light, there are a handful of verses they might quote from that pack a punch. A while back, I was talking about using a parts-based approach in Christian therapy with a fellow Christian counselor. She said something something like, “I really like what I’m learning and how helpful the whole parts things is, I just don’t know what to do with the idea of parts work that says we have no bad parts, because you know, that verse in the Old Testament about how sick the heart is.”
She was referring to Jeremiah 17:9, and this comment stayed with me for a while. This comment actually spurred a lot of writing drafts and thought for this blog, wanting to explore if it can be consistent with our faith to engage all parts of us with compassion in our spiritual formation.
After my colleague referenced this verse as a reason why she wasn’t sure if she could get on board with idea that not all parts of her were bad, I was dying to do some nerd digging. I knew the English translations, but what about the original Hebrew, what did it say? And what about the first ancient Greek translation(s) of the Hebrew? Were these ancient Hebrew or Greek words really as straightforward as they come across in our English translations? And if not, what meaning does that have for us? What about the word for heart, this of course doesn’t refer simply to our organ and its biological function. We assume emotional facets of ourselves when using this word. I wondered, is this what would have been understood by authors and readers in the ancient time when Jeremiah was written? Since I know not everyone loves nerd land as much as I do, I’ll summarize my findings in as painless a way as possible below…
A common translation of Jeremiah 17:9 reads:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (ESV).
This verse has two adjectives describing the heart, and then asks, who can understand it?
The first of our two adjectives that describe the heart is generally translated as deceitful in English, and we tend to take this word as face value. What’s interesting is that the Hebrew word for deceitful is not what’s in Jeremiah 17:9. Instead, it’s a word that describes hilly and uneven terrain, or a person’s tracks or footprints over terrain. The other two times this adjective is used in the Old Testament, it is depicting uneven ground in contrast with level ground (Isaiah 40:4) and footprints (Hosea 6:8). In terms of how we get the translation for deceitful, it comes from the idea or picture of a person’s crooked tracks across uneven terrain, in contrast with level ground that is used in metaphors around justice and equity. While this logic tracks, pun intended, it seems odd to me that we accept this as a straightforward translation when we don’t have other examples of the word being used this specific way in Scripture. So, I kept my nerd hat on and looked at the ancient Greek translation of this verse…
The very first translations of Hebrew Scriptures were in ancient Greek. These translations can be helpful as we try to make sense of what something in ancient Hebrew means because of how far removed we are today. Unlike how far removed we are in terms of time, language, and culture, the translators of ancient Greek translations of the Old Testament were much closer. It’s like someone back in the 1700s being able to understand Shakespeare better than we can today, except even more so!
Similar to the Hebrew, the ancient Greek translation of Jeremiah 17:9 doesn’t include an adjective that means deceitful. Instead, it says The heart is deep above all else, and so is man, and who shall understand him? This tells us that people who were much closer in time, culture, language, and religious practice to the original Hebrew of Jeremiah 17:9 understood this verse to be talking about the depth of the heart, not making a statement that it is deceitful. Interestingly, this Old Greek translation is consistent with the Hebrew adjective that means steep or hilly terrain. Steep and hilly terrain is deep. It seems worth considering if this is the picture the verse was meant to paint.
It’s also worth noting that today, we associate the heart with feeling and emotion, in contrast with logic or intellect. We often scapegoat feelings or emotions as bad and corrupt, in contrast with logic and intellect being more useful. In ancient times, the Hebrew word for heart didn’t only mean the seat of emotion, but also intellectuality, including reason and the mind (as is noted in HALOT). So the picture painted of hilly terrain with great depth is not just referring to emotion, but a person’s internal world more holistically. This might seem intriguing at first glance, but what do we do next with the second adjective in the verse?
Our common ESV translation from above tells us that Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. The second adjective is generally translated bleakly, our English translations tell us it means: desperately wicked (NLT; KJV), desperately sick (ESV; NASB), exceedingly corrupt (ASV), incurably bad (NET), and perverse (NRSV). When I decided to spend some time with this verse, I was surprised and excited when I realized this second adjective was a Hebrew word that has fascinated me for a long time.
This Hebrew word means incurable. You can find it eight times in the Old Testament. It is most frequently translated as incurable the other seven times it pops up outside of Jeremiah 17:9. For example, in Isaiah 17:11 and Jeremiah 30:15, in most English translations the word is translated as incurable, referring to incurable pain. In Jeremiah 15:18, Micah 1:9, and Job 34:6, the adjective is again commonly translated as incurable, referencing an incurable wound. In Jeremiah 17:16, just five verses after Jeremiah 17:9, the adjective is commonly translated as sickness. In Jeremiah 30:12, the word is frequently translated as incurable, referring to an incurable hurt or wound.
When I started reading through these other verses that have this same adjective in them, I was confused. Why did the translation of Jeremiah 17:9 stand out so distinctly from all the others? The other seven times that we see this adjective in the OT, it’s in reference to some sort of wound, hurt, pain, and/or sickness that is incurable. In these seven other examples we see this word is used to paint a painful picture that is seemingly beyond repair. Our English translations listed above for Jeremiah 17:9 show us that the nuance we pick up when we read our modern bibles is one of badness. Instead, it seems this word is used in the Old Testament to denote woundedness.
Both badness and woundedness are conditions in need of help. The big difference is that one is associated with shame, and one is associated with compassion.
If we go back to our ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew, we can see that there isn’t actually a second adjective to describe the heart. The entire verse is: The heart is deep above all else, and so is man, and who shall understand him? Instead of emphasizing the badness of people and their hearts as English translations do, this ancient Greek translation emphasizes the complex depths of peoples’ internal worlds. All of this makes me wonder if we’ve gotten this verse wrong. What if instead of shaming humanity with being as perversely wicked and deceitful as possible, this verse is commenting on the complex depth and woundedness of our human state that is in need of salvation, a complex state that is beyond the human ability to really comprehend?
I love how Jeremiah uses wound language to speak about God’s tender and healing redemption to come. To fully appreciate the shift in how we understand the words in Jeremiah 17:9, we need to zoom out to the bigger picture. Jeremiah is a major prophet, prophesying to God’s people who are experiencing pain and suffering, stuck in a state of brokenness that they can’t fix on their own. This book of the bible is well known for its words about God making a new covenant with His people, a covenant where He will write His instruction on their hearts, making it possible to live in the relational communion He longs to share with His people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). A few verses before this, as things ramp up to the new covenant verses, God says He’s going to burst their bonds (30:8), He tells them to fear not, He will save them (30:10), He says He is with them to save them (30:11). And while there is the more current issue of exile for God’s people at the time Jeremiah was written, the new covenant verses make clear that God is not only interested in fixing a present circumstance, He’s going to take care of the root issue: writing His good and life giving instruction on His people’s hearts. He sees that beyond where they are geographically cast off to, they have incurable wounds that need His restorative work (30:12). God says He will heal their wounds (30:17). The incurable will be healed by the One who is not bound by any limits.
So, Jeremiah paints a picture of an incurable wound beyond the geographical problem of exile that God Himself will heal (side note, their exile is a result of the root problem of this wound, see Lev. 26; cf. Deut. 28 for more). The statements before the specific verse we’re considering here (Jer. 17:9) read like wisdom literature, saying, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is in the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water…” (Jer. 17:7; cf. Psalm 1). Following Jeremiah 17:9, we read, “I the LORD search the heart and test the kidneys, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (17:10). Following statements about a blessed person who trusts in the LORD (Jeremiah 17:7-8), it’s entirely possible to see Jeremiah 17:9 as describing the complexities of the human heart and mind, so deeply complex that the question is asked, who can understand it?
Slowing down with Jeremiah 17:9 helps us see that the Hebrew might instead be saying something to the effect of The human heart and mind is incredibly deep like the most steep and hilly terrain, and it is incurably wounded, who can understand it? We would then keep reading in the next verse (Jer. 17:10) and see that God says He is the one who searches the the depths of a person’s internal world – meaning, in response to the question who can understand it, it is God who knows and sees to the depths of our core, He can understand the depths of human’s internal worlds despite the steep terrain and incurable woundedness.
Spending time with this verse and Jeremiah left me with a significantly different view of this verse than how it is often used to slam people down in shame. Are we desperately in need of God’s salvation and healing work? Yes, absolutely. Seeing the woundedness described here in contrast with badness does not take away the need for God’s saving work. I think it actually points to a greater problem than us just being so “bad” or so “wicked.” It paints this picture of the depth of a wound that is so great, it’s incurable. And this picture enhances our view of God’s saving work that redeems and heals. And this is all possible without using Scripture to shame God’s image bearers for being so wicked — it knocks the wind out of the shaming throw down that Jeremiah 17:9 is often used for. Instead, we can look at how complex we are, and how great our need is for healing — referencing a verse like Jeremiah 17:9, and its context, which paints a picture of our need for a new heart, which God will mercifully create.