When we turn to the heart of God, we turn to the center of all he is and all he does. The biblical writers understood the heart to be at the focal point of all we do as humans. So it is with God; as he purposes in his heart, so he does. When we speak of the heart, we are not speaking of the physical organ in the chest. Rather we are speaking of the seat of all our thoughts, emotions, will and moral state. We still speak the same way today, even though we know that our thoughts, emotions and will are generated in our brains. Paul tells us in the New Testament that we ought to praise God with all that we are and have (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).
Think of the many ways we use the heart in our daily lives, even in the twenty-first century. Someone who tends to be emotional “wears his heart on his sleeve”; that is, his emotions are an open book, obvious to anyone who knows him. When we are in love, we might speak of our lover as a “heart-throb,” indicating in the very least that they are important to us. Again, we might say, “My heart beats for you.” To be sure, this is a hyperbole (or an exaggeration), for our physical heart would continue to beat if the lover were not around. The idea in the expression is that lover is important to us. When we declare our love for someone, we might say, ‘I give my heart to you” or “My heart is yours.” Both of these expressions indicate that we pledge our faithfulness to the other person; with our heart comes our whole being.177 When a person is happy, he might be said to be “lighthearted.” Implicit here is that the weight of the world is lifted for the moment.
Alternately, when we are hurt, sad or downcast, we use the heart to indicate these emotions as well. We indicate our hurt by saying we are “brokenhearted”; indeed, to be brokenhearted is to be wounded emotionally. When we are discouraged, we may say we are “disheartened,” or “heavyhearted.” We might even say, “our hearts are heavy” with the burden we carry. We do not carry a physical burden, of course, but rather an emotional, psychological, or spiritual burden; that is why our “heart” carries it. In the same way, when we are spiritually drained or emotionally sad, we might say our “heart aches.” Again, it is not that the physical organ in the chest hurts physically—we call that angina—but that the center of our being is affected. When he was dying with tuberculosis, John Keats wrote, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk.”178 Again, we might say we are “heart weary” or “heart sick” with what is going on in a particular circumstance, by which we mean that we are upset or concerned. When we are afraid or fearful, we might say that our “heart is in our throat”—indicating worry or anxiety about an upcoming event. When our “heart is in our boots,” we indicate discouragement, for we are cast down, as it were, with the fear that besets us.
At the other end of the spectrum, we use the heart to show courage and confidence as well. In fact, the English word courage derives from the French word coeur and the Latin cor which both mean “heart.” Courage literally means strength of heart and it involves mental and emotional determination, not just physical stamina. When we say of someone, “He has lots of heart” or even “He has heart,” we mean that he is courageous in the face of adversity. Similarly, we might encourage someone to be brave by saying, “Put your heart into it, man” or “Give it your whole heart.” In all of these expressions, the heart represents courage and bravery.179
Finally, we speak of the heart as the center of our moral and spiritual lives. There is good reason for the common expression, “Here we come to the heart of the matter,” for the heart is who we are. Throughout the Bible (as well as often in the Ancient Near East) and in the writings of philosophers and poets down through the ages, the heart is regarded as the seat of all our faculties. By this we mean that the heart is the seat, or home, of our moral being, our intellect, our emotions and our will. Think of it: the heart is the seat of sin (Mt. 15:19), and it is the heart that is Christ’s throne in the believer (Rom. 10:10). When we speak of the heart, then, we mean everything that we are. No wonder the writer of Proverbs states, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life” (Prov. 4:23). Notice how emphatic this statement is: the heart is the most important thing, and therefore we ought to guard it “with all vigilance.” What could be plainer? What we are in our heart is who we are before God. God knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves (Jer. 17:10).
The heart is the center of the circulatory system. As such, its task is to pump blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. It is not an exaggeration to say that each cell is dependent on the heart performing its function. It is of course true that when the heart ceases to beat the body dies. In speaking of heart patients, Dr. Greg Rose, Cardiologist with Wake Heart and Vascular Associates at Wake Medical Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, describes a serious problem called “Silent Ischemia.” Silent Ischemia is a situation in which, because they feel no chest discomfort, patients may not realize they are developing clogged arteries. Left unchecked, of course, clogged arteries can lead to Myocardial Infarction (that is, sudden cardiac arrest, or a heart attack) and death. The patient simply does not realize that he or she is in danger until a heart attack occurs. In many cases, however, clogged arteries produce chest discomfort; a patient might think something like, “I feel like there’s an elephant sitting on my chest.” The discomfort in turn is a warning sign that the patient needs to heed and should lead him or her to seek immediate medical attention. Ignoring the symptoms of chest discomfort is a recipe for potential disaster. In this case, (deliberate) ignorance is not bliss. Heart attacks are the number one cause of death in the United States.180
But the risk of heart attacks can be reduced. If we modify our risk factors (such as improving out diet and engaging in regular and effective exercise), we can reduce the risk of premature death because of a heart attack. With right diet and exercise, we can even “clean out” our hearts and improve cardiac health. So it is with our spiritual hearts; David prayed, “create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).181 The diagnosis is in: our hearts are sinful (Jer. 17:9). But the prescription is available in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, which forgives our sins and places us in a right relationship with God (cf. Rom 3:21-26; 10:9-13). If we will pay attention to the Word of God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we need not fear spiritual “silent ischemia” for we can know the problem and the solution.
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants” (Prov. 21:1).
The heart is at the center of who we are as human beings, and God’s heart is expressed throughout Scripture. In this section, we will mention some of the passages that speak of God’s heart in general terms. To begin, God’s heart expresses his compassion for people, even his enemies. As Christians, we are to love our enemies, not hate them (Mt. 5:43-48). We might even be tempted to think self-righteously that loving our enemies is a step forward for Christians over the Old Testament Israelites who sought an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But the Old and New Testaments are in agreement on how believers are to treat their enemies. God commanded his people even in the Old Testament to love their enemies as well as their neighbors. God’s heart in this matter is explicit:
“If you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, you must by all means return it to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen under its load, you must not ignore him, but be sure to help him with it” (Ex. 23:4-5).
God gives specific commands and particular examples of how his Old Testament people were to love their enemies. The writer of Proverbs admonishes God’s people to help their enemies, not just their domestic beasts, when he writes, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).
It should come as no surprise to us, then, when we read in the Old Testament that God has mercy and compassion even on his enemies. God’s compassion for Moab is a case in point. Moab is the son of Lot from his incestuous relationship with his daughter who made him drunk and lay with him (Gen. 19:30-38). The Moabites were always an enemy of Israel, leading the Israelites into sin (cf. Num. 25:1-3). Why should God care for such people who spurned him and even led his people into sin and idolatry? Yet God can say, “So my heart constantly sighs for Moab, like the strumming of a harp…” (Isa. 16:11; cf. 15:5). How can God “lament” for his enemies? He laments his enemies because he loves them with compassion and wishes to see them turn from their sin. God’s heart is full of love, even for his enemies—and we too were God’s enemies before we believed in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 5:8). If God’s heart were not full of love for his enemies, none of us would be saved.
In the New Testament, Christ’s compassion for the masses is evident throughout the gospels. He invites everyone who is crushed under a heavy load, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29). The very Son of God is “humble in heart” and invites us to give him our spiritual burdens. Think of it: the creator of the universe is the lover of our souls! His heart is humble enough to receive sinners and give them “rest” from their sin. The same compassion is evident in his cry in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Now my soul [lit.: heart] is distressed” (Jn. 12:27), as he faced Calvary, but he went the way of the cross willingly to pay the price for our sins. Christ’s heart beats for the sinner. Indeed, all sinners who believe on Jesus Christ in their hearts and trust in him alone for salvation will be saved (Rom. 10:9-10).
As with Christ in the New Testament, so it is with God’s heart in the Old Testament; it is full of compassion and love for his people. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God chastises his people and pronounces judgments on them for their sin. At the same time, God speaks comfort to his people through Jeremiah as well. At one point God declares:
“Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
they are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them.
and will surely have compassion on them” (Jer. 31:20).
God’s love for Ephraim is so great that he longs to show compassion to him. As parents, we may sometimes have a small inkling of what such longing is like, as we wish a child to return to the Lord. God, however, longs for all his people this way; he “yearns” for them. In a similar vein, God wishes his Old Testament people to have shepherds after his own heart (Jer. 3:15) so that they may be fed spiritually. Ultimately, of course, the chief shepherd Jesus Christ will be the one to feed God’s people, as Ezekiel’s prophecy makes clear (Ezek. 34:23-31).
In the sections that follow, we will consider the heart of God and the heart of believers. We will see God’s great love for us (and more) in the section on the heart of God, and we will see the believer’s responsibility to God in the section on believers’ hearts. The issues of eternity turn on the relationship of the heart of each one of us with the heart of God.
“Like a shepherd he tends his flock: he gathers up the lambs in his arm; he carries them close to his heart; he leads the ewes along” (Isa. 40:11).
It is a bit surprising to know that not many of the references to “heart” in the Old Testament and New Testaments relate to God’s heart; most of these references say something about the heart of man. Only 26 of 598 references to heart in the Old Testament allude to God’s heart.182 While there are not many references to the heart of God in the Old Testament, we would do well to pay attention to the ones we have. These references are particularly important because they tell us something about the Lord and they also tell us of his attitude and actions toward believers and unbelievers alike.
“I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them; I will remove the hearts of stone from their bodies and I will give them tender hearts” (Ezek. 11:19).
The heart of God is used first to indicate the will of God. The will of God, expressed in the heart of God, is made clear in the way he behaves toward people. God’s will cuts both ways, of course, for he takes pleasure in his people and he judges their sin and the sin of unbelievers. At times, God expresses his pleasure in his people when they obey. Such is the case in the “statues, regulations, and instructions” of Leviticus (Lev. 26:46), when he pronounces blessings on those who obey him (Lev. 26:1-13). On the other hand, God also pronounces judgment on those who disobey him (vv. 14-39). At other times, God blesses his people simply because of his unconditional love for them and not because of their obedience (Lev. 26:40-45). All of these instances refer to God’s will as he expresses it in his actions.183
God shows his heart of judgment and also of blessing in the story of the family of Eli the priest. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were evil men, even though they were priests in the house of the Lord at Shiloh. “The sons of Eli were wicked men,” the writer tells us; “they did not recognize the LORD’s authority” (1 Sam. 2:12). Hophni and Phinehas were such wicked men that they even “used to have sex with the women who were stationed at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (v. 22). To make matters worse, Eli did not do enough to restrain his sons, thereby allowing their sin to pollute the service of the Lord (vv. 22-25). What a desecration of Yahweh’s testimony! As a judgment for their sin, God pronounces the death of the two sons on the same day (v. 34). In the next declaration, God says, “Then I will raise up for myself a faithful priest. He will do according to what is in my heart and soul. I will build for him a secure dynasty and he will my chosen one for all time” (v. 35). It is God’s will to raise up Samuel to serve him as a priest, and he expresses his will by stating that it is in his heart and mind that he has purposed it. God’s heart is the seat of his will, and in it he plans judgment for Eli’s family and blessing for Samuel. Like King David to follow, God plans blessing and grace for his people.
God blesses Samuel as a priest and he blesses David as a king. When God establishes his covenant with David, he promises him a perpetual throne (referencing of course Jesus Christ who is King David’s greater son). David’s line was to lead to Jesus Christ, who would sit on the throne of David forever. When God makes his covenant with David, David responds with a prayer of gratitude for God’s gracious will toward him, for he knows that he has not earned God’s favor. David prays in part, “For the sake of your promise and according to your purpose (lit., heart) you have done this great thing in order to reveal it to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:21). The Hebrew word, leb, is translated here with the word “purpose,” whereas the King James Version translates it as “heart.” The King James Version is the more literal translation of the two in this instance, but the different translations point out the close connection between heart and purpose, or will. The heart of God is used here to represent his will—in this case, his gracious choice of David to be his servant. David’s prayer is not so much a prophecy of God’s future blessings on his behalf as it is simply a statement of his gratitude for God’s good will toward him.
God purposes in his heart to bless David, but he also purposes in his heart to judge actions against his will. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pronounces judgment on the vile practice of human sacrifice that his people had allowed in their midst. As difficult as it is to imagine, the Israelites had been influenced by the abominable customs of the pagan nations around them and gone so far as to sacrifice their own children to idols. God says, “They have also built places of worship in a place called Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire. That is something I never commanded them to do! Indeed it never entered my mind (lit., heart) to command such a thin!” (Jer. 7:31). The NET Bible uses the word “mind,” while the King James Version uses the word “heart” (again, the KJV is the more literal of the two translations). The point of the passage is the same, however, whichever translation is used. God never intended to have his people sacrifice their own children. In fact, God’s condemnation of murder pre-dates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20), for he tells Noah that the murderer shall be executed because he has destroyed a person made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). It is not God’s will for there to be murder. Two later passages in Jeremiah (19:5 and 32:35) use the word “mind” in both the King James and the NET Bible to represent the will of God that is opposed to human sacrifice. Whether for blessing or judgment then the heart of God represents his will.
“For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?” (Isa. 14:27, MT)
Closely related to God’s will is “the plan of his future actions” (emphasis the author’s).184 That is, God’s decisions regarding the future are represented at times as thoughts in his heart. Wolff notes that God’s decisions about the future involve both judgment and blessing.185 On the one hand, there is judgment symbolized by God’s heart. When God denounces the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, he states in part, “The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has fully carried out his intended purposes (lit., the purposes of his heart)” (Jer. 23:20). In this passage God’s anger proceeds from his heart It is not the emotion of anger, however, that the reference emphasizes; rather, it is the will of God—his plan to deal with the lying prophets—that is at stake. It is purpose, not feeling, that the reference to God’s heart means here. On the other hand, blessing for his people is also included in God’s heart. In the same breath that God announces that vengeance is his alone, he pronounces blessing on his people. “For I looked forward to the day of vengeance (lit., the day of vengeance was in my heart),” God states” (Isa. 63:4). God purposes vengeance on his enemies and redemption for his children. Blessing and judgment both proceed from the heart of God.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).
An important part of the heart of God for Christians is his faithfulness. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ promises his presence to believers (Mt. 28:20), and Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise who takes up residence in their hearts (Eph. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19). In the Old Testament, God does what he says he will do. In a word, God is sovereign. Faithfulness to his word is a dimension of his sovereignty, and it is expressed in regard to believers, the unbelieving nations, and the whole human race. First, in regard to believers, God promises Israel of old that he will bring them to the land of promise, just as he had said. “I will take delight in doing good to them;” God promises, “I will faithfully and wholeheartedly plant them firmly in the land (lit., with all my heart and with all my soul)” (Jer. 32:41). God’s gracious purpose is made more forceful in this reference as he states that his blessing comes from both his heart and soul; the double image is emphatic, providing assurance that he will do as he promises. Once Israel had inhabited the Promised Land and King David had built Jerusalem and established the united kingdom in peace, his son Solomon planned to build the temple for the Lord. At the dedication of the temple, God says to Solomon, “I have your prayer and your request for help that you made to me. I have consecrated this temple you built by making it my permanent home; I will be constantly present there (lit., my eyes and my heart will be there all the days)” (1 Kings 9:3). When the Lord says he will put his “Name” in the temple, he is indicating that he will always be present there; the Name symbolizes God’s presence. Think of how important this must have been for the people at that time, for they had wandered in the wilderness and now had a permanent dwelling where the priests could meet with God. By means of the image of the heart in this statement to Solomon, God emphasizes that his presence will be with them at the temple. His heart is faithful.
Second, in regard to the unbelieving nations, God will bring to pass the plans he has made for them since before the worlds were created:
“The LORD frustrate the decisions of the nations;
he nullifies the plans of the peoples.
The LORD’s decisions stand forever;
his plans (lit., the thoughts of his heart) abide throughout the ages” (Ps. 33:10-11).
The psalmist emphasizes God’s faithfulness to fulfill his plans by stating the point negatively and positively. Negatively, he states that God will undo the plans of the nations that are against his will. Positively, he states that God will fulfill his plans now and forever. These are “the purposes of his heart.” God’s plans for his people are always good (cf. Rom. 8:28-30). Ultimately, his plans for the nations are good as well, for in them he intends the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone to be declared (Mt. 28:18-20). Even his judgments are acts of mercy and grace, for they bring unbelievers face to face with their sin and encourage them to realize their need of a savior.
Third, in regard to the human race at large, we have one of the great statements of God’s heart early in the Old Testament when Noah sacrifices burnt offerings to the Lord after he has brought him safely through the flood:
“And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma and said to himself (lit., in his heart), ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, even though the inclination of their minds (lit., the heart of mankind) is evil from childhood on. I will never again destroy everything that lives, as I have just done’” (Gen. 8:21).
It is as if the persons of the Trinity are communing with one another in this quotation. The Lord purposed “in his heart,” as if he were celebrating his promise to mankind himself. God must have enjoyed making this promise to Noah (and through Noah to us) because the passage reads as if he savored the promise with all his heart. This passage shows the close relationship between the heart of God and his will; indeed, here they are one.
“I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Look, I will heal you” (2 Kings 20:5).
It remains to write a word about the instances in the Bible where it seems that God is said to change his heart, or his mind. The quotation just noted from 2 Kings is part of God’s response to Hezekiah when he “changed his mind” and told the king that he would heal him. The questions that come immediately to mind in a passage like this are whether or not God knows everything to begin with and if his plans depend on something or someone other than himself. If God changes his mind, does it mean that he acts in response to us, that his actions depend on us, or that he makes up his mind as he goes along? The question of God’s “changing” heart or mind is a vexed one in modern scholarship, most notably in the debate about “Open Theism.”186
We cannot explore the issue substantially here even if we were to limit it to its treatment in Open Theism thinking, but we will consider one of the situations in the Bible where it appears that God may have “changed” his heart. One situation that brings the issue of God’s foreknowledge and purpose to the fore is the flood in Noah’s day:
“But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds (lit., thoughts of his heart) was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them’” (Gen. 6:5-7).
At first glance, it appears in this passage that God changed his mind about human beings and, because of their great evil, decided at this point in time to destroy them. In fact, however, the passage is not intended to suggest that God gave up on man after he had done his best to help him, but rather to emphasize how sinful man had become. The point of the passage is that man’s evil and sin so outraged God that he would be justified in destroying everyone. The passage is an example of a literary device we call anthropopathism. Anthropopathism is a device in which the writer ascribes human emotions to God. In using this device the writer is trying to help the reader appreciate the seriousness of the situation; he is not suggesting that God is fickle. Here the emotion of regret is ascribed to God. The literary device underscores how abominable man’s sin had become to God. This passage and others like it, which seem to suggest that God changes his mind over time or in changed circumstances, are typically examples of human emotions ascribed to God to help us—the human readers—better appreciate the plan of God. God is not compelled to change his mind by any circumstances in human lives; his actions are not contingent upon ours. He does, however, graciously answer our prayers in accordance with his will (cf. Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23). Whether it is set on blessing for his people or judgment for sinners, the heart of God is turned toward man. In it we discover the purposes of God toward us.
“He has also placed ignorance (lit., set eternity) in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives” (Eccl. 3:11b).
With the heart of God and the heart of the believer—and the relationship of the two—we come to the core of life. The heart represents the personal identity of a person, thoughts, emotions, and will of a person. The heart also represents the “religious and ethical realm” of our relationship with God.187 Scripture has much to say about the heart in these ways. God is interested in the heart of man, not the exterior appearance (1 Sam. 16:7; Gal. 2:6). It is in the heart that man sins (Jer. 17:9; Mt. 5:28), and it is with the heart that he believes in Jesus Christ and is saved (Rom. 10:10). What could be more important than the heart of man?
“With my heart I will meditate and my spirit will search diligently” (Ps. 77:6, MT).
We begin with the heart as the center of our thoughts—the heart as the seat of the intellect, or cognition. Solomon, the wisest of men, thought with his heart, as it were. As he ponders “everything under the sun” in the book of Ecclesiastes, he writes, “I thought to myself (lit., said in my heart)” (e.g. Eccl. 2:1; cf. v. 15), and then turns from one philosophy or view of life to another, finding them all “vain,” or meaningless and unsatisfying. Apart from Scripture, our understanding of everything is inaccurate; all philosophy is deceptive apart from the plumb line of the truth of Scripture (Col. 2:8). By the same token, when we hear a true statement outside of the Bible—as we might in a scientific discovery or alternately in the right perspective on a moral or social issue, for instance—we recognize it to be true because we know biblical truth beforehand, and it corresponds with what the Bible has declared to be true or with the way God created the natural world. “All truth is God’s truth,” it is true; put another way, no statement is true unless it agrees with what God says in the Bible or it corresponds to the way he designed the universe to operate. If we make a statement such as, “Left to themselves, all natural systems tend to wear down,” (the law of entropy), for instance, we know the statement to be true because it corresponds to the physical reality around us. Entropy is true of reality because God made natural systems that way. We “muse” and “inquire” then with our hearts, whether it is about the spiritual doctrines of the faith or the physical realities of the universe around us. We “think” with our “hearts.”
“My heart is full of joy” (Ps. 28:7).
Oh, we think with our hearts, to be sure. However, we are more accustomed in our culture to say that we “feel” with our hearts. No one would argue that the heart is the seat of our emotions. Quick to mind is February 14th, Valentines Day, and the ubiquitous hearts that symbolize the love of a man and a woman. In the popular mythology, Cupid shoots his arrows into the heart, and a man is smitten with love for a woman. To this day, images of a cherubic angel, little wings sprouting from his back and holding a bow and arrow in his hands, fill the media in preparation for Valentines Day. Love is not the only emotion, however, that the heart produces.
A very different feeling than love is the emotion of fear. It too is symbolized by the heart. When Moses sent out the spies into Canaan to see if the people of Israel should cross over to the Promised Land, two of them brought back a good report about the land (Deut. 1:25), but the people rebelled. “Our brothers [those who counseled not entering Canaan] have drained away our courage (lit., made us lose heart),” (Deut. 1:28) the people tell Moses, and they do not go into the Promised Land at that time. They were afraid. Fear filled their hearts—so much so that they say they had “lost” heart, or courage, and would not go in. Something like this same paralyzing fear must have filled David’s heart when he penned the words, “My strength drains away like water; all my bones are dislocated. My heart is like wax; it melts away inside me” (Ps. 22:14). Like wax before a flame, fear saps the courage of David as he faces his enemies. The heart melts.
As we noted earlier, the word courage is related to the French and Latin words for heart; the man who lacks courage, then, lacks a heart. The lion in “The Wizard of Oz” is an example in modern pop culture. Or, to use the idiom of Moses and David, they “lose heart.” Contrariwise, David uses the heart to symbolize courage in the face of overwhelming adversity. When enemies surround him, when evil men advance against him, and when an army besieges him, David says, “I do not fear” (Ps. 27:3). His heart is brave. Psalm 27 expresses David’s confidence in God and courage in the face of his enemies, both those traitors within Israel and the armies encamped around Jerusalem to attack it. Why is David’s heart so courageous in the face of such difficulties? Is it because of his armies? No. It is because he trusts in God who sets his unfailing love on him. “When David looks out and sees his desperate situation, he does not rush to prepare his military defenses. Surprisingly, he simply asks for Yahweh’s presence and for the opportunity to worship him in the tabernacle.”188 God alone provides the courage David needs to face the armies arrayed against him and the betrayers inside the nation of Israel. God alone is all we need today to overcome our fears as well, for “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). We need not fear spiritual battles, for they are not ours; they are God’s. His love casts out our fear.
Trusting in Jesus Christ does not simply remove our fears; it replaces them with joy and trust. Listen to the words of David again, for he knew heartfelt joy in God:
“The LORD strengthens me and protects me;
I trust in him with all my heart.
I am rescued and my heart is full of joy;
I will sing to him in gratitude” (Ps. 28:7).
What is the source of joy and peace in David’s heart? It is the work of God on his behalf, even in difficult circumstances. God protects him and helps him. Because of what God has done for him, David’s heart overflows with joy. In a similar vein, Jesus said, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10), or, as the King James Version has it, life “more abundantly.” Much of what Jesus meant by the abundant life is the spiritual joy that comes from knowing him as Lord and Savior. Our hearts respond in joy to the work of Christ on our behalf.
“Guide your heart on the right way” (Prov. 23:19).
While modern people often think of the heart as the seat of emotions and nothing else, the Bible sees the heart as the center of the will. We can know that theft or lying is wrong and still commit the sin. We can know that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and eternal life and still die in our sins. How is this? How can we know how to be saved, even feel emotionally good about salvation, and still die without Christ? It is because we do not submit our will to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Jesus Christ himself said, “For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Mt. 15:19). Sins come from a will that is turned against God and toward the self. The heart is the seat of the will.
What does the Lord require of our wills? He requires that we choose to be faithful. After all, God is faithful to us; why should we not be faithful to him in return? When David is beset by disaster, when ravenous beasts (by which he symbolizes his enemies who wish him harm) surround him, he asks for the Lord to be faithful to him and protect him. Think of Psalm 57, which begins as a prayer for protection but turns to praise and thanksgiving. As soon as David finishes his prayer for protection, he proclaims, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make music” (Ps. 57:7, MT) and then proceeds to praise God for his glory (vv. 8-11). What does David think the Lord requires of him? Faithfulness—a steadfast heart. He learned his lesson well, for how often did God tell him not to be afraid in the face of his enemies, but that he was with him in his battles (1 Sam. 30:6; 2 Sam. 5:19)? After marveling in Psalm 8 that God places his love and attention on mere men, David declares in the next psalm that his heart is full of praise. “I will thank the LORD with all my heart! I will tell of your amazing deeds!” (Ps. 9:1). Praise wells up in David’s heart. So it is with us; praising God is a choice we make. To be sure, the Holy Spirit prompts our praise, but we can choose to stifle it if we wish. What is the result of a heart inclined to praise God? That person will tell of God’s wonders—he will give testimony to God’s grace in his life. The Lord is looking for people with steadfast hearts that freely offer him praise.
Closely related to a faithful heart is integrity of heart. In a nuance of Bible translations, the King James Version calls “uprightness of heart,” what the NET Bible sometimes translates as “inner uprightness” (cf. Deut. 9:5). David calls upon the “upright in heart” to praise God (Ps. 64:10, MT), indicating that integrity of heart comes first from a right relationship with God, one in which we keep short sin accounts and have our sins forgiven immediately (1 Jn. 1:9). When God called David’s son, Solomon, to be king, he admonished him to walk in the integrity of his heart (1 Kings 9:4). The instruction is significant, for Solomon was to build the temple when his father, a man of battles and blood, could not (1 Kings 5:3-5). It was important to the Lord that Solomon should maintain a right heart if he was to build the temple. Solomon himself understood the importance of integrity before the Lord, for when he asks the Lord at the beginning of his reign for wisdom, he prays in part, “So give your servant a discerning mind [lit.: heart] so he can make judicial decisions for your people and distinguish right from wrong. Otherwise no one is able to make judicial decisions for this great nation of yours” (1 Kings 3:9) He got it right! How ironic is Solomon’s request for a discerning heart, when later in life he was faithless, following the idolatrous ways of his pagan wives (1 Kings 11:1-6). The warning for us is that our hearts will not remain upright without due diligence. Our sin hampers our walk with the Lord so easily that we need to consciously ask the Holy Spirit to keep our hearts pure.
As this brief discussion shows—and it is already obvious in our everyday experience—the heart is the seat of sin. The heart is deceptive (Jer. 17:9), we are to be reminded, and can lead us astray. Sometimes the heart tricks even Christians into believing a lie and committing sin. We do not need to blame Satan for most of our sins; we sin readily enough when our heart desires something that is not rightfully ours or when we desire a good thing, but do so in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons (cf. Jas. 4:3). Such sinful desires originate in the heart.
The heart is deceptive in a second way, for we can use it to trick others and defraud them for our own gain. What is a hypocrite but someone who appears on the outside to be something different than he really is in his heart? A hypocrite, David tells us, is someone with a “smooth lip, with a heart and a heart [i.e., a double heart]” (Ps. 12:2, MT). The heart can deceive its owner. Equally fearful is the fact that we can deliberately conceal the true feelings of our heart when we wish to deceive another person. Such deception is a type of fraud, for we pretend to be something we are not in order to gain something not rightfully ours. If we are not vigilant, the heart deceives us into sin before we realize it.
The heart can lead us astray in a third way, for we can harden our hearts to the things of the Lord. Pharaoh hardened his heart on numerous occasions when Moses and Aaron appealed to him to let Israel go and worship God (Ex. 5:2-9; 8:15, 32; 9:34). To be sure, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 6:1; 9:16; 10:12, 20; 11:10), but Pharaoh made his choice against God from the beginning (see Ex. 5:2, where Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Yahweh, setting the stage for his later disobedience and arrogance). Before we are too quick to vilify Pharaoh for hardening his heart, we should remember that the people of Israel also hardened their hearts at Massah and Meribah when Moses struck the rock with his staff and water gushed forth (Ex. 17:7). The psalmist comments on the Israelites’ sin when he warns people not to harden their hearts against the voice of God when he offers spiritual rest (Ps. 95:8, 10). The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95, making the connection between unbelief and a hard heart explicit in the New Testament (Heb. 3:7). A hard heart will not respond to the gospel or feel repentance for sin.
How can we avoid hard hearts when we sin so easily and set ourselves against God? We need to cultivate soft hearts toward the Lord and pray that sinners would do the same when the gospel call is given to them. God promises not to turn away the person with a truly repentant heart (Rom. 10:13). “The LORD is near the brokenhearted,” David tells us; “he delivers those who are discouraged” (Ps. 34:18). Jesus Christ teaches the same truth in the Beatitudes (or simply, the “Blessings”), where he tells us that the “poor in spirit” will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3) and that those who mourn “will be comforted” (v. 4). Those who realize their spiritual poverty (that is, those who are “poor in spirit”) and are brokenhearted over their sin (that is, those who “mourn,” for it is their sin they regret) are the ones who will be blessed by God. Having our spirits “crushed,” to use David’s term, is not an unkindness on God’s part; rather it is an act of grace on his part that he would so reveal himself to us that we would see our sin for what is and turn to him in repentance and faith. In fact, the softened heart is what the new covenant is all about—God softening our hearts to respond in faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Jer. 31:33). Repentance is the hallmark of the Christian life.
The intellect, the will and the emotions—these are what the Bible means by the heart of man. Can there be any more important part of who we are as human beings than the heart? All we think, feel, and desire originates in the heart. It is the heart that devises sin, and it is the heart that responds in faith to God’s grace in salvation and sanctification. It is the heart that is the residence of the Holy Spirit. No wonder we should guard our hearts well, for our heart is who we are (Prov. 4:23).
“But If You Seek The Lord Your God From There, You Will Find Him, If Indeed You Seek Him With All Your Heart And All Your Soul” (Deut. 4:29).
The heart is the human image (anthropomorphism) of God that unifies all the other images of God in the Scriptures. The human heart is important as well, for it represents our thoughts, emotions, imagination and will. Who we are in our heart is who we are in reality, no matter how we present ourselves in public. God looks on the heart and is not partial when he does so. With the image of the heart, we come to the center of our study. What have we learned first about the heart of God and secondly about the human heart?
We begin with the heart of God. We know that God is altogether holy and righteous. We know also that God is merciful and good, extending his unfailing love (hesed) to all who will respond in faith to the Gospel invitation. It should be said here that these two pairs of God’s attributes—his holiness and righteousness on the one hand and his mercy and love on the other—do not conflict with each other. For instance, God does not “forget” his righteousness when he forgives a sinner, “sweeping the sinner’s sin under the rug,” as it were. Oh no! God satisfies his righteousness when he forgives a sinner because the sinless son of God, Jesus Christ, paid the penalty for sin at Calvary (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). God’s holiness and righteousness are married to his mercy and love in the heart of God.
Though we cannot enumerate all the attributes of God represented by the image of the heart, we can mention an Old Testament and a New Testament reference that remind us of the heart of God. In the Old Testament, God’s love for King David shows us something of his heart for his people. God calls David from tending sheep and anoints him king over Israel. In his covenant with David, God promises that his people will have a home in the Promised Land and that David’s kingdom will never end (2 Sam. 7:8-16). Jesus Christ fulfills the latter promise of course who, as David’s heir, reigns eternally as King of kings and Lord of lords. In the same manner, Jesus Christ fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant because he is the blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:2-3). When God makes this covenant (or promise) with David, he already knows that David will sin grievously by committing adultery and murder, yet he still makes the promise to David and keeps it forever. Here is an example of God’s gracious and loving will toward his people—God’s love and mercy despite David’s sin. David understands that God’s heart (or will) extends mercy to him, for he says, “For the sake of your promise and according to your purpose [lit.: heart], you have done this great thing in order to reveal it to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:21). God’s will toward David (and through his son Jesus Christ to all believers) is loving and merciful. This is God’s heart.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ’s love for his disciples shows God’s heart toward us. Shortly before he ascends into heaven, Jesus commissions (or commands) the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). We have our marching orders, as it were. But Jesus does not stop there. He finishes the command with a promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). Jesus Christ is faithful to us; he will never leave us nor forsake us (cf. Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5). What is more, he has given us the “promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Once we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit resides in us, never to leave us. In other words, the Father has promised that he will always be with us; Jesus Christ has promised to remain with us; and the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of these promises. God is faithful to us, and his heart is always inclined toward us for our good and his glory.
What have we learned about the human heart in the Scriptures? The heart is the seat of all that is important in us. We think with our heart. The psalmist, for instance, mused in his heart on God’s unfailing love while he lay awake at night (Ps. 77:6). It is easy for us as modern people to realize that we express our emotions with our heart—fear, courage, and love. Our modern view of love is so attenuated, however, that we think it is nothing but a feeling of the heart, when at its best love is more properly understood as a conscious and deliberate choice on our part to place someone else before ourselves. Love is a choice of the will. Whether it is the emotional side of love or the volitional side of love, we love with our hearts. Indeed, Scripture makes it clear that the heart is the seat of our wills—our choices to serve self or to serve God—to sin or to glorify God. As Cleland B. McAfee states in the well-known hymn, we are to desire to be “near to the heart of God:
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God
O Jesus, blest redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.189
Sin originates in the heart (Matt. 15:19), and so does repentance (Matt. 5:3). When Christ blesses the “poor in spirit,” he means those who know they have nothing to bring to God but repentance. Sin and repentance—these are the stuff that decisions for eternity are made of, and they are found only in the human heart.
“You Must Love the LORD your God with Your Whole Mind (lit., With All your Heart)” (Deut. 6:5)
If the heart is so important, what does God require of our hearts? We can answer the question in three parts. First, we are to focus the thoughts of our hearts on the Word of God so that we can be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:1-2). Just because we are Christians does not mean that we think “Christianly.” We have to deliberately and consciously study the Word of God and allow its truths to change our thinking if we are to become Christ-like in our lives. Second, we are to stabilize our emotions on the teachings of Scripture so that we are not “tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). When our hearts are settled on the teachings of the Bible, our emotions are stable. Finally, we are to purpose in our hearts—we are to choose—to glorify Jesus Christ in everything we say and do (1 Cor. 10:31). It is simply true that our hearts were created to praise God. In effect, if our hearts are to please the Father, we will think, feel, and choose the Son, and we can only do so by the work of the Spirit. Such is the human heart after God’s own heart.
177 Thus Hammurapi invokes the prayers of the oppressed man to be done “with his whole heart.” See G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 92 (lines 45-46).
178 John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” in Keats: Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (New York: Oxford UP, 1867), 207.
179 In ancient Egyptian bravery is described as “thick of heart” (cf. English stouthearted). See Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: University Pres,, 1962), 60. Those who are familiar with the musical romance, “The New Moon,” will remember the song “Stouthearted Men” written by Oscar Hammerstein II and set to music by Sigmund Romberg.
180 My comments on the physical heart in this paragraph and the next are based on conversations with Dr. Gregory Rose. Any errors in medical information are my own.
181 NIV “pure heart” is rendered in the KJV, ESV, NASB, and HCSB “clean heart.” The parallel is that forgiveness of sin cleans the spiritual heart, just as diet and exercise clean the physical heart.
182 Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 40.
183 There are of course numerous instances throughout the Old Testament in which God either judges or blesses his people. We have referenced Leviticus 26 here because all three expressions of God’s will are found in the one chapter, and their proximity to each other serves to illustrate the point well. A further point of these references is that God’s will, symbolized by his heart, is expressed in his actions.
184 Wolff, 56.
185 I am indebted to Wolff for the discussion in this paragraph.
186 In regard to the debate over Open Theism, the following references address the issue in its modern forms. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998) presents the case for Open Theism. Helpful discussions against Open Theism include Normal Geisler, The Battle for God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), with Wayne House; and John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishers, 2001).
187 For these categories of the “heart” in the Old Testament, I am indebted to Heinz-Josef Fabry, “leb,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgrin and Heinz-Josef Fabry, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 412-434.
188 Michael E. Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 212.
189 Cleland B. McAfee, “Near to the Heart of God.”