9-10. What is taught here depends on what is gone before; and therefore they ought to be read together. Many lay hold on these words and mutilate them without understanding the design of the Prophet. This is very absurd: for we ought first to see what the prophets had in view, and by what necessity or cause they were led to speak, what was their condition, and then the general doctrine that may be gathered from their words. If we wish to read the prophets with benefit, we must first consider the reason why a thing is spoken, and then elicit a general doctrine. Thus we shall be able rightly to apply this passage to a common use, if we first understand why the Prophet said, that the heart of man was insidious. He wished, no doubt, to be more earnest with the Jews; for he saw that they had so much wantonness and obstinacy, that a simple and plain doctrine would not have penetrated into their hearts. The declaration, that they are accursed who trust in men, and that no blessedness can be expected except we rely on God, ought to have been sufficient to move them; but when he saw that there was no sufficient power in such a declaration, he added, “I see how it is, the heart is wicked and vicious; so ye think that you have so much craftiness, that ye can with impunity deride God and his ministers: I, says Jehovah, I will inquire and search; for it belongs to me to examine the hearts of men.”
We hence see that there is an implied reproof, when he says, that the heart is insidious and wicked; as though he had said, “Ye think yourselves in this instance wise; is not God also wise?” Isaiah says ironically the same, “Woe to them who go down to Egypt and make secret covenants, and who trust in horses, as though they could deceive me: ye are wise, I also have a portion of wisdom.” (Isaiah 31:1.) Notice especially the expression, “Ye are wise, &c.;” that is, “Ye are not alone wise; leave to me some portions of wisdom, so that I may be wise like yourselves.” So also in this place, “Ye are deceitful and insidious, and think that I can be deceived:” for astute men are ever pleased with their own counsels, and seek to deceive God with mere trumperies. “Ye are,” he says, “very cunning; but I, Jehovah, will search both your hearts and your reins.” I cannot finish the whole to-day.
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are wholly nothing and less than nothing, we may know our nothingness, and having cast away all confidence in the world as well as in ourselves, we may learn to flee to thee as suppliants, and so put our trust in thee for our present life and for eternal salvation, that thou alone mayest be glorified: and may we be devoted to thee through the whole course of our life, and so persevere in humility and in calling on thy name, that thou mayest not only for once bring us help, but that we may know that thou art always present with those who truly and from the heart call upon thee, until we shall at length be filled with the fulness of all those blessings, which are laid up for us in heaven by Christ our Lord.—Amen.
We began yesterday to explain that passage where the Prophet says, that the heart is insidious, or fallacious and wicked, so that no one can penetrate into those deceits which are concealed within it. We referred to the Prophet’s object in saying this,—that the Jews might know that their cunning was in vain, while they hid their thoughts as it were under the earth, that is, while they thought that by their false pretences they could deceive God as well as men.
He says then what he takes as granted, “I know that you have a fallacious heart.” This indeed they did not allow; for they made a specious pretext and boasted of their wisdom, and not of deceit and guile. But the Prophet speaks plainly and expresses the fact as it was, “There is in you,” he says, “a fallacious and a wicked heart: hence is the confidence, which inebriates you; for ye think that your deceits cannot be discovered.” Then in astonishment he asks, Who can search it? but the answer immediately follows, I—I Jehovah; that is, “It belongs to one to search the heart and the reins, and so nothing can escape me.” The meaning then is, that when men try to deceive God, they gain nothing, for God knows how to take the wise in their own craftiness, and to discover all their guiles and deceits. Then he adds for what end is this done, That I may render to every one according to his ways, according to the fruit of his works.
By these words he means that they, after having for a long time made many evasions, would yet be brought to judgment, willing or unwilling; for they could not possibly deprive God of his right, that he should not be the judge of the world, and thus render to each the reward of his own works: for the Prophet does not speak of merits or of virtues, but only shews that how much soever the ungodly might hide themselves, they could not yet escape the tribunal of God, but that they must at last render an account to him.
We may further gather from this passage a general truth,—that the recesses of the heart are so hidden, that no judgment can be formed of man by any human being. We indeed know that there are appearances of virtue in many; but it belongs to God alone to search the hearts of men and to try the reins. Rashly then do many form an estimate of man’s character according to their own apprehensions or the measure of their own knowledge; for the heart of man is ever false and deceitful. If any one objects and says, that Jeremiah speaks of the Jews then living, there is an answer given by Paul, “Whatsoever things are written in the Law pertain to all.” (Rom. 15:4.) Described then is here the character of all mankind, until God regenerates his elect. As then there is no purity except from the Spirit of God, as long as men continue in their own nature, their hearts are full of deceits and frauds. So the fairest splendour is nothing but hypocrisy, which is abominable in the sight of God.
9–10 What is the connection between v. 9 and vv. 5–8? It could simply be that, on the heels of this rich pronouncement of the blessed nature of the man who fully trusts in the Lord (vv. 7–8), Jeremiah is quickly brought back to “reality,” confronted with the depravity of human nature, a depravity that is about to cost thousands of people their lives under the crushing weight of the covenantal curses for disobedience. It is as though a divine offer is made—Choose life, not death!—but no one is wise enough or good enough to take it. Thus he says of this pitiful, pathological state: “The human heart is utterly deceitful and incurably ill.” Two key words are used: first, ʿāqōb, “deceitful,” from ʿqb and related to the popular etymology for the name Jacob (see Ge 27:36); second, ʾānuš, “desperately ill” or “incurable” (as rendered by the NIV in Job 34:6; Isa 17:11; Mic 1:9; cf. 2 Sa 12:15b, where the root ʾnš means “became sick”—in this case, unto death; see also Jer 15:18; 30:12, 15; for a different nuance, see 17:16.)
According to NIDOTTE, “ʾnš,” 1:466, “illnesses described with this adjective are chronic illnesses. By applying the description to the heart, sin is described as a chronic affliction from which one cannot expect to recover or be healed.” The insightful comment of Oswald Chambers elucidates the sickly, deceitful nature of the human heart: “The reason we see hypocrisy, deceit, and a lack of genuineness in others is that they are all in our own hearts.” Yet he notes that “most of us are much more severe in our judgment of others than we are in judging ourselves. We make excuses for things in ourselves, while we condemn things in the lives of others simply because we are not naturally inclined to do them” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 22; Dec 5). Such is the self-deceived condition of the heart! Who can possibly understand it? Only the Lord (v. 10), he who searches out our innermost thoughts and motives (see 11:20a) and repays us according to our ways (cf. 1 Ki 8:39; Rev 22:12)—ways that, in context and in history, are presumably wicked. Hence the divine payback is normally judgment rather than reward.
9–10 The heart of man (lēḇ) in the psychology of OT times refers frequently to the mind, the source of a man’s thinking and action. It is here described as deceitful above all. A picturesque translation is “The heart is rougher than anything and incurable; who understands it?” It is certainly a mystery to mankind, who does not understand (yāḏaʾ) it. Yahweh, however, “explores” or searches (ḥāqar] the human heart.
A second word is here set in parallel to heart, literally, “kidneys” (kelāyôṯ), hidden depths. These, Yahweh assays or “tests” (bāḥan, cf. 6:27; 11:20; 12:2; etc.). This term has sometimes been understood to refer to the seat of the emotions just as the heart is the seat of thought and will. Whether in fact this was so may be open to doubt, but the two terms “heart” and “kidneys” cover the range of hidden elements in man’s character and personality. Nothing is hidden from Yahweh, either in the case of Jeremiah his servant or in the case of the people of Judah (cf. 11:20). When Yahweh comes to reward each man, it will be according to his ways (conduct) and as his actions deserve (cf. Isa. 11:3b, 4).
There is assurance in vv. 9–10 for a man who has determined to trust in Yahweh (v. 7) rather than in man (v. 5).
17:9–10 / In one of the most famous sayings found in Jeremiah, the Lord addresses the self-deceptiveness of human nature (the heart). Human beings may think that their actions are ethical, but God knows better. He will ultimately reward people according to what they deserve. This aspect of human nature was illustrated early in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve made their own moral judgment about eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than following God’s prohibition. Their heart deceived them into thinking that the act was morally permissible, when in fact it was not.
9. deceitful—from a root, “supplanting,” “tripping up insidiously by the heel,” from which Jacob (Ho 12:3) took his name. In speaking of the Jews’ deceit of heart, he appropriately uses a term alluding to their forefather, whose deceit, but not whose faith, they followed. His “supplanting” was in order to obtain Jehovah’s blessing. They plant Jehovah for “trust in man” (Je 17:5), and then think to deceive God, as if it could escape His notice, that it is in man, not in Him, they trust.
desperately wicked—“incurable” [Horsley], (Mic 1:9). Trust in one’s own heart is as foolish as in our fellow man (Pr 28:26).
- Lest any should infer from Je 17:9, “who can know it?” that even the Lord does not know, and therefore cannot punish, the hidden treachery of the heart, He says, “I the Lord search the heart,” &c. (1 Ch 28:9; Ps 7:9; Pr 17:3; Rev 2:23).
even to give—and that in order that I may give (Je 32:19).
Vers. 9, 10.—The crooked devices of the human heart, which is characterized as deceitful above all things (or, as Delitzsch, ‘Biblical Psychology.’ English translation, p. 340, “proud;” literally, uneven or rugged; comp Isa 40:4; Hab. 2:4, Hebrew; Ps. 131:2, Hebrew), and desperately wicked, or rather, desperately sick (see ch. 15:18, where it is explained by the words, “which refuseth to be healed”). The Septuagint reads this verse differently, “The heart is deep above all things, and it is a man.”
17:9, 10 The heart refers to the mind, the source of thinking, feeling, and action. It can betray a person in basic issues concerning the reality of God, His will, and His word. The heart can belie the truth. No one can comprehend its true character but God Himself, for only He can discern the motives and the reasoning behind it. God can know the heart, for only He may search and test the mind. This is a most powerful statement about the process of God’s discernment of the inner person. The Lord’s justice is evidenced in all His ways, giving people just recompense for all their ways and doings. God rewards or punishes according to faith, namely, trusting in Him and His name.
17:9 — “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
Only God knows the human heart. We cannot understand the twists and turns and deceptions and dead ends of our own hearts; so when our hearts condemn us, we turn to the Maker of our hearts (1 John 3:20).
17:10 I … search the heart. For the sin of man (vv. 1–4), for the barren man (vv. 5, 6), or the blessed man (vv. 7, 8), God is the final Judge and renders His judgment for their works (cf. Rev 20:11–15). By Him, actions are weighed (1Sa 2:3).
17:9 heart. A metaphor for the human will and emotions (cf. vv. 5–7). deceitful. Tortuous, uneven, and crooked like a bad road. desperately sick. Medically incurable (15:18; 30:12, 15; Job 34:6; Isa. 17:11; Mic. 1:9). who can understand it? A rhetorical question expecting a negative answer. However, this strongly negative assessment of the human heart is not intended as a description of the heart of a believer under the new covenant, where God promises to write his law on people’s hearts (Jer. 31:33; 32:40; cf. Ezek. 36:26; Rom. 5:5; 6:17; Heb. 10:22; 1 John 3:21).
17:10 heart and … mind. God understands (v. 9) the inner recesses of human motives, thinking, and decisions. to give every man. God is a just and merciful Judge.
17:9 The heart is deceitful more than anything else Refers to human thoughts and feelings. The Hebrew term for the heart metaphorically refers to a person’s inner life—the will, thoughts, motivations, and emotions. This is a different understanding than “heart” in modern Western thinking, which primarily indicates the seat of emotions.
Who can understand it? Only Yahweh understands the thoughts and motivations of His creation (Jer 17:10).
17:9 The heart. In the Old Testament, the “heart” is more than the seat of emotion. It represents the basis of character, including the mind and the will (4:19; Prov. 4:23; 16:23). See theological note “The Freedom and Bondage of the Will” on next page.
17:10 mind. Lit. “kidneys.” In ancient Hebrew idiom, these organs represented the seat of the emotions.
17:9, 10 The heart, the center of life for the Hebrew, is exceedingly deceitful and treacherous, especially in propagating the idea that man’s heart is naturally good. This lie, planned and dispersed by Satan himself, has been responsible for efforts at self-reform on both individual and social levels. The word rendered “desperately wicked” could be translated “incurably sick.” The heart of every man is incurably sick or wicked and can be redeemed to righteousness only by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
17:10 Many passages of Scripture teach that God judges people by their deeds, while others indicate that He judges people by their motives. There is no inconsistency, as this verse points out, because one’s “heart” and “actions” are closely connected. Other passages clearly teach that God evaluates people based on their hearts (1 Sm 16:7; 1 Kg 8:39; Lk 16:15), but actions reveal what is in people’s hearts (1 Sm 2:3; Mt 7:15–16; 12:33–35; 15:18–19; Jms 2:18). Whether one is judged by inward motivation or outward acts makes no difference. What a person actually does reveals where his or her heart lies (Mt 21:28–31).
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