“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
And whose hope is the Lord.
8 For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,
Which spreads out its roots by the river,
And will not fear when heat comes;
But its leaf will be green,
And will not be anxious in the year of drought,
Nor will cease from yielding fruit.
9 “The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?
10 I, the Lord, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give every man according to his ways,
According to the fruit of his doings.
Verse 9 is often interpreted as teaching that the human heart is by nature sinful and that even though a man may be ‘born again’, yet his sinful heart still remains wicked.
Is this a correct interpretation? We should consider this from several angles:
- What does the original Hebrew text say? Could this be translated differently?
- Once we are confident about the translation, could the statement be understood in more than one way? In other words, are we bringing other ideas or presuppositions to the text and letting them influence us, perhaps wrongly?
- What does the immediate context say? We should not pluck the verse from the surrounding context. Our interpretation must fit in with what Jeremiah is speaking about in the overall passage.
- Is the interpretation consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible?
עָקֹב הַלֵּב מִכֹּל וְאָנֻשׁ הוּא מִי יֵדָעֶנּוּ׃
The heart (is) bent beyond all and desperately sick. Who knows it?
The translation is straightforward. “Desperately sick” could be “incurably sick” and the translators of the KJV took this moral sickness to mean ‘wicked’.
As noted, a common understanding of the meaning is
“All human hearts are completely corrupt and sinful, (because we are born with a sinful nature). The heart cannot be cured.”
There is an assumption involved in this interpretation. It is assumed that Jeremiah is speaking of all human hearts and also that the heart is this way by its very nature.
These two things are assumptions, however, and could be questioned.
Jeremiah could be speaking only of the wicked and not of the righteous. It could also be true that the deceitfulness, bent-ness or wickedness has resulted not from the nature of the heart, but from persistent choices to do evil and refusal to obey the Lord.
A possible alternative understanding could be, (for example):
“ the human heart (generally) is deceitful, (the godly are an exception), incurably sick (as far as human resources are concerned, but not for the Lord). Who can know it? (The Lord does, of course).”
Verse 7 begins with what appears to be a variation of Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord…”
We see that a contrast is being made by Jeremiah in v7 and v9. The man who trusts the Lord will be blessed and be fruitful. However, the human heart is deceitful – we don’t even understand our own motives and desires. Therefore we need to trust in the Lord, because he does understand the heart. In fact he searches our hearts and deals with us according to what is there.
The main point of what Jeremiah is teaching here is that we must trust in the Lord. Only as we abide in him, (to use the words of Jesus), are we able to escape the deception that arises from relying on the independent human heart and for its wickedness to be healed.
Jeremiah is not saying anything about human nature nor is he saying that all hearts are wicked; he is saying that the human heart that is alienated from God is sick and unreliable. Now we know that “all have sinned” as Paul says in Romans, so it is true that everyone has experienced this corruption of the heart, but it is not taught here that we are all born that way, nor that all mankind remain that way. In fact, the Bible teaches clearly that God will give us a new heart and that the saints, who are trusting in the Lord, have been freed from this corrupt heart. They have in fact been born again!
The Christian who says that his heart is “desperately wicked” is denying the work of the cross in his life.
He should be experiencing the promise of the New Covenant:
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
If he is wrestling with temptation and desires that are sinful, then the command of the Lord is clear:
31 Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel?
This is clear enough. Repent and take hold of the provision that Jesus made on the cross for you. There is no need to live with a wicked heart.
Perhaps some of the confusion arises because Christians fail to distinguish between temptation and sin. Human desires may not be sinful in themselves; the desire for food is natural, but gluttony is sinful. When the desire is fulfilled in a selfish or unlawful way it becomes sin.
Many believers have come under unnecessary condemnation because they thought that the temptation was sinful. Their distress at the thought of the sin actually demonstrates that the heart is not wicked at all, for the heart is desiring righteousness.
Of course, this discussion does not take into account bondage to sinful habits or demonic strongholds, but even in the case where a believer is struggling to overcome these things, the struggle is evidence that the heart is not totally corrupt, but actually desires godliness.
Consistency with the rest of the Bible’s Teaching
Does the Bible teach that the Christian’s heart is desperately wicked?
Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.
Surely we must take a pure heart to be something opposite to a wicked, deceitful heart?
The beatitudes are foundational to the teaching of Jesus. In these sayings he tells us what attitudes and character qualities are required of those who are in the kingdom of God. These qualities lead us to repentance, faith and fellowship with the Lord. Without purity of heart – which implies a desire for holiness and desires that conform to God’s will –we cannot see or have fellowship with God. The Christian cannot have a wicked, deceitful heart.
8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Peter is relating how the Lord filled the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit. Notice what the Lord did; he purified their hearts. Thereafter they no longer had wicked hearts, but pure hearts.
15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)
29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
In verse 15 Paul says that a Gentile may have the law written in his heart. This means that even the unconverted person’s heart is not utterly corrupt; there may at least a residual desire for righteousness and a recognition of what is good.
The idea of the circumcised heart being the key characteristic that distinguishes a true Jew tells us that a true believer, a Christian, must have a circumcised heart. His heart cannot be simultaneously circumcised, (that is cut off from fleshly desires) and wicked.
2 Corinthians 1:22
22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
Both the above verses teach that the Spirit of God or Christ himself dwells in our hearts. It is unthinkable that a ‘Spirit-filled’ heart can at the same time be incurably wicked.
We are forced to the conclusion that it is only from the unregenerate human’s point of view that the wicked heart is incurable. For God can cure it and that is the very reason that Christ died and rose again. His stripes healed the sick heart!
1 Thessalonians 3:13
13 so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.
Here is Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, that the Lord would make and keep their hearts blameless – the opposite of wicked. If this prayer reflects God’s will, as it must, then the Lord intends to answer it and is fully able to do so.
12 Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;
The writer to the Hebrews considers that an evil heart is abnormal in a believer. It amounts to apostasy, or a departing from the Lord.
22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
It is really very basic to the gospel that the blood of Christ cleanses our hearts.
To believe that a Christian’s heart is corrupt by nature and that it is incurable in this life, is to deny the power of the gospel.
It denies the clear teaching of the Scriptures at a most basic level.
We do not have a sinful nature that coexists with our new nature.
As Romans 6 clearly teaches, when we put our trust in Christ, as expressed in baptism, the old self is dead and a new heart is given to us.
Peter Mountain 13/2/07