The cultures of the Ancient Near East all have language and writings that show an understanding of the heart as the seat of emotions and the source of will and motivation. “Let not your heart be puffed up because of your knowledge!” Ptahotep, an Egyptian official of the 5th dynasty, instructs his son.5 “Your heart has become hardened,” says the Babylonian friend to the sufferer in an Ancient Near Eastern acrostic.6 It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bible also contains much about the heart, and it is of particular importance to God. In God’s relationship with Israel and the nations he is ultimately concerned for and caring of the state of their hearts which he sees, influences and will one day make new.
The book of First Samuel illustrates God’s concern for the heart the most poignantly. The prophet is searching for the future king of Israel and his thoughts are being swayed by the attractiveness of Jesse’s sons and their apparent strength. But God cuts in sharply with the reprimand that man looks at the outward appearance, the Lord looks on the heart. The Hebrew verb in this verse for “look” is ra-aw, which also means to perceive and to understand, (Strongs, H7200), implying through the language that God is not merely a distant observer, but that he intimately comprehends the heart-motivation itself. It is used elsewhere in the Old Testament in the same manner. Not long after the fall of mankind in Genesis 3 God looked (ra’aw) at the hearts of the people of earth and saw that their wickedness had no end to it, (Gen 6:5). In the book of Jonah 3:10 God saw that the people of Nineveh had turned from their wickedness, a heart transformation as they chose to be motivated by God instead of evil for a time. The contrast between God’s perception verses man’s perceptions is evident again in the exchanges between the Lord and Jonah after the Assyrians repent. Jonah believes that their actions do not deserve mercy, (4:1), but God demands compassion, (4:10-11). The Lord’s perception of the heart is active he both looks and examines the motivations of his people, and influences their hearts for His purpose.
“Shall God seek this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart,” Psalm 44:21. The writer of this psalm has just lit on one of the chief sins of Israel, idolatry, and he is cautioning the audience that this sin occurs in the heart, and they cannot hide it from God. Idolatry is a personal affront to God because it is the worship of one’s heart for something other than Him, the Creator, the Savior the Holy One of Israel, (Isaiah 30:12), and He cares enough to find it and deal with it. The purpose of the Law itself was to guide the heart, though they did not recognize it, for we read in Isaiah the Lord’s lament, “I am the Lord your God who leads you in the way you should go. If only you had listened to my commandments!” (Isaiah 48:17-18). There were some who did listen to the Lord, like Hezekiah, who, while lying on his death bed, pleaded with God to remember whether or not he had walked with a perfect heart, (2 Kings 20:3). The Lord evidently agreed because he healed the king in verse 5. The prophet Nehemiah often speaks of God “putting” a desire or motivation in his heart, (Neh 2:12, 7:5), which led him to be bold before a foreign king and to return to Judah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, (Neh 2)! The Lord exerts a powerful influence in the hearts of men, especially those who follow him, but sin still exists and Jeremiah says that the heart is desperately wicked, (17:9). What then are we to do?
David himself answers this divine question in Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Long before the stubbornness and wickedness of the Jews finally expelled them from the Promised Land, this humble shepherd king understood exactly what needed to happen within himself be right before God again. After David’s death, as the people continuously turned from God, the Lord began to echo the psalmist’s prayer through the prophets. Sin had been written on their hearts like the very same stone tablets upon which Moses wrote the Law that was meant to shape their hearts, (Jer 17:1-5), and so God was going to give them a new heart, (Jer 24:7). Not a heart of stone, but a heart of malleable, compassionate, and vulnerable flesh, (Ezek 36:26). David also asked for a new spirit. Little did he know that his Redeemer’s plan was to give mankind His own Spirit, the same spirit that had dwelt with them in the tents and tabernacles of the wilderness, and that had guided them for dozens of years in pillars of cloud and fire. “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my Statues, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances,” (Eze 36:27). God knew that their hearts would turn away from him and from the Law, (Deut 8:1), but he cared for them so much that His spirit remained with them for hundreds of years of disobedience, so that their hearts could be made new to walk with Him again.
God cares for the hearts of his people, so much so that he chooses to interact with us, influence us and minister with us in spite of the sin and potential for sin in our lives. Years later when the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the question of Law, He revealed the same truth about the Law that the Jews had missed generations before, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,” (Matt 22:37). It was never about the feasts and the Sabbaths and the festivals, God wanted their hearts, and my challenge today for those who claim to walk with the Lord is this, does he truly have YOUR heart?
5&6 Unknown. “Excerpts from Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature.” In Readings from the Ancient Near East, by Bill T. Arnold, & Bryan E. Beyer, 181, 183. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group: Baker Academic, 2002.