The prophet Jeremiah typifies the quintessential qualities of a prophet through his prophecy, his words of exhortation, and his own personal life. One particular phrase appears frequently in the book of Jeremiah which demonstrates his deeply personal conviction in relation to his mission of proclaiming the Word of God. The word “heart” appears in over thirty verses in the first half of the book (chapters 1 through 26). It appears in the context of the prophet's own heart, God's heart, and the hearts of the people. Jeremiah's repeated use of heart characterizes his work as personal, poignant, and piercingly direct.
In this selected section of Jeremiah, the prophet speaks in Jerusalem in the years leading up to its fall in 587 BC. He is contemporary to Kings Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah. The primary mission of Jeremiah is to warn against the coming destruction and plead with the people to repent from their sins. The task laid out for him often proves difficult and demanding. Yet, from the opening lines of this book, Jeremiah's very identity is shown entwined with his mission to speak the word which God gives him. In this context, Jeremiah will speak about his heart and God's heart as vessels of virtue, emotion, and identity.
In the Hebrew context, the word heart holds a particular significance. The Hebrew root word is לֵב (pronounced “lev”). It is not limited to the anatomical organ in a physical sense. Rather, the heart additionally symbolizes the true character of a person. While outwardly, someone might be prosperous and rich, if they are wicked and faithless, their inner heart indicates that wickedness. While the heart in this sense is primarily figurative, it remains connected with the real physical heart. For example, when Jeremiah expresses anguish, he says, “my heart is sick within me” (Jer 8:18). He may be said to reference his heart both figuratively and literally in unison.
The most frequent occurrence of "heart" in Jeremiah is in reference to widespread groups of people. This varies between the people of Jerusalem, the whole Hebrew people, and even the wider nations. In each context, the prophet generally regards the hearts of the people as wicked, hardened against God, and in need of conversion. He addresses the sinful character of the people in terms of stubbornness, rebelliousness, and evil (Jer 5:23, 18:12). While Jeremiah speaks an oracle of the Lord to the people of Jerusalem, he blatantly calls their heart wicked. This dreadful perception of the state of humanity is demonstrated throughout Jeremiah as he struggles to comprehend the sheer evil he witnesses.
Yet, the prophet does not conclude with consternation or condemnation. Rather, his harsh accusations precede a constant call for conversion. Early in his prophecy, he foretells how the people will change: “They will no longer stubbornly follow their wicked heart” (Jer 3:17). Addressing the people, Jeremiah asks them to, “cleanse your heart of evil, Jerusalem, that you may be saved” (Jer 4:14). He maintains resolute hope even as he foretells the coming subjugation to the Chaldeans (Babylonians). As the Lord's oracle, he promises, “they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jer 24:7). Though Jeremiah repeatedly calls out the evil he witnesses, his ultimate message is one of renewal and hope.
In contrast to the wickedness attributed to the people's hearts, Jeremiah's own heart appears to contain deep faith and devotion. The prophet expresses how his heart reacts or
responds to the word of the Lord. He says, “When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart” (Jer 15:16). Because of his faithful dedication to the Lord, Jeremiah's heart is not found wicked. Furthermore, he expresses visceral emotions in relation to his heart. When he considers his task insurmountable and attempts to refuse it, Jeremiah describes his interior motivation as a fire “burning in my heart” (Jer 20:9). His inner virtue has been formed so well that to rebel against it proves impossible for him. Later, he describes, “my heart is broken within me” (Jer 22:9) because the holy words of God are rejected by the false prophets. These passages reveal the character of Jeremiah's heart; because of his dedication to the Lord, he suffers in union with the Lord's suffering.
The word heart appears in reference to the Lord Himself. In the first instance of this, the Lord asks through Jeremiah that the rebellious people should return to Him. In response, He promises that He will give them “shepherds after my own heart” (Jer 3:15). The Lord's heart is clearly not considered anatomical. Rather, the term refers entirely to the purely virtuous nature of His being. The hearers and readers of Jeremiah recognize that God is perfectly good and just. Therefore, shepherds after His heart are leaders who strive to that same true goodness and virtue of the Lord.
The Lord's heart is also referenced as rejecting the unfaithful people and blessing the faithful. Jeremiah relates God's words, “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before me, my heart would not turn toward this people” (Jer 15:1). The heart in this context represents the firm decision of the Lord to reject the sinfulness of the people. The prophets Moses and Samuel are significant to Jeremiah, as he is compared with them as, “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:18). Unlike Moses, however, Jeremiah does not plead with God to spare the people. Rather, he pleads on his own behalf, contrasting his virtue with the cruel treatment he has received. To this, the Lord does respond positively. He promises to bless Jeremiah in the future and to rescue him from the wicked (Jer 15:21). This exchange reveals that the Lord's heart, although incensed by evildoing, cannot help but bless the virtuous man. In this way, God's heart and Jeremiah's are connected; neither can resist the other because they are both good.
Another aspect of the heart is God's ability to know the interior of all human hearts. Despite the outward show put on by the wicked, Jeremiah asserts repeatedly that God is not fooled. Rather, the Lord “tries the heart” (Jer 11:20 and 15:16). He possesses sovereign power over all humanity and executes judgment according to their interior life. Many of the leaders of Judea (kings and priests) reject Jeremiah's prophecies because they deny his accusations of their sinfulness. They live in a kind of complacency which the prophet challenges. By appealing to God who knows the hearts of the people, Jeremiah relies on the Lord's justice in the face of human injustice.
Each of these means of using the term heart develops the reader's understanding of the interior life in respect to God's covenant with the Hebrew people. Jeremiah refers frequently to the language of Deuteronomy. Though he does not quote it, every Hebrew hearer and reader would be familiar with the Shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel... you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” (Deut 6:4-6). With this in mind, Jeremiah's constant references to the people's heart hearkens to this foundational prayer of the covenant. He reminds the people that they are not merely to act according to Mosaic customs, but they are meant to have a relationship with the Lord and be formed interiorly. If they undergo this interior conversion, they may reenter the relationship of covenant with God and heal from the sinfulness which has brought destruction.
In conclusion, the prophet Jeremiah is interested in the heart as something far more significant than a bodily organ. He uses it to show the deep hidden truths about a person. God's heart is perfect in goodness and aches for relationship with others who are good. Jeremiah possesses a good heart which in turn pains him and motivates him to fulfill his mission. The collective heart of the people is most often wicked, but God promises that He will renew it in time. With this promise of renewal, the heart becomes the true vehicle of covenantal relationship with the Lord, demonstrated by Jeremiah himself.