Here are some thoughts on Jeremiah 17:9. That passage traditionally has been translated somewhat along the lines as follows: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it.” I do not think that translation is to be preferred. I do not often disagree with the way the majority of versions translate the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts into English. Accordingly, in those rare situations where I do, I believe I have a heavy burden of proof. I want to set forth the evidence that leads me to
a different translation for this verse. There are three main arguments.
First, the translation does not make sense in the context of the verse. I have long believed that the verse, as translated, is strangely out of context. Jeremiah 17 begins with the the context that the sin of Judah has become un-erasable. (vs. 1-4). Then, the LORD speaks about the cursedness of those who trust in man (vs. 5-6) and the blessedness of those who trust in the LORD (vs. 7-8). These are two different groups of people.
Immediately after He speaks of these blessed people, He says this verse (17:9).
He then follows this verse with the following statement: “I, the LORD, search the heart; examining the affections; even to give to each one according to his ways, according to the fruit of his practices.”
It seems to me that the logic of the passage is that Judah has turned away from God and is cursed. But those who trust in the LORD are blessed. And God searches the heart to determine whether one is trusting in man (including themselves), or trusting in God. Now, if this is the flow of the passage, how does verse 9 fit in? Verse 9, at least to many, is used to describe the treachery of our own heart. The heart cannot be trusted. It will always lead us astray. It is evil and corrupt. That is how this verse is usually read.
If the heart is so wicked, then what is the purpose and role of verse 10? That is, why would God be searching the heart? In 2 Chronicles 16:9, the seer Hanani tells Asa that the eyes of the LORD are searching for those “whose heart is loyal to Him” to be their strong supporter. What role does a searching God have if all hearts are desperately wicked? I long struggled with how these verses fit together.
Second, once I learned Hebrew, I went back and looked again at this passage. Verse 9 is a simple, seven word verse in the Hebrew. The verse says: “ X the heart above all, and Y it is. Who can know?” The question is the meaning of the “X” and “Y” words. The “X” word is “achov.” It is found in its various grammatical forms in several places, but only in the following passages is it not clearly to be translated “heel” or “heeltrack” (foot track): Gen. 25:26; 27:36; 2 Kings 10:19; Job 37:4; Ps. 49:6; Jer. 9:4; Hosea 6:8; and Hosea 12:4. The word is related to the word “heel,” and from which our name “Jacob” comes. It came to mean a “supplanter,” or “overreacher” as we see in Gen. 27:36 where Esau said of Jacob: “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted (a form of our X word) me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!” Now, it is true that Jacob practiced deception when he took away the blessing, but the same is not true when Jacob bought the birthright. There was no deception present then.
That the word may be translated to mean “deceptive” seems to be a given. This is the modern meaning of the word. It also is the apparent meaning in 2 Kings 10:19, where Jehu is stated to have acted “achov,” often translated “deceptively.” It also seems to fit in Job 37:4 when Elihu says of God: “He thunders with His majestic voice, and He does not “achov” them when His voice is heard.” “Deception” would fit well with the idea that thunder and lightning go together. Thunder does not lead you into thinking there was lightning when there was not. The word also appears in Ps. 49:6 where it also seems to fit with the idea of deception. However, the concepts of “deceit” and “deception” are not the same, as the word “deceit” always carries with it an evil connotation whereas “deception” does not. In Psalm 49:6, Hosea 6:8, and Hosea 12:4, the only other places this word in its cognate forms is found outside of the places where it plainly means “heel” or “heel tracks,” i.e., footprints, it seems to include a concept relating to the foot or footprints or Jacob.
Given its Old Testament usage, it seems to me that the word may either mean “overreacher” or “deceptive.” It does not necessarily have a negative implication as would the word “deceitful,” nor is it generally translated as “deceitful.”
The second word “Y” is the Hebrew word “anush.” This word is what the translators translate “desperately wicked.” It is found 10 times in the Old Testament. They are: 2 Samuel 12:15; Job 34:6; Psalm 69:20; Isaiah 17:11; Jeremiah 15:18; 17:9, 16; 30:12, 15; Micah 1:9. Can this word possibly mean “desperately wicked?” In 2 Samuel 12:15, it is used to describe David’s baby son and is usually translated “sick.” It makes little sense to translate this verse: “And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became ‘desperately wicked.'” The idea of a life-threatening physical condition seems to be a better concept for that verse. “Very sick” or “very ill” works for the word. In Job 34:6, Job speaks of his wound as being “anush,” or “very serious,” sometimes translated as “incurable.” The idea seems to be that it is life-threatening. In Isaiah 17:11 the word is translated as “desparate sorrow.” Again, the idea is “life-threatening physical condition.” In Jeremiah 15:18, Jeremiah speaks of his wound as being “anush.” Here it is translated “incurable.” Again, the meaning seems to be that the condition is life-threatening. In Jeremiah 17:16, the meaning is more obscure, as the passage reads “I have not desired the day of “anush.” Our meaning of “life-threatening physical condition” would fit, but it is not demanded in this passage. In Jeremiah 30:12, the word is again translated “incurable,” although it is in a couplet where the second word is “severe.” The idea of “life-threatening” seems, to me, to be preferred given the parallel couplet. In Jeremiah 30:15, again the idea of “life-threatening” seems to fit well with the passage. Finally, in Micah 1:9, the idea of “incurable” or “life-threatening” seems to fit well in the passage.
In none of these passages is the word translated “desperately wicked.” In none of the other passages is there a moral meaning to the term. Rather, it always seems to be a physical condition.
There is one other passage I overlooked, on purpose. That is the Psalm 69:20 passage. The reason I have left this for last is that this is the clincher for me. In this passage, “anush” is used to describe the heart of Christ. The passage reads: “Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of “anush.” I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” To translate “anush” as “desperately wicked” here would seem to be a bad idea. Jesus was not full of wickedness, but full of deep and intense sorrow, to the point of death. This was a life-threatening physical condition.
Because there is no support in any of the rest of the passages for a meaning of “desperately wicked” as a proper meaning of “anush,” I think it is wrong to singularly attach that meaning to the word in Jeremiah 17:9.
I would suggest a translation of the verse as “The heart is complex (from the idea of deceptively unknowable) and fragile (the concept of being extremely vulnerable to life-threatening conditions), who can know it?” From this translation, verse 10 flows now most naturally. God searches this complex and fragile thing to give to each one according to his ways. For the ways of man flow from this complex and fragile heart, as Jesus taught us.
I think this translation much better takes into account the meaning of the Hebrew words employed by Jeremiah.
The third argument I bring to this verse is the manner in which it was translated into the Greek before the time of Jesus Christ. The Septuagint translation of verses 9 and 10 reads: “The heart is deeper than all things, and it is human (or “He is a man”) and who can know it (or “Him”). I, the LORD examine hearts and I test the affections to give to each according to his way and according to the fruit of his business.” The word “achov” is translated into the Greek with the word “Batheia,” meaning deep. The word “anush” is translated with the word “anthropos” meaning “man.” I assume that this is based on the fact that the Hebrew four letter word “anush” means “man.” The differences between the two words is the inclusion in the four letter word of a Hebrew “vav” before the final letter. Whatever the reason, the Septuagint the early church followed, which was translated by The Jews before the time of Christ, interpreted the word as being a reference to man. That the Septuagint translators did not think the verse was talking about moral evil is a powerful argument against the standard translation. The New Testament often quotes from the Septuagint when it quotes the Old Testament.
The first time this passage was translated to convey a morally negative idea was when the passage was translated into Aramaic sometime before the 3rd century AD (traditionally said to be written by Jonathan Uzziel in the first century AD after the time of Christ). Given the friction that existed between the Jewish leaders and Christians during this time, I sometimes wonder when passages are given a radically different interpretation by Jewish leaders after the time of Christ than what the Jewish leaders gave the same passage before the time of Christ, especially when Christians were using the text as pointing to Christ. The Targum translates this verse as “Deceitful is the heart above all things, and it is strong.” Here, the first of our terms is given a moral connotation. However, there also is a problem in translating the second of our terms, “anush,” as “strong.”
“Strong” simply cannot work as a viable translation for this word. One cannot translate 2 Samuel 12:15 as “The LORD stuck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became strong.” I challenge anyone to look up the 10 Biblical passages I set forth above and see if “strong” fits as a possible interpretation. Even the modern Jewish Publication Society never translates “anush” as “strong.” It seems to me that the Targum’s translation of this verse is suspect. And this translation weakness continues into the modern Jewish texts where they translate this word as “perverse.” Yet, they never use morally charged words to translate this same word in all the other places it appears. The word appears again in this same chapter at Jeremiah 17:16 where the Jewish Publication Society translates the word as “fatal day.” In Jeremiah 30:12 and 15, the Jewish translation of the word is “incurable.”
The Targum translation after the time of Christ influenced Jerome, I believe, in translating the Latin Vulgate at the end of the 4th century AD. (Jerome moved to Bethlehem and translated the Old Testament, enlisting the aid of Jewish scholars. He wanted to move away from reliance on the Greek Septuagint in his Latin translation.) Jerome translated the verse into Latin as “pravum est cor omnium et inscrutabile quis cognoscet illud” (“The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?”). Viewing “anush” as meaning “unsearchable” has no support in the use of that word. In none of the other nine uses of the word is the meaning of “unsearchable” present in the text. I am at a loss to explain Jerome’s translation of the verse other than as a bad translation. David’s son was not “unsearchable.” He was dying. Of course, Jerome had to know that his translation broke with the Greek Scriptures that had been in use before the time of Christ and that were the Scriptures of the early Christian church.
Nevertheless, bad translation or not, the Latin Vulgate had a huge influence on subsequent translations. Wycliffe in 1395 AD used the Latin Vulgate to create a translation into English that read: “The herte of man is schrewid, and may not be souyt; who schal knowe it?” (“Shrewd” meant “cursed” or bad in Middle English; “souyt” meant “unsearchable.”
In 1535 AD, the Miles-Coverdale Bible translated this verse as:
“Amonge all thinges lyuynge, man hath the most disceatfull and vnsercheable hert. Who shall then knowe it?” (“Lyuynge” is the Middle English word meaning “living.”)
In the meantime, in 1534, Martin Luther translated this verse into the German as “Es ist das Herz ein trotzig und verzagt Ding; wer kann es ergründen?” (“Trotzig” means “stubborn” and “verzagt Ding” means “despondent thing.”)
The first translation to give the second word a morally negative meaning was the Bishop’s Bible in 1568 AD, when it rendered the verse: “Among all thynges, man hath the most deceiptfull and stubburne heart: Who shall then knowe it?” Again, “stubborn” does not fit the other nine passages where the Hebrew word appears and seems to roll Luther’s translation of the first word into the meaning of the second. Yahweh did not strike David’s infant to make him stubborn. The Geneva Bible followed in 1599 AD with “The heart is deceitfull and wicked aboue all things, who can knowe it?” The King James Bible then took it a step farther in giving the translation as “The heart is deceitfull aboue all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?”
The increase in moral depravity through successive translations stands in sharp contrast to the Septuagint and the early church’s view of the verse. Irenaeus, the great bishop of Lyons, France, who learned from Polycarp who learned from the Apostle John, around 175 AD quotes the last part of the verse as “He is a man, and who shall recognize him.” He took the verse as prophesying about Christ. Against Heresies, Vol. 3, Ch. 19, Sect. 2.
So, in deciding which translation is most correct, one must decide between the oldest Jewish translation of this passage (the Septuagint), the subsequent Jewish translation after the time of Christ and translations that have followed and expanded on it, or simply go back to the Hebrew and seek to find a meaning that has support in the way the words are used elsewhere.
I will concede that the word “achov” may be stretched to mean “deceitful,” although I note in the standard Brown-Drivers-Briggs (BDB)Hebrew lexicon, only in Jeremiah 17:9 is it given such a meaning. Given the scarcity of times the word or it’s cognates are ever used to carry the idea of “deception,” I think there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how this word should be translated. There is not enough evidence to lead me to reject the Septuagint translation of “deep” for this word. But I am at a total loss how anyone can look at “anush” and translate it as “desperately wicked.” I do not understand why in this one place, out of all places, it would be translated as “unsearchable,” “stubborn,” “wicked,” or “desperately wicked.”
For these reasons, I much prefer for this verse a translation that removes the moral evil found in the standard translations and suggest a more appropriate translation along the lines of “The heart is complex and fragile, who can know it?” Such is truer to the Hebrew and is not far from modern Septuagint-English translations. It also makes sense in its immediate context as well as in the greater context of Scripture.
As I said at the start, I do not often take issue with a translation. We have very good translations of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into English and I rarely believe that the meaning of the passage is missed by the translations. In fact, this one passage seems to me to be a singular oddity. I think there are ample Scriptures to support the view that fallen man is under the control of the enemy and sold under sin and is morally without hope. God Himself said that the thoughts of human hearts are evil from their youth (Genesis 8:21). Scripture tells us that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that we were enemies of God (Colossians 1:21). But one’s doctrine, it seems to me, should not drive one’s translation. Rather, the lexical meaning of the words, as derived from the word’s usage in ancient texts, and the context of the passage, should be the determiners for proper translation. Accordingly, I question the standard rendering of this text for the reasons stated above and would not cite this verse to convey what it is normally cited to convey.
I also want to stress that I do not think the common translation (which I think is deficient as explained above) introduces error by itself in our doctrine of man’s inherent depravity.