Jeremiah 17:9 – An Anomaly In Modern English Translations

Question from a Site Viewer

I am sorry when reading some of your posts, most notably, the post relating to Jeremiah 17:9 whereas you feel the verse should be changed to represent what other versus have led you to FEEL like it should be. With that said, I have been convicted to relay this to you:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

Proverbs 14:12

Let’s also not forget this one:

Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar.

Proverbs 30:5,6

There are actually tons of these scriptures throughout the Bible (KJV) that warn over and over for people to not add or take away from His word. I’m sure you had to know this with your seeming knowledge that the website conveys that you have.

As far as how you feel that God would have a wasted effort of searching all hearts if they were all wicked (see your post in regards to Jeremiah 17:9), look at it this way. If we already know that our best works are as filthy rags to God, then how is it so difficult for you to understand that our hearts (which we always tell our kids and friends to follow,) is not desperately wicked? For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Yes, to Him, we are all wicked. Remember! We are not saved by any works lest we boast. We are saved simply by faith. There is nothing but wickedness in our hearts. I have to stop myself daily with wicked thoughts and I know I’m in the book of life as I have complete and total faith in my Father Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean that God can’t look through our hearts and find the scrap of love and faith for him that he is looking for after digging past our wickedness.

Of course we’re all aware that until 100 years ago, the original 1682 KJV had been unaltered until now. Now, with all the new versions, everyone things it’s fine to say, “Hey, if everyone else is changing it, so can I!” This allows the type of behavior Satan wants right?

Please, humble yourself and reprove what I have written and if I am wrong, please ensure you provide scripture to show me that I am wrong about Jeremiah 17:9.

Tim’s Answer

I hope you understand from reading the articles we have placed on our site that we believe that all humans (except for Christ) are born into sin, and that apart from God we have no hope.  There is no one among humans that does not sin.  We all offend in many ways.  All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.  For us, these truths are firmly established in Scripture.

We also take seriously the admonition not to add or subtract from what God has written.  We are not seeking to do this in our take of Jeremiah 17:9.  Rather, we are seeking to understand what God conveyed to us. 

Jeremiah originally spoke and wrote in Hebrew in the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C.  When we look at the Hebrew words used in this passage, we find the operative words “achov” and “anush.”  We seek to understand what those words meant to Jeremiah and his hearers and readers.  That is the intent. 

The earliest translation of Jeremiah 17:9 appears in the Septuagint, the Greek text used during the time of Christ and still used by multitudes of Greek-speaking people and in many of the Orthodox churches today.  This translation of the Old Testament has been around for over 2,000 years and its reading of Old Testament texts is often what we find in New Testament quotes of those texts.  It was translated by the Jews before the time of Christ.  This ancient translation records the verse this way:

The heart is deep more than all, and it is man and who can know him? 

This understanding is consistent with the way we read the verse. 

It is also how the early church fathers read Jeremiah 17:9 (Ireneus around 165 A.D. in Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 18, section 3; Chapter 19, section 2; Book 4, Chapter 23, section 11, sees this passage as a Messianic prophesy about Christ being a man; Tertullian around 210 A.D. follows Ireneus in seeing this passage as a reference to the coming Messiah in An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 14 and in On the Flesh of Christ, Chapter 15;  Hippolytus who wrote before 236 A.D. agrees with Ireneus and Tertullian that the verse is describing Christ in The Refutation of All Heresies, Chapter 3; Cyprian around 250 A.D. also agrees that the verse is Messianic in The Treatises XII, Second Book, Chapter 10).  Their understanding of this verse is also consistent with the way the verse was translated into Aramaic in the second century A.D., where the word “achov” is translated with a word meaning “strong,” an idea similar to “deep” and equally fitting for the Messiah.  

It is interesting to us that a verse that had a positive message to the early church and was seen as being prophetic of the Messiah Himself has had its meaning changed over the years to become a key verse in the English-speaking church showing the total depravity of mankind.  But I think I can trace that change in understanding the verse back to Jerome in 382 A.D.  Jerome translated the verse into Latin when he wrote the Latin Vulgate, which became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church for over 1000 years.  His translation, when translated into English, reads:

The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?

This is the first translation of Jeremiah 17:9, of which I am aware, where the meaning of the Hebrew “achov” in this passage is given a “perverse” or “deceitful” meaning and where the verse shifts to being a negative idea dealing with man rather than a positive statement of the Messiah. 

The first English translation by John Wycliffe who relied a great deal on the Latin Vulgate was in 1382-1395 A.D.  He translated the verse as:

The herte of man is schrewid, and may not be souyt (searched out); who schal knowe it?

In 1522, Martin Luther translated this verse into German using the words “trotzig” and “verzagt Ding” to translate the Hebrew “achov” and “anush.”    The German word “trotzig” means “sulky, defiant, contrary” and the German word “verzagt” means “despondent.”  The word “Ding” means “thing.”  So in English, his translation would read “the heart is sulky or defiant and a despondent thing.” 

In 1535, Miles Coverdale published his English Bible and translated this verse as:

Amonge all thinges lyuynge, man hath the most disceatfull and vnsercheable hert. Who shall then knowe it?

Each of these followed Jerome in understanding “achov” to be a negative description of the human heart.  But none of them were willing to make “anush” a morally negative concept.  That changed with the Bishop’s Bible in 1568, which introduced a negative moral concept into the translation of “anush.”  That version translated the text:

Among all thynges, man hath the most deceiptfull and stubburne heart: Who shall then knowe it?

The Geneva Bible in 1599 went farther, translating this verse:

The heart is deceitfull and wicked aboue all things, who can knowe it?

In  1611, the King James translators followed the Geneva Bible and translated the verse:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

What we are saying is that we do not find our current English translations of Jeremiah 17:9 consistent with the Hebrew language employed, with the way the earliest church understood this verse, with the way it was translated early within the history of the church, or with the way that those who continue to follow the Scriptures used by the apostles and the early church fathers read this verse.  What was seen by the earliest church as a reference to the Messiah has become through what we see as poor translations a verse showing the depravity of the human heart.  We think that this is wrong.  Either the early church was wrong, or the modern English church is wrong.  Both cannot be right.  We side with the early church in believing that the Hebrew language does not support the negative moral slant that modern English translations give to this verse. 

And we remain puzzled why translators continue to translate this verse into English as they do.  Not all English translations follow the King James idea.  The Apostles Bible (2004) translates the verse in line with our reading of the Hebrew:

The heart is deep beyond all things, and it constitutes the man, and who can know him? 

But its understanding of the text is rare among English translations.

I understand your concern that for the average person, the multiplicity of translations into English tends to throw doubt on the reliability of Scriptures in the hands of ordinary people.  I suppose, at some point, we must all wrestle with the fact that our English versions are translations by men of what God originally wrote in other languages. 

There are some who will state that the God has preserved His word perfectly in English.  But why would God favor English over other languages?  And if God did not preserve His word perfectly in Chinese, why would we think He did so in English?  And if He perfectly preserved His word in all languages in which it is translated, then what do we do with the differences between the translations going into the different languages? 

We think the better view is that God has preserved His word in the original languages.  We have elsewhere spoken about this and our high level of confidence that the Scriptures we have today reflect what was originally written.  In our translations, we have people who have sought to bring God’s words into our languages rather than require us to learn the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in which the Bible was originally written.  We are incredibly blessed to have a number of very good translations into the English language.  We should thank God for these.  Many peoples of the world would love to have one translation into their language of the quality of many of our English translations.  We do not realize how blessed we are. 

We do not often take issue with our modern translations.  Jeremiah 17:9 seems to us to be an anomaly. It is hard to understand why our translations are so radically different from the translations available to the early church and our own reading of the underlying Hebrew text. 

We hope this helps you understand our view.  We are not calling on you to agree with us.  Each of us must respond to the sacred texts with the understanding given to us.  But, in no way are we seeking to add to or subtract words from the pages of Scripture.  To the contrary, our site demonstrates a high commitment to the authority of Scripture and our view that the purpose of Scripture is to point everyone to the cross where we are introduced to our dear Savior, Jesus Christ. 

May the Lord Jesus and His Spirit grant you fruit in your life and joy in your heart. 

tims signature on article about jeremiah 17:9

3 thoughts on “Jeremiah 17:9 – An Anomaly In Modern English Translations”

  1. Could I, as Tim’s mom , explain that Tim was called home to glory in December 2014, so he is not available to answer any further questions.
    I am glad to see that some of the questions he answered before he left us are still being posted.

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