THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE “HEART”

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THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE “HEART”

IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

An analysis from Christian Mystical perspective

 

Fr. Dr. NICOLAE RĂVAN STAN 

I. INTRODUCTION

 Christian anthropology has its foundations in the teaching of the Old and the New Testament. As the revelation of God, Holy Scripture constitutes the principal source for the knowledge of human existence. Here people no longer just speak about themselves; God is the One who talks for humanity. In the Bible God discloses who people are, how they were created and what vocation they have now (1).

As history of the world and humanity (2), the OT possessed a rich anthropological content. The anthropological vocabulary of OT is very plentiful, it assigns for the human being many attributes and capabilities. We observe here, for the first time, the human being has a soul (nepeš/נֶפֶ׳ש), a spirit (rūah/רוּחַ), a breath of life (nešāmā/נְ׳שָמָה) and a body (bāśār/בָּשָׂד)) (3). But all these ontological characteristics, and others like them, which emphasize the aspect that the human being hasn’t life by himself and from himself, are added together around another concept – the heart (lēb – לֵב; lēbāb – לֵבָב). As the center and synthesis of all human characteristics and all spiritual tendencies and abilities (4), the heart collects into itself all these elements and defines them through their relationship with God.

II. THE NOTION OF HEART

The word heart has its roots in the phonetics of Semitic peoples. Here the heart (lēb/lēbāb) is used in diversified and multiple significances. Thus, the heart is beholden as “centre of personal action” (5), as mind, reason and wisdom (6) of this centre, as physical organ (7), or as the general part which concentrates into itself both the spiritual and physical side of the human being (8).

The OT confers a special importance for this word and uses it 853 times in common meaning of lēb/lēbāb (9). De facto this word is the generally used word for all the anthropological vocabulary of OT (10).

The first reference to heart in the OT is in Gen. 6, 5 (11). Here the heart describes the most profound human desires and mind which were separated from God after it embraced evil (Gen. 6, 5). It is important to retain and analyze the unique aspect which comes from this first text: only God can analyze the heart’s ‘quality’. Thereby the heart is a mysterious reality of the human person and it cannot ever be changed by the human being. Only God is able to see it in all its reality.

The second text from OT where the word heart is used is Gen. 8, 21. Here things change. If in the first quotation God speaks about the human heart, in the second quotation He speaks about his own heart. God shows his heart which is full of love while looking at the human heart.

But apart from these two meaning, in the OT there are also a few verses which speak about a heart of animals (II Kgs. 17, 10; Dan. 4, 13; 5, 21). In Job 41, 24 where it talks about the Leviathan’s heart, the heart means chest and it shows the power of Leviathan’s body (12).

In other verses the word heart is used to indicate body parts of creation. Thus the OT speaks about a heart of the sea (Exod. 15, 8) and a heart of the seas (Ezek. 28, 2, 8; Ps. 45, 2; Prov. 23, 34; 30, 19), as well as about a heart of other pieces of creation.

From our point of view, this usage of the heart concept for the body parts of creation does not affect the dignity and the quality of the human person, and per contra it discovers man as priest and mediator of creation. Between God’s heart and creation’s heart is the heart of man, which evinces the will of the love of God in all creation.

 

III. THE MEANING OF HEART CONCEPT FROM ANTHROPOLOGICAL USE

 As unique and irreplaceable, the human being of the OT cannot be ever substituted by another person (13). He/she enjoys the special attention of God (Job 7, 17; Ps. 8, 4-5; 143, 3), in his/her heart is written the ontological imprint. From this perspective, the heart represents „the fundamental nature of a person”, the maintenance and his/her ontological expression (14). It is the central point of a person’s psycho-physical structure where God has placed the gift of life. The heart is the source of all human activities and it is the expression of all spiritual and physical life (15).

But beside these texts which speak about the heart as the undivided centre, in the OT there are also other texts which describe in more detail the heart’s properties and activities. So, the heart has in it at the same time a sentiment side and the rationality and volition side (16).

1. The sentiment factor of love

As the place and expression of everything within human life, the heart is the emotional centre recognizing and imprinting the quality of its desires (17). In the heart are included all of man’s ideas and wishes (II Chr. 32, 31). It appears as a barometer which analyses plainly the most invisibles intentions of a person.

As the emotional state, the heart can be afflicted and disturbed (Gen. 42, 28; I Kgs. 1, 8; Eccles. 1, 16-18; Isa. 1, 5; Jer. 4, 18; 48, 41; 49, 22; 57, 15), glad (Exod. 4, 14; Judg. 16, 25; Isa. 24, 7; Prov. 14, 10), timorous (Deut. 20, 3, 8; Josh. 2, 11; Isa. 7, 2; II Chr. 13, 7; Esther 5, 1-2; Jer. 49, 23) etc.

2. Rationality, as the coordinating focus of heart

Being present as the synthesis and personal centre of all human beings, the heart is continually perfected. From the perspective of rational capacity, we can say that it is only God who gives the heart (Deut. 29, 4), and who receives it so that it will obtain wisdom (לב קנה – Prov. 19, 8) (18).

The Book of Job shows us this reality in a subtle mode. Job 34: 9. 10 put before us the key of this understanding. If v. 9 speaks about the false idea that this life hasn’t any aim and that respect for God’s will brings no advantage – this is the opinion of man who hasn’t the gift of rationality in his heart – v. 10, in contrast with v. 9, speaks concerning the men who have already elevated the heart to the level of understanding. These men are the men of the understanding, the same who are described in this verse, men of heart (’anšê lēbāb) (19).

As the focus of the intellect (Esther 6, 6; Jer. 13, 22), the heart is for the human being his/her intimate adviser. It speaks with him/her and helps in making good judgemts (Prov. 16, 23; 23, 15; II Kgs. 7, 3; Isa. 10, 7; Jer. 22, 17). Being God’s gift, the heart’s wisdom can be taken back if it is not improved and harmonized with the will of God (Job 17, 4). In this sense, Moses pointed out for the chosen people that the wisdom of God’s law must be guarded with severity and propagated to all descendants (Deut. 4, 9) (20).

Another category of OT texts speak about a heart which does not receive understanding and which does not wish to listen for what God has transmitted for it (Exod. 7, 22-23; 9, 21; I Kgs. 4, 20). This kind of heart in the end will deny all reality, the maximal level being attained through the craziness of denying God: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 13, 1; 52, 1). In these conditions, this behavior of the heart has hurtful consequences for all the human community, not just for those with this kind of heart (21).

3. The will as expression of the heart

For the thinking of the OT man, the will is related to all the other elements of the image of God in the human being. The heart is the unique organ at the same time of intelligence of will and of the religious life of each person (22). As its function of judgment, the heart is free to express a person’s desires and wants. Job 11, 13 shows that in every person it is the ruling power through which he/she wants to actualize or avoid something (לֵב הֵבִין). The man decides how his heart will be.

But in the light of the OT, the freedom is of different kinds. Otto J. Baab says that here we meet three kinds of freedom, namely: a. the practical freedom which admits a person to conceive internal life. This freedom belongs to all people and it is not affected by the higher knowledge; b. the ethics of freedom through which a person chooses between good and evil; c. the religious freedom or the fulfillment of freedom. The person who loves God arrives here with all his/her heart (23).

Consequently, the person’s heart is truly free when it is associated with God. Until it reaches this degree it must continuously exert itself in the sphere of practical and ethical freedom. As for the freedom of the will, this represents the expression of judgment of all human being. A person’s heart conveys its wishes through the mediation of the will (24) (Josh. 22, 5; II Chr. 15, 15).

 

IV. GOD’S HEART AND MAN’S HEART 

God’s heart represents for OT the unique principle which can assure inner peace for humanity. A person’s heart is attracted by its Father and it has no rest if it is not together with Him (Ps. 72, 24-27).

1. The OT conception regarding God’s heart

Without any anthropomorphic conception, the heart concept conferred to God has the vocation to discover the need of communion between humanity and God. For the OT God is not an impersonal principle; He is a personal being who speaks with the people. God is present in human history (25) and people can know Him (26).

When it is utilized for God, the word heart mainly means the will of God (I Kgs. 2, 35; 13, 14; II Kgs. 8, 17; Jer. 3, 15) (27). Texts from II Kgs. 7, 21 and I Chr. 17, 19 affirm this idea and show that God’s will knows an absolute freedom (28).

In comparison with man’s will which is changeable, God’s will remain immutable. It is good and right continuously (Ps. 32, 11; Prov. 19, 21; Isa. 46, 10; Mal. 3, 6) and full of wisdom (Job 36, 5). Being right, God’s heart does not enable men’s sins and it punishes these sins (Isa. 63, 4). It is afflicted when it sees these things (Jer. 8, 18; 48, 36) and is aware of who commits these things (Ezek. 23, 17-18).

God’s heart is present in the heart of the one who does the good thing (III Kgs. 9, 3; II Chr. 7, 16) and it rewards all who do right things for God (IV Kgs. 10, 30). When God gives many gifts for the chosen people He had decided this from all His heart (Hos. 14, 5). He gives lifelong gifts (29), as a seamless droop of His heart in the heart of man who loves Him (Jer. 32, 37-41). God’s heart is looking for man’s heart.

The Book of Hosea says that the heart of God is in a continuous convulsion (Hos. 11, 8), that is to say, it is in an absolute and honest love (30). Thus we can say together with Hans Walter Wolff that “Thus without knowledge of the heart of God man’s real situation is incomprehensible” (31).

2. The heart of man which is agreeable to God

The OT says very often that people don’t exist through themselves, they exist just through God. They are created by God and, therefore, they are not of themselves; they are of God (32). Consequently, it is necessary that their behavior has to be in conformity with God’s will. Thus for the OT, morality has consequences for the transfiguration of all human being and it wants to overgrow this being with God’s mercy and will (33). In this context the Law is given by God for the chosen people to guide them in the way of following God (34). Hereby, a person’s heart in its attitude to God can know two situations: the lousy state and the pure state.

 

a. The dirty heart or the heart which is distanced from God’s heart

An expression used very frequently by the OT for the definition of the lousy state of the heart is “uncircumcised heart” (Jer. 9, 26). This heart doesn’t hear and understand God’s words and doesn’t want to follow the divine will (35). It is a mendacious heart which tries to trick the words and engagements of God according to its owns interests and wishes (Jer. 23, 17). With reference to the causes which make this heart beastly, the OT enumerates many sins. Thus we meet the disobedience to God and the vassalage to idols (Deut. 30, 17), immorality (Eccles. 7, 4, 26), the bribe (Eccles. 7, 7), social injustice, malice (Eccles. 8, 11) and deception (Dan. 8, 25) etc. The beastly heart is rebellious against all good (Jer. 5, 23-24). Its behavior is in disaccord with God’s will (36). The OT describes in detail this behavior. Thus it is inflated (Dan. 11, 12) and doesn’t respect God’s law (Dan. 11, 28; III Ezra 1, 50).

Who spends his life in many sins and away from God will arrive at a spiritual dementia and his heart will be petrified (Jer. 4, 9). In the end he will lose his heart (Jer. 5, 21), because if he renounces looking for God his heart will remain just in a insensitive state. This heart cannot hear, see, understand, or express its personality (Isa. 6, 9; Ezek. 12, 2) (37).

 

b. The return of man’s heart to God

Even if the OT speaks in strong terms about sin, which is being seen by the OT as an abnormal state, and even if God is seen as the Supreme Being who imposes justice and who pursues this justice even to death, however the same OT speaks about the power of God for forgiveness. God wants the return of the chosen people and the return of every person for He gives them His forgiveness and His grace (38). God is not glad when He punishes sinners, and He is glad when he gives His forgiveness: “Mercy is His delight, and judgment is His strange work” (39). Thus, we can say that God is waiting for the sinner’s heart to forgive it. But God doesn’t oblige somebody to come in communion with Him, and for everybody He gives the freedom of choice (40).

In return, God asks the heart for piety (III Ezra 1, 21), conviction – God must look at all our heart (II Chr. 15, 12; Jer. 29, 13) – and honesty. Who avoids this return is abandoned from God’s face (Jer. 3, 10). Whoever is looking for God from all his heart is convinced by God that he will find God and he will receive his forgiveness (Deut. 30, 1-3).

 

c. Man’s heart which is loved by God

When the heart starts to give up personal self-sufficiency, it starts to live in God’s presence (42). In its face is open another perspective, different from the first one. In this sense, Ezek. 11, 19-20 is speaking about a change of the heart of stone (lēb hā’eben) to a heart of flesh (lēb bāśār). Also in Ezek. 11, 19-20 we see that the hearts of right people will live in the same unity and agreement (42). In this context, the OT says that who has an honest heart will be elevated to the state of being a friend of God (Ezek. 11, 20), namely he will be introduced into the communion of love with God (43).

The OT says that the honest heart must continuously look for God and actualize the divine Law (I Chr. 22, 19). This heart must be hat in hand in front of God (II Chr. 34, 27), for it doesn’t omit God’s beneficence (Deut. 8, 14, 17; 9, 4; 11, 16). Also it is necessary for it to manifest more its conviction to serve God (44). The OT speaks about a diligence and a heart which must be sparingly more mighty (II Chr. 31, 4, 21; Eccles. 8, 9).

Who respects the will of God with this seriousness and confidence will indeed come to love God with all his heart (I Chr. 29, 9; II Chr. 15, 17; 19, 9; 25, 2; 30, 22; 34, 31). Only the one who loves God with all his heart can actualize the whole OT law (Deut. 10, 12; 26, 16). The words “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6, 5) represent the synthesis of all God’s Law (45).

Who loves God with his whole being is present in a superior level of spiritual life. His heart is together with God’s heart (I Chr. 17, 2) and is permanently rejoicing with God (I Chr. 16, 10). The exaltation of the human heart is the Lord, the Rest and the Delight of all his being (S. of S. 3, 11).

The Book of Canticle of Canticles speaks gently about the attraction between man’s heart and God’s heart. Here man and God appear similar to two lovers who are looking for each other, without ever being satisfied. This book sees the union between them as the same as a spiritual marriage: “When the loving awareness of God becomes most transcendent and permanent we have the mystical marriage. The analogy of this supreme mystical union with marriage is based on the fact that, like marriage, it is the fusion of two lives in one. It is, like marriage, the most intimate and the most permanent union in this life… the exalted spirituality, the ardent love of God, the divine condescension and familiarity confer upon the soul a certain liberty of expression, a freedom in using a love-language which reminds one of the Canticle of Canticles” (46).

Love is the expression of the heart in its mystical experience and the Book of Canticle of Canticles shows it in all its glory, in the fulfilled form, as meeting between God’s love and the person’s love. The person’s heart is together with God’s heart in the ecstatic union of the mystical marriage (47). It is a permanent influence of love. The heart of the right person is ennobled with new capacities for a divine perception. Thus we observe that, in contrast to the body which sleeps, the heart all along stays awake – “I slept, but my heart was awake” (S. of S. 5, 2) – because it doesn’t want to be isolated from God (48).

For other commentators, the message of the Book of Canticle of Canticles is a messianic message and this message speaks about the love between Jesus Christ and His Church (49). This is not an accidental analogy because in our context we can see that the heart which is in communion with God is at the same time in a waiting for Christ. Consequently, the OT’s heart’s desire will be fulfilled through the life in Christ.

 

V. CONCLUSIONS 

a. The heart concept has a rich meaning and it has an important place in OT. It is used at the same time for man and God, but also for the all creation. This also emphasizes the connection which is between God, humanity and creation.

b. In its anthropological meaning the heart refers to all the ontological and moral structure of man. It serves as a synthesis for all spiritual and physical functions, as a personal centre of human being in its opening for God, other people and creation. The image of God in man is defined through the heart in the perspective of its resemblance with its Creator.

c. Where the heart concept is used for God it means the will, wish and love of God. The heart of God shows us the attitude of God for His creation.

d. The clean heart is in communion with God and all that it lives and thinks is done just for love of God. It is a communion of love where man’s heart is looking for God’s heart and God’s heart is looking for man’s heart because these two hearts want to be together all life long.

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