“Heart” was the “Mind” in the Bible

Intellect and Memory.

We associate thought and memory with the brain today, but in the idiom of the Bible, thinking is a function of the heart. The psalmist thought about his present difficult situation in the light of his past. As he “remembered [his] songs in the night,” he says, “My heart mused and my spirit inquired” (Ps 77:6 NIV). As a prelude to the *flood, the book of Genesis tells us that God noted “how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5 NIV). When the Bible reports internal dialogue, whether silent *prayer to God or simply thought, it uses the idiom “in the heart.” For instance, Hannah prayed to God “in her heart” (1 Sam 1:13); and throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher’s mental processes are reported as something he said “in his heart” (e.g. Eccles 2:1-15). As Mary witnessed all the wonderful things that happened at the time of the birth of her child, Jesus, she is said to have “pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).

Remember: when the term heart is used in Holy Scripture, it is referring to the seat of intellect, the human mind (which during the entire Biblical era was believed to occur in the heart organ). Today we associate the mind with the brain. The brain and the head provide us with a number of stock images of the mind and its functions. So it comes as a surprise to many modern people that in the imagery of the Bible there is no awareness of the brain as the center of consciousness, thought or will. The processes of the “mind” are frequently associated with an organ that for us evokes the emotions, that is, the heart. English translations of the Bible vary in the extent to which they preserve the word “heart” rather than substitute a word or image associated with the mind.

Because the Bible makes it clear that love and hate both emanate from the heart, then because of the modern romantic sense of the heart being the seat of our emotions (especially of love) then the knee-jerk reaction of Christians and secular people alike to the terms love and hate is to think of them as super-intense emotions. So for modern people to love is to “like” someone or something to an extreme level and to hate is to “dislike” someone or something to an equally extreme level. However as we’ve discussed innumerable times, when the Bible uses the term “heart” it means it as the seat of our will and our intellect; not of our emotions. In that era the kidneys, liver, and even stomach were seen as the inner sources of human emotions. To summarize: in Bible times the heart was NOT seen as the seat of our emotions, but rather as the seat of our intellect. Yes; back then it was assumed that the human heart organ was where our mental processes, our thinking, took place. They knew nothing of the brain as part of the thinking process. So the better way to perceive what the Bible means by “heart” (lev in Hebrew, kardia in Greek) is to substitute the word “mind”.

Similarly, in the Greek NT, “mind” (nous) usually is used in reference to the cognitive, rational and purposive aspects of a person as well as the less concrete aspects such as heart, soul, opinion and understanding or reflection. The overlap between “mind” and “heart” is evident in Philippians 4:7: “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Or in 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 Paul can speak of the Israelites, whose “minds are made dull” because “a veil covers their hearts” (2 Cor 3:14-15; for OT examples, cf. 1 Sam 2:35; Job 10:13; 38:36).

Human emotions are more frequently associated with the lower organs.

Exactly where in the body one locates the focal point of emotion is somewhat arbitrary. For modern speakers of English it is the *heart. Our language is full of colorful expressions that employ and play with this idiom. For the biblical writers and their secular contemporaries, the so-called seat of emotions was the bowels, the inner parts or the *belly. In fact, the biblical terms that refer to the inner parts are often translated *“ heart” in modern versions (cf. Jer   31:20, Philem 1:20).

It is easy to surmise why intense feelings were expressed by the image of the “inner parts.” The image was probably born out of the physiological experience that often accompanies intense emotion. When one feels appalled by a terrible crime, for example, real nausea may accompany the emotion. Hence, we express our feelings by saying, “That makes me sick.” It is understood that whether or not physical discomfort is truly experienced, the speaker is expressing emotional *disgust. 

Biblical writers lacked modern terminology for abdominal parts. References specifically to the bowels or intestines are few and calamitous. In other words, the sort of emotion expressed by a reference to the inner parts is to be discerned by the context rather than by an appeal to the original languages.

Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 425). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

The Rabbis taught that either your heart controls you, or you control your heart. That is your heart either brings you under subjection, or you bring your heart under subjection with the idea being that when your heart (your mind) controls you, then God cannot. Why did the Rabbis say that a righteous person must bring their hearts into subjection? Because in Holy Scripture God taught them that:

CJB Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and mortally sick. Who can fathom it?

In the Jewish Midrash called Genesis Rabbah 34 we read this commentary about Genesis 8:21: “AND THE LORD SAID TO HIS HEART (Gen. 8:21).” The wicked stand in subjection to their hearts (their passions and lusts). Thus it says (in God’s Word that) THE FOOL HAS SAID IN HIS HEART (Ps. 14:1), AND ESAU SAID IN HIS HEART (Gen. 27:41), AND JEROBOAM SAID IN HIS HEART (1Kings 12:26), NOW HAMAN SAID IN HIS HEART (Est. 6:6). But the righteous have their hearts under their control. Hence it is written: NOW HANNAH, SHE SPOKE AT HER HEART (1Sam. 1:13), AND DAVID SAID TO HIS HEART (1Sam.27:1), BUT DANIEL PURPOSED TO HIS HEART (Dan. 1:8), AND THE LORD SAID TO HIS HEART (Gen.34:10).

So we must never listen to our heart and let our heart control us; rather we must bring our hearts (our minds) under subjection. Subjection to what? To our regenerated mind that has been healed by God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s light. The Bible warns against listening to our heart time and time again. And yet Christians, especially, often talk about how they follow their hearts or that their heart is telling them to do something and they think this is a good thing. The Holy Scriptures tell us the opposite.




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