The Bible in both Old and New Testaments frequently uses the image of the “hard heart.” The most famous example is that of the Pharaoh who was Moses’ opponent in his mission to free the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In Exodus we are told the (1) Pharaoh hardened his heart, (2) the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and (3) Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. All of these are basically the same idea for Exodus. Paul uses the example of Pharaoh in Romans 9 to illustrate God’s justice and mercy, with the overriding truth that God’s will is always more powerful than human will. Paul concludes his section about Pharaoh with this astounding pronouncement:
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy,
and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
This imagery is very difficult for us to understand. The biblical hard heart is not an ossified organ, the ultimate hardened artery. In fact, the New Testament never uses the term “heart” to refer to the blood-pumper in our chests, it is always used metaphorically. But for what? For us, the heart is the seat of our emotions. A cold heart is one that is emotionally frozen, turned away from tender love and mercy. But this is not the way the biblical authors understood the heart. The center of emotions for them was the gut, the stomach, the bowels. This is where they felt emotional pain and affection. This can be seen in the updated translation of Song of Songs 5:4:
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. (KJV)
My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. (NIV2011)
The “heart” in biblical thought it more likely to be the center of understanding and volition, the place where our “will” originates. Stephen’s charge against the people of Jerusalem illustrates this:
Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.
You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
Notice three things here:
- They are “uncircumcised” in hearts and ears. This does not mean they have a flap of skin on their hearts or ears. It means they are “heathen,” unconverted. They are like the great uncircumcised nemesis of the Old Testament, the Philistines.
- They are “stiff-necked.” This is not a reference to Ed Sullivan. It refers to an animal that would pull a cart (like an ox). To be “stiff-necked” means the animal would not respond to the tug on the reins to the right or left, directing it to turn. The stiff-necked beast of burden resisted direction from its owner, and kept plodding in its own direction.
- They are resisting the Holy Spirit. God’s spiritual direction attempts are spurned. In the case of Stephen, this is the willful decision of these folks to reject Jesus as Messiah, so much so that they had him crucified. This willful stubbornness continued as they killed Stephen himself a few minutes later.
So when the biblical authors exhort us to give up the hard heart, they are not asking for us to be more emotional and have tender feelings. They are asking us to yield our wills to God, to allow him to be in control, not us. Joel admonished his people:
2:12 “Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13 Rend your heart
and not your garments.
While there may be emotions involved in yielding the heart to the Lord, this is not simply asking for tears. Ripping or rending the heart is not to produce an explosion of emotional blood, it is to negate willful disobedience, to trust and obey, willingly to follow the Lord where he leads no matter what our selfish souls desire to the contrary.
Nebraska Christian College