For thousands of years every morning and evening, Jewish people have prayed these well-known words as a way of expressing their devotion to God. They’re called the Shema.
Hear O Israel the LORD is our God the LORD is one, and as for you, you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength.1
We’re going to look at the fourth keyword in this prayer, heart, which in Hebrew is sometimes pronounced levav, or more often in a shorter form lev.
Ancient Understanding of the Heart [00:31-02:21]
Now, different cultures throughout history have had different conceptions of how the human body works, and this is also true of the ancient Israelite writers of the Bible. They knew that the heart was an organ in the chest that sustains life. There’s mention of a heart attack mentioned in the Bible, Nabal, whose “heart died inside of him, and he became like a stone.”2
But the biblical authors talk about the heart in many other ways that might seem strange to modern readers. And that’s because these Israelites had no concept of the brain or any word for it. They imagined that all of a human’s intellectual activity takes place in the heart. For example, you know with your heart. Your heart is where you understand and make connections. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom dwells in the heart3. And your heart is what you use to discern between truth and error, like Solomon did when he was king.4.
So the heart is where you think and make sense of the world, and it’s where you do more. In the Bible, the heart is where you feel emotions. You feel pain in your heart, like Hannah did when she couldn’t have any children.5 In fact, the phrase “a broken heart” comes from biblical Hebrew. You also experience fear in your heart. Your heart can melt or be distressed. Your heart can even be depressed.
But then on the flip side, your heart is where you experience joy. In Hebrew, to be happy is to be “good of heart”6 or to have a “heart of joy.”7
So the heart is the generator of physical life. It’s also the center of your intellectual and emotional life. And there’s more. In biblical Hebrew, the heart is where you make choices motivated by your desires. So David had it “in his heart” to build a temple for God.8 Your heart is where your affections are centered. They’re called “the desires of your heart.”9 And if you really want something and go after it, it’s like what Nathan said to David, “whatever is in your heart, go and do it.”10
So then, in the Bible, the heart is the center of all parts of human existence. As in the well-known Proverb, “guard your heart because from it flows your whole life.”11
Transformation of the Heart [02:22-03:35]
Now, the prophet Jeremiah believed that the human heart was fundamentally broken. He said, “the heart of a human is deceitful above all, irreversibly sick, who can even understand it.”12 He had watched a whole generation turn away from God. They started sacrificing their children as if that were a good thing.
So this is why, in the imagination of the Hebrew prophets, the only hope for humanity is the total renewal of the human heart. Moses predicted that if Israel was ever going to love their God, their heart would need to be “circumcised.”13 Which is a very vivid and surprising metaphor about removing evil and stubbornness from the human heart.
David, after he committed murder and adultery, pleads with God to “create in me a pure heart.”14 The prophet Ezekiel hoped for a day when God would “remove the heart of stone” and give his people a “new heart of soft flesh.”15 Which is very similar to Jeremiah’s hope that God would write the commands of the Torah on the hearts of his people.16
And that brings us all the way back to the Shema. Every day God’s people are called to devote to God their whole body and mind, their feelings and their desires, their future and their failures. This is what it means to Love the LORD your God with all of your heart.