“person.” The word “person” is iysh (#0376 אִישׁ pronounced “eesh”), which most literally refers to a man, a male in contrast to woman, but it can also be used to refer to men and women, and it makes sense to translate it in a gender-neutral way in this context (see commentary on Prov. 2:12).
“sense.” The Hebrew word translated “sense” is leb (#03820 לֵב), which is more literally, “heart.” Leb occurs over 800 times in the Old Testament, and it has an extensive semantic range—a very large number of different meanings—and often combines a number of meanings into one use. The Hebrew language and culture ascribes physical, mental, and moral functions to the heart, as well as control over the physical body. Actually, leb has so many meanings that saying it means “heart” is too restrictive. The only truly accurate way to translate many of the words in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts is to understand their full range of meaning and then translate them according to the context. The full range of meanings of leb includes, but is not limited to, heart, inner man, mind, will, thinking, reflection, inclination, resolution, understanding, good sense, and in some contexts it can also refer to the seat of passion and emotion.
Also, scholars have shown that the word “heart” is basically used the same way in both Hebrew and biblical Greek. Thus, kardia (#2588 καρδία), the New Testament Greek word for “heart,” is generally used the same way as the Hebrew word leb instead of having the more purely Greek meaning for “heart” that we find in Greek literature. Thus, it is generally true that if we understand the Hebrew use of “heart,” then we can understand “heart” in the New Testament as well.
“Heart” often referred to the center or “core” of something, or something considered “deep,” which is why Scripture speaks of “the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2 NASB), “the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40 NASB), and “the heart of the heavens” (Deut. 4:11 NASB). The “hidden person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4 NASB) is the inner person, their deep and core character. When the Bible says that God tests the “heart,” He is testing what is deep inside of a person, as revealed through thoughts, plans, and actions. When Jesus spoke of the things that come out of people’s “heart,” in that context he was speaking of what came from deep within them (Matt. 15:18-19; Mark 7:20-23), not just what they happened to be thinking about at the time.
The student of the Bible must also learn to think of the heart as the center of rational thought rather than the seat of emotion. The modern world thinks of the heart as being the seat of the emotions rather than thoughts. For example, if we today say a person’s artwork has “heart,” we mean it communicates feeling or passion. If we say that the gift a person gave did not have “heart,” we mean the person did not care enough to choose an appropriate gift. If we say an athlete lost a game because he “lacked heart,” we generally mean that he lacked the conviction and passion to win, not that he did not think through his strategy correctly. In contrast, in the biblical culture, the “heart” generally referred to the seat of a person’s rational life and was associated with thinking, planning, and reasoning. The emotional life was often connected to the gut and expressed by words such as “bowels,” “kidneys,” “belly,” “womb,” etc. For example “bowels of compassion” refers to feelings or emotions of compassion (Col. 3:12; 1 John 3:17).
The function of the brain was unknown in biblical times, so things that we generally assign to the brain, like thinking, attitudes, understanding, and good sense, were assigned to the heart. So “heart” sometimes refers to just thoughts and attitudes, and not necessarily deeply seated ones. Thus, when Genesis 6:5 (NASB) speaks of “the thoughts of his heart,” it simply refers to what he was thinking. When Joseph’s brothers told their father, Jacob, that Joseph was alive and ruling Egypt, the Hebrew text says Jacob’s “heart became numb” (Gen. 45:26), but it means he could not think. Some versions catch the sense of the Hebrew by saying Jacob was “stunned” (HCSB; NASB; NLT). When Pharaoh “hardened his heart” and would not let Israel go, he “made up his mind” against God and Moses (Exod. 8:15). To “walk in the imagination of your heart” (Deut. 29:19) was to walk by what you thought and concluded.
Because in Hebrew, “heart” refers more to the actions of the mind than the emotions, there are times when, if the Hebrew leb was more literally translated as “heart,” it would give English readers the wrong impression. There are many examples of this. One occurs in the book of Job, when God asked Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job” (Job 1:8). The Hebrew text is more literally, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?” But that translation would give the wrong impression to an English reader. When we today “set our heart” on something, we really focus on it, but that is not the meaning in Job. God was not asking Satan if he had focused on Job, but rather if he had even noticed him or thought about him (the CJB, NAB, and NLT are versions that have “noticed”).
Another example is that sometimes the literal Hebrew text says that people who do foolish things “lack heart.” Proverbs 6:32; 9:4 and 9:16 say that a man who commits adultery with a woman, or who is being lured to do so, “lacks heart,” But the text is not saying that a man who commits adultery lacks conviction or passion (he may in fact have a lot of passion and emotion in that situation), it is saying he lacks thinking about the situation, and thus “lacks sense” or “lacks good sense” (cp. CJB; HCSB; ESV; NAB; NASB; NJB).
Still another example is Deuteronomy 29:4. In that verse, the literal Hebrew has Moses telling the Israelites that they did not have “a heart to know,” which in modern English means that they did not have the care, focus or passion to learn. But in the Hebrew culture the phrase referred to “a mind that understands” (cp. HCSB; NET; NIV; NLT). At that particular time the Israelites were not mentally prepared to understand all the things that God had done for them, rather much in the same way that Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper that there were things they were not mentally prepared to know at that time (John 16:12). In time, Israel could learn what God was doing and what they needed to know if they took the time to learn. Another place where the Hebrew word “heart” means “mind” is Isaiah 32:4, which speaks of the wonderful blessings and even healings in the future Kingdom of Christ, including the healing of all mental disease: “The mind of the rash will understand knowledge.”
Understanding the biblical usage of “heart” has many practical applications. One is that we can properly understand some verses that may have been unclear to us. Also, if we understand what “heart” means, we are not nearly as likely to import an erroneous meaning into the text and be in error about what the Bible is saying. Understanding the biblical use of “heart” even helps us understand how to be saved. For example, Romans 10:9 (NASB) says that in order to be born again a person must “believe in [their] heart that God raised him [Jesus] from the dead.” In that context, to “believe in the heart” is to believe something in the depth of your mind and thoughts, or as we would say in colloquial English, to “really believe it.” Knowing that can give us great confidence in our salvation. We may not be sure of what it means to “believe in our hearts” and therefore may not be sure if we really do believe “in our heart,” but we can know if we “really believe” that Jesus rose from the dead or if we doubt it. And once we are sure we believe God raised Jesus, then we should be confident we are saved and the peace of God, which passes understanding, can truly rule in our hearts.
[For more on heart, see commentary on Prov. 4:23, “issues.” For more on the bowels, kidneys, etc., referring to the seat of one’s emotional life, see commentary on Rev. 2:23].