Jeremiah was a prophet screaming into the void of indifference that was the Jerusalem elite in the final days of the kingdom of Judah. These lines are an excerpt from a larger poem that opens with God calling out the leaders of Judah for their idol worship, and their trust in their own wealth to save them.
The imagery of the salt lands opposed to the fertile river would have been a very familiar set of images to Jeremiah’s original audience. Jerusalem is a short trip from the point where the Jordan river feeds into the Dead Sea. And besides the Jordan itself, the Dead Sea feeds a number of underground freshwater springs (though if you visit the area today, many of those springs will have dried up, as the waters of the Jordan are being diverted for agricultural use further upstream).
This very dichotomy between the river and the sea also plays a major role in the transformation of the river valley civilization Sodom lead from an abundant, fertile, and wealthy land to a lake that will symbolize death for all future generations. In fact, it is quite likely Jeremiah is hinting at that very story in this rebuke; Sodom, like Jerusalem, was a wealthy city known for its mistreatment of foreigners, abuse of the poor, and worship of idols. Also, the words for ‘desert’, and ‘land of salt’ are commonly used of the area around the Dead Sea that has typically been associated with the Sodom and Gomorrah story. While these symbols and associations might seem subtle to us, they would have seemed heavy handed to the priests and princes who were Jeremiah’s primary targets.
And after developing this symbolism, the passage continues with a very famous verse that’s almost never quoted in context; “The heart is more deceitful than all else| And is desperately sick| Who can understand it?” It’s so frequently quoted out of context, and used for purposes other than that for which it was written, that those of us who grew up hearing it might be tempted to get to this part of the poem, and wonder if we’ve accidentally skipped into a new section. If, like me, this verse has only ever been quoted to you as a reprimand against gut intuition, or emotional decision making, then it probably seems really disjointed from its surrounding context to you. Before it comes we’re talking about those who trust the Lord, and those who trust their own strength, wealth, and wisdom; after it comes a final rebuke of those who gather wealth through falsehood. Those two things seem easy to connect, but where does the deceitfulness of the heart come into play here?
First and foremost, we must remember that our anthropological symbolism is very different from the biblical authors (i.e. the symbolic roles of the ‘heart’, ‘mind’, ‘kidneys’, and so on). In modern English, the ‘heart’ is symbolically the seat of emotion, impulse, and the subconscious; whereas the ‘mind’ is the seat of thought, reason, and consciousness. No such dichotomy exists in Hebrew; the heart is the seat of all thought and emotion. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have a word for ‘brain’, or ‘mind’ as we conceive of them. Usually (with the exception of the book of Daniel) when you see the word ‘mind’ in a translation of the Old Testament, the underlying word is either ‘heart’, or more rarely ‘kidneys’, which is the underlying word here (other underlying words include ‘face’, ‘spirit’, ‘name’, and ‘regret’; translations are wild y’all). All that to say, there is no world in which this verse was originally meant to be understood as ‘push your emotions aside, because they’re tricksy’. Nor should it be understood as a rebuke against gut intuition, or our internal sense of right and wrong (though there certainly are cautions about that last one in scripture).
So if it’s not saying our emotions/intuition/conscience are trying to deceive us, what is it saying? Well, context clues (i.e. all that stuff that’s never included when this verse is quoted) would suggest that the verse is saying ‘humans hide their intents within their innermost thoughts, so as to deceive others, who can know the truth of another’s thoughts.’ A meaning that makes the follow up verse “I, the Lord, search the heart| I test the kidneys” make a lot more sense.
If verse 9 is about emotions, then verse 10 makes God sound like a petty, abusive spouse saying “you don’t know how you feel; I know how you feel. You’re just confused.” But if verse 9 is about the intentions underneath human actions, then verse 10 is a declaration that no such intention can be hidden from God; a sentiment that is broadly echoed throughout the prophets in the Old Testament, and the epistles in the New. The latter understanding also gives clearer context to the end of God’s part of this poem in verse 11 (which the RCL frustratingly excludes from the reading). God sees the intent in human action, and the secrets we hide from the world; and as a partridge sitting on another bird’s eggs is in for a nasty surprise; those who amass wealth at others expense, who abuse those around them for their own gain, and hide it all behind a veil of surface level morality, politeness, and false piety will themselves be in for a surprise when God passes judgement on all their secrets.