The Heart of Bible Interpretation

By Grantley Morris

bible study

The Word of God often identifies a “hard heart” as the reason for people failing to perceive spiritual truth.

    Isaiah 6:9-10 He said, “Go, and tell this people, ‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.”

    Mark 8:17 Jesus, perceiving it, said to them, “Why do you reason that it’s because you have no bread? Don’t you perceive yet, neither understand? Is your heart still hardened?

    Ephesians 4:18 being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts (Emphasis mine)

Why the heart is critical in the perception and understanding of spiritual truth becomes obvious when we grasp the meaning of the term. In biblical thought, the “heart” includes that part of us that processes information and reaches conclusions:

    1 Kings 3:9 Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil . . .

    Proverbs 2:2  . . . apply your heart to understanding

    Proverbs 14:33 Wisdom rests in the heart of one who has understanding . . .

    Proverbs 15:14 The heart of one who has understanding seeks knowledge . . .

    Matthew 9:4 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? . . .”

    Ephesians 1:16-18  . . . making mention of you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your hearts enlightened . . .

Given the importance of the heart in understanding anything, here is a truth that haunts me:

    Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?

How disturbing it is to consider that the “heart” is the human factor most critical in determining one’s ability to understand, and yet it is treacherously unreliable! We have parts of us deep within that – ably assisted by our spiritual enemy, the Deceiver – are in constant danger of deceiving not just other people, but ourselves.

    Psalms 36:2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes, too much to detect and hate his sin.

    Proverbs 30:12  . . . pure in their own eyes, yet are not washed from their filthiness.

    Proverbs 16:2 All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weighs the motives.

    Proverbs 16:25 There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

We keep tending to think that it is only non-Christians whose heart deceives them. This is most certainly not so:

    Revelation 3:17  . . . you say, ‘I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing;’ and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked

    1 Corinthians 4:4-5 For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. . . .

    1 John 3:20 because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

How difficult it is to get in touch with what is deep within us is perhaps hinted at in this Scripture:

    Deuteronomy 8:2 You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. (Emphasis mine)

Moreover, Bible readers are particularly open to self-deception.

    James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. . . . (Emphasis mine)

There is nothing like a head knowledge of Scripture for so blinding us with pride that we suppose we have arrived when we haven’t left the starting blocks.

    1 Corinthians 8:1  . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Both knowledge and love make a person seem bigger but one is nothing but hot air.

Love is manifested by putting Bible knowledge into practice:

    John 14:15 If you love me, keep my commandments.

    Romans 13:9 For the commandments  . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . .”

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We gain God’s heart as a branch slowly gains fruit – by remaining spiritually connected to Christ, the vine and by allowing God to “prune” us. To the inexperienced, pruning seems a cruel and senseless waste of parts of the branch that have great potential. Despite appearances, however, pruning increases fruitfulness. I believe pruning can come in the form of trials for which Scripture tells us to be thankful. When teaching about the vine, however, Jesus emphasized the role of his Word in pruning us (John 15:3). By obeying God’s Word we let him cut off our favorite sins and our favorite theories. We gain God’s heart by maintaining intimate oneness with Christ and letting God’s Word “remain” in us (John 15:7) by heeding what it says. This is why Scripture says:

    James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. (Emphasis mine)

We have noted that the Bible frequently cites a “hard heart” as the reason for an inability to comprehend spiritual truth. This must be important, but what exactly is a “hard heart”? Although in modern English we often speak of having a hard heart, basic hermeneutics rightly affirms that how a figure of speech is used in modern English does not necessarily reflect what it meant when the Bible was penned. The most accurate insight into the precise meaning of an expression is obtained by examining how the Bible uses that expression and related concepts.

Surely sin is a factor:

    Romans 2:5 But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day . . .

Neither of the next two scriptures mention “heart,” but they seem relevant:

    Hebrews 3:13 but exhort one another day by day . . . lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Scripture links a seared conscience with being theologically deceived:

    1 Timothy 4:1-2 But the Spirit says expressly that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron

If sin is involved, does any particular sin predominate?

    Matthew 19:8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives . . .”

This is vague but it hints that a selfish failure to love as God loves could be a factor in having a hard heart. This suggestion is further strengthen by this incident:

    Mark 3:3-5 He said to the man who had his hand withered, “Stand up.” He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?” But they were silent. When he had looked around at them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored as healthy as the other.

Jesus kept clashing with people who, in zeal for upholding the law of God seemed faultless, but in loving as God loves were seriously flawed.

I’m reminded of how the disciples’ reaction to the man born blind differed from Jesus’ reaction:

    John 9:1-2 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

What an intriguing question! That would keep theologians in fever pitch for years. Instead, Jesus healed the man.

It is so easy to find ourselves delighting in theological and intellectual discussion, rather than being moved by compassion for needy people. Remember in the parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and the Levite, perhaps on their way to holy duties in Jerusalem, walking on the other side of the road when confronted by human need.

Again, “heart” does not appear in the following, although it might be implied:

    Matthew 25:24 He also who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter.

The context suggests a “hard man” to be the opposite of someone we would call tender hearted. He’s the opposite of Jesus who was so easily “moved with compassion.” To harden one’s heart would seem to mean making oneself unresponsive to God and/or people. Though one might remain fervently religious and completely self-deceived about one’s spiritual state, to harden one’s heart is to become the exact opposite of Jesus. It is the breaking of what Jesus pronounced to be the essence of the entire old covenant: loving God and loving man (Matthew 22:37-40).

How much they needed to pray the prayer made famous by Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision: Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. This is a vital – and often forgotten – key to Bible interpretation.

When encountering gays, prostitutes, child molesters, abortionists, liberal preachers or fallen pastors we might be exceedingly zealous in upholding God’s standard of righteousness, but do we uphold God’s standard of love and grace? How tender our heart is toward those who have failed morally is at least one measure of the hardness of our heart. How much our eyes are filled with God’s compassion is an indication of how likely we are to see biblical truth through God’s eyes.

(If you reached this page by a link in the middle of another webpage)

An important webpage that helps us locate and navigate around some of the other dangers is:
How to Avoid Deception.

Beginning of this series

Related Webpages

Soul-winning Tips Understanding that the real obstacles to people becoming Christians are not intellectual but spiritual and heart issues

Spiritual Secrets Encouraging insights into what dying to self is really about

How to Avoid Deception

Truth: An Awesome Responsibility

Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2005. For much more by the same author, see These writings may be freely copied provided they are not placed in a webpage, nor in anything that is sold and provided this entire paragraph is included. For use outside these limits, written permission is required. Freely you have received, freely give.

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