Jeremiah & Psalm 139: Mind Versus Conscience

Jeremiah offers an insight on human psychology in the haftarah reading that accompanies the Torah portion Bechukotai in Leviticus this week. The haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14) warms up with one of Jeremiah’s predictions that the kingdom of Judah will be lost because its people lack trust in God and persist in worshiping idols. (Jeremiah lived through the Babylonian conquest of Judah and their siege and destruction of Jerusalem.)

Jeremiah adds that the people of Judah should not expect their own military power to save them.

            Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind,

                        And makes human flesh his strength. (Jeremiah 17:5)

In other words, you cannot win a war with armies alone. Jeremiah goes on to say that only those who trust in God will flourish. (See my post Haftarat Bechukotai–Jeremiah: Trust Me.) Then he touches on another problem about trusting human beings. His two-verse gem on human psychology is rich in words that can be translated as either physical objects or psychological states. So I made three translations. The first one leaves the metaphors in the original Hebrew:

The leiv (לֵב) is more akov (עָקֺב) than anything,

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a leiv,

                        Testing the kelayot (כְּלָיוֹת),

And allotting to a man according to his drachim (דְּרָכִים),

                        According to the peri (פְּרִי) of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Next I translate the ambiguous words literally:

The heart is more a heel than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a heart,

                        Testing the kidneys,

And allotting to a man according to his roads,

                        According to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Finally, here is a version with all the ambiguous words translated metaphorically:

The mind is more devious than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a mind,

                        Examining the conscience,

And allotting to a man according to his conduct,

                        According to the result of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Heart and Kidneys

In English, the heart is the metaphorical location of feelings, while the brain is the location of thoughts. In the Hebrew Bible, the heart is the seat of both feeling and thinking. The word for “heart” (leiv or levav) is used for the whole conscious mind—except for one mental function: our conscience. The awareness of what we ought to do is assigned to the kidneys in the bible. (See my post: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) Kidneys are often paired with hearts because, according to one commentary:

“The kidneys advise the heart, and the heart decides.”1

If we are accustomed to following our “kidneys” (conscience), our decision-making is straightforward; we reject thoughts of gratifying our immoral impulses, choose the course of action God would approve of, and do it. But if we do not listen for the voice of our conscience, its advice is drowned out by conflicting desires, our “hearts” (minds) make less virtuous decisions, and we reflexively invent devious rationalizations for them.

“Who can understand it?” indicates that people cannot fully understand even their own minds, nor the minds of their fellow human beings. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology and understand everything inside, heart and kidneys.

Jeremiah: Examine me and my enemies

Biblical characters who believe they are virtuous, and their enemies are not, welcome God’s investigation of human minds. In two other poetic passages in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet urges God to examine and punish his enemies. Before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah reports that God told him idolaters from his hometown, Anatot, were scheming to kill him in order to stop his prophesies.

            Then God let me know, and I knew.

                        That was when you let me see their deeds.

            And I was like a docile lamb who was brought to slaughter,

                        And I did not know that they had plotted plots against me …

            So God of Hosts, righteous judge,

                        Who examines kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 11:18-20)

In a passage after this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah is released from prison in Jerusalem but cannot stop speaking God’s prophecies, even though the city is full of informers. He uses similar language about these Jerusalemites:

            So God of Hosts, righteous examiner,

                        Who sees kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 20:12) 

Psalm 139: Improve my thoughts

Psalm 139 begins:

            God, you investigate me and you know me.

                        You know when I sit down or get up.

                        You see my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2)

The psalmist marvels at everything God knows about a person, concluding:

            Knowledge is too extraordinary for me;

                        It is too high; I am not capable of it. (Psalm 139:6)

The next verse is:

            Where could I go from your spirit?

                        And where could I disappear from your presence? (Psalm 139: 7)      

The 19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch elaborated on these two questions, filling in the context: “Where could I go to escape Your ‘spirit’ so that it might not move me, stir me, fill my heart and summon my conscience before Your judgment seat? And whither could I flee from Your ‘countenance’ where You would not see me, where Your rule would not touch me?”2

In other words, God is not an abstract omniscient deity to the psalmist; they feel God’s spirit move through their mind, move their own spirit, and summon their own conscience—which then reminds the mind of God’s judgment.

The next five verses expand on how there is no place to hide from God. The psalmist then explains:

            Because you yourself produced my kidneys (conscience);

                        You wove me together in my mother’s belly.  (Psalm 139:13)

After realizing the intimate relationship between the inner conscience and the judgement of God, the psalmist concludes by asking for God’s evaluation:

            Search me, God, and know my heart (mind);

                        Examine me and know my thoughts,

            And see if a distressing road (line of conduct) is in me;

                        Then lead me on an everlasting road (line of conduct)! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The conscience has won.

The human mind is devious, Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah. When we become accustomed to avoiding the advice of our conscience, our excuses and self-deception become pathological. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology, see through the deception, and deal justice to evildoers.

The writer of Psalm 139 finds God’s attention to the human mind uncomfortably invasive at first, but then welcomes God’s correction through one’s innate conscience. It is better to give up transitory secret pleasures, the psalmist concludes, in order to lead a life dedicated to doing the right things.

Some people succumb to immoral impulses frequently, and deceive themselves as well as others about their motivations. As Jeremiah says, the human mind is naturally devious. But as Psalm 139 says, humans are born with a conscience.3 It is up to us to decide how much to listen to it, and how much to reject it and rationalize our decisions.

  1. Midrash Tehillim (a collection of commentary on the Psalms completed by the 11th century C.E.), Psalm 14:1 on Jeremiah 17:10.
  2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014 (original German edition 1882), p. 1107.
  3. Except, perhaps, for the small percentage of humans who are sociopathic or psychopathic. It is still a matter of debate whether someone with a weak or nonexistent conscience is born that way, or becomes that way through certain kinds of early childhood trauma.

2 thoughts on “Jeremiah & Psalm 139: Mind Versus Conscience

  1. Thanks for this. I was just printing it out to read later during Shabbat, but am glad to notice that you address Psalm 139. Those first few lines are incredibly calming and centering to me. “Adonai, You have searched me and know me…. You discern my thoughts…” I can imagine someone being upset by being know. But for me it shows that there is neither need nor profit in hiding, as I am already known. So I can be open and accepting, facilitating my task to know myself as well as does Adonai. (Having written these words here, I am planning to add them as a prelude to my review of my life each week.) Looking forward to reading your whole post!

  2. Even nicer in the context of your whole commentary – thanks. A good explanation of the heart, kidneys (and what we attribute to the brain in modern culture.)

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