The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Hebrew Exegesis course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
The phrase חֲסַר־לֵב occurs twice in Proverbs 9; and therefore, a proper understanding of this collocation will aid in the exegesis of this text. Although a consensus exists among scholars concerning the general meaning of חֲסַר־לֵב, the phrase itself, literally ‘lack of heart,’ carries a level of ambiguity for the uninformed interpreter, an ambiguity that requests an investigation of the phrase.
חָסֵר is a substantive adjective that means lack or need (BDB, 341), or as a substantive, one in want (HALOT, 338).חֲסַר־לֵב are in construct and express and objective genitive relationship, i.e., one who lacks heart, based on the implicit verbal idea in חָסֵר (חֹ֫סֶר, to lack).
A correct understanding of חֲסַר־לֵב largely depends on the meaning of לֵב. לֵב is one of the most semantically expansive and profound anthropological terms in Biblical Hebrew. The following sampling of glosses from HALOT demonstrates this: heart, seat of vital force, one’s inner self, inclination, disposition, determination, courage, will intention, attention, consideration, reason, mind in general and as a whole, conscience, etc. (513-515). As is evident from this brief survey, no equivalent to this word exists in English. The heart is related to one’s emotions (Prov 12:25; 14:10, 30; 15:15). It plans (Prov 6:14, 18; 16:9) and determines one’s decisions and actions (Exod 14:5; 35:21; Num 32:9; 1 Kgs 12:27; 18:37). It can be described as perverse, crooked, and foolish (Prov 12:23; 17:20). But on the other hand, and most importantly for this study, the heart can be characterized as wise, pursuing wisdom, having insight, etc. (Prov 14:33; 15:14; 20:9; 15:28). The list of uses goes on. In sum, לֵב may refer to one’s emotions, psyche, cognition, will, behavior, and spiritual condition. Longman describes לֵב as “one’s whole inner self” or “core personality” (131). Waltke refers to it as “the center of all of a person’s emotional-intellectual-religious-moral activity. . . .” (91-92). In sum, לֵב represents one’s innermost being, their fundamental disposition, and source for all thought, emotion, will, and behavior.
Concerning the phrase חֲסַר־לֵב, one must ask what specific aspect of לֵב is considered to be lacking. An investigation of the immediate contexts in which חֲסַר־לֵב occurs, as well as its parallel phrases in these contexts, indicates that חֲסַר־לֵב refers to individuals who find joy in folly (Prov 15:21), make foolish sinful choices (6:32; 7:6-9), do not maintain upkeep of their vineyards (24:30), and follow worthless pursuits (12:11). חֲסַר־לֵב is contrasted with the characteristic of understanding (10:13; 11:12); and this sort of person is paralleled with one who is “simple” (i.e., lacking wisdom, gullible) (7:7; 9:4, 16). Hence the following translations have been suggested: “anyone lacking wisdom” (Clifford, 101-102), “him that is void of understanding” (ASV; cf. KJV) or “lacks understanding” (NASB; cf. NET), “him who lacks sense” (ESV; cf. RSV, HCSB, NIV), “those who lack good judgment” (NLT), a “mindless, empty-headed person” (Fox, 39), and “brainless” individuals (Waltke, 437). As Fox notes, in this phrase, לֵב “refers to faculties we would consider specifically cognitive, namely, the ability (or willingness) to make a prudent, sensible decision” (39). לֵב probably carries the same notion as it does in the following Egyptian proverb: “It is the heart [לֵב] that allows a man to become a hearer or one who does not hear….” (quoted in Waltke, 92). In sum, חֲסַר־לֵב is a way of describing one who is foolish, but from a negating perspective, i.e., one who lacks wisdom, insight, judgment, understanding, and the capacity to make good decisions.