The meaning of “these words … shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In Deuteronomy 6:6, Moses commands the people of Israel with the following words, “And these words that I am commanding you today shall be on your heart.” When faced with figurative and symbolic language, such as עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ, the exegete has the responsibility to interpret it and provide a substantive, concrete explanation. This task becomes especially important when working in a culture foreign to the Biblical world, where a concept like “heart” or “words on one’s heart” may carry a significantly different connotation.

Of obvious importance for discerning this exegetical issue is the meaning of לֵב. לֵב has a profound semantic encompassment and is likely one of the deepest anthropological terms in Biblical Hebrew. HALOT provides the following glosses for לֵב: 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). The heart is related to one’s emotions (Prov 12:25; 14:10, 30; 15:15), plans (Prov 6:14, 18; 16:9), determines decisions and actions (Exod 14:5; 35:21; Num 32:9; 1 Kgs 12:27; 18:37), can be perverse, crooked, and foolish (Prov 12:23; 17:20) or wise, insightful, etc. (Prov 14:33; 15:14; 20:9; 15:28). In sum, לֵב may refer to one’s emotions, psyche, cognition, will, behavior, and/or spiritual condition. לֵב represents one’s innermost being, one’s fundamental disposition and source for all thought, emotion, will, and behavior. And significant for this specific exegetical issue, just prior to verse 6, in verse 5 Moses commands the people of Israel to love YHWH with all of their hearts (לֵב). In verse 5, לֵב along with נֶפֶשׁ and מְאֹד are most likely used to refer to one’s total being. Likewise, in verse 6, לֵב most likely refers to one’s entire innermost being. According to McConville, this phrase expands upon the idea of wholehearted obedience addressed in verse 5. Here Moses specifically emphasizes and reiterates the necessity of inner obedience as opposed to mere external obedience (McConville, 142). In similar thought, Craigie comments, “the people were to think on them [the commandments] and meditate about them, so that obedience would not be a matter of formal legalism, but a response based upon understanding.” In other words, for Craigie, the emphasis here in verse 6 moves beyond outward action and calls for an inward response of obedience. No sphere of life is to be left untouched or unaltered (Craigie, 170). Tigay presents an intriguing parallel between Deuteronomy 6:6 and a letter from a Phoenician vassal to his Egyptian suzerain. In this letter the vassal states, “On my innards and on my back I carry the word of the king, my lord.” In a similar way, as subject to their king, Israel was to idealize a constant awareness of her sovereign’s covenant instructions to her. Tigay also points out significant parallels with the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 3:1; 4:4; 6:21; and 7:3 the speaker encourages the hearer to internalize his commandments and instruction. Such internalization is understood as remembering (3:1) and obeying (4:4; 6:20; 7:3) (Tigay, 77-78). Parallels with Jeremiah 31 also prove insightful. Jeremiah 31:33 anticipates a new covenant in which God will put His law within His people, writing it on their hearts (לֵב). The clear idea is that, with the law internalized, God’s people will be enabled to obey it. In other words, Jeremiah anticipates the fulfillment of the obligation of Deuteronomy 6:6. But finally, if any link between v.6 and vv.7-9 exists (most assuredly), these immediately subsequent verses seem to identify the result of this internalization of God’s word—constant awareness of and meditation upon God’s words (e.g., making signs of God’s word on one’s forehead and hands, writing God’s word on doorposts and gates, incessantly telling upcoming generations, etc.).

In conclusion, Deuteronomy 6:6’s reference to the internalization of God’s commandments communicates the following dual truths. First, YHWH expects and demands absolute obedience from the whole person—inward as well as outward. And second, Israel is to be intentional about incorporating God’s word into her life on a constant basis. Israel is to possess an immediate awareness of God’s word.