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The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked;
who can know it?
Jer. 17:9 in NKJV

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick
 who can understand it?

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick;
who can understand it?

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked
 Who really knows how bad it is?

Jeremiah the prophet recorded the words of the Lord; thus, the above statement is not Jeremiah’s evaluation of man’s state, but is God’s revelation of the true condition of man’s heart,  that is, his mind. “Deceitful” and “desperately wicked” is God’s indictment of the heart; in addition, the mind is sick and beyond cure. And no individual is capable of comprehending the depth of corruption that is on the inside—who really knows how bad it is?

“Heart” is the mind, the thinking and willing person; it is a virtual synonym for the individual, the soul, the self. To speak of the heart of man is to speak of man, for the word is used in connection with soul in Jer. 4:19: “O my soul, my soul! I am pained in my very heart! My heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because you have heard, O my soul the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” It seems that “heart” and “soul” are used interchangeably; he is pained in his heart because of what the soul has heard. The thought could be reversed: he could be pained in his soul because of what his heart has heard. To speak of the one is to speak of the other. Also in the words of the wise man is seen the relationship of “heart” to the individual: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart determines the type of individual the individual will be; the individual is what the heart is—as is the heart so is the man (see: Out of the Heart).

“Deceitful” in Jeremiah 17:9 is “crooked” or “uneven”; it is like a road that leads in the wrong direction. The root of this word is the basis for the name of Jacob (Gen. 27:36), who was a trickster or deceitful in his conduct.

“Wicked” in the same verse is “sick” (see: Jer. 15:18; 30:12, 15; Isa 17:11; Mic. 1:9), sick with a sickness that is incurable by man.

So the indictment of man is that he is crooked and sick, deceitful and wicked, desperately wicked. This scathing indictment concludes with a question.

The question in the verse expects a negative answer. No one comprehends his true state; no one knows the depths of his own depravity; no one understands the deeds that he is capable of effecting. Inside of every individual is a cauldron of wickedness that cannot be known, and the cauldron is not something the person has but rather is something the person is. Every person is capable of any and every sin; no sin is too heinous to be beyond the realm of possibility for every individual. Every male is a potential Hitler and every female a Susan Smith (see: Darkened Image and Depravity).

Part of the tragedy is that the leopard cannot change its spots nor the Ethiopian the color of his skin (Jer. 13:23). If either can adjust their states, then the one who is accustomed to do evil could then do good. But as the leopard and the Ethiopian cannot change, so no man can find good in a pot that is evil. Each person is bound by his nature; he is a captive of what he is. And he can do nothing to alter the reality.

Providence withholds man from expressing the fullness of his depraved state; God may not convert every person but He does constrain each individual. It is by His constraint that evil is kept from yielding all of its terrible fruit; without God’s imposed limitation on the working of evil, the world would descend into greater and greater depths of sin. “God by his providence bridles perversity of nature, that it may not break forth into action; but he does not purge it within” (Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 3, 3). For the present God controls evil; He does not eliminate evil.

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