‘With all the Heart’ Deuteronomy 10:1-22 June 28, 1992
Any reader of the Old Testament soon learns that it was characteristic of Hebrew writing to be repetitive. This repetitiveness is a striking feature of the Old Testament. No doubt some of this had its origin in the fact that in those days few people had written copies of documents and had to learn their contents by hearing them read. Repetitiveness was a great help in such circumstances because one didn’t have to rely on but one hearing of a statement or a passage. English speakers are used to a far greater economy of words and can even find somewhat wearying and irritating the duplication and reiteration which is so common in the Old Testament. But, however different may be English style from Hebrew, God used Hebrew for the largest part of his Holy Scripture and I cannot doubt that he did so at least in part because the repetitiveness which was so characteristic of Hebrew style allowed him to emphasize and elaborate and accent the chief points he wished to make.
Those of you who have been paying attention to the text of Deuteronomy these past months as we have slowly made our way through the first ten chapters will have noticed that we have already encountered more than once virtually every one of the themes or thoughts in vv. 12-22. Though we stopped at the end of chapter 10, Moses’ exhortation to the people of Israel actually continues to the end of chapter 11. It is a summons to the people of God to respond to God’s love and faithfulness and salvation with loyalty, devotion, and love of their own and is very similar to several passages in Deuteronomy which we have already read.
One of the themes which Moses has picked up from earlier chapters to emphasize once again is that of the importance of the heart in a true and right relationship with God. He tells them in v. 12 that they must serve the Lord with all their heart and soul. In v. 16 he puts it differently: ‘circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.’ Moses seems very clearly to be saying that it is the heart that matters and that there will never be true loyalty to God and faithfulness to his covenant which does not come from the heart.
And this is a point made not only in Deuteronomy, but throughout the Bible. Christianity is uniquely among the religions of the world a matter of the heart. It condemns in no uncertain terms religious activity and performance which is not as much a matter of the heart and the commitment of the heart as it is of outward behavior. From the beginning to the end of the Bible we are reminded that the living God sees the heart, and inspects the heart, and judges according to what is in the heart. And, for that reason, first the genuineness and then the quality of any person’s faith and devotion to the Lord is measured in the Bible not by outward acts but by the condition of a person’s heart, chiefly by what the old writers used to call ‘the affections.’ Outward acts are not unimportant and are obviously required; but they are true devotion or mere hypocrisy according to whether the heart is in them. What Moses says here in Deuteronomy 10 about the engagement of the heart and the circumcision of the heart, Paul would later say in Romans 2: ‘A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew [that is, a real and genuine Jew in God’s sight] if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart…’
It is an easy thing to demonstrate the place which the heart, or the inner man, or the affections occupies in Christianity. Think for example of how often a true relationship and right relationship to God is represented as one or more states of the heart. The life of true faith is not, as in Islam for example, the doing of certain religious acts, but rather, in one’s heart, the fear of God, love for God, desire for God, joy in God, and gratitude to God. There are all emotions and states of the inner life and, in truth, can be fully known only to God, though surely there are many evidences of them to be observed in a person’s life.
‘The eye ofthe Lord is upon them that fear him …’
‘Be of good courage and He shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord…’
‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God;
‘Delight yourself in the Lord and he shall give you the desires of your hearts…’
‘Blessed are they who mourn…who are poor in spirit…’
‘The sacrifices ofGod are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise…’
‘A curse on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus’
In these and countless other texts the stress is laid on what is in the heart.
And beside all of this positive evidence that unless the heart be given to the Lord and unless the heart be engaged in all faith and obedience our religion is nothing, there is likewise the stress so often and so emphatically placed on the negative.
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’ said the Lord about a generation of Israelites and the Lord Jesus used that same statement to describe the church in his own day.
The outward things of Christianity: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church attendance, giving of offerings, obeying of commandments, will never carry the soul to heaven unless the heart is right. According to Mark 3:5, the Lord’s basic diagnosis of the spiritual condition of the people of God in his day was that they had hard hearts. They were very religious people, but their hearts were not soft and tender toward God or man. Even among many who, at least at first and outwardly seemed to follow the Lord Jesus, we read in John 2 that Jesus knew better because he knew that, no matter their outward fascination with him and with his miracles, their hearts were still far from him. They had, as Paul would later say, a form of religion, but they denied the power thereof. For the power lies in the heart and the sincerity of the heart and the passions of the heart.
So I say when the Scripture says that out of the heart flow the issues of life, or as a man thinks in his heart so he is, or that it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, it is only saying in a more comprehensive way what it has said countless times over: that true religion rests in the heart and is a matter of the heart, and that no one is a true lover of God or believer in Christ or servant of the Lord who is not so first and foremost in the secret places of his or her heart.
It is of supreme importance that we all take this emphasis on the heart to heart. Because, you see, human beings, unlike the animals, for example, can be one thing on the outside and another thing altogether in the heart. And our sinful natures tend to produce this two-sidedness in us. The heart is hidden and its life is largely a secret and we are often another person in our hearts than we appear to be on the outside. We can pay someone a compliment in the most sincere of voices while our hearts are full of ill-will or contempt. To impress someone at work we can act as if we have the greatest interest in something or someone when, in fact, we do not care at all. And in matters of the Christian faith, we are all able to pose as the most committed Christians while our hearts are far from the Lord and from a true and honest worship and service of him.
The Bible, as you know, was written in largest part not to the world but to the church. Most of its contents, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament are directly addressed to the church and the people of God. And, for that reason, one of its greatest themes, to which it devotes a substantial share of its pages is just this theme of the possibility and the temptation and the too frequent reality and the great danger of formalism in the Christian faith, of a faith which is not a matter of the heart. The unbeliever may be a hypocrite in many ways and no doubt is, but only the Christian can be an evangelical hypocrite.
The tragic story of the OT is of a people who were religious in an outward way but whose hearts were far from God. This was also the condition of the church during the ministry of Jesus himself. And, no sooner had the apostles begun establishing the church in Gentile communities than they had to begin warning Christians against the danger of a kind of false and unauthentic Christianity which was all outside and did not spring from the heart and was not offered to God from the heart and with the affections of the heart.
And ever since, this ‘heart-less’ Christianity has been the bane and the curse and the shame of the Christian church. Through the centuries there have always been many more Christians who have honored the Lord with their lips, whose hearts however were far from him. They professed the Christian faith, they attended Christian worship, they did some Christian acts, but they did not really fear or love or trust the Lord in their hearts. And the result was always a Christianity which was only a pale imitation of the genuine article which is, as the title of a long-ago book put it, nothing less than ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man.’
Now, what is the antidote to that? How can we keep from becoming such hypocrites? How can we be sure that our religion is one that pleases not man who looks only on the outside, but God who looks upon the heart? Moses tells us to circumcise our hearts. Now that is a striking metaphor, but what does it mean? How does one go about circumcising one’s heart? Many things can be said, but I want to mention just a few in the time remaining this morning.
First, to circumcise one’s heart is to plead with God to circumcise it. We are told here in v. 16 to circumcise our hearts. But, later in this same book of the Bible, in chapter 30, verse 6, we read that God will circumcise the hearts of his true people. That reminds us that in this work of making our hearts right before God and making them to feel to a proper depth the shame of sin and the fear and love of God and the joy of salvation we are utterly dependent upon the Lord. He calls on us to do something, but he must bless what we do, he alone can make it effective.
Just as at the beginning of the Christian life it was necessary that God give us a new heart — that he take out our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh as the Bible puts it — so it is the Holy Spirit who must work within our hearts if they are to be made soft and pure and holy before God. Whatever we are called upon to do, it is perfectly clear it will all be for nothing unless God blesses our work and changes our hearts through it.
And our own experience has proved this fact to us many times over. Let me give you just one example. We come into church for worship on a Sabbath morning. And those of us who are Christians at all know full well that we truly worship God only if our hearts are engaged and fully taking part and sincerely meaning what we sing and pray and say and do. If we sing a hymn, even enjoy singing it, but are merely singing a song and have no real thought for what we are saying and no feeling acknowledgement of the truth of what we are saying and no sense that we are actually saying the words to the Lord, does not the God who sees the heart not only receive no worship from that singing but sorrow to see us merely pretend to worship him. Here we are in this sanctuary alternatively quiet, or singing, or at prayer, or hearing the Word of God. But what does God hear and see who looks into the heart? Is it not often a din, a racket of noise which bears little resemblance to what we appear to be doing? Here a thought about the roast in the oven at home. Here some angry thought about someone else sitting nearby. Here some recollection of something said or done at work last week. Here some daydreaming about young love. Here some thought about what to do or whom to see as soon as the service is over. That is what is actually ascending to heaven as our worship! And knowing full well the wrong of that and the hypocrisy of that and try as we might, we have never once in our whole Christian lives given our hearts with undivided attention and true feeling to the worship of God through an entire service. NOT ONCE! There is the measure of the difficulty we face; there the evidence that this is a work that we can never do in our own strength. The Lord must work within us; he must circumcise our hearts.
That is why the godly are always found in Holy Scripture pleading with the Lord on behalf of their hearts. The first part of circumcising our hearts is to practice dependence upon the Lord for our hearts and for the sanctification of our hearts.
‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’
‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, 0 Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’
‘Test me, 0 Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind.’ ‘Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.’ ‘Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil…’
‘Give me an understanding heart…’
And many other prayers like these. And you and I must never cease praying that God would circumcise our hearts until we know him to be at work within us making our hearts his home.
A second part of circumcising the heart, making our inner lives for inspiration and sincerity and passion and purity and depth of feeling what they ought to be before God, is the seeking of solitude for meditation and soliloquy. I think that it cannot be denied that one of the reasons why today’s Christianity does not have the rugged strength and the pure beauty that it has often had in times past is because modern Christians know so little of spiritual solitude and the meditation of the heart and upon the heart which can take place only when we are alone. We live in an age that confuses busyness with meaningful activity and motion with progress. As a result we have neglected as a Christian people that work which can only be done in secret, alone before God, and which for that reason, with no outward or social support, requires complete concentration of will on our part.
We seldom read in Holy Scripture of God appearing to any of his prophets or saints in a crowd; but frequently when they were alone. He appeared to Jacob face to face when Jacob was spending the night by himself at Peniel. And the Lord himself was only speaking from his own experience when he taught us that we should go into our room and shut the door when we wish to meet with God. Humanly speaking, his heart was as sturdy and as pure and as passionate as it was during all his ministry because, at great cost to himself and his sleep, he went apart on the mountaintop and the olive grove to commune with God and with his own heart about his life and his work. He kept his heart and guarded his heart and circumcised his heart in those long lonely nights and his life, as a result, never once mis-stepped.
For none so lone on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,
Beyond the clamour of the crowd,
Moving where Jesus trod, In the lone walk with God.
You will never give your heart, or prayer for your heart, or address to your heart the attention it deserves if you do not find time to be alone and to ponder and pray about the hidden and secret and inner part of your life out of which comes everything else. We spend our time on the everything else and are the weaker for it. David did this work when he lay abed at night. He wrote in the 3rd Psalm: ‘When you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.’ And in the 77th Psalm: ‘In the night I commune with my own heart.’ And you and I must commune with our hearts as well.
We must examine them and consider what they are like, whether holy desires are strong enough and evil desires are weakening; whether the thoughts of our hearts are such as to keep us living for God and praising him every day. And we must instruct our hearts and remind our inner selves of what we know to be true about God and Christ and the judgment day and heaven and hell and keep those facts front and center in our hearts day by day. And we must bring to mind all that has the power to awaken and enlarge our desires and affections: our love for Christ, and for his church, and for the lost around us, and for holiness and purity of life, and for a life of sacrifice for Christ’s sake. A real Christian life of genuine beauty and power comes from the heart, but only from a heart which is cultivated and whose thoughts and desires are kept fresh and strong.
You’ve got to pay attention to your heart, consider it, instruct it, correct it, remind it, inspire it. The Holy Spirit will help you, but not if you ignore your heart altogether for months on end.
‘Your complaint of the hardness of your heart touched a sore in myself, which I was rather desirous to have left alone. I was desirous of maintaining a quiet, gentle conviction of sin, which could comport with a distant regard to Christ’s salvation; a faint hope, a calm, coldish admiration, a gentlemanly, scholar-like, theologian-like, prudent, very prudent gratitude; and as much obedience as would result from such a freezing, I hope not absolutely frozen, state of affection.’
Get apart; look within; commune with your heart and with the Lord. That solitary work and that secret conversation and prayer ought to be a part of every Christian’s life every day. For, as the author of Proverbs put it: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’
The Christian life every true believer seeks for himself or herself, the life of pure devotion and holy love and zeal is a life which flows from a guarded and cared for heart, and that is a work much of which must be done alone with no one to see it but God himself.
We don’t like to hear it, because we know what it means for us, but your Christian life, brother and sisters, will be very much what it is when you are alone and when you have the undistracted opportunity to commune with God and with your own heart. We must face the fact that for all that it has meant to some of us here today, the Bible might just as well have said nothing about communing with our hearts upon our beds or guarding our hearts above all things. Our practice of the Christian life has been all to the outside and little to the inside. But that is no way to circumcise a heart — by largely ignoring it. No, we must attend to our hearts, and apply ourselves to their cultivation every day. A difficult work in large part because it must be done alone, in secret, away from the television and radio and the conversation of others. One of the main reasons we really meet with God so infrequently is that the meeting place is our hearts and we are so seldom entirely there. Or as Augustine put it: ‘we do not come to God upon our feet but upon our affections.’
Down to Gehenna and up to the throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.
An active dependence upon the Lord for his gracious and powerful working in our hearts and faithfully seeking solitude for communion with our own hearts and with the Lord in our hearts, for meditation mixed with prayer. Those two things go a long way to explain what it is to circumcise the heart.
John Calvin is one of the heroes of the Presbyterian Church. Would that he were more of a hero to many of us and that we would emulate him in more things. Calvin’s emblem or seal was a flaming heart on an outstretched hand with the motto: ‘My heart I offer to you, 0 Lord, promptly and sincerely.’ Strive to give the Lord your heart — completely — and he will get everything else with it. And to those who give him their hearts, he promises to give himself. A very good exchange!