<p>Jeremiah 17:9 Translations and Interpretations: The Septuagint translation deviates widely from the original Hebrew.</p>

Written by Paul J Bucknell on February, 20, 2023

Jeremiah 17:9 Translations and Interpretations: The Septuagint translation deviates widely from the original Hebrew.

The Septuagint translation of Jeremiah 17:9 deviates widely from the original Hebrew.

“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB)

Translations, like this one on Jeremiah 17:9, can be intriguing. Many of us have memorized this verse, picturing the remarkably sinful condition of our natural hearts.

But the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) translators took a completely different view on this verse—far different from the original Hebrew or standard English translations—or even of the Latin Vulgate (popular in its day). Why is there such a great variance in translations?

In particular, I’m referring to Tim’s Answer who uncovered this translation issue. He kindly discharges any ulterior motivation by explaining that he is not avoiding the teaching that all men are sinful but trying to be honest with this hidden translation.

Our dilemma is why Tim prefers the Septuagint translation, over the English. He says, “We do not often take issue with our modern translations. Jeremiah 17:9 seems to us to be an anomaly.” Again, he is not against English translations per se but has a problem with the translation of this verse. His challenge is summarized in his words: 

“It is hard to understand why our translations are so radically different from the translations available to the early church and our own reading of the underlying Hebrew text.” 

We agree. Why does the Septuagint differ so much from the original Hebrew of Jeremiah 17:9? The Hebrew is reliable, so why did the Septuagint translators veer away from the original meaning? To lessen your confusion, our study will lead us to a different conclusion from Tim’s, preferring the Hebrew and English translations.

Tim did much work for us by showing who and when people used what we now see as our common translations of Jeremiah 17:9. So let’s start where he does and then take a few steps further.

The Problem with Jeremiah 17:9

The various English versions are translated similarly: they all picture the natural heart as evil.

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

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (KJV)

The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (NASB)

The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it? (Vulgate translation).

All seems consistent until we read how the Septuagint translates it. (From Hebrew into Greek) 

The heart is deep beyond all things, and it is the man, and who can know him? (Septuagint, Jer 17:9)

9 βαθεῖα ἡ καρδία παρά πάντα, καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστι· καὶ τίς γνώσεται αὐτόν; (Jer 17:9) (LXX in Greek)

Early church fathers

Tim thought it good to quote from an early church father, Irenaeus and others to support that this is how they viewed Jeremiah 17:9. He infers that their viewpoint is more accurate, perhaps because they lived closer to Jesus’ time. I double-checked him on this one usage, and it proved that Irenaeus indeed did use the Septuagint. In fact, Irenaeus used Jeremiah 17:9 positively to point to the glory of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

“He is also a man, and who shall know him?” Jeremiah 17:9. Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 18, Section 3) by Irenaeus.

It’s at this point, Tim draws a faulty conclusion.

“Their understanding of this verse is also consistent with the way the verse was translated into Aramaic in the second century A.D., where the word “achov” is translated with a word meaning “strong,” an idea similar to “deep” and equally fitting for the Messiah.” 

In other words, he assumed the early church fathers referred to the Hebrew (Aramaic) words and knew their meanings. We will do our Hebrew word study and examine this assumption.

The Vulgate

Before moving on, however, it’s interesting to note that Tim’s research reveals how Jerome’s widely influential Latin translation (Vulgate) catapulted the present interpretation into acceptance, where both Hebrew words are interpreted negatively (the latter one, much later). 

“The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” (Vulgate translation). 

While many early translations did heavily rely on the Vulgate   (after 400s), after the Reformation in the 1500s they started using the original Hebrew manuscripts. Jerome initially used the Septuagint for his translation but later decided to translate from the original Hebrew. Use of the original Hebrew led to these ‘negative’ translations, now seen in the English.

Let’s look closely at the two key words in the Hebrew. We read the Hebrew from right to left.

Theological Wordbook for the Old Testament (TWOT) studies on Jeremiah 17:9 words.

Two Hebrew words in Jeremiah 17:9

17:9 עקב הלב מכל ואנש הוא מי ידענו

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (NASB)

Tim says, 

“When we look at the Hebrew words used in this passage, we find the operative words “achov” and “anush.” We seek to understand what those words meant to Jeremiah and his hearers and readers. That is the intent.” —Tim

I highlighted the two verbs in this seven-word Hebrew verse from Jeremiah 17:9. Like the English, it is separated into two phrases. The two verbs (achov and anush) are connected by the conjunction “and” (vav). The second phrase is a question.

* Please note that I carefully explain my reasoning to help you set up a proper approach to translation and interpretation. With the internet, people can now explore the original meanings—even without knowing the original languages.

1. jacob עקב (achov) - deceitful

The sentence starts with the first verb Jacob (achov). Yes, this is the exact word from which “crooked” Jacob (Gen 25:26) received his first name, later to be replaced by the name God graciously gave him, Israel (Gen 32:28).

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) 1676c (below) has the correct definition here, “deceitful.” The root word, achov, influences the meaning of the derived words, including 1676c (our word). It can get technical, but most importantly, this word can be quite negative.

The Net Bible’s word study on Jeremiah 17:9 reveals: 

Net Bible19 sn The background for this verse is Deut 29:18-19 (29:17-18 HT) and Deut 30:17.
tn Or “incurably deceitful”; Heb “It is incurable.” For the word “deceitful” compare the usage of the verb in Gen 27:36 and a related noun in 2 Kgs 10:19.

By looking at the Hebrew (TWOT), we immediately wonder where the Septuagint translators got their translation. Although Irenaeus and other early church fathers used the Greek translation, it is unfaithful to the Hebrew, not allowing the meaning of the Hebrew words to influence the translation. Deceit differs greatly from ‘deep’ or profound.

2. Anash ואנש - incurable

Anash is more neutral, meaning incurable or unable to be healed, to be desperately sick. Again, the TWOT produces  some very negative uses, a few of which we will examine. Hebrew often uses very down-to-earth meanings and applies them metaphorically, as in this verse.

In a metaphorical sense, it applies to a person’s spiritual state—being beyond remedy; judgment has come. As the TWOT summarizes, it means desperately sick and incurable, but it can be applied to moral life to describe “the desperate spiritual state of the heart in terms of illness.” Below are two cross references with the same Hebrew word, anash.

“But the harvest will be a heap in a day of sickliness and incurable pain” (Isaiah 17:11).

“But I have not pestered you to bring disaster. I have not desired the time of irreparable devastation. You know that” (Jer 17:16).

The NET Bible footnote translates it the same.

“For the adjective “incurable” compare the usage in Jer 15:18. It is most commonly used with reference to wounds or of pain. In Jer 17:16 it is used metaphorically for a “woeful day” (i.e., day of irreparable devastation).” (NET Bible footnote).

The word has no positive sense; no one likes to hear that sickness has no cure. We seek remedies and solutions.

The Context of Jeremiah 17:1-11

Jeremiah contrasts the righteous man (Jer 17:7-8) and the natural man (Jer 17:9-11). The broader picture, starting in verse 1 and ending in verse 11, views Israel’s sins and woeful condition. Jeremiah only interjects a hope for the godly in verses 7-8. 

We are not given answers to where the godly come from, but God hopes for them. They will be different from the evil ones.

He starts describing the “sin of Judah” in verse 1 and ends in verse 11 by speaking of him “It will be clear he was a fool” (Jer 17:11). 

It’s in this context that Jeremiah writes of the natural heart. He not only says that the totality of the heart is deceitful and corrupt but extends this concept by the last phrase: to be impossible to deal with, more than anything else. 

Back to our hearts — Jeremiah 17:9, a conclusion

Our hearts are innately deceitful and incurable. We can’t begin to understand its grasp on us. 

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

We do not base our complete understanding of man’s deceitful heart on this verse. Still, it remarkably clarifies what we find elsewhere about fallen mankind’s sinful nature by describing its deceitful and incurable nature. Jeremiah 17:9 helps prepare our hearts for a Savior outside of ourselves who will bestow mercy and forgives our sins. 

We would have no hope except for God’s great saving love and mercy in Jesus Christ. This is the same incredible love of God described in the coming New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-32. 

The Mosaic covenant, the Law, had no way of dealing with human heart, but the new covenant one does, resulting in complete heart changes, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer 31:33).

Exercising caution when the Septuagint significantly varies from the Hebrew from where it gets its understanding.

Study Questions on Jeremiah 17:9

  1. How does a modern English translation compare with the Septuagint for Jeremiah 17:9?
  2. Why is the original meaning of the two significant words of Jeremiah 17:9 so critical to an accurate translation?
  3. What does Jeremiah 17:9 mean, and why is it so commonly memorized?
  4. If people have a deceitful, incurably sick spiritual nature (heart), why do some seek after God?
  5. How does Jeremiah’s words in chapter 31:31-32 so important to us who have a sin, sick heart?
  6. Did the Israelites deserve hope?
  7. Where do Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the New Testament give hope to desperate sinners?
  8. Have you found extreme gratitude for God’s kindness expressed in Christ Jesus? Explain.

Other related articles by Paul J. Bucknell

The Translation of God's Name Yahweh / Jehovah | Biblical ...

The Vulgate, however, still used Dominus, the Latin word for master or Lord. The Vulgate dates back to the 300s, so we know that this usage of “ ...


The Origin of the Bible: The Challenge of the Bible

He managed for a while, however, by causing the church to insist on only using the Latin translation of the Bible (Vulgate). Again, only those highly ...


Is Acts 8:37 in the Bible? A Brief Study on Greek Manuscripts ...

The KJV largely followed the church tradition noted by the Latin translation (i.e., Vulgate). Conclusion. Despite the NKJV's insistence on ...


The Book of Life with Study Questions | Biblical Foundations for ...

The Latin Vulgate wrongly influenced Erasmus' Greek translation of Revelation 22:19. Study Questions on the Book of Life. What comes first to …


The New Covenant - The Purpose for Redemption | Redemption ...

Redemption Through the Scriptures, The Purpose of Redemption - The New Covenant is shown in Hebrews 8 to be incomparably better than the Old Testament (OT): ...


The Change of Covenants - The Purpose for Redemption ...

The term 'new covenant' isn't completely a Christian phrase as it was first used in Jeremiah 31:31. The Lord hints at the inadequacy of the Mosaic covenant ...


Luke 22:14-23 Celebrating the Passover & Establishing the Lord's ...

A close look is taken of what Passover means and how it relates to the New Covenant founded in the Lord's Supper. In short, Jesus is the Passover lamb by ...


Questions on John the Baptist—“The Law and the Prophets ...

Jesus the prophet initiated this new era or covenant as prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15(-20), “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet ...


The Mosaic Covenant - The Purpose for Redemption | Redemption ...

The Lord Your Healer. Discover Him and Find His Healing Touch ... The words of this covenant reveal God's purposed relationship.


There are currently no comments, be the first!

We noticed you're not logged in, please login before commenting, thank you!

Related Articles