Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 7 min.
Did you know that the internal inscribing of God’s word, i.e., on the heart, is taught in the Old Testament?
Some may think that this is exclusively a benefit of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33). However, this Digging Deeper presents Old Testament examples in which God required His law to be inscribed internally on the heart, not just externally on stone. The Almighty has always wanted His people’s motivation for obedience to come from within. Our focus verse is: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 3:3 KJV throughout). God’s teachings are to be imprinted deeply into the innermost being so they never slip out of memory, as will be explained further in this study.
The phrase, “the table of thine heart” appears only twice in the King James Bible and both references are in the Book of Proverbs. The other one is: “Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 7:3 KJV). In both cases, the believer is instructed to bind something to their fingers or neck. In the case of Proverbs 3:3, it is mercy and truth and in Proverbs 7:3 it is the commandments. The Book of Proverbs is filled with moral instruction for righteous living. There are other Scriptures of a similar nature that speak of God’s instruction being written in the inner person as opposed to being inscribed on stone, such as Deuteronomy 11:18-20, Proverbs 6:20-24, Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3, Hebrews 10:16. It is vital for our understanding that Hebrew often employed figurative language for depicting ways to influence human behavior.
Tables and Hearts
The older English word table in our primary text denotes a tablet, such as a writing tablet. The Pulpit Commentary by H.D.M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell defines it: “The table (luakh) was the tablet expressly prepared for writing by being polished, corresponding to the πινακίδον, the writing table of Luke 1:63, which, however, was probably covered with wax. The inscription was made with the stylus. The same word is used of the tables of stone, on which the ten commandments were written with the finger of God, end allusion is in all probability here made to that fact (Exodus 31:18; 34:28)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides additional historical background for this word: “In the ancient world, writing was often done on tablets. While in Mesopotamia writing tablets were normally made of clay, in the OT the term probably refers to wooden boards covered with wax (though the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets; Ex 24:12). The metaphor of the heart as a tablet (not a tablet worn on a cord over the heart as some would have it) on which one writes the law, of course, points to an internalization of God’s commands in one’s life, so that not only one’s actions but also one’s motives are pure (see also Pr. 7:3; Jer. 31:33)” (Tecarta Bible App).
Joseph S. Exell’s The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary additionally explains: “The tables were intended to be not a book only, but a type. An impress should be taken on our own hearts, that we may always have the will of God hidden within us.—Arnot” (e-Sword 13.0.0). As printing machine type leaves an impression on a sheet of paper, so God’s word is to impress our minds. The Pulpit Commentary by H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell explains the word write: “…i.e. inscribe them. mercy and truth, deeply there, impress them thoroughly and indelibly upon thine heart, so that they may never be forgotten, and may form the mainspring of your actions. The expression implies that the heart is to be in entire union with their dictates” (Ibid.).
A physical interpretation
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers reveals how some misunderstood the command: “These directions resemble the figurative orders with regard to the keeping of the Law in Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8, the literal interpretation of which led to the use of prayer-fillets and phylacteries among the Jews. Certain texts of Scripture were copied out, enclosed in a leather case, and tied at the time of prayer on the left arm and forehead” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This practice appears in the Gospels relating to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Mat 23:5). The word phylacteries appears only here in our Bible.
The Biblical and Theological Dictionary by Richard Watson defines the word phylacteries as “…little scrolls of parchment, in which are written certain sentences of the law, enclosed in leather cases, and bound with thongs on the forehead and on the left arm…The command ought doubtless to be understood metaphorically, as a charge to remember it, to meditate upon it, to have it as it were continually before their eyes, and to conduct their lives by it; as when Solomon says, concerning the commandments of God in general, ‘Bind them about thy neck, write them upon the table of thy heart,” Proverbs III, 1, 3; VI, 21” (Bible Analyzer 184.108.40.206). The Bible’s figurative language was a colorful way for God to stress that His instruction was to be very much part of the worshiper’s psyche leading to observant behavior. Even some Israelites misunderstood this language genre.
The heart as the center
Proverbs 3:3 and Proverbs 7:3 state that instruction was to be written on the heart, i.e., the mind. The word heart was used multiple ways in Scripture, depending on the context. Definitions from three dictionaries will broaden our comprehension. Easton’s Bible Dictionary notes: “According to the Bible, the heart is the centre not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary declares further: “Both Old and New Testaments speak repeatedly of the heart as the centre of a person’s inner life. An examination of the hundreds of references to the heart in the Bible will show that the word is not limited in its meaning to one particular part of a person” (Ibid.). The Poor Man’s Dictionary by Robert Hawker adds another aspect: “The heart in all languages is considered as the leading principle of action and of character” (Ibid.).
The Holman KJV Study Bible clarifies what God intended: “To write something on the heart is to internalize it so that it directs one’s actions (Pro. 1:1-4; Pro. 6:20-24; Jer. 17:1; 31:31-34)” (Tecarta Bible App). Conversely, wrong attitudes can also be impressed on the heart, as the College Press Bible Study Textbook Series explains: “The heart is like a table or tablet on which can be written either good (2 Corinthians 3:3) or bad (Jeremiah 17:1)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Jeremiah 17:1 declares that Judah’s sin was inscribed on their hearts instead of God’s law.
The inscribing process
As has been stated, action displaying character flows from a correct spiritual mindset. The NIV Study Bible explains: “These instructions are metaphors for internalizing in the very center of one’s being the character traits mentioned (see Ex 13:9; Dt 6:8–9 and notes)” (Tecarta Bible App). Christians are building godly character. This is accomplished through meditation, reflection, and internalizing God’s standards throughout the day (Joshua 1:8).
Daily Bible study and prayer are part of this inscribing process. Bible memorization (Psalm 119:11) is another method for keeping God’s word in our hearts, as explained by Gary Everett’s Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures: “It is a full time job of diligent effort to walk according to the Scriptures so we must constantly keep Bible verses on our mind in order to walk in them” (e-Sword 13.0.0). What facilitates this is explained by the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “The Spirit alone can enable us to ‘write them on the table,’ i.e., the tablet, of the heart (Jeremiah 31:33)” (Ibid.). By employing God’s Spirit and rehearsing God’s Scriptures throughout the day, Christians will respond obediently to God’s instruction written on the tablets of their hearts.
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.