A Word for Today – Leb, Lebab


Ktt (beat fine)

Leb, Lebab (Heart)

Labba (Flame)

Throughout history, the heart has always been regarded as an important part of the human body. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the heart was a three-chambered organ that was the centre of vitality in the body, being the seat of intelligence, motion and sensation. Similarly, the Bible regards the heart as much more than simply an anatomical or physical organism as, for example, in 2 Kings chapter 9 verse 24, but with emotions and mindset, and is regarded as the controlling centre of the whole person and their desires. In fact, the term is often used as a synonym for the mind, conscience or the inner person which represents human personality.1 This is why we as believers are encouraged to guard the heart, because everything we do flows out from it, Prov. 4. 23; cp. Matt. 12. 34.

The noun leb and the almost identical word lebab occur throughout the Old Testament, where they are mainly used metaphorically to describe the mind or the motivating attitudes of individuals. In the first mention of the word leb in Genesis chapter 6 verse 5, we read of man that ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’. This could be understood as meaning that every plan devised by the mind of man was essentially evil all the time, cp. 8. 21; 1 Chr. 28. 9. This is in sharp contrast to the heart of God described in the next verse where the writer indicates anthropomorphically the emotional suffering of God’s heart because of man’s sinful proclivity. As one translation puts it, God’s heart was ‘filled with pain’, Gen. 6. 6 NIV, or, literally, there was hurt in the heart of God.2 Luc states, ‘The juxtaposition of the “hearts”, points out that God’s decision is based on people’s inner life and is at the same time out of his concerned heart’. In the natural realm, human hearts can harden through a change in some of the genes in heart muscle proteins, but the hardening or stiffening of human hearts towards God is, in biblical terms, fundamentally an inherent weakness of human nature linked to mindset. Therefore, it is not outward appearance that is important to God, but the emotions of the heart, 1 Sam. 16. 7.

The classic example of this is Pharaoh and his attitude towards God’s people. Twelve times we are informed that Pharaoh either stiffened his heart or God stiffened his heart for him, and, on all these occasions, what is being emphasized is the obstinacy or stubbornness of the human heart. Effectively, it has a mindset all of its own! Even when it was pointed out by Pharaoh’s ungodly magicians that what was happening could be directly attributed to the ‘finger of God’, he still refused to change, Exod. 8. 19.3 So in the stiffening process by Pharaoh himself, Exod. 7. 13, 14, 22; 8. 15, God waited for a change of heart, but, ultimately, it did not come, so God then punished Pharaoh by depriving him of the freedom to change his mind and thus avoid punishment, cp. Deut. 2. 30. As Seiffrid states, ‘“Hardening” thus signifies the encounter of the rebellious human being with the word of God in judgment’.4 This is the main reason given for Paul’s conclusion to his argument in Romans chapter 9 verses 14 to 18. It is also interesting to note in passing that the Greek word used in Romans chapter 9 verse 18 for ‘hardening’ is sklérunó, which only occurs elsewhere in Acts chapter 19 verse 9 of the unbelieving Jews in Ephesus and repeatedly in the letter to the Hebrews in the context of those who harden their hearts and turn away from Christ, 3. 8, 13, 15; 4. 7. Internal human communication is often referred to as being in the heart, as in the case of Hannah, 1 Sam. 1. 13, who prayed to God to intervene in her personal circumstances or, as she expresses it to Eli, she had ‘poured out … [her] soul before the Lord’, v. 15. Many years later, Mary pondered ‘in her heart’ all the blessings that she had received because of the birth of the Saviour, Luke 2. 19.

In the books of Psalms and Proverbs, the writers have much to say about the heart and how it defines human motivation. Psalm 14 defines the fool and the nature of his inherent folly. Humanly speaking, his folly is not simply a lack of intelligence, but rather the lack of direction and guidance in his life by God. The Hebrew word for ‘fool’ ‘implies an aggressive perversity, epitomized in the Nabal of 1 Samuel 25. 25’.5 Kidner states that, ‘The assertion, There is no God, is in fact treated in Scripture not as a sincere if misguided conviction, but as an irresponsible gesture of defiance. In the context of Psalm 10. 4 it is expounded as a gamble against moral sanctions; in Job chapter 21 verses 7-15 as impatience of authority; in Romans chapter 1 verse 18 as intellectual and moral suicide’.6 As Jeremiah makes clear, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ Jer. 17. 9.

Proverbs chapter 3 verse 3 encourages us to permanently etch on the tablets of our minds (hearts) mercy and truth, cp. Deut. 6. 8, 9; Jer. 31. 33, which would stand us in good stead with both God and men. The prophets are equally consistent in emphasizing the control that the human heart has upon our lives, e.g., hardening the heart, Isa. 6. 10, perversity of the heart, Ezek. 28. 6, and so on. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that will one day come into existence between God and His people that will be internalized rather than based upon an external code of practice, and this will be placed upon the hearts and minds of His people thus reconciling them to Himself, Jer. 31. 32, 33, cp. Heb. 8. 10-13.

The Septuagint (LXX) usually translates the Hebrew words leb/lebab by the dynamic Greek equivalent word kárza. There are numerous examples of the use of this Greek word, as in Job chapter 37 verse 1, where it is used to explain moral life, in Psalm 104 verse 15 to refer to the centre of the whole inner life of an individual into which God looks, and in Proverbs chapter 3 verse 1 of the will and its decisions.

In the New Testament kárza occurs a considerable number of times. The word has both a positive and negative application depending on its immediate context. Positively, rejoicing in God is expressed in or through the heart, Acts 2. 26, but, negatively, the sin of lust is developed in the heart, Matt. 5. 28. Basically, it covers the same ground overall as leb/lebab does in the Old Testament.

Before the body of the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who died in Africa in 1873, was transported back to the United Kingdom for interment in Westminster Abbey, his heart was removed and buried under a tree near the spot where he died. His priority in life had been to take the gospel to Africa; it was where his heart was located. Our Lord once said, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, Matt. 6. 21 NKJV, and this text is a salutary reminder to us all of where our priorities should be focused in life as believers, bearing in mind that the same Lord searches all our hearts, Rev. 2. 23.

Further reading/study


  • ‘Heart’ in Leland Ryken, James C. Wihoir, and Tremper Longman III (Ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pp. 368, 369.


  • leb/lebab in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Vol 2), pp. 749-754



Vincent states that the heart is not only the seat of the affections, but is the centre of our complex being – physical, moral, spiritual, and intellectual (Word Studies of the New Testament (Vol 1), pg. 219). Wenham goes even further when he suggests that the ‘"heart” is the centre of the human personality in biblical anthropology, where will and thought originate (Prov. 4. 23); It is not merely the source of the emotions as in English. But that sin has its root in man’s thought world is certainly a commonplace of biblical ethics (cf. “You shall not covet”, Exod. 20. 17)’, (Genesis WBC (Vol 1), pg. 146).


This is a poignant reminder to us that we too can experience similar feelings because we have been created in the image and likeness of God, Gen. 1. 26, 27.


In this immediate context, there are two different words used in Hebrew to refer to Pharaoh hardening his own heart and to that of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The former word expresses the idea that the hardening increased at every point where Pharaoh vacillated, whereas the latter word was used broadly of God strengthening Pharaoh’s heart against releasing Israel from captivity.


Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Romans at pg. 644.


Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Tyndale, pg. 79.


Op. cit., pg. 79.


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