Deuteronomy 6:5 You shall ahavah the Lord your God with all your lev and with all your nephesh and with all of your me’od (NASB)
The greatest commandment in all of the Bible (Mt. 22:36-37 & Mk 12:28-30) is the most difficult of all to sustain. The foremost is the furthest from our hearts; for it requires everything of us. The resistance to truly fulfill this command is pernicious and an unfortunate part of the human condition.
The Hebrew words used in this verse have been transliterated to draw specific attention to them. For those who tend to be word-nerds, this particular devotional may be your metaphorical bread-n-butter. We are commanded to love the Lord God, with all of our heart, soul, and strength. These words encapsulate the totality of what any human being can offer. “Ahavah” refers to several different types of love, including erotic love (as found in the Song of Songs), fatherly love (e.g. Abraham’s love for Isaac), brotherly love (e.g. Jonathan’s love for David), a people’s love for its leaders (e.g. Israel’s love for King David), inter alia. As a word, it is a totality, and a full encapsulation of all types of love.
The “heart” in Hebrew (lev) referred not only to one’s emotional state and feelings, but also to one’s mind, intellect, and agency (i.e. will and choice). As far as we know, ancient Hebrew had no word for “brain.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for heart is the seat for many things, both material and immaterial, physical and spiritual. It is a totality of meaning that unfortunately is lost within English. Certainly, lev referred to the physical muscle that operated within the chest of every human being, but it also was the well-spring of one’s complete interiority, which is why one would do well to safeguard it with all diligence (Pr. 4:23).
Furthermore, “soul” in Hebrew (nephesh) referred to one’s life. Nephesh signified the throat, via which everything vital for life passed—air, water, etc. When God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, he became a living nephesh. Thus, the Hebrew understanding of “soul” is one in which the soul cannot be divorced from the body. Within human beings, soul and body are a united whole. In Greek, the word is hylomorphic, meaning that body and soul are so intertwined, that once separated, the human being remains no longer a human being. Any living, breathing nephesh is also fragile since we know how soft and delicate the throat is. And just as quickly as air passes through it, so too our lives quickly pass through this world. As the Psalmist understood so well, our lives, even at their best, truly are a mere breath (Ps. 39:5c).
Finally, me’od, or “strength” in Hebrew does not solely pertain to physical strength, but operates as an accentuating word, much like our English word “very” or “muchness.” Me’od can refer to many things (Christ Himself gave the word two meanings in Mk. 12:28-30, calling it mind and strength). Perhaps a better understanding for us today would be energy. We are to ahavah YHWH Elohim with all of our energy! With every last ounce and bit that we possess—it all should be directed toward ahavah-ing Jehovah.
With these in mind, the Christian begins to understand the arduous nature in fulfilling this command, for we are commanded (not asked!) to love God. More remarkable still, despite that we can only offer our fleeting, fickle, feeble, fragile, and foolish lives, God nonetheless desires us to love Him. He has bestowed us the honorific privilege of entering into a relationship with Him—a relationship in which His yoke is easy, and His burden is light (Mt. 11:30). If only that we would but sustain our love of Him with everything that we possess in and of ourselves. Sadly, we flounder and fail in this endeavor. Thankfully, Christian, He also provides us the sustaining energy and ability to do so. Truly, truly, therefore, we love Him only because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19) with everything He possessed.