Little Johnny was not happy. Before every recess, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, would ask for a volunteer to be the line leader to guide the cavalcade of students from their classroom to the playground. And before every recess, little Johnny would always wildly flail his arm in the air, begging to be chosen as the line leader. But on this day, like on so many others, Johnny was passed over. Instead, Mrs. Smith chose Suzy. And Johnny could not contain his incredulity. " But Suzy always gets to be the line leader!" Johnny protested.
Suzy does not always get to be the line leader, no matter what Johnny may say. Other students, including Johnny, get to be line leaders as well. Johnny, however, decided to employ some hyperbole to protest the inequity he perceived in the line leading system.
We all make hyperbolic statements from time to time. If our stomach is growling, we may say, "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse." Or, if rush hour traffic is especially slow one afternoon, we may announce to our family when we finally arrive at the front door, "It took forever to get home." Then, of course, there is this classic hyperbolic chiding of hyperbole: "I've told you a million times not to exaggerate!"
In our reading for today from Hebrews 3, the speaker warns his hearers about the dangers of falling away from faith in Christ. And to issue his warning, he quotes Psalm 95:
Today, if you hear God's voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, "Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways." (verses 7-10)
"Human hearts are always going astray," God says. Notably, the original Hebrew text of this Psalm does not include the word "always." Instead, it reads, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways" (Psalm 95:10). But the author of Hebrews does not quote the Hebrew text of this Psalm. Instead, he quotes a second century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint which does indeed include the word "always." But human hearts can't always be straying from God. Surely this is a bit of hyperbole.
Sadly, it's not. Rather, it's a tragically precise diagnosis of the human condition. For humans, as sinners, are not and cannot be completely devoted to God. This does not mean that a person cannot trust in God for salvation and walk with him closely. It simply means that a human's heart will always be tempted and tugged by the wily ways of Satan. Martin Luther explains aptly:
The human will is placed between [God and Satan] like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills... If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it. (AE 33:III)
The human heart is tempted and tugged by Satan - always. For Satan and God are always contending for human souls.
Thankfully, the "always" of our sinful hearts is not the only "always" of Scripture. There is another "always," which Paul so beautifully lays before us in 2 Corinthians 4:10: "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." We not only always carry around a sinful heart, we also always carry around the death of Christ, which is the salvation of our souls. And the "always" of Christ's perfect death always conquers the "always" of our sinful hearts. And that's no hyperbole. Praise be to God.