The word "desire" covers a wide range of human wants, emotions, and cravings. It can describe natural desires, which include hunger for food, sexual longings, and desire for God. It can also describe unnatural desires or cravings, which include such things as greed and lust. On a few occasions desires are ascribed to God. Most of the time they are ascribed to man, and these desires come under the scrutiny of God.
The Old Testament. There are twenty-seven Hebrew words translated "desire" (this includes root words and their derivatives).
Kasap [@;s'K] means to yearn for or to long after. Hapes [ep'j] has a basic meaning of feeling great favor toward something, and is found seventy-one times in the Old Testament, being translated "delight" or "pleasure" the majority of the time, and "desire" nine times. Baqas [v;q'B] speaks of a person's earnest seeking of something or someone. It is usually translated "to seek, " "require, " or "desire."
The idea of "be attached to" and "love" comes from hasaq [q;v'j]. This root may denote the strong desire of a man toward a beautiful woman, as in Genesis 34:8. Hamad [d;m'j] is translated "delight in" and also "desire." The desire can be positive as in Exodus 34:24; job 20:20; Psalm 68:16; and Isaiah 53:2. It can also be negative, in the form of "covet" or "lust after, " as seen in Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21; 7:25; Joshua 7:21; Proverbs 6:25; 12:12; and Micah 2:2. Hamad [d;m'j] describes both God's "pleasant" (desirable) trees in Eden ( Gen 2:9 ) and the tree forbidden to Adam, which became sinful when "desired" to make one wise ( Gen 3:6 ).
One of the most frequently used words in the Old Testament to indicate desire is awa [h"w'a] and its derivatives, which can be found almost fifty times. Often the subject of this verb is nephes [v,p,n], meaning self, soul, or appetite. The term is translated as "desire, " "lust, " "will, " "pleasant, " "greed, " "dainty, " and "desirable."
One final word of importance is the root shwq [qWv] and its derivative tesuqa [h'qWv.T]. It is translated as "desire" or "longing." This term is found only three times in the Old Testament: Genesis 3:16, 4:7, and Song of Solomon 7:10. In Genesis 3:16 the term is negative in nature, occurring in a context of sin and judgment. In Genesis 4:7 sin itself is described as desiring to have Cain. God describes sin "like a crouching beast, " hungering and preying on Cain. In the Song of Solomon the term is positive in nature, in the context of joy and love, referring to the bridegroom's desire for his bride.
The New Testament. Matthew 9:13 (quoting Hosea 6:6 ) is the first instance of desire in the New Testament. The Greek term used is thelo [qevlw], which can be translated will, be willing, want, or desire. This term is found 208 times in the New Testament. Most of the time it is translated as "willing, " but it is translated as "desire" in the two Matthean passages, Luke 20:46, and Hebrews 10:5, 8.
The verb epithymeo [ejpiqumevw] and its derivatives are found scattered seventy-three times throughout the New Testament. Epithymeo [ejpiqumevw] is found sixteen times. Both it and the noun epithymia are derived from thymos, which means wrath, fierceness, indignation, and then passion, heat, or passionate desire. Epithymeo [ejpiqumevw] most often has an ambivalent sense, meaning simply desire, strive for, long to have/do/be something. Only in a few instances is the word used for (forbidden) desire. For example, 1 Corinthians 10:6 refers to godless desire.
The noun epithymia [ejpiqumiva] is used in a neutral or good sense in Luke 22:15; Philippians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:17; and Revelation 18:14. All other uses of the noun are in the bad sense, usually with the translation of the word being "lust."
Zeloute [zhlwthv"], derived from zeloo [zhlovw], designates a passionate commitment to a person or cause. Five passages in the New Testament use this term ( 1 Col 12:31 ; 1 Corinthians 14:1 1 Corinthians 14:39 ; Galatians 4:17 Galatians 4:7 ; James 4:2 ). Zeloo [zhlovw] is found multiple times in the New Testament and is used in reference to Jewish "holy zeal, " hostility occasioned by ill will, "jealousy, " and the desire to attain goals or to be devoted to someone.
One of the stronger negative Greek words translated desire is katastreniao [katastrhniavw]. It means to burn fiercely, to be covetous, to be sensually stimulated. Another word used in the negative sense is orexis, [o [rexi"] which indicates a lustful desire or longing.
Hedone [hJdonhv] is understood to mean desire, pleasure, or enjoyment. Originally hedone [hJdonhv] meant the feeling of desire perceived through the sense of taste. In the New Testament it represents desires that strive against the work of God and his Spirit. The word is found five times in the New Testament, and all five occurrences have a bad connotation. In Luke 8:14 it is the pleasures or desires of life that will choke out the Word. Titus 3:3 describes the lost sinner as being "enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures." James 4:1-3 says that fights and quarrels are the outward expressions of lusts or desires within the members, and the author warns against praying with wrong motives, intending to satisfy personal lusts or desires. Finally, 2 Peter 2:13 says that false teachers consider it desirous to riot or carouse in the daytime.
Conclusion. In the Old Testament human desires were viewed as something natural to humankind. But desire was to be subject in obedience to the will of Yahweh. The one who knew the true fulfillment of his or her desires relied on the Lord. Thus, the final object of desire was the Lord himself ( Prov 3:5-6 ).
Desire is treated in a similar manner in the New Testament. Human desire is viewed as being evil, lustful, covetous, and ungoverned, or as commensurate with the new life in Christ. Paul points out that the Christian is "to eagerly desire the greater gifts" ( 1 Cor 12:31 ). He described how he "longed" to see his Thessalonian brothers in 2 Thessalonians 2:17. Christ "eagerly desired to eat the Passover" with his disciples ( Luke 22:15 ). We see that Paul's greatest desire in Philippians 1:23 is the desire to "depart and be with Christ."
How do we know if a desire is good or bad? The answer lies in the object or reason for the desire. If the desire is self-centered then it is bad, because the essence of sin is the determination to have one's own way. It is an act of idolatry in that one has put self in the place of God. Good desire is simply the opposite. It is putting the desire for God's will first. When the Lord is our greatest desire, all other desires find their proper expression.
Daniel L. Akin
See also Lust
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Desire'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".