Proverbs 4:20-27

Our first two sermons on Proverbs were devoted to the book as a whole, to the nature of that biblical wisdom that Proverbs teaches, to the various kinds of proverbs, and so on.
As I said last time, we are going to take the teaching of Proverbs not chapter by chapter but subject by subject. And I want to begin with a fundamental perspective of the book, namely the place of the heart in godly living.

Proverbs 4:20-27

The word “heart” occurred twice in our reading. The father exhorted his son first to “keep [his words] within [his] heart” and then to “keep [his] heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.” Earlier translations of the Bible read “out of it flow the issues of life.” Same idea. We pointed out last time that some proverbs deal in generalities: they express what is ordinarily the case. Others however express universal truth: what is always and everywhere the case. The statements in Proverbs about the importance of the heart to human life belong to the latter category.

“Heart” is a very important word in the Bible and in Proverbs. The word occurs scores of times in Proverbs. Dr. Waltke says of this term that it is “the most important anthropological term in the Old Testament but the English language has no equivalent.” [Proverbs, i, 90] For most English users, “heart” when used in this way is primarily a way of speaking of one’s emotions. We speak of pain in the heart or of a happy heart. But in its biblical usage the heart is the entirety of a person’s inner self: the seat of thinking (the cognitive element), feeling (the affective element), and choosing (the volitional element); that is, the heart is the mind, the emotions, and the will. In the Bible when a person lacks insight or judgment, he is said to lack heart. The heart, in other words, thinks. But the heart also plans, makes decisions, and renders judgment. The heart also feels. In the Bible and in Proverbs anxiety, bitterness, peace, good cheer, the attraction of a beautiful woman, envy, love, hatred and so on are all motions or states of the heart. In other words, the heart is the center of “all of a person’s emotional-intellectual-religious-moral activity.” [Waltke, i, 92] Nowadays we might define the heart as a person’s "core personality.” [Longman, 131] But perhaps it is easiest to conceive of the meaning of the biblical term by defining it as the “inner self.”

We all know very well that we have an inner self. There is a world unto itself inside of us. We have thought and feelings that no one else knows except God. We are, we know very well, often one thing inside and a very different thing outside. The heart is our life inside! And in Proverbs it is the inside that is not only the defining part of us, but the part that determines the shape, character, and condition of our lives.

So, for example, when we read in 3:1

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments”

the heart is understood to be the person from the inside out: both the motivations and the will together. If the heart doesn’t keep the commandments of God, the hand won’t either!  It is the comprehensiveness of the heart as the seat of thought, will, and emotion that gives the heart its central place in the Bible’s teaching about our life and living. In Bunyan’s second great allegory, The Holy War, the Christian is represented as a city, the city of Mansoul. Well Mansoul is the heart in the Bible, the citadel of your life, the true you.

Think of other statements such as these, all of which, whether speaking of the heart in respect to one of its functions or aspects or all of them together make the heart the fundamental determiner of life:

  1. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” [Prov. 3:5]
  2. “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” [Prov. 15:13]
  3. “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” [Prov. 20:9]
  4. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” [Prov. 21:1]
  5. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. [Prov. 21:2]
  6. “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.” [Prov. 27:19]
  7. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Sam. 16:7]
  8. “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” [Jer. 29:13]
  9. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Matt. 6:21]
  10. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” [Luke 6:45]
  11. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” a typical Hebrew way of saying that we must love God with all that we are, from the inside out. [Matt. 22:37]


No wonder then that the Scripture teaches us that the heart is the worst part of sinful man, the engine that drives his unbelief and disobedience and so it is the heart that God must change to save a sinner. No one is saved whose old heart is not taken out and replaced by a new one; at least that is the figure of speech the Bible employs to characterize the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. He takes out of us our heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh.

But it is also typical of Holy Scripture to pit the heart against the outward appearance as when Jesus exposed the unbelief and disobedience of his very religious countrymen by saying of them:

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” [Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:6]

No wonder Bishop J.C. Ryle would say of the heart that it is “the main thing in religion.” And that is what this ideal father is saying to his son in our text: “guard your heart for from it flow the springs of life.” The water comes from out of the ground, but it is what is deep down in the ground, what someone else can’t see, that determines what sort of water it will be; whether it will be clean and clear water, safe to drink, or dirty, foul, and dangerous. He means, as your heart, so your life; your life comes from your heart, so guard, protect, nourish, feed, and strengthen your heart in every godly way if you would live a godly life. On the other hand, if you neglect your heart, no matter the religious appearance of your outward life, God will not be pleased with you and you cannot not live a genuinely godly life. In Proverbs this is a first principle of wisdom. You cannot become a godly person, a wise person if you do not become so in your heart. You can’t order your life skillfully if the resources of that wisdom are not first in your heart.

As the Puritan Thomas Manton warned long ago: [Works, xi, 324]

“Though you pray with the Pharisee, pay thy vows with the harlot, kiss Christ with Judas, offer sacrifice with Cain, fast with Jezebel, sell thine inheritance for the public good, as Ananias and Sapphira, yet all is nothing without the heart. Judas was a disciple, yet Satan entered into his heart; Ananias joined himself to the people of God, but ‘Satan filled his heart to lie to the Holy Ghost’; Simon Magus was baptized, but ‘his heart was not right with God’; the great defect is in the heart.”

John Flavel, another Puritan – and this was a strength of Puritan spiritual writing – wrote a book that he entitled: A Saint Indeed: or, The Great Work of a Christian Opened and Pressed. That book was on the subject of keeping the heart, in fact later editions were entitled Keeping the Heart, and the book was, in effect, simply a lengthy exposition of Proverbs 4:23. Indeed the title page reads after the title: “From Proverbs 4:23.” Flavel was right: keeping the heart is our great work if we intend to be serious Christians. Do that and everything else will come apace, fail to do that, it’s not going to make much difference what else you do.

The Lord Jesus was always going down to the bottom of things in his teaching about life and the heart is what lies at the bottom. Only human beings have motives and the heart is the seat of our motives. And throughout the Bible the reason why we do things is as important or even more important than the doing itself. Remember the Lord in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” [Matt. 6:1]

It looks like the same act of righteousness, but it’s not coming out of a heart committed to the Lord and to true righteousness. When we are speaking of motivation we are speaking of the heart. When we speak of love and devotion, we are speaking of the heart. When we speak of commitment we are speaking of the heart. We all know this all too well, don’t we? We think things that we would be mortified for others to know. We spend time day-dreaming – all unknown to others – about all manner of foolish things that all too obviously demonstrate what our true motives and longings really are some or much of the time, and they aren’t godly motives or longings. We’d be ashamed to have our day-dreaming disclosed to others. We know it is not what Christians should think but we don’t act out our day-dreams and so no one knows, or so we think. It should be obvious to any one of us that our true selves, hidden away within, are often much, much less than they appear to be on the outside. Sometimes, to be sure, they are much, much more than they appear to be on the outside. This too is the truth of the heart. Sometimes we think and feel better than we demonstrate, like a man who is head over heels but can’t seem to find the right words to express his devotion to the woman he loves. Sometime our sins are committed against the run of our inner thoughts. But this is not nearly so common, is it, as inner thoughts that are worse than our outward appearance? Hateful thoughts, lustful thoughts, worldly thoughts.

For these reasons in Proverbs the truly wise life requires attention to the heart. Like all goodness wisdom too must come from the heart, find its motivation in the heart, its power of action, its endurance in the heart. It must be thought before it is lived; it must be felt before it is practiced; it must be chosen before it is done. And so the attention the father pays to urging his son to guard his heart. But don’t miss the obvious: this is something you must do because it is something you can do.

Everywhere in Proverbs and the rest of the Bible wisdom, the skill of godly living, is available to be acquired. You can have it if only you really want it. That is everywhere the perspective in Proverbs which is why the father tells his son again and again to “get wisdom! As we read in 4:7:

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”

And in the NT James says a similar thing: “Whoever lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” [1:5] The emphasis on the availability of wisdom for all who want it is so pronounced in Proverbs that it shouldn’t be missed. We can summon up Proverbs’ perspective this way:

“What it takes is not brains or opportunity, but a decision. Do you want it? Come and get it.” [Kidner, 67]

If you are in Christ you have a new heart, so it is there to be cultivated and to be put to use. Is that not right? So the question is: will anyone really want it, want it enough to pray for it and to acquire it? But, once more, that is an issue of the heart. Is there motivation in our hearts, or, better, are we guarding our heart to be sure that it continues to want the right things? If the heart is the fountain of our lives, if all our springs come from it, will it be pure water that pours forth into our lives or dirty?

As we are speaking of wisdom, of the skill of godly living, then the point becomes this: since our lives come out of our hearts, the man or woman who wants wisdom will attend first to the heart, the source. No point in prettying up the channels through which the water runs, if the water is dirty to begin with. The entire course of church history proves that it is quite possible to live a respectable Christian life that is pretty much devoid of everything that in God’s view makes a life godly and a life he will choose to bless and use. So if you are going to live skillfully, you must pay maximum attention to that internal organ, the inner self, because that is what determines whether you will be wise or foolish. A godly life, a wise life must begin there or it will never begin at all. Obviously a double-minded heart, or a dull heart, or a distracted heart, or an ignorant heart, or a lazy heart, or a selfish heart is not going to produce a wise and godly life.

On the other hand, no matter the technique a godly man or woman uses to honor the Lord in his or her life, if the motivation is powerful inside, if the person longs to be godly, if the conscience is tender, if the awareness of spiritual issues is constant, then that person is going to live a godly life. That is why there are so many godly Christians whose views of how to practice godliness differ greatly from one another. One says do this, another says do that. Some will say that the godly life comes from the effort of working out your salvation, others will argue that the Christian lives not by effort but by the awareness that Christ is living in and through him or her. But because the heart is right, the different approaches produce real godliness in either case. The Puritans were deathly afraid of antinomianism and had very hard things to say against the leaders of the antinomian school, but they often acknowledged that the men whose views they were attacking happened to be very godly men. How can someone get his spiritual theology wrong and still live a godly life? Because his heart is in the right place and out of the heart flow the springs of life; that’s how!

So what does it mean to keep the heart? How is that done? Well it is done in three ways primarily. And to say this is simply to say that “keeping the heart” is simply one way of saying the same thing that the Bible always says in teaching us how to grow in grace and holiness. One keeps the heart by putting sins to death there and practicing faith there. One keeps the heart by putting on Christ there and setting one’s mind on things above there and thinking only of those things that are pure and lovely and so on. Keeping the heart is not something other than the practice of the Christian life as it is taught throughout the Bible. It is simply that practice with a special emphasis on the wellspring, the inner man, the origin of behavior rather than on the behavior itself.

First it is done by insisting on measuring the quality of your faith, your penitence, your humility, your love of God and your neighbor, your commitment to obedience and godliness, your fear of the Lord by how much of those things you have in your heart. This is the crucial first step! A man or woman who is keeping the heart will refuse to content himself or herself with the outward profession of Christian states of mind and heart and insist upon an honest reckoning with the actual condition of such states in his or her heart. The man or woman with a truly Christian heart will be the person who acknowledges and remembers that if he or she doesn’t win Christ’s victory there, if Christ is not followed there, if Christ is not loved and served there, then the victory has not been won and Christ has not been served or loved at all. You are not chaste if you are unchaste in your heart, not a lover of your neighbor if you don’t love him or her in your heart. If life comes from the inside out, the inside must be job one! If God looks on the heart, then it has to be there that we love and serve him best. If we want his blessing, we must give him nothing less than our heart, who and what we are inside: our thoughts, our feelings, and our choices.

One of Samuel Rutherford’s correspondents was a Scottish nobleman by the name of Alexander Gordon of Earlston. Alexander Gordon was a man for his times. He was a strong, sturdy Christian who provided able leadership for the covenanting party of the Scottish church in the 17th century as they resisted the effort of the British crown to enforce in Scotland a way of worship and a form of doctrine they believed to be contrary to the Word of God.

On one occasion, as a representative to the Scottish Parliament, Gordon made a very brave speech before the king’s representative on behalf of the rights of the church to practice her faith solely according to the rule of Holy Scripture. When he returned home, the fellow ministers and elders of his own presbytery had in mind to pass a resolution of thanks to him for his brave  stand. It was, to be sure, a stand that could indeed have given him all manner of problems with the government. But Gordon would have nothing of it. He said,

“Fathers and brothers, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and you do not know it. For I had a deep, malicious, revengeful motive in my heart behind all my fine and patriotic speeches in Parliament. I hated [the king’s agent] Montrose more than I loved the freedom of the Kirk. Spare me, therefore, the sentence of putting that act of shame on your books.” [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 92-93]

Now, we needn’t always be so public, but there was man who knew that what he was in his heart was what he really was, at least as God measured him. Remembering that and facing the fact of that and accepting that is the first way one keeps the heart.

The second way in which one keeps the heart is by protecting it from all influences that would diminish in it those states and motives and aspirations and habits of thought that are pleasing to God and productive of godliness in action. In Bunyan’s Mansoul there were five gates: the eye gate, the nose gate, the ear gate, the feel gate, and the taste gate. He was saying that the heart is influenced, shaped, formed by what the senses bring into it. We find that thought prominent in Proverbs. In the context here in 4:21-27 a man who keeps his heart, listens to the right kind of instruction, preserves the truth in his heart, puts all devious talk far from him, and so on. This is man who makes sure he’s concentrating on the right things and keeping his focus there and only there. That’s what somebody does who is keeping his heart. He is keeping out of his heart all the things that would damage it. In 5:8 the father warns his son to keep his foot far from the door of the wayward woman – stay away from her and from her influence – lest in later life you will have to say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof.” The wrong sort of influences will misshape the heart like a seal on wax and soon will harden and deaden the heart until nothing will spark holy zeal within it any longer. Remember how both Isaiah and the Lord Jesus spoke of hearts that have grown dull – hearts of religious people – to the extent that with their ears they can barely hear and their eyes are closed…” [Isa. 6:9-10; Matt. 13:14-15]

If you want a pure heart you can’t look at pornography or give your daydreams over to sexual images; if you want a soft heart that doesn’t think violently against other people – a very rare kind of human heart, such a heart of love toward others – you can’t give yourself to violence and the celebration of it in day dreams, in watching sports, even in a video game; if you want a loving heart you have to keep hateful thoughts out and condemn them as unworthy and unChristlike as soon as they appear. If you want a believing heart you cannot expose it constantly to an unbelieving mind and unbelieving influences without at the same time unmasking the errors of that mind, contradicting its opinions, and mocking the futility of it, at least in your heart.

The Lord Jesus spoke of a man acting out of the good stored up in his heart, but what will become of a man who either stores up evil in his heart or takes no trouble to be sure that what goes into his heart is right and pure and loving and peaceful and reverent?

If we are to act out of the good stored up in our hearts we must be careful to protect our hearts from being dulled and weakened and distracted by all of the sinful influences the world, our flesh, and the devil are constantly bringing to bear. Keep the heart right and the life that flows from it will please and honor the Lord in the nature of the case because our of the heart flow the springs of life. You know Amy Carmichael’s poem.

From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,
From all that dims thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.

That is the second way one keeps the heart. The heart is easily shaped by influences. We must keep out the influences that misshape or pollute or harden our hearts.

The third way in which we keep the heart is by feeding and exercising the heart. As some of you may know, though my wife is beautiful on the outside she is cruel and heartless on the inside, at least toward me. And through the years she has often accused me of being overweight. I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that she isn’t a very perceptive person either. But that is the burden I bear. But as I have had to grapple with her accusations I have come to learn that if I want my body to be fit I must eat less than I am inclined to do, must eat better food, the kind that doesn’t taste as good, and must exercise more than I find it easy to do. It is a fixed law of life in the physical realm. This is not rocket science; we all understand this. If we want fit bodies we must eat the right things in appropriate amounts and we must exercise hard enough and long enough and often enough to satisfy the requirements both of cardio-vascular health and of the burning of calories.

But the principle is not different in the spiritual realm. We have already said that we have to watch our heart’s intake and guard it from what is harmful and weakening, but we must also feed it well and exercise it. “Train yourself to be godly,” Paul tells Timothy. [1 Tim. 4:7] Indeed in that same place Paul even make the same comparison. “…bodily training is of some value, godliness – he’s talking about training the heart to be godly – is of value in every way…”

If you allow your heart to remain idle, don’t be surprised if it gets weak and flabby. If your motivations are allowed to soften, the iron in your will begins to leak out. But if you keep it working, set it to work in communion with God, fasting, vow-keeping, and loving service, as well as nourish it by reading the Word of God and other good books, in Christian conversation with the right sort of people, and in the experience of godly activity, your heart will take you ever further in godliness and fruitfulness in life. That is the third way to guard or keep the heart.

Some of us have not yet got control of our tongues (hardly a one of us really has). Some of us are far too lazy. Some of us know very well that we remain slaves to this lust or that. Some of us know very well that we are still, however long we have been Christians we are still far, far too self-centered in both our attitudes and our behavior toward others. We can hardly remember the last real sacrifice we made on behalf of someone else. Some of us are weak in prayer, cowardly in evangelism, ignorant of Holy Scripture. Some of us are not the spouses or the parents we know very well we ought to be. We may deny it if someone has the courage to speak to us about it, but in our heart of hearts we know very well we are not the spouse or parent we ought to be. Some of us, I suspect, hardly know how much disobedience and impurity and self-centeredness there actually in us because that requires really paying attention to one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, and requires measuring them according to the searching standards of the Word of God and some of us don’t do much of that.

Well there is but one way to make the changes any real Christian wants to make. There is one way to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord, to become a better, wiser Christian, and to have a more influential testimony. You can make temporary, superficial changes in your behavior easily enough. Even the worst unbeliever can turn over a new leaf from time to time. But if you want true wisdom, real godliness and Christlikeness you must attend to your heart because it is from the heart, from the inner you that all of that must come.

Measuring our lives as the Lord does, by the heart, by what is true of us inside; protecting our hearts from what will defile or weaken or distract them; and feeding and training our hearts in that thought, feeling, and willing that is pleasing to God who looks on our heart, insisting that you be completely the Lord’s man or the Lord’s woman there, in your heart: that is what will tell the tale. You remember the Lord’s remark in Mark 7:20-23:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

They come from within, that is from the heart. Put the heart right, make and keep it pure and instead come out other kinds of things: love, faithfulness, purity, peace, sympathy, and so on. As one writer put it: “the hand and the tongue always begin where the heart ends.”

Why does a Christian live differently than an unbeliever?  Because he has different loves and hatreds, different interests, different commitments, different motivations; which is simply to say that he has a different heart. Why did Caleb bring back such a different report from the exploration of Canaan than the other spies? Why did he see the opportunities when the other men saw only the obstacles? The Scripture tells us: Caleb had a different spirit, which is to say in other words, he had a different heart. [Num. 14:24]

When the father urges his son to keep his heart, he is simply saying make sure you are the Lord’s man or woman there in your heart, and your behavior will take care of itself. If God has given you a new heart it is your most valuable possession. Be the very best steward of the extraordinary gift the Lord has given you. Many people; most people have only their original heart. You have a new one, created by God himself. Make the most of it because if you do, if you concentrate on that, you will live the life a Christian should and any real Christian longs to live.