My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.
Proverbs 4:20-27 ESV
Within these verses, Solomon dives into the heart of wisdom. While we have already been given the command to write these words of wisdom on the tablet of our hearts, he now commands us to keep (or guard) our heart vigilantly because from it flow the springs of life. Solomon gives this command because he knows that our heart is the core of our identity. If our heart is wise, our actions will be wise, but if our heart is foolish, everything we do will be foolish.
UNDERSTANDING THE HEART // VERSE 23
For reasons that I hope to make clear throughout this study, I believe that this verse is the central thought of our text; therefore, we will apply our focus here first and then move to the surrounding verses as they provide application for observing this verse. Solomon provides us here with a command followed by his reasoning behind the command: Keep you heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
In order to understand this command, we must first know what is the heart. Biblically, the heart refers to far more than the primary muscle of our circulatory system; it is core of our identity. Who you are in your heart is who you really are. It represents the fundamental sense of you being you. Proverbs 27:19 shows this thought by saying, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.” Knowing a person’s heart means knowing them fundamentally.
Obviously, this concept elevates the heart’s importance significantly, and it is why Solomon tells us to keep our heart with all vigilance. Keep here could also easily be translated as guard or defend. Vigilance is actually another form of the word used for keep in verse 21, and it often means to imprison, confine, or guard. It carries here the idea of guarding more than anything else, watching supremely and vigilantly. The idea is, then, that we must guard the heart with greater vigilance than we guard anything else. The NIV’s translation truly does capture the intension of this verse: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
But why do we need to vigilantly guard the heart? Springs of life flow from the heart. The metaphor here implies the imagery of a reservoir with many springs flowing from it. The heart is the great reservoir of life. Everything we do is rooted in our heart. Our actions are molded by our inward character. Jesus supports this understanding in Matthew 15:18-19:
“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
The principle here is terrifying. We like to assume that we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and even then, we convince ourselves that our intensions are generally pure. Sin, therefore, is simply a problem of behavior. But Jesus shatters this thought by stating that we do bad things because we have bad hearts, and if our heart is bad, we are bad. Sin is not a behavioral issue; it is a being issue. We are not righteous people who occasionally sin. We sin because we are sinners. Our heart is corrupt, so there is no aspect of our being that escapes corruption, behavior included.
Proverbs even goes so far as to portray sin as destroying the heart. Throughout the book we are told that fools lack sense. The Hebrew word for sense is the same word used for the heart. The adulterer’s lack of sense really comes from having a sin-strangled heart (6:32). The fool lacks sense because sin is killing his heart. Sin is actively trying to pull us into the grave, both now and in eternity. Thus, to neglect guarding the heart means that we will die for lack of discipline, being led astray by our folly (5:23).
All of this provides us with a few questions and problems to address through the rest of this sermon. If the heart is so important, how then can we guard the heart? If our heart is defiled, how can we have life at all? What role does obedience play in keeping the heart?
HOW TO KEEP YOUR HEART // VERSES 20-22; 24-27
Now that we have briefly covered the necessity of keeping our hearts, let us now dive into the question of how we ought to do so. Fortunately, Solomon does not give us a command without further instruction. Verses 20-22 and 24-27 provide a snapshot for how to guard our hearts.
At first, verses 20-22 appear to be restating the same command that Solomon has given at least once each chapter thus far: pay attention to what I am teaching you. Yet the brilliance of this God-breathed poetry is that the command takes on a new significance when it is viewed in light of verse 23. For instance, verse 21 tells us to keep these words in our hearts, just like Proverbs 3:3 told us to “write them on the tablet of your heart.” Both verses urge us to take God’s wisdom to heart, but now we learn that doing so is a way of guarding one’s heart.
Of course, the idea of filling our heart with God’s Word is not a Proverbs exclusive. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The psalmist understood that sin has the power to corrupt and eventually kill our heart; therefore, he resolved to fill his heart with God’s Word. The Scripture is powerful for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us in righteous (2 Timothy 3:16). Each of these furthers our growth in sanctification, as we mortify sin and submit to God’s will. Sin is death, but God is life. And we know God through His Word. As we seek to guard the fountainhead of our life (the heart), why would we not soak ourselves in the Word of the Author of life? A failure to keep God’s Word is a failure to guard our heart.
Next, verses 24-27 shows that we can only guard our heart through our physical actions. These verses focus on three parts of the body: the mouth, the eyes, and the feet. With our mouth, we are commanded to avoid devious talk. With our eyes, we are told to keep our gaze directly forward. And with our feet, we are urged not to swerve off the path. What do these directives mean?
We’ve already said that the heart holds influence over our actions, but the reverse is also true: our actions influence our heart. For the past several decades, there has been much talk concerning the desensitizing of children, whether through comic books, video games, television, music, or movies. This debate is no longer relevant because we have already become significantly desensitized. A present example is the shocking number of Christians who happily watch A Game of Thrones despite the copious amount of nudity therein. Issues like nudity should be evidently sinful.
But there are certainly many issues where Christian liberty becomes a matter of each individual’s conscience, yet the exercise of freedom must never undermine or override our pursuit of holiness. Secular media is not innately sinful, but it should be consumed with wisdom. Solomon warns us to control our bodies because our heart follows close behind. As followers of Christ, we should ask this question about everything that we do: Am I glorifying God in this? John the Baptist desperately wanted to look more and more like Jesus (John 3:30). Does your life reflect this goal as well? Peter calls us strangers and exiles in this world, but how are we any different from the world if our eyes watch the same things, our mouths talk the same way, and our feet go the same places? Without taking a nosedive toward legalism, we must reclaim a hunger for holiness, for Christ to be increased while we decrease.
The early church knew this well. They were often exposed as being Christians because they refused to participate in civil events, such as parades and sporting events. Nearly everything in Roman society involved worship to the Roman gods, so Christians lived as strangers and outcasts of society. They were noticeably different from the world around them, which led many to arrest and eventually martyrdom.
A Christian who looks and acts identical to the world has reason to question the validity of their salvation. As we studied last week, this process of sanctification may happen slowly, but the disciple of Christ should continuously be growing toward resembling the image of Christ. Therefore, show me a Christian who spends little-to-no time in the Scriptures, prayer, or community with other believers, and I will show an apostate in training. We cannot spend our days in fellowship with darkness and expect to have communion with the Light. Vigilantly guarding our hearts means vigilantly guarding our actions.
Does your mouth encourage and love others with the Scriptures, or do you backbite and gossip? Your heart will follow your mouth. Are your eyes delightfully fixed upon God’s Word, or are they glued to lesser, even sinful, things? Your heart will follow after your eyes’ gaze. Are your feet walking into community with brothers and sisters in Christ, or are they pulling you away toward the foolishness of this world? Your heart treads down the same path as your feet.
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF OBEDIENCE
Both keeping ourselves to God’s Word and living in obedience can be summed into what Jesus calls the great commandment: “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The point of those ALL statements to cover all the bases. The entirety of your heart should be committed to loving God. Your soul has no higher task than devoting itself to loving God. Your mind is to be fixated upon the loving Him more and more. And every ounce of strength in our bodies should be spent in love of God. That covers every aspect of your identity. Every thought we have should love God. Every book we read, every movie or television show we watch, every morsel of food we eat, every drink we consume, every word we say, every emotion we feel should all be done as a way of loving God. I know this is a lot to consider, but please don’t shy away from facing this truth head on: even good works are sinful when they are not done in order to love God. Paul is referring to this principle when he says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Or similarly, he gives a positive command in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Therefore, if we do anything that is not done in faith for the love and glory of God, we sin. And remember, sin kills the heart.
I present those three Scriptures in order to show the impossibility of obedience. We cannot do ALL things to the glory of God. We cannot do ALL things in faith. We cannot love God with ALL our heart, soul, mind, and strength. These are impossible demands that we never satisfy for even a moment in time. We are entirely incapable of the obedience that God commands.
So essentially this is our problem. Sin kills our heart, so we must flee from sin and obey God. But true obedience must be with all of our heart, and we are incapable of obeying with all our heart because our heart is already marred by sin. Thus, our heart continues to sin, and we continue to disobey God. It is an endless cycle of sin, disobedience, and death. This is why the Old Testament’s promise of a new covenant is so significant. Hear how Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe the new covenant:
Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Ezekiel 36:22-32 | “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
Notice that both texts concern themselves with Israel’s inability to obey God’s commandments. Especially through Ezekiel, God goes through great lengths to assure the Israelites that He is not saving them for their own sake but rather for the holiness of His name. But the beauty of these texts is how God resolves to respond to their inability to obey. The Israelites could not love God with all their heart because their heart was already marred by sin. The LORD, therefore, declares that He will give them a new heart and cause them to “walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). They could not obey God’s Law, so He intervenes by writing it onto their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). This New Covenant was established by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20).
This is the good news of the Jesus’ gospel. We cannot obey God, but Jesus obeyed His Father for us. We deserved God’s eternal wrath in punishment for our sins against Him, but Jesus absorbed all of His wrath in our place. Our heart is desperately sick with sin, making it impossible to both guard and repair, but the Father gives us new hearts in Christ.
This is also why the gospel is described as both peace and rest for Christ’s followers. We no longer labor under the weight of impossible obedience. Jesus labored for us, and now we have rest knowing that we are at peace with God. We are no longer children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and alienated from Him (Colossians 1:21), but in Christ, we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). In fact, Paul explicitly states that only the peace of the gospel will truly guard our hearts:
Philippians 4:4-7 | Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be know to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Prayer is an exercise of our right and privilege as children of God. We pray because it is only natural for children to cry out to their father (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). We reject anxiety and bring everything to the LORD in prayer because Christ is our high priest who urges us to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Prayer is our new heart’s native language. Because our ability to pray was bought with the gospel, prayer brings with it the peace of God found in the gospel, and it is this peace that will guard our hearts. But they are only guarded in Christ Jesus. Outside of Christ, our hearts are dead in sin, but in Christ, they are alive behold to the excellencies of His marvelous light. We cannot keep or guard our own hearts. We must rest entirely in the finished work of Christ that reconciles us to God and grants us “peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).