Yesterday I was invited to be a guest preacher at a sister congregation, and these are the notes for that sermon. For the next passage in Mark that was preached yesterday, you can listen to Pastor Jim’s sermon here.
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
From what is presented in the headlines, the world is as bad as it has ever been. But is that true? Let’s consider the evidence. First, we have more information, resources, comforts, and freedom available to us than at any other time in human history. From our screens, we can watch the most elusive of animals, learn for free virtually any skill, access the greatest writings of all time, listen on command to the whatever music we happen to fancy, enjoy far grander entertainment than a simple stage could ever afford, or scroll through a harem that even Solomon would find shocking. Of course, this all coincides with our physical accomplishments. In the heat of summer and cold of winter, we press a button and bend the climate within buildings to our whim. Clean drinking water readily flows all throughout our homes so much so that we even use it to get rid of our excrement. Speaking of excrement, while diarrhea was once a leading cause of death, it has now become little more than an inconvenience because of our access to clean drinking water. In fact, according to the CDC, “diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day–more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined” within areas of the world without such water access. Let us not forget either that we have unfettered access to God’s Word in an abundance of translations for us to choose from with a vast amount of resources available for learning and growing in our knowledge of the Scriptures.
According to nearly every conceivable metric, our lives are leaps and bounds better than any of our ancestors who have ever lived. Why then are anxiety and depression rates continuing to sky-rocket? Indeed, why are followers of Christ who believe in the truth of Romans 8:28 equally among the many who presently reliant upon anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications? You see the problem don’t you? By all accounts we are more comfortable, more entertained, wealthier, and healthier than we have ever been. Why then are so many, even Christians, held firmly within the clutches of despair?
I believe that at least one of the pillars of our problem lies in the fact that we are fools. Yes, we have more information than ever before, but information alone does not make anyone wise. Indeed, I am a firm believer that a society’s drug of choice reflects its primary ailment. We, of course, are self-medicating with entertainment and marijuana, both of which are used to dull and numb the mind. We are overwhelmed at the sheer reality of life and, therefore, seek to turn off the noise and heaviness of it all. Yet wisdom, not marijuana, entertainment, or even medication, is the answer.
In the Scriptures, particularly Proverbs, wisdom is best described as the skill of living by God’s design. If life is a river, then wisdom is swimming downstream rather than upstream, which is what we call foolishness. Now our sinful impulse is to always think that we know better than the Creator of all things. Yet while we are very wise in our own eyes, God’s Word simply calls us fools. This is why the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). To bow and obey in reverential fear the will of the Holy One is to be wise, is to conduct ourselves according to the Architect’s blueprint and the Composer’s symphony.
Within our verses of study, Solomon dives right into the very heart of wisdom, by commanding us to keep (or guard) our heart vigilantly because from it flow the springs of life.
UNDERSTANDING THE HEART // VERSE 23
We begin our study with verse 23 because this verse is the central thought of our text. Thus, we will apply our focus here first and then move to the surrounding verses as they provide application for observing this verse’s command. Here, in verse 23, we find a command, followed by the reasoning for the command: ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.’
Biblically, the heart refers to far more than the primary muscle of our circulatory system. Instead, the heart is the very core of one’s identity. Who you are in your heart is who you really are. It represents the most fundamental sense of you being you. As Proverbs 27:19 says, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.” In other words, knowing a person’s heart means knowing them wholly and completely.
Obviously, this understanding elevates the importance of the heart significantly, which is why Solomon tells us to keep our heart with all vigilance. Keep here could also easily be translated as guard or defend. In fact, the word vigilance here is actually translated as 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, vigilantly, and of the highest importance. The command, therefore, is that we must guard and keep our heart with greater vigilance than we guard anything else. The NIV’s translation truly does capture the intensity of this verse: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” How tragic then that so many today guard their Amazon password with more vigilance than they do their own heart!
But why do we need to vigilantly guard the heart? Because springs flow from it. The metaphor here is of a reservoir with many springs flowing from it. The heart is the great reservoir of life. Everything we do springs from our heart. Every word or deed is molded by our inward character. Jesus Himself tells us this in Mark 7:21-23:
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 evils things come from within, and they defile a person.
The principle here is terrifying when understood. You see, we all like to assume that we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and even then, we can often convince ourselves that our intentions are generally pure. Sin, therefore, is simply a problem of behavior, right? Jesus, however, shatters that thought by stating that we do bad things because we have bad hearts. Our springs are foul and putrid because the reservoir is rotten. How is this for an uplifting and culturally appropriate message: the problem is not what you do; the problem is who you are. You are not a righteous person who slips into sin. You are a sinner who can do nothing but sin. By God’s grace, you are not as evil as you could be, yet you are still thoroughly wicked. Our heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9); therefore, because from it flow the springs of life, there is no aspect of our being that escapes corruption.
Do you think I am exaggerating things?
Let us consider what Jesus Himself calls the greatest 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). Those ALL statements emphatically cover the entirety of a person. Every piece of you should be unceasingly committed to loving God. Your heart and soul have no higher task than devoting themselves to loving God. Your mind is to be fixated upon loving Him more and more. And every ounce of strength in your body should be spent in love of God. That covers every aspect of your identity. Every thought should love God. Every book we read, every movie or show we watch, every emotion we feel should all be done as a way of loving God. I know that this is a difficult truth to accept, but please face it head on: even good works are sinful when they are not done in order to love God. After all, Paul said, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Or similarly, he gives us the positive command in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Thus, whenever we do anything that is not done in faith for the love and glory of God, we sin.
And to make matters worse, sin destroys the heart. Throughout Proverbs, we are told that fools lack sense, but the Hebrew word for sense is the same word used for heart. Fools, therefore, lack heart. The adulterer’s lack of sense in 6:32 comes from having a sin-strangled heart. Thus, we have before us a negative feedback loop. We sin because our hearts are sinful, and our sinfulness corrodes our heart.
I pray that you see the hopelessness of the situation. We simply cannot do all things for God’s glory. 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 can never satisfy for even a moment in time. We are utterly incapable of the obedience that God commands. This is, however, is what makes the Old Testament’s promise of a new covenant so significant. Listen to how Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe it:
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 in 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.Jeremiah 31:31-34
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 land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and 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.Ezekiel 36:22-32
Notice that both texts concern themselves with Israel’s inability to obey God’s commandments. Especially through Ezekiel, God goes to great lengths to assure the Israelites that He is not saving them for their own sake but rather for the sake of His holy 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 statues 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, of course, established through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20).
This is what we rightly call the good news, the gospel of Jesus. 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.
Therefore, we are no longer under the weight of impossible obedience. Jesus labored for us, and now we have rest in Him, knowing that we are at peace with God. We are no longer children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3) nor alienated from Him (Colossians 1:21), but in Christ, we are adopted as 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:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known 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 understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:4-7
Prayer, after all, 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, it is fitting that prayer brings with it the peace of God found in the gospel, and it is that peace that will guard our hearts. Outside of Christ, our hearts are dead in sin, but in Christ, they are alive and new. We have no fundamental ability to 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).
HOW TO KEEP YOUR HEART // VERSE 20-22, 24-27
Amen! What then do we do with our text and with the law of God in its entirety? Is it now abolished by the gospel? By no means! If you reread those passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, you will notice that God had no intention of lowering the standard of obedience for His people; instead, He intended to give them of Himself the very ability to obey His commands. This is also what Christ’s death has accomplished for us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have been spiritually crucified with Christ and resurrected as new creatures that are now actually capable of obedience. Of course, our obedience will never be complete in this life, but it is now made possible by His own empowering. Thus, as Christians, we do not set aside the law of God; instead, we are now fully able to rejoice with the psalmist: “O how I love your law! It is my mediation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). Indeed, J. I. Packer explains how it is our adoption in Christ that transforms our relationship to the law:
While it is certainly true that justification frees one forever from the need to keep the law, or try to, as the means of earning life, it is equally true that adoption lays on one the abiding obligation to keep the law, as the means of pleasing one’s newfound Father. Law-keeping is the family likeness of God’s children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise. Adoption puts law-keeping on a new footing: as children of God, we acknowledge the law’s authority as a rule for our lives, because we know that this is what our Father wants.
From this place of gospel security, let us briefly note how the verses that surround verse 23 provide a snapshot at how to guard our hearts. Let us begin with verses 24-27 and end with verses 20-22.
First, verses 24-27 reveal the necessity of guarding 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. Ian Hamilton makes this point:
Sanctification is radically physical. The devotion that God seeks from his children is not theoretical; it is psychosomatic. Our devotion to God is to be expressed in and through what we do with our bodies. It matters what we look at with our eyes, what we do with our hands, where we go with our feet, what we think with our minds. Sanctification is not a theory; it is a lifestyle of concrete, embodied, loving obedience to God.
Let us, therefore, not attempt to wiggle out of plain obedience and devout holiness with the twisted application of ‘Christian freedom.’ By this, many Christians have subtly come to believe that so long as they are not entirely worldly and make sure to read their Bibles they are free to do whatever they please. “We are no longer under the law but under grace!” Yet while verse 24 likely refers to specifically to false speech (lies), Paul takes the guarding of our tongue much further: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). We do not need to do a deep dive here about what exactly Paul was forbidding; instead, we can simply say that if you have to justify your language to yourself there is a good chance that you are in disobedience, need to repent, and “put away from you crooked speech.”
Similarly, Paul also addresses both our eyes and feet by commanding us to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Is that not a call to keep our feet and eyes upon the path of righteousness, the narrow way? Again, this is how we keep and guard our hearts. The days are evil, but evil works in unexpected ways. As Lewis shows repeatedly in The Screwtape Letters, distraction is often more effective for demonic ends than persecution. Indeed, the evil one has much to gain from mind-numbed Christians that are so anxious about their own life that they never get around to losing it for the sake of Christ.
And let us be clear, losing our life for Christ and seeking first God’s kingdom very often looks far less sexy than stories of martyrdom. Instead, it means shouldering with sacrificial joy the duties and responsibilities that God has given us. With children under five, making the best use of my time is largely centered around sowing as many Scripture seeds into tiny hearts as I possibly can before firing their sharpened arrows directly at the enemy.
While thinking through the best strategies for evangelism, discipleship, multiplication, and church growth, so many ignore the least of these within our own homes that God has already designed to each become their own household. The family is primary strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission as well as for living a cruciform life; it should not surprise us then that the enemy, who is particularly at enmity with women and children, would so adamantly seek to turn our eyes and feet aside from that path, away from the will of the Lord.
Of course, such vision requires a multigenerational hope. When considering the goal and purpose of the church, we so often are attempting to plant the prettiest flowerbed in town. Should we not instead plant forests with trees rooted beside the waters of God’s Word, yielding fruit in season for the broken and destitute, and with unwithered leaves that are “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2)? Made the best use of your time by sowing seeds that will grow into mighty oaks and even redwoods long after your death.
Let go of self and take up Christ.
Lose your life and, in so doing, find it.
Take the hard, narrow road to life, and let your eyes be set forward and don’t let your feet swerve to the right or to the left.
Guard your heart by pouring out your life as a living sacrifice to God.
Finally, we turn to the opening of our text and discover that we guard and keep our heart by keeping God’s Word within our hearts. A reading through of Proverbs 1-9 will show that Solomon peppers his instruction with continual commands to hear and keep his words, which may easily be taken to apply to all God’s Word not simply the book of Proverbs. Indeed, we believe what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in godliness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
If we truly believe those words, we will be supremely attentive to God’s Word. We will incline our ear far more to the sayings of God than to the sayings of celebrities, headlines, and political commentators. The Scriptures, being more profitable than gold, will not be able to escape our sight. Because they are life to us who have found them, let people say of us and the Scriptures what Judah said of Jacob and Benjamin, “his life is bound up in the boy’s life” (Genesis 44:30).
O brothers and sisters, are you among the blessed who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate upon it day and night? Or do you walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, and sit in the seat of scoffers? The latter will surely drag our heart into the pit of Sheol, while the former will guard it safely in the arms of Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Psalm 119:9-12 is very much the prayer of all who would keep their heart with all vigilance:
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
Let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes!
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 223.
 Ian Hamilton, “Creation: The Essential Setting for Proclaiming Christ” from Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice, 60.