In the first nine chapters of Proverbs the sage is seen sitting with his son, counselling him about life. His advice is: ‘Fear God, and pursue His wisdom.’ This ‘wisdom’ is related in the ‘proverbs’ which begin in chapter 10.
In Proverbs 4:20-27, the sage speaks of wisdom as a way of life, something that affects everything about us – the ears, the eyes, the mouth, the feet and the heart that is, the wisdom of God must be the guiding principle in all of life, in all we think, do and say. In the words of the apostle Paul, our whole ‘bodies’ must be presented to God as a ‘living sacrifice’ offered in service to Christ (Romans 12:1-2). But among all that, the wise man focuses on one thing that is of primary importance, namely the ‘heart’. ‘Keep your heart with all diligence,’ he counsels, ‘for out of it spring the issues of life.’
What is the heart?
Clearly, he is not speaking about the physical organ that pumps blood! He is referring to an aspect of our immaterial self, our psyche, our soul. In fact, the ‘heart’ is placed in this category throughout Proverbs. It is the seat of our personality. It is that with which we think, trust, plan, lust, understand, rebel, deceive, and which becomes heavy, sorrowful, bitter, cheerful, proud, envious, and so on. In other words, the ‘heart’ is not simply the emotional aspect of man; it is the whole of his inner self, the seat of personality. This is why Solomon can say, ‘As in water face reveals face, so a man’s heart reveals the man’ (Proverbs 27:19). Your heart is what you are inwardly, the real you.
The priority of the heart
But why is the heart of special concern to the wise man? Wisdom, surely, should affect everything about us. That is so, but the heart deserves special attention: ‘Guard your heart with all diligence;’ that is, above every other responsibility you have, and before your business, personal health or anything else, you should look to the safety of the heart.
Why is the heart so important? ‘Because out of it spring the issues of life.’ The state and condition of the heart are fundamental to life itself. ‘As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,’ says Proverbs 23:7. What you are inwardly is what you are. ‘Out of the heart’, Jesus says, ‘proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies’ (Matthew 15:19). These evil activities do not rise out of a vacuum. They emerge from an evil heart. Likewise, for the apostle Paul, it is important not that you merely sing to the Lord, but that you ‘sing with grace in your hearts to the Lord’ (Colossians 3:16). The singing is to reveal a heart touched by, and responsive to, divine grace.
In this same vein, David recognized that it is important, not just to do what is right, but to do right as a consequence of ‘truth in the inward parts’ (Psalm 51:6). A heart that is honest, open and right before God is what delights him. Indeed, it is only the ‘pure in heart’ who will ‘see God’ (Matthew 5:8). God does not just desire external conformity to his law and his word. He seeks the heart of the man. And this is part of what makes the New Covenant promises so wonderful. God writes his laws on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33). His law is no longer an external rule, written on stone. It becomes internalized, causing the believer to want to follow the Lord.
The focus of Scripture
This is always the focus of the Scriptures, the inner man. Christianity is no mere system of ‘dos and don’ts’. This is precisely what is missed by much modern religion; it is externally oriented. You ‘go to church,’ put money in the offering plate, go through various ‘Christian’ rituals and, on Sunday at least, you thereby demonstrate that you are ‘Christian’. This is a universal tendency, because it is the easy way.
But Proverbs 4:23 reminds us that true religion goes deeper. Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, ‘To be carnally minded [to recognize only external physical reality] is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace’ (Romans 8:6). The heart, the inner man, must be right with God, or the man himself is not right.
How may we guard the heart?
It is really very clear what it means to ‘keep your heart,’ but the admonition does deserve some unpacking. What, then, does the Scripture require of us?
The first thing that strikes me about the command is its negative slant. It implies that there is an adversary, some kind of evil or opposition that we must guard against. And indeed there is! Peter warns us, ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.’ He continues, ‘Resist him steadfast in the faith.’ Look to Christ, the author and perfector of our faith! (1 Peter 5:8-9; Hebrews 12:2).
Clearly, our verse demands that, by faith in Christ and relying on the strength of his indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 3:16), we protect our hearts against such things as sensuality, covetousness, materialism, greed, pride, bitterness, anxiety, rebellion, defiance, self-pity, and all such harmful things. But surely there is more. Does it not also demand that we be careful not to allow our hearts to be drawn away from the Lord by ‘harmless’ distractions? Our love for leisure, possessions, toys, recreations, hobbies – so many things can cause us to leave our first love’ (Revelation 2:4). The wise man’s point is that we must give our energies and attention to making sure these things do not so occupy our minds, or captivate our desires and ambitions, that we forget the higher priority. That priority is to love and serve God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Christians are not like other people. They have higher thoughts, higher desires, higher priorities, higher goals and ambitions. And while the world offers many harmless and enjoyable things, we must recognize that they are all potentially dangerous. They may lead us to forget Christ. The apostle John’s command, ‘My little children, depart from idols’ (1 John 5:21), implies that this danger is ever present. ‘An evil heart of unbelief’ can quickly arise in a heart that is ‘hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’ (Hebrews 3:12-13).
What this means in plain words is that we must watch carefully over those things that would influence our minds. It is easy to allow the world to desensitize us in regards to what is, and what is not, sinful. And a deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9) will take advantage of any situation to exploit it for sinful pleasures. We must watch against all this, and be constantly alert to anything that would draw us away from ‘our first love’ for Christ and his gospel.
Where are our affections?
But there is a positive side to this also. How better to protect our hearts from evil, than by being careful to bring them under the influence of God’s ‘wisdom’? Protecting our minds is not merely a negative activity, it is a highly positive one. We must steep our minds in the Word of God, the Scriptures that testify of Christ. ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom’ (Colossians 3:16). We must ‘think on these things’ that he has taught us, which are ‘true, noble, just, pure, lovely’ (Philippians 4:8). Above all, we must see them exhibited in Christ, for John says, ‘We beheld his glory … full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). And we must imitate him.
Specifically, what this demands of us is that we ‘set our affections on things above’ (Colossians 3:1), that is, on Christ. As he is the highest object of our affections and ambitions, our heart is ‘kept’ and made ever stronger. This is a great part of the value of attending a gospel-preaching church on the Lord’s day. We are drawn to think of Christ; and thinking of him, we are made like him (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So, what have you done this week to protect your heart? You may well have done much to exercise and protect your body. But what about your heart? What things have been allowed to influence your mind? Have you been ‘setting your affections on things above’? How much of your thinking this week has been of Christ? How much of his word has entered your heart and mind?
Proper heart protection does not just happen. We must ‘exercise ourselves rather unto godliness’ (1 Timothy 4:7), and determine that by the ‘means of grace’ God has given us (such as the Scriptures, prayer, meditation on the things of Christ, and Christian fellowship) we will safely keep our hearts for him.
‘Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life’ (Proverbs 4:23). ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Colossians 3:1-2).