Please turn with me in your bibles to Proverbs chapter 4. It’s been a while since we were back in Proverbs, but I have thoroughly enjoyed studying that book again, and I hope you too are eager to be back in this book of wisdom that God has given us.
Tonight, we’ll be look at a topic that has been a favored theme of poets and songwriters for all of time: from Shakespeare and Tennyson, to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s a subject that is complex, yet simple; determinative, yet easily influenced; shadowy, and yet crystal clear.
We’re going to talk about the heart. The heart. Our heart is central to who we are. In fact, we could say, in a manner of speaking, that by looking at our hearts we will be looking at ourselves as God sees us. We’ll be looking at our hearts tonight, and specifically how we should keep them.
One commentator, speaking of the importance of this topic, concludes that: “There is no single action that will more directly affect the outcome and quality of your life than guarding your heart” (Kitchen, Proverbs, 113). Keeping our hearts is hugely important for our life now, and for our future.
So with that in mind, let’s jump into our text, Proverbs 4:20-23, we’ll be focusing in on just verse 23:
My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
21 Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
22 For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their[b] flesh.
23 Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
My aim tonight is quite modest: to look at what the bible teaches about our hearts, and then look at what we should do about it.
Our text begins with what on the surface appears to be a simple idea. It commands us to take care of our heart. But what does that mean? The author is obviously not commending the virtues of careful diet and exercise so that we can prolong the life of the cardiac muscle in our chest. No. When he talks about our heart, he’s talking about our inner life. He’s talking about our inner faculties that include our mind, our will, our feelings, and the like. The term reflects the fullness of our inner being, and that means that in a real sense, your heart is the real you.
So what does he tell us to do with our hearts. God says: “GUARD your heart; KEEP your heart; WATCH OVER your heart,” we could translate it. The language conveys a picture of a guard at his post, or a sentinel, a watchman patrolling the walls of a fortress. And the author intensifies the picture by commanding us to keep our hearts WITH DILIGENCE. We’re to be active and intentional in our keeping. And as if that wasn’t enough, he ramps up the charge even further: “Guard your heart with ALL diligence.” He’s saying to us, the heart is to be guarded above everything else, to be protected as supremely important, your most valuable possession. More important than wealth, property, fame and honor, status, reputation, and even health. The heart is key, as we will continue to see throughout tonight.
So why does this heart need to be so diligently kept? The verse tells us: “because from it flow the springs of life.” The heart is the fountain, and the rest of our life flows downstream from it. The heart starts, and the mind, and will, and memory, and desires, and feelings or emotions all cascade from it. Everything you do flows from the heart. The NIV translates it, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” and Peterson paraphrases it: “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts.” That’s where life starts. I think Peterson is right.
Jesus teaches us this in the New Testament. Matthew 12:34 says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Or in Mark 7 when Jesus in explaining how a man is defiled. It’s not about something from the outside that defiles; it’s what comes from the inside, from the heart: Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person defile him… For from within, out of the heart of a 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.”
It’s what is inside that inevitably comes out. To use another analogy from Jesus, whatever is in the root, the heart, will necessarily show itself in the fruit. If a person has a bad root, he will produce bad fruit, and a person with a good root, a good heart, will produce good fruit.
So we see that discussing the heart and it’s place in our life is important. If our heart is bad, then we will NECESSARILY produce bad fruit.
What else does the bible say about our hearts? It says a lot, actually. We are called to love God with all of our heart. The Hebrews were commanded in Deuteronomy 10 to put off their stubbornness, love God, and circumcise the foreskins of their hearts. Indeed, Adam in the Garden was expected to Love God with all of his heart. But did Adam do it? Did the Hebrews do it? Do we do it?
An honest assessment of ourselves could conclude that we don’t; we don’t love God with all our hearts. In fact, the Bible says that we’re naturally haters of God. We love the darkness and hate the light. We choose to be selfish and bitter, to be resentful and to revile, to judge and to criticize. In fact, so far from having hearts that we’ve circumcised to God and are pumping with vibrant, joyful love for God, we’re actually described as having hearts of stone. We’re not bad principally because of poor choices, unwise decisions, or misinformed consciences.
We’re bad, we act badly, because we have bad hearts. We are all born with a congenital heart defect, and, even more, we can’t do anything ourselves to remedy it. We can’t study enough scripture, we can’t give away enough money, we can’t say enough prayers, to repair our hearts. We are desperately in need of a new heart. We need a spiritual cardiac transplant.
But praise God that that is exactly what God has promised in the new covenant. He promises in Ezekiel 11, “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statues and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people and I shall be there God.” God promises a time to come where He would do what his people could never do. He would circumcise their hearts, even though they never could nor would. He would replace the hard, cold hearts of stone with warm, beating hearts of flesh. He would grant them the grace of renewal.
This is exactly what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Nicodemus wants Jesus to explain how a man can be made right with God, and Jesus says that a man cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again, born of the Spirit. The language is different, but he’s referring to the same reality as Ezekiel 11 and Deuteronomy 10. To have a circumcised heart, to have a heart of flesh replace a heart of stone, to be born again, this is all descriptive language looking at regeneration.
This is what Charles Wesley is describing in the 3rd verse of “And Can it Be”:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
How can a man who is born at enmity with God be made to embrace and love that God? The answer is only through an act of God himself. Just like a leopard can’t change his spots, so too is a man powerless to change his very nature. That’s why God in his mercy has to do it.
Have you considered this part of God’s good news? God’s gift of regenerating grace whereby he grants us new hearts? God, in his great love, effectually calls his people, reaches down to them in the lowest depths of their sinfulness and depravities, unites them to Christ and grants them the very gift of faith itself, and thereby renews their inner man. They are complete beneficiaries of this re-creating grace.
That’s good news. Believer, do you often consider your new birth? Do you thank God often for the gift of life that was given to you when you received a new heart? Let us linger often upon the grace of our Lord in his work of gifting us new hearts inclined toward Him.
And to those here to haven’t yet tasted of this grace, who don’t quite understand all this talk of new birth, new heart, regeneration, and grace, I would encourage you to look to the Jesus of scripture. Hear His words and His calls. He speaks openly and often about the necessity to repent and believe, to come to him if you’re burdened and receive his rest, to see him as the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
The doctrine of regeneration teaches us that we can never clean up our hearts enough, we can’t re-train our hearts into reformation as if we had just picked up a few bad habits; we can’t rewire our hearts with enough education and training; we can’t make our hearts repentant through acts of penance, and we can’t lift our hearts enough through good thoughts and feelings. Regeneration drives each of us to our knees, to call out to God and ask him to act. If you’re without Christ, close with him tonight. Pray out to God to send his Holy Spirit to grant you new life through a new heart. Don’t rest until you have made yourself right with God. There is no matter more serious and no problem more urgent. Your heart must be made right, for from it flow the very springs of your life.
That was my first point, surveying the idea of the heart in scripture. I’d like now to introduce a word picture, an illustration, which I believe will be helpful for us as we work our way through the remainder of this sermon. And that illustration is of the heart as a reservoir. The heart as a reservoir. This is not a novel illustration to me. I’ve read it in several throughout church history, including Charles Spurgeon, and in the writings of the Puritan John Flavel. Much of what I say going forward will be built upon and expanded from them (John Flavel, “Keeping the Heart”; Charles Spurgeon sermon on Proverbs 4:23 entitled, “The Great Reservoir.”).
If you’re not familiar with what a reservoir is, imagine a gigantic, often man-made body of water, that through a series of pumps and pipes is used to supply water to buildings and houses. We have many water towers around here that serve a similar function. The reservoir, like the heart, is upstream, and there are various connections, valves, pipes, and pumps downstream, and it eventually leads all the way to your faucet. I’ll use this illustration in various ways to try and picture the connections and problems of our heart. The heart is upstream, and the will, the mind, the desires, the actions are all downstream.
By way of example, as I mentioned above, our heart is naturally sinful and born depraved, wicked. That is like our reservoir being full of poison. It doesn’t matter what kinds of pipes, valves, and faucets you have downstream: if you have poison in the reservoir, you will have problems downstream. That’s just another way of saying what Jesus said about a bad root bearing bad fruit.
So, going back to our text in Proverbs, remember we’re called to keep our heart, to guard our heart. Some folks in this world call for people to change their outward behavior, without getting to the root of the problem. They say, if we just educate a man better, then his behavior will improve. If we just teach him, correct his mind, show him the poor logic of his decisions, then a man will see the errors of his ways and change. But that’s not sufficient, as we have already addressed. That’s like putting better control valves on our reservoir, but not addressing the poison in the water. It doesn’t matter what kind of valves you have, or what kind of re-education or re-habilitation or training you might give a man. If his heart is full of poison, then whatever is downstream will inevitably be poisonous. Mere mental reformation will never be enough to repair a faulty heart.
Similarly, men may say that we can change a man’s poor behavior by re-directing his activities, giving him new principles upon which to act. We need to inspire him to nobler goals and ambitions, then he’d change. But that’s not addressing the heart of the issue either. That’s like replacing all the pipes below our reservoir with shiny new ones, but not addressing the poison in the tank. Fresh conduits make no difference, if the fountain itself is corrupted.
And before moving on, let me mention one more faulty method of trying to change a man. Certain men holding poor theologies would concern themselves with the faculty of the will, with the method of choosing God. If the will would be conquered and rightly exercised toward God, then all else would follow, they might argue. But this is a wrong idea as well. Remember, the heart is the reservoir, and all else is downstream of that, including the will. Trying to get the will in line, is like installing a new, more powerful pump under the reservoir. A new pump will get the water down the pipes faster and at a greater pressure, but it will not change what is coming down the pipes. The poison in the reservoir will be pushed out to the faucets at with greater efficiency, but the crux of the issue is not addressed. Thus it is with theologies that focus on bending the will of a man without addressing the heart.
The biblical doctrine of regeneration corrects all these wrong methods of trying to change a man’s behavior. By changing the heart through regeneration, God removes the poison from the reservoir, and allows for the proper function of all the pipes, pumps, and faucets downstream.
Now, back to our text, we’re called to keep our hearts, or guard our hearts. And you might be thinking from what I have said thus far that heart-work seems to be God’s work, not ours. That if God is the one who has to change our hearts, then why am I called to keep my heart? Well, I don’t have time to fully explain the biblical understanding of how God’s action and our responsibilities are compatible in this life, but I will just note a couple of places in the bible that assume both to be true. That is, God must act, and we are called to act. God must work, and we are called to work.
For example, Paul says in Philippians 2 that we’re called to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We’re called to work, AND God works in us. Similarly, at the end of the book of Jude we read: “You, beloved…keep yourselves in the love of God,” and then a couple verses later we read in the doxology: “Now to him who is able to keep you.” We’re commanded to keep ourselves, and we’re reminded that God keeps us. Both are true. Scripture often places together the sovereign and mighty work of God AND the responsibility we have to act.
Therefore, even though God must work in our hearts, we are also commanded to keep our hearts.
Thus, in light of that, let’s begin to look at some ways that we should keep our hearts. IN what manner or condition should we maintain our hearts?
We should first, keep our hearts FULL. We should keep our hearts full. You see, however crystal clean our water may be in the reservoir, we won’t be able to have full effectiveness and reach the faucets of our actions if our reservoir is lacking. An empty reservoir will necessarily produce empty pipes, and ultimately produce dry faucets. A dry root will produce a tree that withers and bears no fruit.
Surely you know people in this life who are dry like this. To use the language of Revelation 3, these people are tepid, neither hot nor cold. They’re not hot enough for soaking, nor cold enough to be refreshing. They’re useless for the kingdom. Their life is worthy of no imitation.
They perhaps felt the warmth of Christ’s love for a time, but they have since drifted, they’ve grown cold. They’re often content to coast until the Lord returns.
Take note, I’m not necessarily talking about doctrine. These kinds of empty reservoirs can have the right doctrine. Their pumps and their piping might be of the finest materials and the best design; but they have no water to run through them. They have lost their first love, and let their heart run dry. They have little effectiveness in the things of God, little interest in practical religion, and little impact for the kingdom.
Perhaps you feel this way in your heart. Do you remember back when you heart was more fervent in prayer, more zealous for the gospel, more earnest in pursuit of holiness? Has this time apart from church made you more holy, more like the image of Christ? Or have you coasted, slowly, but surely, into a sleepy drift of sluggishness?
Christian, hear again of our great need to keep our hearts, and to keep them full.
And I know you’re asking, “How do I do that? What must I do to be full again?” Well I’d point us to one of many possible texts for the answer: David praised God in Psalm 87:7 saying, “All my springs are in thee.” If you have springs in God, then you shall have sufficient water for your reservoir. Go back to the cross and remember the love of God displayed there at Calvary. Remember how God has poured out all of his wrath for sin upon the perfect sacrifice of his son. Nothing is left for you to earn, nothing is lacking for you to merit. All you must do is go to Calvary and linger again upon the Son, and your reservoir will be brimming to the top. Live near to Christ and you’ll see that your tank will never run dry. Read of him often in his word, pray to him regularly, sing of his grace and his mercy, speak of his love bestowed upon you, and the Holy Spirit will keep your soul as a bubbling fountain.
Paul experienced this fullness. He reminds of the gospel in 1 Timothy 1: “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy … and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.” The grace of the Lord overflowed in Paul’s life. Do you want that kind of grace? Do you want your heart to be brimming and your reservoir to be overflowing? Then go back again to Jesus, see him as he is portrayed in scripture, remind yourself of the mercy and grace that is yours because of his faithfulness in your place, and preach to yourself of the immense gifts that are yours because your springs are found him.
Keep your heart FULL, with all diligence.
Next, we must also keep our hearts PURE. We must diligently keep our hearts PURE. It would be of little use to have the biggest reservoirs and the most powerful pumps, the smartest valves, and the shiniest pipes, if all the water in the tanks were not pure. Our hearts must be kept pure, for, as we have discussed earlier, if our hearts are not pure, then our lives will not be pure.
To test the purity of our water, we need only test the purity of our works. Are we marked with holy and pure conversation? That is, do we use our tongues to promote the life and flourishing of others by consistently speaking the truth in love? Or do we find ourselves pumping out impurities, speaking divisive words, slandering remarks, or biting comments? Or perhaps you’re tempted toward crassness, course joking, and filthy language? Those are condemned clearly in scripture, but not merely because we’ve used the wrong choice of words, but because they reveal a measure of impurity remaining in our tanks. Remember, out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.
Whatever our sin of choice, it reveals something about our heart. If I yell at my children it’s because I have an idol of my own comfort in my heart. If I am jealous of someone, it’s because in the pride of my heart, I think I deserve something that God hasn’t given to me. If I’m always complaining or grumbling, then it’s because I have deep-seeded bitterness in my heart. Whatever the sin, impure water at the faucet betrays an impure source.
So what do I do when I discover impurity in my system? What do I do when God shows me that my heart has remaining impurities within it, and that my heart has been made bitter? To answer that think back with me to Exodus 15. There God had led his people into the desert and they were parched and dry. They had gone three days without finding water, but were excited to come to the waters of Marah, an old stream in the desert. But, the water was bitter. Imagine how bad the water had to be for them not to drink it after having been without water in a desert for three days. It was very impure. So impure that it was un-usable. It was worthless.
But the text says that God called Moses to throw a tree into the water, and when he did, the water became sweet. It didn’t just become bearable, it didn’t even become just drinkable, it became even sweet. God uses a tree to take impure bitterness and turn it into pure sweetness.
There is another tree in scripture that can turn bitterness into sweetness, that can turn impurity into holy purity. That is the tree at Calvary. If you find yourself with impurity and bitterness of heart, then go again to the tree of Calvary. See again how Christ died for bitter-hearted people like me and you. Look upon that savior who bore the wrath for slanderers and gossips like us, who willingly was slain so that we might have life. His perfect purity is exchanged for our wretched impurity. His perfect holiness is given to us, and our bitter stains are given to him. That’s the sweetness that comes from the tree of Calvary.
How do we keep our hearts pure? By staying ever-near the tree that can turn bitterness into sweetness, and pollution in purity. We must keep our hearts pure with all diligence.
The bible has much more to say about keeping the heart, I have much more to say, but I guess I will have to save that for another sermon.
As I close tonight, if you have heard tonight of a gospel that you don’t own yourself, that you haven’t made your own, then I plead with you to cry out to God. Ask him to make your heart new, to grant you the gift of life, and come to him this day. He is a willing God who is calling for you. Turn away from the sins of this world, and come to Christ, who will grant you the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. No impurity can withstand his cleansing, and no sin makes you outside of the power of his grace. Do not delay, but come to him, and find the sweet fountain of purifying grace.