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"Keep Your Heart"
(Delivered Sunday, September 15, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
I was sitting in my car in a parking lot in Seaside some time ago, sipping coffee and reading a book. And I heard a noise that caused me to look up and see one of those funny sights that could only be seen in high-tech, sophisticated America. There was an SUV next to me with a seagull perched on the hood. He was cocking his head back and forth in absolute bewilderment at the car beneath him; while from under the hood came a loud, authoritative, mechanical voice repeating the command, "PLEASE BACK AWAY FROM THE VEHICLE".
"Car alarms" and other such security devises are a part of the modern world; but human diligence is still very much needed. I read once about a Portland man who had a security device in his car that prevented someone from driving away with it. But he kept noticing that though his car was safely parked on his driveway, parts from his car were slowly disappearing. He kept vigil until he heard the sound of tinkering beneath his car. Then, he ran out just in time to catch a thief by surprise as he paid his regular night-time visit to steal engine parts.
It seems that life all around us is filled with reasons to be on our guard, and to protect ourselves from loss or damage or theft with respect to our material goods. And of course, in a post-9/11 world, we have an even greater sense of the need to be on the alert. But what about spiritual matters? The things that concern our inner man are far more important and eternally consequential than the material goods we might be able to protect. Out of all the areas in life that force us to take "security measures", the Bible presents our effort to protect our heart as the most important of all. If you effectively protect your car from theft, your home from burglary, your property from damage, your financial interests from failure, and your body from personal illness and injury, and even our borders from terrorist attacks - and yet fail in protecting this one, all-important thing as the Bible warns us - that singular failure will effect all other areas of life. The plain fact is that more personal ruin and eternal loss has been caused by a failure to protect this one thing than all failures to protect material matters combined. And yet, hardly anyone gives a single thought to "keeping the heart".
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Proverbs 4:23 says, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life." It's a very simple verse; but it gives us strategic advice. Let's take a closer look at what it is that God's word commands us to give the utmost care to "keep"; and why we're to protect it so carefully. First, notice that ...
1. WE MUST KEEP OUR HEARTS (v. 23a).
Though the Old Testament book of Proverbs contains God's wisdom for people of all age groups, it is uniquely a book for young people. I believe God's Spirit led King Solomon to write and record these wise bits of instruction to help youth avoid the sort of mistakes and moral failures that will rob them of joy and well-being as adults.
Often in the book of Proverbs, Solomon writes almost as if he's talking one-on-one with a young person. He warns this young person about the dangers of hanging around with the wrong crowd, or about dabbling in sexual sins, or about being undisciplined in behavior. He encourages this young person to reverence God and to pay careful attention to good, godly counsel. He encourages this young person to cling tightly to the sort of "wisdom for living" that comes only from God. There are thirty-one chapters in Proverbs - a chapter for every day of the month. I heard that Dr. Billy Graham has read a chapter a day from Proverbs for years now. The practical matters of our lives would go a whole lot better if we did the same.
Notice how King Solomon speaks in Proverbs 4:20-27 - the section in which this verse is found. You can almost feel the sense of urgency and seriousness with which Solomon speaks.
My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh (Proverbs 4:20-22).
Plainly, Solomon is longing for this young person to take hold of what he's about to say. It's as if he is trying to tell him something that will make all the difference in his life. And can you also notice how all-encompassing his message to this young man is? Those who hear and keep his words, he says, find life and health to their body! What he is about to tell this young man is of crucial importance. All of his life will be affected by it.
He then goes on to say;
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth, and put perverse lips far from you. Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you. Ponder the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; remove your foot from evil (vv. 23-27).
When I read this, the word that comes most to my mind is the word "discernment" - the ability to determine and choose the good from the bad, the right from the wrong. It's a characteristic of maturity to be discerning.
Infants lack discernment. Toddlers have only one drive in life in relation to everything they see: put it in the mouth! A small child crawling on the kitchen floor will find a Cheerio under the chair - and into the mouth it goes. He finds a potato-chip fragment - and into the mouth it goes. But he doesn't care if the thing is edible or not. If he finds a broken piece of purple crayon - into the mouth it goes. If he finds a dead bug - into the mouth it goes. Little children lack the important ability to be discerning.
Many adults lack that same characteristic when it comes to their own heart. They don't discriminate between what's good for them, and what's bad. They will let just about anything contaminate their spiritual life. They often spend more times guarding and protecting their property than their soul. They spend more time watching their diet than their spirit. They spend more time scrutinizing their financial assets than their thought-life. They fail to watch their heart; and they suffer loss as a result.
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Let's first take a look at this thing we're commanded to protect: the heart. A Jewish young man hearing these words would not have thought as we do when he heard the word "heart". We tend to think of the heart as the seat of emotions. We love someone "with all our heart"; or we're "heart-broken" when that someone doesn't love us back. But to a Jew, it wasn't the heart that was seen as the seat of emotions, but rather the "belly"1; which makes more sense. After all, when you're emotionally moved, doesn't your stomach respond? If a young Jewish man wanted tell his girlfriend that he had a lot of deep feelings for her, he'd say that, whenever he looked into her eyes, he felt something in his intestines. And she'd be complemented! The Valentine's card he'd send her would be decorated with pretty, laced stomachs and livers.
To the Jewish reader, the "belly" was, symbolically, the seat of emotion. By distinction, the "heart" was considered the seat of the will and thought-life. It was in the "heart" - the inner self - that the personhood of a man or woman was centered. It was sometimes used as the symbol for the whole, inner, spiritual aspect of a person.2 It was parallel to what we think of when we talk about the "mind"; but it included much more than just thoughts and intellect.
For example, when God sent the plagues against Egypt, it was Pharaoh's heart that was hardened; meaning his "will" (Ex. 9:7). When King David's son, Absalom wanted to turn the allegiance of the people from David to himself, the Bible says that he "stole the hearts of the men of Israel"; meaning their allegiance (2 Sam. 15:6). God sent the flood on mankind, the Bible tells us, because He "saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually"; meaning their moral mindset (Gen. 6:5). When David numbered his soldiers in disobedience to God, the Bible tells us that his "heart condemned him"; meaning his conscience (2 Sam. 24:10). King Rehoboam was said to be an evil king, "because he did not prepare his heart to seek the LORD"; meaning his inner priorities and commitments (2 Chron. 12:14).
According to the standard biblical Hebrew dictionary, the Hebrew word for "heart" can have the symbolic meaning of such things as (1) the spiritual aspect of man; (2) the mind; (3) the will; (4) the conscience; (5) the moral character of a man; (6) the seat of his desires and passions; (7) the seat of his sense of courage; (8) even for the whole man himself.3
So; it's the whole "inner-life" that we're to be concerned about - the "heart" in the sense of that part of us at which our thought-life, our values, our drives, our choices, and our sense of right and wrong all find their seat.
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But notice also what we're to do with the "heart": we're to "keep" it or "protect" it. The object of our concern is to be the "heart"; and our action is to be that of "watching" (NASB), or "guarding" (NIV), or "keeping" (NKJV) it. I'd have a hard time finding a greater illustration of such an action than that of the man who sat diligently by and protected his car from someone stealing the parts out of it. He kept a careful eye on his car; but he wasn't simply going to sit there and watch the man steal things. His intention was to get up and physically stop it from going on any further. In fact, I understand that when he caught the thief in the act and approached to stop him, the thief turned on him and tried to attack him. It was the sort of "watching" and "guarding" and "protecting" that was willing to take decisive action to prevent any further damage from occurring.
I would never recommend someone put themselves in such danger over a mere car; but shouldn't we be willing to extend such serious effort - and more - in protecting our "heart"? What God is telling us, then, in this verse, is that we need to be deeply concerned about, and show the upmost watchfulness for, the protection of our "inner" self - our spiritual side - our "heart". As the 17th century preacher, Matthew Henry wrote; "We must keep a watchful eye and a strict hand upon all the motions of our inward man. ... God, who gave us these souls, gave us a strict charge with them. We must set a strict guard, accordingly, upon all the avenues of the soul; keep our hearts from doing hurt and getting hurt, from being defiled by sin and disturbed by trouble; keep out bad thoughts; keep up good thoughts; keep the affections upon right objects and in due bounds.4
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And please notice also the sort of "attitude" with which this "action" of the protection of the heart is to be taken: "with all diligence". In the Hebrew text, Solomon uses a word related to that which describes a prison guard keeping watch over a prisoner in a cell. It can be translated, "With all guarding, watch your heart." It speaks of the exercise of serious, vigilant, careful diligence in "keeping an eye on" and protecting the heart.
If we would "keep" our hearts "with all diligence", we wouldn't be careless, for example, about what gets into our hearts through the "eye-gate". We'd "censor" our own television viewing out of a greater concern to "watch" our own heart. And we'd even be willing to get rid of our television if it's affecting us negatively. We would rid our homes of any visual images or literature that incline us toward sexual immorality or sin of any kind.
We'd not only guard what might come in; but also what might come out. We would keep our own attitudes in check, so that the words that come out of our mouths aren't reflective of evil in our heart. We'll be like David, when he prayed "Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3).
We'll make careful scrutiny of our values and priorities. We'll use and enjoy riches if God gives them to us; but be prepared to let them drop from our hand if God calls us to do so. We'll beware of setting our affections on material "things" instead of on those things that God values.
We'd beware of the sin of discontentment; and would not "lay up" for ourselves "treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19). We'd remember Paul's warning that "those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
We'd guard our hearts against impure motives with people. We'd guard our hearts against bitterness, resentment, jealousy, envy or hatred toward others. We'd guard our hearts against pride. We'd guard our hearts against little "secret sins." We'd watch over our precious heart and protect it from all these "toxins" with the same sort of diligence a soldier guards the gate to the fort.
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This, then, is the thing we must do with our heart - we must "keep" it diligently. And now, the palmist shows us why we must keep our hearts with such diligence. Why should we put in such great effort to guard our heart? Our merciful God is good to us; and when He gives us such a serious command, He also includes the reason for it. Verse 23 tells us to watch over our heart with all diligence, "for from it flow the springs of life". We keep it our hearts, because ...
2. EVERYTHING ELSE IN OUR LIFE FLOWS FROM OUR HEART (v. 23b).
Look at the verses that follow after this one and see how our lives are affected by diligently "keeping our heart".
First, notice how "keeping our heart" affects our words. Verse 24 says, "Put away from you a deceitful mouth, and put perverse lips far from you." When the heart harbors attitudes of deceit and deviousness, it comes out through our lips. Did you know that Jesus says you can assess a man's heart by his words? He taught, in Luke 6:45; "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."
Second, we see how "keeping our heart" affects our longings and desires. Solomon wrote, in verse 25, in this context, "Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you." One of the most tragic stories in all the Old Testament is the story of sinful attitude of the people of Israel after God had brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt. It didn't take long at all for them to rebel against Moses - and the God who delivered them. They made the decision to return to Egypt. And the Bible puts the blame on the condition of their hearts. Acts 7:39 says that "in their hearts they turned back to Egypt." We need to diligently keep our hearts because of the potential of wrongful, ungodly desires to pull us off track and keep us from walking a strait walk on the path God has called us to.
Finally, notice that we need to "keep our heart" because of the behavior that flows from it. Solomon wrote in verses 26-27, "Ponder the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; remove your foot from evil." The Pharisees once complained to Jesus that His disciples didn't perform the sort of approved, ceremonial "hand-washings" that they performed when they ate. Jesus later told His disciples that the Pharisees had the wrong focus. They were unduly concerned with what goes into the body. Jesus told them; "... Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (Matt. 15:18-20).
Our daily lifestyle needs to be characterized by obedience to God's commands and the avoidance of sin. And such a lifestyle - such a walk - requires that we carefully watch and protect our heart; because it's from the heart that our lifestyle practices find their source.
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When King David, Solomon's father, fell horribly into sin, he became a broken man before God. His brokenness is recorded for us in Psalm 51. There, we find these words: "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart - these, O God, You will not despise" (v. 17). David's great prayer request was, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (v. 10).
I believe that is a prayer request God delights to answer. Let's follow David's example. Let's present to God the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart; and let's ask Him to create a "new heart" within us. Let's bring ourselves to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ - with all our sin and failure - and experience the forgiveness God purchased for us there. And then, let's watch over our hearts with all diligence; because from it flow the issues of life.
2 Ibid., p. 466.
3 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The New Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), pp. 524-5.
4Church, Leslie F., ed., Commentary on The Whole Bible by Matthew Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p. 741.
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