“Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.”

(Proverbs 4:23)

In these first nine chapters of Proverbs the sage is seen sitting with his son, counseling him about life. His counsel: “Fear God, and pursue His wisdom — the wisdom contained in the “proverbs” which begin in chapter 10.

In this section (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, 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 for Him (Rom. 12:1-2).

But in all of that, the wise man focuses on the “heart.” This is of primary importance. “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.”

The Identity of the Heart

Clearly, he is not speaking in reference to the physical organ that pumps blood! He is speaking of some aspect of our immaterial self, our psyche, our soul. In fact, throughout Proverbs the “heart” is spoken of in this category. 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 our personality. This is why Solomon can say, “As in water face reveals face, So a man’s heart reveals the man” (Prov. 27:19). Your heart is the real you — what you are inwardly.

The Priority of the Heart

But again, it is the heart that concerns the wise man. Yes, wisdom must affect our ears, eyes, feet, hands, and everything about us. But the heart deserves special attention: “Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” That is, above every other responsibility you have — before your business, before your personal health, before anything — “guard your heart.”

Why is the heart so important? “Because out of it spring the issues of life.” It is basic. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (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” (Mat. 15:19). These evil activities do not rise out of a vacuum. They rise from an evil heart.

Likewise, it is important for the apostle Paul, not that you sing to the Lord, but that you “sing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). The singing is to be a revelation of a heart touched by and responsive to Divine grace.

In this same vein, it is important, David recognized, not merely to do what is right, but that “truth be in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6). A heart that is honest, right before God, is what delights Him.

Indeed, it is only the “pure in heart” that shall “see God” (Mat. 5:8). God is not after merely external conformity. He wants the heart of the man. And this is part of what makes the New Covenant promises so wonderful ─ God will write his law on the heart (Jer. 31:33). It will not be a mere external rule, written on stone. It will be internalized so as to cause the man to want to follow the Lord.

This is always the focus of the Scriptures — the inner man. Christianity is no mere system of DO’s and DON’Ts. These are only reflectors of the man and not the man himself. This is precisely what is missed by modern religion; it is so externally oriented. You “go to church,” put money in the offering plate, go through various “Christian” rituals, and on Sunday, at least, you are “Christian.” This is a universal tendency — it’s easy.

But Prov. 4:23 reminds us that true religion goes deeper. Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, “To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The heart, the inner man, must be right or the man himself is not right.

What it is to Guard the Heart

It is really very clear what it means to “keep your heart,” but the admonition does deserve some unpacking. What does it require of us?

The first thing that strikes you about the command is its negative slant. It implies some kind of evil, some kind of adversary, some kind of opposition. Clearly, it demands that we protect our hearts against things such as sensualism, covetousness, materialism, greed, pride, bitterness, anxiety, rebellion, defiance, self pity. All these are obvious. 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, things, toys, recreations, hobbies — so many things — can cause us to “leave our first love” (Rev. 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 of loving and serving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. A Christian man is not like other men. He has 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 dangerous. They may lead us to forget Him. The apostle John’s command, “My little children, depart from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21), assumes this exactly. “An evil heart of unbelief” may quickly arise in a heart that is “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13).

What this means, in plain words, is that we must watch very carefully over those things that would influence our minds. It is easy to allow the world to desensitize us in regards to sinful things. And a deceiving heart (Jeremiah 17:9) will take advantage of any situation to exploit it for sinful pleasures. We must watch against all this, and give ourselves to constant alertness against anything that would draw us away.

But there is a positive side to this also. How better to protect our hearts from evil than by being careful to bring it under the influence of “wisdom”? Protecting our minds is not merely a negative activity, it is a positive one. We must “program” our minds by the Word of God. Let it “dwell in our hearts richly” (Col. 3:16). We must “think on these things” that are “true, noble, just, pure, lovely” (Phil. 4:8). That is to say, we must bring our minds under the influence of what God has said. This is the constant exhortation the Scriptures gives us, and it promises that as we do we will be successful.

Specifically, what this demands of us is that we “set our affections on things above” (Col. 3:1), on Christ. As He is the highest object of our affections and ambitions, our heart is “kept” ever stronger. This is a great part of the value of the Lord’s day attendance at a gospel preaching church. We are there drawn to think of Christ; and thinking of Him, we are made like Him (2 Cor. 3:18).

Application

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 are the things you have 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 Tim. 4:7), and determine that by the means of grace God has given us — the Word of God, prayer, meditation on the things of Christ, Christian fellowship, by these things — 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” (Col. 3:1-2).

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).