Guard Your Heart (Proverbs 4:23)
Topic: One Lord: What is Man? Passage: Proverbs 4:23
I. Advice for the Heart
Has anyone ever encouraged you to 'guard your heart'?g
Most of the time I've heard that phrase used, it's being offered to someone who is becoming romantically entangled with a new individual. Maybe for the person offering the advice (maybe a parent, grandparent, or friend) there is something unclear or suspicious about this individual. Maybe the relationship is starting to move too quickly. Whatever the concern, it prompts this advice, “Guard... your... heart”.G
In that context, the phrase seems to mean, “Be careful about giving too much of your heart, about creating too many personal attachments, about leaning in too far emotionally, about depending too much, about investing more than you should relationally... too quickly or too carelessly.” Or to put it another way, “Be careful, patient, and discerning. Allow the relationship to mature in a healthy way. Don't let emotions override your common sense.”g
I think that's good advice, don't you? But when we find that same exact encouragement given in the pages of Scripture, is this what it means? Turn over, if you would, to Proverbs 4. We are going to consider together this morning what God has revealed by considering what Solomon meant when he wrote those same words, “Guard your heart”. (a final month in Proverbs!)
II. The Passage: "Keep Your Heart" (23:29-35)
Look with me at Proverbs 4, verse 23. Writing to his son, King Solomon writes...g
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.g
So right away you've probably noticed that the ESV translates that opening phrase with the word “keep” instead of guard. The Hebrew word behind our English word “keep” is the word natsar, This word is used sixty-two other times in the Hebrews Bible, but forty-two of those instances are found in the Psalms and in this book, Proverbs. While it can be translated as “keep”, as in 'to keep' God's commands, it's also regularly used in both books to convey this idea of watching over, preserving, or guarding something. Here are two examples:
Proverbs 13:3... Whoever guards [natsar] his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.
Proverbs 16:17... The highway of the upright turns aside from evil; whoever guards [natsar] his way preserves his life.
Another confirmation of this translation is the word there at the end of that first phrase in 4:23, the word “vigilance”. That's a word usually translated as “confine”, or “kept in custody”, or... “guard”. So we find an emphasis here. Therefore, we could translate the phrase as, “Guard your heart with all guarded-ness.”
But again, we come back to our main question: what exactly did Solomon mean when he told his son, “guard your heart”? What does God mean as he speaks to us through his word this morning, calling us, calling each of you, to “guard your heart”?
Well, to make sense of this encouragement, I'd like to look at three ways Proverbs speaks about the heart. First, I'd like us to consider the role of the heart, second, the responses of the heart, and third, the ruin of the heart.
1. The Role of the Heart
First, how did Solomon, how do the Scriptures, talk about the role of the heart? Well, look again at the second half of our main verse, 4:23: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. In the original language, that last phrase (which is only two words in Hebrew) is literally “the goings out of life”.
So what is meant by this word, “heart”? Well, we know from how the Bible uses the word that it doesn't mean the actual, blood-pumping organ in your chest. In his book, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, author Jeremy Pierre helps us better understand this biblical term:
“Scripture uses different anthropological terms—heart, soul, spirit, mind, and more—to describe a simple, singular human experience. The authors of Scripture use these different terms to describe human functioning in largely the same way, which implies that [these terms] refer to the same internal reality... The biblical authors understand human experience as flowing from one, unified heart...
While talking about “heart” as the best biblical word to sum up the inner life of each person, the author goes on to offer this clarification:
“Though Scripture speaks of the heart as a unified object, it describes it three-dimensionally... thinking, feeling, and choosing are complex, dynamic heart responses. Thinking, feeling and choosing are different perspectives on the same singular function.”
So while we tend to use “heart” in reference to things like emotions, passions, and romantic desire, biblical usage also includes the mind and the will, the cognitive and volitional, both thinking and choosing. Similarly, Tim Keller describes the heart as... “...the seat of your deepest trust, commitments, and loves... What the heart most loves and trusts, the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find desirable, and the will finds doable.”
What is the heart? Later in the book, Solomon writes this: As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man [Proverbs 27:19]. So your heart is you; your inner you.
Do you think regularly about your heart? Do you understand it's critical role in your life? You may be guarded in many ways, and guard against many things, but do you guard your heart?
2. The Responses of the Heart
So as we've seen, the heart is a simple and singular way of describing your thinking, feeling, and choosing, and this heart becomes visible in your words, choices, and behaviors.
Keeping that in mind, in many places throughout Proverbs we also read about the various responses of the human heart, responses to life in this world, to circumstances, to people, responses to truth and lies; how it is shaped and how it shapes your behavior. We could also talk about these responses as heart conditions and consequences. Here are a few examples: Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down... [12:25], A glad heart makes a cheerful face... [15:13], Before destruction a man's heart is haughty... [18:12].
In addition to these, Proverbs touches on a wide range of other heart conditions. For example...
In this book we read about the heart of “bitterness” (14:10), about “a tranquil heart” (14:30), about “sorrow of heart” (15:13), the “arrogant in heart” (16:5), “an intelligent heart” (18:15), “a proud heart” (21:4), and about “purity of heart” (22:11). Again all of these describe inward responses and conditions. Have you thought about the current condition of your heart? If the rest of us had a window, allowing us to peer into your heart, what would we see? How is your heart responding to the challenges you're currently facing?
Keep those questions in mind as we consider a third emphasis.
3. The Ruin of the Heart
Over and over again, this collection, this book, emphasizes how sin ruins the human heart. For example, Proverbs 6:14 talks about a “perverted heart”. A few verses later in 6:18 we read about “a heart that devises wicked plans”. 11:20 speaks of the “crooked heart”, 14:14 of “the backslider in heart”, and 26:23 of “an evil heart”. Proverbs 12:20 reveals that “deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil”, and 26:25 describes how the one who hates has “abominations in his heart”. When do such things begin? We read in chapter 22, verse 15 that “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child...”.
These heart realities are precisely why Solomon asks his listeners in Proverbs 20:9... Who can say, "I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin"? The implied answer is “no one”.
While a person can lie to themselves or try to 'dress things up' on the outside, there is One who knows everything about our hearts; One who will judge our hearts...
Proverbs 15:11... Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD; how much more the hearts of the children of man!
17:3... The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.
21:2... Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.
Do you recognize how sin has ruined and is ruining your heart? Does it sober you when you hear about, when you think about, God's perfect knowledge of your heart?
III. Protection and Promises
Brothers and sisters, friends, as we consider what we've heard about the role, the responses, and ultimately, the ruin of the human heart, we need to circle back to our original and fundamental question: “What exactly does it mean to 'guard your heart'”?
Well, think about the following exhortations in light of that question:
7:25... Let not your heart turn aside to her [the adulteress] ways; do not stray into her paths...
24:17... Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.
28:14... Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
So I think we could say that these are examples of the very things we need to watch out for; the kinds of things we need to guard our hearts against: lust, envy, hard-heartedness. We could add some of what we heard earlier: bitterness, deceit, arrogance or pride. But guarding doesn't always mean keeping the bad guys out. It can also mean keeping the bad guys in; keeping them confined; that is, not allowing a poisonous heart to spill out and hurt others.
Follower of Jesus, when God calls you to guard your heart, he is calling you to give no refuge to any of these sinful dispositions; and if you have, to do everything you can to purge such things. But Proverbs also teaches us something even more strategic about guarding our hearts: that oftentimes, the best defense is a good offense. Take to heart the following encouragements...
Proverbs 23:19... Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way... 4:4... "Let your heart hold fast my words...”, 2:2 ...inclining your heart to understanding; 23:12... Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge... [and in 3:3; 6:21; 7:3] ...write them [or bind them] on the tablet of your heart.
We may do well with the mental acquisition of God's word, with the pragmatic, utilitarian use of God's word in terms of moral and religious navigation, but are we directing our hearts toward both the light and heat of what God has revealed? Over the centuries, Scripture has shaped how many people speak and act on the surface, but not how they think, feel, and then choose.
Brothers, sisters, friends, if we were read everything the Old Testament teaches about the heart, I think we would be depressed, but hopeful. You see, the call to “guard your heart” does point to exhausting dangers, to a relentless battle that will, in some sense, always be present. But it reveals a new day coming when God will actually provide for his people... a new heart:
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. (Ezekiel 36:26)
It's the New Testament that reveals how this OT verse was fulfilled. If it is your desire this morning to “guard your heart”, for your own eternal good, and for the glory of God, then be encouraged. Jesus Christ came, not simply to reform human behavior, but to radically remake the human heart. He suffered ruin on the cross for hearts ruined by sin, and he rose in new life to give us that new life, that we might know 22:11's “purity of heart”, and the “tranquil heart” of 14:30; that we might walk with the “intelligent heart”of 18:15. Whatever your heart struggle, whatever you are allowing to shape your heart, however it is weighed down, the gospel gives us this amazing assurance. Let's cry out to him, even now, in light of Philippians 4:5b–7...
...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 all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.