The most important Proverb

Proverbs 4:20-27

21 February 2010

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


Wake up! Listen! Pay attention! Perhaps it's your habit to tune out during the sermon, to let the mind wander. But the command of our passage today is pay attention! Listen closely!

We're going to focus this morning on verses 20 to 27 of chapter 4, and we see the command there, in verse 20: My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.ref

Why the big fanfare? In this long series of instructions from the father to the son, starting in chapter 1 and going through to chapter 9, why is the writer particularly trying to grab our attention here?

Well, it's because he is about to introduce the most important proverb in the book. Verse 23, Above all else above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref

If there is only one verse you remember from this whole series on Proverbs, then remember this one. Learn it, ponder it, recite it: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref

Actually, the heart is a major theme in the book of Proverbs. The Hebrew word we translate "heart" is used more than 75 times.

Now, the Bible meaning of the word heart is wider than how we normally use the word. Popular culture tends to link the heart with the emotions, doesn't it? After all, it's only a week since Valentine's day, and the symbol of the heart is very familiar in that context. The heart beats faster when we we fall in love. The hearts aches if that love is not returned.

But in Bible language, the heart includes a great deal more than this. It includes all of what we would call the mind, and the will, and our moral faculties as well as the purely emotional. The heart is the centre of our being.

We would say that somebody has a wise head on his shoulders, but, in Proverbs, we find that the heart is the store of wisdom, Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerningref, Proverbs 14:33. The heart makes plans, In his heart a man plans his courseref, Proverbs 16:9. The heart is where we feel both joy and longing. The heart can be either deceitful or pure.

In Proverbs the heart is a summation of all we are, As water reflects a face, so a man's heart reflects the man.ref

And, ultimately, the quality of our heart is what God will judge us by, The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.ref

So, coming back to our verse, you can feel its importance: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref The picture here is of your heart as a spring in the centre of your being. Out of your heart flows everything else in your life. The heart is the wellspring of life.

Now, I'm sure you'll forgive me if I steal an illustration from Charles Spurgeon, who preached on this verse on this very same day, February 21st, 152 years ago. Don't worry, I'm not pinching his whole sermon, we haven't got time for that, but it is a very good illustration.

In our verse, the heart is the wellspring of life. Spurgeon takes this image and likens the heart to a reservoir that is the source of water for a city. The water company has a duty to provide clean, drinkable water to the people. They must guard the source.

To give us a pure supply, the water company must first, tap into a pure source, second, they must take care what flows in, and third, they must test what flows out. This too is how we must guard our hearts, the wellspring of our lives.

Tap into a pure source

So, first, we need to start with something worth guarding. We need to tap into a pure source. The water company will have big problems if all it has is a reservoir polluted with chemical waste, disease, or sewage, or pesticides.

Likewise, if our hearts, the wellsprings of our lives, are polluted, then we have no hope of living a good life.

We can certainly try living better lives. We can make a huge effort to reform our behaviour, but no matter how hard we try, we find that we are only fiddling with the plumbing. If the source is bad, the same polluted water will flow down the pipes no mater how we configure them.

And the problem is that, by nature, all of us have polluted hearts. The wellsprings of our lives are reservoirs of poison and pollution, and we can do nothing to purify them. Proverbs 20, verse 9 says, Who can say, I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?ref. Who, indeed?

We experience this every day, don't we? Why do so many judgemental thoughts crowd our minds? Why do we so often serve ourselves rather than those around us? Why do we desire so much that is bad for us and so little that is good for us? Jeremiah 17 verse 9 says, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.ref

If the spring at the heart of our lives is pouring out pollution, then what's the point? Why should we bother guarding that?

Do you remember the story of the Israelites at Marah in Exodus 15? God's people had just escaped from Egypt and gone into the desert. But for three days they couldn't find any water. They were thirsty and desperate. Eventually they did find water at Marah, but it was bitter and undrinkable. So Moses cried out to God, and God told him to throw a certain piece of wood into the water. After that it became sweet and drinkable. The polluted water became pure.

This is a picture for us. There is only one way to purify the wellspring of water at the heart of our lives: we need to take the wooden cross of Jesus and place it in our hearts. Nothing else will do it. This is the only way the springs of our heart can be pure.

Jesus says, probably referring to our verse in Proverbs, Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.ref

If we want to have hearts worth guarding, then we need first to come to Jesus. We need to tap into a pure source. We need to drink the water that he offers, which will become in [us] a spring of water welling up to eternal liferef.

If you haven't set your heart on Jesus, you don't really have anything worth guarding, just a polluted pond. You needn't bother with the rest of this sermon: it won't help you.

But if you have brought the cross of Jesus into your heart to purify it, then Proverbs has some good advice for you.

Take care what flows in

Let's look at verses 20 to 22 of chapter 4, where the message is, take care what flows in. Guard your heart: take care what flows into it.

My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them and health to a man's whole body.

The writer is pleading with us to pay attention to his words. "Fix your ears on my words; fix your eyes on my words; take my words into your heart".

What we pay attention to, where we fix our ears and our eyes, governs what flows into the reservoir that is our heart. It's very simple. If you want a heart full of pollution and poison, then fix your attention on what the world considers significant. Use your eyes to watch the same junk that the world watches. Use your ears to listen to the same nonsense the world listens to. Just suck up the toxic waste that surrounds us every day: the lads mags, the gossip mags, the endless soap operas, the late night TV, empty and godless novels... there really is no shortage of pollution out there.

But if you want a heart that is good, a wellspring of life, then you need to take care what flows into it. We need to pay attention our Father's word: we need to listen closely to it, we need to fix our eyes on it. Above all, we need to let it flow into our hearts.

Sometimes it's as if our hearts have a dam around them, so that, although we do spend time hearing and reading the word, it never quite manages to flow into the reservoir. God's word is constantly diverted around the outside. Proverbs is clear, as is the rest of the Bible: we need to keep God's words in our heart, at the core of our being. Let them penetrate to the centre. Let them fill up the spring of life in you.

Actually, Solomon would have done well to take his own advice. In First Kings we read this — listen to what happened when Solomon failed to guard his heart, — As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been... So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done... The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel...ref

Solomon allowed his heart to be turned because he failed to take care of what flowed into it. He listened to nonsense about other gods and began to believe it when he should have devoted himself to the word of the Lord.

Perhaps during this season of Lent, you could decide to take some of the attention that you might normally give godless things, and instead fix that attention on God's word. Instead of watching quite so much television, why not spend a bit more time reading the Bible? Instead of listening to more inane radio, why not listen to some good Christian music? Instead of reading another trashy novel, why not read a Christian book? Take care what flows into your heart.

Test what flows out

So, we've tapped into a pure source, and we're taking care of what flows in. The third thing we need to do is to test what flows out of our hearts.

A couple of weeks ago a chap from Thames Water appeared at our door to take a sample of water from our tap for testing. It turns out that Thames Water does half a million tests like this every year, and they have a team of a thousand people whose job it is to constantly check the water quality.

To find out if the supply is pure, it needs to be tested. Similarly, I can only know the true state of my heart if I examine myself, if I test what comes out of it.

Verse 22 says that God's words are life to those who find them and health to a man's whole body.ref If we check our bodies and find that they are not full of spiritual life and health, then we know that something is wrong with our hearts.

This is what we see in verses 24 to 27. The writer considers some parts of the body: the mouth, the eyes, the feet.

Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.

Here is a picture of a body full of life and health: lips that speak wholesomely, a gaze fixed on God, feet that don't lead me astray. All these are an expression of the state of the heart.

If I find myself saying things that are unhelpful and ungodly — things that are hurtful to others, or self-promoting, or argumentative, or unclean — then I know where the problem is. It's not with my mouth, it's with my heart.

Jesus said, out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.ref

Similarly, if I've got wandering eyes — eyes that covet the glittering things that the world thinks are valuable; eyes that want to look lustfully; eyes that won't stay fixed on Jesus — then I know where the problem is. It's not with my eyes, it's with my heart.

Again, if I find my feet leading me onto foolish paths through life, then the problem is not with my feet, it's with my heart.

Listen to Jesus again, from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'ref

When did you last examine your life? When did you last test the quality of what flows from your heart? What do you think you will find if you do it today?

And what can we do when we find, inevitably, that our hearts fail the test? What can we do if we find that our hearts are pumping pollution around our bodies; that the wellspring has become foul water? What can we do?

Well, we've come full circle. There's no point fiddling with the plumbing. The only way to have a pure spring is to tap into a pure source. When we diagnose pollution in our hearts, all we can do is cast the cross of Jesus into them once again.

We need to come to Jesus, and say, Lord, forgive me. My heart is bad, and I'm so sorry. I long for it to be good, but there's nothing I can do to make it good. I need you. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.ref


Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref — this is the most important Proverb. We must make it our top priority.

Have you tapped into a pure source of water? There is only one — only Jesus can give you water to drink that will become in [you] a spring of water welling up to eternal liferef.

Are you taking care of what flows into your heart? Where will you fix your attention, your eyes and your ears this week?

And are you testing what flows out of your heart? Is it good? If not, then go back to step one. Every day we need our hearts to be made pure by the precious cross of Jesus.

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.ref