READ : Proverbs 4:23
Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.
Proverbs 4:23, RSV
WHAT IS THE HEART?
When the writers of the Bible use the term “heart,” they are not thinking of the physical organ which bears that name for us today. In other words, when you are called to love the Lord your God “with all your heart,” that doesn’t mean the marvelous pump that sends blood to every part of your body. When the Hebrews spoke of the heart, they meant the center of our personal being, the seat of mind, emotions, and will. The heart to them was the inner person, the true self, as over against all mere appearances. Remember that word, “Man looks on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart”?
They saw the heart as the central place in us to which God turns, where religious experience has its roots, and which finally shapes the way in which we live. Especially in this passage, the heart is pictured as a kind of inner fountain out of which flow all the streams of a person’s life. What the water is like at the fountain, at the source, determines everything that issues forth.
Jesus Himself has given us our most profound understanding of the human heart. Listen to this word of His: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, what we say reveals what is in our inmost being. What the heart is full of, the tongue will eventually express. Our speech, in other words, betrays us. Our words give us away. Again, in speaking about the question of real defilement, Jesus says, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evils come from within and defile a man.” The Lord is making it plain here that every kind of moral evil, whether of thought, motive, word, or act, proceeds from the inner life, from the heart. Jesus sees the heart as the source of all spiritual and moral behavior, good or bad. It’s the dynamic center of human personality which controls the course of our entire lives.
Everything depends then on the condition of the heart. Francis Bacon once put it this way: “All our actions take their hue from the complexion of the heart, as landscapes their variety from the sunlight.” The ancient word of Scripture says it best, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
WHAT CAN CHANGE IT?
When we take that in, the message of it is almost overwhelming. Think of it: if we could change the hearts of people, we could change everything else about them. Or to bring it closer home: If we could change our hearts, we could become ourselves brand new people. The burning question for a world full of hate, greed and selfishness is, “What can transform the heart?”
But precisely there is the deepest of human problems. In one sense we are powerless to change human hearts, our own or anyone else’s. Here the Bible speaks with tremendous soberness. Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”? The clear implication of that question is that no one can say that. Jeremiah describes the heart as “deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” “Who,” he asks, “can know it?” That is, who can even understand his own heart? Who can plumb the depths of his or her motivations? Who can penetrate the secrets of the inner life?
I remember listening in my childhood to an exciting radio broadcast entitled “The Shadow.” The Shadow was Alan Cranston, a champion for justice who supposedly could make himself invisible and read the minds of others. The introduction to the program always included these words: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” The answer given here, of course, seems somewhat ludicrous, but the question is still profound: “Who knows…?”
Jesus’ contemporaries seemed to see defilement, uncleanness, largely as something external. They placed great emphasis on various techniques of washing and scouring to make oneself pure. They imagined that people contracted defilement by touching forbidden things or by eating non-kosher meats. Jesus demonstrated the shallowness of that view when He pointed out that nothing we touch or taste can ever make us deeply and truly unclean.
Real purity, according to Him, is a matter of the heart. All the cleansing rituals in the world can never make us clean within, nor can we do it for ourselves by an ambitious program of self-improvement. Listen to Jeremiah’s bitter irony about that. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). In other words, it’s just about that likely.
The writers of the Bible can speak so frankly and realistically about the human heart because they believe in God’s grace and transforming power. Through this same prophet Jeremiah, we learn of a new covenant that God will make with His wayward people. Listen: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke though I was their husband,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”
Note that. God will write His law now not upon tables of stone, as with Moses, but upon the inmost hearts of His people. He will move them, incline them from within, to do His will. The prophet Ezekiel goes even further. Listen to God’s Word through him: “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ponder this, friends. What we cannot do for ourselves God promises to do for us. He will change our hearts, inscribing somehow His will upon them. He will give us more and more an inward disposition to obey Him. He will make our hearts completely new and breathe His own Spirit into us. Those promises are gloriously fulfilled in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the One who by His blameless life and searching words exposed the evil of every human heart. He is the One who by dying for our sins, rising from death and sending His Spirit to live within us has granted us new hearts for old.
The wonderful good news of the gospel is that we who believe in Jesus Christ can not only be forgiven but also transformed. God can make us clean in the inmost depths of our being. He can create in us clean hearts. He can renew in us a right spirit. Through Christ, by the gift of the Spirit, God Himself can dwell within these hearts of ours by faith. Has that happened for you? Have you put your trust in Jesus Christ and received the transforming gift of His Spirit? God invites you to do that right now if you have never done so. Call upon Jesus as your Redeemer. Welcome Him as the Lord of your life. He will give you a new start – yes, a new heart!
WHO CAN KEEP IT?
It’s when we have believed the good news of Christ that we are ready to hear this word from the ancient proverb, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The word calls us to keep our hearts, to watch over them, to guard them, to preserve them from evil. Apart from God’s promise and God’s power, that seems a counsel of despair. How would we ever do it? But when we know the Lord and have received His Spirit, keeping our hearts becomes a new and challenging possibility.
How can a person do this? How would we go about keeping our hearts? The text suggests that it is first of all a matter of vigilance. We need to be alert, on the lookout. Watchfulness begins in our thinking. A covetous thought leads to a covetous longing which may then express itself in some grasping action. We need to control the mind first. We need to consider carefully what we see, what we watch, what we read, the raw material that feeds our thoughts.
We need to pay attention also to what’s going on inside us, to be alert to our motives, our attitudes, our ambitions, our judgmental reactions at times to other people, knowing that those seeds of thought and desire will eventually come in some way to fruition. We want to keep the tree healthy so that the fruit it bears will be wholesome as well. A Christian is called to a life of constant vigilance. That is the price of liberty in Christ.
But watchfulness is not enough. Keeping our hearts is at the deepest level a matter of keeping them open to the Lord. He comes to dwell within our hearts by faith, and we welcome and honor His presence as we keep on trusting Him, looking toward Him in confidence. His word is the power that cleanses us, and we experience that cleansing again and again as we keep on listening, keep on saying, “Speak, Lord, Your servant is hearing.” It’s when we hide God’s Word in our hearts, internalizing it, that we are kept from sinning against Him. Someone has put it in this way: “Sin will keep you from God’s Word, or God’s Word will keep you from sin.”
And with our trusting and listening, we need also much prayer if we are to keep our hearts. In prayer we express our praise to God, our thanks for all His mercies, our commitment to Him day by day. We receive in prayer the quiet inflow of His strength. The flesh is weak, Jesus warns us, sadly vulnerable to temptation. That’s why we need, as He said, to watch and pray, to be always appealing to the Lord for His direction, His renewing and His strength. The best way to guard against the tendencies of our evil nature is to guard carefully our fellowship with God, that communion with Him which is our true life. Prayer, along with the Word, keeps us in vital touch with the Lord, and that’s the secret of dealing with our most profound problem. Do you want to keep your heart? Oh, give it to the Lord afresh every day, and He, by His grace and power, will keep it for you! God bless you!
PRAYER: Father, we give thanks today for the glorious good news of the gospel, that in Christ we are forgiven, in Christ we receive a new heart. May every person sharing this broadcast so trust in the Savior as to know the transforming gift of His Spirit. And then, Lord, as You have made our hearts clean, help us to keep them with all vigilance, knowing that from within our hearts flow all the springs of life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.