Proverbs 4:23
Great Texts of the Bible
The Heart

Keep thy heart with all diligence;

For out of it are the issues of life.—Proverbs 4:231. In the Bible, and more especially in the Book of Proverbs, the word “heart” is among the most pregnant in all language. As the heart physically is the central organ of the body, it is often used to denote the life, the soul itself. “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God.” Then there is a large group of passages which show that the heart in the Bible stands for the seat of the emotions, as in the popular phraseology of every language. But in Hebrew it also represented the seat of intelligence, the tone and quality of the character, as when a clear, pure, sincere heart is ascribed to any one, or when it is said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Further, it stands for will or purpose: “Do all that is in thine heart” means “in thine intention or desire.” Because the heart is thus the focus of the personal life, the secret laboratory in which every influence which penetrates thither is reacted upon, so that it passes out charged with the colour and quality of the inner life, it is natural that it should be spoken of here as the central fact of our nature, and that God should demand it for His own. When we give our heart to Him, we give Him the most precious, because the most determinative, element in our life.

2. The Greek version, which was very generally used in our Lord’s time, had a beautiful variation of the text: “In order that thy fountains may not fail thee, guard them in the heart.” It was after all but a new emphasis on the old teaching of the Book of Proverbs when Jesus taught the necessity of heart purity, and when He showed that out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, and all the things which defile a man. Yet this lesson of inwardness has always been the most difficult of all to learn. Christianity itself has always been declining from it and falling into the easier but futile ways of externalism; and even Christian homes have usually failed in their influence on the young, chiefly because their religious observances have fallen into formalism, and, while the outward conduct has been regulated, the inner springs of action have not been touched.

Visit the electrical power-house of any large town. Watch the whirling dynamo. Here is the energy that drives the car; here is generated the spark that lights the night; here is born the impulse that begets the motion and brightness outside. Musing thus, you will understand what is meant by the heart. Press the illustration further; mark how this monster is guarded and controlled, and then think of the last thunderstorm you can remember. In the engine-house the power is in subjection, watched with all diligence; outside in the wide universe it is untamed, uncontrolled, wrecking and damaging and contorting. On the one hand, assisting commerce, giving brightness and cheerfulness—the issues of life. On the other, devastation and ruin—the issues of death. Life and death by the same power. Controlled, life; uncontrolled, death. This power is analogous to the heart of Man 1:1 [Note: J. H. Ward.]


The Centre of Life

1. The heart that we carry in our body may rightly be called the centre of life. The physical heart is a large bunch of muscles, placed between the two lungs and acting as a fountain of life to the whole body. How wonderful it is in its structure—its auricles, and ventricles, its valves and blood-vessels! “The blood is the life”; and every moment it is being driven by the unresting stroke of the heart’s pump into the great arteries and all through the body. The heart is the central organ of the human frame; and the health of the body depends upon its soundness and its proper action. Only when this action is healthy and true will the whole body be full of power, energy, and beauty. When, on the other hand, the heart is feeble or diseased, it will send languor and mischief through the whole system. This organ, in short, is the mainspring, the determining factor in the life of the body. The other organs work well or ill according to the state of the heart.

2. But the Old Testament locates in the heart the centre of personal being. It is not merely the home of the affections, but also the seat of will, of moral purpose. As this text says, “the issues of life” flow from it in all the multitudinous variety of their forms. The stream parts into many heads, but it has one fountain. To the Hebrew thinkers the heart was the indivisible, central unity which manifested itself in the whole of the outward life. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” The heart is the man. And that personal centre has a moral character which comes to light in, and gives unity and character to, all his deeds.

(1) Out of the heart are the issues of life. It is not the mind, the thought-power, the judgment-forming part of our nature that holds the primacy and sits upon the throne. The mind, with its thoughts, its judgments, its ideas, is the servant of our practical needs. The mind, in fact, came into being, was organized and developed because of our practical needs. It is not the regal and aristocratic member of our being that it has sometimes been assumed to be. It is a veritable slave and lackey, serving in homespun, continually driven, and made to work overtime at the whip’s end of the dominant forces of life. Because primitive man was conscious of hunger, he contrived a way to till the ground, to plant, to reap, to grind and bake. The mind did not invent bread, and then coax the appetite to eat, because bread forsooth was good. Man was hungry; the appetite was imperious master, and it compelled the mind to find some way of satisfying that need. Because man was naked, he also invented dress, first from the skins of wild beasts, then from their woolly covering,” woven into a fabric. Because he was subjected to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the frost, he drove the thinking part of him to devise a tent and a roof, a protecting shelter from the prowling lion, or a stockade against human foe. Here is the invariable order: need—invention—satisfaction. And this is actually all that the mind, with its knowledge, has ever done for man; in the last analysis it will always reduce to this—the discovery of a way, continuously a better way, between these two terms; need, and the satisfaction of the need. Out of the heart have been the issues of life from the outset. The needs, the desires, the great passions, the urgent impulses—these have been in control. It is they who have sat on the throne.

(2) The condition of the heart determines our influence. The world over, the most potent force is not thought, but love. Argument often convinces while affection sways in a contrary direction. A teacher’s wisdom, with all the fascinations of the schools, moves us less than a mother’s pleading and tears. Even where masses of men bow before eloquent oratory, it is the power of sincerity and earnestness in the speaker that moves even those who differ. We all instinctively feel that the secret of heroism is noble affection, unselfish love, and sacrifice. There is a sort of righteousness that only awakens a cold admiration; while goodness, which is righteousness touched with love, leads men to die for its possessor.

When Wilberforce, the great apostle of liberty in Europe, was turning the world upside-down, one man asked another, “What is the secret of the power of Wilberforce? There are many men with more brains and more culture.” And his friends answered, “The secret of Wilberforce is that he has a heart full of sympathy.” And that is the secret of multitudes of people who are doing great good in the world. Do not keep guard over your heart with the purpose only of keeping bad things out of it, but keep watch over it to see that the fountains of sympathy and brotherly kindness are open and flowing day by day.1 [Note: L. A. Banks, The Problems of Youth, 85.]

(3) That which goes so far to mould character and to shape influence, must determine destiny. When the great judicial scales of the Universal Judge are at last hung, it cannot be otherwise than that the central affections should settle which way those scales preponderate: what we have most truly loved must have vital connexion with the eternal future—not only with the entrance into Heaven, but the capacity for its joys. Our affections both reveal what character essentially is and forecast what it is to be—even more than our thoughts; for the affections largely prompt our habits of thought, determining what images we love to contemplate. The essence both of sin and of holiness is largely here; for the acts both of sin and of saintliness could have little moral quality were there no moral preference behind them. It is the love of evil that makes sin so damning, and the love of holiness that is the heart of sainthood. But for this heart affection for evil, how could the imagination be employed as sin’s artist, or memory as its treasure gatherer, or the will as its marshal? But for this, even the Devil’s hook would be bare of bait, and his wiles would find no response in us, as they found none in our tempted Master.

In a letter to his mother at Scotsbrig. Carlyle writes from Craigenputtock, in September 1833: “But I must tell you something of myself: for I know many a morning, my dear mother, you ‘come in by me’ in your rambles through the world after those precious to you. If you had eyes to see on these occasions you would find everything quite tolerable here. I have been rather busy, though the fruit of my work is rather inward, and has little to say for itself. I have yet hardly put pen to paper; but foresee that there is a time coming. All my griefs, I can better and better see, lie in good measure at my own door: were I right in my own heart, nothing else would be far wrong with me. This, as you well understand, is true of every mortal, and I advise all that hear me to believe it, and to lay it practically to their own case.”1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1835, ii. 368.]

In the course of a walk in the park at Edgeworthstown, I happened to use some phrase which conveyed (though not perhaps meant to do so) the impression that I suspected Poets and Novelists of being a good deal accustomed to look at life and the world only as materials for art. A soft and pensive shade came over Scott’s face as he said, “I fear you have some very young ideas in your head; are you not too apt to measure things by some reference to literature—to disbelieve that anybody can be worth much care who has no knowledge of that sort of thing, or taste for it? God help us! what a poor world this would be if that were the true doctrine! I have read books enough, and observed and conversed with enough of eminent and splendidly cultivated minds, too, in my time; but, I assure you, I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of poor uneducated men and women, when exerting the spirit of severe yet gentle heroism under difficulties and afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in the lot of friends and neighbours, than I ever yet met with out of the pages of the Bible. We shall never learn to feel and respect our real calling and destiny, unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as moonshine, compared with the education of the heart.”1 [Note: Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, ch. lxiii.]

Too soon did the Doctors of the Church forget that the heart, the moral nature, was the beginning and the end; and that truth, knowledge, and insight were comprehended in its expansion. This was the true and first apostasy,—when in council and synod the Divine Humanities of the Gospel gave way to speculative Systems, and Religion became a Science of Shadows under the name of Theology, or at best a bare Skeleton of Truth, without life or interest, alike inaccessible and unintelligible to the majority of Christians. For these, therefore, there remained only rites and ceremonies and spectacles, shows and semblances. Thus among the learned the Substance of things hoped for passed into Notions; and for the unlearned the Surfaces of things became Substance. The Christian world was for centuries divided into the Many that did not think at all, and the Few who did nothing but think,—both alike unreflecting, the one from defect of the act, the other from the absence of an object.2 [Note: Coleridge, Aids to Reflection.]


The Keeping of the Heart

“Keep thy heart above all keeping.” God guards very carefully the heart He has put in our body. He has put the strongest bones all round it, so that, though other parts may be easily hurt, the heart is safe. Well, the text says that we should guard the heart of our real lives in the same way “with all diligence,” above everything else; because, if the heart goes wrong, the whole life goes wrong with it.

One of the most famous and valuable diamonds in the world is the “Koh-i-nur,” or Mountain of Light, which belongs to the British Crown. This gem was exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was an object of special interest. It lay upon a little cushion in a case with glass panels, the inside being lighted up with gas. And there was always a group of people crowding to see it. But it was also an object of peculiar care. For while the whole of the Crystal Palace, which contained so many treasures, was well guarded, a special watchman paced to and fro by day and night to guard the “Koh-i-nur.” Even so ought every Christian, above all other valuables that he has to guard, to “keep” his heart, for it is the citadel of his life.1 [Note: C. Jerdan, For the Lambs of the Flock, 63.]

1. Our nature is evidently not a republic, but a monarchy. It is full of blind impulses, and hungry desires, which take no heed of any law but their own satisfaction. If the reins are thrown on the necks of these untamed horses, they will drag the man to destruction. They are safe only when they are curbed and bitted, and held well in. Then there are tastes and inclinations which need guidance and are plainly meant to be subordinate. The will is to govern all the lower self, and conscience is to govern the will. Unmistakably there are parts of every man’s nature which are meant to serve, and parts which are appointed to rule, and to let the servants usurp the place of the rulers is to bring about as wild a confusion within as the Preacher lamented that he had seen in the anarchic times when he wrote—princes walking and beggars on horseback. As George Herbert has it—

Give not thy humours way;

God gave them to thee under lock and key.

Savage tribes not only fight with poisoned arrows; they have been known to creep into another tribe’s country, and put poison into the wells, so that when the tired soldier, the thirsting woman and child, and the poor beasts of the forest came to the well to slake their thirst, they drank death in every drop of water that passed their lips. Now, would you think a chief stern, or too particular, if at war-time he ordered his people to guard the wells? Would not such an order be a kind one? Would not the meaning of it be, “Save your own lives, and the lives of your wives and children”? Well, your heart, your mind, is the well of your life. If that is poisoned, your best life will die. And the Book that bids you guard it well is not a stern book, but a kind, loving book, that wishes you well, and is your best friend.2 [Note: J. M. Gibbon, In the Days of Youth, 32.]

2. Keeping or guarding is plainly imperative, because there is an outer world which appeals to our needs and desires, irrespective altogether of right and wrong, and of the moral consequences of gratifying these. Put a loaf before a starving man, and his impulse will be to clutch and devour it, without regard to whether it is his or not. Show any of our animal propensities its appropriate food, and it asks no questions as to right or wrong, but is stirred to grasp its natural food. And even the higher and nobler parts of our nature are but too apt to seek their gratification without having the licence of conscience for doing so, and sometimes in defiance of its plain prohibitions.

Many telegraph wires run under and over our streets, over the mountains and under the oceans, coming from scenes of war and of peace, of industry and of learning, of sorrow and of joy, each carrying some swift current. And these wires are gathered at last into some central office of many clicking instruments. The operator translates these currents into intelligence, and sends them out in the form of messages of commerce, of war, of crime, or of love. So our five senses are main wires going out into the world about us, gathering observations, sensations, and experience from the streets of the city, the scenes of the country, the companions we meet, the books we read, the pictures at which we look. Another wire goes down, like an ocean cable, into the depths of our own nature, bringing up mysterious messages given by our own consciousness, speaking of God and good, of right and wrong, and of judgment to come. Thus there are wires from heaven above, on which God and good angels are sending messages; wires from hell below, on which the devil and his angels are sending suggestions, promptings; wires from men and women about us, conveying subtle trains of thought and of feeling. And the heart of man is the central office into which these wires run, pouring in there this raw material of thought-stuff.1 [Note: R. Mackenzie, The Loom of Providence, 248.]


The Keeper of the Heart

1. The inherent weakness of all attempts at self-keeping is that, keeper and kept being one and the same personality, the more we need to be kept the less able we are to effect it. If in the very garrison there are traitors, how shall the fortress be defended? In order, then, to exercise an effectual guard over our characters and control over our natures, we must have an outward standard of right and wrong which shall not be deflected by variations in our temperature. We need a fixed light to steer towards, which is stable on the stable shore, and is not tossing up and down on our decks. We shall cleanse our way only when we “take heed thereto, according to thy word.” For even God’s viceroy within, the sovereign conscience, can be warped, perverted, silenced, and is not immune from the spreading infection of evil. When it turns to God, as a mirror to the sun, it is irradiated and flashes bright illumination into dark corners, but its power depends on its being thus lit by radiations from the very Light of Life. And if we are ever to have a coercive power over the rebellious powers within, we must have God’s power breathed into us, giving grip and energy to all the good within, quickening every lofty desire, satisfying every aspiration that feels after Him, cowing all our evil and being the very self of ourselves.

To know that God does not depend upon our feelings, but our feelings upon God, to know that we must claim a certain spiritual position as our right before we can realize it in our apprehensions, to be assured that we have the Spirit of God within us, and that He is distinct from all the emotions, energies, affections, sympathies in our minds, the only source and inspirer of them all, this is most necessary for us, the peculiar necessity, if I am not mistaken, of this age. The confidence of a power always at work within us, manifesting itself in our powerlessness, a love filling up our lovelessness, a wisdom surmounting our folly, the knowledge of our right to glory in this love, power, and wisdom, the certainty that we can do all righteous acts by submitting to this Righteous Being, and that we do them best when we walk in a line chosen for us, and not of our choosing, this is the strength surely, and nothing else, which carries us through earth and lifts us to heaven.1 [Note: The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 246.]

2. The heart will not be satisfied till it is given to the highest and best. It demands a permanent investment for its affections; wealth, earthly ambition, the happiness that comes from without are only a loan at the best, and capital and interest will be demanded at death. The heart demands something substantial; glory, praise, reputation are full of promise till they are ours; and then, a last year’s nest, out of which the bird has flown! In one word, the heart demands a person greater, nobler, purer, stronger than itself, in whose affections and favour it can live and move and have its being; and God, as revealed in His Son Jesus Christ, is the only One whose nature is great enough to environ the soul with perfect peace and feed it with unfailing strength, in whose favour is life, and at whose right hand are pleasures for evermore.

The wise Augustine, who, after many wild wanderings, in which he had drained the fountain of knowledge, and quaffed to the dregs the cup of earthly delights, and given himself to every device by which the libertine and the fool endeavour to slake their souls at the salt pools of death, came back to God, like a bird to its forsaken nest, and said, “O Lord, broken is our heart and unquiet, and full of sorrow it must be, till it finds rest in Thee!”1 [Note: E. Griffith-Jones, in Comradeship and Character, 261.]

“I wish you would change my heart,” said the chief Sekomi to Livingstone, “Give me medicine to change it, for it is proud, proud and angry, angry always.” He would not hear of the New Testament way of changing the heart; he wanted an outward, mechanical way—and that way was not to be found.2 [Note: R. F. Horton, The Book of Proverbs, 58.]

3. That Divine Power is exerted for our keeping on condition of our trusting ourselves to Him and trusting Him for ourselves. And that condition is no arbitrary one, but is prescribed by the very nature of Divine help and of human faith. If God could keep our souls without our trust in Him, He would. He does so keep them as far as is possible, but for all the choicer blessings of His giving, and especially for that of keeping us free from the domination of our lower selves, there must be in us faith, if there is to be in God help. The hand that lays hold on God in Christ must be stretched out and must grasp His warm, gentle, and strong hand, if the tingling touch of it is to infuse strength. If the relieving force is victoriously to enter our hearts, we must throw open the gates and welcome it. Faith is but the open door for God’s entrance. It has no efficacy in itself any more than a door has, but all its blessedness depends on what it admits into the hidden chambers of the heart.

“To conquer,” said Napoleon, “you must replace.” You cannot expel bad thoughts by no thoughts. “Whatsoever things are pure, think on these things.” One thought there is which above all others is fruitful and powerful, and which should be familiar to every tempted Christian soul; it is the thought of the Cross and of Christ Crucified. “In hoc signo vinces.” David slew the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, but the sling was ready in his hand, and foresight had caused him to fill the bag with stones out of the brook. To the soul which fights the faithful battle in the realm of thought, and cries aloud in the darkness of its night to Christ Crucified, what wondrous light and power are given by the merits of the Cross and Passion.

Here is the heart’s true bulwark found!

And here is rest secure;

And here is love’s most certain ground,

And here salvation sure.1 [Note: The Lenten Collects, 33.]

O how well he is guarded and armed against the snares of the devil and evil thoughts and impure imaginations, who has the image of the Crucified fixed in his heart, penetrating all his interior: and always and everywhere urging to the thought and performance of every good! Then inwardly consoled with wondrous sweetness of heart from the presence of Christ shall he be able justly to say, what holy David with great joy sang to God: “I have run the way of thy commandments; when thou didst enlarge my heart.”2 [Note: Thomas à Kempis, Sermons to the Novices Regular, 76.]


Burgess (F. G.), Little Beginnings, 117.

Calthrop (G.), The Lost Sheep Found, 153.

Davidson (T.), Thoroughness, 101.

Dewhurst (F. E.), The Investment of Truth, 107.

Fürst (A.), Christ the Way, 12.

Gibbon (J. M.), In the Days of Youth, 28.

Griffith-Jones (E.), in Comradeship and Character, 253.

Jeffrey (J.), The Way of Life, 55.

Jerdan (C.), For the Lambs of the Flock, 59.

King (T. S.), Christianity and Humanity, 254.

Mackenzie (R.), The Loom of Providence, 245.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Esther, etc., 116.

Pierson (A. T.), Godly Self-Control, 1.

Rowland (A.), in The Ladder of Life, 33.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, iv. (1858), No. 179.

Stowell (H.), Sermons, 72.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons to Children, i. 205.

Wagner (C.), Courage, 69.

Wiseman (N.), Sermons for Children, 116.

Christian World Pulpit, v. 132 (R. Tuck); lxxv. 76 (W. E. Breakey), 309 (J. H. Ward).

Church of England Magazine, xxv. 256 (J. Bull).

Church of England Pulpit, lxii. 68 (W. R. Inge).

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