The Text Explained

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
Proverbs 4:23 KJV

The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the fountain of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it.

The greatest difficulty in conversion, is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God. Here lies the very force and stress of religion; here is that which makes the way to life a narrow way, and the gate of heaven a strait gate. Direction and help in this great work are the scope of the text: wherein we have,

  1. An exhortation, “Keep thy heart with all diligence.”
  2. The reason or motive enforcing it, “For out of it are the issues of life.”

In the exhortation I shall consider,

First, The matter of the duty.
Secondly, The manner of performing it.

1 The matter of the duty: Keep thy heart. Heart is not here taken properly for the noble part of the body, which philosophers call “the first that lives and the last that dies;” but by heart, in a metaphor, the Scripture sometimes represents some particular noble faculty of the soul. In Romans 1:21, it is put for the understanding; their foolish heart, that is, their foolish understanding was darkened. Psalm 119:11, it is put for the memory; “Thy word have I hid in my heart;” and 1 John 3:10, it is put for the conscience, which includes both the light of the understanding and the recognitions of the memory; if our heart condemn us, that is, if our conscience, whose proper office it is to condemn.

But in the text we are to take it more generally, for the whole soul, or inner man. What the heart is to the body, that the soul is to the man; and what health is to the heart, that holiness is to the soul. The state of the whole body depends upon the soundness and vigor of the heart, and the everlasting state of the whole man upon the good or ill condition of the soul.

By keeping the heart, understand the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintain its sweet and free communion with God. [I say constant, for the reason added in the text extends the duty to all the states and conditions of a Christian’s life, and makes it binding always. If the heart must be kept, because out of it are the issues of life, then as long as these issues of life do flow out of it, we are obliged to keep it.] Lavater on the text will have the word taken from a besieged garrison, beset by many enemies without, and in danger of being betrayed by treacherous citizens within, in which danger the soldiers, upon pain of death, are commanded to watch; and though the expression, Keep thy heart, seems to put it upon us as our work, yet it does not imply a sufficiency in us to do it. We are as able to stop the sun in its course, or to make the rivers run backward, as by our own skill and power to rule and order our hearts. We may as well be our own saviors as our own keepers; and yet Solomon speaks properly enough when he says, Keep thy heart, because the duty is ours, though the power is of God; what power we have depends upon the exciting and assisting strength of Christ. Grace within us is beholden to grace without us. “Without me ye can do nothing.”

So much for the matter of the duty.

2 The manner of performing it is with all diligence. The Hebrew is very emphatical; keep with all keeping, or, keep, keep, set double guards. This vehemency of expression with which the duty is urged, plainly implies how difficult it is to keep our hearts, how dangerous to neglect them!

The motive to this duty is very forcible and weighty: “For out of the heart are the issues of life.” That is, the heart is the source of all vital operations; it is the spring and original of both good and evil, as the spring in a watch that sets all the wheels in motion. The heart is the treasury, the hand and tongue but the shops; what is in these, comes from that; the hand and tongue always begin where the heart ends. The heart contrives, and the members execute: “a good man, out of the good treasure of his, heart, bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure of his heart, bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” So then, if the heart err in its work, these must miscarry in theirs; for heart errors are like the errors of the first concoction, which cannot be rectified afterward; or like the misplacing and inverting of the stamps and letters in the press, which must cause so many errata in all the copies that are printed. O then how important a duty is that which is contained in the following:

PropositionThe keeping and right managing of the heart in every condition, is one great business of a Christian’s life.

What the philosopher says of waters, is as properly applicable to hearts; it is hard to keep them within any bounds, God has set limits to them, yet how frequently do they transgress not only the bounds of grace and religion, but even of reason and common honesty? This is that which affords the Christian matter of labor and watchfulness, to his dying day. It is not the cleaning of the hand that makes the Christian, for many a hypocrite can show as fair a hand as he; but the purifying, watching, and right ordering of the heart; this is the thing that provokes so many sad complaints, and costs so many deep groans and tears. It was the pride of Hezekiah’s heart that made him lie in the dust, mourning before the Lord. It was the fear of hypocrisy’s invading the heart that made David cry, “Let my heart be sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed.” It was the sad experience he had of the divisions and distractions of his own heart in the service of God, that made him pour out the prayer, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.”

The method in which I propose to improve the proposition is this:

First, I shall inquire what the keeping of the heart supposes and imports.
Secondly, Assign divers reasons why Christians must make this a leading business of their lives.
Thirdly, Point out those seasons which especially call for this diligence in keeping the heart.
Fourthly, Apply the whole.

First, I am to consider what the keeping of the heart supposes and imports.

To keep the heart, necessarily supposes a previous work of regeneration, which has set the heart right, by giving it a new spiritual inclination, for as long as the heart is not set right by grace as to its habitual frame, no means can keep it right with God. Self is the poise of the unrenewed heart, which biasses and moves it in all its designs and actions; and as long as it is so, it is impossible that any external means should keep it with God.

Man, originally, was of one constant, uniform frame of spirit, held one straight and even course; not one thought or faculty was disordered: his mind had a perfect knowledge of the requirements of God, his will a perfect compliance therewith; all his appetites and powers stood in a most obedient subordination.

Man, by the apostacy, is become a most disordered and rebellious creature, opposing his Maker, as the First Cause, by self-dependence; as the Chief Good, by self-love; as the highest Lord, by self-will; and as the Last End, by self-seeking. Thus he is quite disordered, and all his actions are irregular. But by regeneration the disordered soul is set right; this great change being, as the Scripture expresses it, the renovation of the soul after the image of God, in which self-dependence is removed by faith; self-love, by the love of God; self-will, by subjection and obedience to the will of God; and self-seeking by self-denial. The darkened understanding is illuminated, the refractory will sweetly subdued, the rebellious appetite gradually conquered. Thus the soul which sin had universally depraved, is by grace restored. This being presupposed, it will not be difficult to apprehend what it is to keep the heart, which is nothing but the constant care and diligence of such a renewed man to preserve his soul in that holy frame to which grace has raised it. For though grace has, in a great measure, rectified the soul, and given it an habitual heavenly temper; yet sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument, which though it be exactly tuned, a small matter brings it out of tune again; yea, hang it aside but a little, and it will need setting again before another lesson can be played upon it. If gracious hearts are in a desirable frame in one duty, yet how dull, dead, and disordered when they come to another! Therefore every duty needs a particular preparation of the heart. “If thou prepare thine heart and stretch out thine hands toward him,”. To keep the heart then, is carefully to preserve it from sin, which disorders it; and maintain that spiritual frame which fits it for a life of communion with God.