Proverbs 4:23 - Above All Else, Guard Your Heart, for it is the Wellspring of Life
In southern Alberta this year, we are experiencing the worst drought in decades: a drought of severity, some say, not seen since the dirty thirties. Each day the local newspapers tell us of farms whose wells and dugouts are drying up. The fields are parched and the cattle are being sold off because there is no water for them. Though in some areas irrigation is available for thousands of acres of farmland, vast areas of land have no water. The creeks and ponds are dry. Without water, life cannot exist. The fields are barren, the cattle thirsty, wildfires rage through tinder dry forests. Those who still have some water for their farms understand that it is a precious commodity.
In Israel, there are no rivers that flow year-round, except for the Jordan which flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. This river flows down a deep valley far below the farmlands of Israel. In ancient times water was collected and stored in cisterns or drawn from deep wells. Wells and springs have an important function in a land where there are no rivers. Wells were essential. In Genesis 21 and 26, we can read of the conflicts between Abraham and Isaac's herdsmen and those who worked for Abimelech. Isaac would dig a well and Abimelech's men would take it by force. Isaac would dig another and Abimelech would take it by force. Think of the story in Isaiah 7. Assyria is about to lay siege to Jerusalem and King Ahaz goes out to inspect the city's water supply. He would need to ensure that the spring and the pools and cisterns were well-guarded. Without water, a city would fall to siege in a short time. Years later, to ensure the security of the water supply, Hezekiah son of Ahaz, dug a tunnel to the spring outside Jerusalem so that even during a siege the city would have a secure water supply. The Gihon well was the wellspring of life. Without the well, there was no life. All life in Jerusalem flowed from that well.
"Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Above all else, do this!" Even as Ahaz and Hezekiah knew that the well that supplied Jerusalem was of the greatest strategic importance and needed to be guarded and kept safe from the enemy, so this proverb directs the young man to guard his heart. The first chapters of Proverbs are the words of a wise father to his son, from a teacher to his student. The master is setting before the apprentice wisdom for living. He tells his son to seek wisdom, to be faithful, to learn true love of God and neighbour. He urges obedience, commitment, and character: diligence, discipline, and devotion. He gives instruction about character, prudence, discretion, and sound judgment. He demands justice and gentleness. But above all else, do this: Guard your heart!
The heart is the centre of life. In the Proverbs, the heart often signifies what we think of when we speak of the mind. However, it can mean far more than that. The heart is the seat of emotion. It is the centre of the will. It represents the whole inner being of man: who he is.
In the verses leading to our passage, we can read that the teacher says,
My son pay attention to what I say; listen carefully 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.
True life is not just something that you have. It is not static or superficial. Rather, life wells up, as truth is made one’s own and then flows out.
The Lord Jesus might have been alluding to this verse when he said, “...for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Christ Jesus says that evil men bring forth evil and good men bring forth good. In another place the Lord Jesus Christ says that what comes out of a man's heart is what makes him unclean. It is out of men's hearts that wicked thoughts come: thoughts of sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Mark 7:21). Guard your heart from being taken over by the enemy, by the evil one. If the enemy takes over the well, then the city falls. If the enemy takes over your heart, then your life is his. If the enemy poisons the well then life dies off. “Above all else, guard your heart.”
How then do we guard the heart? By listening to the words of the teacher, the master. Keep them within your heart (Proverbs 4:20). Even as Psalm 119:11 says: "I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you." It is the Word of God that we must use to guard our hearts. It is the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ that is our fortress and our defense. "Above all else, guard your heart." Do not let the wickedness of the world infiltrate your heart, but rather think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Then the God of peace will be with you (cf. Philippians 4:8, 9). Pray constantly that He will grant his grace and Holy Spirit to you that you might be able, above all else, to guard your heart.
Jesus says in John 7:38 that “whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” In another place it says that “the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook” (Proverbs 18:4) and “the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life” (10:11). The Lord Jesus Christ said to the woman at Jacob's well that he who comes to Him to drink will never thirst. He who comes to Jesus to drink will have a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13, 14). Out of the heart flow living waters. “Guard your heart.”
Out of that source will come sweet water that will make your life flourish. You will be like trees planted along a stream (Psalm 1:3). Life then is not a drought-stricken land, with dry streams and empty dugouts and murky ponds and sloughs with stagnant water, but rather life will be a place of blessing and joy and celebration.