by Pastor Mark Hudson
Proverbs 4 begins with the father speaking to his son. In Proverbs, this is not advice but commandments (v. 4). The father reflects on the time when he was a son who listened to his father. He listened as an obedient child and urges the same for his son. The father is encouraging the son to be active in the pursuit of wisdom. The push is to “keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.”
There are happy returns for the person who does find wisdom. There is “life” (v. 4), insight (v. 5), wisdom “will exalt you” and “honor you” (v. 8), and she “will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (v. 9).
Then in chapter 4:10, the father pleads with the son to not just hear but to accept “my words” with the promise that the years of “your life may be many.” Accepting his words is like keeping “hold of instruction” (v. 13). This implies that wisdom is somewhat elusive or a challenge to get and maintain. One must work hard for it and then “guard her, for she is your life” (v. 13).
This is like v. 23 (one of my favorite verses in the Bible), “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” I love this verse so much partly due to a friend who spoke this to me while in college. I have loved this verse ever since. Prov 4:23 reflects and upholds the Bible’s constant insistence on the inner life, the heart, over the externals. In fact, wisdom is not merely law or commands. Proverbs teaches a process of learning when to speak and how, when to be quiet and listen. Wisdom literature reminds us that our limited energy and time should be spent in being godly, wise, and kind not in pursuing ungodly or wicked interests.
The Bible puts much greater emphasis on the internal and greatly minimizes the external. Jesus is grieved over “stubborn hearts” in Mark 3:5. Worship for our Lord is not following along in external worship if “their hearts are far from me” (Matt. 15:8). Contrary to the Jewish leaders, Jesus says that what condemns us is what comes “out of the heart” in Mark 7:19, 21. The greatest command is the love God with all our heart in Mark 12:30, 33.
In Proverbs, like the rest of the Bible, we are to watch our tongue, our actions, our friends, how we manage our resources, etc. but our attention is directed at our heart. We are to watch over or keep it, so our heart is not bitter, jealous, unforgiving, hard, or self-centered. According to the Bible, everything we do, comes from our intentions and desires or our heart. That is where the battle is and always will be. That is where God places His correcting finger. He wants to talk to us about our heart. We often want Him to go away when He does.
The call is to be righteous and do good in Proverbs is real but not to be done apart from God. Proverbs is not humanistic as some scholars think. The scholar Brueggemaan claims that wisdom literature announces the joyous news that God trusts people to steer their own lives. Crenshaw asserts that Israelite wisdom’s belief “in the sufficiency of human virtue to achieve well-being in this life, apart from divine assistance (both quoted in Waltke’s commentary p. 51. Brueggemaan’s title published in 1972 is In Man We Trust ). The fact that these scholars can conclude that Proverbs is a humanistic book reveals not true scholarship but a bias against divine revelation.
Notice with every encouragement to follow wisdom comes a warning of things not to do, places not to go, people not to spend time with and the effort to avoid these traps. In vs. 14 and following, observe these phrases, “avoid it (the path of the wicked), do not go on it, turn away from it and pass on” v. 15. In verse 24, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.” This is also a major theme in the Bible. The Scripture constantly warns us about the brevity of life. Psalm 39:5 reminds us that, “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” James 4:14 asks, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
While you can’t warn everyone you see or know, there are people in your life and times when you should warn. Some will not listen as you may anticipate. But you don’t know who will. You don’t know who will remember your loving words of warning. Does a doctor not tell her patient she might die unless treated? Do bridge builders, knowing the bridge is unsafe, allow drivers to drive on the bridge? Of course not. That is why we have a word like negligence for those derelict of their duty. We speak of obligation that some professions are under.
These warnings and encouragements relate to the heart. Our hearts can go feral quickly. A domesticated hog goes feral in months if left to fend for itself in the wild. They grow tusks, their hair is thicker, and they become more aggressive. In months, if we let our hearts go without careful nurturing and watching, our hearts go feral. How unsightly and displeasing to God that is. Oh, we don’t grow tusks nor does our hair look wild and unkempt. But if we could “see” a heart that is far away from God, that sight would be repugnant to us but more so to God.
Lord, purify our black hearts to make them pure. And knowing us, You will have to do that again and again. Create in us a new heart and stir us up to good works that come from a heart that loves and trusts You alone for forgiveness. Urge us, by all the reminders You provide, to watch over our heart knowing that You see our intentions and desires. Make our heart burn with devotion to You and for Your glory. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.