A literal rendering of Proverbs 4:23 would be, “Above all that you guard, watch over your heart, for the springs of life issue from it.” It came as a shock, a surprise, when I realized that here God commands me to guard my heart with more concern than other valuable things: physical health, financial solvency, my family, my work, and so on. It had never occurred to me that this “mental hygiene” should be the first priority. But God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and so his Word constantly surprises us with its injunctions and teachings.
When we meditate on this injunctions, two questions arise whose answers make explicit some crucial implications of this verse. First, what state of mind should we seek to maintain in order to diligently guard our hearts? Ordinarily the answer to such a question should be sought in the immediate context of a verse. But this is not possible here. There is hardly ever a sustained train of thought in the book of Proverbs. For the most part, each proverb stands alone and has no connection with what precedes or follows.
Therefore we are justified in going to the remote context, to some passage in Scripture where God gives information about the state of mind we should strive to maintain. Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice,” surely describes the state of mind we should make it our chief business to maintain. But how would it be possible always to rejoice in the Lord, when life, especially for the Christian, is filled “with much tribulation” (Acts 14:22)? Romans 12:12 answers this by commanding us to “rejoice in hope.” According to Romans 8:24, we do not yet see what we hope for. Therefore Christians derive no joy from our present tribulations, which really do hurt. But we do rejoice in the great things God has promised to do for us in the unseen future.
So we keep our hearts safely as we keep ourselves happy in the Lord by banking our hope on his promises. When something threatens us, we do well to single out one or two promises that tell what God will do to help. “As your days, so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25). “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4). These are two promises whose application to particular needs is obvious.
Fighting the fight of faith so that God’s peace and joy do rule in our hearts—this is the task which, according to Proverbs 4:23, takes priority over all other concerns, But a second question which arises from this verse is: “Why is this our most important task?” The text itself provides the answer: “Out of the heart are the springs of life.” That is, the state of the heart has a lot to do with the way things go for us. Circumstances do befall us over which we have no control. But a large percentage of life’s circumstances are the result of our own attitudes toward ourselves, others, and life in general. As Jesus said, “Each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. The good person out of the good treasury of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasury produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart (Luke 6:44–45).
If we rejoice in the Lord, many happier things befall us. The streams of life will, as it were, flow in better channels. Therefore, since the person who is happy in the Lord will have a better future than one who is bitter or jealousy or disheartened, then keeping our hearts happy in the Lord is, just for our own self-interest, the number-one priority in life. And it’s also the number-one priority because we glorify God only as we are happy in him. “Whoever brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors [God]” (Psalm 50:23).
Daniel P. Fuller