Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
This chapter is so positive. It isn’t primarily about “don’ts,” though they have their place. We can’t say yes to everything. But this chapter is about how we can live. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Every one of us wants that. We don’t deserve it. But we can have it, to the max, because Christ gives it. I found this in a sermon by Spurgeon this week:
“Come unto me,” Jesus says, “and I will give you [rest].” You say, “Lord, I cannot give you anything.” He does not want anything. Come to Jesus, and he says, “I will give you.” Not what you give to God, but what he gives to you, will be your salvation. “I will give you” — that is the gospel in four words. Will you come and have it? It lies open before you.
The gospel is not about what we shouldn’t do or even what we should do. The gospel announces what God has already done for us in Christ. And no matter who you are, you can have it all freely, beginning today, through Christ. His gospel is so inviting.
Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was a minister in the Church of Scotland. In his famous sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” he made a good point. Even when we see the stupidity of our sins and how empty they are and how they only make us sad, it still doesn’t change us. We start changing when we see Christ, when we see that Christ will make us alive in ways our most darling sins cannot. We start changing when we see that in Christ we’re not losing; we’re gaining everything we desire in our own deepest intentions. The gospel shows us Jesus pouring out his lifeblood, so that we can live. The gospel says, “Look at him. Come to him. Follow him. You will stop dying, you will start living, and it will never end.” That’s why we’re in church today. We want to stop dying so much and start living more and more. We want that for everyone in our city. It’s why we’re here.
Proverbs chapter 4 shows us pathways into the life of Christ. The chapter breaks down like this: how to get going (verses 1-9), how to keep going (verses 10-19), how not to get lost along the way (verses 20-27).
How to get going
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast to my words;
keep my commandments, and live.”
We’re overhearing a father of teenage sons leading them into wisdom. How does he do it? He tells them what he learned when he was a boy. He’s saying, “I remember when I was a kid how my dad got me going into a great life.” We’ve seen this father/son conversation before. But now we meet the grandfather. Now we see three generations in the family. Evidently, the grandfather has died, because the father does not say, “Remember what grandpa used to say?” Instead, the father explains to his sons how his dad got him going into a great life. So do you see? We’re being invited into a tradition of wisdom.
What is tradition? Tradition is previous generations handing down to us something of their own. Our forefathers are not disqualified from speaking into our lives just by the accident of their death. In fact, they have an advantage over us. They fought the good fight, they finished the race, they kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). On my ordination certificate are 25 signatures. In 1975 all those men were faithful to Christ. But today one of them is a radical gay activist, and another is under suspicion by the LAPD for murdering his wife, and he looks guilty as sin. You and I are still on our way. So those who are fully proven have something to say that we don’t. Proverbs 4 is alerting us to the value of past voices.
Let’s think about what we stand to gain from our tradition as Christians. It’s been 2000 years since Jesus – maybe 60 generations. About 12 generations into this historical flow, along came a man named Augustine. He taught us that God made us for God, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. And Augustine did find that rest. About 32 generations into this flow, along came a man named Anselm. He taught us that, until we come to Christ, we cannot know what a heavy weight sin is. And for Anselm, that weight was lifted away. About 45 generations into it, along came a man named Martin Luther. He taught us that God treats bad people like good people through the finished work of Christ on the cross, received with mere faith. And Luther found that peace in Christ. About 53 generations into it, along came a man named Jonathan Edwards. He taught us that real Christianity is a miracle, as God awakens dead hearts with powerful affections for Christ. And God gave that miracle to Edwards. About 59 generations into it, along came a man named Ray Ortlund Sr. He taught me what a revival-ready church looks like. And God honored his readiness with the reality. The Bible says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). We don’t have to imitate their style, but we’d be fools not to imitate their faith. It took them all the way into life. It’s why C. S. Lewis said that, after reading a modern book, we shouldn’t read another one until we’ve read an old book. The Old Dead Guys speak from proven experience.
What are all these generations telling us? “Jesus didn’t fail us, and he won’t fail you. Go for it!” So this father here in Proverbs 4 is looking deeply into the eyes of his dear son and urging him to set his heart on the only prize in all this world that cannot fail:
Get wisdom; get insight; . . .
The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.
—Proverbs 4:5a, 7
Do you feel that urgency about getting wisdom for yourself? Are you convinced yet? My first year Greek textbook quoted Dr. Johnson as saying, “Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” Back then a proper gentleman adorned his persona with Greek and lace. How quaint. Maybe that’s how you feel about wisdom, and you have more urgent goals. But God is looking into your eyes with great love as his own child and saying this to you right now: “Whatever you get, get insight.”
The NIV clarifies the force of that: “Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” If you want God’s wisdom, it will cost you. It will cost you all the ideas you had about how life is supposed to work. Why pay that price? Because God’s wisdom will make you alive (verse 4), his wisdom will keep you and guard you (verse 6), his wisdom will exalt you and honor you and crown you with beauty (verses 8-9) – that’s a life worth living! Who else can promise you that? Every day we’re told that, if we want to live, we need to be young, thin, tanned, sexually active, rich and smart-mouthed. There’s our ideal, the wisdom of our age. Just one question. Is it working? What if you actually got hold of all that, would you walk away from it a complete human being? All those young, thin, tanned, sexually active, rich, smart-mouthed people – name one person who has thrown himself into that life and come away from it with what you want for yourself. Name one. And how do you explain 2000 years of all types of people from different cultures who set their hearts on Christ, they followed his wisdom in the Bible and they did find life in all its fullness?
You face a choice today – the proven way of Christ versus the defunct way of our times. Whichever you choose, it will cost you all you have. But which path will give you everything you want? Jesus is so gracious. To follow him, you don’t need brains and talent. You don’t need a knack for wisdom. But you do need to become decisive. Though it cost you all you have, and it will, get Christ. Don’t you feel that something in your life needs to change? Don’t you need to turn a corner? Don’t you want newness of life from Christ? Well, come and get it. Decisiveness is how you get going.
How to keep going
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The key metaphor in this second paragraph is “the way.” Verse 11: “the way of wisdom, the paths of uprightness.” Verse 14: “the path of the wicked, the way of the evil.” Verse 18: “the path of the righteous.” Verse 19: “the way of the wicked.” We face only two alternatives – the wise way versus the evil way. In our timidity we’d prefer a compromise. We’d prefer three ways to choose from – a rotten life of folly over at one extreme, a super-duper great life of wisdom over at the other extreme, but in the middle a decent life of “whatever.” But God is saying there are only two ways: a gloomy disaster of a life without his wisdom, and a bright success of a life with his wisdom. Therefore, wisdom is not an optional extra: “. . . she is your life” (verse 13).
What does the path-metaphor tell us? It tells us that life is a journey, there is no quick fix, and we take it one step at a time with moment-by-moment choices between the two ways. As we go forward, the sage has a warning for us, and he has hope for us.
Here’s his warning. And it’s not a threat. He’s not saying, “Here are my arbitrary rules to control you. Keep them, or else.” He is explaining that one of these two paths leads into a minefield:
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
Evil becomes compulsive, and none of us is above it, because this is the nature of our depraved hearts. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). It’s a slavery deep inside, an emotional engine we can’t shut down. How do we see it today? Think of politics. It’s not just about winning; it’s about destroying the other person, and there’s no stopping it. Think of the gambling industry, with its antisocial impact, but there’s no stopping it. We scarcely understand the dark powers we unleash inside ourselves when we turn one step from Christ, our Hope. Remember how Satan thought, that dark new thought that formed in his mind, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Satan gave up on God:
So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good . . . .
The wise father, the sage, is warning us we will be tempted, and behind every temptation is an overwhelming power of darkness and despair. So let’s realize how much is at stake in what we choose. And the best defense is a good offense, our hope in Christ.
That’s the second thing the sage wants us to see here – our bright hope in the promise of the gospel:
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day. —Proverbs 4:18
What keeps us going in God’s way is hope, confidence, expectancy. You might not be much of a Christian right now. Who of us is? But if you’ve chosen Christ, he is dawning in your life. There might be only a glimmer of light on your horizon right now. But the sun is rising, the darkness cannot stop it, and Christ will bring his good work in you to brilliant completion. That bright hope is how you keep going on the right path.
How not to get lost along the way
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
In this final paragraph the sage calls us to pay attention to every step we take. He is calling us to concentrated focus. A lack of self-awareness will get us lost. But we keep going forward, toward the high noon of our hopes, by applying the gospel to our hearts. Everything else flows from there.
The counsel of verse 23 is so wise – and so opposite to the wisdom of our age. We’re told today that what we need to be happy is to assemble around us our selfish little ideal designer life just the way we want it, with our dream house and our trophy wife and everything else. But the truth is, if we got it all, it would only make us more depressed and angry, because all those outward advantages would only mock our sadness within. Life does not flow from the outside in, it flows from the inside out. We need our hearts continuously filled with the life of Christ. I think he had this verse in mind when he said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). We will not lose our way on the journey of life, if we will keep coming to Jesus and drinking in his acceptance, his forgiveness, his promises, his love. Everything else flows from in there.
In the new book Women, Food and God Geneen Roth, who is not writing as a Christian, gets close to the truth:
Women turn to food when they are not hungry because they are hungry for something they can’t name: a connection to what is beyond the concerns of daily life. Something deathless, something sacred. But replacing the hunger for divine connection with Double Stuf Oreos is like giving a glass of sand to a person dying of thirst. It creates more thirst, more panic.
Your heart has a hunger, a thirst, that only Christ can satisfy. And he can, overflowingly, forever, freely, for you. Come. Come as you are. Come moment by moment. Drink him in.
What about us men? We need to guard our hearts too. What are we looking at on our computers and taking into our hearts? Remember the old Greek myth of Medusa? Anyone who just looked at her turned to stone. Alexander Pope told us how our hearts can become hardened:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Don’t cram your heart full of death. Fill your heart by faith with the love of Jesus for sinful men. As we draw the love we crave from Jesus, it flows out in healing throughout our beings. Look how the sage makes it practical by referring to the various parts of our bodies:
Put away from you a crooked mouth,
and put devious lips far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.
The Lord Jesus Christ died for you, and he also claims you, all that you are from head to toe. The gospel calls you to deploy your body for him: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). If we are distracted from moment by moment connection with the mercies of God, so that our hearts grow cold and our mouths become reckless and our eyes wayward and our feet wandering, we are only one misstep away from life-shattering catastrophe. We don’t have to give ourselves to raw evil to end up there; we only have to lose real heart-connection with Christ. Every one of us is always five minutes away from total disaster. We need our Savior every moment!
Let’s make this concrete in a helpful way. If you’re right-handed, hold your right hand in front of you so that you can look at it. If you’re left-handed, hold out your left hand. You do a lot with that hand, both good and evil. But now you want to dedicate that hand to Christ. You want to be wise all your life long with that hand. Here’s what you need to remember. Jesus died for your hand. Yes, your hand. And he didn’t just die for the sins you’ve committed with that hand. He shed his blood out of love for your hand, to redeem your hand, to make your hand wise in the present and immortal in the future, to the praise of the glory of his grace. Someday your hand will be powerful for God such as you cannot imagine right now. Your hand will no longer feel pain. Your hand will no longer be able to sin. Your hand will touch the hand of Christ. Everything you are will be redeemed. The whole creation will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). If you are in Christ, just because you are in Christ by grace, that liberation will include you, all of you, everything about you. How can you give yourself over to stupidity now? That’s not your path. That’s not your destiny. Christ has set you apart to himself. Christ will have the final say in your life, and his purpose of grace is dawning in you right now.
Will you consecrate your hand, and everything you are, to Christ and his wisdom for today? If you’ll do that, you won’t lose your way.