by John Flavel
Proverbs 4:23 says to keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Our hearts are like fortresses under attack, and we must guard them accordingly. Most people will diligently guard their fortunes and homes, which are of temporal value, but they are very careless about guarding that which is of eternal value their very souls! In this work, originally titled A Saint Indeed, John Flavel (1627 1691) looks at what it means to keep the heart, how to keep the heart, and why keeping the heart is the greatest business of every person.
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 fixed upon it—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. 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,
An EXHORTATION, "Keep your heart with all diligence."
In the exhortation I shall consider,
First, The matter of the duty.
Secondly, The manner of performing it.
The MATTER of the duty. Keep your heart. By heart, in a metaphor, the Scripture sometimes represents some particular noble faculty of the soul. In Rom. 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; "Your 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 condemns 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. 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, we mean the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintaining 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 your 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 will 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 your 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 outside us. "Without me you can do nothing." So much for the matter of the duty.
The MANNER of performing it, is with all diligence. The Hebrew is very emphatic; keep with all keeping, or, "keep, keep"—set double guards. This vehemence 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, brings forth that which is good; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure of his heart, brings forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." So then, if the heart errors 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.
PROPOSITION— The 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 our hearts, 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 your 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 your name."
The method in which I propose to improve the proposition it this:
First, I shall inquire what the keeping of the heart supposes and imports.
Secondly, Assign diverse 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.