Well we’re going to read from God’s Word starting in Proverbs chapter 12 in just a moment. A year or so ago we did an evening series looking through the book of Proverbs at different topics, and the point we found in the book, of course, is that Proverbs teaches that you can live life wisely or you can live life foolishly. You can be wise or you can be a fool. That’s what Proverbs says over and over again. And wisdom, we said in that series, was knowing how to live before the face of God at all times and in all circumstances even when there are no direct rules from the Bible telling you how to live in any given moment. And so of course we have the Ten Commandments. We have commandments like “Thou shalt not murder.” And when we read that we have a very clear sense of the command. “Thou shalt not murder,” means do not murder! We know that we’re not to do that in life. But you know, when you come to moments in life like, “Should I marry? What job should I take? How do I walk with God faithfully in the midst of a pandemic?” for instance, that’s what requires wisdom, which is just the skill of a life lived well before the face of God.
So I want to come back to Proverbs tonight and look again, because we didn’t cover in that series something that’s treated pretty regularly and specifically throughout the book, and that’s that Proverbs over and over again talks about the human heart, and specifically talks about the heart in the condition, or the fact that the heart is broken; that we have broken hearts. You know, there are always broken hearts in the midst of our church family, of our congregation. Everybody sometimes has a broken heart. But Proverbs says that all of us, always have broken hearts. And right now, because of circumstances, there are hearts that are particularly vulnerable and particularly broken. There are lonely hearts and anxious hearts and despondent hearts and hearts that are sick because the body is sick and hearts that are downcast because of a grim outlook in the future. And Proverbs shows us that there is wisdom from God about the life of the heart. And the message is really simple but it’s so important. So let’s pray and then we’ll read some proverbs together. Let’s pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts, we ask, O Lord, and show us the wisdom of this book of wisdom that You have written. In Jesus’ name we ask it, amen.
So let us hear the Word of God. We’ll start in chapter 12 verse 25, and I’m going to read four proverbs. And I'll just let you know where I’m jumping to and you should be able to flip over. Twelve, twenty-five; the Word of our Lord:
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”
Chapter 14 verse 10:
“The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.”
Chapter 14 verse 13:
“Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.”
And chapter 15 verse 4:
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness breaks the heart.”
Well, we’re going to try tonight to make five – not three, not two – but five points! And so they’ll have to be briefer than normal. We’ll talk about the human heart, it's importance, why it breaks, the cure, and seeking a wise heart.
The Human Heart
So first, just the fact of the human heart, very briefly, because we all know this. The English language follows the Hebrew language, the Hebrew tradition of the Old Testament in using the word “heart” most often as a metaphor. The Bible uses the word “heart” hundreds, almost a thousand times, and almost never is it referring to the internal organ that pumps blood throughout the body. And today, in English, we say that we are going to have a “heart to heart” or we’re going to speak from the “bottom of the heart.” Or when he sees her across the room and falls in love with her, he says, “She stole my heart.” In none of these cases do we mean “heart” as that internal muscle that pumps blood, so we’re following the pattern of the Bible here.
So consider a couple of the verses we read just a moment ago. Chapter 14 verse 10, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” The heart knows its own bitterness. No stranger shares in the joy of the heart. Now what does that mean? It means, it’s saying that your inner self, your soul, your heart, your spirit, the deepest parts of who you really are, that nobody truly knows you; that you are an invisible world deep down. That the inner dialogue you have with yourself all day is just yours. It’s not any other creature. Nobody else knows it and can see it. So Augustine, the great theologian of the 4th century, he coined the term that we use most often now, the “inner self.” The Bible, when it speaks of the heart, is talking about the inner self, the deepest part of who you, manifest in that inner dialogue you have with yourself. Chapter 14 verse 13, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” In other words, the external visibility, the state you put on to show people externally, is not necessarily present the same, identical, as your internal state. Even in laughter, even in external laughter, the heart may be aching. You can be so visibly happy in your face but so full of sorrow or contempt or anger on the inside. You can be outwardly so joyful and inwardly deeply, deeply grieving. Human beings, we cover up broken hearts with smiles. So the first thing is that the heart in the Bible is the deep, invisible world of the inner self. And the synonyms for it are the soul, the spirit, the core, the consciousness, the inner conversations, the deep personality, your utmost desires, your deepest loves and wants, your hopes and your flaws, all of it is wrapped up in that word in the Bible – the heart.
The Importance of the Heart
And so the second thing – if that’s what it is and if it’s all over the place, then we know that it’s incredibly important. It is what we are. And you could mention again its frequency just across the Bible and across Proverbs to show how important attention to it is. But consider chapter 18 verse 14. “A man’s spirit will endure sickness. A man’s spirit can endure sickness, but a crushed spirit, who can bear?” What can a crushed spirit bear in any circumstance? In other words, this proverb is saying that when the heart, the soul, the spirit is strong and healthy and full of joy and cheerful, it can go through any circumstance. It can endure any circumstance, no matter what the circumstances beating down on you from the outside, you can stay above the waves on the inside in your heart. Even the heart, a healthy heart, can endure the sickness of the body. It can stay, in soul, above the water line. But a crushed spirit – who can live with a crushed spirit? If our inner life is down and crushed, then no matter what circumstance we face we will be down; we will be crushed.
In the modern western world, the world of individualism, we are taught through all sorts of mediums that our circumstances will ultimately determine our happiness. That I am happy in proportion to my financial security, my physical health, my public reputation, and my overall success in life. Proverbs is saying, “No, that’s not true.” And many of us, we have to learn it the hard way, because if we place our happiness, the health of our heart in our circumstances, we know right now in the midst of pandemic that the blessings we have in life will run away from us in a moment’s notice. But even more, even if you live a life of amazing circumstances, a crushed spirit can’t even bear that. If your heart is not healthy, if you are sick and wounded and crushed in spirit, you can’t even endure great circumstances in life.
We know that for the last 125 years what we call “the allure of celebrity” has been developing more and more in the US and in the West and we have seen, all of us have seen over and over again, that money and fame and success and great circumstances do not help a crushed soul, a crushed spirit. What Proverbs is telling us is that if we will instead place the primacy of ultimate health on our inner life, on treating our inner life, on focusing on the state of our hearts, on the feelings of our hearts, then a strong spirit can endure all circumstances. You know, most of our life is inner dialogue. It’s internal dialogue. We spend so much time in our own heads talking to ourselves, thinking through our hopes and desires and our checklists and all these things. And even that tells us that our hearts are the first battleground, the first place that we have to pay attention to in life.
Why the Heart is Broken
And thirdly, Proverbs says also that the heart is so important to place a primacy upon because it is broken. It’s broken. Now we all know that by experience and Proverbs says it’s broken in a number of ways. Just listen to the verbs that the book uses to describe the state of the heart, the human heart. It aches, it’s wounded, it’s crushed, and it’s rotting. And when it says it’s wounded or crushed it’s saying that we can indeed, the heart can indeed be broken because of circumstances that happen to us, because of things that happen to us in our lives. And then on the flipside, at the same time it says also the heart is rotting from the inside out. It’s saying there are problems both outside of us and inside of us that crush our spirit, that wound us, that make for a broken heart. So just listen. When Proverbs comes and treats the heart it’s so ancient and so modern at the same time because it says, “Are our problems mostly outside of us – a matter of circumstance and environment and biology?” or “Are they inside of us – are they coming from a rot at our core that comes inside out?” And Proverbs says, “Yes!” It says, “Yes!” It’s so nuanced. It’s so complex.
Just hear the psychology of the heart throughout this book through a few different examples. We’re going to see here that the broken heart is indeed a matter sometimes of circumstance, sometimes of biology, certainly of the curse in general, and ultimately, fundamentally because of sins. Chapter 14 verse 30 says this. “A peaceful heart gives life to flesh, to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” And you hear in this what we call psychosomatic holism of Christianity. That is, that we believe human beings are at the core both bodies and spirit together. That’s how God made us, is a body and a spirit in one. And this is saying that it works both ways – that our body works upon our spirit and our spirit works upon our body. Listen again. “A peaceful heart, a restful heart, a heart satisfied, a heart with hope can give life even to the flesh.” I can even produce health in some way in your body. But envy makes the bones rot. And you know, we all know that if you’ve been a person who has experienced at least some form of common anxiety you know that you get sweaty palms, your stomach hurts. It turns – it can lead all the way to the point of ulcers, stomach ulcers and terrible health consequences. The body affects the soul and the soul affects the body. The Bible wrote about that thousands of years ago.
It also says that, of course as we’ve already mentioned, that circumstances affect the heart. This is one of my favorite little proverbs in chapter 25 verse 20. “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like a person who takes off a garment on a cold day and like vinegar poured on soda.” So he’s saying if you try to sing a festive, merry song to a person who has been deeply grieved through some kind of circumstance in your life, essentially you’ve said to them, “Just cheer up. Just buck up. You’re okay! It’s going to be fine!” Through singing this festive song, in an ancient way of putting it, it’s like ripping a blanket, a jacket off a person on a freezing cold day. It’s like pouring vinegar on soda, the writer says. You know, vinegar poured on soda, baking soda in an airtight concealed bottle or something – what does that lead to? It leads to an explosion! I’ve done that; you’ve probably done that at some point in a science class. It’s saying that circumstances can so deeply grieve a person that a merry song, a kind word in that moment can’t change the condition of the heart; that the circumstances can indeed, at least temporarily, crush a person’s spirit.
And then third, it says that the ultimate circumstance, chapter 14 verse 13, “Even in laughter a heart becomes sad, and the end of all happiness is grief.” In other words, the writer is saying here that every single party will one day end, and the curse is real and it stands out in front of us no matter what our circumstances are in life, even the happiest moments, the best circumstances will ultimately lead to the sorrow that is the ultimate curse of death that stands in front of us all. Proverbs is realistic, and in some sense incredibly morbid. It’s saying that all good things come to an end when we think about the fact that we face death, the condition of the curse that stands upon the world. And today there is a global wrestling across the world in the light of this pandemic where there are so many, especially in the West, that think, that say that the grave and biology, biological death, is the end, the end of all life; it’s the end of all existence. And at the same time, are struggling so much right now with saying, “But I want a life that has meaning. I want a life that has purpose. I want a life that is ultimately happier in the end than it is sad.” And the writer of Proverbs is saying here, if that’s your worldview, if that’s the way you think about life, then ultimately the only thing you can say is that all happiness, ultimately, finally will turn into sorrow and grief. Everybody hurts, for what one German theologian called “that far off country, the land lived beyond the shadow of the curse.” The heart aches for it, even if people struggle to believe it.
And what Proverbs is saying in all of that in its complexity, in the nuance of what creates this wounded, crushed spirit, this broken heart that we all feel, is that fundamentally, most fundamentally, we have broken hearts because our hearts are broken. In other words, just listen to the language that Proverbs also realistically says about who we are – deep down, the ethical condition of our hearts and our souls. It says the heart is wicked, deceitful, perverse, crooked, haughty, prideful, bitter, envious, and hateful. And beyond all circumstances, beyond the things that happen to us, that is what the Bible says is the condition of my and your heart. That’s what it says is most fundamental.
And when you go to the proverbs of the New Testament, the book of James, there’s an incredible little section – James 1:13-15 – that offers you a New Testament psychology or theology of the inner life, of the heart, of the soul, of how sin happens. And this is what it says. James says, “Let no one say, ‘I am being tempted when they sin by God.’” And when he says that, what he’s saying is, “You are not allowed to, you cannot say that the only reason I sin, the reason I sin, the reason I do wrong is because of the circumstances that I’ve been put in because of what’s around me, what’s outside of me.” Instead, he goes on in verse 14 and says, “Instead, people are enticed to sin by their own desires. Welling up, the desires of our heart give birth to sin.”
And so Proverbs and the proverbs of the New Testament says that the fundamental reason that our hearts are broken, wounded and crushed in this life – certainly circumstances that happen to us, certainly our biology affects our soul and our soul affects our biology, certainly because of the condition of the curse that we all live in – but most fundamentally sin begins in the heart. Brokenness begins in each of our own hearts. We have broken hearts because our hearts are broken from the beginning. We love the wrong things. We want the wrong things. And so what the writer of Proverbs is saying is, “You sin not because something made you sin, but because you wanted to, because of a deep, corrupted heart that desires things that are not first loves, not the love of God.”
And so at the same time, Christians can say with deep sympathy for sufferers, right now, “Life is so hard,” and that because of difficult circumstances and that’s because of a world full of things that happen to us that make us grief. That’s because of a world under the curse. That’s because of so many difficult happenings in our lives. And at the same time, the Christian says, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault. I am diseased from the core. I am diseased in my heart. I am crooked. I am a sinner. I want the wrong things. I don’t love the right things.” And Christianity says, Proverbs is saying that there is no healing, that the process of healing begins with that confession.
The Cure for a Broken Heart
And so, the hope of healing, the cured heart, to learn to see what Christianity says about the cured heart you have to go deeper even into the darkness, into the pit, into the danger of the book of Proverbs in two ways. And the first way is this. Proverbs says that it’s actually even worse than that, even more dangerous for us than that. Very serious three moments in the book of Proverbs – chapter 11 verse 20 the writer says, “Those of crooked heart,” everybody, “are an abomination to the Lord.” Chapter 16 verse 2, “All the ways of man are pure in his own eyes but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Chapter 20 verse 9, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my iniquity’?” No one. What Proverbs says first is that God, in the midst of all this, can see the deep, the depth, the inner life, the fullness of everything that goes on in our broken hearts. God looks beyond our external actions and to our inner life.
And there are two great New Testament proofs of this. Remember Jesus, at the Sermon on the Mount, His big point in going over the commandments of the Old Testament was to say that at every point, external obedience to the commandment does not necessarily reveal the fact that in your inner life you’ve broken every one of them. The depth of sin is so much deeper than just the external. You can obey on the outside and be more corrupt that you ever even knew on the inside. And in Hebrews chapter 4, that very famous moment when it says Jesus Christ is the Word, the Logos of God, and He is the Word that is a two-edged sword that pierces down to the division of soul and spirit, bone and marrow, and sees, exposes. That metaphor of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, being a sword is saying that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, can go down and rip open and see what’s in your depths, what’s inside of you, what’s hidden from everybody else. He knows what we’re really like. He knows every single thought that we’ve ever had. And so 800 years before He would ever come into the world, Proverbs delivers hard news, bad news, grim news.
But at the same time, you don’t have to go outside of Proverbs, you don’t have to leave this book, to find the unexpected metaphor that the writer also connects to the heart, the life of the heart, the broken heart, that opens a tidal wave of theology of hope for all our broken hearts, for our wounded hearts. And here it is. We read it at the beginning. Chapter 15 verse 4, “A gentle tongue is like the tree of life, but perverseness or crooked speech breaks the heart.” And this is an easy proverb to understand. It’s saying nasty speech wounds other people; it breaks other people's hearts. But kind speech from your heart to their heart – and here’s the metaphor – acts like the tree of life acted in the Garden of Eden. It’s comparing a kind word to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, to healing people’s hearts. It’s saying the tree of life, the tree of life is what heals, ultimately, the heart. That’s the metaphor here.
And three more times in the book of Proverbs it uses either explicitly or implicitly, it speaks of the broken heart in relationship to the tree of life as an agent of healing. And I first heard Tim Keller point this out, but there are only three books of the Bible that mention the tree of life – Genesis, of course, the beginning; Revelation, the end; and only one other, Proverbs; Proverbs, four times. And here’s one of the other great moments where Proverbs mentions the tree of life. In chapter 13 verse 12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is the tree of life.” And this is tricky, but this is what the author is saying here. Life without its eyes fixed on a real hope beyond death leads to a sickness of soul. The heart corrodes when it looks out into the future and it doesn’t have hope. Hope deferred, hope cast away, leads to the sickness of the heart. But, the proverb says, desire, the ultimate desires of the heart – true hope, if it could be fulfilled in something concrete, something real, then that would be the tree of life for our heart. That would be the healing of our hearts. If you could find fulfillment for your hope, if you could put it into something real, then your heart could find healing. That’s what the proverb is saying.
The question is, “Can you?” And the proverb is throwing us onto the tree of life to find the hope of the heart, to find healing. And you know, the tree of life was first mentioned in Genesis chapter 2. John Calvin says when God put the tree of life into the middle of the Garden of Eden, for all time the tree of life was to stand as a sacrament or as a sign to the fullness of life; to realize that eating from its fruits is getting everything. It’s getting a life without broken circumstances and a life where hearts don’t break circumstances. It is the representation, the tree, that organism, of the fullness of all of life, of eternal life itself. And what it’s really saying, as one commentator put it, is the tree of life is a cosmic nostalgia that points us to the desire for a far off country we have never lived in, a life where we are in body and spirit in the presence of God Himself. The tree of life says to us that ultimate, full life, shalom, is to live with God in the presence of God; that that is the sweetest fruit. That is eternal life. That is what our hearts ultimately long for.
Now at the end of Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and disallowed to eat from the tree of life lest their condition of death become permanent. The tree of life in that moment because a tree of curse. And throughout the rest of the Bible there is this theme of the tree of life that has become the tree of curse because of our sin, because of our broken hearts. In the Levitical laws they wrote, “Everyone who hangs upon a tree is cursed,” appealing back to the curse of the tree, the barring of the entrance to the presence of God, to the Garden of Eden. And in Acts chapter 5 verse 30, Peter, in a sermon, preached to everybody who hears, even now to all of us, says, “You killed the Son of Man by hanging Him in a” – cross? No, “a cursed tree,” on the tree of curse itself. At the end of Genesis 3, the tree of life became the tree of curse for us. And Jesus Christ, at the cross, hung on that ultimate tree of curse, taking on the curse itself, so that in Revelation 20-22 we might once again be able to eat of the tree of life. You see, Jesus Christ, Proverbs in the most shadowy way of using a metaphor pointing to Genesis and Revelation, is saying that from the beginning of time Jesus Christ was to be the tree of life that could ultimately heal the human heart.
And so we can come back to that 4th century theologian, Augustine, who has the most important line for us. He says at the beginning of his famous book, The Confessions – wherever you might be tonight, wherever your heart might be – your heart will not find rest until it rests in Jesus Christ, the tree of life Himself. He is the only place that the soul can fully and finally be satisfied. Let me say a simple message. Being in active and living relationship with Jesus Christ, there your heart can be freed from the bondage of circumstances. Whether they’re coming or they’re going, you can live above them if your heart is resting in a hope that cannot die.
Seeking a Wise Heart
Let me close by saying just one little word about the wise heart and we’ll be finished. If that is the place of rest for you, Jesus Christ the tree of life, then Proverbs says take care of your heart until you see the tree of life Himself, Jesus Christ, in the new heavens and the new earth. Ligon preaching this morning reminded me of an RTS course I’ve been listening through this semester just on Apple podcast that they have on there for free. It’s J.I. Packer’s “English Puritans” course and I finished it up last week while I was painting. And you know, J.I. Packer in the 80s came and taught that course on the English Puritans in Jackson, Mississippi, which is a cool thought, and the amazing thing that I thought about while I was listening to it was I was not born when he first gave that course at RTS in Jackson, Mississippi! But he gives a lecture on the Christian life according to the puritans as “the ordered life.” And before the Puritans, people talked about the Christian life according to “the rule of life.” And all they meant by “the rule of life” for us Christians or “the ordered life” was that every day there’s got to be a plan for taking care of our hearts – for scheduling and dealing with our hearts resting in Jesus Christ before we face any circumstances.
And there’s one proverb that I want to read to you as we close that just says this. “The purpose in a man’s heart,” chapter 20 verse 5, “is like deep water.” The deep purposes of a man’s heart, a woman’s heart, are like deep water. “But a man of understanding,” of wisdom, “will draw it out.” And what that’s saying is that we as Christians, if you’re resting on the hope of the tree of life, Jesus Christ, in your heart, you’ve got to prioritize the inner life. You’ve got to – what this is saying – get to know your heart, get to know your idols, your temptations, your recurring sins, asking, “What do I fear most? What circumstances would crush my spirit if they come along? What could I not handle? What if I lost reveals that I find something more precious than Jesus Christ Himself? What are the desires and temptations that are driving me back to the same common sins?” J.C. Ryle called this entering into the fight; the life of the fight, the fight for your heart. And until we partake in both heart and body of the tree of life Himself, Jesus Christ in the new heavens and the new earth, go with this proverb – 23:19, “Hear my sons and daughters, be wise; direct your heart in the way it must go.”
Our God, we turn to Jesus Christ the wisdom of God and the hope of all of humanity, and pray the prayer, Lord, we confess that we need Him more than anything to have settled hearts, to live life above and beyond circumstances, to be able to be at peace no matter what the world throws at us, especially in times like this. We ask now, O Holy Spirit, for all of us watching and who might watch later, that You would make Jesus Christ the rest of our hearts, our hearts’ ultimate desire. Holy Spirit, do that great work in us we ask, tonight, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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