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“The Heart of Proverbs”

Proverbs 27:19 and others
Bob DeGray
September 16, 2018

Key Sentence

My heart inclines toward pride and deception. Teach me, Lord, the wisdom of humility and fear.


I. The Diagnosis of the Heart
II. The Prescription for the Heart


Aesop’s fables, famous as children’s stories, also offer and common sense wisdom for adults. History and legend tell us that Aesop was born a slave around 600 B.C. but was set free by a master who valued his wisdom. He traveled in Asia and Greece and became famous as a philosopher and story teller. No one knows how many of the fables told under his name were originally his: the years have molded and shaped them greatly. Yet Aesop’s pragmatic, ironic and humorous character remains. Listen to a few selected fables:

ROAMING BY the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, "Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?' While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, "Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction."

A PEDDLER drove his Donkey to the seashore to buy salt. His road home lay across a stream into which his Donkey, making a false step, fell by accident and rose up again with his load considerably lighter, as the water melted the salt. The Peddler retraced his steps and refilled his panniers with a larger quantity of salt than before. When he came again to the stream, the Donkey fell on purpose in the same spot, and, regaining his feet with his load much diminished, brayed triumphantly as if he had obtained what he desired. The Peddler saw through his trick and drove him for the third time to the coast, where he bought a cargo of sponges instead of salt. The Donkey, again playing the fool, fell down on purpose when he reached the stream, but the sponges became swollen with water, greatly increasing his load. And thus his trick recoiled on him, for he now carried on his back a double burden.

A STAG overpowered by heat came to a spring to drink. Seeing his image reflected in the water, he greatly admired the size and variety of his horns, but felt angry with himself for having such slender, weak feet. While he was contemplating himself, a Lion appeared at the pool and crouched to spring upon him. The Stag immediately took to flight, and exerting his utmost speed, as long as the plain was smooth and open kept himself easily at a safe distance from the Lion. But entering a wood he became entangled by his horns, and the Lion quickly caught him. When too late, he thus reproached himself: "Woe is me! How I have deceived myself! These feet which would have saved me I despised, and I gloried in these antlers which have proved my destruction."

Aesop’s fables have much in common with the book of Proverbs, written principally by Solomon four hundred years before Aesop was born. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth and visual. Both have keen insight into human nature, the human heart. Both saw the heart as naturally inclined toward evil. But Aesop could only provide a diagnosis. Solomon and the writers of Proverbs also saw that people’s hearts could be drawn to humility, trust, and the fear of the Lord. Proverbs teaches us to say “My heart inclines toward pride and deception” but then to cry out “Teach me, Lord, the wisdom of humility and fear.”

Proverbs is very concerned with people’s character and inclinations, that is with the heart. Ten percent of the verses in Proverbs mention the Hebrew word for ‘heart.’ Why? Proverbs 27:19 gives the answer: “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.” In other words, to know a person you have to know his or her heart. It’s not enough to watch their behavior or list their virtues or faults: it’s our heart thoughts, heart intentions and heart attitudes that really display who we are, just as mirror displays our true face. Proverbs is concerned with your heart because that’s where the action is.

Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a man that’s important, it’s what comes out of the heart that really counts. And the fallen human heart is inclined toward evil. Proverbs 20:9 “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?” The implied answer is “no one.” When Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he’s simply agreeing with Proverbs. For some it may take only an instant to identify the sin that has haunted your heart this week. For others it may take more soul searching. But this side of heaven, even for those of us redeemed by Jesus, we will never be able to say ‘I’ve kept my heart pure, I’m without sin.’ Our sins are forgiven. God sees us as righteous. He’s given us a new heart, yet we’re still drawn toward sin. We need God’s daily help to keep our hearts pure.

But what is this sin of which the heart is guilty? On one level it’s any sin. Lust, violence, hatred, any of these can flow from our hearts. In Proverbs though, two sins are specifically tied to the heart: one is pride, and the other deception. Let’s take pride first. God has a strong opinion about this sin. Proverbs 16:5 “The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.” Our culture makes pride a virtue: we are told to be proud of ourselves, proud of our individuality, sometimes even proud of our sins.

But the Scriptures recognize what our culture doesn’t, that often pride is dangerous, divisive, and detestable. The root word for pride has the basic meaning of lifted up or exalted. Pride sets us above others, creating a me-and-them or an us-an-them mentality that allows us to neglect, belittle or abuse other people.

Pride is what makes people think they are above the possibility of sin or above the moral constraints of others. ‘Great’ people like Hitler and Stalin have justified the most despicable acts this way. But every human heart has this tendency to think or even say “my circumstances are different. This is OK for me.” That’s pride speaking, as it has from the very beginning. It was the pride of Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God, to set themselves up as gods, that motivated the first act of sin. Now pride has become the ultimate set of blinders that keeps us from seeing our sin and correcting our errors. The verse tells us that God sees pride as an abomination, an extreme sin that will not go unpunished.

Pride is dangerous. That’s why Proverbs 16:18 is so well known. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The people of India tell an Aesop-like story of a tortoise who prevailed on two geese to rescue him from a drought. The geese carried a stick between them and the tortoise clung to it with his strong jaws. All went fine until a man looked up in admiration and asked, "Who in the world thought of that?" Unable to control his pride, the tortoise began to shout, “I did . . .” Pride leads to downfall and misery.

Pride causes us to harden our hearts against God and others. Proverbs 21:4 “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.” The arrogance and pride of the wicked are on display to the world, but are nonetheless sin. The person who puts down others, the person at the center of their universe is sinning. As we saw earlier, that’s everyone. If you don’t believe me, believe the internet. There must be hundreds of memes mocking people who think the world revolves around them. Why? Because such people are so common.

Proverbs teaches us that the self-centeredness of the human heart is sin. Discipleship journal once focused an issue on pride. Their list of results of pride included the following “Pride is the ugliest expression of independence from God; pride is repulsive to the godly; pride in my speech is tiresome to people listening to me; pride demonstrates that I misunderstand the source of my abilities; pride keeps me from recognizing my need for God.”

But more convicting were their suggestions for self-examination. “1. A spotty prayer life suggests I’m not actively relying on God, but on myself; 2. Weariness is often the result of trying to do more than God intends, taking pride in my own effort; 3. Anger can mean I trust my judgment more than God’s. 4. A critical spirit, cutting others down to lift up myself, is pride; 5. A defensive reaction to criticism, despondency after failure, and inability to laugh at my mistakes suggest I take myself too seriously; 6. Taking credit for success or financial prosperity may mean I’ve lost sight of God's provision; 7. Impatience about having to listen, wait, or serve, reflect an overdeveloped self-importance.”

That’s a tough list. I see too many of these things in myself. But it’s helpful, because the second sin Proverbs sees as intimately tied to the human heart is deceit: deception of others and of yourself. Proverbs 12:20 “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy.” The Hebrew word for deceit is “Mirmah.” It is first used of the tricks played by Jacob on Esau to take away his birth right. It is used of the deceitful words of a person who wants to lure another into sin or foolishness. It is also used of dishonest scales, rigged to cheat the poor buyer. It shows itself in cheating and smooth lies.

Deceit makes us hypocrites. Proverbs 26:23-25 “Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent lips with an evil heart. 24Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbors deceit in his heart; 25when he speaks graciously, believe him not, for there are seven abominations in his heart.” Our sinful hearts want to appear righteous and admirable. The image is of the shiny fired coating of a ceramic vessel which is like the fervent lips or passionate words of someone with an evil heart. They appear rich in the things of God on the outside, but on the inside they are corrupt. Jesus said we are whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside but on the inside filled with corruption and filth and dead men’s bones. Most of you know that for years I struggled with porn. But what equally tore me apart was the hypocrisy and lies of hiding my sin.

Solomon, and those who wrote with him, have a clear and bleak picture of the human heart and human reactions. Consider the last verse in this section Proverbs 19:3 “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord.” Isn’t that typical? A person in trouble will not take responsibility for his own sin, but instead blames everyone else, including God. In our home we call this “Responsibility Deficit Syndrome,” often expressed in anger. Even if you approach a person gently, to point out an unwise course of action and tragic consequences, you will often be met with anger. Such anger shows us that we are deceiving ourselves about the impact and consequences of our own behavior. Pride and self-deception almost always walk together.

So what can be done about the heart? We need to answer that question in two stages, one here in Proverbs and the second at the communion table in a few minutes. Proverbs only hints at the fullness of the answer. It gives us wise counsel, to which we ought to listen, but the counsel points beyond itself to Jesus, who is the real source of a cure for our hearts. It is in trusting him and recognizing that on the cross he paid the price of our sinfulness that we receive new hearts. What Proverbs helps with is describing the attitudes that lead to, accompany and result from a supernatural change of heart. Proverbs’ identifies these as humility, fear and trust. When we recognize that our hearts are full of pride and deception, we cry “Teach me, Lord, the wisdom of humility and fear.”

Proverbs 23:12 sets the stage: “Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge.” I could have used any number of verses from Proverbs to make this basic point: that our hearts should seek to both learn what’s right and apply it. Proverbs presupposes that change can come through learning. Not academic learning, but wisdom learning, the application of truth to life.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that only experience can teach us. Someone said “good decisions come through experience, and experience comes through bad decisions.” That’s not the whole truth. We can apply the wisdom in Proverbs, wisdom of the Bible, wisdom of our mentors to our lives and avoid the pit of experience. Certainly as those who have trusted Jesus and been made new we can grow in righteousness without making every mistake in the book. So we recognize these temptations, but we cry out to the Lord to teach us wisdom.

Let’s look at a whole paragraph in Proverbs that gives application of wisdom to the deficiencies of our hearts. Proverbs 23:15-21 “My son, if your heart is wise, my heart too will be glad. 16My inmost being will exult when your lips speak what is right. 17Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day. 18Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off. 19Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. 20Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, 21for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”

These few verses capture so much of what Proverbs is about. Notice this is a father talking to his son, typical of Proverbs. The book provides a model parents can imitate to influence the hearts of their children. This father says that if his son learns wisdom at the heart level, the father will rejoice: “if your heart is wise my heart will be glad.” I’ve been a parent 35 years and I’ll tell you, it’s true. There is no greater joy than when your children walk in truth and wisdom. There is no greater heartache than the times they don’t seem to be doing that.

So a father’s heart rejoices when the hearts of his children seek and find wisdom. But what does finding wisdom look like in practice? Verse 17 gives us one key. The NIV says “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.” On the one hand you could focus your heart this way, looking around you at all that sinners seem to enjoy, desiring what would ultimately harm you, rejecting what God has given you for your good. Or, you can be zealous for the fear of the Lord, a key theme of Proverbs. We haven’t mentioned it much yet, but it is foundational to the book’s message. In this verse it is the key: an outward and upward focus on the fear of the Lord will deflect us from the inward and horizontal snares of pride and deceit.

The fear of the Lord is respect for the Lord, it is awe at his power, it is true fear of his judgment and it is honoring him by obedience. Let me say that again, because most of you weren’t here 25 years ago when we worked hard to define this concept: The fear of the Lord is respect, holding him in high esteem as the most important person in your life. It is awe at his power that created the universe and all things seen and unseen. It is true fear of his judgment, knowing that his wrath at sin is both just and real. And it is honoring him by obedience, doing his will not ours. The cure of pride is to hold God in awe. The cure of deceit is to fear his ill will. The cure for a wayward heart is to be so focused on God that any craving apart from him is expelled. Solomon assures us that those who fear the Lord have a future and a hope that will not be cut off. Hope is among the most precious commodities in life. Without hope we fade, faint and fail. So this is a precious truth that we can cling to.

The second bit of advice in Proverbs 23 reminds us of what we discussed last week, that the path to blessing is the pursuit of righteousness - that walking God’s way brings blessing, and other ways bring negative consequences. In Proverbs 23:19 the father urges his son to walk in the way of righteousness and avoid the sin that brings bad things as natural consequences. Sins like gluttony and drunkenness contain the seeds of destruction in them from the very beginning.

Elsewhere in Proverbs we find different key words for the right attitudes of the heart. Proverbs 28:26, New American Standard translation “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But he who walks wisely will be delivered.” The key word is trust. Knowing what we have just learned about our hearts, we would be foolish to trust them: they are so inclined to sin, pride, and deception. The parallelism of this verse implies that to walk wisely is to trust something or someone other than our heart, which means trusting the Lord. This Hebrew word, batach, is the Old Testament word most like the New Testament concept of faith or belief. It is used in the Psalms to express a whole-hearted reliance on God for salvation and life. Psalm 13:5 “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” So the cure for the heart comes through trust, and as we’ll see in communion, it is specifically trust in the saving death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. That’s the trust that saves.

Second key word, Proverbs 18:12 “Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.” We saw earlier that “pride goeth before a fall.” This verse shows that humility is the godly alternative. In Philippians we see that Jesus was humbled when he became a man, a servant and a sacrifice, but he was raised to life and honor. I’ve called this, over the years, by the name of a sermon I once read, “Sometimes Down is the Only Way Up.” God uses humbling in our lives to break our pride. Then he raises us up in new life.

Our hearts are naturally proud and deceitful, as believers we are called to counteract those natural tendencies by humility, by trust, and especially by the fear of the Lord. Let me close with one more gem of a verse from Proverbs that summarizes what we’ve seen: Proverbs 28:14 “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” I’ve said often that a key category in working with people is “hard heart” or “soft heart.” This verse teaches us to look for that in our own lives. If we fear the Lord - respecting, worshiping, dreading, obeying, then he blesses. But if we harden our hearts against him and others, we’re in trouble. My cry, my plea, for myself, for you, for those in marriage difficulties or work difficulties or relational difficulties or financial difficulties, for those in grief, in pain, in stress, in depression, in conflict, is this: don’t harden your heart toward God. Don’t block him out or rage at him in fixed anger. And don’t harden your heart toward others. Don’t condemn or desert or harm them. Rather, let suffering develop humility. Fear the Lord and put your trust in him.

That begins, I hope, at the communion table, where we confess the pride and deceit, the hardness and hypocrisy of our hearts. Where we cry out for wisdom and fear, and where we tangibly put our trust in the Lord.