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“The Heart of Proverbs”

Proverbs 27:19 and others
Bob DeGray
June 1, 2003

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 are famous as children’s stories 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 own shadow reflected in the water, he greatly admired the size and variety of his horns, but felt angry with himself for having such slender and weak feet. While he was thus 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 came up to him and 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 something in common with the book of Proverbs, written principally by Solomon some four hundred years before Aesop was born. The commonality is the keen insight both have into human nature, the human heart. The difference is that Aesop saw people as naturally inclined to evil and could only try to change them by the clarity of his diagnosis. Solomon and the other writers of Proverbs saw the heart just as clearly, but also saw that people’s hearts could be moved by wisdom toward 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.” That key thought is almost a personalized proverb: My heart inclines toward pride and deception; Teach me, Lord, the wisdom of humility and fear.

I. The Diagnosis of the Heart

        Proverbs is very concerned with people’s character and inclinations, that is with the human heart. Over ten percent of the verses in chapters 10 to 31 mention the heart. Why? Proverbs 27:19, the theme verse for this message gives us the answer: Proverbs 27:19 As water reflects a face, so a man's heart 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 at the heart level people are real and 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 felt the same way: it’s not what goes into a man that’s important - it’s what comes out of the heart that really counts.

        But Jesus and Proverbs and even Aesop agree that the human heart is inclined toward evil. No one’s heart is free of this bent toward sin. Proverbs 20:9 Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin"? The implied answer is ‘no one’. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - Paul’s famous words in Romans are simply agreeing with Proverbs. For some it may take only an instant to identify the sin that has haunted their hearts this week. For others it may take a more significant 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 not without sin. We need God’s daily help to keep our hearts pure.

        But what is this sin of which we are guilty? On one level it’s any sin the Bible identifies: lust, violence, grasping, hatred, any of these can infect our hearts. On the level of Proverbs though, there are two sins specifically associated with the human heart: one is pride and the other is 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. In our culture we’ve made pride a virtue: we are told to be proud of ourselves, proud of our ethnicity, sometimes even proud of our sins. A small part of this pride may have merit, but the Scriptures recognize what our culture doesn’t, that often pride is dangerous, divisive, detestable.

        The root word for pride has the basic meaning of lifted up or exalted. Pride sets us apart from others, creating a me-and-them or an us-an-them mentality that allows us to neglect, belittle or even abuse other people. In pride we can even think ourselves above the possibility of sin or above the petty morals of common individuals. It’s this last that allows people to justify the most despicable acts as things the great are free to do. ‘Great’ people like Hitler and Stalin and even Saddam have justified their actions this way - and it may be that on some level such a ‘great’ person works in your company or lives in your family or is sitting in your seat this morning. Each of our hearts, in one way or another, is driven by pride, and the verse tells us that God sees pride as an abomination, an extreme sin that will not go unpunished. That makes sense when you remember that it was the pride of Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God, to set themselves up as gods, that motivated them to sin against God originally. Now pride is the ultimate set of blinders that keeps us from seeing our sin and correcting our errors. Pride says “I know better than God.”

        Such pride is extremely dangerous. This what has made Proverbs 16:18 so well known. Proverbs 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall, which we’ve abbreviated from the King James ‘Pride goeth before a fall’. Aesop saw this. One preacher modernized an Aesop’s story by telling of a turtle that wanted to spend the winter in Florida, but knew he could never walk that far. He convinced a couple of geese to help him, each taking one end of a piece of rope, while he clamped his vise_like jaws in the center. The flight went fine until someone on the ground looked up in admiration and asked, "Who in the world thought of that?" Unable to control his pride, the turtle opened his mouth to shout, "I did __ ". Pride is often the cause of our downfall and our misery. Pride causes us to harden our hearts against God and others and we miss his blessings.

        Proverbs 21:4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin! If I understand what this verse says, which is a little difficult because the Hebrew is difficult, it means that haughty eyes and an uplifted heart are what the wicked display to the world - their lamp - and yet these things are sin. The person who won’t bother with others, the person at the center of their own universe is sinning - there’s no other way to say it - and as we saw a few verses ago, that’s everyone. I remember an old Bloom County cartoon - anybody remember that comic strip? Anyway, it had Opus the penguin, Bill the cat and the Cockroach sitting in a swamp. Oliver Jones, the brainy twerp, rows up in a small boat. Oliver: "I've spent all week on the calculations. There'z no mistakes! GALILEO WAS WRONG!! The world revolves around ... ME." He flings the research papers to the winds, and rows off. Opus, calls out to the retreating figure: "Boy, are YOU ever wrong! . . . It goes around ME!!" Bill the cat: "Me!" Cockroach: "Me, Me, MEEEEE!" The self centeredness of the human heart, Proverbs says, is sin.

        Discipleship journal focused an issue on pride a few years ago. In their list of results of pride they included the following “Pride sets me up for discipline by God; 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 and, therefore, keeps me from prayer.”

        Even more insightful was their list of symptoms of pride: 1. A spotty prayer life suggests I’m not actively relying on God, nor aware of my need for Him; 2. Weariness is often the result of trying to do more than God intends, which means I am not letting Him order my day; 3. Anger can mean I’m not trusting God's sovereign plan and I’m trying to take control from Him; 4. A critical spirit, cutting others down in order to lift up myself, is a clear indicator of pride; 5. A defensive reaction to criticism, despondency after failure, and the inability to laugh at my mistakes suggest that I am taking myself too seriously; 6. Taking credit for success, accomplishment, or financial prosperity may mean I’ve lost sight of God's gracious and undeserved provision; 7. Impatience about having to listen, wait, serve, or be led all hint at an overdeveloped sense of importance. Isn’t this is a great diagnostic? A couple of those things are very convicting to me. How about you?

        The second sin that Proverbs sees as intimately associated with the human heart is deceit: deception of others and of yourself. Proverbs 12:20 There is deceit in the hearts of those who plot evil, but joy for those who promote peace. The word deceit is the word “Mirmah” in Hebrew, and those of you who have read The Archives of Anthropos will recognize that as the name of an evil, deceiving witch in those books. One commentary pointed out that the first use of this word in the Old Testament was of the tricks played by Jacob on Esau to take away his birth right. Jacob practiced deceit. It is often 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.

        So the human heart in it’s evil inclinations tends toward deceitfulness, cheating, smooth lies. It tends toward hypocrisy. Listen to Proverbs 26:23-25 Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. 24A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. 25Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart. Deceit is characteristic because 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 called these kinds of people whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside but on the inside filled with corruption and filth and dead men’s bones. I’ve no doubt that there are still people among us who disguise themselves with their lips and have charming speech, but in truth their hearts are full of deceit and abomination, detestable to the Lord.

        Proverbs seems to have a clear and bleak picture of the human heart. Solomon, and those who wrote with him, can pretty accurately predict human behavior. Consider the last verse in this section Proverbs 19:3 A man's own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord. Isn’t that typical of the way people behave? The person in trouble will not take responsibility for his own sin, but instead blames everyone else, including God. We call this ‘Responsibility Deficit Syndrome’ and it is often expressed in anger. There have been a number of times in counseling situations when I’ve been the target of anger because I’ve tried to point out that a particular course of action was foolish and was having tragic consequences. Ongoing anger against others and /or ongoing anger against the Lord is a key symptom of the fact that we are reaping the consequences of foolish behavior.

II. The Prescription for the Heart

        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 powerful 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 us with is describing the attitudes that lead up to and accompany and result from a supernatural change of heart. Proverbs’ identifies these heart attitudes as humility, fear and trust. When we recognize that our own hearts incline toward pride and deception, we must cry out “Teach me, Lord, the wisdom of humility and fear.”

        Proverbs 23:12 sets the stage: Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge. I could have used any number of verses from Proverbs to make this basic point: that our hearts should seek wisdom, we should seek to learn what’s right and do 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: I think it was Frank Kittle who recently quoted the common view that good decisions come through experience, and experience comes through bad decisions. That’s true, but we have to be convinced that it’s not the whole truth, that we can apply the wisdom of Proverbs, the wisdom of the rest of the Bible, the wisdom of our mentors and even of our peers to our own lives and avoid the pit of experience. Certainly as those who have trusted Jesus and been made new we should expect to grow in righteousness without making every mistake in the book or allowing our hearts free reign to express the pride and deceit that are latent in them.

        So we recognize that our hearts are deceitful, but we cry out to the Lord to teach us wisdom. Let’s look at one of the more extended sections we will use in Proverbs: not just one verse but seven short verses that give the application of wisdom to the deficiencies of our hearts.
         Proverbs 23:15-21 My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad; 16my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right. 17Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. 18There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. 19Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path. 20Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, 21for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.

        These few verses capture so much of what Proverbs is about and what this book wants to tell us. Notice that this is a father talking to his son - typical of Proverbs, and one of the great applications of Proverbs: the book provides a model that parents can use to influence the hearts of their children. This father is saying 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 told you before about the conversation I had with Paul Christiansen many years ago. I was a fairly new parent - Bethany was about two - and Paul had teen-age boys. And I said to Paul that all I was looking for in my children was the development of common sense. Paul laughed and said that as far as he could see I was going to have to wait a while. But I’m pleased to report that both his children and mine have come a long way in that area.

        So a father’s heart rejoices when the hearts of his children seek and find wisdom. But what does that look like in practice? Verse 17 gives us our first key clue: 17Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. A contrasting proverb. 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, on the other hand, you can be zealous for the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is a key theme of Proverbs we haven’t even mentioned yet. It’s found especially in chapters 1 to 9 and is foundational to the book’s message. For us at this moment it is key: if we have an outward and upward focus on the fear of the Lord it 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 ten years ago when we worked so hard to define this concept: The fear of the Lord is respect for him - holding him in high esteem as the most important person in your life. It is awe at his power - the 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. Finally it is honoring him by obedience - showing respect by making him in the practice of our lives as important as he is in theory. 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 this fear, this relationship with a mighty God that our desires toward our earthly relationships become small.

        Solomon goes on to say that zealousness in this area assures us of hope that will not be cut off. Most of us are keenly aware that hope is among the most precious commodities in life. Without hope we fade, faint and fail. Therefore this is a precious promise.
        The second piece of advice in Proverbs 23 reminds us of what we discussed last week. We said 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 Solomon states this truth yet again, urging his son to walk in 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. Let me give you three more quick examples before we close. Proverbs 28:26 (NASB) He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But he who walks wisely will be delivered. The key word in this verse is trust - more specifically, where you place your trust. Knowing what we have just learned about our hearts, we would be foolish to trust them, because they are so inclined to sin: prideful, deceitful. The parallelism of this verse implies that to walk wisely is to trust something or someone other than our heart, which in a Biblical sense can only mean trusting the Lord. Remember that the word trust, Hebrew batach, is a key word of the Old Testament. It’s the word most like the New Testament concept of faith or belief and is used over and over 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, in his body broken for us and his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. That’s the trust that saves.

        Second key word Proverbs 18:12 Before his downfall a man's heart is proud, but humility comes before honor. We learned in the previous section that pride goeth before a fall. This verse says the same thing, but then adds explicitly that humility is the desired opposite to pride. Proverbs extols humility in several ways, but we only have time to touch this one: humility leads to honor. Just as we see in Philippians that Jesus was humbled when he became a man and a servant and a victim, but was raised to life and to honor, so our humbling is used by God to do a work both in our lives and the lives of others. Pastor Bill Hybels wrote a book about Philippians 2 called Descending into Greatness, which I’ve renamed in my mind “Sometimes Down is the Only Way Up.” Rich Boyd has shared with us another book called Man in the Mirror by Patrick Morely. Morely was an extremely successful real estate investor in Florida, but during the downturn of the 80's he lost most of his fortune and all of his confidence in material pursuits. His pride was humbled and he turned to God and put his trust in Him before founding a ministry that has helped thousands of men get Jesus at the center of their priorities and their hearts. God uses humbling in our lives to break our pride and prepare us for ministry.

        So we’ve seen that while 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 man who always fears the Lord, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble. I’ve said many times in the last two years that a key category for me in working with people is the that of ‘hard heart - soft heart.’ This verse supports looking for that distinction in people’s lives. If we fear the Lord - respecting, worshiping, dreading, obeying, then he blesses. But if we harden our hearts against him and against 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 your suffering develop humility, and fearing the Lord, put your trust in him.