Proverbs 4:20-27 by Robert Dean
Decisions! Decisions! Decisions! How many decisions do we make in just one day? Added all together these make up the texture of our lives. This lesson in Proverbs tells us that we need to have a focus of listening, studying, learning, and obeying God's Word to shape our decisions. Listen and learn how having the right priorities lends a richness to everything we do that nothing else can. Find out the thirteen actions we can apply that include our tongues and our eyes.

Straight Talk About Talking Straight. Proverbs 4:20-27


In this section there are 13 imperatival forms in the Hebrew, which basically means that we have 13 action items, things to apply in terms of our thinking and the actions in our life. This last section in the chapter is the warning against swerving from the right road. Again the emphasis is on paying attention, which means more than just the physical act of listening. It means taking what is taught by the father and implementing it in the life of the son.


Proverbs 4:20 NASB "My son, give attention to my words; Incline your ear to my sayings." This is parallel to some of the other openings that we have. For example, in 4:1 the command is "Hear, O sons"; verse 10: again, "Hear"; 5:1, "My son, give attention to my wisdom, Incline your ear to my understanding." So each of these opening verses reinforce the importance of hearing. A book in the New Testament that is often compared to Proverbs is the epistle of James, which emphasizes the importance of hearing: we are to be "quick to hear." We are to study the Word, take in the Word and are to implement it into our lives. This hearting is not just listening but assimilating it into our life and doing that which is taught in the lessons from Scripture. "Give attention" is the Hebrew word qashab, which means to attend, to listen. It is almost a perfect synonym for the word for hearing. His words are viewed as words from God because he is communicating the Word of God. He is not just giving his opinion but is expressing the teaching that comes from the Torah, the Word of God in the Old Testament. This is in the hiphil stem, the causative stem in the Hebrew, and it has the idea of: "cause yourself to listen, to pay attention." It is addressed as an imperative to the volition of the individual.


It is your decision to pay attention or not. It is your decision to arrange your time schedule to that you can be in church on Sunday, to be in Bible class to be able to listen to lessons from the Internet on a regular basis so that our minds are continuously being filled with the teaching of the Word of God and are being reminded of God's grace and faithfulness and all that He has provided for us; and we are reminded of how we should walk by means of God the Holy Spirit. This is important. It is so easy for the pressures of life, the details of life and the message of the world to take over because we are just bombarded with it over and over again every day. So it is important to take that time, and we have to manage our time in such a way that that which has eternal significance predominates in our life.


In the synonymous parallelism of the second line the writer uses the Hebrew word natah which means to stretch out. It has the idea of yearning for something, to desire it, making it a priority. The hiphil stem again is causative so it has the sense of a command to cause yourself to stretch out and reach out to gain the teaching the Word of God. So "extend your ear to my saying."


Then there is a negative command in the next verse. Proverbs 4:21 NASB "Do not let them depart from your sight …" This emphasizes the same principle from the opposite vantage point. So we see a progression from to listen, to stretch forth the ear, and then not letting it depart from the eyes. The verb here is a hiphil again. It is not an imperative but it has that imperatival force; it is called the jussive. In Hebrew there is a first person type command, which is "Let us do something." And there is a third person type command, which is translated "Let them do something." We don't have those forms in English and so the first person is referred to as a cohortative and the third person is referred to as a jussive. But these are imperatival forms without being an imperatival mood. Paul prays in Ephesians "that the eyes of your understanding might be enlightened." The term "eyes" as a figure of speech is often used to emphasize the enlightenment of our mind or our thinking. So the father is saying, "Don't forget these things, don't let them depart from your eye. You have learned, it has entered into your mind; don't let it depart. Don't forget these things. It emphasizes the fact that learning the Word of God demands a constant seeking, a constant study. Don't forget, keep studying, keep these things before you. 


Then the command in the second line is to "Keep them in the midst of your heart." Here we have the Hebrew word shamar, meaning to keep watch over something, to preserve it. It is often used for the responsibility of guards on guard duty. So we are to watch over the Word of God as it has entered into our heart, to observe it, to maintain it, and to apply it. We see in other verses another form of this word. It is used in the opening command in Genesis chapter two as God has created Adam and places him in the garden. He tells him to watch over the garden or to guard it. It is the same idea. It is to protect, to preserve something. So we are to keep the word in the midst of our heart. The word "heart" here is a term for our inner life, the immaterial part of man. It primarily has the idea of the mind, but sometime it can refer to the emotion and sometimes it just refers to that inner life of the human being, the spiritual life. The very core of our life is the thinking in our souls, sol we are to guard and protect it and make sure that is the dominant feature in our life. 

Then in the next verse we are given a motivation as to why we should do this. Proverbs 4:22 NASB "For they are life to those who find them And health to all their body." The word "For" introduces an explanation. Why should we emphasize the Word and pay attention to it and not let it depart from our eyes? They are life to those who find them. These words from the Word of God are the words of life. They give us life; they teach us how to live. In the Bible there are various kinds of life that are mentioned and so we always have to distinguish what is meant by life, just as we do when we run across the word "death." There are different kinds of death as well.


The first kind of life is biological life, physical life. This is in contrast to physical death. Second, it is used figuratively of someone who has departed. They are gone and not expected to return, and their return is as if they have come to life. It is used this way in Luke 15:24 when the father of the prodigal son rejoices in the son's return and says, "This son of mine was dead and has come to life again." Third, it is used for our spiritual life as opposed to being spiritually dead. Scripture teaches that all of us were born dead in our trespasses and sins. We are physically alive but spiritually dead. There is no relationship with God, we are under the condemnation of sin because of Adam's original sin, and so apart from some change we are destined for eternal condemnation. But the Bible says that God has provided a solution for that, which is in Jesus Christ. When we trust in Jesus Christ we get a new life. This is referred to in such passages as Ephesians 2:5: "even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ." This is what we refer to as regeneration or being born again. It is a life that cannot be lost, a life that is eternal, and so it is also referred to as eternal life or everlasting life, as in John 3:16. But the term "life" has a fuller meaning that is not limited to life without end or the quantity of new life that comes at the instant of faith in Christ, but it is a fullness of life, a richness of life, a capacity for life that goes beyond anything that we could have or appreciate when we were spiritually dead. This is what Jesus referred to in John 10:10 NASB " … I came that they may have life [eternal], and have {it} abundantly [quality of the life]" – eternal life can have two dimensions.


As a believer we have eternal life, life without end, but as we grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ we develop a capacity for life, a richness and a fullness of life, which is what this is speaking about. This is how the writer of Proverbs often uses the word "life." When we take in the Word of God and assimilate it and make it a part of our thinking then it is life to those who find it. 


And it is "health to all their body." It is a fullness of life to us and we are able to experience the riches and the blessings that God has given us no matter what our circumstances may be. Too often we think that circumstances somehow define our life, and in some ways they do, but our circumstances are not the source of our happiness or our fulfillment. We can have great happiness despite the fact that maybe there is occasion for sorrow in our life. We can have great happiness and stability even though we live in chaotic and uncertain circumstances; we can have a life of peace, tranquility and contentment even though everything around us seems to be falling apart. That is part of the gospel, the good news related to our salvation. We have the same kind of happiness that we can share with God because of our walk with Him. But that comes as a result of our day-to-day study of God's Word, taking it in, assimilating it into our life and thinking, so that our constant responses to the circumstances of life are based upon God's Word.


"Life to those who find it and health to all their body" is a reminder of 1 Timothy 4:8 NASB "for bodily discipline is only of little profit …" It doesn't say it is not important. Relatively speaking while physical discipline has a role but it is not as important, not as significant as the spiritual life. "… but godliness [eusebeia] is profitable for all things …" Sometimes eusebeia is translated piety, sometimes godliness, words that are a little bit vague and ambiguous for a lot of people today. In old English the 'ly' indicated a comparative, and so it would be "God-likeness." If we think about godliness as being God-likeness then it is developing that character that is built in us that is spoken of in Romans 8:30 as being conformed to the image of Christ. It is our spiritual life. When we read that word "godliness" just think of as growing to spiritual maturity, that is the significance of that word.


So the important things that we focus on in this life—like our work, taking care of our families, education—have profit that is of only temporary value. One day we are going to be taken to be with the Lord and none of these things are going to go with us. The only thing that goes with us when we transfer from this life to heaven is the maturity that we develop in this life on the basis of our walk with the Lord by means of God the Holy Spirit. So Paul says, "but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and {also} for the {life} to come." Study of the Word and spiritual growth is profitable not only for today but for eternity as well.


Proverbs 4:23 NASB "Watch over your heart with all diligence …" This is a good verse to memorize to remind ourselves that we are to keep or guard our hearts, the inner part of our life, our spiritual life, our thinking. This is the word natsar. The word for "diligence" is a noun form based on the word shamarmishmar. The writer using these synonyms and parallel words really emphasizes, puts in bold face, what he is saying. So this comes to mean with all effort, all of our focus and concentration. So we are to guard our hearts so that nothing we learn from the Word of God escapes, is not forgotten, and that we continue to build into our soul the spiritual resources that we need in order to go forward, grow and mature in the spiritual life. " … For from it {flow} the springs of life." Some translations translate it "the issues of life"; others "the sources of life." All we have in the Hebrew is "out of it comes forth life." In other words, everything that we do has its origin in our thinking, in our mental attitude, in our focus. Our priorities, our activities, our values, etc. all come out of our soul—the thinking in our soul, our belief system. This is why we are to watch it diligently, because once we begin to let human viewpoint and the world's thinking infiltrate our value system, our priorities, our attention, then it begins to erode this fortification that we build in our soul through the study of God's Word that protects us from all of the dangers and problems of life. 


This word mishmar is a word that also emphasizes personal discipline and the importance of paying attention to every aspect of one's life and action. It is used in Psalm 39:1 NASB "I said, "I will guard my ways …" It is used in Proverbs 13:3 of guarding the lips—which is where the next verse takes us. We begin with keeping a guard on the thought systems of our mind, watching over what we think about, watching over our value systems and everything going on inside of our soul. Then it works itself out in terms of our mouth. 


Proverbs 4:24 NASB "Put away [remove] from you a deceitful mouth And put devious speech far from you." So we have a warning about what we say, a warning against the sins of the tongue. The sins of the tongue involve a whole range of different things, from lying to slandering other people, gossip. Not only are we to change the inner life, the inner thinking, but this is also going to impact what we do with our physical body and controlling of our mouth and other actions—specifically in this passage the mouth and the eye.


One writer has said: "Superficial habits of talk react on the mind so that cynical chatter, fashionable grumbles, flippancy, half-truths barely meant in the first place, harden into well established habits of thought." We have to guard what come out of our mouth. 


"deceitful mouth" is literally a crooked mouth. This refers to a mouth that distorts the truth, dissembles it, so that it is not exactly accurate. We are to put that away completely from us. "And put devious speech far from you" or, "Put away perverse lips." These are lips that are saying the opposite of something. That is the idea of the word "perverse."


There is a lot that is said in the book of Proverbs about the sins of the tongue and being watchful over one's mouth. For example, Proverbs 8:13 NASB "The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverted mouth, I hate." In Proverbs 10 there are several proverbs that are related to the mouth. Proverbs 10:6 NASB "Blessings are on the head of the righteous, But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence." In contrast to the mouth of the wicked, the mouth of the righteous. In verses 31, 32: "The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom, But the perverted tongue will be cut out. The lips of the righteous bring forth what is acceptable, But the mouth of the wicked what is perverted." The mouth is a source of good as well as a source of evil. If we let our mind dwell on that which is based on human viewpoint, if we let our mind be dominated by the sin nature, then that which comes out of the mouth is that which is destructive, that which is deceptive, and that which is perverse. But if we let our mind dwell upon the Word of God, upon truth, and think within a divine viewpoint framework, then that which comes forth from the mouth is wisdom and that which is acceptable.


Another important proverb is in Proverbs 18:6, 7 NASB "A fool's lips bring strife [enter into contention], And his mouth calls for blows [quick to violence]. A fool's mouth is his ruin, And his lips are the snare of his soul." The same emphasis is picked up by James.

James 3:1 NASB "Let not many {of you} become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment." Those who teach are usually very verbal and so it is easy for them to slip beyond teaching to opining too readily on things and become accountable for that. Then James goes from teaching to the broader universal principle of controlling the tongue. [2] "For we all stumble in many {ways.} If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well." In other words, if you don't commit sins of the tongue then you are a spiritually mature person. If you have discipline and self-mastery over your mouth then you can master other areas of life, because the most difficult area in life to master is the mouth.


Then he gives an example of how a small thing like the tongue can control and influence large things. The first illustration: [3] "Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well." As pressure is exerted on a small piece of metal in the mouth of a horse you can direct that horse to go one way or another and control it. The illustration is that something small exerts an influence far beyond its size to something much larger and more significant. A ship's rudder is not very large but it is able to turn a large vessel upon the water. In the same way a tongue can have a great influence far beyond its size. Then the third illustration is that of a fire. [5] " … See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! [6] And the tongue is a fire, the {very} world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of {our} life, and is set on fire by hell." What comes out of the mouth causes you to get out of fellowship, and so now the whole life is out of fellowship and you are walking according to the sin nature. James uses very dramatic language here to describe the destructive nature the tongue as it follows the sins initiated by the arrogance whose destiny of the lake of fire. [7] "For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. [8] But no one can tame the tongue; {it is} a restless evil {and} full of deadly poison. [9] With it we bless {our} Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God."


So with the mouth we can do good things. We can teach the Word and say wonderful things and bless things, but at the same time if we yield to our sin nature and get out of fellowship we can destroy reputations and cause great conflicts. 


We now move from controlling the mouth to controlling the eyes: what we are paying attention to, what we are focusing on, what we are allowing to come into our soul and dominate our soul. Proverbs 4:25 NASB "Let your eyes look directly ahead …" He is assuming the son is on the straight path that he has been commanding him to follow in the previous sections. The idea is to follow the right path. " … And let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you." This is the Hebrew word nabat used as an imperatival force to set your eyes on something, letting your eyes perceive, focus and be influenced by something, letting your eyes look straight ahead, focusing on the right road ahead and not deviating from the right path. "…And let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you." Literally it reads: "Let your eyelids be straight before you." The imperative her is to maintain the right course for your foot. He is moving from the heart in verse 23 to the mouth in verse 24, to the eyes in verse 25, to the path of the feet in verses 26, 27. 


The eyes are the source of much danger because it is with the eyes that we see things that influence us; we read things that influence us, and in 1 John 2:16 we are told, "all that is in the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life." It is through the eyes that we see things that tempt us, influence us to go off the path and to seek happiness and stability somewhere other than on the basis of God's Word. Eyes are the source of sexual lust. 2 Peter 2:14 NASB "having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls …"


Proverbs 4:26 NASB "Watch the path of your feet And all your ways will be established." "Watch" is from the Hebrew word which has the idea of literally digging through something, and it is used figuratively to refer to investigating something, studying it deeply. Studying it profoundly, to investigate, learn examine the path of your feet, staying upon the right path. As a result, letting all of your ways be established. The word for being established indicates that something establishes them, and this is the Lord who establishes our ways. Proverbs 16:3 NASB "Commit your works to the LORD And your plans [thoughts] will be established." They will be given a solid foundation. [9] "The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs [establishes] his steps." So we commit our way to the Lord and the Lord is the one who establishes our way.


Proverbs 4:27 NASB "Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil." Keep your steps forward, focusing on the way of wisdom and the path of righteousness. Here he uses two different verbs that have been used previously: natah, for stretching out (v. 20), and this is the same idea; removing the foot from evil is the idea of turning aside, the same word used in terms "put away from you the sinful mouth."


Again and again in the Proverbs we see it is your decision as to what kind of life you want to have. Your life is determined by the decisions that you make. Our lives are the accumulation of the results of those decisions that we make every day. Are we going to decide to stay on the right path? Are we going to get off the path and wander into the wrong direction? It is our decision. The challenge is that we have to develop a mental focus and a mental concentration to keep our eyes on the right path, to not get distracted and to not deviate. We need to keep the Word of God the number one priority in our life.