We’re past Christmas and quickly marching toward the new year of 2024, and a new year means a new Bible-reading plan for many of us. Two Mondays ago, we were encouraged to make Bible reading a part of our everyday routine. We looked at that in episode 2003. But obviously, as we embark on our reading plan, the goal isn’t to check off a box each day. I think we all know this. Even in the grammar of the New Testament, in its five hundred “therefores,” we see that the Bible “intends to have a practical, emotional, intellectual, behavioral effect on our lives today.” That was two weeks ago, in episode 2002.
Bible reading is about engaging with God’s precious word in a profound, heart-stirring, life-changing way. And this poses a challenge in our Bible reading, because as we get into our daily rhythm, over the course of time we find — even as we read about the most precious things in the universe — that we feel nothing. Our hearts grow dull. Our spiritual affections grow flat. So how do we break out of this dull rut and jump-start our heart’s engagement with God’s word?
Many have asked that exact question, including one anonymous listener who writes this: “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. My question is, What if I read my Bible, but I don’t feel anything in my affections that resonates with the worth, the value, the preciousness, the beauty, the pleasures of what those words are supposed to communicate to my soul? Is there anything I can do next, or do I just have to wait until the experience sort of just happens to me at some point in the future?”
Well, I am so glad for the question because it is something that I’ve been thinking about recently so much as I’ve been meditating on a section of the book of Proverbs. I think this section of the book of Proverbs is introduced by the inspired writer precisely to answer that question. The section is Proverbs 22:17–24:22. Push pause if you want to go and get your Bible because I’m going to get everything I have to say from about three lines in Proverbs 22:17–18.
Okay, now you’ve got your Bible, and the section runs from Proverbs 22:17 to Proverbs 24:22. If you look at the end of Proverbs 22:20, it says, “Have I not written for you thirty sayings?” Now, those thirty sayings are found in Proverbs 22:17–24:22 in groupings. Some Bibles break up the groupings for you. Every time a new theme starts, there’s a new saying, and there are thirty of them in the unit.
“This text is God’s word to you: Apply your heart.”
Verse 17 is where the sayings start, and it says, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise.” So, these sayings are usually entitled the “Words of the Wise.” What’s so important about this is that I think the first two verses, or the first three verses perhaps, in this new section of thirty sayings are written precisely to answer the question that we’ve just been given — namely, how do you hear and how do you feel these words appropriately?
So, let me read verses 17 and 18: “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them [these words of the wise, communicating that knowledge] within you, if all of them are ready on your lips.” So, two things.
The first line says, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise.” Clearly the point there is this: words are being spoken, and you should lean in — literally “incline your ear.” What do we do when we can’t hear? We kind of lean in. We press in closer.
We do that with our attention as well. If you’re reading words or if you’re hearing words, and the words are just going by, he’s saying, “Don’t let them go by. Don’t let any of the words go by. Attend meticulously, carefully, attentively to the words themselves, because the words” — next line — “are going to form knowledge in your mind.” The next line says this: “and apply your heart to my knowledge.”
Knowledge is what forms in the mind. It’s some idea, some communication of something valuable or precious or important or wise that he’s going to give you through the medium of words that hit your ear, go inside, and produce knowledge. And then — here it comes — he says to “apply your heart to my knowledge.” The effect? “It will be pleasant.” I take it that the heart is the organ of pleasantness, pleasure.
And that’s what the question is: How can I experience pleasure — an appropriate admiring and valuing and treasuring and loving and embracing and enjoyment and satisfaction — in what I’m perceiving through the words? And he says, “The way you do it is to apply your heart.”
Now, I’m going to talk for just a minute or two about what that means, but just know that this writer, this inspired writer, is answering your question. Is there something you can do to move from ears attending to words and minds grasping for knowledge to hearts experiencing pleasantness of what is within? Is there anything you can do? His answer is yes, and the words he uses go like this: “Apply your heart to what your ear has heard and the knowledge that’s forming in your mind.”
How to Push on the Heart
Now, what does that mean? I’ve got here, right in front of me on my screen, the word tā·šîṯ, which is Hebrew for the verb apply. The full phrase means “your heart apply,” or literally, “your heart put” or “set” or “stand” or “place.”
So you take your heart, and you put it, you place it, into what you’ve seen with your eyes or heard with your ears. You push the nose of your heart into the beauty of the knowledge. If the heart is not feeling anything, you say to your heart, “Heart, wake up.” And you take hold of the heart, and you apply it; you push it; you place it in the knowledge. You push on it. There is something you can do.
Here’s an analogy. Suppose you would like to taste a steak. You can hear it sizzling on the grill outside, so you go outside. Then your eyes see the steak sizzling on the grill. If you get close enough, your nose may smell the steak sizzling on the grill — but there’s still no taste in your mouth of that steak. Is there anything you can do?
That is the question. It really is the question. Is there anything you can do with the steak of God, with the steak of Christ, with the steak of salvation, with the steak of the word of God, the word of the infinite Creator God? Is there anything you can do to taste it? You know what the answer is. You take a knife, and you cut off a piece, and you put it in your mouth, and you chew and you chew. And then you swallow, and you taste. And you say to your heart, “Eat, heart. Eat, heart.”
Diamonds Hide in Plain Sight
Let me give some more examples. I’m walking to church. It’s October. The leaves on the trees in my neighborhood are unbelievably bright with yellow and orange, and the sun is shining. It has been a more mild October than usual, so it’s sixty degrees. The leaves are flickering, and it is absolutely stunning.
“Don’t say that you are beyond the capacity to feel the beauty of the knowledge of God in the Bible.”
But I’m walking to church, to a prayer meeting, and not noticing anything. My eyes are seeing it, and I’m not seeing it. What has to happen? I pause. God’s grace causes me to pause. This little podcast right here causes me to pause. And you look at it — you really look at it. You lean in, and you say, “Heart, that’s orange. That’s yellow. They were green, and now they’re orange and yellow and gold, and the sun is making them bright, and they are waving at you with the breeze, and God is trying to get your attention and to say, ‘The glory of God is shining here. Look hard.’” And you push the nose of the heart up into the tree.
When I came home, several days ago, there were two or three afternoons that were so stunning that I would look out my window and say, “Whoa.” And I’d get up and go downstairs, and I’d walk under the tree and look up. Then I walked across the street and looked back. Then I got out my camera and tried to get some different shots. Then I walked around the side of the house to see what it looked like from that angle. This is the pushing of the heart into the gold of natural revelation.
You do the same thing with the word of God. A diamond is offered to you. You see the diamond, but you don’t see the diamond. So you say to your heart, “Heart, move around this diamond. Look at the diamond from that side, and look at the diamond from that side.”
Heart-Talk as God-Talk
And when a born-again person is reading Proverbs 22:17 — “Apply your heart to this knowledge. Apply your heart. Apply your heart” — you can’t help but turn it into prayer. When you’re preaching to your heart, and you’re saying to your heart, “Come on, heart; wake up. Come on, heart; look at this. Come on, heart; feel this. This is beautiful. Wake up, heart,” instinctively you are praying. You’re not just talking to your heart — though you are talking to your heart, because that’s what the text says to do: “Apply your heart.” But you are also praying, “God, God, help me. God, open my eyes.”
So, may I suggest that even if you listen to this right now and say, “I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work,” or, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about” — may I urge you? May I plead with you? You may be such a novice at this that you need practice. Please don’t give up. Don’t say that you are beyond the capacity to feel the beauty of the knowledge of God in the Bible and the knowledge of his ways. This text is God’s word to you: “Apply your heart.”