Another KJV Verse You Probably Memorized without Understanding It

Keep thy heart with all diligence; For out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

This is a very common memory verse, as well it should be, but how many people know what issues means here? It doesn’t mean what we would usually expect that word to mean in a sentence like this one, “a matter that is in dispute between two or more parties” (Merriam-Webster).

I gather from the Hebrew word and an OED check that the KJV translators used issues to mean something more like “out-goings” (the OED offers, “the action of going, passing, or flowing out; egress, exit; power of egress or exit; outgoing, outflow,” and it attests this use in Wycliffe as early as 1382). Modern translations tend to use “springs” in this verse—“out of your heart flow the springs of life.” In other words, what happens in your life flows out of your heart (cf. Waltke, NICOT, p.298).

Today we tend to use the verb form of issue to mean something like “out-goings” when we say, “Senator So-And-So issued a press release.” And when we say, “There’s a new issue of TIME you’ve got to read,” we are using the noun in a way that stems from the “out-goings” sense—because a press issues or sends out each print run. (This connection, however, is not present in our minds when we use the word.)

But I don’t think very many people at all today use the noun form of issue in quite the way the KJV did in this verse. Yes, you got the gist of Proverbs 4:23, but are you content to memorize a verse in which you don’t really understand one of the major words?

And archaic usages in the KJV do create problems. I went to a funeral a few years ago where an old African-American preacher preached on “the woman with the issue of blood” from  Matthew 9. He began something like this: “This woman had an issue—an issue of blood. I got issues, you got issues, we all got issues!” Yes, we can blame this man for poor exegesis, but his use of a 400-year-old translation certainly didn’t help.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

5 thoughts on “Another KJV Verse You Probably Memorized without Understanding It”

  1. Alright, Mark, come on now. You really mean to tell me that you read that verse for years and never understood the verbal idea behind “issues?” Maybe I’m exceptional, (at least my mother always said I was) but I don’t ever remember being confused about this word.
    And, the “out-goings” sense of the word is the *only* connection I’ve ever had in my mind with illustrations like,- “There’s a new issue of TIME you’ve got to read.”
    Come to think of it, it is the “a-matter-that-is-in-dispute-between-two-or-more-parties” nuance that I have no connection for. Where did that come from anyway? Perhaps I am the odd ball here but I don’t think this helps your overall thesis.

  2. Ok, well, I didn’t say my *friends* could disagree with me!

    If you two august gentlemen disagree, I have to admit I could be wrong instead of just agenda-driven.

    How about this: most people overall understand this verse, but the modern translations typically put it in an idiom that better fits our common paradigmatic speech patterns. (Paradigmatic: “words are in paradigmatic relation insofar as they can occupy the same slot in a particular context”—Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 119.) In other words, few if any contemporary English speakers would use the word “issues” to express this idea.

  3. I have had four reactions to this verse 🙂

    1. Cluelessness about “issues of life” but with a determination not to hear curse words.
    2. “Issue” as controversial topic
    3. “Issue” as a verbal noun with life referring to happy vigor as in, “he is full of life.”
    4. “Issue” as verbal noun and life as manifestation of the heart. cf. Mt. 12:34, 35

    Hope this helps with your pay grade, Mark.

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