The Book of Proverbs is a soul searching book, sometimes because its wisdom searches our soul and other times because the searching of our soul finds its voice in its wisdom. The wisdom of this book searches the soul of the one who is willing to listen to advice, calling the reader out of foolish behaviors and desires into a life founded upon knowledge, justice, and righteousness. But sometimes the wisdom of the Proverbs simply gives voice to the aches of the soul, expressing the longings of the soul who is striving to live a wise life. Consider the following soul reflecting words,
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13.12 ESV)
Solomon is not so much teaching his son a wise course of action, but rather stating a very real fact of life: hope that never becomes a reality make the heart sick.
And it is not like Solomon is the only one to speak about “hope deferred.” We could just write this one proverb off as an isolated saying spoken in a moment of despair, but the Scripture is quite full of heart sick testimonies.
The book of worship in the Old Testament is the Book of Psalms. This collection of 150 psalms contains everything from psalms to praise the Lord to psalms of confession. And among those soul reflecting psalms are the psalms written by the heart sick. Over and over, the psalm writer cries out “How long O Lord?” Consider the following,
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69.3 ESV)
Or to use Solomon’s words, when hope is deferred, the heart grows ill.
Hope, at least in the Bible, is more than wishful thinking. Hope is “confident expectation” of something in the future that is yet to come, but certain to come, but unclear as to when it is coming. And that is what defers the hope, or postpones the hope, or forever keeps the hope just out of reach. Delayed gratification is a part of life, but when the delay turns into a permanent state of postponement, that is when the heart grows sick.
Solomon simply states what is true of the human condition. Even those of us with the firstfruits of the Spirit who have been reborn by the grace of God and who have become new creations in Christ still groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for what we hope for to become a reality (see Romans 8.18-25). But what do we do with the sick heart? How do we overcome this darkness, this weariness from crying out? How do we keep our eyes from growing dim with waiting on God to bring into reality that for which we hope?
While Solomon did not offer any advice to that end in Proverbs 13, we do find some help by turning to the psalms. In Psalm 42, the psalmist speaks about his sick heart and perhaps offers a few words of advice and counsel.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? 3My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. 5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. 7Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. 8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. 9I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” 10As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42 ESV)
What incredible words. If you have ever lived in the world of Proverbs 13.12, you know exactly what the psalmist is writing about in Psalm 42. He speaks of such a depth of soul thirst that tears are his constant friend, tears so powerful that they cry out themselves, “Where is God?” And these tears don’t disappear magically just because the soul attends a religious gathering. Even when surrounded by a joyful throng or worshippers in the house of God, the soul is still cast down. And if that weren’t enough, the psalmist speaks of his enemies who not only oppress him, but who also taunt him in his faith. The internal cry of the soul sick is given new voice in the taunts of the adversaries: “Where is your God?”
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. True, but how do we live victoriously with deferred hope? The psalmist gives an answer, but it is neither a feel good answer or empty words. He simply states that the only way out of a soul sick heart is to hope in God. At first glance, the answers seem almost insulting. How comforting can it be to say to the one who is weary of hoping in God that the way out of their weariness is to renew their hope?
Before we simply cast aside this solution as untenable, let us at least hear the psalmist out. After all, even the psalmist admits that this solution does not take away the tears or suddenly relieve a down cast soul. But the psalmist does know that his deep calls out to the deep within the Creator and Sustainer of life. His deep knows that the only hope, the only justice, the only deliverance that can be found lies in the “God of his life.” But more importantly, he knows that one day he will again praise Him. One day, whether that day is close or far away, one day the psalmist himself will praise the God of his life with glad shouts and songs of praise. One day, the hope will be fulfilled, resulting in a tree of life.
The soul sick heart has two options. Either the soul sick heart can focus on the deferment or on the hope. If the soul sick heart chooses, it can concentrate on the parched throats, on the tears, on the taunts of the adversaries, on the oppression, on the bondage to decay, and on all the brokenness of living in the now and the not yet. Or, the soul sick heart can focus on the confident expectation of what is yet to come, what is certain to come. The soul sick heart can set its eyes on the things that will happen when all of creation is brought under the headship of Christ by reading the words of the prophets that describe the hope of the new day, words like these from the prophet Micah,
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, 2and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. 5For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. 6In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted; 7and the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore. (Micah 4.1-7 ESV)
After all, the bondage to decay is one of God’s way to get us to hope for what we do not yet have and won’t have until the Lord returns and places all things under His feet.
Hope deferred does make the soul sick, but if we can focus on the hope and not the deferment, then perhaps we can replace soul sickness with the excitement of those who wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, even hastening its coming (see 2 Peter 3.12).