“A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.” (Proverbs 13:12)
This is the thirteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 13, preceded by a brief reflection.
2020 has been a tough year. The global pandemic has left many of us shaken and fearful for our health and those we love. More than anything, we desire an end to the scourge and a recovery from the resulting economic distress and social isolation. The civil and political unrest has added to our anxiety, and we desperately hope for relational healing from the deep divisions within our country. The words of Solomon in Proverbs 13 seem to capture the moment, “A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.” (Proverbs 13:12) No doubt when a cure is found for Covid, and divisions within the country begin to heal, we will emerge from our grief and heartsickness and begin to feel alive once again. Indeed, in a later verse in Proverbs 13, we read, “Those with their longings satisfied, know sweetness of the soul.” (Proverbs 13:19a)
But is this what it is going to take for us to be a tree of life? Will it only be when our hopes and longings are satisfied that we will feel alive with sweetness in our soul? Is it only when external conditions change that we will know internal peace? Is it only when we are protected by a vaccine and conflicts resolved that we will experience contentment?
Proverbs 13 has essentially two types of verses. The majority are those which embody a moral imperative. For example,“A child who’s wise will want to heed its parent’s clear command; A mocker though does not respond to words of reprimand.” (Proverbs 13:1) This is a pattern we find throughout Proverbs – a comparison and contrast between the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish, the diligent and the lazy, etc. In other words, these carry the weight of ethical norms – we ought to pursue a life of righteousness, wisdom, diligence, etc.
However, there are also a handful of verses, such as verse 13, that do not involve right and wrong per se, but rather are universal truths about the human condition. “A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life alive with fruit and leaf.” (Proverbs 13:12) This is something we have all experienced – being heartsick when our hopes go unfulfilled and being overjoyed when they are filled. If we were to read this as a moral imperative, then I suppose the way forward is to reduce the things we hope for. In other words, we should put to death those things that we desire. But while overcoming one’s desires or “detachment” is the goal of many Eastern religions, it is decidedly not part of Scripture or a Christian worldview.
The point being, Proverbs 13:12 is not the final word on our desires and hopes, but must be read in light of the rest of Scripture. Otherwise, our happiness and fruitfulness would be dependent upon having our desires met. The Bible provides a lot of guidance on overcoming worry. The foundational way is stated by Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34)
As we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness in increasing measure, God’s provision enables us to live more and more in the present moment. In the immediately preceding verses in Matthew 6, Jesus gives practical guidance on overcoming worry and anxiety by telling us to contemplate God’s care for “the birds of the air” and “flowers of the field.” Mostly we do this in our mind’s eye, and rarely in actual fact. It seems to me that birds and flowers are a metonymy for nature. And that nature is a way God provides for soothing our fears. Let me give three examples.
My wife Pat loves to “go birding.” Particularly during the Spring migration, she desires nothing more than to spend a few hours of a morning with binoculars in hand studying birds that she finds in bushes, trees and the air. Along with her “birding buddy” Jo Anne, she soaks in the diverse beauty of the “birds of the air.” From the spectacular colors of indigo buntings and goldfinches to the lyrical songs of Baltimore orioles and wood thrushes, it is all a healing salve to the soul. Excited and energized when she returns home, the renewed sense of wholeness in her spirit is palpable.
My friends Marly and her husband Bill have taken to exploring our local parks since Covid disrupted their normal activities. This spring and summer, they regularly hiked trails that took them through wood, field, and fen. Marly recently commented on how her love for being outside in nature has grown. In this, she has come to appreciate the love for the out-of-doors of her long-departed father, who worked many years for the National Park Service. A small thing perhaps, but contemplating nature is a restorative to what confuses, confounds, and worries us in our daily lives.
I too spend a lot of time outside, because one of my tasks is to walk our dog. After years of running daily for exercise where I focused only on my footing and stopwatch, I have a slower pace in my wanderings these days. As I go, I find my gaze drawn to the beauty of the heavens and their seemingly infinite variation. I like skies of grey, I like skies of blue, but I really like skies with clouds. Daisy doesn’t mind when I pause to look up. She sniffs the ground while I follow the patterns and shapes in the clouds. It helps me put things in perspective as I consider that God’s firmament has been on display since the dawn of time and will be to the end. Invariably, I return home refreshed and at peace.
Being outside in nature provides temporal relief from our worries. Whether spying on migrating birds, hiking a woodland trail, or simply watching the clouds – it is almost impossible to ponder these sights while worrying at the same time. But Jesus’ words suggest that there is a deeper freedom from our worries we can experience. For if God provides for the birds of the air and adorns the flowers of the field, how much more will he care for us. In essence, Jesus tells us that if we focus on the wonders of today we don’t have to wait until our hopes are fulfilled to live as “a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.”
1 A child who’s wise will want to heed,
its parent’s clear command;
A mocker though does not respond,
to words of reprimand.
2 Those speaking right and fruitful words,
will surely taste good things;
The treacherous seek violence,
and eat the hate it brings.
3 Those placing guards upon their lips,
will keep their lives secure;
Those rashly speaking careless words,
won’t flourish or endure.
4 The sluggard’s wants are never filled,
but always are denied;
The diligent find all their wants,
are fully satisfied.
5 The righteous hate whatever’s false,
no lies do they embrace;
The wicked bring upon themselves,
dishonor and disgrace.
6 The righteous find their way secured,
by their integrity;
The wicked though are overthrown,
by their iniquity.
7 One person acts like they are rich,
but yet is very poor;
Another acts like one in want,
while having so much more.
8 The rich must pay a ransom when,
their lives are on the line;
The poor don’t even hear a threat –
such problems they don’t find.
9 The righteous are a joyful flame –
a bright and shiny light;
The wicked are fading lamp,
that’s snuffed out in the night.
10 The arrogant are insolent,
creating strife and fear;
The wise will listen to advice,
accepting what they hear.
11 Those gaining wealth dishonestly,
will find it slips away;
But those who earn it bit by bit,
will watch it grow each day.
12 A hope deferred will make the heart,
feel sick and full of grief;
But filled it is a tree of life,
alive with fruit and leaf.
13 Those scorning wise, instructive words,
will surely meet their fate;
But those who keep commands will know,
rewards that won’t abate.
14 The wise have teaching that provides,
a font of life for all;
It turns one from the snares of death,
so it will not befall.
15 Those showing their good judgment will,
win favor like a friend;
But those who act unfaithfully,
will surely meet their end.
16 The prudent and self-disciplined,
show knowledge and good sense.
But fools expose their ignorance,
with folly and pretense.
17 A wicked messenger will fall,
A faithful courier with bring,
a healing remedy.
18 Those disregarding discipline,
have poverty and shame;
But those who heed admonishment,
find honor and acclaim.
19 Those with their longings satisfied,
know sweetness of the soul;
But fools can’t turn from wickedness,
in part or in the whole.
20 Those walking with the wise become,
as wise as they are too;
But those who spend their time with fools,
are harmed by what they do.
21 A sinner lives a life pursued,
by trouble and distress;
The righteous are rewarded with,
good blessings and success.
22 Good people leave their money for,
their grandchildren to keep;
But sinners simply store up wealth,
that righteous people reap.
23 The poor could glean sufficient food,
from even fallow fields;
Injustice sweeps it all away,
destroying what it yields.
24 To spare the rod of discipline,
means hatred for a child;
But parents who correct with care,
have love that’s not defiled.
25 The righteous eat abundantly,
until they’re satisfied;
The wicked suffer hunger pangs,
that are not mollified.