Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Proverbs 13:12
How do you recover from a broken dream? This proverb can help. It contrasts two common experiences: deferred hope and fulfilled desire. The first makes the heart sick; the second is a tree of life. But how does reflecting on such self-evident experiences help get you back on your feet?
Think of this proverb as a riddle, not simply a statement of fact. It’s poetry, so the writer wants you to mull it over. He has woven together multiple layers of meaning in a simple but memorable verse. Like an onion, it packs a punch that makes your eyes water once you slice into the deeper layers.
Even a child understands the surface meaning. We feel awesome when we get what we always wanted but crummy when we don’t. The proverb prepares us to expect heart-sickness when hope is delayed. It is only natural to feel heartbroken and sick in your soul at such times. Even Jesus grieved when his friends died and he sweat drops of blood on the night he was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. We are reminded to be patient and gracious with others, and even ourselves, when hope is deferred.
The proverb equally warns us. If hope deferred makes our heart sick then we better be careful where we place our hope. If we place hope in unreliable objects or unrealistic outcomes we are sitting ducks for frustration and despair. Life is fragile — we must choose carefully where to place our hope. Ultimately, the only safe place to store hope is in God himself.
For Jews (the original audience for this proverb) the phrase “tree of life” would cause them to recall their heritage and identity — the same way Americans would when they heard “we hold these truths to be self evident”. They couldn’t miss the reference to the Garden of Eden because the “tree of life” grew at its center. They would remember how Adam and Eve had the perfect life and were simply asked to hope in God above all else — to trust Him about the tree. They refused when they ate from a “tree of death” — also known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Heaven on earth was lost. Hope has been frustrated ever since.
After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples that all the scriptures basically point to him (Luke 24:27). This proverb is no exception. Jesus is at the heart of its meaning.
Jesus was “the second Adam” (Romans 5:17). Like Adam, Jesus was placed in a garden. It wasn’t a perfect paradise like Eden, but a lonely olive grove called Gethsemane. Jesus was asked to trust God about another tree of death — the cross. Unlike Adam, trusting God about this tree meant enduring something more terrifying than anyone’s worst nightmare. Yet, Jesus committed all his hopes and dreams into His Father’s hands. He awoke three days later to new life – a resurrected life. As a result, Jesus has replaced the broken dreams of Adam’s ruined world with bright dreams of His Father’s restored world.
One day, like waking up from a night of dark dreams, our eyes will be opened to Jesus’ restored world. All that has overwhelmed us and crushed us will fade in the morning light of His new kingdom. Then God will break the fast (breakfast) and we will feast on the tree of life — its fruit fulfilling all our desires.
Such a promise can help you recover from any broken dream.