Hope Deferred … A Longing Fulfilled

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Proverbs 13:12

INTRODUCTION: Our Scripture tonight is a single verse from the book of Proverbs, which is not where we normally go for a Christmas passage. And even though the verse is not specifically about Christmas, there is a clear Christmas application wrapped up in the wisdom of this particular proverb from Solomon.

Christmas is all about hope and longing and promises fulfilled, and this proverb captures these elements perfectly in two succinct phrases: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)

So tonight we will look at this verse from three different angles. First we will make the general application, then a Christmas application, and then we will finish with a personal application of this proverb. (Pray.)

I. The general application

So let’s begin by taking a look at the general application of our verse. Proverbs are general statements that teach us wisdom by making pointed observations about life. Because they are short, they come at us fast, but we need to slow down and take the time to reflect on them if we are going to absorb their wisdom. And this proverb makes the accurate observation that: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)

The first part of the verse has to do with waiting. How many of you like to wait? How many kids like waiting for their gifts on Christmas? None of us like waiting! Whether you are waiting for a phone call, waiting for a package to arrive, or just waiting for the light to change, none of us like to wait.

Now those are all pretty simple examples of waiting, but sometimes waiting involves more serious circumstances. What if you are unemployed and waiting for a job to come through? What if you are ill and waiting for the doctors to find a solution? What if you are single and waiting to find that special person? I am sure you can think of many examples where waiting is not merely inconvenient but downright difficult and discouraging.

When you are waiting and hoping for something to come through, and it doesn’t come through, that is what Proverbs 13:12 means by “hope deferred.” The word translated “deferred” in this verse is a word that means something that is drawn out or postponed. And when you are hoping for something important, waiting for it, longing for it, and it keeps on getting postponed or pushed further down the road, it makes your heart sick.

There are a lot of unfulfilled wishes in this life, and so there are a lot of heartsick people in this world. Perhaps you are one of them. If so, my heart goes out to you, because there is no sickness quite so disheartening as heartsickness.

But there is a second half to this proverb we must look at as well. Proverbs often work in pairs, and the second part usually balances out the first part. So yes, hope deferred makes the heart sick, “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” When you’ve been waiting for something for so long, and then it finally comes true, Proverbs 13:12 says it is like a tree of life.

It’s an interesting metaphor, because in the Bible the tree of life first shows up in the book of Genesis in the Garden of Eden. We read in Genesis 2: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8-9)

Adam was told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and when he and Eve did they were banished from the Garden so that they would not take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. The wages of sin is death, and in sinning against God, Adam and Eve forfeited their right to eternal life in God’s presence.

So the tree of life shows up at the beginning of the Bible. And guess where it shows up again? In the book of Revelation at the very end of the Bible! In Revelation chapter 22, the very last chapter of the Bible we read: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-12)

Here we see that the tree of life is not only a symbol of eternal life but also of healing. And I believe that’s the image we are supposed to get from Proverbs 13:12. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and when something is sick it needs healing. And so a longing fulfilled brings healing for the heartsick person.

I think of Naomi in the Old Testament. Naomi was heartsick after losing her husband and two sons, but then God provided for her through her daughter-in-law Ruth. And when Ruth married Boaz and gave birth to a son, and they brought that son to Naomi, Naomi’s bitterness lifted and she experienced healing as she held and cradled that baby in her lap. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” and healing for the soul.

II. A Christmas application

So that’s the general application of this verse, but what is the Christmas application? The Christmas application is this. The people of God waited many long years for the coming of Messiah and that longing was eventually fulfilled in the birth of Christ. In fact, that is one of the reasons we celebrate Advent for the whole month of December leading up to Christmas. It is to remind ourselves what it was like to wait for the coming of Christ that first Christmas.

So what was it like? When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they fell under God’s judgment, but God also gave them a promise about the savior to come. Of course God didn’t give them a timetable, and so with each new son that was born, they wondered if this could be the promised Messiah. In fact when Noah was born, his parents named him Noah because the name Noah means “comfort” and they thought he might be the one who would comfort them in their labor and take away the effects of the curse.

God rarely works on our timetable, and so the years turned into centuries, and the centuries turned into millennia. God continued to send prophets who spoke of the coming savior, and each one added more information and new details about the one to come. Then when you get to the prophet Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, God even stopped sending prophets. There was 400 years of silence between Malachi and the coming of Christ.

How God’s people longed for Messiah! They would even put an extra cup out each Passover in hopes that Elijah would come and announce the Messiah’s coming. And then when he didn’t come, they would pack the cup away and wait another year. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12) The coming of Messiah was meant to heal the heartsick nation and fulfill all their longings.

God also made it clear that this coming savior was not just for the nation of Israel but would bring healing to all the nations. Isaiah prophesied not only about Christ but also about Christ coming for the Gentiles. We read in Isaiah 9: “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress … in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan – The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1-2) The promised savior would come and darkness would turn to light for all nations.

God promised through the prophet Haggai: “I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:7) This prophecy was fulfilled with the coming of Christ. Jesus is the desired of all nations who came from the Father full of grace and truth and filled with the glory of God.

Now fast forward to Christmas Eve. After all these thousands of years of waiting, God sends an angel to the shepherds in the fields with a message: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) What is the operative word? Today! The long wait was over. Jesus the Savior was born.

III. A personal application

So we’ve seen the general application of this proverb and we’ve seen a Christmas application. But what is the personal application? The personal application is this: Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all your longings. Everything you have ever desired is found in him. He is the Savior. He is the Messiah. He is the answer to your questions. He is the one you have been looking for all your life.

There is so much heartsickness in our world today. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. But the birth of Jesus is good news of great joy that is for all people, and that includes you! When you come to Christ, your whole outlook on life changes. We read these words of David in Psalm 39: “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (Psalm 39:7) And when your hope is in Christ you will not be disappointed.

God tells those who trust in Christ: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

The book of Lamentations says: “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:25–26) Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans: “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:5)

Every person born into this world is heartsick apart from Christ. Our hearts are literally sick with sin, and we need the healing that only Jesus can bring. He is the tree of life that brings forgiveness and cleanses our hearts from sin. He is the one who brings salvation and fulfills our deepest longings.

St. Augustine prayed these famous words to God: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.” (Confessions, Book 1) Is your heart restless this evening? Is your heart sick from disappointment after disappointment in life? Is your heart sick with sin and guilt and in need of cleansing? Then why wait any longer? Come to Christ. He is the Savior. He is the Healer. He is the Giver of Life. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)

There’s a beautiful song written by David Baroni that picks up this tree of life imagery and applies it to the cross. The song goes like this:

O mighty cross, Love lifted high,
The Lord of life raised there to die;
His sacrifice on Calvary
Has made the mighty cross a tree of life to me.

O mighty cross, what throne of grace,
He knew no sin, yet took my place;
His sacrifice on Calvary
Has made the mighty cross a tree of life to me.

O mighty cross, my soul’s release,
The stripes he bore have brought me peace;
His sacrifice on Calvary
Has made the mighty cross a tree of life to me.

Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin and to give you life. The cross was a tree of death for him, but a tree of life for you and me. The message the angel brought to the shepherds that first Christmas Eve are also meant for you this Christmas: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

© Ray Fowler

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