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Hope deferred (Pro 13:12)


"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Pro 13:12, RSV).

How many of us have experienced the first part of this verse? Maybe it was a job that you really, really wanted, and you had to wait and wait, and finally, it went to someone else. Or maybe it was a deep feeling for someone, and you thought, "I could be so happy with that person because that person displays every quality I want in a mate." And yet, for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen.

Or perhaps, it was the hope for a baby. Husband and wife enjoyed a good marriage; they were in love with one another; yet after months or maybe years of trying, no pregnancy. And the body absolutely ached with this unfulfilled desire.

Sometimes, what starts out in the mind as a hope deferred, after a while, takes on a life of its own. The hurt literally spreads to the rest of the body, and seems to consume the person -- until finally he or she cannot function at any level.

There are examples in the Bible of these sorts of feelings. These longings reflect part of the character-building process used by God. Two familiar stories serve as test cases.

Abraham, Sarah, and the seed

At the age of 75 Abraham was told by God that he would have a son who would do amazing things -- he would bring salvation to all who had faith in him. Yet Sarah -- 66 at the time of the initial promise -- was barren. So, month after month, year after year, Abraham grew more despondent. Nothing was happening. Finally, Abraham asked God if Eliezer of Damascus, his steward, might be the promised "seed". But God said no. Yet it is recorded that "Abraham believed, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6).

And still there was no seed; Sarah remained barren; time marched on. Sarah was obviously frustrated with this situation; at last, she decided to take matters into her own hands: she gave her maid Hagar to Abraham. He complied with her wishes, and Hagar became pregnant. She bore Ishmael to Abraham when he was 86.

Now at last, Abraham had the promised seed, right? But thirteen more years came and went with, as far as we know, no open revelations from God. The question must have pressed upon Abraham's mind: "Is Ishmael the one or not?" As the baby grew into a child and a young man, it began to be obvious to Abraham and Sarah that Ishmael might not be the fulfillment of God's promise. But how else could it be fulfilled? They were each getting older and older; Sarah was now 90 years old, and obviously could no longer bear a child. Or could she?

And then, an angel appeared to Abraham to tell him he would literally father a child by his beloved Sarah. Abraham laughed (in astonishment? in disbelief?). And so the angel told him, "The child will be named Yitzhak (Isaac)" -- which means "laughter"! Sarah, hearing of this renewed promise, laughed also, and was rebuked. The angel said,

"Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son" (Gen 18:13,14).
And it happened! Twenty-five years after the original promises, Sarah finally bore a son, Isaac. And there must have been incredible joy. For the desire, finally fulfilled, became a "tree of life" (both then, for Abraham and Sarah and their descendants; and especially in the future, in the divine "seed" that came through Abraham and Isaac -- the Lord Jesus Christ)!

David and the throne

As a teenager, the humble shepherd David was anointed by the great prophet Samuel to be king of all Israel. With the help of God he won a great victory, against Goliath and the Philistines; he returned from battle to the sounds of women singing his praises. Yet even as he did so well, his success inspired the envy and hatred of king Saul, who plotted to kill him. The young man David had to flee for his life. For years he lived in exile, existing from hand to mouth, constantly on guard against a sudden attack from Saul and his men.

During all this time, all these long years, when was David going to become king, as God had promised? Twice David was tempted with the opportunity to slay Saul; but no, he knew he must not lift his hand against the LORD's anointed.

So how much longer did David have to hold out? Psalms written during this time of exile express his frustration in trying to do the right thing, while hiding in the hills, far away from the peace and comfort of a settled home.

"I cry with my voice to the LORD, with my voice I make supplication to the LORD. I pour out my complaint before him, I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit is faint, thou knowest my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. I look to the right and watch, but there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me, no man cares for me. I cry to thee, O LORD; I say, Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Give heed to my cry; for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors; for they are too strong for me!" (Psa 142).
Can you not feel the truth of the proverb?: a hope deferred, a sick heart, intense frustration. What could David do? He could only look to God, pray to Him, trust in Him. God was the only way.

And finally, after many years, the way opened up. Saul was slain by the Philistines. David could now assume his kingdom. And here's the fulfillment in David's life of the last part of the proverb (a desire fulfilled; a tree of life): when he brought the ark of God to its permanent resting place in Jerusalem:

"So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn" (2Sa 6:12-15).

Application to us

And so it may be for each of us: finally, our desires are fulfilled. The barren couple, waiting and waiting, finally rejoices when they discover she is at last pregnant. The young lady, biding her time, finally meets the right young man, who loves her as she loves him. The coveted job turns out to be in a department that is suddenly terminated; so missing that promotion is, in fact, a Godsend.

But what do we do when the hope deferred continues to be deferred? when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel? when nothing changes for the better?

There are only two options:

Give up, turn your back on God, and say, "I simply can't take it any more. I quit." Or...
Realize that God might have something else in mind for you, and that the fulfillment of your particular desire -- at least for now -- does not fit into His plan. And then you do the best you can with what you have.


Darrell Royal was a great football coach at the University of Texas. One day he was asked why he hadn't changed quarterbacks in a crucial game at the end of the season, when his starter -- who had won so many games for him -- was for once not playing well. Coach Royal quoted the girl at the party, who was asked for a dance by a stranger. "No, thanks," she said. "I'll dance with the one that brung me!"

God brought us into this life. He has been so good to us in countless way. And He has promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us.

We "dance" with God because, almost two thousand years ago, He gave His only-begotten Son for us. And that Son, Jesus, died and rose again so that we might have life, and life more abundantly. Together, God and Jesus have invited us to the "party" of their Kingdom. Jesus said, "To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev 2:7).

And we know that, one day soon, when Jesus returns, every desire WILL be fulfilled, and we WILL eat of that tree of life.


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