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The Crux

Does Proverbs 13:12 Promise Eternal Life?

Why does it mention the tree of life?

Proverbs 13:12 includes some interesting language.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

I'll do my best to break this down without promising to understand the author's real intent.

Two clauses. The first refers to a positive and ends with a negative. The second begins with something that may be positive or negative and ends with a positive. Let's explore.

Image source: Pexels

Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick

Hope is a present expectation of a future outcome. But why does it make the heart sick? Better yet, why does "deferred" hope lead to that fate? Isn't all hope deferred?

The Hebrew word used for "deferred" in this clause is mashak. According to Strong's Concordance, it literally means "to draw" or "drag." In other words, to drag out over a long period. The idea seems to be that hope that is not fulfilled in a timely manner leads to a type of heart sickness.

"Heart" is used poetically. That is, in the same manner that English poets use "heart" to refer to the spirit, the inner person, or the will. Take Keats's "Ode To a Nightingale", for instance. The opening line reads:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

We know what he means by "heart." He doesn't mean his physical, palpitating organ of life, the vessel that pumps our blood through our veins to the rest of our body. He means that seat of the will that causes us to enjoy the company of another, the inner Keats who longs for his lover's touch. Likewise, the author of Proverbs 13 is singing his own ode. Hope that draws on for too long causes a deep seated desire for it to be fulfilled. That is the heart sickness, the desire for what one can't have until some future unknown time that it's promise is fulfilled.

We Christians who hold onto the hope of our Lord appearing ought to be able to relate to this. We hope, but he lingers, and we are stuck in this world full of pain, sadness, and sin. May He come quickly.

Desire Fulfilled Is a Tree of Life

Our desire is for the Lord to return. We may have other desires—to see a loved one come to faith, for instance, or to land that coveted job. And what a sweet day it is to our spirits when these desires come to fruition.

What I find interesting about this clause is the use of the phrase "tree of life."

The author could have simply said "life," or he may have used another metaphor. But he didn't. He called fulfilled desires a "tree of life," using a simile to compare the two. What are we to make of that?

In the Bible, there are two images that convey the tree of life, and both represent the same thing. In the first instance, the tree of life was in the midst of the Garden of Eden where God initially set the pinnacle of His creation and told the first man, Adam, to care for it. In that garden were two specific trees that each had a special power that could be conferred to man. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and, of course, the Tree of Life.

We know about the first tree. Upon consuming the fruit of that true, man took on a sense of moral agency, able to understand the difference between good and evil. Until then, he was not meant to do so. But the Tree of Life. That was another thing entirely.

Genesis 3:22 seems to imply that the fruit from the Tree of Life could confer upon man an extended term of living. The Hebrew word, olam, literally means "long duration." That could either mean "forever," in which case Adam could have eaten the fruit only once and received the benefit, or it could mean "a long duration shorter than forever." In that case, Adam would have had to eat its fruit more than once to live forever. I favor the former primarily because of the second image that tree represents.

The Tree of Life appears again in Revelation. It is on prominent display in the final chapter. Revelation 22:1-4 reads:

Then the angel showed me a 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 main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be within the city, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night in the city, and they will have no need for the light of a lamp or of the sun. For the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever.

It's obvious, I believe, this passage is highly symbolic, but what are the symbols and what do they mean? Let's break it down:

  • River of the water of life - The river flows from God's throne and the Lamb of God, which is Christ. What then is this river? I believe this is God's love, magnified by His grace and mercy, purifying those who believe in the Lamb.

  • Main street of the city - The city is the Eternal City and simply is a reference to being in the presence of God. We often think of this as the future destination of believers, and it is, but we also have a taste of this presence today with the presence of the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and our Advocate. The main street of the city is Christ's church fulfilling its mission today and in the future. In essence, it is the future not yet realized as well as the future breaking into the present.

  • Tree of life - The Tree of Life grows on "either side" of the river, which could mean one of two things. Either it is two trees growing on opposite sides of the river or it is the same tree that appears to grow on both sides of the river because it is so vast that it consumes the river. Perhaps the trunk of the tree is so huge that the river runs through it, much like the large oak trees in California whose trunks can be driven through. I think it's the latter. The river of life flows from the Lamb of God (Christ) and from God's throne, but it also runs through the Tree of Life, which is Christ.

It must be pointed out that the Tree of Life, mentioned only in the Paradise scenes of Genesis, the book of Proverbs, and the Paradise scenes in Revelation. The Tree of Life is always associated with Paradise and the benefits of it. That tells me that it represents the fullness of that Paradise, which is the Person of Jesus Christ himself, who is our All in All.

Proverbs 13:12 is a summation of all of Scripture. Our hope for Christ to return and complete the plan of salvation he started makes us heart sick for our true home, the presence of God; on the other hand, when that hope is fulfilled finally at his second coming, we will again be able to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which stands in the center of Paradise, our Garden of Eden, which is Christ himself. What a glorious day that will be!

Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.

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