No one likes waiting. It feels good to get what we want. But when our expectations are delayed for a long time, we can experience disappointment, disillusionment, and loss of hope. In some cases, prolonged waiting for what we eagerly desire can become such an affliction to us that it differs little from a lingering sickness. This scenario is the exact meaning of Solomon’s words “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
The term deferred in the passage means “to put off” or “drag out,” as in a long, drawn-out process. Hope deferred can look like many things: a prayer of salvation for a loved one that continues unanswered year after year, an agonizing job search filled with endless interviews and rejections, a long-term battle with cancer, or a heartbreaking string of miscarriages. As we eagerly hope for something important, and it keeps being postponed, the longing we feel can make our heart sick.
The word heart in the passage embodies not only the mental or emotional core but the whole inward person. If something “makes the heart sick,” it causes despair and affliction. The Good News Translation renders the verse like this: “When hope is crushed, the heart is crushed.” Hope deferred can lead to depression, anxiety, and actual physical sickness. When we wait for a good thing for so long that that desire and expectation turn to hopelessness, we can become spiritually dried up and vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks.
The second part of Proverbs 13:12 gives the antithesis of hope deferred: “But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” The tree of life represents the renewal of life. When our hopes and desires are fulfilled, we are refreshed. When our prayers are answered, we are encouraged. When we obtain the good thing that we desire, we undergo a reviving of the soul. Solomon reiterates the sentiment in Proverbs 13:19: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul.”
Dashed hopes sicken the heart, and the higher the expectations, the greater the frustration. While getting what we desire can be an excellent thing, we must not allow the pursuit of fulfillment to become a temptation to sin. Waiting is an opportunity to trust God and allow Him to work in our hearts and strengthen our character: “But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently” (Romans 8:25, NLT; see also Romans 5:4). We ought to see these long stretches as opportunities to turn to God and depend on Him in our weakness (Psalm 62:1, 5; 2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Our unfulfilled desires and deferred hopes can lead us to rich encounters with our Savior: “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; see also Romans 5:5). The Lord alone is the true fulfillment of our longings.
When hope deferred makes your heart sick, look to Jesus Christ: “And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you” (Psalm 39:7, NLT). When we place our hope in Christ alone, we won’t be disappointed, for He is “a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls” (Hebrews 6:19, NLT).