Proverbs on the Emotions

Tying up some loose—yet important—ends from our Proverbs series.

Chris Hutchison on September 22, 2022

This past Sunday we concluded a 15-week series in Proverbs 9-31. By gathering up the proverbs around the various themes they address, we hoped to touch on (or at least point you towards) every verse within those 23 chapters.

We didn’t quite reach our goal. At the end of the series, we discovered a few Proverbs that should have fit within some earlier sermons, but got missed for some reason:

  • “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it” (Proverbs 10:22) points to the material nature of God’s blessings within the old covenant.
  • “In the light of a king’s face there is life, and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain” (Proverbs 16:15) is another comment on the basic approach to the king’s role that we unpacked a couple of weeks ago.
  • “It is a snare to say rashly, ‘It is holy,’ and to reflect only after making vows” (Proverbs 20:25) is one more reminder to watch our words.
  • “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied. It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. As the heavens for height, and the earth for depth, so the heart of kings is unsearchable” (Proverbs 25:1–3). These Proverbs, also about the king, point to his role as a guide to wisdom.
  • “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked” (Proverbs 25:26) helps us understand the way in which righteousness and boldness should go together (à la Proverbs 28:1).
  • “A rich man is wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has understanding will find him out” (Proverbs 28:11) comments on the relative benefits of wisdom compared to riches.

In addition to these six proverbs which we missed, there was another group which didn’t find a home in our series. These are proverbs which address our emotions, and particularly the experience of a heavy or a sorrowful heart.

Some of these proverbs speak to the experience of sorrow in general. “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13). We all know what that’s like, don’t we? To pretend to laugh, but be aching on the inside?

“The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Only we know what’s really going on inside of us. Of course, this proverb also helps us see that this is true for everybody. We’re all carrying burdens others cannot see. “You are not the only one who feels like the only one,” as David Crowder put it.

Proverbs like these paint a realistic and unflinching portrait of our emotional experiences. This portrayal continues with a series of proverbs which comment on the way in which our emotional life affects our total person, including our bodies: “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed” (Proverbs 15:13). “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14).

Anyone who has experienced depression or a season of sorrow can understand the truth of these words. And yet, we might wonder why they are recorded here. Particularly to someone who is experiencing sorrow or depression or a feeling of lowness, it might not feel exactly helpful to be reminded of how difficult that experience is. “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” (Proverbs 15:15). Thanks, Solomon.

But maybe there’s more here. Maybe Proverbs, overall, is trying to help us see that the path of wisdom is the path of enduring joy.

Sometimes we glimpse this in the way the particular proverbs are arranged. For example, right after Proverbs 15:13 we read, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly” (Proverbs 15:14). Bruce Waltke comments that this second proverb “implicitly… traces the sources of the heart’s spiritual joy or trouble to whether it is discerning and seeks knowledge.”1Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1–15, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 625.

In other words, a troubled heart may, at times, be simply another symptom of foolishness. Proverbs 14:30, which speaks of the folly of envy, points us in the same direction: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Recent studies have established an undeniable connection between depression, anxiety, and excessive social media use. How much of this Instagram-fuelled malaise is just the afterglow of envy? Are we crushing our own hearts as we covet each pixel-perfect “influencer” our thumbs swipe past?

We should chew on these questions. Still, we know that envy is not the only cause for sadness, and Proverbs does not intend to give us a complete manual on the human heart. But it does go on to give us a surprising amount of counsel on how to help others who, for whatever reasons, are struggling on the inside.

First of all, we’re told what not to do: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Proverbs 25:20). I think it’s clear, from the context, that not every song is in view here. This proverb is speaking about perky, happy tunes that would be out of place for someone who is suffering. In other words, if your friend is depressed, don’t send them Sandi Patti songs. That’s not going to help.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Several different proverbs speak to the way in which good news and gracious words can help lift the downcast spirit:

  • “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Proverbs 12:25).
  • “A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a faithful envoy brings healing” (Proverbs 13:17).
  • “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the bones” (Proverbs 15:30).
  • “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • “Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the soul of his masters” (Proverbs 25:13).
  • “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). 

Good news has a powerful ability to encourage us when we’re low. And it’s hard to forget that, from our standpoint in the story of redemption, we have the privilege of knowing the best news of all. 

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”.

Romans 5:1–5

The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection enables us to rejoice in our sufferings, even when that suffering is emotional. This does not mean that suffering stops being suffering. It is still suffering. But the gospel enables us to rejoice in it, because we know where it’s all headed.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8–10).

Even when God’s people suffer from unexplained and seemingly un-caused sorrow, we need not succumb to despair. The promise of the resurrection reassures us that the tomb-like darkness will ultimately be short-lived, because Jesus died and rose again to purchase for us eternal joy.

These are truths that we can carefully, prayerfully and sympathetically remind each other of when the nights are long and our souls are heavy.

One of the most beautiful illustrations of this that I’ve found comes from Joni Eareckson Tada in her short story about her friend Jackie:

At that moment, something changed. Someone had reached out and found me. Jackie had made Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with my grief, seem to near; and that He understood. That night, I sealed that Jesus reaches where no medication can reach, where no doctor can go; where no surgery can heal. And thanks to my high school friend, Jackie, I found a new song to sing.

I encourage you to read or listen to the whole thing, and may God empower us to put these truths into practice!


Never miss a post! Sign up to have them delivered: