Our bodies and lives are so complex that it takes a great many things to keep us alive. For example, if we don’t get enough oxygen to the cells which make up our bodies, we will get sick and die. So this means we have to have air to breathe, and lungs to collect and process that air. There must be God’s miraculous means of transferring oxygen to our red blood cells and then the transporting of that oxygen-enriched blood to every one of those other kinds of thirsty cells. We have to have good food, and deficiencies in certain areas might cause a dozen different ailments. And even though we aren’t plants, we need some sunlight to stay healthy, plus we need exercise. Going off in other directions, we need mental stimulation; we also need friends; we need activities. And of course, our greatest necessity is the blessing of the Lord to bring everything together. Near perfection in every other area, but without the grace of God, means death and even worse. This proverb highlights one of the necessities of life.
Something about these Proverbs is that they are often patently true. Over and over again, I only need to point to a verse, because you already understand what it says. Some Proverbs are so obviously true that it’s not necessary to find them in the pages of the inspired Word. We knew them to be true even when our grandmothers told us so many years ago.
And one of those proverbial Proverbs is found in this verse. How often have we have experienced the medication which a good laugh can bring? It not only changes the way our eyes look on the day and the problems around us, but it actually makes us feel stronger, more alive. Conversely, when that evil man makes that derogatory comment about us it sucks the life out of us. It weakens us, perhaps tires us, it turns us inside out; makes us feel sick to our stomachs. Don’t you be guilty of those useless and poisonous comments. All of us can be good physicians from time to time.
“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”
Maybe it is just me, but I picture a slight difference between the following pairs of words. Isn’t there a difference between a “merry heart” a “gleeful heart” and a “mirthful heart” – even though they say almost the same thing? An “ecstatic heart” is definitely different from a simple “happy heart.” Isn’t a “gay heart” less substantial than a “joyful heart”? Maybe you think I’m crazy, but to me “a merry heart” speaks of an on-going, positive, optimistic spirit. There isn’t some specific thing which has electrified and excited it. A “a merry heart” is one which generally sees God’s blessings rather than the world’s problems.
Solomon has already made comments about various kinds of frivolity and mirth. Earlier in Proverbs he said, “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness.” Then in Ecclesiastes there was “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.” “I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Spirit-inspired comments like these remind us that there are different kinds of joy. And different varieties of joy or happiness can produce different results. The right kind of “merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” But some kinds of mirth and laughter can cause more harm than good.
The medical scientist confirms what Granny told us so many years ago – as a general rule the happier the person the healthier the person. A joyful heart promotes our body’s production of certain hormones and other chemicals. It makes the heart beat more strongly and causes other organs, like the brain, to work better. It relaxes us, relieving us of stress, enabling us to rest and sleep and so it extends our lives.
But again, there are different sources of joy and different kinds of hearts – gleeful, mirthful, ecstatic and so on. And those different sources can produce different results. For example, if our happiness is in a rising stock market or a beautiful new car, the benefits of that joy may be real BUT shallow. The stock market will eventually fall and all that paper wealth will fall with it. And our car may be vandalized or destroyed in a wreck.. But if our joy is in something eternal – SOMEONE Eternal – our merry heart may be eternal as well.
John 15 contains our Lord’s discussion of the vine and the branches. “I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman.” I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in Him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” Nothing makes the right kind of heart merrier than fruit-bearing. Jesus went on, “These things have I spoken unto you, that MY joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” When our joy is actually the Lord’s joy in us like a medicine, like a spiritual vitamin, we will be healthy. John 15 tells us there is joy in serving Jesus. And remember “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
In the beginning of his first epistle, John picked up on his Saviour’s theme. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If e walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” While Solomon’s proverb is true, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” it is the Saviour and the Holy Spirit who enable us to live that peaceful, contented, merry life.
“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”
This is not the first time Solomon has made this kind of parallel statement. Proverbs 14:30 – “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” Proverbs 15:13 – “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.” I am not surprised that we didn’t address these earlier verses – this one in chapter 17 is a bit more forceful.
In all three verses we have examples of Solomon’s familiar Hebrew poetry – parallelism. We have the positive statement contrasted by a negative. And these negatives are just as medically obvious as the comments on the merry heart – in fact the broken spirit may be more obvious and have even more effect on us physically. It is not necessary that I try to prove it – you are probably all aware of it. But let me take the last part of the verse in another direction – a positive direction.
The comment about the dry bones took my mind to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The prophet mentioned in chapter 37 – Again (God) said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus said the Lord God unto these bones; behold I will cause breath to enter into you and ye shall live.” I know that the prophecy was about the resurrection of Israel, but there is a general spiritual application. Man is dead in sin, we live in a valley filled with dead-men’s bones – our bones are equally dead and dry. And in one sense that is a good thing – for God hath said, “behold I will cause breath to enter into you and ye shall live.”
Before the spiritually-dead sinner can have eternal life, he must see his true spiritual condition. This is one reason that Solomon condemns various kinds of mirth and laughter. The sinner often attempts to divert his attention from his own dry bones, using worldly humor. He tries to create a merry heart to ease the pain of his spiritual osteoarthritis. In reality his spirit needs to be broken so he can see his dry and lifeless skeleton. Only as the Lord brings him to his knees in repentance will he turn from his worldly placebo medicine to the eternal blessing of grace.
I don’t think Solomon was trying to make this proverb into an evangelical statement. We should probably let it stand as a truism of general life. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”