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Proverbs 18:14 (KJV)

14 The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?

Original

14 רֽוּחַ־אִ֭ישׁ יְכַלְכֵּ֣ל מַחֲלֵ֑הוּ וְר֥וּחַ נְ֝כֵאָ֗ה מִ֣י יִשָּׂאֶֽנָּה׃

Ruach of a man. The spirit of a man.

[Distinctions between rûaḥ and nepeš: rûaḥ is the principle of man’s rational and immortal life, and possesses reason, will, and conscience. It imparts the divine image to man, and constitutes the animating dynamic which results in man’s nepeš as the subject of personal life. The distinctive personality of the individual inheres in his nepeš, the seat of his emotions and desires. rûaḥ is life-power, having the ground of its vitality in itself; the nepeš has a more subjective and conditioned life. The NT seems to make a clear and substantive distinction between pneuma (rûaḥ) and psychē (nepeš). G.L.A.]

Payne, J. Barton. “2131 רִיַח.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, edited by R. Laird Harris et al., Electronic ed., Moody Press, 1999, p. 837.

’ish, man can mean a human being or a male as opposed to a female, a husband rather than a wife.

יְכַלְכֵּ֣ל

Contain, sustain, endure. The root idea is to hold, take hold of something. The spirit of a man can endure. Could we say “hold it together”/ “not fall apart”?

מַחֲלֵ֑הוּ

His (the man’s) sickness, infirmity

וְר֥וּחַ נְ֝כֵאָ֗ה

But a spirit broken/cross-references
The HALOT gives all the uses:
נָכֵא: נכא: cs. נְכֵא, fem. נְכֵאָה: defeated, רוּחַ נְכֵאָה Pr 15:13 17:22 18:14 (:: לֵב שָׂמֵחַ); נְכֵה־רוּחַ broken in spirit (Gesenius-K. §128x) Is 66:2, 1QIsa pl. נכאי (כאה, see Kutscher Lang. Is. 200), cj. Ps 109:16 נִכְאֵה לֵבָב rd. נְכֵא/ה var. †

Proverbs 15:13 (KJV)
13 A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.
Proverbs 17:22 (KJV)
22 A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
Isaiah 66:2 (KJV)
2 For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.
Psalm 109:16 (KJV)
16 Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

Interesting thing as a tentative notice: A broken spirit is something which a human being cannot bear. But, it is simultaneously that which renders one to become a object of God’s mercy.

מִ֣י יִשָּׂאֶֽנָּ

Who can bear/carry?

The spirit can bear infirmity.
But an infirm spirit can bear nothing.

Van Gogh Old Man in Sorrow

Some commentators:

The body can, as it were, fall back upon the support of the spirit, when it is distressed and weakened; but when the spirit itself is broken, grieved, wearied, debilitated, it has no resource, no higher faculty to which it can appeal, and it must succumb beneath the pressure. Here is a lesson, too, concerning the treatment of others. We should be more careful not to wound a brother’s spirit than we are to refrain from doing a bodily injury; the latter may be healed by medical applications; the former is more severe in its effects, and is often irremediable.

Spence-Jones, H. D. M., editor. Proverbs. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909, p. 350.

Verse 14 points out that one’s attitude, for good or ill, is the single most important factor in confronting adversity.

Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993, p. 165.

  1. STRENGTHEN YOUR SPIRIT (18:14)

That this proverb makes a true observation, few would doubt. “What can you do when the spirit is crushed?” (THE MESSAGE) “Short of outward resources, life is hard; short of inward, it is insupportable.”9 The purpose of 18:14, however, goes beyond mere observation to help the reader avoid a crushed spirit. God has designed the way of wisdom to bypass problems. The more we walk in this path, the less chance of having our spirits crushed. Broken hearts do happen, sometimes by our mistakes and sometimes through no fault of our own. Knowing this, God endowed others with the capacity to bring us joy (see 17:21–22; 12:25).

Lennox, Stephen J. Proverbs: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. Wesleyan Publishing House, 1998, p. 185.

It is unusual that the word “spirit” appears twice. In v 14a it stands for the strength and determination of a person that can deal with physical sickness. In v 14b it is a “crushed spirit” that is so far depressed and shaken that it simply destroys a person. The phrase “crushed spirit” occurs in 15:13 and 17:22, where the contrast is with a joyful heart. Here the contrast is with the normal drive for life that anyone would usually have in confronting illness or adversity; the situation may be difficult, but one can recover; cf. Prov 12:25. However, the effect of the rhetorical question in line b is to throw doubt on the possibility of recovery, when one’s courage fails.

Murphy, Rowland E. Proverbs. Thomas Nelson, 1998, p. 136.

Wouldst thou have a sound body; then see to it that thou hast a joyful heart and a good courage, a heart which is assured of the grace of God and well content with His fatherly ordaining.—[T. ADAMS (on ver. 14): The pain of the body is but the body of pain; the very soul of sorrow is the sorrow of the soul.—FLAVEL:—No poniards are so mortal as the wounds of conscience.—WATER-LAND:—On the misery of a dejected mind].

Lange, John Peter, et al. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Proverbs. Logos Bible Software, 2008, p. 169.

  1. Bear up patiently (18:14). “The spirit of a person will sustain his infirmity.” Willpower and determination can counterbalance physical weakness and enable a person to win the day. On the other hand, “a broken spirit who can bear?” If the willpower is undermined, a person cannot endure. He must surely succumb and suffer defeat. In the first clause the term “spirit” is masculine, in the second feminine. The change of gender suggests that the manly quality of the inner person has become weakened through affliction. The implication is that believers should be as reticent to wound a brother’s spirit as they would be to injure his body. The latter may be healed by medical treatment; the former is more severe in its effects, and is sometimes irremediable.

Smith, James E. The Wisdom Literature and Psalms. College Press Pub. Co., 1996, p. 596.

A man’s spirit will endure sickness: TEV has interpreted spirit as “[your] will to live” and translates endure sickness as “can sustain you when you are sick.” In some languages if this model is followed, it will be necessary to say something like “desire to go on living” or “desire to stay alive.”
But a broken spirit who can bear?: A broken spirit renders the same Hebrew expression translated by RSV in 17:22 as “a downcast spirit” meaning “discouragement” or “despair.” However, TEV makes spirit refer to the same “will to live” as in the first line: “but if you lose it.…” Bear renders a word meaning to carry a load. In this case the burden is the emotional one of despair. Stated as a question we may ask “Can anyone stand it?” “Who can bear up under it?” or “Who is able to carry on?” Since the question is rhetorical, it may also be put as a statement; for example, “No one can bear it.”

Reyburn, William David, and Euan McG. Fry. A Handbook on Proverbs. United Bible Societies, 2000, p. 389.

Yet there are bounds beyond which a man cannot go, without almost miraculous assistance. The spirit, like the body, may be borne down by a weight beyond its strength: and when the spirit, which ought to support a man under all his other trials, is itself broken, he must fall of course.

Now there are many things which inflict so deep a wound upon the spirit, as to destroy all its energy, and incapacitate it for its proper office: and that we may provide an antidote against them, and afford some consolation under them, we will,

Simeon, Charles. Horae Homileticae: Proverbs to Isaiah XXVI. Holdsworth and Ball, 1833, p. 193.

Simeon lists 4:
Nervous disorders, bodily ailments.
By great and long-continued afflictions
By guilt upon the conscience
By violent temptations/trials
By spiritual desertion

He then lists three remedies:

  1. There is no affliction which is not sent by God for our good—
    [Afflictions, of whatever kind they be, “spring not out of the ground:” they are all appointed by God, in number, weight, and measure, and duration
  2. Our afflictions, of whatever kind they be, will endure but a little time

Simeon, Charles. Horae Homileticae: Proverbs to Isaiah XXVI. Holdsworth and Ball, 1833, p. 196.

  1. There is in Christ a full sufficiency for every wound

The Lord Jesus “will not break a bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax, but will bring forth judgment unto victory;” and, if we confide in him, “our heaviness may indeed continue for a night, but joy shall come in the morning.”]

Simeon, Charles. Horae Homileticae: Proverbs to Isaiah XXVI. Holdsworth and Ball, 1833, p. 197.

Cross References:
See broken spirit HALOT, above.

There are a few ways to take this spirit:

  1. Body vs. soul/spirit. The spirit can hold up a broken body. But a broken spirit leaves no remedy.
  2. As a matter of self-control/self-will/courage. Sort of a stoic, Kipling’s If
    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
  3. As just an observation: If your crushed in spirit, you cannot survive
  4. As pointing to something beyond the immediate verse.

a. First look at the cross-references
b. Second consider the issue of overwhelming grief and trial generally (as Simeon does. He may have gotten here from cross-references, but if so, he doesn’t show his work).
c. What do we find?
i. The unusual phrase broken spirit is used three times in Proverbs as something one cannot bear.
ii. But it is used twice outside of Proverbs as a predicate for the mercy of God. If take the phrase more broadly to include smashed/shattered we get these verse:
Psalm 51:17 (KJV)
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Isaiah 61:1 (KJV)
1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
Psalm 34:19 (KJV)
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all.
Psalm 147:3 (KJV)
3 He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
iii. A very clear pattern is seen: There is a brokenness which overcomes a human being, a degree of suffering which shatters one heart/spirit. It cannot be overcome
But, this very same irremediable trouble is something which makes one the peculiar object of God’s mercy and grace.

iv. This when thought of more broadly opens up to those passages
a. Rom. 5:1-5

Romans 5:1–5 (KJV)
1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: 2 By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; 4 And patience, experience; and experience, hope: 5 And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

b. James 1:2-3
James 1:2–3 (KJV)
2 My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; 3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.

Conclusion: We could look at weakness as something to avoid at all costs. Our weakness is something we cannot bear. We then look at God’s help as something which rescues us and puts back on our own feet. But that is not what the texts when taken together tell us. If gaining God is a good which we should seek, then weakness is not an evil but a good for us. We glory in our weakness because our weakness makes us dependent upon God.

Another conclusion: When come to speak with, to counsel and encourage another who is broken in spirit, we should realize they actually cannot bear the trouble they face. They are weak, and that is not bad. An attitude of, “Why don’t you trust Jesus, buck-up” is cruel and harmful. If we are coming in the Spirit of Christ, we should come with the attitude, that you cannot bear this burden and you should not expect that you can. While this is exceptionally painful, it is not bad. This is for your good. God uses this to conform you to the image of the Son:

Romans 8:28–30 (KJV)
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

There is no other way to this end without the benefit of being crushed so that what we now have will give way to what He will give.