The following is an adapted transcript from one of Ken’s teaching series on the book of Proverbs. He also walks through this transcript in his latest Wisdom series.
In this session, we are going to explore an important topic in the book of Proverbs. In the previous part, we looked at the theme of the character of the wise person. That provided us with the foundation for everything that follows. If the character is right, then all the other things fall into place—speech, which we will be discussing now, and all other areas will fall from that. We are presupposing that a person who hears these proverbs has an interest in cultivating the right kind of character—a godly character.
There are many proverbs—over 150 verses—that relate to the way we speak to other people. The wise person knows three things:
- The value of speech
- The characteristics of good words
- The source of good words.
The Value of Speech
As we consider the value of speech, we want to keep in mind that, on average, we open our mouths to speak several hundred times a day and thousands of words pour out every day. In fact, on some days, we speak the equivalent of a small book. As a side note, some people, therefore, speak almost a book a day. However, the average person reads less than one book a year. As you can well imagine, there is a disproportionate problem of input and output.
It is incredibly important for us to consider the implications of what we say. I would be fascinated, if I could get a transcript, to see just one day of my own speech. What if you had such a document? How would you like reading it? Doubtless, you would discover a multiplicity of things you can’t believe you actually said—some in a far more loquacious manner than you thought. When we realize the volume of what we say, we realize that there is a tremendous power in our speech—both for good and for ill.
I want to unpack that, first of all, by looking at the power of the words we use to communicate.
There is the tale of a king who once sent a servant on a mission to bring back the most valuable thing in his kingdom. The servant came back to the king with a tongue on a silver platter. At that point the servant was sent on another mission to bring back the most dangerous item in the realm—and the servant returned with the same thing. We can see from this that speech has both incredible power and incredible danger.
The Power of Life and Death
First of all, words have the power of life and death. Let’s now turn to Proverbs 18:21. There we see: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”1 Our speech has the power of life and death; the tongue is a precious member that can do more damage than the fists or the teeth or anything else—for good or for ill.
Our speech has the power of life and death; the tongue is a precious member that can do more damage than the fists or the teeth or anything else—for good or for ill.
The tongue also has the power of spiritual life over another person. You affect the spirit of other people as you use your speech. Consider Proverbs 13:14: “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, to turn aside from the snares of death.” The image or metaphor here is that it is a fountain of spiritual life for a person. For example, let a child go without any teaching or spiritual or moral instruction and, by default, you are giving that child over to the ways of death. There is a need for instruction, but there is a moral morass and blindness in all of this and it must be dealt with, because without hearing this instruction, we will lose this fountain of wisdom.
In Proverbs 10:21 we see, “The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of understanding.” In other words, our speech can nourish many people spiritually. Fools die as a result of never being instructed. If we keep mute when we should speak, there are situations that can result in a lack of good occurring in our lives and those of others. There are times when we really must speak—and speak the words that lead to life itself. The idea is that there are opportunities that we have to speak a word of encouragement, a word of wisdom, or a word that communicates truth to another human being. Therefore, there are times when we should not be muzzled, but communicate clearly. Following the resurrection, there was a vast spiritual warfare when opponents tried to muzzle the speech of the apostles.
In Proverbs 10:11 we see, “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and while that may be true in many situations, it really depends upon what you are trying to communicate. What picture could communicate John 3:16? No picture could communicate the words spoken there: “For God so loved the world, that He gave”—so He is a Giver—“His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (emphasis added). There is so much truth that is packed in that little verse that it could not be conveyed by any single picture. So, it depends upon what you are trying to communicate. There is an awesomeness to speech.
But if the tongue has the power of life, it also has the power of death. Let us look at illustrations of this with a few more proverbs.
Proverbs 25:18 tells us, “Like a club and a sword and a sharp arrow is a man who bears false witness against his neighbor.” The image here is of weapons that would be used to generate acts of violence. Speech itself has a powerful impact on other people—an impact for ill as well as for good. You can injure a person not only by untruth, but also with the wrong doctrine—so there is a great need to communicate the truth. Ephesians 4:15 captures this concisely in the phrase, “speaking the truth in love.” We have all heard people speak the truth in an unloving way, and we have also heard many people speak falsehood in a loving way. We need both the truth and a compassionate heart, so that the relationship is capable of communicating that truth.
The Power to Heal or Wound
Words also have the power to heal or to wound. In Proverbs 12:18 we read: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The image of a thrust sword relates to the origin of the word “sarcasm.” It is from the Greek word sarkasmos, which means “to cut the flesh.” Cutting the flesh is an apt description of sarcasm—it is a biting kind of image. We all know the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” When I said that as a kid, I knew it was lame as soon as it came out of my mouth. I knew that cruel speech hurts; the words cut the flesh, go beneath the skin, and can injure a person deeply. There are words that all of us have spoken—and regret that we have spoken. There is nothing we can do to unsay the words. As someone put it, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.” There is a lot of truth in those words. If you are going to err, err on the side of having a closed mouth before you say things too rashly, too harshly, and at a time when you have lost control of your emotions. It is when you do not have emotional control that you say things you really didn’t mean.
If you are going to err, err on the side of having a closed mouth before you say things too rashly, too harshly, and at a time when you have lost control of your emotions.
Here is a book review that really illustrates sarcasm at its best: “This book is both good and original. Unfortunately, where it is good, it is not original; and where it is original, it is not good.”2 I would hate to be on the receiving end of a review like that—it is biting, sarcastic, and cuts deeply into the mind of another. As a result, a person’s pride is wounded, and, given that, they feel they must retaliate. That is why this kind of speech is a source of strife. It separates close friends, as Proverbs 16:27–28 affirms: “A worthless man digs up evil, while his words are like a scorching fire. A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Slander tears apart; it never unifies, but only produces an adversarial spirit in which you feel you now have to defend yourself and return in kind.
Proverbs 11:9 is another maxim that illustrates this point: “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered.”
There is profound power in our speech to wound, but also to heal—and we need to stress that other side as well. Proverbs 16:24 illustrates this: “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” There is a story in 1 Samuel 14 about how the Israelite soldiers became exhausted in chasing their enemy. When Jonathan dipped the end of his staff into a honeycomb and put his hand to his to his mouth, his eyes brightened and he was revived (1 Samuel 14:27). The image of this proverb is of pleasant words actually reviving a person and, like that honeycomb, they are “sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Our words can have a genuine healing impact.
In Proverbs 27:9 we read, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, so a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend.” It is a good thing to receive wise counsel; such words can be treasured. It is prudent for us to seek out people who have wisdom and get their counsel on decisions we need to make regarding business, money, and relationships. It’s foolish to avoid counsel because we think it would oppose what we have in mind. It is far better for us to go to people who possess wisdom and to be willing to consider and gain insight from their counsel.
We also see in 27:5 that, “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed.” If you love somebody, you should speak your love; it will do no good if you don’t say it. Many is the time I have known people regret not saying something to people who have passed away—if they could only have the opportunity to go back. But now is the opportunity. It is prudent for us to treat a relationship as if it were the last time you would see the person. Who can be so presumptuous to say that it won’t be the last time? The point is that when we speak our love, there is both healing and power—a word or a note of encouragement can be a powerful tonic for people who are experiencing depression or are discouraged because of a recent setback in their life. This is also a problem many husbands have—their wives complain that they don’t speak their love. The fact is that a wife wants to hear that again and again. The husband’s attitude is that he told her that when he married her, and if he changes his mind he’ll let her know. But there is a real power in speaking our love, and even though we may assume the other person knows it, they want to hear it again and again.
The Power of Pain or Reward
Another power of our speech is that of rewarding or troubling oneself. Our words can be a great source of pain or of reward. Proverbs 12:14 addresses this: “A man will be satisfied with good by the fruit of his words, and the deeds of a man’s hands will return to him.” Our words and deeds are coupled together in that verse—good works will produce good fruit. Not only good works, but also fitting words that are aptly spoken in the right circumstances, can be very powerful as sources of encouragement.
Proverbs 13:3, however, looks at the flip side to this: “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” You must guard yourself, and before you speak you must think about what you are going to say.
Another apt passage is found in 12:13. There we see, “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous will escape from trouble.” Your words can trouble you or they can help you.
The Limitations of Words
We need to not only be aware of the power of words, but also of the limitations of words. Consider Proverbs 14:23: “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” The image here, of course, is that words are never a substitute for deeds. Merely talking about writing a book, for example, won’t write the book. Proverbs 28:24 is another illustration of the same principle: “He who robs his father or his mother and says, ‘It is not a transgression,’ is the companion of a man who destroys.” What possible relevance could this have? It is this: words cannot alter facts or change reality. When Scripture teaches to honor your father and your mother, what does that mean? It means, among other things, to give them social weight; it speaks of obedience to their instruction and discipline when we are under their tutelage; and when they are older, it speaks of financial support. But, if they are financially independent, it speaks of taking care of their emotional needs. Even when their parents are well-off, children can honor their parents by being very sensitive to and ministering to their emotional needs. It speaks of treasuring them while we have them.
Another verse that comes to mind is Proverbs 24:12: “If you say, ‘See, we did not know this,’ does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?” In other words, you can say you didn’t know something, but there is still going to be a day of reckoning and accountability, because God is not impressed with your external excuses; rather, He is concerned with attitudes of the heart.
Another limitation of words is evident in Proverbs 29:19: “A slave will not be instructed by words alone; for though he understands, there will be no response.” Words cannot compel a response. Also note 17:10: “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.” Remember the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, Luke 8:4–15)? The seeds were the same, but there were four different kinds of soil. There was rocky and thorny soil as well as loamy soil. Words to a fool are like watering a rock.
The Characteristics of Words
Let’s move on now to the characteristics of words. The characteristic of good and wise words is primarily that they are honest and not false. Look at Proverbs 12:22 for an illustration of this: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight.” Proverbs places a tremendous premium on honesty. If you say you are going to do something, then do it; if you say you are not going to do something, then don’t do it. James 5:12 tells us, “your yes is to be yes; and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” We run into many people who say they are going to do something, but then they simply don’t follow through. This is a disappointment because it is really a way of being dishonest. Your words must comport with your walk.
Your words must comport with your walk.
In Proverbs 15:31–32 we see, “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.” The theme here is that it is a delight to the wise to hear honest words, because such words are often those of reproof. Although often we don’t want to hear that level of honesty, it is extremely important for us to receive those words and to be corrected and to love the truth. Though we should hate the correction itself, we should love the truth that we receive.
I remember one time when I was with a group that spent three days in the mountains together. One of our exercises was to come up with a statement concerning the best thing each on the trip person was capable of and was doing. Then we also talked about the negative side as well. In other words, we asked, “What one positive word would you use to summarize this person, and then what negative word would you use?” That was a very revealing exercise. Every one of us discerned something about ourselves and the others that we had not seen. The words were welcome, and all of us need to hear those kinds of words in order to make midcourse corrections—without them we simply cannot grow.
In Proverbs 12:19 we see: “Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment.” It is a delight to the wise to rejoice in exhortation and live for that honesty and truth.
Cutting Back on Words
Another characteristic of words in Proverbs is that they are few and not many. In addition to the saying “A closed mouth gathers no feet,” another truth is this: “The trouble with people who talk too fast is that they often say something they haven’t actually thought of yet.” Or, we could put it this way: “Caution. Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear.” There are many times when our mouth is moving, and we are not even thinking at all. It is wise to take a little pause to reflect on what we are about to speak forth. We will learn that there will be times we are really glad that we did so. As a result, there is a phrase that I sometimes follow: When in doubt, don’t. I have never regretted doing that, but I have often regretted not doing it.
How can we keep our words at a minimum? I have five ways of doing that.
1. No Flattery. The first one is avoiding flattery—that will kill a lot of speech right there. Flattery involves telling another person what we think they want to hear. That is a dangerous thing to do because most often people are doing it for their own self-advantage—it is basically like a verbal bribe.
In Proverbs 26:28 we see: “A lying tongue hates those it crushes, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” The flattery there is really deceptive speech; underneath it is full of guile. Through that flattery, then, a person is trying to manipulate the other person.
As to some proverbs concerning keeping our words few, we first have 10:19: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” I am afraid it is a part of human depravity that we cannot talk long before we have sinned. Pride, arrogance, or a lack of love comes out, and when our words are many, we inevitably begin to stumble.
Proverbs 13:3 also relates to this: “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Then 17:28 tells us, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” We can give the illusion that we are much brighter than we really are when we stay silent. But, when we do speak, we must carefully weigh our words. Simply put, blathering is counterproductive.
2. No Boasting. No boasting is a second way of keeping our words at a minimum. Proverbs 27:1–2 expresses it this way: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” None of us really like somebody who is always talking about how great they are and how clever they are and how wise they are. This is a person who, when writing his or her autobiography, would use the title, Ten Great People Who Have Known Me. There are people who derive their identity from the names they drop.
3. No Harping or Nagging. After eliminating flattery and boasting, a third way is to avoid harping and nagging. Turn to 19:13 for a proverb relating to this: “A foolish son is destruction to his father, and the contentions of a wife are a constant dripping.” This image of “drip, drip, drip” is like some sort of Chinese water torture. No one likes to hear something constantly brought up again and again. Then in verse 14b we see, “but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” It is wise to pray about your life partner in advance because appearances don’t reveal how a person is going to turn out. If you are not yet married, pray in advance. If you have children, do the same for them and pray for their future spouse.
Proverbs 21:9 also illustrates this theme: “It is better to live in a corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman.” Now, let’s be honest, there are a lot of men who are contentious as well. We always relate nagging to women, but I know a lot of men who are great nags. They keep bringing up the same topic over and over again, and they drive you nuts. I feel this is often an indication of insecurity. But, focusing on this component of our character will help eliminate many of our needless words.
4. No Gossiping. Another way to reduce words is to stop gossiping. A wise person refrains from gossip, and we see this in 18:8. “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body.” This means that they go so deep that you never forget them; even if they are wrong, you don’t forget them. Even when you discover that what a person said about another person was wrong, it will still have an impact on the way you see the other person. A reputation is extraordinarily vulnerable, and there is something about these “dainty morsels” of gossip that provide us with a certain perverse pleasure. The idea is that by putting others down we are raising ourselves up.
Gossip takes two forms, and the first is revealing secrets. We see this in 11:13: “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.” Those are interesting words: he who is “trustworthy” would cover it up and “conceal” the matter. Another passage about this is found in 17:9: “He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.” Love always seeks another’s highest good, and a great way to do that is by covering their faults. To cover another’s faults—defending them in that way—is actually a genuine act of love. The other person might not even know it, but it is a true act of love. Then in Proverbs 20:19 we see: “He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip.” Proverbs 12:23 also tells us that “A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.” There are some things that should remain concealed for another person’s highest good.
The second way of gossiping is by slander—slander that destroys the reputation of another. We have talked about the four basic rights contained in the Decalogue—the Mosaic laws. One is the right to one’s life—you shall not murder. Second is the right to your home—you shall not commit adultery. Third is the right to your property—you shall not steal. And the fourth is your right to your reputation—you shall not bear false witness. Slander, of course, is false witness. It is a picture of trying to cut another person down and destroying his or her reputation. Proverbs 16:27 tells us that, “A worthless man digs up evil, while his words are as a scorching fire.”
Bear in mind that gossip is often cleverly disguised as “concern” or as a “prayer request.” Slander is villainy; it doesn’t do any good and is totally destructive—it destroys the person who slanders as well as the person being slandered. Like vandalism, nothing good comes out of it. That is part of why it has been said that you should speak in a way that would not make you embarrassed or ashamed if you sold the family parrot to the town gossip.
5. No Arguing. Finally, the fifth way of reducing our words is by not arguing. Now, there is always a place for genuine disagreement, but what I am describing here is more heat than light; I am talking about a process of real anger or an emotional loss of control. We see this in 16:28: “A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends.” Then in Proverbs 26:21 we also see, “Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife.” Here is the image of feeding the flames by adding fuel to the fire.
All five of these ways of eliminating speech relate to character. If you eliminated them—flattery, boasting, nagging, gossiping, and arguing—you might think you didn’t have anything to talk about, but I assure you that you do. Try carrying around a little card with these areas as a reminder and see how often you are tempted to do any one of them.
Speaking and Listening
Finally, another characteristic of good words is that they are calm words and not emotional words. We should not be down on emotions, of course, but I am saying that our emotions need to be tempered by sound judgment. The Scriptures often talk about the virtue of self-control. Our words should be rational, and we are reminded of that in Proverbs 18:13: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”
By the way, that is also one of the proverbs that relates to skillful listening. All of us—at one time or another—have started to give an answer before we had all the facts. We have a way, don’t we, of stepping on other people’s ideas, which is as offensive as stepping on their toes. It is actually wise for us to hear what they have to say. In fact, one of the skills we should practice is to have a short pause—even when the other person is through speaking. If you are in a one-on-one conversation and you think of an idea, don’t just immediately blurt it out—put it on the back burner. The tough part is to park it in your mind where you can bring it back out again at the proper time. Many times you will discover that important parts of a conversation would have been missed if you had immediately diverted the flow to your own ideas or thoughts. Sometimes, when we jump on board too quickly, we find we have made a mistake.
We also see in Proverbs 18:17 that, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” The point here, of course, is that there are two sides to every case—and you must hear both sides if you are to make a rational judgment. This is difficult, because sometimes we are sure of what is right, but it is wise to hear the other side before you arrive at a conclusion.
In Proverbs 29:11, 20 we read: “A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back.” Then, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Here we see both hastiness and losing one’s control; being rational is extremely important.
In Proverbs 15:28 we also see: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” So, we must ponder carefully before responding.
Proverbs 17:27 tells us, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Wise words are rational, gentle, and peaceable. Proverbs 15:1 would fits here as well: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Stinging words do nothing but stir up anger. And if we lack wisdom in this area, we need only look to James 1:5 for comfort: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” We must seek the gentle and peaceable qualities that the proverbs describe; calm words of discernment display a prudent spirit.
Proverbs 26:4–5 contains twin truths: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.” We should not answer a fool in the way he speaks; he is not rational but contentious, and he is not open to the Word. On the other hand, we can speak as to the content and show it to be erroneous. So, don’t answer in the same manner, but answer and deal with the content only.
There is a quality of persuasiveness surrounding calm words, and we see this in Proverbs 16:21. “The wise in heart will be called understanding, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” There is a unique power found in calming words; they are far more powerful than angry and violent words. Lowering your voice is more effective than raising it, but it requires the development of self-control in difficult situations.
Proverbs 25:15 states that “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone.” This intriguing image shows that calm words have a power greater than a strong stick.
Speaking Timely Words
Finally, wise words are apt and not untimely because they are appropriate to the situation. Proverbs 15:23 teaches that “A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word!”
Part of the problem in using proverbs is employing the right proverb at the right time. Have you ever come up with a great statement, only to realize you missed your window of opportunity? Look at Proverbs 25:11: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” There is a time for speech and a time to remain silent—and Jesus was the master of using the right word at exactly the right time. Jesus had a way with words, and it came from His own moral excellence. He possessed incredible brilliance, but it was tempered by a moral purity; His perfect speech was the fulfillment of all the principles given here. The dialogues of Jesus reveal every one of these principles in action, both with individuals and with groups.
Let’s look now at a negative illustration of being apt and timely: in Proverbs 25:20 we see that “Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda, is he who sings songs to a troubled heart.” When someone is grieving and you tell him, “Don’t grieve, cheer up and be happy,” you are trivializing the burdensome situation with bromides and platitudes.
The Source of Good Words
Wise words display knowledge and not folly. Proverbs 15:7 tells us: “The lips of the wise spread knowledge, but the hearts of fools are not so.” The wise person knows the source of good words, and this is evident in Proverbs 26:23–26:
Like an earthen vessel overlaid with silver dross are burning lips and a wicked heart. He who hates disguises it with his lips, but he lays up deceit in his heart. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, for there are seven abominations in his heart. Though his hatred covers itself with guile, his wickedness will be revealed before the assembly.
In these verses about the wicked and their speech, we are exhorted to grasp the source of good words—the wisdom from above.
In the third chapter of James, there are two kinds of wisdom: a worldly wisdom and a heavenly wisdom. Listen to James 3:13–14: “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.” Note the two kinds of wisdom in verses 15–16: “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” Now notice the contrast in verses 17–18: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” In other words, the source of good words is God Himself—and the words from above are not earthly, natural, or demonic. Rather, they are from the divine wisdom that manifests the fruit of the Spirit.
The source of good words is God Himself.
We cannot live this kind of life or have this kind of character or manifest this kind of speech under our own power. This requires an ongoing dependence upon God, and we see more clearly revealed in the New Testament that it is the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us the source of that which is true and good and beautiful. The fruit of the Spirit, then, manifests the qualities of good speech.
As a summary statement, James 1:19–20 encapsulates wisdom in our speech: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.