Selected Proverbs: March 23—Guard your speech
Mar 16, 2014

Mark Rathel is a professor of theology at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.
Even worldly wisdom contains counsel related to the power and proper use of words. The following quotations from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations illustrate the power of words. “Speech is a mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he.” “The tongue of man is a twisty thing, there are plenty of words there of every kind.” As a preacher, this quote hurts: “What orators lack in depth they make up to you in length.”

Your speech (words) functions as a window to your soul. Jesus taught defilement comes from what comes out of a mouth rather than what enters a mouth. Since Jesus is the Word, the words of a believer should reflect Christ. Christ spoke challenging words, loving words, healing words, and truthful words. Likewise, disciples of Christ should speak truthful, healing, loving, and challenging words.

Words or speech functions as a major theme of Proverbs. What characterizes wise speech according to Proverbs?

First, wisdom necessitates thinking before speaking (Prov. 17:27-28; 21:23). The admonition to think before speaking does not advise one to speak less. The context is how one responds to provocation in the light of injustice. A hot-headed person responds with resentment. A cool-headed person responds with a calm temperament and careful words. A wise person practices self-control in the face of provocation. Fools may appear to be wise by silence but eventually they cease their silence (Prov. 15:2; 18:2). 

One of my favorite commentators noted three reasons for thinking before speaking. Thinking allows time to hear fairly the words of another person. Second, thinking allows time for tempers to cool. Third, calmness is powerful. “A gentle answer turns away anger” (Prov. 15:1).

Second, wisdom recognizes the power of words (Prov. 18:19-21). This grouping of proverbs on the use of tongues highlights the effects and consequences of words. The effect of unwise words erects barriers in a relationship. Overcoming the barriers is as difficult ad conquering a fortified city or bars reinforcing a door. The point is that barriers are easily erected but difficult to tear down. Words may have good or bad consequences. Positive words satisfy. Words offer the opportunity for life or death. Jewish rabbis explained verse 21: “The evil tongue slays three, the slanderer, the slandered, and the listener.”

Third, wisdom guards against gossip (Prov. 11:13; 26:20-24). Proverbs 11:13 teaches that gossip breaks trust. The phrase “goes about” often occurs in the OT in the context of commerce. The gossip hopes to gain materially or prestige by hurting the reputation of another. The exposure of a “secret” depicts violation of a matter of counseling.

Proverbs 26:20-24 describe the fuel, food, glaze, and falsehood of gossip. Gossip functions as fuel that kindles strive between individuals. Gossip appears attractive as the best or choice food. People eagerly devour the feast gossip provides. Pottery glaze concealed imperfections; likewise, words may smooth over the ugly intentions of the speaker. Finally, gossip involves falsehood as the speaker disguises the deceitful intentions of his or her heart.

Fourth, wisdom requires the speaking of truth (Prov. 10:18-19; 12:17-19). Proverbs admonishes the value of truthful words, the pain of untrue words, and the permanence of truth. Proverbs 12:17 directly proclaim the value of truth in the context of the legal system, yet the teaching lifts up the value of truth generally as well. Words have the power to hurt or heal (v. 18). The tongue may be as pointed as a sword, an offensive weapon designed to inflict harm or death. Since God is Truth Himself, truthful words partake of eternality. In contrast to eternity, lying words last only for a moment. The Hebrew word translated “moment” describe the movement of the eyes, as in a wink or the twinkling of an eye. 



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