Proverbs and the Tongue
James described the tongue as “unruly evil, full of deadly poison” capable of defiling the whole body (James 3:8, 6). In the inspired collection of wisdom known as Proverbs the proper use of this “little member” is given great emphasis. The power of the tongue being what it is, we need to give careful thought to our speech so that it is a force for good. While we could pull many more lessons from Proverbs, in this article we will consider three.
Of all the lessons we need to learn about the use of our tongues, the most important may be the hardest one to practice. Simply put, most of us need to talk less! While there are certainly times when we can sin by refusing to speak, consider a few of the admonitions in Proverbs: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction” (Proverbs 13:3). “He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (Proverbs 17:27, 28). “Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
If we talked less we would probably be more honest, for those who are always talking tend to pass along information they cannot be certain of, and to put it nicely, often shade the truth or exaggerate things in order to keep their stories interesting. If we can learn to talk less and listen more, we will have more friends and fewer enemies, because we will not be as prone to hurt the feelings of others, and will be appreciated for our ability to listen.
Though the thought may be a little different, closely related to the general concept of talking less is the counsel to resist the temptation to allow your anger to be immediately known. Heed the counsel of Solomon. “A fool’s wrath is known at once…” (Proverbs 12:16). “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back” (Proverbs 29:11). Before saying anything in anger we need to take the necessary time to make certain we have the facts straight; be certain we have thought about what we will say and how we will say it; and be sure we will not regret it later. We may have good reason to be angry with our employer, neighbor, spouse, or brother in Christ, but is there a compelling reason to say anything? It may be that something needs to be said, but they should not be angry words. Instead, let us “bless those who curse [us]” (Matthew 5:44).
Sticks and Stones…
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Though taught this rhyme as children, we know better—words are capable of inflicting pain and leaving scars. “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword…” (Proverbs 12:16). Words can hurt or they can heal; they can edify and encourage or they discourage or even enrage. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
Now, these words of wisdom are not intended to suggest we should never question or criticize the beliefs, teachings, and actions of others, for Solomon also counseled, “He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward than he who flatters with the tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). Firm, unyielding words of correction are sometimes necessary, but we must learn to think carefully about how we are going to say things, especially when our words must be words of rebuke. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise rebuker to an obedient ear” (Proverbs 25:11, 12). Let us all strive to imitate that virtuous wife who “opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31:10). “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
“Have You Heard…?”
“An ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire. A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends”(Proverbs 16:27, 28). “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Exhortations to neighborly and brotherly love abound in Scripture. Harmony and unity within the local body are frequent themes of the New Testament and few things are more disruptive to good relationships than gossip, talebearing, and whispering secrets behind the backs of others. Remember, when you have a burning tidbit you intend to tell to only one person, that one person will probably feel justified in repeating it to one person and soon everyone will have heard something that should never have been repeated. We must learn to ask the following four questions: Am I certain this is true? Do others need to know about it? Will people be hurt by my repeating it? Why do I want to tell it?
When it comes to repeating things, let’s remember our initial exhortation: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise”(Proverbs 10:19).
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36, 37).
John R. Gibson
All quotations from the New King James Version, copyright 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers