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The Words of the Wise

Introduction

In his book entitled Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns, Chuck Swindoll has reminded us of this statement, etched faintly on a gray slate tombstone on a windswept hill in an English country churchyard:

Beneath this stone,
a lump of clay,
Lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the twenty-fourth of May,
Began to hold her tongue.

If there is any failure universal among mankind, it is the misuse of the tongue. Little wonder that one of the most frequently discussed subjects in the Book of Proverbs is the use of the tongue. If our problem with the tongue is a common one, it is also an especially crucial one. For one thing, the tongue is capable of achieving either great good or great evil. Furthermore, the words we speak cannot be taken back once spoken. It is impossible to undo damage done by the tongue.

The beginning of strife is like letting out water, So abandon the quarrel before it breaks out (17:14).

A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, And contentions are like the bars of a castle (18:19).

Finally, James suggests in his epistle that the key to the control of our entire body is to be found in the control of the mouth:

For we all stumble in many ways. If any one does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as well (James 3:2-3).

Our approach in this study will be to view words as we do money, something we may either invest wisely to the benefit of others and ourselves, or squander foolishly to the detriment of all. We will begin by considering the power of words, for good or evil. Then we will seek to learn from the Book of Proverbs when words are foolishly wasted and when they are wisely invested. Finally, we will study the way to use words well.

The Potential of
Words for Good or Evil

Unlike money, words are easily come by. None of us is ever faced with a shortage of words. As a result, we may be inclined to underestimate the impact which words may have on ourselves and others. Proverbs reminds us of the potential of words for both good and evil.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit (18:21).

There is an old saying which we used to repeat as children. It goes something like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, But words can never hurt me.”

In my estimation there is very little truth in that saying. The fact is that the wounds caused by sticks and stones heal, but the wounds caused by cruel or thoughtless words may run deep and last a lifetime. On the other hand, words which are wisely spoken can be a source of life, comfort, and healing.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (10:11).

With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, But through knowledge the righteous will be delivered (11:9).

By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, But by the mouth of the wicked it is torn down (11:11).

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing (12:18).

Anxiety in the heart of a man weighs it down, But a good word makes it glad (12:25).

The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, To turn aside from the snares of death (13:14).

A truthful witness saves lives, But he who speaks lies is treacherous (14:25).

A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit (15:4).

A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word! (15:23)

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (16:24).

A worthless man digs up evil, While his words are as a scorching fire. A perverse man spreads strife, And a slanderer separates intimate friends (16:27-28).

These Proverbs remind us of the power of the spoken word to do good or evil to others. Other Proverbs teach us that the words we speak have a great effect on the speaker as well as the hearer. Words wisely spoken bring blessing to the speaker while words that are foolishly spoken bring difficulty and disaster.

An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, But the righteous will escape from trouble. 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 (12:13-14).

Truthful lips will be established forever, But a lying tongue is only for a moment (12:19).

From the fruit of a man’s mouth he enjoys good, But the desire of the treacherous is violence. The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin (13:2-3).

In the mouth of the foolish is a rod for his back, But the lips of the wise will preserve them (14:3).

He who has a crooked mind finds no good, And he who is perverted in his language falls into evil (17:20).

A fool’s mouth is his ruin, And his lips are the snare of his soul (18:7).

With the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach will be satisfied; He will be satisfied with the product of his lips (18:20).

We reap what we have sown with our lips. When our words are spoken wisely, others benefit as well as ourselves. When we use words foolishly or maliciously, both others and ourselves are hurt.

Words Foolishly Invested:
When Words Have No Power

Just as there are things which money cannot buy, so there are things which words cannot accomplish. Proverbs enumerates some of the weaknesses of words.

1. WORDS ARE INEFFECTIVE WHEN THEY ARE SPOKEN BY A FOOL.

Like the legs which hang down from the lame, So is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:7).

Like a thorn which falls into the hand of a drunkard, So is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:9).

2. WORDS ARE INEFFECTIVE WHEN THEY ARE SPOKEN TO A FOOL.

The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, But the mouth of fools feeds on folly (15:14).

An evil doer listens to wicked lips, A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue (17:4).

A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding Than a hundred blows into a fool (17:10).

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, For he will despise the wisdom of your words (23:9).

3. WORDS ARE INEFFECTIVE WHICH ARE NOT ACCOMPANIED BY APPROPRIATE ACTION.

In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty (14:23).

A slave will not be instructed by words alone; For though he understands, there will be no response (29:19).

4. WORDS ARE INEFFECTIVE THAT ARE NOT IN ACCORDANCE WITH TRUTH.

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, So a curse without cause does not alight (26:2).

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? (24:12)

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 (26:25-26).

5. WORDS ARE INEFFECTIVE UNLESS THEY ARE SPOKEN AT THE PROPER TIME AND IN THE PROPER WAY.

He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, It will be reckoned a curse to him (27:14).

The Principle of Economy:
When Words are Better Saved than Said

One of the principle differences between a wise man and a fool is that the wise man exercises restraint in his use of words, while the fool has a hair-trigger lip.

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise (10:19).

A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims folly (12:23).

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (15:28).

He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (17:27).

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind (18:2).

He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles (21:23).

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).

There are a number of reasons why the wise restrain themselves in the use of words.

1. RESTRAINT IS NECESSARY IN ORDER TO HEAR WHAT THE OTHER PERSON IS TRYING TO SAY.

He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him (18:13).

The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge (18:15).

The first to plead his case seems just, Until another comes and examines him (18:17).

2. RESTRAINT IS NECESSARY IN ORDER TO ALLOW ANY ANGER OR STRONG EMOTION TO PASS.

A fool’s vexation is known at once, But a prudent man conceals dishonor (12:16).

A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly (15:1-2).

He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (17:27).

A fool always loses his temper, But a wise man holds it back (29:11).

3. RESTRAINT GIVES THE WISE TIME TO CONSIDER WHAT TO SAY AND HOW TO SAY IT.

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (15:28).

When Silence is Golden:
Forbidden Uses of Words

There are many uses of the tongue which are clearly forbidden in Proverbs. Let us briefly review them.

1. A BREACH OF CONFIDENCE.

He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is trustworthy conceals a matter (11:13).

Argue your case with your neighbor, And do not reveal the secret of another, Lest he who hears it reproach you, And the evil report about you not pass away (25:9-10).

2. COMMITMENTS MADE IN HASTE.

My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, Have given a pledge for a stranger, If you have been snared with the words of your mouth, Have been caught with the words of your mouth, Do this then, my son, and deliver yourself; Since you have come into the hand of your neighbor, Go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor. Do not give sleep to your eyes, Nor slumber to your eyelids; Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hunter’s hand, And like a bird from the hand of the fowler (6:1-5).

It is a snare for a man to say rashly, ‘It is holy!” And after the vows to make inquiry (20:25).

3. CONTENTION AND STRIFE.

Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, But any fool will quarrel (20:3).

4. ATTEMPTING TO CORRECT OR INSTRUCT A FOOL.

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, For he will despise the wisdom of your words (23:9).

When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, The foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest (29:9).

5. CURSING PARENTS.

He who curses his father or his mother, His lamp will go out in time of darkness (20:20; cf. 30:11).

6. FALSE TESTIMONY.

A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who tells lies will not escape (19:5).

A rascally witness makes a mockery of justice, And the mouth of the wicked spreads iniquity (19:28).

7. FLATTERY.

A lying tongue hates those it crushes, And a flattering mouth works ruin (26:28).

He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor Than he who flatters with the tongue (28:23).

A man who flatters his neighbor Is spreading a net for his steps (29:5).

8. GOSSIP AND SLANDER.

The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body (18:8).

He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip (20:19).

The north wind brings forth rain, And the backbiting tongue, an angry countenance (25:23).

9. LYING AND DECEPTION.

Put away from you a deceitful mouth, And put devious lips far from you (4:24).

A worthless person, a wicked man, Is the one who walks with a false mouth, Who winks with his eyes, who signals with his feet, Who points with his fingers (6:12-13).

10. SELF-ACCLAIM.

Like clouds and wind without rain Is a man who boasts of his gifts falsely (25:14).

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; A stranger, and not your own lips (27:2).

Words Wisely Invested:
When Our Speech is Like Gold

There are many times when words are called for and where silence would be far from golden. Let us consider some of those times when the godly are obligated to speak.

1. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN IT IS SOVEREIGNLY GOVERNED BY GOD.

The plans of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (16:1).

I would caution the reader not to conclude that God is to be held responsible for every word which proceeds from the lips of men. The point of this Proverb, as I understand it, is that while we have a particular plan in mind, what we may say, if divinely directed, is from God. This is especially true when we are witnessing to our faith or when we are defending it.

“And when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak; but it is the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 13:11).

2. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN IT DISPENSES WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE.

The lips of the wise spread knowledge, But the hearts of fools are not so (15:7).

She opens her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (31:26; cf. 31:1).

3. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN WE SHARE OUR FAITH.

The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, To turn aside from the snares of death (13:14).

A truthful witness saves lives, But he who speaks lies is treacherous (14:25).

Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, 0 hold them back (24:11).

4. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN WE CORRECT THE WISE.

Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold Is a wise reprover to a listening ear (25:12).

Better is open rebuke Than love that is concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (27:5-6).

He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor Than he who flatters with the tongue (28:23).

5. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN WE SPEAK UP FOR THE RIGHTS OF THE AFFLICTED.

Open your mouth for the dumb, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (31:8-9).

6. OUR SPEECH IS LIKE GOLD WHEN WE MINISTER TO THE NEEDS OF OTHERS BY OUR WORDS.

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing (12:18).

Anxiety in the heart of a man weighs it down, But a good word makes it glad (12:25).

A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit (15:4).

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (16:24).

Words Wisely Chosen:
Saying the Right Thing in the Right Way

As a student in seminary I was very critical of the courses offered in homiletics--the art (and science) of preaching. What difference did it make how something was said, as long as what was said was true to the Word of God? After listening to the sermons of some of my classmates I learned the error of my thinking. Just as Proverbs teaches us, the right content said in the wrong way or at the wrong time may have no benefit to the listeners and may even do them harm.

1. A WORD WELL PUT WILL BE WELL TIMED.

A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word! (15:23)

Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances (25:11).

2. A WORD WELL PUT WILL BE A WORD WHICH IS RIGHTLY APPLIED AND GRACIOUSLY SPOKEN.

A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly (15:1-2).

The wise in heart will be called discerning, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness (16:21).

The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, And adds persuasiveness to his lips (16:23).

He who loves purity of heart And whose speech is gracious, the king is his friend (22:11).

By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, And a soft tongue breaks the bone (25:15).

Conclusion

In summarizing, let me attempt to review what we have learned from Proverbs on the use of our words by pointing out several passages in the New Testament which teach the same principles.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is evil” (Matt. 5:37).

Our Lord was not so much condemning vows as He was stressing the need for absolute truthfulness in what we say. The only reason why people require us to take an oath is because they have learned not to take our words at face value. Jesus taught that we should be so characterized by truthfulness in our speech that no other statement is required of us. Jesus, like Proverbs, taught that there is no place for falsehood and deception in the life of those who are godly and wise.

“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Matt. 12:34-37).

Like Proverbs, Jesus taught that a man’s character is revealed by his words. The Pharisees had attributed the power of our Lord to Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons (Matt. 12:24).Jesus warned His critics that they should be more careful in their use of words, since it was by their own words that they would be judged.

All too often we, like the Pharisees of old, are quick to speak without thinking. We will be judged for every idle or careless word. Let us not use words thoughtlessly if we are to be judged for what we say. Words have great power, for good or evil, for the listener as well as for the speaker.

This you know, my beloved brethren. But let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves (James 1:19-22).

We have learned in Proverbs that the wise are those who economize in the use of words. The wise person is slow to speak, considering the character of the one to whom he speaks. He does not lash out in anger, and his words are timely and well chosen. James reminds us of this same principle. Perhaps when James says, “This you know” (v. 19) he is actually alluding to the teaching of Proverbs. In addition to warning against a hasty, angry retort, James reminds his readers that while we should be cautious in the use of our words, we should be quick in our response to the Word of God. Apart from obedience to the Word, it does us no good.

“Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14).

Our Lord and James both taught that mere words never saved anyone. A profession alone, without any practical outworking, was evidence of a dead faith, not a living and saving faith. Perhaps there was a time when you made a profession of faith, my friend, but it was only that--a profession. Professions do not save, only a living and vital faith--a faith which brings about change in your way of living. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that mere words will save you. Those who professed to know the Lord in Matthew 7 and who even accomplished great works in His name were those whom our Lord said He never knew (Matt. 7:22-23).May your faith become more than a mere profession, by placing your trust in Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, who died in your place on the cross that you might live eternally.

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Col. 4:5-6).

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3:15).

Our words can be used of God to bear witness to our faith. We should be ready to speak when the occasion presents itself. Our words should be gracious and yet stimulate others along spiritual lines of conversation.

Perhaps there is no better summary of the use of our words than Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:29:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.

May God enable us to use our lips as an instrument of His grace.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians