Introduction: The June 15, 1992, entry of Today in the Word asks:
Can it be that the average person spends one-fifth of his or her life talking? That's what the statistics say. If all of our words were put into print, the result would be this: a single day's words would fill a 50-page book, while in a year's time the average person's words would fill 132 books of 200 pages each! Among all those words there are bound to be some spoken in anger, carelessness, or haste.Given how much the average person says in any given day, is it any wonder that the Book of Proverbs has so much to say about our patterns of speech? Today we will briefly highlight the teaching of Proverbs under four headings: 1) what we say, 2) how we say what we say, 3) when we say what we say, and 4) why we say what we say. We shall examine several proverbs under each heading.
I. We Need to Be Concerned About What We Say
NKJ Proverbs 6:16-19 These six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: 17 a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, 19 a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.Note that three of the seven sins in this list of things the Lord hates involve speech in some way. Two have to do with some form of lying, while the third is the sowing of discord among the brethren, which almost certainly involves speech on most occasions.
NKJ Proverbs 12:17 He who speaks [פּוּחַ, pûaḥ] truth declares righteousness, but a false witness, deceit.The Hebrew word translated “speaks” literally means “to breath,” which is what we do when we speak. Thus here the word obviously refers to speech, doesn't it?
As Roland Murphy has declared in his commentary on this verse, “The verb 'tells' [speaks in the NKJV] is literally 'breathes'; truth is to be something as natural as breathing” (WBC, Vol. 22, p. 44)
The point of the verse appears to be that what we say reveals the kind of person we are. For example, the person who makes a habit of speaking truth is a person that can be trusted to promote righteousness. On the other hand, a wise person will not trust a habitual liar. Unfortunately, all too often in our culture people adopt an “ends justifies the means” mentality, assuming that a lie here and there is alright if it promotes what one believes to be a good end. Just think about the state of politics today!
But a wise person will recognize that what we say reflects who we really are, and that a person who does not habitually speak the truth is not really about promoting what is right, no matter how much he may try to rationalize his lying as a good or necessary thing.
NKJ Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.The “good word” here may be news that the cause for anxiety/depression is gone or, more likely, a word of encouragement to make it through one's struggle with depression. In other words, a “good word” – a word of encouragement from the Word of God – can really make a big difference in someone's whole outlook on life.
NKJ Proverbs 15:2 The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.Note that the difference between the wise and the foolish is not necessarily that one has more knowledge than the other, but that one uses it rightly and the other does not. The wise man knows how to speak what he knows such that wisdom rather than foolishness is the the result.
So we can see that knowing what to say is crucial. But that is not enough to make us wise in our use of words. We must learn other principles as well.
II. We Need to Be Concerned About How We Say What We Say
NKJ Proverbs 15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.Note that “a harsh word” is singular. It only takes one! Just think, for example, of the practice of name-calling, like the guy who sees someone cut in line at the store and mutters the word “Jerk!” just loud enough for others to hear.
This proverb reminds me of a modern saying:
I'm careful of the words I say to keep them soft and sweet.Of course, we often speak a harsh word when we have already become angry ourselves. No wonder the Apostle James later issues this warning to believers:
I never know from day to day which ones I'll have to eat.
NKJ James 1:19-20 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; 20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.We need to stop and think before we speak, don't we? This point is made quite clearly in Proverbs as well. For example:
NKJ Proverbs 15:28 The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil.A wise person who truly cares about righteousness will also care about how he speaks to others. He knows the danger in speaking without thinking and even of speaking the right thing in the wrong way.
NKJ Proverbs 16:24 Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.Few things make a person feel better that pleasant words in a time of distress or troubles. Pleasant words can even sometimes turn sorrow into joy.
III. We Need to Be Concerned About When We Say What We Say
NKJ Proverbs 15:23 A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!The Reformation Study Bible notes observe concerning this verse that, “The wise receive great satisfaction from being able to give the proper word at the proper time.”
If you are looking for a new hobby, perhaps you could go to work on this!
NKJ Proverbs 27:14 He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it will be counted a curse to him.Of course, it is a great thing to bless your friend, but even such good speech must be done at a time when it can be heard with appreciation!
NKJ Proverbs 26:4-5 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.Here we have a great example of what some have termed the situational applicability of many proverbs, which follows from the nature of proverbs as generalizations. This means that in Proverbs we may sometimes find what appears to be contradictory advice, but any apparent contradiction disappears when we realize that the particular admonitions are intended to apply to diverse situations.
Thus with these two proverbs, one is encouraged to answer a fool according to his folly when there is hope of correcting him so that he will not be wise in his own eyes, so that he will no longer be self-deceived, thinking his foolishness is a good thing. But one is discouraged from answering a folly according to his folly when there is no hope of winning him over but only of ending up being more like him.
But how do we learn to discern which situation we are in? Well, that requires studying the rest of the Proverbs – as well as the rest of Scripture – and of putting what we learn into practice so that we may learn the kind of wisdom necessary in order to be more discerning. I this way we will become those who “by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). And we will become increasing adept at not only what to say and how to say it, but also when to say it.
IV. We Need to Be Concerned About Why We Say What We Say
ESV Proverbs 10:11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.In other words, the speech of the wicked will only ultimately cause harm, but we can bring life – and a more fulfilling life at that – to those who hear us. Shouldn't we remember daily that the best purpose for speech is to use it to tell the truth to others and lead them to life in Christ? Jesus made a similar point when He prophesied of the work of the Holy Spirit:
NKJ John 7:37-39 On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.Every day we should ask ourselves why we are here, and to what purpose we put our opportunities to speak with others. Is it to build up and not to tear down? Is it to encourage rather than to discourage? Is it to offer praise for God's blessings rather than to complain about our circumstances? Is it to communicate the Gospel to bring life in Christ? Is it to make the lives of those who already know Christ more pleasing to God and more fulfilling for them?
NKJ Proverbs 12:18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health.
NKJ Proverbs 15:4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.Note also 18:14: “The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, but who can bear a broken spirit?”
Do you think Solomon would agree with the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me”? I don't think so! Perhaps a better saying would be, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my spirit!”
Are we consciously focusing every day on speaking words that promote spiritual health and the edification of others?
Conclusion: I will conclude with another convicting reminder from Proverbs:
NKJ Proverbs 10:19 In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.But life lived for Christ requires us to speak – and to speak often – doesn't it? For how else can we witness for Him or be an encouragement to our brothers and sisters in the Lord? But we often need to be careful not to say more than we need to. Perhaps instead of the average Christian speaking enough words in a day to fill a 50 page book, he could set his sights on a 30 or 40 page book instead!
I think we can do better if we just heed what the Proverbs teach us and, by God's enabling grace, be very careful about what we say, how we say what we say, when we say what we say, and why we say what we say.