Proverbs is like a box of chocolates. You can pick out any one from its selection of wise comments about life and enjoy it without reference to the rest.

Here’s a chocolate selection from chapter eleven. First a bitter choice, the Lemon Whisper: ‘When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes; all he expected from his power comes to nothing.’[1] Bitter indeed. If you prefer something sweeter, how about the Raspberry Parfait: ‘A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.’[2] Yes, very tasty, that one. Or for something harder try the Hazelnut Cluster: ‘Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion’[3]—a hard word indeed, but a timely one for a society where ‘image is everything’.

It was chiefly King Solomon who put this verbal box of chocolates together, with a few contributions by other wise men like Agur and King Lemuel. Of these two we know nothing except that they were not Israelites, which tells us that a person doesn’t have to be a Christian to give sound advice. Solomon himself composed some three thousand proverbs,[4] and the ones in this book are the pick of the bunch. They come grouped in three sections, each starting with the words, ‘The proverbs of Solomon…’[5] The usual chapter divisions are there, of course. These, are not inspired, but you may like to note that the book has 31 chapters—convenient for reading the whole book in a month, one chapter a day.

As you read you will notice that many proverbs come in the form of contrasts, with a ‘but’ in the middle: ‘The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.’[6] Or, ‘All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.’[7] On the basis of such contrasts we could say that Proverbs gives the ‘black and white’ of life. Its plain and unqualified statements are principles that are generally true, though not universally so. Look at this example: ‘Those whose walk is blameless are kept safe, but those whose ways are perverse will fall into the pit.’[8] Well, I can think of some blameless, godly folk who died in a horrific car crash, so this proverb is not one hundred per cent true, but it’s broadly true. We have to turn to the other poetic books of the Old Testament to get the ‘shades of grey’ that balance out the ‘black and white’ of Proverbs. Job is a case in point. His walk was as blameless as they come but, for reasons known only to God, he had a very hard time.

When you study Proverbs try searching it for recurring themes and pulling together the relevant verses from every part of the book. There are many such themes: life and death; the family; wisdom—meaning good, practical sense for everyday living;[9] the sluggard, that is, the lazy person;[10] the fool; the friend; the importance of words.

Let’s focus on that last one: words.

Dolphins, birds and chimpanzees communicate with various sounds but words are a uniquely human feature, vital in human relations. The wrong ones can cause chaos and hurt. Proverbs lists seven things that God hates. Note how many of them have to do with words:

‘There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up dissension in the community.’

I wonder how many words you and I speak each day? In an after-dinner speech Astronaut Michael Collins quoted the estimate that the average man speaks 25,000 words each day and the average woman 30,000. Then he added: ‘Unfortunately, when I come home each day I’ve spoken my 25,000, and my wife hasn’t started her 30,000!’

Many of those words are matter-of-fact ones, necessary for getting our work done. Many more are lightweight—small-talk or inconsequential chatter. But mixed among them may be words with powerful consequences for good or evil. They can wound or heal. ‘The words of the reckless pierce like swords’, says Proverbs.[12] It is simply not true that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’. Harsh and cruel words can shatter your composure, undermine your self-confidence, prompt you to tears. Bullying can be as much verbal as physical—and has sometimes led to suicide.

Words can poison people’s minds through gossip: ‘The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.’[13] ‘Choice morsels’ means they are a delicacy reserved only for the privileged listener: ‘I’m not telling anybody else about this, but I thought you ought to know.’ You rise to the bait and listen avidly. The words ‘go down to the inmost parts’—you take them in deeply; you remember them.

Words can poison people’s minds, too, through flattery: ‘Those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet.’[14] The flattered person gets an unbalanced view of his own value and so ends up being laughed at—entangled in the net. Flattery is destructive. I knew a Christian man who thought the Lord had gifted him as a poet. He churned out vast quantities of appalling religious doggerel. Worse, he read it aloud and gave copies to all and sundry. One recipient who, if he wasn’t poetically numb was the world’s worst flatterer, told him, ‘These are wonderful poems! Have you ever thought of having them published?’ It fell to me to undo the damage by telling the self-deceived poet that he was at best average but more likely in the lower echelons of poetic gift, that the stuff he wrote was probably a means of expression for his own benefit and no more, that the Christian world wasn’t in fact waiting with bated breath for his next oeuvre, and that if, as he claimed, the Holy Spirit gave the verses to him word for word, then the Holy Spirit needed to do a bit of serious brushing up on his English grammar and vocabulary.

Many cruel words are not intentionally so. ‘Reckless’ means unthinking and careless, and words spoken without any harmful intention can hurt just as much as deliberately harsh ones. A young man once made a comment on an older lady’s blouse, which was in a wrinkly, ‘crumpled look’ fabric. In jest he said, ‘It matches your skin.’ Everybody laughed, including the wearer, but we found out later that she had been deeply hurt by this throwaway remark.

Happily, words can heal as well as hurt. Yes, ‘the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but’, the verse continues, ‘the tongue of the wise brings healing.’[15] Again, ‘anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.’[16] The healing here is primarily emotional but, because we are whole rather than compartmentalised beings, there can be a knock-on effect in the physical dimension: ‘Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.’[17] They can feed and strengthen: ‘The lips of the righteous nourish many.’[18] Aim to speak words of that kind.

Words are contagious in their effect. They sow the seeds of ideas in people’s minds, where they germinate, grow and multiply, either for good or for ill. A single spark can produce a forest fire: ‘Scoundrels plot evil, and on their lips it is like a scorching fire’[19]—inflammatory talk.[20] Even body-language can have a harmful effect: ‘Troublemakers and villains, who go about with corrupt mouths, who wink maliciously with their eyes, signal with their feet and motion with their fingers, who plot evil with deceit in their hearts—they always stir up dissension.’[21]

But the contagion can equally spread good and blessing: ‘From the fruit of their lips people are filled with good things, and the work of their hands brings them reward.’[22] The ‘fruit of their lips’ means their words, and these produce as good a return as ‘the work of their hands’—their manual labour. Productive words indeed, words of life: ‘The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life’[23] and ‘The soothing tongue is a tree of life.’[24] Here are two biblical images of spiritual life. With your words you can go beyond cheering people’s hearts and strengthening their bones; you can make a spiritual difference, too.

So words are powerful, that’s for sure. Conversely, they are in some ways weak. They are, for example, no substitute for action: ‘All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty’.[25] This statement is, according to Derek Kidner in his commentary on Proverbs, ‘a saying to be framed and hung in council rooms’. Those, too, are wise words, apt and pointed.

Words are also weak in that they can’t alter the facts. No amount of charming talk, for instance, can disguise an underlying bad attitude: ‘Like a coating of silver dross on earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. Enemies disguise themselves with their lips, but in their hearts they harbour deceit. Though their speech is charming, do not believe them, for seven abominations fill their hearts.’[26] And for you, when you stand before the great Judge, it will be your actions, not your words, that govern his ruling: ‘If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?’[27]

And words are weak in that they can hope for a response but can’t guarantee it. Kind, encouraging, well-intentioned words may fall on deaf ears if the hearer’s heart is unwilling and unresponsive: ‘Servants cannot be corrected by mere words; though they understand, they will not respond.’[28] In fact one feature of ‘the fool’ in Proverbs is his impermeability to correction, unlike ‘the wise man’ who is open and sensitive to it. Which are you? Does a word of correction, even when graciously expressed, make you dig you heels in and do the very opposite? If so, Proverbs is blunt: you’re a fool. That means it’s time for a turnaround, time to become wise, a ‘discerning person’: ‘A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.’[29]

Sometimes it is bad words, not good ones, that hope for a response and fail to get it. People may bombard you with tittle-tattle, innuendo, threats or verbal bullying but they can’t divert you if your heart is set on the truth: ‘A wicked person listens to deceitful lips; a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.’[30] But if you remain honest and upright it will all be water off a duck’s back. And when you open your own mouth to speak it will be wise words that come out.

God holds you responsible for the words you speak,[31] so how can you ensure that yours are wise words? Proverbs offers some help here. For a start, if you are wise your words will be few: ‘Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.’[32] Wise words have nothing to do with being naturally talkative or retiring. Some people are just made in such a way that they like talking—like the talkative man who one day injured his jaw and went to the Accident and Emergency department of his local hospital. When they x-rayed his jaw they got a moving picture.

Yes, you can be talkative and wise at the same time, but Proverbs strongly suggests that you would be even wiser if you cut down a bit. Indeed, ‘even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues’[33]—though first impressions may later prove to be mistaken! Certainly the less you say, the less ammunition you give to those who would like to shoot you down: ‘Those who guard their lips preserve their lives.’[34] Even your friendships will benefit, because relationships last longer when you resist the urge to talk too much about your friends: ‘Those who have no sense deride their neighbours, but those who have understanding hold their tongues. Gossips betray a confidence, but the trustworthy keep a secret.’[35]

So may you be wise and may your words by few. My wife and I lived for a couple of years in South Africa. One thing I learnt there was that, in certain tribes, the speakers at an indaba—a council of tribal elders—are limited to what they can say while standing on one foot! Solomon would have liked that.

Wise words are not only few but also controlled, that is, they are cool and calm. Rash responses, blurted out without thinking, are rarely helpful. They can do serious damage and, once spoken, can’t be taken back. A judge presiding at court, may order, ‘Strike that from the record!’ but it is too late to stop the effect on the jury. So pause and consider before you speak out: ‘Those who have knowledge use words with restraint, and those who have understanding are even-tempered.’[36] Hotheads speak fiery words. Fiery words burn and destroy. ‘To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.’[37] Holding back, even for a moment or two, could save you some apologising:

I’m careful of the words I say to keep them soft and sweet;
I never know from day to day which ones I’ll have to eat.

Controlled speech has other advantages. It allows time for a fair hearing instead of rushing to a premature judgment: ‘In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’[38] Ah yes, maybe the issue is more complicated than you thought. Restraint also allows tempers to cool: ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’[39] Shouting-matches are rarely productive. In the end it is this controlled approach that is usually more effective: ‘Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.’[40]

Wise words will be honest: ‘Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value persons who speak what is right.’[41] Dishonesty and prevarication fudge the issue, mislead and confuse. They are a cancer in society, rotting it from the inside out. It was Jesus himself who urged us, ‘All you need to say is simply ‘Yes,’ or ‘No’.’[42] This is a far cry from the cynical term ‘a qualified maybe’, which was well illustrated by an Irish sergeant in World War I giving his platoon a pep talk. He outlined the task ahead, then asked:

‘Boys, will ye fight or will ye run?’

‘We will!’

‘Will what?’

‘Will not!’

‘That’s the spirit, me hardies! I knew ye would!’

We could also add that wise words will, where possible, be apt, that is, be appropriate and well-chosen—le mot juste: ‘A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!’[43]  Such words are satisfying in an aesthetic way, as well as serving their practical purpose. They bring a smile of satisfaction to the hearer’s lips. I’m reminded here of the famous exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. Annoyed by his manner she declared, ‘Mr Churchill, if I were married to you I’d put poison in your tea!’ To which he replied, quick as lightning, ‘Madame, if you were married to me I’d drink it.’ Again, Solomon would have liked that: ‘A word aptly spoken,’ he observed, ‘is like apples of gold in settings of silver.’[44] Or as The Message puts it, ‘The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewellery.’

Would you like to be a speaker of wise words? It’s within your reach if you are prepared to work at it. Commit yourself to thinking before you speak: ‘The heart of the righteous weighs its answers,’[45] or ‘ponders how to answer’ (ESV). As part of your pondering, ask the Lord to help you express yourself well once you open your mouth, so that ‘from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.’[46] He will prompt you to say the right words, like the prompter at a theatre when an actor forgets his lines.

At the same time you must develop godly character because, in the end, it is ‘out of the overflow of the heart [that] the mouth speaks’.[47] In other words, godly character will find expression in godly speech. What’s on the inside will show in the words coming from your lips. That’s why ‘an honest witness does not deceive.’[48] That’s why 86-year-old Polycarp, the second-century bishop of Smyrna, when required by his persecutors to deny Christ or face execution, declared, ‘For 86 years I have been Christ’s servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’ His heart of commitment to Christ would permit him to speak only words of commitment to Christ. They took him out and burnt him to death, Christ’s servant inside and out, from start to finish.

That, then, is a sample of what Proverbs has to say about our words. They are powerful, able both to wound and to heal and contagious in their effects. They are weak in that they are no substitute for action, they can’t alter the facts, and they can’t guarantee a response. You are to speak wise words, ones that are few, controlled, honest and apt. And you can become a speaker of such wise words by working at it and developing your Christian character.

Which part has challenged you most? What are you going to do about it?

Copyright © David Matthew 2009


Watch Your Words!


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



The gist of this article

Of the many themes in the book of Proverbs we focus on words. The words we speak have immense power for good or for evil. This book encourages us to speak ‘wise’ words. What exactly does that mean, and how can we go about it?

1. Proverbs 11:7 NIV

2. Proverbs 11:25

3. Proverbs 11:22

4. See 1 Kings 4:32

5. Chapters 1-9, the way of wisdom; chapters 10-24, the main collection of Solomon’s proverbs; and chapters 25-31, further proverbs of Solomon, Agur and Lemuel.

6. Proverbs 10:7 NIV

7. Proverbs 14:23

8. Proverbs 28:18

9. E.g. Proverbs 9:10.

10. E.g. Proverbs 26:14. In The Message the sluggard is the ‘lazybones’!

11. Proverbs 6:16-19

12. Proverbs 12:18a

13. Proverbs 18:8; see also Proverbs 16:28

14. Proverbs 29:5

15. Proverbs 12:18b

16. Proverbs 12:25

17. Proverbs 16:24

18. Proverbs 10:21

19. Proverbs 16:27

20. See James 3:5-6

21. Proverbs 6:12-14

22. Proverbs 12:14

23. Proverbs 10:11

24. Proverbs 15:4

25. Proverbs 14:23

26. Proverbs 26:23-25

27. Proverbs 24:12

28. Proverbs 29:19

29. Proverbs 17:10

30. Proverbs 17:4

31. Matthew 12:36-37

32. Proverbs 10:19

33. Proverbs 17:28

34. Proverbs 13:38

35. Proverbs 11:12-13

36. Proverbs 17:27

37. Proverbs 18:13

38. Proverbs 18:17

39. Proverbs 15:1

40. Proverbs 25:15

41. Proverbs 16:13

42. Matthew 5:37

43. Proverbs 15:23

44. Proverbs 25:11 NIV

45. Proverbs 15:28

46. Proverbs 16:1

47. Matthew 12:34

48. Proverbs 14:5