Stuart Chase - 9 Aug 2020
Sticks and Stones (Proverbs 18:21)
What is the biggest lie you were told as a child? Did it have to do with a favourite summertime (or wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere) holiday? Was it loosely connected to dentistry? Did it cause you to hunt around your house and your backyard for hidden chocolates on a particular long weekend in March/April? Or was it more insidious than that? Was it perhaps taught in the form of a catchy nursery rhyme?
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never hurt me.
How many times did you sing those words to children who were tormenting you? As you sang them, did you really believe them or were you defiantly mimicking words your parents taught you to say but hiding your tears even as you did so?
The ability to speak—and to comprehend speech—is one thing that sets humans apart from the animal kingdom. You can teach a parrot to, well, parrot certain words and phrases but you cannot teach it to hold an intelligent conversation with you. Animals have ways of communicating with one another, but those forms of communication are always rudimentary compared with the God-given ability that human communication displays. How sad, then, that one of the greatest gifts given to human beings is so often used in the most destructive ways.
James likened the tongue to a raging forest fire, destroying everything in its wake. The tongue, he said, is “set on fire by hell” (James 3:1–12). James is the only New Testament author or speaker outside of Jesus to use the word here translated “hell” (v. 6). He did not use the word, as Jesus did, to describe the final judgement. He used it metaphorically. As hell is a place of destruction, so the tongue can be a weapon of mass destruction. In the words of Solomon, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). In other words, the tongue has great power for good or evil and we will reap rewards according to how we wield it.
A 2014 study at the University of Arizona found that, on average, women speak 16,215 words a day while men speak 15,669 words a day. (I know, it’s not the big different you were taught to expect, is it?) Much of that speech, to be sure, is mundane chatter. Still, there are few things we do as much every day as speak and it warrants careful thought as to how we use our words. Ray Ortlund tells us that Proverbs addresses more frequently our use of words than anything else. If God considers the tongue so important, we do well to listen to what he says.
Because Proverbs addresses this subject more than any other, we cannot possibly hope to cover everything that Solomon writes about words in a single study. This subject can easily be broken down into various subtopics: anger, gossip, slander, etc. I want to take a broad overview of some of the key lessons that Proverbs has for us.
The human tongue has power to build up, edify, and encourage—and power to tear down, destroy, and discourage. We wield great power with our tongue and it takes great wisdom to know how to use it in a way that honours God and helps others. Thankfully, we are not left to discover that wisdom on our own. Proverbs offers us a great deal of direction and, in this study, I want to take some time to briefly consider what Solomon teaches concerning the human tongue and the words we use.
Words Are Diverse
Before we delve into the Proverbs properly, we must take a moment to recognise that Solomon’s wisdom on words should be applied far more broadly than our speech. In our day and age, words have incredible power to travel far distances very quickly over different mediums. We can speak words of life and death. We can write words of life and death. We can type words of life and death. The wisdom of Proverbs needs to be embraced in all these mediums: in your face to face interactions, in your text and instant messaging, and in your social media engagement. And, particularly in digital interaction, be aware that nothing that is said can be unsaid. The Internet is unforgiving in its memory of your words.
Wherever and however you use words, you should use them carefully and wisely because, as our primary text tells us, words carry with them the power of life and death. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21).
Words Are Revealing
We must also recognise that our words are revealing—that is, they reveal what is in our hearts. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Solomon affirmed this teaching long before Jesus walked the dusty streets of Palestine.
Solomon wrote, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). Your life will display the wisdom of God or the folly of men, depending on what is in your heart. That wisdom or folly will manifest itself in words: “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly” (15:2). Again, “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off” (10:31).
Your words reveal your heart. If your words are angry there is anger in your heart. If your words are bitter there is bitterness in your heart. If your words are unforgiving there is unforgiveness in your heart. We must consider our words and honestly evaluate what they reveal about our heart. Listen to the things you say. Read the messages you send. Reflect on your words on social media. Allow others to speak into your life in this regard. If your words display folly rather than wisdom, get to the heart of the matter.
Before we move onto some matters of greater practicality, let me remind you that “wisdom” and “folly” in Proverbs are not intellectual categories, but moral categories. Wisdom is godliness; folly is wickedness. Wise words, then, are commended as honouring to God; foolish words are condemned as sinful.
When it comes to foolish speech, as Proverbs identifies it, it is far more serious than, “That was a dumb thing to say.” Foolish speech is wicked speech. To speak foolishly is to speak sinfully and calls for repentance. Bear that in mind as you consider some of the categories of wise and foolish speech below.
Words Are Powerful
We must recognise that words are powerful. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Wise words lead to life. Foolish words lead to death. There is very real power.
But how do we discern wise from foolish words? What kinds of words reveal wisdom? What kinds of words reveal folly? Solomon gets very practical about the power words and what they reveal about our hearts.
Foolish words are manifested in a variety of ways in Proverbs. Each of these categories can justifiably form an entire sermon, and perhaps some others will take opportunity to do more work in some of these categories. For our purposes, I want to simply overview broadly some of the ways in which our speech betrays a heart of folly—that is, a heart of wickedness.
First, folly is betrayed in flattery. “A man who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet” (29:5). Flattery is, in effect, a form of lying (see 26:28). Even if the words spoken are honest, the motive is dishonesty. We may flatter in an effort to get others to do what we want them to do (“You make the best pancakes!”) or to put a stumblingblock before our neighbour to see him fall (“You’re such a great leader—you would be wonderful in this position!”).
Second, folly is betrayed in lying. “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD but those who act faithfully are his delight” (12:22). Lies show disregard for the God of truth and disrespect for the victim of the lies: “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (26:28). Lying is widely considered today to be a fairly minor sin but liars are among those who, at the final judgement, will find their place “in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
Third, folly is betrayed in gossip and slander. There is something insidious in us that loves gossip and slander. “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (18:8). But Proverbs is unapologetic about the godless nature of such talk. Gossip and slander betray trust: “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (11:13). Perhaps you know the feeling. It is difficult to trust someone who has shared something that you intended for them to keep in confidence. Such talk has the potential to not only betray trust between the gossiper and the victim, but also between third parties: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (17:9) and “a whisperer separates close friends” (16:28). If you have ever had a friendship suffer because of gossip spread by a third party, you know the reality of this truth.
Fourth, folly is displayed in words of anger. “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). Words spoken in anger can cause tremendous damage. When we speak in anger, we rarely measure carefully the words we use. We say things that we regret and our words can be cutting. And no matter how desperately we try to go back and correct the damage we’ve caused, the sword thrusts have done their work. Angry words also invite an angry response: “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (29:22), which never has a positive outcome. You probably know the feeling. When someone is speaking angrily at you, does it not stir up in you a desire to respond angrily? Things never go well when anger clashes with anger.
Fifth, words of boasting display a heart of folly. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (27:1–2). There are two types of boasting highlighted here: boasting about future plans (v. 1) and boasting about past or present accomplishments (v. 2).
Boasting about tomorrow steals glory from God, who alone is in control of the future. Boasting about the present and the past is the fruit of pride and self-love, which we despise in others but tolerate in ourselves. The Christian does praiseworthy things, not for self-gain, but to direct praises to God. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
As we have already noted, folly in Proverbs is not an intellectual category but a moral one. Words of folly, therefore, are words of wickedness, which invite God’s judgement. “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off” (10:31). “A babbling fool will come to ruin” (10:10) and “a fool’s mouth is his ruin” (18:7). Our words are not neutral. They invite the commendation or condemnation of God. As Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37).
But it’s not all bad news. We have considered what foolish words look like, but Proverbs also has a great deal to say about wise words. If you want to be categorised by godly wisdom in your speech, take note of some things Proverbs says.
First, wise words are displayed in controlled speech. “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (21:23). “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (18:2). Are you as eager to listen as you are to speak? Do you carefully weigh your words before you speak them? There is a reason the fool is described in Proverbs as a babbler. Godliness is shown in thinking carefully before you speak, send that email, or deliver that tweet. Particularly when you are in the heat of emotion, it is better to hold your tongue. Run that email past a friend you trust before you send it. Wait 24 hours before sending out that communication you may later come to regret. Weigh your words carefully before you speak or write them.
Second, wise words are words of integrity. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (12:19). As we have seen, God brings perverse speech to ruin because it dishonours him. Words of integrity, on the other hand, endure because God doesn’t bring them to ruin—because they honour him. If you want your words to have lasting impact, be sure that they are words of integrity and truth, for that is the kind of speech that lasts.
Third, wise words edify. “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (13:14). “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel” (27:9). Do you want to be known as one whose words honour God? Then speak words that build up rather than tear down. Withholding your tongue from destructive speech is good and commendable, but we should go further and break the silence to speak words of encouragement. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (12:25). It can be a profoundly healing and helpful experience to hear words of encouragement from a friend. Work hard at finding ways to encourage others with your words rather than either breaking them down or simply maintaining a stony silence.
Fourth, wise words are often rebuking words—if the motive for the rebuke is correction rather than denigration. “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favour than he who flatters with his tongue” (28:23). “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:5–6). It is wise and loving to confront a brother or sister in their sin and help them come to correction. This should be done with an honourable motive, with careful forethought, and with particular specificity as to the sin that needs to be corrected. Vague accusations of wrongdoing are not helpful. Rash and angry confrontation is rarely beneficial. Rebuke with the goal of shaming rather than correcting is foolish. But rebuke, carried out in a humble and godly manner, and which aims for correction, is helpful to your neighbour and honouring to God.
Words of Christ
As I said at the outset, the gift of communication is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. In the age in which we live, our ability to communicate quickly and broadly is unprecedented. But, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.
We know how often we fall short of God’s standard in this regard. We know how easy it is to speak words of folly rather than words of wisdom. Is it not incredible, then, to consider that Jesus never spoke foolishly? Though he was fully human, and therefore tempted in his speech in the same ways we are, he never uttered a word of folly.
So much of what we say is empty and pointless. So many of our words are unguarded and self-indulgent. None of that was true about Jesus. Those who heard him exclaimed, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46). His words were always careful, thoughtful, edifying, and authoritative.
Jesus was measured in his speech. He knew when to speak and when to remain silent. At his trial, he at times held his tongue and at times boldly spoke the truth. He didn’t allow the emotion of the moment to dictate his responses. We are called to imitate him.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2:21–23)
May we learn to put off words of folly and instead embrace words of wisdom. May our speech mirror the speech of Christ and thereby benefit our brothers and sisters on earth and glorify our Father in heaven.