A Word To The Wise About Words
A period of silence followed by saying “sound, isn’t it an amazing thing?” There are a lot of things that make sound. By taping on the pulpit, I make a sound. The musical instruments make a sound. Have you ever tried to sing into a piano? Without even touching the piano, you can make it make a sound because of sympathetic vibrations. Whenever we open our mouths, and force air through our vocal chords, we make a sound.
How old is a child before the sounds they make are more than sounds? It is interesting watching a child grow up and begin to discover their voice and all the different parts that make sound more than crying. They discover their vocal cords as soon as they are born, but then later they discover that their tongue and their teeth and their lips and the way they shape their mouths and the volume of air that passes through their vocal cords makes a difference in the sound they make. When do their sounds begin to have meaning? When do they begin to form sounds that are intended to communicate different ideas? When do the thoughts in their mind begin to be expressed through the sounds that come out of their mouth?
Somewhere along the line, the wonder of sound becomes the wonder of communication. We learn to talk and to express what is going on in our mind and also in our heart. That is where the trouble starts. Last week, I had a little conversation with Abby. Her coos were obviously communicating pleasure. I suspect that her mother and father know when her voice is communicating other things like frustration and anger. That doesn’t change as we grow older. We are able to be an encouragement to others with the same voice that moments later can speak words that can deeply hurt and wound another.
One of the teachers I had when I was in grade 9, used to have a saying. When things got a little out of hand in the classroom, he would begin to turn red and he would warn us and then he would say “let a word to the wise be sufficient.” I did see him go beyond this saying a few times, and so when we heard that, we knew that he was serious.
The book of Proverbs has a word to the wise about words. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death…” Let us learn the lessons of Proverbs so that our words can bless instead of hurt.
I. The Connection Between Heart and Mouth.
A moment ago, I mentioned that at some point a child discovers that the sounds that come out of its mouth are able to communicate. It is at that point that the child discovers the connection between what is in our heart, what is in our mind and what comes out of our mouth.
Please turn to Proverbs 10 where in verse 11, 20, 21 and 31, we read about this connection. There we read that those whose heart is righteous have words that are good. These verses describe the speech of the righteous in verse 11 as a fountain of life; verse 20 as choice silver; verse 21 as words that nourish many and in verses 31,32 as able to bring forth wisdom. In each of these verses, the speech of the wicked is contrasted. If a person has a wicked heart, the speech which comes out is, according to verse 11, violence; verse 20 of little value; verse 21, death and verses 31,32, perverse.
This is a connection that Jesus also made. In Matthew 15:18 he said, “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart…”
So it is pretty clear that if we want to speak blessing into the lives of others instead of destruction, we will need to begin with a change of heart. Of course, that is what the gospel is all about. The first step in changing our words is to have our hearts changed by becoming followers of Jesus. God is in the business of changing our hearts.
However, even people who are Christians still have a lot of bad word habits. We continue to need our hearts changed. If we find that angry outbursts, hurtful words or rash words are pretty common to us, we need to find out what it is in our heart that is producing these words. Proverbs 16:23 says, “A wise man’s heart guides his mouth…” If we are wise, we will examine our heart to see what is there that is resulting in negative speech patterns. Do we have jealousy in our heart? Then it won’t be surprising if we sometimes wound other people with our words. Do we have anger in our hearts that has not been resolved? Then it won’t be surprising if angry words come out of our mouth. Proverbs 29:22 says, “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.” Do we have a heart that is impure? Then it won’t be surprising if we are easily tempted to tell off color jokes.
If we are wise, we will want to learn to know what is in our heart so that we can overcome the sins of the tongue. If we don’t we will end up destroying and being destroyed. Proverbs 6:12, 15 warns, “A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth…disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.”
II. Watch Your Mouth!
Of course, discovering what is in our heart is only the starting point. Growing a pure and loving heart is a life long process which God is engaged in. At the same time as we have our heart changed, we also need to be aware of the sins of the tongue and avoid them. Did your parents ever tell you, “watch your mouth?” Well, that is good advice. What are the specific areas in which we need to watch our mouth?
A. Rash Words
It was his first day on the job. He was a new clerk in the grocery department of a super market. A lady came up to him and said she wanted to buy half of a head of lettuce. He tried to dissuade her from that goal, but she persisted.
Finally he said, "I'll have to go back and talk to the manager."
He went to the rear of the store to talk to the manager, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. When he got into the back of the store, he said to the manager, "There's some stupid old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?"
Seeing the horrified look on the face of the manager, he turned about and, seeing the woman, added, "And this nice lady wants to buy the other half of the head of lettuce. Will it be all right?
Although he stuck his foot in his mouth, he recovered quickly, we don’t always.
- Bruce Thielemann, "Because," Preaching Today, Tape No. 105.
How often do we speak words that we wish we could stick back into our mouth? Perhaps you have heard about the guy who stuck his foot in his mouth so much that they said the only time he opened his mouth was to change feet.
Proverbs has a lot to say about the folly of speaking rashly. Proverbs 10:10 talks about how “a chattering fool comes to ruin.” Proverbs 12:18 says “Reckless words pierce like a sword…” Proverbs 12:23, “…the heart of fools blurts out folly.” In Proverbs 10:19, we are warned that “When words are many, sin is not absent.”
Such foolish speaking takes many forms. Proverbs 29:20 identifies the person who speaks without thinking when it says, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Such thoughtless words may even sometimes seem like positive words, as for example in Proverbs 25:20 which says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” In a similar way, Proverbs 27:14 says, “If a man loudly blesses his neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”
Another form of rash words is described in 26:18, 19 when it says, “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”
We all do it. Most of us have probably been caught saying things that were inappropriate. Proverbs 6:1-5 has some good advice for what to do if we have stuck our foot in our mouth. It says, “…if you have been trapped by what you said, ensnared by the words of your mouth, Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” A quick confession and request for forgiveness is the best way to recover from words that are not appropriate.
Of course, it is better still to learn to avoid stepping into such a situation in the first place. Proverbs advises in 11:12, “…a man of understanding holds his tongue.”
May God helps us to learn to be quiet instead of blurting out folly and hurting others without thinking what we are saying.
B. Deceptive Words
This sin arises out of carelessness, but there are other sins of the tongue that are malicious. One of those is lying.
Sometimes deception appears to be the easier way to go, but lying is always destructive. Proverbs 17:20 warns that “he whose tongue is deceitful falls into trouble.” Sometimes lying to make a person feel better seems like a kind thing to do, but in the end it always destroys. In contrast, Proverbs 12:19 assures us that “Truthful lips endure forever…”
One form of lying is flattery. Flattery is telling our friend what they want to hear. When we do that, we think that we are doing them a favor. Proverbs does not see it that way. Proverbs 29:5 says, “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.” In other words, flattery is a trap. How is it a trap? When we lie to our friend, telling them what they want to hear, we simply defer the inevitable. If we our friend asks us, did I sing well and we say, yes, when it was really awful, they will eventually find out that they can’t sing well and we have simply set a trap for them by postponing their finding out the truth, likely in a more hurtful situation.
As we realize the evil of lying, we need to remember Proverbs 6:16-19 which identifies seven things that the Lord hates. Among them are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness.”
Proverbs 24:26 gives us a much better alternative. It indicates that, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” What is the meaning of a kiss on the lips? Is it not a sign of affection? In other words, truth is a sign of love, whereas deception is a sign of enmity and hatred.
We often fear truth speaking, but Proverbs is unequivocal that truth speaking is the only way of being a blessing in the long run.
C. Hurtful Words
One of the most hurtful ways we speak is through gossip. Proverbs recognizes that gossip is very tempting. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels…” It looks so tasty. But this same verse also helps us understand how dangerous gossip is. It goes on to say, “they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” When it says this, it is telling us that words of gossip are not easily forgotten. When we hear words of gossip, they stay with us and continue to do damage long after they are spoken.
The destructive nature of gossip is recognized in Proverbs in that a gossip “betrays a confidence” (11:13) and a gossip “separates close friends” (16:28.)
Fay Angus says, “The Bible tells us that the most vital and yet the most difficult thing to master is our words. It is not so much what goes in one ear and comes out the other that bothers us, it is what goes in one ear, gets garbled in the process, and then comes out the mouth!” How true that is of gossip.
Gossip also fans the flames of dispute. Proverbs 26:20 says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”
So the best advice we have for overcoming the sin of gossip is found in Proverbs 17:9, “He who covers over an offense promotes love…”
D. Fighting Words
It is also very easy for us to fight and to start fights with our mouth. The language of Proverbs 30:33 is very colorful when it says, “For as churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” Perhaps you have made butter by taking cream and shaking it. If you shake it long enough, you will make butter. Just as surely, if we keep on picking at something with our words, we will produce quarrels.
Instead, we need to learn to do what Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath…”
III. Apples Of Gold In Settings Of Silver
So after beginning with asking God to change our hearts and watching our mouth by seeking to avoid the sins of the tongue, we also need to learn to bless with our words.
The artistic imagery found in Proverbs 25:11 is intended to turn our hearts towards the way in which we can use words to bless. It says, “A word aptly spoken
is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” How can we bless with our words?
Proverbs 28:23 says, “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue.” How is that different than “covering over a matter” as we just talked about? It seems to me that there is a time to lovingly confront a friend but there is never a time to broadcast a friends shortcomings.
Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” What kind of words are such pleasant words? I think that words of encouragement instead of criticism are pleasant words. Although we need to speak the truth, we also need to speak the truth by encouraging. Proverbs teaches us that when we have a criticism, we need to communicate it clearly, and Ephesians would add, lovingly. When we have an encouragement, we should not keep silent, but let it be known.
Speaking knowledge, in other words, teaching, is another way of speaking blessing into someone’s life. In Proverbs 15:7 we read, “The lips of the wise spread knowledge...” I remember that at one time I was struggling with a problem. I called a friend who had some experience with my problem. As he shared how he had handled it, his knowledge was an encouragement to me.
A few weeks ago our children told us about a plan to have our whole family go out to Banff to visit our children there. Proverbs 25:25 says, “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land.” How wonderful when we have the privilege of being bearers or hearers of good news.
So if pleasant words are so good - like apples of gold in settings of silver, then we need to follow the advice of Proverbs 15:28, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers…” Are we weighing the words we speak?
Although I have covered the main themes and given you many verse, I have actually only given you a few of the many verses in Proverbs which talk about how we can speak well. I would encourage a study of Proverbs to discover all the words that speak about speech.
There are two Psalms which summarize the main things we have learned.
Psalm 39:1, encourages us to make a commitment about how we speak. It says, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
Psalm 141:3 is an important prayer. It invites God to help us in this difficult area when the Psalmist prays, “Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
So, let a word to the wise about words be sufficient.