The large middle section of the Book of Proverbs contains 375 proverbs of Solomon. Chapters 10 to 24 were written by Solomon, who according to 1 Kings 4:32, wrote three thousand proverbs and one thousand five songs. Most of the proverbs in this section are stated as “couplets” (meaning two successive lines of poetry that are parallel in thought).
The lines in English poetry are often parallel in sound. We say they “rhyme.” For example, the sentence, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” has words that rhyme. But the successive lines of Hebrew poetry are not parallel in sound, but parallel in thought. The second line either reinforces the idea of the first line (called a synonymous parallelism), or, the second line offers a contrast to the first line (called an antithetical parallelism). In the first verse of our lesson, for example, there is a contrast of ideas—”a soft answer” is contrasted with “grievous words.”
Our lesson looks at a group of verses from portions of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament which deal with the use and the abuse of the tongue. In fact, the Book of Proverbs repeatedly speaks about sins of the tongue, and about the blessings arising from proper speech. We will want to pray the prayer of David, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).
Other parts of the Bible also give instructions about our use of words. Two of the Ten Commandments refer to the tongue—the prohibition against taking God’s name in vain, and the sin of bearing false witness. Furthermore, Jesus warned that idle words will be accounted for in the Day of Judgment. Paul spoke against corrupt conversation; and James wrote about the need to control the tongue.
The instruction given in Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt.” The word “grace” signifies the idea of beauty and dignity. And even though sometimes we need to speak out plainly against sin, we must always remember to speak kindly and charitably and gracefully—not with a tone of sarcasm. Let your speech be with grace. Let your words have a certain dignity.
Graceful language means that we will make an effort to avoid the use of slang expressions (in typical American English) like:
“We had a groovy time.”
“We really had a blast.”
“He’s a real creep.”
Graceful language avoids referring to people as “windbags.” It doesn’t tell jokes about “mothers-in-law” and “old maids.” Graceful language refrains from the use of words like “stupid,” and “nerd,” and “dingbat,” when referring to other people. It avoids racial and ethnic slurs like “niggers” and “wops” and “Pollocks.”
The Bible instructions in Proverbs are difficult to outline, so we plan to simply look more carefully at each maxim chosen to be part of our lesson.
1. The Proverbs Selected in Chapter 15:1-8
Verse 1 reminds us that in our conversation with others, two kinds of answers are possible—either gentle or harsh responses. Anger is often dissolved by a calm, peaceful, and gentle response; whereas a severe, harsh, and critical response usually adds fuel to the flame of anger. “A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”
The word “soft” does not mean that we should hide our true convictions, and avoid standing firmly on moral issues—but we must “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It is hard to argue with someone who insists on answering gently.
Charles Spurgeon told about a neighbor’s dog that on occasion dug around in his garden. One day he yelled at the dog and threw a pretty good sized stick at the dog—hoping to chase him home. But instead of going home, the dog picked up the stick, came to him with the stick in his mouth—wagging his tail. He dropped the stick at Spurgeon’s feet, and looked up at him with such a kindly expression—that all Spurgeon could do, was pat him on the back, call him a “good dog,” and regret that he had spoken roughly to the dog. (The point is this: It is hard to argue with someone who insists on responding gently.)
Proverbs 15:2 says, “The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright; but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.” Verse 2 shifts the focus from the tone of our reply (either gentle or harsh), to the quality of our speech.
We can either speak wisely and dispense knowledge, or we can speak foolishly and waste words. When we engage in conversation we should talk about things that relate to living a noble life, rather than shallow meanderings that add nothing to the store of wisdom.
Verse 3 (of chapter 15) provides insight on the doctrine of the omniscience of God. “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” The Lord hears every word we speak—what we say and how we say it. Our God sees and knows everything—both good and evil. He can see a black ant, on a black night, crawling on a black rock! If you are living an upright life, you will be comforted by that fact. If you are dabbling with evil, you should be warned by it.
The proverb in verse 4 is similar to the saying in verse 1. “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.” There are two kinds of words—those that are uplifting and bring life; those that tear down and destroy the spirit. Words, when used appropriately, have the power to heal. Speaking words of encouragement to a downcast person is like a “tree of life.” By way of contrast, words also have the power (when used carelessly), to crush the feelings of another. An unknown poet says:
A careless word may kindle strife;
A cruel word may wreck a life.
A bitter word may hate instill;
A brutal word may smite and kill.
A gracious word may smooth the way;
A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word may lessen stress;
A loving word may heal and bless.
The word wholesome (verse 4) in the first sentence says that what we say should always be tempered with kindness rather than with cruelty. The word perverseness speaks of acting in opposition to what is proper, which in turn can crush the spirit of others.
Proverbs 15:5 says, “A fool despiseth his father’s instruction, but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.” These words remind us of some of the early instructions in the Book of Proverbs, where a father’s advice was given to a maturing son. A child should generally hear and follow the advice and counsel of a father and mother. We need, of course, to obey God rather than man in the event that parents defy the clear mandates of the Scriptures (Acts 5:29).
Verse 6 says that the righteous who are wise will be shrewd investors of money. The godly who invest wisely will discover that hard times do not usually reduce them to poverty. They have carefully distributed their assets so that daily fluctuations of the economy do not trouble them. Another truth found in the latter part of this verse is that God has ways of bringing punishment to those who gain ill-gotten wealth. The text says that “in the revenues of the wicked [there] is trouble.”
The proverb in verse 7 is similar to the saying in verse 2. Wise people talk about things of importance. They share knowledge about God and His way of salvation. Foolish persons spend their time in idle chatter and unprofitable words.
In verse 8 we are told that “sacrifices” (the rituals in which we engage when we worship God) are unacceptable if we are living disobedient lives. God detests hypocrisy among His people. He is very pleased when the way we live from day to day backs up our outward religious profession. The Lord, through the prophet Amos, said, “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in [take delight in] your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). God was not denouncing the observance of the Jewish feast days (prescribed in the Law of Moses), but He was condemning outward worship not accompanied by righteousness in character, and in concern for others. The people were religious; they brought sacrifices; they gave tithes; they loved the worship rituals—but they were not just and kind to their neighbors. They were not zealous about obeying God’s laws; there was no confession of sin and no brokenness before the Lord.
Proverbs 15:8 says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord; but the prayer of the upright is his delight.” One of the ways we can faithfully use our tongues, is to pray fervently and with sincerity.
2. The Proverbs Selected from Chapter 17:4-10
In Proverbs 17 we are given more wise sayings about our speech and also about some other very important matters.
Verse 4 explains that God is just as much concerned with what we hear (what we listen to), as He is with what we say. We are to guard our ears especially against listening to false and malicious reports about others. “A wicked doer giveth heed to false lips; and a liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue.”
One of our temptations is to listen to juicy rumors (the KJV uses the term “a naughty tongue”)—rumors about the failures of others. It is easy to feast on gossip and slander, and to believe the worst about others. Countless people have suffered harm, because rumors were spread, and those who passed them along did not bother to carefully check the facts. We must beware of trying to lift our own self-esteem by diminishing the reputation of others. Verse 4, in essence, says, “An evildoer gives heed to wicked lips and a liar gives heed to a mischievous tongue.”
Verse 5 (of chapter 17) warns against making fun of the poor, the less fortunate in this world. The text says, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker; and he that is glad at calamities, shall not be unpunished.” All people, the rich and poor, are created in God’s image, and to mock the less fortunate in life, is to insult their Maker. Our duty is to encourage others, not to mock and tear down and conclude that people with less financial means deserve their lot in life.
None of us likes to be mocked by others. The little ditty says: “I don’t object to laughter; it has a proper place, but when I’m the object of it, I don’t like it in my face.”
The last part of verse 5 says that those who gloat in the calamities of others will not go unpunished. It is hard to imagine anyone so perverse, as to rejoice in the calamities that others are experiencing. Yet how often have you heard someone say, “It serves him right?” God will punish such conduct. The Book of Obadiah pronounces doom on the country of Edom, because it rejoiced when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invasion of an enemy nation.
In verse 6, inserted among Solomon’s wise sayings on the tongue, is a proverb that pays tribute to the strength of family ties. There is true piety when children, parents, and grandparents respect each other. People should treasure their family heritage. Honoring our forebearers (parents and grandparents)—and appreciating our offspring (children and grandchildren) brings meaning and dignity to life, more than any other act, save our worship of God.
God blesses us with children and grandchildren who are proud of their parents. Little boys say, “My daddy can fix the bicycle.” Little girls put their arms around their mother’s neck and say, “I love you, mommy.” Grandchildren “are the crown” (that is, the respect and the admiration) of the aged. For older people, there are few joys greater than that of watching their grandchildren mature into godly Christians.
The point of the verse is this: Family members need each other for support and for encouragement, no matter what the difference in their ages.
In Proverbs 17:7, we are told that a foolish person simply does not speak with wisdom. Kind words and disciplined speech are unsuited to those who live foolishly, and ignore God’s laws. Excellent speech just doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle. Unsaved people soon get bored with conversation about faith and repentance, and the glories of the eternal state of the redeemed! And most of us will agree instinctively that those who are princes, and rulers (and who lead others), should be examples of honesty and truthful lips—as indicated in the latter part of verse 7.
In verse 8, Solomon makes an observation about people who try to get what they want illegally, by paying bribes (“gifts,” the KJV says) to persons in places of authority. People who receive bribes may prosper financially (as the last part of verse 8 says), but the practice of accepting bribes is clearly condemned later in Proverbs 17. Verse 23 says that it is a wicked person who accepts a bribe, and thus perverts the way of justice.
Proverbs 17:9 says, “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love (“promotes love”—NIV), but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” The phrase “covereth a transgression” describes one who is willing to forgive (and then forget) a wrong done by another person. The matter then does not need to be repeated anymore. When a difference is settled, the issue is “covered” and others don’t need to know about it. That kind of action promotes love!
George Washington Carver was one time refused admission to a college because he was black. Years later, when someone asked him for the name of that college, he answered, “It doesn’t really matter.” Love had conquered! There was no need to make an issue about it. Once we have decided to forgive, we should keep quiet about the matter, for harping on the issue simply breeds enmity and discontent.
Verse 10 says that we should be willing to accept a word of reproof (a rebuke). A wise person will take a rebuke to heart and will seek to profit from it. Bishop Stephen Neill said, “Criticism is the manure in which the saints of God grow best.” That is, manure smells, but it also fertilizes—and if we profit from an honest rebuke, our lives will become more mature. Proverbs 25:12, in the Living Bible, says, “It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism.” A foolish person (verse 10 says) can receive a hundred stripes and remain less affected than a discerning person who receives a single rebuke.
The part of the body which most easily reveals our sinful tendencies is the tongue. The tongue indicates to others what lies deep down inside us—and so there are many portions of Scripture devoted to proper use of the tongue. Note the following:
- Proverbs 31:26 “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”
- Proverbs 17:27a “He that hath knowledge spareth his words.”
- Isaiah 50:4 “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned [of a teacher], that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.” The text refers to the ability to know how to sustain discouraged and weary persons with a word of encouragement.
- Psalm 52:2 “Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs, like a sharp razor.” The tongue of an undisciplined person can, for example, cut down a neighbor with gossip.
- Psalm 141:3 “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” This verse is one that every Christian should memorize.
Because the tongue is the most difficult member of our bodies to control, James 3:2 says that one who gains mastery over the tongue is able also to exercise control over the whole body.
There is an old saying which declares that the “mouth” is the grocer’s friend, the dentist’s fortune, the orator’s pride, and the fool’s trap. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Be not rash with thy mouth.” (Don’t be quick with your mouth.) And in Proverbs 10:19 he says, “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, but he that refraineth his lips is wise.” In a group, the talkative person proceeds to take over the conversation. If he is a charming and captivating conversationalist, perhaps no harm is done. We may be glad to be relieved from the responsibility of having to say anything, but the verbose talker is usually a dreadful bore!
If you your lips would keep from slips,
Five things observe with care;
To whom you speak, of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where!
— W. E. Norris
Often when folks reach the point of death, they struggle to speak for the last time. Family members sometimes wait anxiously for a parting word—but there always comes that strange moment when a great stillness touches the dying one. The eyes stare from the sockets; the lips become parched and dry; the spirit passes on into the eternal world. Not a word can be added to the conversation of life, and not a word can be retracted. What the lips have spoken, they have spoken for eternity.
My prayer is that all of us will so resolve to use our tongues that when we finish the journey of life, and come to the end of the way, and breathe our last mortal breath—that our words will have helped and not hindered, brightened and not dimmed—the hopes of others, both for this life and for eternity.