Wisdom and the Tongue
1.On a social media website that I frequent (it’s called “Facebook”; you may have heard of it), a friend of mine posted a picture of a sign hanging up in a building that says, “In Case of Fire, Exit Building Before Tweeting about It.” It has a caption of a stick figure walking down stairs with flames raging above him while he types away on his mobile device. That is a funny commentary on the times in which we live. Ours is an age of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, iPhones, and text messages. Technology has, as it always does, brought some measure of ease and enrichment to our lives.
2.But technology is always a two-edged sword. Although I could list many troubling things about the results of technological advances we have made in the last ten years, today I only want to focus on one. I remember the days before I even knew what the internet was. Email had not yet caught on, and cell phones were a luxury of the wealthy. In those days, my avenues of verbal communication were limited to face-to-face conversations, landline telephone conversations, or handwritten letters (which were rare for me even then, and almost non-existent now). It has occurred to me that in the last twenty years or so, the sheer volume of words that we put out there, now that we have all of these avenues for doing it, must have grown exponentially. With the kind of access to technology that we have today, I can imagine that in my lifetime I will produce many times more words than most people in my grandparents’ generation ever did.
3.Why is that a reason for concern? Proverbs 10:19 tells us: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Ask yourself this question: Now that the average person has the ability to speak his mind on Facebook, on blogs, on Twitter, through text messages, at any time of the day, would you say that the quality of public conversation in our society has gone up or down? Has the sheer volume of words made us any better at speaking to one another, either with our lips or with our fingertips? If wisdom in speech was required for previous generations, how much more for ours, now that we have the ability to put our words out there all day, everyday!
4.In Isaiah 6 we read about the call of the prophet Isaiah in these words: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” Notice how Isaiah responds: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” When Isaiah contemplates his own wickedness before a thrice holy God, of all the things he could have mentioned, he is most acutely aware of the sins of his mouth. And there is not a person here today who could claim to be exempt from the same charge. So what shall we do, we who are also people of unclean lips dwelling in a society where technology has only enhanced our ability to sin with the words we speak (or type)? We must seek wisdom from the Lord. And he has given it to us in abundance. Just here in Proverbs 10-30 there are at least eighty verses that speak directly to this issue. We will look at a representative sample of those verses today, and as we do I believe the main point for us to draw from them for our lives is this: A wise person uses speech in the fear of the Lord. How does he or she do this? The book of Proverbs gives us at least three words of direction here.
I. A Wise Person Recognizes the Power of Speech.
1. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we say. The Bible never says that. In fact, the Bible presents words as one of the most powerful weapons we have. And that should not surprise us, for in giving us the power of speech, God has made us as a reflection of himself. When we, as God’s image, use words to make things happen, we imitate God who brought creation into existence by his powerful Word and governs all things by that same Word.
2. Think of Adam’s dominion over the earth in the beginning. In Genesis 2 God brought all of the animals to him. And what did he do? He named them. He spoke over them with authority, and in so doing made it possible to interpret them, thereby gaining a measure of mastery over them. Imagine if we had no words, not even in our heads when we think. We could not identify “books” and “trees” and “cars” and “clouds.” All of these things would be meaningless impressions on our eyes, things that we would have no ability to interpret in a creation that would appear to us as utter chaos. Without speech, we could not take dominion over creation, and thus we could not represent God as we were designed to do. But since we do have the power of words, we have great power for good or for evil, depending on how we decide to use our words.
3. Solomon makes this point in a general way in 18:20-21, which reads, “From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” It is a strange image to think of “fruit” coming from a man’s mouth and then going back in as he eats it and is satisfied. The image suggests that a man receives great satisfaction when he uses words intentionally to achieve some effect, whether he intends it for good or evil. Then Solomon explains that the full range of consequences—including death and life and everything in between—is in the power of the tongue, so it is important for us to use the tongue wisely.
4. What, then, are some of the things that the tongue has the power to do that the wise person will consider before speaking? Note three things from the book of Proverbs:
(1) The tongue has the power to cause great harm to us.
1. Notice Proverbs 12:13: “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble.” This principle corresponds to the law of retribution given in Deuteronomy 19:21: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” A wicked man who sins with his mouth by laying a trap for others will find that he is unexpectedly caught in his own trap. Evil activity becomes hard to sustain for long before someone is caught or exposed. And why is that principle operative? Because this is God’s world, and he has established a moral order in it by which he governs us to restrain our sin from completely obliterating us. To be sure, we are far from perfect justice now. But nevertheless, there is a moral principle evident in the way things work in this world that is nowhere more apparent than when a person who aspires to destroy others with lies, slander, and insults, finds that he has only destroyed himself in the process. According to the book of Proverbs, sin is not only rebellious and abhorrent. It is also stupid, because it turns against you.
(2) The tongue has the power to cause great harm to others.
1. Note three images from three different proverbs that communicate the power of our words to destroy others. Proverbs 16:27 says, “A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.” Fire is a fitting image for the tongue. It has such potential to do good in providing warmth and heat for cooking, but if you let it get out of control, it rages on a path of destruction. Did James have this verse in mind when he wrote, “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue”?
2. Or consider a related image in Proverbs 26:20: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.” Here the use of the tongue to talk about others behind their backs is compared to wood that keeps the destructive fire of quarrels going. Remove the wood, and the fire will eventually die out, but continually feed the fire, and it will continue to burn in a path of destruction. Talking about others behind their back has the potential to destroy relationships.
3. Consider again a very different image from Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The reckless words of a babbler are like so many jabs of a sword, causing deep wounds to others. A fool, who does not fear the Lord, thinks nothing of assaulting a fellow human being verbally, thereby disgracing one who bears the image the God. Thus, to speak recklessly or rashly is to reveal that you do not fear the Lord and thus do not have wisdom.
4. Have you ever felt the sting of words? Have you ever been the object of gossip, slander, or insult? I would dare say that for many of you, the words of another person have been among the most painful things you have ever suffered. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Does not your experience, both on the giving and receiving end of pain due to words, convince you otherwise?
(3) The tongue has the power to offend God.
1. Proverbs 12:22 says, “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” Lies distort reality. They are used for the advancement of oneself and to the detriment of others. They represent a disregard of justice in the pursuit of personal gain. Those who lie contradict the very nature of God, for as Proverbs 30:5 says, “Every word of God proves true.” God is the very standard of truth, and thus it is impossible for him to lie (Hebrews 6:18). For this reason, a lying tongue is an abomination to him. And this is the most serious effect that the tongue can have. We can destroy ourselves and destroy others with our tongues, but the weightiest matter for us to consider is how our words affect God. He is deeply repulsed by sins of the tongue, as Isaiah knew all too well when he saw the Lord in the temple and called down a curse upon himself because of his unclean lips.
2. When I pastored a church in Kentucky, I was having a conversation with a man in the church one day about guns. As one who has rarely used guns in my lifetime, I was talking to him about the possible benefits and possible dangers of owning a gun if you have children in the house. He made a good point. He said that the kids who are going to be most responsible with guns will be the kids whose fathers have taken them out to the shooting range, have shown them how the gun works, what it is capable of doing, and how to use it responsibly. In other words, kids who are more familiar with the nature and use of guns are less likely to injure someone in a gun accident by using a gun irresponsibly. If any of you fathers have ever taken your sons out to the shooting range to teach them the right way to use these powerful and dangerous weapons, that is a great image of what Solomon is doing for his sons here. He is telling them about a powerful and dangerous weapon, and that is our power of speech. A young man has the power to do great things or very destructive things with his tongue, and so his father, seeking to protect him from those destructive consequences, takes care to teach him about the power of speech. The wise will take heed to these words and recognize the power of speech.
A second word of direction to us on speech is this:
II. A Wise Person Restrains his Tongue.
1. We live in the information age. Words are everywhere, all of the time. The market has been flooded with them, and as a result, their general value has decreased. I am reminded of a poster I saw one time that offers a pithy commentary on a fairly new technological advance called “blogging.” For those who are not familiar, “blog” is short for “weblog,” and it refers to a personal website where people can write and publish their thoughts about anything at any time. They are accessible to the masses because you can start one for free at any number of websites or pay a very small fee for your own domain on the web. But the poster I saw said it very well: “Blogging: never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.” It’s a good reminder of how little regard our society has for the power of words, because we simply cannot stop ourselves from carelessly throwing them around. (By the way, I have a blog, and I will be the first to admit that many things I have said on it are probably not worthwhile. But my point here is not to make you give up blogging but to recognize the danger of using words carelessly.)
2. So consider the danger of speaking with haste and the value of restraining yourself from speaking without care and thought. Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” To guard your mouth is to guard your life. Proverbs 29:20 puts it this way: “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” A man who lets his mouth run without restraint is not only a fool but worse than a fool.
3. Proverbs 11:12-13 offers two important words of guidance here. Verse 12 says, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.” One reason we are often so hasty to speak is because, before we have thought carefully about it, we have an overwhelming desire to belittle someone else. But what do we gain by doing that? And what do we lose? Would it have hurt us to remain silent on that occasion? Would our lives be impoverished if we had chosen to close our big mouths and not let those insults seep out? Verse 13 goes on to say, “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.”
4. Proverbs 17:27 praises the virtue of self-control: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Then verse 28 tells us quite humorously, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” It reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s famous proverb: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” If restraint of the tongue can benefit even a fool (one who does not fear the Lord), how much more should the godly aspire to speak less and make their words count!
5. Restraint in speech is required in a number of contexts. In our careless, hasty way of speaking we are often quick to gossip, or even to slander others. In the heat of an argument we are quick to lash out against the other person with an insult. If we feel we have been wronged, we are quick to rise up to defend ourselves by answering with the same measure of harshness (or even more) than we have received. If some issue is being discussed on the internet, we feel like the whole world should not have to wait any longer before hearing our opinion on the matter, so we insert ourselves into a fruitless discussion. In every case, what is going on? Why do we find it so easy to speak hastily and so hard to restrain ourselves? The answer is pride. Gossip and slander feed the ego by putting down others and making us feel superior. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we delight to say, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this other person,” and we delight to say it in the company of others. It is a desperate reach for self-justification. Opinionated people (like me) often labor under the delusion that it is our responsibility to set everyone else’s opinion right, and we find it difficult to remain silent when we hear so much that is contrary to our own opinions. And if someone speaks a hurtful or insulting word to us, we feel the need to justify ourselves by returning the favor. And here we must learn from the greatest example of restraint in speech in human history. Speaking of Christ, 1 Peter 2:23 says, “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.” The ability to remain silent when you are being mistreated is a strength that comes from your eschatology. By “eschatology” I am referring to your understanding of how everything is going to end. Do you really believe that God is a just judge who will call to account every act of sin, either on the cross or at the final judgment? Then why are you trying to do his job right now? Why do you need to defend yourself now and play the judge when you say that you believe that it has all been committed to the Lord’s hands? Here is yet one more example where the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord leads us to be restrained, thoughtful, and careful with our words.
A wise person who recognizes the power of speech and, recognizing that power, restrains his words, will do his best to make every word count. Therefore, we come now to our final word of direction from proverbs:
III. A Wise Person Knows How to Speak for the Good of Others.
1. To this point I have focused largely on the destructive power of words to encourage you to recognize their lethal potential and thereby learn how to restrain yourself from using them carelessly. But if words have the power of death, they also have the power of life, and the next step in the process of using the tongue wisely is learning how to speak for the good of others. One who walks in the fear of the Lord will desire good for his neighbor, for his neighbor is made in the image of God. And thus the wise person will use his words in service to his neighbor, for his neighbor’s good, as a concrete way of demonstrating his reverence for the name of God.
2. Consider the powerful image of Proverbs 16:24: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Solomon here is commenting on the dual benefits of honey. Not only does it taste good, but it also has a healing, medicinal value. All too often that which is good for us is bitter to the taste, and that which is good to the taste is bad for the body. But gracious words often combine the best of both worlds. They have a sweetness that makes them easy to receive and a life-giving effect that gives them a long-term value.
3. So then, the million dollar question is, what are gracious words? Proverbs 15:23 provides some insight: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” In other words, a word spoken at the right time, in the right situation, is a gracious word. Proverbs 15:1 gives us further instruction: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” A good word spoken at the right time will also carry the appropriate tenderness and warmth of tone. But there is a flip side to this as well. Proverbs 25:12 says, “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” There are times when gracious words must take the form of gentle, loving, but firm confrontation over sin. When we address sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters, not proudly and judgmentally, but with the aim of turning them away from the path of destruction, we speak for their good and edification, and thus we speak in the fear of the Lord.
4. So think of speaking in the fear of the Lord as speaking the right words at the right time in the right way, all for the purpose of being the Lord’s agent for good in someone’s life. But how do you know what are the right words, right time, and right way to speak to a certain person? There is no formula I can give you for this. It’s not a mechanical process. It is something that arises naturally when you pursue love for other people. When you take a personal interest in the lives of others and invest yourself into their lives for the sake of their good, knowing what and when to say should be a lot easier. Does a mother go through a set of steps when she figures out what to say to her child in various situations? No. She speaks out of the overflow of her heart, a heart that is filled with love for that child. Do you look at your neighbor and see a visible representation, an image, of God right next to you? If so, you must know that you are bound to love him and speak in ways that build him up. First John 5:20-21 reads, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Love for your brothers and sisters is the natural product of love for God. And one of the ways we love is by speaking words of grace, encouragement, healing, and rebuke at the appropriate times and in the appropriate ways. This is how we speak in the fear of the Lord.
1. Words are powerful things, so we must use them carefully and wisely. And yet, how many times have we failed in this! And, if past behavior is any predictor of future behavior, how many more times will we fail in the future? Have you ever lied for personal gain? Have you ever raised your voice in anger to lash out at another person? Have you ever added fuel to a quarrel by gossiping or even slandering another person because you secretly desired to make yourself look better? Have you ever spoken thoughtlessly or carelessly to the detriment of someone else and the dishonor of God? Sins of the tongue receive prominent mention in Scripture. When Paul wants to make a biblical case for the universal sinfulness of man in Romans 3:10-18, he quotes a string of passages from the Old Testament. Listen to what all he puts together: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” That last statement sums up the problem. The reason we speak the way we do—in bitterness, pride, carelessness—is because we do not fear the Lord.
2. Isaiah recognized his profound guilt when he called down a curse upon himself, having seen the splendor of God’s holiness and, by comparison, his own wretched condition. This man of unclean lips was undone. And so are you! You are undone before a thrice holy God because your sin has offended him deeply. You deserve nothing from him but the deepest pit of Hell for eternity, and if you persist in your rebellion against him, you will surely go there. But there is hope for you. Listen to what Isaiah reports after he has called down the curse upon himself: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” Isaiah’s dirty mouth was cleansed and set apart as a vehicle fit to carry the words of God to the people of Judah. God made atonement for his sin at the altar. And Isaiah’s altar is only one symbol among many in the Old Testament pointing forward to the ultimate act of atonement, the ultimate sacrifice for sins, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection for our justification. Do you have the same sense of impending doom that Isaiah had, and do you too desire deliverance from it? Then believe in Christ, and your sin will be atoned for, your dirty mouth will be cleansed and made an instrument of grace to others. As Paul writes in Romans 10:9-10: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Confess with your mouth by publicly identifying yourself with Christ through baptism. This promise is for you.
3. To those of you who are baptized believers, who have already made that public confession, come renew that confession again, as we do each week, by partaking of the Lord’s body and blood today. Confess once again by your eating and drinking that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord, and that the only hope for the forgiveness of the sins that have poured out of our unclean lips may be found in him.