Proverbs 4) Verbal Wisdom

Verbal Wisdom

Text: Proverbs 18:21


Have you ever had someone say something that just completely crushed you? I remember when I was about 17 I went over to some guys place and a friend of his older brother took one look at me and said, ‘You’d have to be the ugliest person I’ve ever met!’ I was so shocked I was speechless, probably the only time I’ve ever been speechless. As a 17 year old it was crushing, I still remember it today, despite the fact I never even knew the guy’s name. The truth is – our words have the power to harm or to heal, to discourage or encourage, to build people up or tear them down, to give life or take it away. Proverbs 18:21 says, ‘21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Prov 18:21)’ Our words have great power in the lives of others. The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about verbal wisdom, and using our words in a wise way. This morning we’re going to be looking at words of death, as well as words of life, and how we are called to live out our words.


1) Words of Death

So let’s start with words of death. It’s so dramatic, ‘words of death!’ I just have to say it with dramatic emphasis. The truth is that the words we say have the power to hurt others. The Book of Proverbs mentions many different ways that our words do that, but I just want to focus on four this morning.

a) Gossip

The first is gossip. Gossip is basically sharing harmful information about someone else. And the truth is our contemporary society loves gossip. There is a whole industry that exists on gossip. We buy magazines that are filled from cover to cover with gossip about celebrities, we watch it on TV, we talk about it over coffee. Proverbs makes the observation that ‘8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. (Prov 18:8; 26:22)’ We like gossip because it’s like eating chocolate cake, it tastes so good, but it’s so bad for you. We like gossip because it makes us feel better about ourselves. ‘At least I’m not like them,’ we think. But Proverbs also tells us that ‘13 A gossip betrays a confidence… (Prov 11:13a; 20:19)’ and ‘28 …a gossip separates close friends. (Prov 16:28b)’ When we talk about someone behind their backs we are betraying them, and driving a wedge between them and whoever we’re speaking to. To gossip is to speak words that bring death.

b) Flattery

Secondly, Proverbs talks about flattery. Flattery is where you say something nice to someone but either you don’t mean it, or you say it for your own benefit, not theirs. In a sense it’s lying. It’s telling someone they’re good at something when they aren’t, it’s being dishonest. Flattery is telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Flattery hypes people up, but rather then helping them it harms them. Proverbs says, ‘5 Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet. (Prov 29:5)’ The truth is ‘28 …a flattering mouth works ruin. (Prov 26:28b)’ Flattery sets people up for a fall. The classic example in the book of Proverbs is the adulteress who uses flattery to seduce men into sin (5:3; 6:24; 7:5,21). To flatter someone is to speak words that bring death.

c) Deceitful

Thirdly, Proverbs talks about deceitful words. Unlike flattery, which is covered with a veneer of nicety, these are just bold-faced lies intended to hurt people. According to Proverbs ‘4 …a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. (Prov 15:4b)’ When we lie to people, or twist the truth, it wounds, or cripples those we lie too. But even more then that, it wounds and cripples us. Proverbs says, ‘20 …he whose tongue is deceitful falls into trouble. (Prov 17:20b)’ To speak deceitfully is to speak words of death.

d) Thoughtless

Finally, Proverbs talks about thoughtless words. For example, ‘18 Reckless words pierce like a sword… (Prov 12:18a)’ and ‘3 …he who speaks rashly will come to ruin. (Prov 13:3b)’ and ‘1 …a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov 15:1b)’ The point is that the person speaking hasn’t thought about what they are saying. They are reckless with their words, they speak rashly, or harshly. They don’t care about the effects their words might have on someone else. These people just speak off the cuff, they blurt out whatever happens to pop into their heads. Thoughtless words can cause great hurt, they are words of death.

Now you might be thinking that I’m overstating it just a bit, that I’m being overly dramatic. But listen to what Jesus has to say. Matthew 12, ‘36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Mt 12:36-37)’ Our words matter, in fact, we will be judged and even condemned because of the words that we speak to others. Our words not only have huge consequences in the lives of others, but they also have eternal consequences. God cares about what you say, and he cares about how your words harm others. In Proverbs 6 it says, ‘16 There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: (and among those things are) 17 …a lying tongue… 19 a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers. (Prov 6:16-19)’ God hates lies and deceit and gossip. God finds such words detestable, loathsome, or revolting, they are an abomination to him. So as Paul writes, ‘29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths… (Eph 4:29a)’ And as James says, ‘26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (Jam 1:26)’

I want to ask you this morning: What words do you need to repent of? What words have you said in the last week that have hurt others, whether intentionally or unintentionally? Have you gossiped or flattered someone? Have you been deceitful or thoughtless with your words? I want to encourage you to repent of those words, seek forgiveness from God and form those you hay have hurt.


2) Words of Life

I hope I’ve rammed home just how important it is to avoid words of death, so let’s now turn to words of life. If words of death are painted in the darkest of colours, then words of life are painted in the brightest. This is how God’s people ought to speak. I want to look at how you find words of life, how you speak words of life and how they affect those around you.

a) How to find them

So let’s start with how you find words of life. The truth is that words of death flow naturally out of our sinful hearts. You don’t have to find them, they appear as if by magic. I often think ‘I can’t believe I just said that!’ But words of life aren’t so easy to come by. The Bible says that they can be found in three places.

i) Scripture

The first is Scripture. Proverbs 22 says, ‘17 Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, 18 for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips. (Prov 22:17-18)’ The words that we need to pay attention to and listen to and keep in our hearts and have ready on our lips are these words, the words found in the book of Proverbs, and even more broadly, the words found in all of Scripture. Paul writes, ‘8 …whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8)’ Where do we find these noble, right, pure and lovely and admirable things? In God’s word. If you want to know how to speak words that bring life then you need to read and mediate on Scripture.

ii) Spirit

The second place that we can find words of life is the Holy Spirit. And I know that’s not a place, but a person, but the point is that the only way to overcome our natural tendency to speak words of death is for the Spirit to replace our old nature with a new one. Instead of speaking words that tear people down, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are able to speak words that build people up. In stead of speaking words that harm others, by the Spirit we can speak words of healing. Instead of flattery, or deceitful words, by the Spirit we can speak the truth. Instead of speaking thoughtlessly, the Spirit helps us to speak wisely. Proverbs 16 says that ‘1 …from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue. (Prov 16:1b)’ Words of life come from the Lord as he works in our hearts by his Spirit. Jesus said, ‘63 The Spirit gives life… The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (Jn 6:63)’

iii) Jesus Christ

Which leads us to the third place we can find words of life, and again it’s not so much a place as it is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, ‘24 I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life… he has crossed over from death to life. (Jn 5:24)’ The true words of life aren’t what come out of our mouths, but those that come out of the mouth of our Saviour. Only Jesus’ words are truly able to heal, only Jesus’ words are truly able to bring life. The words that we most need to hear are the ones that declare that through faith in Christ our sins are forgiven, that through Jesus’ death on the cross we are reconciled with God. The words of life are the words of the gospel. That’s exactly what Peter discovered when he said to Jesus, ‘68 …Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (Jn 6:68b)’ There’s nowhere else we can go for words of life then Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul was talking about when he talks about, ‘16 …holding out the word of life… (Phil 2:16a)’ When we share the gospel we are sharing words of life. We find words of life in the Bible, we find them as the Spirit changes our hearts, and most of all we find them in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

b) How to speak them

But how do you speak them. Let’s say you have life giving words to share, how should you share them? According to Proverbs verbally wise people speak in three ways.

i) Honestly

Firstly, they speak honestly. That should be pretty obvious from our first point. If words of death twist the truth then words of life proclaim the truth. If words of death are deceitful then words of life are sincere. Proverbs says, ‘13 Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth. (Prov 16:13)’ And ‘26 An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips. (Prov 24:26)’ In fact, it pays to be honest even if it hurts. In chapter 27 we read, ‘5 Better is open rebuke than hidden love. 6 Wounds from a friend can be trusted… (Prov 27:5-6a)’ What that means is honesty is better than flattery. A real friend speaks what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. That’s what Paul means when he talks about, ‘15 …speaking the truth in love… (Eph 4:15a)’ It’s only when we are honest with people that they can grow. When we speak the truth we speak words of life.

ii) Sparingly

Secondly, life giving words are spoken sparingly. Now that might come as a bit of a surprise. You’d think that if you’ve got something good to say you ought to say it and say it a lot. But Proverbs says a wise person speaks sparingly. For example, ‘12 …a man of understanding holds his tongue. (Prov 11:12b)’ And ‘27 A man of knowledge uses words with restraint… (Prov 17:27a)’ And ‘19 …he who holds his tongue is wise. (Prov 10:19b)’ The real issue is not so much how many words you speak but how carefully you choose them. Whatever you do don’t just blurt out your words.

iii) Slowly

Thirdly, life giving words are spoken slowly. The Apostle James says we should be ‘19 …slow to speak… (Jam 1:19b)’ That doesn’t mean we should speak s l o w l y, but that we should take some time before we speak. Proverbs gives us three reasons to take time before speaking.

- Time to listen

Firstly, it gives us time to listen. For example, ‘13 He who answers before listening— that is his folly and his shame. (Prov 18:13; cf. 29:20)’ And the reasons why you need to take your time is often you haven’t heard the whole story. Later in chapter 18 we read, ‘17 The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. (Prov 18:27)’ Don’t be hasty to speak, wait until you have the facts, take the time to listen. I must admit I really struggle with this one. I’m pretty much trying to finish people’s sentences in my head. If you ever see me going red in the face it’s because I’m trying my hardest to listen.

- Time to think

Next, you take time to speak, so it gives you time to think. Once you have taken the time to listen you need to think about how you will respond. Proverbs 15 says, ‘28 The heart of the righteous weighs its answers… (Prov 15:28)’ In the Hebrew the word translated as ‘weighing your answer’ literally means to mutter. Basically you’re to have a conversation with yourself before you talk to anyone else. Think things through. What is right? What does the Bible say about this? What would Jesus do? Give yourself some time to maybe talk it over with someone else first, not mentioning any names because that would be gossip, but to get the wisdom of others. Take time to think before you speak.

- Time to calm down

Thirdly, when you take time to speak you give time for things to settle down a bit. Being slow to speak gives people the opportunity to calm down. Proverbs 15 says, ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath… (Prov 15:1a)’ The point isn’t just that words of life are gentle, or kind, but that they aren’t spoken in the heat of the moment. Proverbs are often situational, which means they are true when used at the appropriate time, and the appropriate time to speak isn’t when emotions are running high. Paul reminds us ‘26 In your anger do not sin. (Eph 4:26, quoting Ps 4:4)’ The point of taking time is that when you do say something it will be the right thing to say at the right time. Proverbs says, ‘23 A man finds joy in giving an apt reply and how good is a timely word! (Prov 15:23)’

Words of life are words that are honest, the truth spoken in love. They are used sparingly. They are given by those who take the time to listen, to think and to wait for the right moment to speak.

c) How they affect others

So how do words of life affect others? Proverbs describe their affect with four words.

i) Brings healing

Words of life bring healing. Reckless words may do a great deal of harm, ‘18 …but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Prov 12:18b)’ ‘24 Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Prov 16:24)’

ii) Brings Joy

Words of life bring joy. ‘25 …a kind word cheers [people] up. (Prov 12:25)’

iii) Brings Nourishment

Words of life bring nourishment. ‘21 The lips of the righteous nourish many… (Prov 10:21a)’ In the New Testament it talks about how our words should strengthen and encourage and build others up.

iv) Brings Life

In fact, words of life bring life. ‘11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life… (Prov 10:11a)’ And ‘4 The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life… (Prov 15:4a)’ When you speak words of life into the life of another person you can see its effects as it breathes new life into them. Words of life bring healing and joy and strength. People who speak words of life encourage others, and build them up in their faith. They bring comfort in the midst of pain and hope in the midst of struggle. They combat lies with truth, and they take the time to listen and think before giving the right words at the right time. Those who speak words of life bring life to other people.

Are you someone who speaks words of life? Firstly, do you share the gospel with others? Do you point people to the words of Jesus? But do you also use your words to bring healing and joy and strength to others? Do people leave feeling blessed after speaking with you?


3) Living the Words of Life

As we finish up this morning, I just want to say something about living the words of life, because there’s so much more than just speaking the right words.

a) It starts in the heart

Firstly, words of life start in the heart. Proverbs says, ‘23 A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction. (Prov 16:23; cf. 4:20-23)’ Unless you have the life of Christ living in your heart, all your words will just be empty advice. Like we saw in the first sermon, wisdom only flows from a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. A man’s words only bring true life if they flow from the source of all life. Because like Proverbs says elsewhere, ‘24 A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. (Prov 26:24)’ It’s easy to sprout words that sound good, but if they don’t come from the heart they won’t bring life. Jesus says, ‘45 …For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Lk 6:45b)’ Until we come to Jesus, who has the words of life, until our hearts are filled with the Spirit we won’t be able to speak words of life into the lives of others. So this morning I want to encourage you to listen to Jesus Christ, to put your faith in him and invite him to live in your heart, so that you can speak words of life into the lives of others.

b) It overflows into action

And finally, when Jesus lives in our hearts he not only brings life to our words but also to our actions. That’s what I mean when I talk about living out our words. Our words need to overflow into our behaviour. The book of Proverbs warns about the dangers of ‘mere talk. (Prov 14:23)’ The Apostle John picks up that same idea when he says, ‘18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 Jn 3:18)’ And James says, ‘16 If one of you says to [someone in need], “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (Jam 2:16)’ The point of both James and John is that what we say needs to be backed up by what we do. Don’t just speak words of life, live them out.


As I close this morning I want to ask you what words do you need to stop speaking? Whether it’s gossip, or flattery, or deceitful, or thoughtless words, they lead to death, they tear people down, they hurt and wound, they bring pain and trouble. If that’s you I want to encourage you to confess and trust Jesus’ words on the cross, that ‘It is finished!’ That the payment for your sinful words has been paid in full. And I want to encourage you read God’s word, and by the power of the Spirit to begin speaking words of life – words that are honest and thoughtful, words that bring healing and joy and strength and life. Remember, ‘21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Prov 18:21)’ May we be known as people who speak words of life. Amen.

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