Do words hurt or help? Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Churchill said, “We are masters of unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” Alan Turing said, “I believe at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
Derrick Kidner observes in his commentary that three of the seven abominations in Proverbs 6:16-19 are examples of misused words. Namely, a lying tongue, a false witness, and one who spreads strife. Now, if you look at the book of Proverbs as a body of literature, it’s incalculable how many issues and attributions exist regarding how words hurt or help.
The Power of Words
Proverbs 13:3 says, “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” This passage is a parallel. We can observe the power of words in two qualities, the impact it has and the impression it leaves. Think of being hit as the impact and what’s left behind as the impression that remains. The phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” should replace the word never with deeply. All through life, we’re dealing with the impact of the power of words.
Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one who speaks rationally like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, But a good word makes it glad.”
“Everyone is under encouraged; encouragement goes a long way, but the person who says the encouraging thing makes all the difference. If someone you respect or someone that knows you very well says something encouraging, you hang on to every word.” Flattery and self-esteem, unfortunately, are the opposite of this. The world’s assessment needs to be set aside by believers. As parents, we should encourage our children’s compassion, service, patience, and initiative. The fact that they’re willing to help is an overture that they’re growing as believers in Jesus Christ.
Proverbs 6:14 says, “Who with perversity in his heart continually devises evil, Who spreads strife.” We move from impact now to leaving an impression. Words leave a mark. The word perversity here is also translated as sin many times and is interchangeable. Lamentations 4:6 says, “The iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the sin of Sodom….” The word sin is the same root word, perverse.
The Weakness of Words
Words are weak in several senses. First of all, words do not substitute for deeds. Words alone mean nothing unless it’s attached to action. Proverbs 14:23 says, “In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty.” One commentator said we should hang this in every conference room.
Secondly, words can alter facts. We live in a fact-check-obsessed society. Even the best rhetoric cannot stand against facts. Third, words cannot force a response. Just because you say something doesn’t mean it can make a person respond. Proverbs 17:10 says, “Rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding Than a hundred blows into a fool.” There’s not an authority figure on earth that doesn’t understand that.
If a person is impenetrable in their conscience, it doesn’t matter how much you literally or metaphorically beat them over the head. But, a rebuke goes deeper into one who has an understanding.
The Best of Words
How do we recognize the best of words? Number one, they will be honest. Proverbs 16:13 says, “Righteous lips are the delight of kings, And he who speaks right is loved.” This is a two-way street. When the king speaks righteously, we love to hear it. When he hears righteous things, he loves to hear them.
Secondly, the best words are few. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” In the interest of self-preservation, the less said, the better. You need to restrain your lips because sometimes less is more. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise.”
Third, good words will be calm words. Proverbs 17:27-28 says, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he’s considered prudent.”
Finally, good words are apt. This comes straight out of Proverbs 15:23, which says, “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word!” Proverbs 25:11 says, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances.”
Finding The Best Words
How do we find these words? Number one, you study. We see this in Proverbs 15:28, which says, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” You don’t have to know everything right away. You can stop and take a time-out emotionally. A righteous heart says, how do I answer this?
Number two, character helps us keep an eye out for good words. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow springs of life.” So there’s this tension in scripture where the heart is deceitful and wicked, and no one can know it, and there’s a side of the heart that can be good.
“The ultimate height of Proverbs rise from the clarity that what a man says springs from what he is, and it will be worth what he is worth.” In this section, Derrick Kidner concludes, ‘It’s only one step away from our Lord’s remark’ in Matthew 12:34, “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” When you and I speak rationally, it shows our character. Speaking kindly shows our compassion. When we think and pause and take a moment, it shows that we’re pondering how to respond.
Catch up on the rest of the Proverbs series here.
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