Words and Tongue - Proverbs Commentary

Solomon viewed our conversation as coming from a deep invisible source."The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11, 16:22). As Jesus said to the woman of Samaria, "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:14). The alternative to a spring from the wisdom of God is a fountain spewing out our natural stupidity. As James puts it, "Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?" (James 3:11). Jesus used a similar image of a tree and its fruit, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit" (Matthew 7:18). And he explained "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure" (Matthew 12:34-35). Jesus also said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matthew 5:8). The reason may be that when our conversation comes from a heart full of the wisdom of God our words will not prevent us seeing what God is saying and doing. It is spoken and unspoken words from an impure heart that cloud our vision.

That is why Solomon stressed "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (4:23). He had learned that a merely human effort to mind our words (keep our tongue in check) is futile. If wisdom (the Holy Spirit) has come into our heart our words will take care of themselves.

So Solomon's proverbs give us a series of strong contrasts. "The tongue of the righteous is choice silver (filigree); the mind of the wicked is of little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense " (10:20-21). " The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off" (10:31). In these verses the word "righteous" does not mean a person's self-controlled morality, but the fruit of wisdom (the Holy Spirit) in the heart.

The contrast is also obvious in the effect we have on others. "Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (12:18). In any place of work, committee, social gathering, or church gathering there are people who wound others by their words, and others whose presence heals the hurts of sensitive people.

There is an interesting reference to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit" (15:4). Adam and Eve were allowed to eat freely of this tree, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was perverse and deadly (Genesis 2:17). Eating from the evil tree resulted in exclusion from the life-giving tree (3:22). As God had said, "in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:17) - this was not the death of the body, since Adam and Eve continued alive and had children, but it was the spiritual death of being "dead through trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1-2). Original sin is not a merely law court condemnation, but rather an exclusion from the very life of the Holy Spirit of God.

Which suggests that the tree of life in the Garden of Evil is already the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which we identified in our previous study. And in the last chapter of the Bible there is a picture of a river flowing through the middle of the city, and "on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit." The fruit of these trees "is for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:1-2). This pictures every nation bringing its glory and its rich culture into the city, but the ugly words that have spoiled it on earth will have been perfected in love. This again shows that the same Holy Spirit of Wisdom, which Solomon had experienced when he was young, and who sweetens us in this life will give heaven its perfection of love and joy.

And happily in heaven we will be spared the nonsense, complaints and commercials, and verbal diarrhea of our fast talking world. Which suggests that one of the joys of heaven will be enjoying the wisdom of those whose hearts have been perfected in love.

We can also see how the bad use of words coming out of impure hearts explains much of the misery that blights our cities here in this world. "With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbors, and by knowledge the righteous are delivered" (11:9). "By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked. Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent. A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence" (11:11-13). "The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil" (15:28). Imagine what our city could be like if we could be freed from those who hurt and destroy others by their words, those who belittle others, and those who engage in malicious gossip

But wisdom is also very practical for living our life in the here and now. In a couple of memorable verses Solomon sums up three ways in which heart wisdom controls our language. "The heart of the wise makes their speech judicious, and adds persuasiveness to their lips. Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body" (16:23-24). It does not take long to recognize a judicious (sensible, balanced, reliable, prudent) person. This is someone whose judgment we trust.

When a person's heart is a fountain of wisdom, we are persuaded by their common sense (16:23), and are willing to follow their advice. The world is full of fast talkers who will sell us something we do not want, but the experience of recognizing some genuinely wise persons should keep us from being easily taken in by the counterfeits..

And we all know how we would prefer to avoid the conversation of people who irk us, but we delight in the sweetness of the words of a really wise person (16:24). Instead of merely empty chatter, we are fed, encouraged, enlightened, healed by what he or she shares with us. And we are warned that "A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends" (16:28).

In view of such warnings we can be tempted to become clams. We take the proverb to heart, "Even fools who keep silent are considered wise" (17:28) which might suggest that we will make a fool of ourselves when we open our mouth to talk. But the silent treatment is no solution, and it is very hard to live with (as every married woman knows). It is only by letting the Holy Spirit cleanse our heart that we can be happy sociable persons whose words delight others by the very Wisdom of God.

The Holy Spirit never produces boring people.

Which is why I rejoice in the words that begin our communion service. "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name" (Canadian Anglican Book of Alternative Services).

Chapter 5  ..... Work and Laziness