Sometimes, ”Just sit down and shut up” really is the best advice to someone who will receive it in the right spirit. That is part of the message I am receiving as I read through the marvelous book of Proverbs. Have you, too, noticed how many of the Proverbs have to do with speaking; what we say, how we say it, and even whether we should say it at all? There is a reason for this. This is a book of wisdom. Our human nature makes us far too ready to “shoot off our mouths,” as they say. (No pun intended, well maybe it was… 😊) And God’s word goes to great lengths to admonish us about this inborn tendency to evil.
In our modern era, words have proliferated in ways unimaginable through most of history. The Internet allows wagging tongues to voice themselves in ever-increasing forums – without even having to be physically present. And people are quick to hide in this Virtual Anonymity to voice their often mean-spirited opinions. Although this particular manifestation is modern – this is not a new phenomenon.
“The Tongue” as it is called in the book of James, is a big Bible theme. It is not unique to the book of Proverbs. Speaking is given a variety of metaphorical depictions to help us think about how serious the consequences can be of the wrong words, spoken at the wrong time, with foolish, harmful or selfish intent. James tells us the tongue is like an uncontrolled fire. It is like riding a horse without reins and a bit to steer. It is like floating in a ship without a rudder. James 3:3-6 It is more difficult to control than the wildest of animals. v.7-8 It is a fountain that is able to pour out both fresh and brackish water. v.11 It is a genetic anomaly of a plant that produces genetically impossible fruit. v.12 With it we bless God and curse each other. v.9 It is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” v.8 I’m thinking if we thought of it more in these ways, we might be better at controlling it?! Perhaps James was meditating on the Proverbs about the tongue when he penned these metaphors. Proverbs mostly uses the metaphor of a fool and his manifold ways of speaking… well… foolishly.
Let me draw your attention to the “Tongue Proverbs” in just our chapter for today (Proverbs 18). Perhaps as a good exercise, you can heighten your awareness as you continue to look for them as we read through the rest of the book. Wise people carefully consider this kind of advice, and they act upon it.
- Verse 1 – Teaches that “he who separates himself – quarrels with all sound wisdom”. This one makes me think of Judah who “departed from his brethren” and backslid in faith. Genesis 38 To me, this is folks who justify to themselves (and others) the idea of living like an island to themselves. The Bible teaches us (backwards and forwards) that we are called in community.
- Verse 2 – Fools always have to speak their minds. Many of us do not ever rein-ourselves-in from this version of tongue wagging. Ecclesiastes says “there is a time to speak, and a time to remain silent.” Eccl. 3:7 We need to heed the second half of this verse.
- Verse 4 – Words come from our hearts. This is possibly the verse Jesus was thinking of when he stated, “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Matthew 12:34 Wisdom bubbles out of the wise. Guess what bubbles out of fools?
- Verse 6 – Fools use words to create conflict. And they get caught in the web of it. Fools like this pattern of conflict.
- Verse 7 – The tongue is the downfall of many people in myriad ways; the business world, relationships, family ties, prejudice toward strangers, conflict resolution etc.
- Verse 8 – Gossip is attractive, hard to avoid and deeply damaging. The more it is indulged the more it becomes part of one’s fleshly character.
- Verse 13 – If you speak before you listen, you are a stupid, shameful fool. Pretty clear, huh? Listen first!
- Verse 17 – Persuasive words do not equate to righteousness or justice. Discerning people get to the heart of a matter.
- Verse 19 – Corresponds to verse 6. If verbal conflict/offense is a pattern – you lose important relationships – sometimes forever.
- Verse 20 & 21 – The tongue is a powerful force. Those who use it to build and bless, reap physical and emotional health. The person who uses their tongue to harm, slander and lie can kill others (figuratively and sometimes literally – including themselves?).
- Verse 23 – With power and wealth, we can become prideful in the way we speak – a tendency that must be guarded against.
These are condensed thoughts about the proverbs concerning the tongue in just one chapter of this fine book. I challenge each of us to try to think more mindfully about the way we speak – to others and even to ourselves (in thought).
Let’s not be fools! There are so many ways we can lead ourselves down dangerous paths when it comes to our words. And we don’t even stop to consider patterns, habits or mannerisms (that we may have adopted) as possibly sinful in this way. That phrase James uses – “a restless evil” – is quite poignant. It’s like we are not happy until we find ways to poke, jab and harm others (think sarcasm, gossip and mean-spirited humor). Let us strive rather to be people that are:
…Quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.
In my more blunt introduction, I described this as people that are humble and ready to “sit down and shut up.” You see – that is a way that even a fool can tame his restless evil:
Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.