Please open your Bible at Proverbs 15. We are continuing our series on the Way of Wisdom. Since Christ is our wisdom, the way of wisdom is always the way of Christ. So this series is really about what it looks like to be a disciple or follower of Jesus. To follow the way of wisdom is to follow the way of Christ.
We have looked at the way of wisdom in relation to friends and family, and today we come to the important subject of what it means to walk in the wisdom of Christ with regard to our words. There are more proverbs on what we say than on any other subject.
The message today is very simple: why, what and how. Why your words matter, what your words should reflect, and how your words can be blessed.
1. Why Your Words Matter
a. The effect of your words on others
Death and life are in the power of the tongue – Proverbs 18:21
What we say, that is the tongue, is the means by which we bring the greatest help or harm to others.
Death in the power of the tongue.
Your tongue is a weapon that can wound another person deeply. If you carry around a weapon that can wound, you have to carry it with great caution and care. Remember that you carry such a weapon with you every day. Your tongue is a weapon that can bring deadly wounds.
Rash words are like sword thrusts… – Proverbs 12:18
Notice this analogy to the weapon that can kill. We talk about ‘cutting remarks,” and Proverbs tells us that words just blurted out are like sword thrusts which can bring deep wounds. Some of you know the power of this because someone has said something that has deeply wounded you, and it has stayed with you: ‘You’ll never amount to anything.‘ or something of this sort.
Death is in the power of the tongue, and our Lord Jesus speaks about this with great clarity in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus quoted the sixth commandment: ‘Do not murder,’ and perhaps of all the commandments this is the one that we think, “well, at least I’m not close to that.” But Jesus made it clear that the sixth commandment includes death by words.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire, – Matthew 5:21-22
The original word for “fool” Jesus used was “raca,” a term of belittling, insult, demeaning, contempt and abuse. It meant, “you’re useless,” and Jesus warned whoever speaks to another person like that will be in danger of the fires of hell.
Now that would have certainly gotten the attention of the crowd. When Jesus says that the meaning of the sixth commandment includes death by words, you will recognize how this commandment hits a little closer to home than what you may once have thought. Abusive speech is an offense for which a person is accountable to God. It is a violation of the sixth commandment that puts a person in danger of the very fire of hell. Death is in the power of the tongue.
Life in the power of the tongue
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. – Proverbs 12:18
Here is the extraordinary thing about our words and tongue; they not only can do great harm, but also great good.
Larry Crabb has written a helpful book on the power of encouragement. He tells about how as a youngster, he developed “a thoroughly annoying and humiliating problem with stuttering.” He had particular difficulty with the letters ‘l ‘and ‘p,’ and since his name was Larry and he went to Plymouth school in Pennsylvania, this caused him a great deal of trouble.
He describes how the church he grew up in had a time of open prayer, and one Sunday morning Larry found the courage to lead a public prayer for the first time as a teenager.
Filled less with worship than with nervousness, I found my theology becoming confused to the point of heresy. I remember thanking the Father for hanging on the cross, and praising Christ for triumphantly bringing the Spirit from the grave. Stuttering throughout, I finally thought of the word Amen,… said it, and sat down. I recall staring at the floor too embarrassed to look around, and solemnly vowing never again to pray or speak aloud in front of a group. When the service was over I darted for the door… but I was not quick enough. An older Christian man named Jim Dunbar intercepted me, put his arm on my shoulder, and cleared his throat to speak. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Here it comes, oh well, just endure it and then get to the car.’
“Larry,” he said, “there’s one thing I want you to know: Whatever you do for the Lord, I’m behind you one thousand percent.” And then he walked away. Even as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears… Those words were life words. They had power. They reached deep into my being. My resolve never again to speak in public weakened instantly. 
Your words matter. They can wound, or they can heal. They can harm, or they can help.
b. The effect of your words on yourself
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits. – Proverbs 18:21
What you say will certainly have an affect for good or ill in the lives of other people, but in the same way, the words you say will also have an affect on your own soul for good or for ill as well. What you say comes out of you, but what you say goes down into you as well. Words go into the stomach (Proverbs 18:20). Cursing and raging go deep down into your own soul, and they will make your soul sick. In a very profound sense, you will eat your own words. Proverbs is saying that we always eat our own words. Our words not only go into the ear of another person, but that they also go down into the soul of the one who speaks.
What brings help and blessing to others will bring help and blessing to you, and the one who curses others will will bring harm upon themselves. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you’ (Matthew 7:2). Speaking destruction to others will bring destruction to you, and speaking life into the lives of others will be life-giving to you. This is just another reason why it is not only right to forgive others but why it is wise to forgive others. To hold a grudge is to harm yourself.
c. The effect of your words before God
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,
– Matthew 12:36
God will hold us accountable not only for what we did but also for what we said.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful gift but also an awesome responsibility. “People will give an account for ever careless word they speak!” (Matthew 12:36), and God knows every word that everyone one of us has ever spoken. David says, “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely” (Psalm 139:4 NIV).
From time to time I have had the opportunity of doing an interview on the radio. The normal format is that the radio station calls, you pick up the phone, have a few words with the program host while some music is playing, and then the host says, “we have thirty seconds to go, and then we will be live on the air.”
On one occasion that I will never forget, I picked up the phone and the voice said ‘Hi this is Jim (or whoever) from such and such radio station, how are you?’ ‘O fine’ I said, ‘it has been a busy weekend; now what are we going to talk about today?’ He said, ‘Well I’d like to talk about (whatever),’ and I said, ‘That’s fine. The main thing I’d like to get to would be…’
Well, he just kept going, and I began to wonder, when is this interview going to start? Then there was an awful growing feeling in the pit of my stomach: ‘Its already started! It started the minute I picked up the phone! I’m rambling on and there and thousands of people listening!’
Here is something far more serious. Every word you or I say is heard by almighty God. Every word you say in private, every word you write online, every tweet you ever make or comment you add is known and weighed by almighty God. God holds us accountable not only for what we do but also for what we say, and when you see this, you will know how much you need a Savior. This is why your words really matter.
2. What your words should reflect
There are more proverbs about our words than any other subject, so what I have done is to group them together, and then use them to frame four prayers with regard to our words. Things I would ask of God with regards to my speaking, and things that I hope you would ask of God for your speaking too.
a. Lord, Help me to speak with restraint
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. – Proverbs 15:28
Notice the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Words pour out from the mouth of the wicked instinctively, but the righteous ponders thoughtfully how to answer. This is radically countercultural. Self-expression is a leading idol of our culture. It’s very common to hear people say, ‘I must say what I think. I must say what I feel!’ Must you? Must you? What disaster would befall you if you didn’t?
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back. – Proverbs 29:11
Notice this important distinction. It is the fool who gives full vent to his spirit, who just lays it out there. But the wise person knows how to exercise restraint. This word recurs elsewhere in the book of Proverbs. Here are a couple examples.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding – Proverbs 17:27
When we get heated, our words grow more and more numerous while becoming less and less clear.
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent, – Proverbs 10:19
Here is a way to pray when we get heated: ‘Lord, help me think before I speak.’ This is a mark of a righteous person. We all know less is often more when it comes to our words.
Do you see a man who is hasty in his words?
There is more hope for a fool than for him, – Proverbs 29:20
Someone in our congregation once told me how when she was a student she became engaged, and looking back, she now sees that if she had married this man, it would have been a disaster. But while she did not see that at the time, her father did.
One night her father came into her room and said, “Honey, just be sure that everything you see in him is what you want to live with for the rest of your life.” Then he said, “I love you,” and left. By the end of the week his daughter had ended the relationship, and some time later she met the man to whom she has been happily married for many years. Many fathers would have been tempted to pour out a great speech that went on and on, but this father had wisdom. Whoever retrains his words has knowledge, and whoever retrains his lips is prudent.
Lord, help me to speak with restraint. This is wisdom.
b. Lord, Help me to speak with humility
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips, – Proverbs 27:2
In Luke 18 Jesus told a story about a Pharisee who went into the Temple, but when he spoke to God, all he did was sing his own praises. Don’t ever sing your own praises. Making a great deal of all that you have done, and all that you have accomplished, and all that you are. Let another praise you.
Lord, help me speak with humility.
c. Lord, Help me to speak with wisdom
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is! – Proverbs 15:23
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver – Proverbs 25:11
The right word, spoken at the right time and in the right way has great power.
The right word spoken in the right way at the right time is something beautiful and of great value. It is like a work of art. Here a craftsman has depicted apples of gold, and he has placed the gold in settings of silver. What makes this a work of art is that the gold is surrounded by the silver. It is the two together that makes this the work of art that it is. If you cut out the silver setting, the gold apples would look bare, and if you cut out the gold apples, the silver setting would look like craters on the moon! The point of this analogy is that the apples of gold and the setting of silver belong together. The fact that they are together is what makes them beautiful.
In the same way, what you say and how you say it belong together. These things together, the right words fitly spoken, are of great power and beauty. What you say may be right, but if the way you say it is harsh, it will do no good. But the right word, spoken at the right time and in the right way is a thing of great beauty.
Lord, let me speak with this kind of wisdom.
d. Lord, Help me to speak with grace
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body. – Proverbs 16:24
A soft answer turns away wrath – Proverbs 15:1
And a gentle tongue is a tree of life (v4).
Gracious words are pure (v26)
Don’t ever fall for the idea that soft, gentle, or gracious means weak.
With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone, – Proverbs 25:15
Try to take this in: a soft tongue, a gentle tongue, a gracious tongue, is stronger than bone! Gracious kind and gentle words are not weak, they are powerful. These words are very strong, and the reality is that venting has little effect. You can rage, but little will be achieved. Man’s anger does not accomplish God’s will, but grace does! Grace can change a heart of stone.
Just think about your own life. Christian, how did God change your heart of stone? Was it not His grace that won you? Was it not His kindness, was it not the glimpse of his love for you, that drew you to Him? God’s kindness lead us to repentance (Romans 2). You want to lead someone to repentance, show them kindness!
Saul of Tarsus, a man as hard as nail, breathed out threats and slaughter. His heart was like stone, but his heart was changed. How? “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace was not without effect” (1 Corinthians 15:10, NIV).
David says to the Lord, “Your gentleness has made me great” (Psalm 18:35). It is the gentleness of God that has made you what you are. It was the patience and kindness of God that led you to repentance, and since you know that from your own experience, let this be reflective of in your own words and the demeanor that you have in your own life.
Let your speech always be gracious… so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:6
Lord, help me to speak with restraint, humility, wisdom and grace.
This is the ‘why’ and the ‘what;’ now the ‘how.’ How can you do this? How can you be a person who speaks words of life to other people, and how can I bring blessings into the lives of others?
3. How your words can be blessed
a. An Open Ear
i. Listening to the words of others
If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame – Proverbs 18:13
If you want to bring blessing to others, you have to listen to them before you speak. We all have done this where we have given an answer before having heard the question.
Know this, my beloved brothers:
let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger – James 1:19
The open ear means not only that we are cultivating the ability to listen to the words of others, but also that we are practicing what it means to listen to the Word of God.
ii. Listening to the Word of God
Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
and apply your heart to my knowledge,
for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you
if all of them are ready on your lips, – Proverbs 22:17-18
These two verse both begin with the ear and end with the lips. Having wisdom on your lips begins with opening your ear. Now, ‘the words of the wise’ referred to here by Solomon are the very words of Scripture, of which the whole of the book of Proverbs is part. Solomon is telling his son, ‘Here is how you get wisdom: You get wisdom drip-fed into you as you listen to the Word of God.’
The way to a wise tongue begins with an open ear. This is taken up very beautifully by Isaiah who spoke prophetically about the Lord Jesus Christ:
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear… – Isaiah 50:4-5
Wouldn’t you love to know how to sustain with a word the person who is weary—to be able to say what is helpful to the person who is weighed down? How did Isaiah get this gift? Isaiah says, God wakens me and opens my ear. The prophet had a morning-by-morning appointment with God—a daily-discipline of hearing the word of God and hiding it in his heart, and this is what made him able to speak a word that would sustain the weary.
Alec Motyer very rightly and helpfully says, ‘the morning by morning appointment is… standard curriculum for all disciples.’
b. A Pure Heart
The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips – Proverbs 16:23
The heart of a righteous person makes his speech what it is. The words we speak always reveal the state of our hearts: An anxious heart produces anxious words; an angry heart produces angry words; a grace-filled heart produces grace-filled words, and a patient heart produced patient words. Jesus says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
James tells us that no human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8), and the reason is that no human being can change the human heart. Only God can do that. God changes the tongue by changing the heart, and that is why David said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
Notice the pattern: The ear teaches the heart (Proverbs 22:17; Isaiah 50:4), and the heart teaches the mouth (Proverbs 16:23).
c. A Cleansed Mouth
When Isaiah saw a vision of God, he found himself overwhelmed by the sheer brightness and purity of God’s holiness. He felt his own sin as he had never felt it before, and he said, ‘I am ruined,’ (Isaiah 6:5). The sins he was most aware of were his sins of speech.
I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips – Isaiah 6:5
Isaiah was a prophet. He spoke the Word of God, and thus they were the organ of his public ministry. His ability to speak well was his greatest gift. But Isaiah discovered that sin hides not only in our darkest failures; it also clings to our greatest gifts. So, Isaiah knew that if sin inhabits even my greatest gifts, Isaiah knew ‘I am ruined!’ But do you remember what happened next? An angel picked up a burning coal from the fire on altar of God, and then flew over to Isaiah and pressed the coal from the altar onto Isaiah’s lips!
In the school I attended, if a boy used bad language, he sent to the restroom to wash out his mouth out with soup. I don’t know if it ever acted as a deterrent, but I do know this: Soap can’t cleanse a man or a woman’s mouth, but Jesus can. When Jesus died on the altar of the cross, he died for all of our sins, including the sins of our lips.
In Isaiah’s vision, God’s provision for sin touched Isaiah at precisely the place that he needed it most, and then God called Isaiah to go out and speak.
See this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. – Isaiah 6:7 (NIV)
What Jesus accomplished on the cross for sin can bring cleansing to your lips too. The open ear changes the heart, and through faith in Jesus Christ there is a cleansing of the mouth. When you have an open ear, then by God’s grace you too may be able to go and speak, and the words that we speak will not fall on deaf ears, but will be words that bring life.
 Larry Crabb, Encouragement: The Key To Caring, p.23-25
© Colin S. Smith
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