RPM, Volume 15, Number 28, July 7 to July 13, 2013

Sweet Talker

Proverbs 16:20-24

By D. Marion Clark


This morning our proverbs lead us to reflect on the most powerful weapon in the world, more powerful than military weapons, than money, than any authority. It is the power of the tongue. Nothing has more power to do good or to do harm.


20 Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good,
and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.

This proverb presents a recurring theme in Proverbs — a mark of a wise and godly person is being a good learner. Just in the chapter and a half that we have covered, there have been six proverbs that refer to this theme:

A fool despises his father's instruction,
but whoever heeds reproof is prudent (15:5).

A scoffer does not like to be reproved;
he will not go to the wise (15:12).

The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouths of fools feed on folly (15:14).

The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise (15:31).

Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence (15:32).

How much better to get wisdom than gold!
To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver (16:16).

The proverb that most closely parallels this proverb is 13:13: Whoever despises the word bring destruction on himself, but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.

The principle is simple: the way to succeed in life is to be a good learner. The second half of the proverb clues us into what type of word is meant: blessed is he who trusts in the LORD. The wisdom/instruction/word of Proverbs is the "fear of the Lord" wisdom, that which comes from knowing God and how God would have us live. The one who gives attention to this kind of word, and who trusts this wisdom, will know the good life. The problem with the fool is that he doesn't want to learn, nor does he want to trust the Lord.

Why? It may be that he fears what he will have to give up or take up. He is comfortable being lazy; he likes the sins that he indulges in. The wisdom of Proverbs and Scripture do not encourage such behavior. It may be that fears he will fail or will be let down. Maybe he doesn't have the ability to stay on the straight path and trying to do would expose his weakness. Maybe it will turn out that God (whom he cannot see) doesn't come through. He leaves his old life only to find the new has more troubles. That does happen. There is a lot of risk to walking along the path that the wisdom of God would have one to go. By definition, walking by faith is walking without clear sight. But this proverb teaches that the one who will walk by faith in the Lord will find what is truly good.

21 The wise of heart is called discerning,
and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.

Here is our "sweet talker." A wise person will be recognized for his wisdom, and, because he is wise, he will know how to speak in a persuasive manner. Our sweet talker is a wise guy.

Do you want to be regarded as a wise person? Do you want to be recognized for your insight? Do you want to be the person who, when you speak, people listen? There are two routes you can go.

The first route to take is to seek wisdom. Seek to understand right from wrong. Seek to understand God and his ways. Seek to understand the human heart. The more you understand, the wiser you will be, and the wiser you are the more respect you will gain. You will become one who is trusted, whose opinion is respected. This will happen because of what you know, but also because your wisdom guides how you speak. Proverbs speak of this.

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly (15:1-2).

A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit (15:4).

The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools (15:7)

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is! (15:23).

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things (15:28).

A king's wrath is a messenger of death, and wise man will appease it (16:14).

The wise person knows what to say and how to say it because he understands the human heart and how different persons respond to instruction. The wise person understands how God would have him speak, that it is important to God to build up others with the truth, not blow them away with it. The wise person gives attention to his tongue, knowing when to speak and when to keep silent.

The easier route in which to gain influence is to take courses on speaking and salesmanship. There are excellent books and seminars that teach how to sell yourself. The classic book is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Public TV has built its success on featuring financial, health, and even spiritual gurus who are excellent communicators and have built successful careers of influence. As the best salespersons know, cultivating the ability to speak in a winsome manner paves the way for success.

One can counterfeit wisdom. This is not a secret, and, indeed, has become a science in the marketing and political world. Knowing how to use words and catch phrases, knowing how to use the inflexion of one's voice, how to use dramatic pause, body language, and so on — such knowledge can turn someone into a sweet talker without the wisdom. All of us at some time have fallen prey to such sweet talkers.

It is not wrong to learn techniques of speaking. A wise person make take advantage of such things to improve himself, knowing how to draw wisdom from them. But nothing replaces wisdom itself, and nothing stands the test of time like wisdom. Remember this. We can be anxious to have people acknowledge us for our wisdom, and, indeed, make fools of ourselves trying to impress others. Wisdom has a way of coming to the surface to be seen. The counterfeit wisdom of others might take the spotlight for awhile, but real wisdom will be seen eventually, if not by the majority, at least by others who have wisdom as well. You will be able to persuade those who have the ears to hear and win the respect of those whose opinions are themselves respectable.

22 Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it,
but the instruction of fools is folly.

The "good sense" spoken of is good common sense, and certainly it is a fountain of life to the one who possesses it. Good sense is what makes one take heed to instruction and to detect the wise from the foolish. It puts knowledge to practical use and makes sense out of information.

The opposite is true for the fool. This second line about the fool can be taken in one of two ways. One, as is represented by the ESV, KJV, and NKJ, is that instructing or punishing fools is fruitless. Unlike people with good sense who profit from instruction, fools will not learn, no matter how they are taught. The other sense, as indicated by the NIV, is that the folly of fools brings them their own punishment. Whereas the good sense of the wise is a fountain of life to them, the folly of fools is their punishment. The word for "instruction" could be translated as "correction" or "punishment."

Whatever the case, the point is this — it is what a person has within him that determines what he gains from life's lessons. Two individuals can attend the same classes, have the same parents, and be given the same opportunities. The one with good sense will learn and benefit from what he is taught and experiences; the foolish one will not benefit and even pervert the lessons so that they are harmful to him. The one with good sense credits others for what he has learned and accepts responsibility for his mistakes. The foolish one congratulates himself for his cleverness and blames others for his errors.

In the western novel Shane, a farmer and his wife discuss hiring Shane as a farm hand. By his dress and manner they know that farming is not his line of work, and the wife comments that Shane probably doesn't know a lot about farm work. Her husband, who has sized up Shane as a man of integrity, replies, "What a man knows isn't important. It's what he is that counts." Knowledge is important, of course, but the farmer understood that knowledge can be learned; what matters is the person having the spirit to learn.

23 The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.

Simply put, the wise person thinks before he speaks. Literally, he instructs his mouth. Our mouths could use instructing. We create trouble and make troubles worse by the careless way in which we speak. In his book The Peacemaker, Ken Sande has an excellent chapter that addresses this issue entitled "Speak the Truth in Love." Here is some of the more common injudicious speech.

Exaggeration: "No one ever helps." "You are always creating problems."

Emotional Outburst: "That's a terrible idea!" "No, we can't do that!"

Interruption: This is interrupting a person as he is speaking, which then conveys to him that you are not listening to him.

Uninformed Opinion: This is giving an opinion immediately upon hearing a matter that you know little about. It is especially harmful when the opinion is about another person.

Rudeness: "That's a stupid remark!" "Shut up!"

Negativity: Usually having something negative to say. It is particularly hurtful when directed at an individual.

Gossip: We are guilty of this more often than we think. It is passing on information not needed and speaking about others (including joking about them).

Sarcasm: This can have a particularly brutal impact on the other person.

Silence: What's wrong with silence? Isn't it better to keep quiet than speak injudiciously. Certainly, but even better is to speak words that really communicate. A lot of miscommunication occurs when people will not speak encouraging words when they are called for.

The list could go on, but it makes me grumpy thinking about them! The wise person understands the power of words and thus thinks through how to use them for good and avoid using them to bring harm. The best commentary on speech is found in James 3:1-12: Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (NIV).

We can sense the frustration that James feels over the sins of the tongue. We should not be sinning with our tongues, and yet, who can perfectly control our speech? It is impossible to do perfectly. All the more reason, then, to exercise wisdom in speaking.

24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

How did going through the list of injudicious words feel, especially the examples given? Not too pleasant, I would think, especially if they made you think of examples that have been said to you. But gracious words — they are like a honeycomb. Let's dwell on them for awhile.

Complement: This is a word we often deny we want, but we certainly do enjoy when we receive it. Isn't it nice to receive an honest complement, especially to get one totally unlooked for? "You really look nice today." "You made a great contribution." "That is a great job you did."

Encouragement: "You can do it; I believe in you." "You're going to be okay." "That's the way to try."

Comfort: How good it feels to hear a sympathetic voice when we are hurting. "I'm here for you." "I'm so sorry." "I'm praying for you."

Helpful: "Can you use a hand with that?" "Let's think through this together."

Good humored: Sometimes the best thing we can hear when we are down or worried or angry is a good humored remark. There is nothing like a little laugh to perk us up again and help us to see that the end of the world has not come.

Positive: In most bad events and discouraging news, there is something positive. How heartening when someone helps us to see it. There is a gain from what we are going through and we are going to be better in the end.

Attentive: "How are you doing?" spoken honestly, is a meaningful question. "You look like you… could use a friend, could use some cheering up, are new here." "You seem to have reservations about what's going on." It's nice to have someone take notice when we are feeling reserved.

Listening: "Tell me what you want to say; I'm listening." "Help me understand what you are feeling." "Do you mean…?" It is satisfying to talk with someone who is foremost trying to hear what we are saying.

Thanking: "Thank you." "Thanks for helping me." "Thanks for your hard work." "Thanks for listening." How many times have our temper or depression been wiped away by the simple remark of thanks? I've been resentful, angry with persons, who come up to me and give a heartfelt thanks; all of a sudden, I switch to thinking how nice they are.

Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweet and healthful to the soul and body. They have tremendous power to change the course of a person's life for the good, to rescue people from despair, and to bring great blessing. You don't have to be rich nor powerful; you don't have to have degrees or be eloquent; just be gracious and you will significantly touch the lives of all kinds of people.


There are several responses you can make to these proverbs. One is to say, "But what about…" What about complements that are not genuine? What about sugar-coating real problems? It is true that gracious words can be spoken hypocritically. Just as the best way to speak influential words is to learn wisdom, so the best way to develop gracious speech is to learn grace. As you understand the grace of God in your life, so you will become a person of grace.

Another attitude is the one that is popular today. What matters is telling what's really on my mind. No, that is not what matters, not according to Scripture. Our minds are polluted with sin. We harbor anger we have no right to have. We carry baggage of sensitive feelings, prejudice, hard hearts, and more that make speaking our minds a dangerous weapon. What matters is speaking the truth in love. Speaking the truth does not mean saying whatever we feel. Indeed, it may mean that we don't say what we feel precisely because it may not be the truth. Speaking in love means that we have the other's best interest at heart and not the need merely to get something off our chests. Being gracious is much more important than speaking our minds.

Another response may be, "This is so hard!" If you have that response, you are closest to what God wants. Yes, speaking gracious, judicious words that influence people positively; avoiding words that hurt and make situations worse — as James says, it is impossible to do perfectly. All the more reason to make how you speak a priority issue in your life. All the more reason to study grace. By grace you have been saved. By grace God continues to sustain you and built you up. By grace he forgives your sins.

Learn grace and you will speak gracious words that bring life to body and soul.

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