RPM, Volume 16, Number 27, June 29 to July 5, 2014

The Power of the Tongue

Proverbs 15:1-5

By D. Marion Clark


From now through summer we will explore the wisdom of the proverbs as found in chapters 15 and 16. You may wonder why I have chosen chapters 15 and 16 to preach. There is a profound reason. They are the middle two chapters! I intentionally chose a "non-method" so that I may approach these proverbs with as much anticipation as you, not knowing what they will teach me. We are going to take them as they were originally recorded and let them set the agenda for what topics we will consider.


A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Two manners of speaking are contrasted. Gentle speaking is contrasted with harsh speaking. The gentle word possesses positive power to defuse anger; the harsh word possesses negative power to stir up anger where there was none.

Note first of all the power of the tongue. It can be a powerful agent for peace or for trouble. And note in this instance where the power lies: it is not in what the tongue says, but in how it speaks. Does that sound familiar? Paul expressed the same principal in Colossians 4:6: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Knowing how to speak will lead one to saying the right things at the right time. This is an extremely important principle the proverb is presenting. It does matter how we speak to others. It does matter that we take into account how the manner in which we speak will affect the person we are speaking to. It is not enough to know what to say; we must know how to say it. Indeed, we cannot know what to say if we do not know how to say it.

If only Solomon's own son, Rehoboam, had listened to this counsel. Solomon, for all his wisdom, had his own faults and one of them was pushing his own people hard to create his personal wealth and luxury. After his death and his son takes over, the people see their opportunity to lighten the hardship Solomon had placed on them. They go to Rehoboam and say, "Our father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you." Rehoboam's response exactly fulfills this proverb. He checks first with his father's counselors who advise him to give a favorable answer. He then checks with counselors his own age who advise him to give this response: "My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions." Instead of turning away anger and winning the loyalty of his people, he stirred up their wrath which led to rebellion. All he had to do was give a soft answer. Why didn't he? The reason is obvious — pride. Nobody is going to tell him the king what to do! Nobody is going to accuse him of being weak and giving in to demands.

If Rehoboam had listened to his father's counselors, he would have continued to have the people's service. He could have acknowledged that there was some justification to the people's concerns; he could have asked for their leaders to meet with him and worked out some form of compromise; they then would have respected him for listening to them and gladly continued to serve.

The one who speaks harshly thinks he is asserting his authority or at least making himself heard. What he is really doing is stirring up needless anger. Parents, the best parent counselor I've ever read is John Rosemond. He is in the paper weekly and has at least one book out. He has a no-nonsense approach to parenting, but he shows time again that the most effective manner of discipline is the kind that displays a calm resolution in the parent. James Dobson makes the same case.

What if you don't have authority, but need to get action? Always try the considerate approach first. I've found that in the majority of times, asking "Could you do…?" instead of saying, "Do…" gets the response I desire. Most of us respond well when asked politely. Most of us feel offended and become defensive when spoken harshly to. That is what the proverb acknowledges. If you want good results and to be someone that people respect, learn to speak softly, learn to be considerate; think first how what you say and the manner in which you say it will be received.

A good exercise for you to do is to think back over a situation in which you angered someone. Examine yourself. Sometime the person will be angry out of his own sin. Jesus made many people angry. But Jesus was perfect; we are not. Just as likely we stirred up anger out of a harsh spirit. Are you willing to look at yourself in such an honest manner to detect your own harshness? It is not easy. I hate doing it. I hate even more having to admit my fault to others. But if you are able to face your own harsh spirit, you are likely to experience a softening.

2 The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.

The word "fool" is not a barb intended as an insult. It is the description of a mindset. None of us want to be regarded as fools, but we must be willing to consider how what is said of the fool applies to us. Otherwise, we cannot do the hard work of examining ourselves.

The tongue of the wise commends knowledge… The NKJ reads "uses knowledge rightly." The wise know how to make knowledge beneficial and pleasing. The fool may have the same knowledge, but because of his ego or self-interest turns people away from the knowledge. Students know this. Immediately they can think of wise teachers who make learning interesting and foolish teachers who make it a bore. We all can think of people whom we regard as interesting to listen to, and those whom we avoid because of the pompous way in which they talk or their boring manner or simply the foolishness of what they say.

The main problem with foolish speech is that the speaker is oblivious to being foolish. He thinks he is being wise. Where he makes his mistake is believing that speech itself is what impresses people. He goes to a party and sees how people gather around a good story teller; he thinks that to get that kind of attention he needs to tell stories. He sees a lawyer giving legal advice, perhaps a medical researcher discussing the latest news about cloning, or an avid gardener describing her new backyard project; he needs to throw in his knowledge so people will think highly of him as well. He doesn't realize that he is only making himself appear foolish.

How not to be foolish? First, don't try to be wise. As soon as you think to yourself that you about to say something wise, you are in a bad position. Wisdom comes out when you become more caught up in the subject matter than yourself. Interesting speakers are people who are interested in their subject; so it is the same for wise people. They are keenly interested in whatever it is they have learned. Second, be slow to speak. In my previous situation I conducted weekly staff meetings. At times I would raise an issue for us to discuss and resolve. Invariably I could count on who would answer quickly and who would wait. And invariably the ones who waited were the ones who gained more attention. Why? Because the one who waits gives the impression of thinking more carefully.

3 The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.

Parents love this verse. "God is watching you! You better behave!" The proverb is both troubling and comforting. It is troubling when we do evil. Think about it. God has seen everything single thing you have done. Every single act. For that matter, he has heard every thought you have thought. Every one. That should make us all blush in shame. Thank goodness God has not shared with everyone else what he has seen!

It is also, however, a comforting truth. God sees everything you are going through; he knows every thought troubling you. He knows what keeps you awake at night. He knows your dreams and hopes. He knows your pain and your joys. He shares with you every moment. You are never alone.

Now, back to the tongue. 4 The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

The King James calls it the "wholesome tongue." The NIV has the right spirit as well. The verse is referring to speech that has a healing result. It is the speech of a mother soothing her child who just skinned her elbow and of a father comforting his child whose team loss the big match. It is the college student helping her roommate laugh after a breakup. It is the good word spoken in a meeting where tempers are starting to flare that calms everyone down or even makes them laugh. It is the word that builds up a deflated spirit. It is a word of great power, because it gives life; it rebuilds, gives a new start, gives hope, makes others want to live again.

But there is also a tongue that does just the opposite — the deceitful tongue. The specific word indicates not merely an untruth, but an intent to bring hurt. It is what kids say to one another, like "Your parents aren't your real parents; they took you because nobody else wanted you." It is the gossip we pass on, the prayer requests about someone's sin. It the exaggerations we make when we are upset. The comments like, "You can't get anything right."

What is really being addressed is intent. The person who desires to encourage others will speak healing words. The person who desires merely to assert himself will speak words that crush. It is very simple. We are always wanting to know what we ought to say to others. Cultivate a spirit that seeks to heal and the words will come. How to we cultivate such a spirit? Pray. Pray everyday for the fruit of the Spirit as given in Galatians 5:22, 23: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.

Parents, pray for this in your interactions with your children. Spouses, pray for this in the way you relate to one another. You will be amazed how simpler relationships become when your spirit is in line with the Holy Spirit. The next time you go into a store and see the clerk putting on his best bored expression, ask God to give you a healing tongue. That is not a bad prayer to train yourself to make each time the telephone rings.

Now, fathers, I have saved the best for last! 5 A fool spurns his father's discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.

Let's bathe in this instruction for a moment. Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction; pay attention and gain understanding (1:8). A wise son heeds his father's instruction (13:1). Ah yes! If only our children were so wise to appreciate our great wisdom. Well, back to understanding the text.

Certainly this does speak to children about the importance of learning from the fathers and mothers. The focus is on discipline and correction. Bringing in father is a specific application, but the principle applies to many other situations. The principle is this: those who do well in life are those who learned to benefit from discipline and correction. Indeed, it is a mark of wisdom to appreciate correction.

Correction, however, is difficult to take. Most of us do not like to be corrected; we certainly don't like to be disciplined. One reason is that oftentimes the one doing the correcting is not doing so with a "wholesome" tongue. Far from a gentle tongue, we are being corrected with a harsh tongue and it stirs up our anger. It makes us defensive. Even then, however, the wise learn how to benefit. The wise will examine themselves regardless of who is correcting and the manner of the correcting.

Why? Because the wise want to improve themselves. And they recognize that every experience is a learning experience. The fool does not benefit, because he wants to improve his appearance. He wants to be thought important. The irony, of course, is that he appears foolish to everyone else, while the wise only appear wiser. Parents, learn that lesson. Owning up to a mistake makes you appear wiser to your children. Furthermore, thanking someone for correcting you only raises your reputation before the person doing the correcting.


Now, let's put these proverbs together and see what we learn. First of all, there is great power in what we say. All of us, whether we have lots of authority or are on the bottom of the totem pole, all of us have power to heal or to wound, to build up or to tear down. By one remark, we can make a total stranger's day or ruin it. By our tongue, we can be a joy to live and work with, or we can make it a nightmare for them. Today, when this service is over and you are leaving, you will either cheer others or dampen their spirits. You might do both: speak wholesomely to one person and harshly to another. But will do something. The tongue never speaks without helping or hurting.

Having said that, the tongue is not master of the head and heart. The tongue does not make a person wise or foolish, kind or hurtful. Because a person is wise he commends knowledge; because he is foolish he talks foolishly. Because a person is kind hearted, she gives gentle answers and speaks healing words; because she is thinking of herself, she speaks harshly and hurts others. That is why it is more important to pray for wisdom and a good heart, than to learn techniques. A good salesperson or actor can learn techniques to come across as caring to achieve his or her own ends. What matters is what Peter says matters: have sincere love for your brothers and sisters (1 Peter 1:22). And the best way to get such love is to pray, because such a work in the heart can only come about by God's Spirit working in you.

A very practical way to improve head and heart is to heed correction. You could ask for correction, but most people don't like for s person to come up to them and say, "I want you to tell me whenever you think I am saying something wrong." You will get better results if you work at being more observant and at being more approachable. Most people do give signs when you have said something wrong. Just look at their faces; pay attention to their responses and mannerisms. It comes out. But don't make the mistake of then confronting them. "What! What did I say?" Ask yourself that question. The key is honestly confronting yourself. "Search me, O God, and know my heart" (Psalm 139:23).

How do you become more approachable? There is no magic to it. If through prayer and the Spirit's work in you, you show delight in learning from correction, you will become approachable. If you develop a spirit in which you desire the good of others, you willingness to be taught will be evident.

Another lesson we learn is that God is very much aware of everything we are not only saying, but thinking. He knows full well the condition of our hearts. We can rationalize our behavior, analyze our motives, do whatever we like; what we cannot do is hide our heart or head or tongue from him.

But consider this disconcerting thought through the lens of the gospel. Though the eyes of the Lord sees every evil act you do, if you are in Christ through faith, he forgives you and counts you as good. Think of that. The one who knows you best loves you the most. He does not love you because he thinks you are good; he counts you as being good because, by his love he sent his one true Son to die for your sins and give to you his righteousness.

Is this not an incredulous truth? Every harsh word spoken, every time you have crushed rather than healed, every foolish remark is forgiven and will be forgiven, yes, again and again and again. All the really mean, thoughtless words you have said, that fills you with shame when you think of them; all the embarrassing times in which you felt like an idiot; they are wiped clean as though never occurring. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

That is the most practical thing I can teach you. If you grasp that truth; I don't mean just mentally assent to it. If you own it in your heart, you will be wise and good hearted. Even secular psychologists know this. They know that most people say and do bad things out of guilt and wounds they bear. What we all need are the healing words from the tree of life — the gospel. The words that say, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.