Words are trouble; words are subtle

Words of anger, words of hate

Words over here, words out there

In the air and everywhere


These are some of the silly words from the Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood for those of you who listened to the radio in the early 1980s. 

The song asks us to consider what words are worth to us – and this was when mass media only meant TV, AM radio and having another two daily newspapers in your capital city. 

In the era of blogs and podcasts, tweets and threads, it is hard to avoid other people’s words, and there is no reason to withhold your own. Some would say that social media is akin to a global epidemic of verbal diarrhoea.

Previously, in this column (SC, November-December 2023), we listened to the words of Solomon about finding wisdom in times of bad faith. With Solomon’s guidance, we searched for the good faith that would restore our trust in words:

Iniquity is atoned for by loyalty and faithfulness,

    and one turns from evil by the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 16:6, CSB).

Among other things, the iniquity that Solomon referred to is our foolish disregard for the healing power of rebuke!

The tongue of the wise makes knowledge attractive,

    but the mouth of fools blurts out foolishness (Prov 15:12).

However, if we are confident that the one to whom we turn for words – even words of rebuke – is loyal and faithful, then, Solomon exhorts us, we shall find the fear of the LORD in turning away from evil.

The realisation of Solomon’s observation about loyalty and faithfulness is found most perfectly in the cross of Christ, for there, as nowhere else, we see the immutable faithfulness of God to his creation; the saving loyalty of Christ Jesus that atones for the iniquity of the world. 

Furthermore, in the Spirit of wisdom, we can hear God’s rebuke to turn away from death and live in the fear of the Lord. At the cross, the Word himself prepares us to receive the gift of good faith that gives us saving words to hear and speak.

Therefore, with this gift of good faith, we should meditate on what we can do with words to create good faith in our community, for “Better a poor person who lives with integrity than someone who has deceitful lips and is a fool” (Prov 19:1).

How wretched are the people and community where crooked and untrustworthy words are the norm. What’s more, the modern phenomena of fake news was foreseen by Solomon centuries ago:

A fool does not delight in understanding,

    but only wants to show off his opinions (Prov 18:2).

In the power of God’s Spirit and through the wisdom of Solomon, our verbal lives together can be different. Let’s consider four ways we can improve our speech and the lives of those around us.


The four characteristics of pure speech

We need to hear two main things from Solomon this time: the characteristics of pure speech and the incentives for them. So, in Proverbs 18, there are four characteristics of pure speech.


1. Blessing consistently

The words of a person’s mouth are deep waters,

    a flowing river, a fountain of wisdom (18:4).

Pure speech is to the community what a torrent is to the desert – a teeming source of life. But it’s not just the quantity of words on view here. Words that bring depth and richness are found in the ability to verbalise complex ideas and pose solutions to puzzling questions. A succinctness that feeds the community with substance to nourish and satisfy. 

This is much more than the drive for minimalism that keeps sermons simple and churches stupid. Rather, as Solomon also says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out” (Prov 20:5).

Pure speech seeks always to foster loyalty and serve faithfulness in the community.


2. Reporting accurately

A grumbler’s words are like choice food

    that goes down to one’s innermost being (18:8).

The CSB has “gossip” here and I went with “grumbler” but, literally, we are referring to the words of a “murmurer”. Think of the Israelites murmuring to each other about how good they had it in Egypt compared to the desert or, later, how much bigger the Canaanites looked when the spies went into the land of promise.

The power of this proverb lies in the combination of attractiveness and penetration. We gobble up the words of gossip like sickly sweet chocolates – and worse, we keep rehearsing the vicious rumours in our minds, toying with the possibility that they are true, delighting in and despising them simultaneously. And we become angry with ourselves for listening, and with the “grumbler” for feeding us such tangy yet indigestible stuff.

The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip; 

   avoid someone with a big mouth (20:19).

Good faith in words among the community is poisoned by undisciplined gossip with winsome, seductive flattery. They betray faith and sneer at loyalty.


3. Listening carefully

The one who gives an answer before he listens 

    – this is foolishness and disgrace for him (18:13).

Perhaps you know the shame of lecturing an audience of family or friends, having attended to half a matter and filling the balance with ignorance. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right? But the point here is sharper. Rash words from a position of power are a presumption on grace at best and an insult or abuse at worst. 

Think of the husband who has assumed that he is smart enough to know what his wife will say before she says it. He has treated her as less than his complement (or at least, less than himself) and has shamed and insulted her, and himself, by revealing his insensitivity and ignorance. There can be no good faith in words when they are so foolishly employed.


4. Questioning studiously

The first to state his case seems right 

    until another comes and cross-examines him (18:17).

A natural correlate of accurate reporting and careful listening is the discipline required to understand, as much as possible, the whole picture in any given situation. Playing the inquisitor with questions that ensnare or corral is always tempting, but that hardly makes for good faith in words. Instead, the parts that make up a generous whole come from asking humble, empathetic, curious questions.

So, if these are the characteristics of pure speech that chart the course towards good faith in words, what – according to Proverbs 18 – can we anticipate for the community?


Incentives for pure speech

1. Peacefulness

A fool’s lips lead to strife, 

    and his mouth provokes a beating. 

A fool’s mouth is his devastation, 

    and his lips are a trap for his life (Prov 18:6-7).

Our context makes it hard to imagine, perhaps, but indifference to relationship dynamics in the form of an incendiary tongue breeds violence in the community. I belong to a very large extended family and, in the long past, at many times and in various ways, outrageous demands and/or exaggerated accusations led to protestations, recriminations and even, as they say in the NRL, “the biff”.

It was shameful at the time and now, years later, it is part of a tragic story that led to an untimely death. 

Foolish words are lethal for the peace of a community, whether it’s unsolicited advice on parenting or the constant reminder of how much better your home church or hero pastor does ministry.


2. Fruitfulness

From the fruit of a person’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; 

    he is filled with the product of his lips. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, 

    and those who love it will eat its fruit (18:20-21).

Fruitfulness and productivity are captured here in how wise words reproduce life in various ways and contexts. Wise words shared in good faith enable us to see things differently and give us the confidence of insight; they sponsor imagination and creativity. They are the patrons of resourcefulness and the mentors of inspiration. On reflection, they give birth to gratitude and parent thankfulness.

With pure speech, the community experiences great richness:

There is gold and a multitude of jewels, 

    but knowledgeable lips are a rare treasure (Prov 20:15).

The one who guards his mouth and tongue 

    keeps himself out of trouble (21:23).

The one who loves a pure heart 

    and gracious lips – the king is his friend (22:11).

Wise words for good faith

So, through pure speech, we may enjoy good faith among each other and live peacefully and fruitfully together. When we report accurately, listen carefully and question studiously, we have the conditions for the possibility of continuous blessing. Of course, despite our best intentions, we fail, and foolish words fly forth from our lips before we can grab hold and stuff them back in our mouths like so many paper plates from a picnic lunch on a windy day.

Solomon’s wise words come from a time when Israel was truly God’s people in God’s place under God’s king. But we have one greater than Solomon, God’s Word in the flesh, who not only spoke the words of life that made Solomon wise but died the death that casts a shadow over all our words. Therefore, we must remember that good faith in words is a gift from God – the gift that is given in the words of forgiveness.

That great word of forgiveness is the Word himself given for us, and even the ability to hear that Word is the gift of his Spirit.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, since the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except his spirit within him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people
(1 Cor 2:10-13).

The Rev Dr David Höhne is academic dean of Moore Theological College and lectures in Christian Thought.