The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prov and speech

Words can wound like the piercing of a sword, a tale-bearer is often a messenger of destruction, and by "harping on a matter" the best of friends can be separated. Whispered scandals are dainty morsels that go down sweetly to the appetite, but in such words there is often sin. Life and death are in the power of the tongue, therefore we must put away from us perverse lips and make our words as a well of life. A soft answer turns away wrath and overcomes that which seems as hard and unyielding as bone. The man who guards the door of his lips and often remains silent when the impulse is strong to speak, saves himself from many troubles.

We must debate our cause with the one concerned and not disclose it to another, for such indirect speech is shameful and infamous. Words can wound and words can pierce and words can be sinful, but words can be as a tree of life. How good is a word fitly spoken!

In the above passage we have simply presented some of the wisdom of Solomon in modern language. It makes a brief but extraordinarily full exhortation. If we pay heed to the instruction it may save us from many mistakes. Sometimes men become so disgusted with futile talking that they fall into the error of despising words. "What is the use of mere words?" they say. "We want action, not speech."

Truly there is a time to act rather than to speak, but of what value will action be unless it has first been instructed by words? Human thought cannot proceed far without speech. Beyond the very limited animal plane of feeling and observation, we need words not only to express our thoughts to others but to make them definite and coherent even to ourselves. We may not put our inmost thoughts into finished language as in giving an address to others, but words play an enormous part in shaping the most private of thoughts even when we make no attempt to form orderly sentences.

Words are needed to tell us of the will and purpose of God, and words are equally necessary to inform us of the discoveries and the opinions of men.

The mind of man consists of will, thought, and feeling, and these three things are expressed by words. An honest man always states that which is in his mind, but he is under no obligation to state it all. "A fool speaketh all his mind", heedless of what the effect may be. A knave sometimes uses words that do not express himself; he is only intent on impressing the minds of others. A just and wise man speaks as he thinks and feels, but guards the door of his mouth so as not to express too much. He may think that one to whom he speaks is foolish, but it is not wise to say so. He may know that some of his hearers are knaves, but it is perfectly honest to treat them as honest men. He can only have two motives in speaking, to express himself and to influence other people. Usually the second object is much the more important, so self-expression must be controlled lest it should interfere with the real object of speech.

In thus "guarding the door", the control of feeling is quite as important as the control of thought. Feelings are often strong and they reveal themselves in the tone of voice as well as in the form of words. Anger, indignation, scorn, fear, hatred, amusement, contempt, all are expressed so readily both in tone and word that many people reveal such feelings instantly even if they are unable to express any coherent ideas. The kindlier feelings of love, admiration, gratitude and appreciation are not quite so obtrusive, and if it is desired they can be concealed more readily.

In this matter of guarding the door of the mouth feeling causes the greatest difficulty. A man may discipline himself so as to be circumspect in the use of words. He may go further and avoid any ebullition of impotent rage. Anger unrestrained so often makes itself ridiculous that a capable man determines to keep cool. Yet feeling may clearly reveal itself even then. It is possible to maintain an icy coldness with far more bitterness than ever lived in the warm expressions of wrath. Indeed, when we read the passage, "There is that speaketh like the piercing of a sword", we do not think of an obviously angry man expressing his indignation with a warm energy that will soon exhaust itself. We think rather of an icy bitterness, hard and cruel as steel, a concentrated and frozen anger expressed in speech which has not the excuse of being hasty but which wounds like the piercing of a sword. Such speech is the expression of an evil feeling which has been polished instead of being suppressed. There are people who in this matter of words repeat the vulgar error often revealed in human relationships. Anything may pass as long as it is well dressed.

A Christian should not allow evil feelings to prevail for a moment. Bitterness ought not to be in the mind, and if through faulty thinking it is there, it certainly should not be expressed. Bitterness expressed engenders the same evil in others. Like all vile things it is far easier to cause than to cure. It does not exhaust itself as does the burst of honest anger. It may even thrive on its own activity and become worse as it expresses itself and provokes ill feeling in others. Moreover, the soft answer is not quite so effective against this cold poison as it is against open anger. A Christian has a hard task when in addition to the suppression of his own natural resentment he has to win the sympathy of one who is coldly and cruelly antagonistic, all the while trying to wound and provoke by the use of polished words.

We can bring ourselves into line if we frequently raise the question what is our aim in speaking? Speech may be with the object of giving instruction, or putting questions to receive instruction, or it may be in the ordinary amenities of social life. We can think of nothing else unless it is mere self-expression, a talk for the love of talking. Where is there room for any ill-feeling to be expressed in any of these opportunities for speech? In the ordinary amenities of life there is surely every reason for good feelings which may be revealed freely with only good effects. If anyone is so unfortunate as to find ill-feeling at home, then a desperate effort should be made to avoid any aggravation of it. Words provocative of anger are always out of place in the home, but they are especially to be deprecated when such provocation has already begun. If a little fire started in a dry corner of the house, no man would be fool enough to throw petrol on it. It is strange that men should often be so ready to feed that more terrible flame, which, as the apostle James says, is set on fire of hell. Homes have been wrecked and lives made sad by the folly of hasty and ill-tempered speech. It is perfectly true, as the wise man says, that there is more hope for a fool than for a man who is hasty in his words (Pro 29:20).

Where then would words expressive of bitter feeling be appropriate? Certainly not in asking questions to receive instruction and equally certainly not when trying to instruct. There is need for a word of warning here. It is when we are trying to impress our opinions on others that controversy is engendered and controversy often provokes bitter speech. Opponents are so foolish and unreasonable! Opposition is trying to the temper, especially if we do not quite see how to answer an opponent's argument while still, of course, being quite convinced that he is in the wrong. It is a great mistake, however, to reveal any trace of bitterness in either word or tone. If there is any cogency in the criticism to which we are subjected, it is good for us to be instructed by it, and we ought to be grateful for the help. There may be a measure of truth in an opponent's contention even though his general conclusions are wrong. We must recognize that measure of truth, and then our position will be strengthened and polished as the result of hostile criticism. If our opponent's argument is mere sophistry, there is great need for us to keep calm in order that we may think clearly. There is need for gentle and circumspect speech in order that those in error may be rightly influenced.

It is strange that so few learn the lesson of moderation and sweet reasonableness in speech, for all know that they themselves are not influenced by truculent declamation. Over-emphasis defeats its object. We laugh at the letter in which nearly every sentence is underlined or at the speaker who thumps the desk and by exaggerated rhetoric seeks to give weight to his argument. At the best he only excites a good-humoured contempt. The man who is coldly and cleverly sarcastic arouses a very different feeling, but while he may seem to triumph in the hour of discussion, no good result comes from his cleverness.

The fact is that most men judge the value of an argument from the wrong side. They appraise the efforts of their spokesman by their own reactions instead of trying to determine what the effect will be in the opposite camp. It may be pleasant to hear vigorous and emphatic declamation in the presentation of ideas that we hold. It may be even pleasanter to hear biting sarcasm at the expense of those who hold doctrines that we repudiate. On the other hand, it may seem disappointing to hear our cherished beliefs presented in mild and temperate language, or to hear a perfectly fair and sympathetic review of that which we detest. If, however, we desire to persuade men and to turn them from darkness to light, the exercise of a little imagination ought to teach us that the declamation and the sarcasm are worse than useless, while the sympathetic understanding will pave the way for conversion and the mildly stated argument will linger in the memory and be a moving force long after the dust of controversy has cleared away. It is the soft answer that breaketh the bone.

There is much need for the words of wisdom regarding slander and tale bearing. A personal tit-bit of private information goes down so "sweetly" that one may become a party to slanderous conversation before there is a proper realization of its trend. It is to be feared that there are moralists who while studiously refraining from slanderous talk themselves, think it quite legitimate to draw out the resources of one less scrupulous. This can be done quite skillfully even under the guise of a gentle reproof. A mild defence of an absentee may be presented in such a manner as to bring out all that can be said against him. The suggestion of possible defence for his conduct may call forth further information as to his perfidy and proof that he really had no defence.

Such talk is evil even if the allegations are true, but it is far worse when they are untrue. And it is possible for a statement to be true in point of fact but completely false in its implications. There may be an undisclosed fact behind that which is observed, changing the entire meaning of the matter. Charles Lamb tells of a boy at the Blue Coat School who by his strange aloofness and furtive movements aroused the suspicions of his comrades. When they found that he was in the habit of collecting scraps of discarded food and taking them somewhere away from the school, they concluded that he engaged in weird rites and that there was something wrong with his mentality. Finally they tracked him and discovered that the boy's parents were starving in a garret near to the school and he was keeping them alive with the despised crusts of bread.

Coming nearer home we can remember a sister who excited criticism because of her extravagant clothing. In slanderous conversation her husband was pitied for having such an extravagant wife. It was perfectly true that she wore dresses of far more expensive quality than she could properly afford to buy. It was also true that the dresses came from a wealthy relation who cared nothing for the Truth but was pleased to pass on her dresses to a poorer sister long before they showed signs of wear. The hard working husband was not conscious of needing any pity in the matter!

It is possible even for an outstanding act of Christian charity to be so disguised by the suppression of facts that it is presented as an act of cruelty and criticised accordingly. A man who at the risk of his life jumps into a river to save another from drowning may have to use some force and even apparent violence to save the struggling man. We can hardly imagine that even a prince of slanderers would describe the violence and suppress everything else, but that is just what many self-righteous critics would do in the more complex matters of human life. Save a man from drowning in the commercial river and if you have to use any force to stop his dangerous struggling, that use of force is apt to be the one matter observed and reported.

Oh, the tongue, that little member so potent for good or evil! Words of life are expressed by it, yet death is equally within its power. The "word fitly spoken" is compared to the most beautiful sight in Nature, while the ill word of bitterness can only be likened to the hell-born spark which starts a raging fire. Let us "guard the door of our lips" lest a hasty and unwise expression should pass or even the tone of voice should be provocative of ill. "If any man speak, let him speak as the Oracles of God."


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