Can you imagine a person who assumes responsibility for a nation and within a few days destroys the majority of what he is responsible for? That’s the story of Rehoboam, whose father Solomon had passed the torch of leadership to him. We discover that what we say and how we say it, can change not only the destiny of a person’s life, but also a nation.
Words have the power of life and death (cf. Prov. 18:21). Marriages, business alliances, friendships have all been destroyed because of what was said. So, how did Rehoboam’s folly play out?
Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king.
So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him:
Your 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 answered, ‘Go away for three days and then come back to me.’ So the people went away.[i]
We can certainly commend, Rehoboam for seeking counsel rather than responding immediately. That was a wise course of action and if the initial counsel had been taken would have alleviated the tension that had been mounting in the nation under the heavy taxation that Solomon had imposed on the people to finance all of his major building programs.
Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. ‘How would you advise me to answer these people?’ he asked.
They replied, ‘If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.[ii]
This certainly was wise counsel and reflected what the role of a leader ought to be, which is to serve God by serving those he or she leads. However, Rehoboam looked elsewhere for different counsel and rather than listening to the wise counsel of these elderly and experienced leaders, he focused on his peers for counsel.
But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him.
He asked them, ‘What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?
The young men who had grown up with him replied, ‘These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.
My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’[iii]
Unfortunately Rehoboam responded by following the advice of the young men, to flex his authority and refused to alleviate the burden and warned against even more painful and difficult measures. The result was that the vast majority of his kingdom revolted. “The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders… (1 Kings 12:13a).” Ten of the tribal clans broke away and forged a new nation while Rehoboam was left with the southern two tribes and the bulk of the priestly tribe of Levi. His harsh response stirred up contention. The irony is that had Rehoboam listened to the instruction of his father, Solomon in Proverbs 15:1 he may not have divided his nation. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1).” Later in that same chapter of Proverbs we read: “A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel (Proverbs 15:18).”
Folly will always bring loss in our lives. The understanding in the book of Proverbs is that the wise, fear God, whereas the fool, doesn’t fear God and leans to their own understanding, leading to moral deficiency.
The proverbs in chapter 15 is primarily devoted to the use of speech. Wise or healthy speech comes from people who are deemed healthy, in this case wise versus those who are unhealthy, experiencing brokenness and living a life of moral deficiency.
Many of the proverbs are called antithetical proverbs where the opposite is set in the parallel line to show a contrast. In Proverbs 15:1 we see two ways of answering: one gentle the other harsh, which brings about different outcomes in our relationship with others. The gentle answer pacifies whereas the harsh answer stirs up contention.
Most of us realize that communication is a critical element in fostering and maintaining healthy relationships.
Social interaction and business dealings always have an element of conflict and difference of opinion, but conflict can be aggravated or it can be calmed, depending on how one answers. The wise person knows how to get at the matters of concern and work toward solutions so that all parties involved are reasonably satisfied. Fools, thinking only of their own interests, throw gasoline on the fires of conflict, leading others to respond in kind.[iv]
So, what can we learn from these ancient wisdom writers? What does God want to say to us through them that will enrich our lives as we consider our words and how they impact the lives of those around us? What we say either enhances or diminishes our relationships with our family members, co-workers, neighbors, classmates and friends. So, let’s examine three aspects of what makes for wise or healthy speech.
The source for wise of healthy speech.
Where does wise speech originates from? Simply put, wise speech comes from the condition of our soul and the state of our relationship with God. “The lips of the wise spread knowledge, but the hearts of fools are not upright (Proverbs 15:7).”
What comes from our mouths is an expression of what is transpiring within our innermost being, which in the Hebrew understanding is the heart. The understanding of the wisdom writers regarding the nature of the heart is not so much the physical organ of our body, but rather the innermost part of our being, what we might consider our personality or our soul. This includes the intellect, the emotional and volitional aspects of our being. In essence who we truly are. The condition of our heart can be seen through the words that we speak. That is why we are warned to guard our hearts, to care for what we are feeding our soul. For it is out of the heart that speech flows. We see that expressed so clearly in Proverbs 4:23-24. “Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” Here in these two proverbs we see the connection between our hearts, our innermost being, and what comes from it. These two proverbs are saying that we need to address our hearts in order to keep our mouths from destructive communication. Changes in our attitude and thinking creates a transformation in our communication. The key to changing our communication begins with a change of heart. But this then begs the question: how can we have a change of heart? Once again the wisdom teachers give us clear insight into the process of a transformed heart leading to a change of communication. “The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly (Proverbs 15:14).”
What you feed your soul determines what comes out of your mouth. So what are you and I feeding our souls? If what we eat in the way of physical foods affects our bodies, just imagine what we take into our minds affects and impacts our soul.
I remember as a youth pastor listening to a series taken from philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer entitled, ‘How shall we Then Live.’ He was speaking to the issue of what shapes the mind of culture. He pointed out that the direction of a culture can be determined by the artists, the songs, and the messaging from the entertainment industry. They are the vanguard of where culture is going.
This was equally true in ancient times as well. These artists actually reflect, communicate and often shape the values of the culture. This is called a world view, a certain mental mind set of reality.
Every human being has a worldview, even though many are uninformed about what a worldview is and the power that worldviews have over the way we think and behave. A worldview is the total of answers people give to the most important questions in life. According to some, the five most important elements in any worldview are what people believe about God, ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and human nature.[v]
What is tragic is that often different worldviews conflict with the values God shares with us- the biblical values. Why is this critical? We need to understand that when we embrace truth it liberates the society; while lies, when they dominate within a society, bring death and destruction. Very few would dispute that Nazism with its evil propaganda was the engine that drove a nation to not only self-destruction but brought death and destruction to so many in our world. No wonder the wisdom writers point out this relationship between the ideologies that are in opposition to God’s view of life. These views within the soul of a culture are then expressed. Once again, we see the contrast between the right and wrong way of thinking and what is being communicated. “The LORD detests the thoughts of the wicked, but gracious words are pure in his sight (Proverbs 15:26).”
If our thinking is wrong, the condition of our soul will be wrong and what we say will be destructive. But if we have a heart after God, and see life through his lens; our words will be gracious and pure bringing hope and life into the lives of others. We see here that gracious words come from a pure heart. No wonder the Psalmist prayed: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast [right] spirit within me (Ps. 51:10).”
Our Openness toward Correction.
The only way we can change is to first of all identify what issues in our lives need changing and then how to go about it. Wise people realize that there are things about themselves that others see that they are blind to. This can be both positive and healthy elements; but it can also be areas in our lives that are unhealthy, unwise and sinful. We may have attitudes that need to be corrected and if left unchecked and unconfessed will lead to sin and broken relationships. The issue then is how we respond to correction.
Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise. Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.[vi]
The Hebrew word for discipline is Mausar, which means to instruct, chasten or rebuke.
The proverb observes that the wise are those who listen to correction… Only the wise are willing to admit mistakes, change behavior, and improve their lives. In this way, correction enhances life. Wise persons are much less likely to make the same mistakes twice. The proverb, in effect, suggests that wisdom is defined by one’s willingness to listen to correction.[vii]
Here in Proverbs 15, we see a number of Proverbs that deal with our insecurities, rebelliousness and defensiveness. All of these things impact our ability to grow as a person especially in our interpersonal skills with others. These behaviors are shaped in childhood and carry into our adult lives. How did we respond to correction and discipline in our lives? Is a defiant and rebellious attitude toward authority a part of our adult lives? “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline but whoever heeds correction shows prudence (Proverbs 15:5).” Here we see that a healthy response to correction leads to an ability to understand how our actions have future consequences. If we are rebellious when young and don’t address those issues as we grow older, then they come to haunt us as adults. When we stray from the path of righteousness we can be sure that God will correct us. However our attitude toward correction should be appreciation rather than resistance.
“My son, do not despise the LORD’S discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in (Proverbs 3:11-12).”
Discipline is a sign then of God’s love toward us helping us deal with the unhealthy and unwise things in our lives. God will address the issues in our lives when we deviate from His ways. “Stern discipline awaits anyone who leaves the path; the one who hates correction will die (Proverbs 15:10).”
Our response to discipline is critical. Do we embrace it or run from it? If we don’t allow God’s word to speak to the areas in our hearts to bring about a change, then we will harden our hearts and this state or attitude will be reflected in what we say. People who resent being corrected avoid people who are living wisely. “Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise. (Proverbs 15:12).”
Here we see one of the elements that shapes our thinking and values. People influence other people. Those we associate with affect us more significantly than most of us imagine. Often we choose people who never challenge our lives. However, when we spend time with people who never challenge our lives, we suffer. We need to have people in our lives that help bring out the best in us. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).” A true friend will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Proverbs 27:6).”
Wise or Healthy Communication has a positive impact on others.
When we have examined the source of healthy communication and how to experience a change by accepting correction, we quickly see the benefits in interpersonal relationships. People who are unwise don’t seem to realize or care how their words impact and influence those around them. We need to be concerned about what we are saying.
Old Testament scholar, Leo Perdue, quoting Gerhard Von Rad; explains the power of words and its affect upon even the social order in society. As we are currently living in a time of great social disorder, the need for wise and healthy communication has never been more needed.
The students of the sages are taught to use language to dispense knowledge [the tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly vs.2 and ‘the lips of the wise spread knowledge, but the hearts of fools are not upright], which derives from the tradition they receive through instruction 9vv. 5, 31-33), whereas fools utter folly that ignores tradition and overturns the social order. …Language possesses the power to create or to destroy. Even proper language, however, is qualified by time and place. To speak successfully and truly depends on time and circumstances (Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 138–43).[viii]
Consider what is being said here. It is folly to ignore the past and work at overthrowing social order. This is not to suggest that there are things that need to change, but how we go about trying to change things is critical. People are considered unwise when their critical words breed social unrest; when words lead to random acts of violence and many people are destroyed in the process. Angry words lead to death and destruction. We see that kind of behavior which leads to marriages being destroyed, churches split, nations divided, and wars created.
The book of James describes that kind of wisdom as earthly, unspiritual and demonic.
Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual and demonic.
For where you have envy and selfish ambition there you will find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; [comes from a pure heart]; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.[ix]
The wisdom literature encourages more restraint and thoughtful consideration before we speak.
“The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Proverbs 15:28).”
One of the great tragedies today is that many people claim to be followers of Christ because they intellectually believe the right things, but there is an inconsistency of behavior as expressed in their speech. Genuine faith brings about a transformation of heart which impacts what is being communicated. We can often determine what is happening in hearts, by the words that are expressed. Yet, as most of us discover there are moments of inconsistency in all of our lives. What is being pointed out is the nature of our lives and words. Paul Koptak points out:
…these proverbs do more than simply urge us to watch what we say and how; they also inspire us to examine the intentions of our hearts. We should take those occasions when we are inclined to speak harshly as opportunities to reflect on our motives for speaking and to ask whose interests we have at heart.[x]
The book of James certainly is deeply influenced by this wisdom literature. Notice the significant elements in his letter addressing our speech.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.[xi]
What does he suggest that we do to experience change in this area? Address what we are feeding our hearts (including the mind), which in in agreement with what Proverbs has been directing us to. “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you (James 1:21).” Then he reinforces it by saying don’t just hear this, but act upon it. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:22).” In other words, knowing something does not necessarily mean we are doing it. James continues and explains that we are incapable of taming our mouths apart from a transforming work of God’s grace upon our hearts.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.[xii]
What is needed is a change of heart. So what is the effect of our words? Wise communication results in life. “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit (Proverbs 15:4).”
Ultimately, we need to see how our communication impacts our relationship or communication with God.
The LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.
The LORD detests the way of the wicked, but he loves those who pursue righteousness.[xiii]
Jewish scholar, Michael V. Fox writes:
Sacrifice and prayer serve as a single concept here… This means that the proverb does not contrast sacrifice and prayer but only the moral quality of the actors. Far from a denigrating cult, this proverb holds it in esteem. The exalted rites of sacrifice and prayer are efficacious only for the upright, for only they can achieve the communion with God that cultic acts were meant to facilitate (Perdue 1977: 156–58).[xiv]
“The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous (Proverbs 15:29).”
So why does God hear the prayer of the righteous? Why is God so distant from the wicked?
What does this really mean?
Like vv. 8, [where God detests the way of the wicked] and vv. 26 [where the Lord detests the thoughts of the wicked], the topic is what is acceptable and not acceptable to God. Distance and closeness are here not a matter of space but of the ability to communicate, to speak and be heard. The wicked have put themselves out of God’s range.[xv]
What needs to be understood is that God is near to all, but often we close our hearts to those who are near. We do this in interpersonal relationships when we are wounded and build a barrier to protect ourselves from further pain, but when we distance ourselves from God through our attitudes and actions we are not being heard. To come to God, one must come with a contrite and open heart. That is why Isaiah challenged his generation, and then Jesus repeated his words that ‘they honored God with their lips, but unfortunately their hearts were far from God’ (cf. Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8). Pure hearts lead to healthy and wise speech. This has a powerful impact and creates healthy relationships.
So, what are we inciting by our words? Fear, anger, hatred, violence? I’m not suggesting that we don’t correct, but the tone and language we use will either build up or tear down. Is our language filled with solutions, hope, gentleness and love? Are we speaking wisely or foolishly? What comes from our lips is really an indication of where our hearts are at. I love the apostle Paul’s admonishment to us in addressing the evils of our day. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Ephesians 4:15).”
Do we speak the truth in love? Do we speak healthy, wise words or unhealthy and relationally damaging words?
[i] 1 Kings 12:1, 3-5 New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] 1 Kings 12:6-7.
[iii] 1 Kings 12:8-11.
[iv] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 404.
[v] Ronald H. Nash, What is a Worldview?, The Apologetic Study Bible, Ted Cabal, ed. Holman Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 923.
[vi] Proverbs 15:31-32.
[vii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 323.
[viii] Leo Perdue, — Proverbs: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012), 174.
[ix] James 3:15-18.
[x] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 408.
[xi] James 1:19-20.
[xii] James 3:7-8.
[xiii] Proverbs 15:8-9.
[xiv] Michael Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 18B, (New Haven; London: Yale University Press ,2009), 591..
[xv] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 154.