G. Campbell Morgan was one of a hundred and fifty young men who sought entrance into the Wesleyan ministry in 1888. He had passed his written exam but faced the test of giving a trial sermon in front of a panel. When the results were released, Morgan’s name was among the hundred and five who were rejected.
He wired his father with one word: ‘Rejected.’ Then he sat down and wrote in his diary: ‘Very dark. Everything seems still. God knows best.’ The reply to his wire was quick to arrive. It read, ‘Rejected on earth, accepted in heaven. Dad.’”[i] His father’s words of encouragement helped Morgan go on to minister the Word of God, for the next 52 years, speaking to thousands and authoring 80 books.
The power of our words are such that it can bring harmony or strife. Words can help build up people, families and communities or they can tear them down. It’s amazing how much Proverbs has to say about speech. Last year, I wrote a master’s thesis on this issue of communication from the book of Proverbs. Out of the 886 verses found in Proverbs, there are an estimated 246 verses that address the issue of speech, speaking, listening or acting upon what has been communicated, which makes up over 27% of all proverbs. That gives us an indication that communication is central to human relationships.
In Proverbs 18, “the majority of these proverbs are dealing with our speech and its effects, all are concerned with the attitudes and actions that destroy relationships and community.”[ii] One of the primary roles of a healthy leader is trying to navigate the wellbeing of his family, church, business or whatever organization they are leading by stating: “A prime task of leaders is to avert conflict when they can and resolve it when they cannot avert it. Conflict hurts individuals, drains away energy, and threatens the covenants that hold families and society together.”[iii] “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (Proverbs 20:3).” “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out (Proverbs 17:14).” Learning how to handle conflict is a critical element in having a happy life. To live a life of stability and good order is needed for people to do well. To allow our hearts to be shaped by God’s word and His ways is critical. Wisdom is to learn of the way of the Lord and then apply it to life. This is the path of a successful life before God. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out (Proverbs 18:15).” There are two elements that challenge the condition of our heart and help us discover where we are really placing our trust. To ignore this wisdom from these ancient writers will leave broken relationships in our path.
THE FIRST ELEMENT IN SECURING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS THE CONDITION OF OUR HEART AND SPEECH.
What comes from our mouths is actually a reflection of what is happening within our hearts. When our hearts are wrong, our messaging will reflect that. People who are contentious are consider foolish or lack wisdom. They are morally deficient and think only about themselves. What they say undermines the welfare not only of themselves but also of others.
The problem with unhealthy communication is that it is destructive to relationships and communities. Paul Koptak relates that, “the root of the word, ‘communication’ is to ‘have in common.’”[iv] Folly breeds isolation rather than community. To be a fool according to Proverbs is actually a moral condition. The foolish person is one who does not have the ‘fear of God, in their hearts.’ The fear of God is a humble respect that leads to obedience. Here we see the self-centeredness that leads to isolation.
An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.
Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.
When wickedness comes, so does contempt, and with shame comes reproach.[v]
This is the person who separates himself or isolates himself from others because he or she is consumed by their own antisocial desires. They alienate themselves from others. They are quarrelsome, or as translated here, ‘unfriendly.’ They have no interest in the other point of view or hearing what others think, but are full of their own viewpoint. When we consider what is happening in our culture right now, what we discover is that too many people are talking but very few are listening to what others of different opinions are actually saying. This is an attitude of contempt toward others. Much of the tensions we are seeing in our world today comes from this kind of contempt toward others. A wise person tries to understand where others are coming from.
C. P. Ellis was a textile worker who grew up learning to blame others for most of his problems, especially his financial struggles. A second-generation member of the Ku Klux Klan, he attended interracial civic meetings and was extremely vocal about his feelings toward other races. As a result, he was asked to work on policy projects with a black woman. The more the two worked together, disagreeing at every turn, the more they began to see clearly into each other’s lives. Each was criticized by their respective communities, and the children of both were harassed at school. Ellis’ mind began to change, and he eventually ran for president of his union to promote equal treatment of workers, reporting that he had listened to tapes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches with tears in his eyes.”[vi]
The wisdom writers discuss how the issues of our hearts affect how we see things. How we see life determines whether we make wise, just and righteous decisions which in turn impacts the health of relationships. When we address our prejudices like Ellis in the above example, we end up doing right by others. “It is not good to be partial to the wicked and so deprive the innocent of justice (Proverbs 18:5).” What comes from within us is expressed in our communication. The end result of wrong words is that they eventually affect the person who is saying those things. Jesus warns against idle or empty words, which are not only a reflection of the heart condition, but ultimately each person will be accountable for. Jesus, in warning some of the religious leaders of his day regarding the nature of their communication and how it was impacting others, said:
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks with what the heart is full of.
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.
For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.[vii]
What we need to pay attention to is how words originate from within the very essence of our being. The problem with words is the devastating impact those words have on our inner-most being. “The words of the mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream (Proverbs 18:4).” There are some differences of opinion by scholars as to the meaning of the text, but the majority see this as an antithetic meaning or a proverb sharing a contrast. This is how the NIV, KJV and the NRSV and many other commentators interpret this text by adding the word ‘but’ to demonstrate the contrast between the deeper waters and the ‘rushing stream.’ Bruce Waltke argues that
“Deep (yamuqqim) occurs 16 times, seven times in Leviticus 13 of a sore that is more than skin deep. Otherwise it is used in poetry of physical depth(s)’ always with the negative connotations of inaccessibility and /or foreboding danger. In that light the ‘deep water’ in 18:4 and 20:5 connotes that the person’s word and plans respectively are unfathomable, inaccessible, non-beneficial, and probably potentially dangerous.”[viii]
Simply stated, what we see is that words coming from our inner-most being can be dangerous. Wise words are refreshing, open and life giving. Words coming from a heart distorted by sin can be deceptive, manipulative and destructive both for the person speaking and those who are being affected by them. A few verses later we have one of the powerful examples of how damaging words really are and the impact they have on the human heart. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts (Proverbs 18:8).”
The Hebrew word here for gossip can also be translated ‘slander.’ To slander is to vilify a person. That is exactly what gossip is and does. Gossip here is described as a choice morsel that once eaten goes to the stomach or the inner-most part of our being. This form of communication creates division and contention between people.
Unlike the fool’s insolent speech that hurts himself in hurting others, gossip destroys the relationship of others, even the closest friends (16:28), and, spreading the controversy (26:20) like wildfire, alienates the victim from his community.”[ix]
Another interesting aspect is that the Hebrew word for choice morsels in all other times it is used in the O.T. is translated as grumbling and murmuring. These are all negative usages of our mouths and cause destruction both to the speaker and to those who listen. “The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives (Proverbs 18:6-7).”
In other words what gets us into trouble is our mouths, but that is only a symptom of something far deeper. The real issue is that our hearts need to be transformed by God. If we don’t address the heart issue it will ultimately catch up to us.
Think about what happened to Israel in the wilderness. What was the predominant heart condition? Ingratitude and complaint. That heart attitude and the ensuing verbal murmuring brought judgment upon them. The apostle Paul reminds us that we need to learn from this and not repeat that sinful behavior.
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.
Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.[x]
We use the expression when someone is complaining to us: ‘What’s eating you?’ Maybe it would be better stated: ‘What have you been eating?’ What we are taking into our lives affects us. Gossip, slander and evil reports about others goes into the very depths of our souls and affects us far more deeply than we can imagine. It can change our view or value of that person. So, what can we do? Stop listening to the evil reports, the gossip and rumors.
THE SECOND ELEMENT IN HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS IS THE IMPROPER TRUST IN WEALTH.
When we focus on things rather than people, we end up being impoverished. Where we invest our time and energy says much about where we are putting our confidence. Is it in our bank account or in our intimacy with God? So, what is the ultimate source of security and how does this affect our relationships?
Some people use money as a security and a means of power and influence at the expense of justice and healthy relationships. We are constantly bombarded with the messaging that safety comes from having economic security, but that can lead to the pursuit of riches, which is idolatry. The apostle Paul certainly understood that and reflects that thought in his letter to the Colossians. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming (Colossians 3:5-6).” The only real place of security is in our standing before God.
“The name of the LORD is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe. The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall too high to scale (Proverbs 18:10-11).” Here we have a contrast in these two proverbs of where the righteous put their trust and those who look to wealth. Though wealth is a help in this life, it is not the ultimate source of security. “It is true that wealth can help us navigate some problems in life, but it lets us down in the area of life’s ultimate issues.”[xi]
Notice the expression is that the wealthy imagine their riches as their security against any threat to their wellbeing. Yet, when disease strikes, or war, famine and plague, people realize how vulnerable they really are. There have been many moments in human history when all of these disasters came at once and left incredible devastation. We see this in our current context with Covid-19 affecting the lives of all of us. The wisdom writers point out, “Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor (Proverbs 18:12).” Here we see the connection between what the wealthy see as a wall too high and the heart that is lifted up. This expression of false trust in economic refuge shatters under certain conditions, like war, famine and pestilence. So, what is the proper response to the things that can destroy us? Here we see that ‘the righteous,’ run to the LORD, which is the right recourse. This is what humility is all about, our dependency upon God and not ourselves.
I have been pondering in my biblical readings recently regarding all the warnings of the prophets against idolatry in the land of Israel and Judah and how the warnings were ignored. The outcome of this lack of response to God brought the nation into exile from their ‘promised land.’ The idea of exile was in reality a breach in the nation’s relationship with God. Sin always creates that breach in our relationship with God. In Ezekiel, he warns against three major threats to the wellbeing of His covenant people. If they continued in their idolatry, they would experience war, famine and plague in which only those who were fully trusting in God would be spared. For those who were affluent and were trusting in their wealth, Ezekiel relates:
They will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will be treated as a thing unclean. Their silver and gold will not be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’S wrath. It will not satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs, for it has caused them to stumble into sin.[xii]
We have to ask ourselves, what are we trusting in? In many of the remaining Proverbs expressed here in chapter 18, we find that those trusting in their wealth are seen as imposing their will to accomplish their desires. “A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great (Proverbs 18:16).” Here we see that wealthy people use their resources to gain an audience with those who ‘bestow a favor.’ In the previous verse it states that ‘the heart of the discerning acquires knowledge for the ears of the wise seek it out,’ here as Paul Koptak states: “…the gift only seeks to buy access to power.”[xiii]
In the next few proverbs we have contention in relationships that require mediation. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines (Proverbs 18:17).” Wise people realize that there are two sides to every story. Just hearing one side appears plausible until both sides are heard and cross examination can be made to determine the nature of what is really happening. Yet, even when hearing both sides there are things that are concealed and only God fully knows what is happening. To be able to decide requires God’s intervention. One of the means in the Old Testament to determine the mind and will of God was in the form of casting a lot. The High Priest would use this means to determine God’s will. “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart (Proverbs 18:18).” What is being expressed is the necessity of determining the mind and will of God in order to settle disputes. “ The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD (Proverbs 16:33).” This method to determine the mind of God is not supported in the New Testament, as we now have God’s word and the Holy Spirit within us to determine God’s will. Yet, there are moments when contention can arise even between believers. One of the saddest things is when finances become an issue. The apostle Paul addressed the issue of lawsuits between believers in his Corinthian letter (I Cor. 6:1-11). He tells them to go to mature believers to mediate the conflict. He even challenges them to suffer being wronged. What is important is that we entrust our case before God. We might not find justice in this earthly life, but rest assured, God will address the issue ultimately. One of the great tragedies today is that there are professing Christians who defraud others and Paul states that they are deceived if they think they can behave like that. People who slander and swindle people reveal the true condition of their inner-most being, and it comes from an unregenerated heart. This is one indication that they are not a part of God’s kingdom and never will be unless they repent. When we betray those that are closest to us, we can expect difficulty in restoring relationships. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel (Proverbs 18:19).”
Wise or godly people place a greater value on relationships rather than things. Henri Nouwen wrote to his nephew following the emerging prosperity that had come to the Netherlands following WW II. I have noticed one thing in particular: increasing prosperity has not made people more friendly toward one another. They’re better off, but the new-found wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community. I get the impression that people are more preoccupied with themselves and have less time for one another than when they didn’t possess so much. There’s more competitiveness, more envy, more unrest, and more anxiety. There’s less opportunity to relax, to get together informally, and enjoy the little things in life. Success has isolated a lot of people and made them lonely. It seems sometimes as though meetings between people generally happen on the way to something or someone else. There’s always something else more important, more pressing, of more consequence… And the higher up you get on the ladder of prosperity, the harder it becomes to be together, to sing together, to pray together, and to celebrate life together in a spirit of thanksgiving.
[i] Michael Green, ed. Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 300.
[ii] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 448.
[iii] David A. Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator’s Commentary, 15A, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1989), 266.
[iv] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 456.
[v] Proverbs 18:1-3, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[vi] S Terkel, American Dreams: Lost and Found, (New York: Ballantine, 1981), 221-33, as quoted in R. Anderson and V. Ross, Questions of Communication, 3rd ed. (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002), 246-247 as quoted in Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, , (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 459-460.
[vii] Matthew 12:34-37.
[viii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 71-72.
[ix] Ibid, 73-73.
[x] 1 Corinthians 10:1, 5-6, 10.
[xi] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 357.
[xii] Ezekiel 7:19.
[xiii] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, 452.