Words are not trivial. As Proverbs says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (18:21). Words hurt, and they heal; they destroy, and they restore. Leaders can move markets, nations, and peoples—toward both greatness and disaster—with their words. Mothers and fathers nurture their children—and wound them—with their words. We may never take up arms against others, but many of us do far greater damage with words than we could ever manage with a weapon. Yet the wise person, God teaches, uses words to bring life.
The book of Proverbs is the Bible’s book of wisdom for living, and standing out among its many concerns is the matter of words and how we use them. If we want to speak in a way that brings life instead of death, there is practical advice to heed in this book of Scripture. We may look to them to learn how our words can glorify God.
Our Words Should Be True
“Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.” (Prov. 24:26)
Sales are often secured on promises that salespeople know they won’t keep. And this problem is not unique to them. In academia, in politics, in families, and even in churches, dishonest speech is rampant.
But if we want our words give life, then they need always to be true—not just technically true, but fully honest. We need to tell it straight and not deceive others with clever evasions and strategic silences. That is not to say that absolutely everything we know to be true needs to be said, but every answer we give ought to be both true and sincere. This sort of honesty is a refreshing gesture of love to our neighbor: it “kisses the lips.”
When Paul describes our spiritual armor in Ephesians 6, the first piece, and the one that holds everything else in place, is “the belt of truth” (v. 14). If we leave off truth, if we talk out of both sides of our mouth, if we cease to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), we will wreak havoc in our relationships and in the fellowship of God’s church. But choosing honest speech honors God and brings blessing to those around us.
Our Words Should Be Few
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Prov. 10:19)
There are many reasons we speak when we shouldn’t. Sometimes we speak because we feel bad, and it makes us feel better to lash out. Other times, our words come because we are under pressure, and we try to relieve our stress by spreading it around to others.
This verse is a helpful reminder that we should speak with intentionality and not just for the sake of speaking. The difficult truth is that when we give our tongues free rein, they tend to do more harm than good. It is far better to refrain from speaking at all unless we are doing so to give life with our words.
If we leave off truth, if we talk out of both sides of our mouth, if we cease to speak the truth in love, we will wreak havoc in our relationships and in the fellowship of God’s church.
If we would sit down at night and honestly review our day, we would quickly discover the prevalence of sin in our many words. Perhaps our words were true but unkind, true but unnecessary, true but unhelpful. Our speech can become more honoring to God as we decide to slow down and keep our words few.
Our Words Should Be Gentle
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1)
When somebody who is abusive, unkind, or judgmental speaks, the tendency in many of our hearts is to retaliate. We replay those conversations in our minds and think, “If I would have said that, that would have fixed them once and for all.” Be thankful that you missed the opportunity to reply! A gentle response gives time for tempers to cool and for a fair healing.
A soft word needs time to work. Parents often discipline their children loudly or harshly in the moment, but it is usually when they sit with their arm around a shoulder, speaking softly and patiently, that children respond with tears and repentance. We tend to think that the louder we get, the more impact we will have, but God’s wisdom says this is not true. Rather, “with patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Prov. 25:15). Patience, softness, and gentleness—laced with truth and intentionality—make a real difference.
Our Words Should Be Timely
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Prov. 25:11)
One word or phrase can have the amazing ability to lift someone up or tear them down. Think of the impact that an unexpected word of harsh criticism can have on you. But by the same token, sometimes it takes just one word of kindness to lift the drooping head of a friend. Something as simple as “Hey, it was terrific seeing you” can be the encouraging word needed to brighten someone’s day. It is a beautiful and valuable ornament that can grace our speech.
Timely words bring joy to those who receive them and to us as we give them: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). It is a great benefit to pay attention to others and consider the words of encouragement that will build them up in the seasons they are in.
Our Words Should Be Thoughtful
“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” (Prov. 15:28)
The picture is vivid: folly rushes forth unhindered from a wicked heart, but wisdom is possessed of thought. We ought to be asking ourselves not just “Are my words wise and godly?” but “Are my thoughts wise and godly?” It is what we say when we think no one is listening that reveals what our words are really like.
Jesus taught this very thing when he rebuked the religious leaders of His day:
You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:34–37)
It is our “careless,” thoughtless words which God will ask us about when we stand before Him—words spoken unguardedly in front of our children, silly words, vaguely inappropriate words, harsh labels, and more. Because these words reveal the true condition of our hearts, God will be more interested in them than in what we may say at Bible study. It is necessary, then, that we think about our words and what lies underneath them so that our speech may honor Jesus’ work of righteousness in our lives.
The Maker of Words
Our words matter. Are we bringing life with the way we speak to our spouses, our children, our parents, and our siblings? Are we honoring God in the way we speak in the workplace, the community, and in the church?
While it is important that we mark our words, our tongues may only be brought under control by the one who made them: Jesus, the incarnate Word (John 1:1–14). He had the power to still the waves because He made the ocean. He could give sight to the blind because He formed their eyes. He alone has the power to come to a swearing, cutting, barbarous, spiteful, gossiping tongue and make it brand-new so that it is trained and ordered to speak that which builds up, exalts, and encourages.
As you assess your speech, don’t trust in your own determination and willpower to tame your tongue, because “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). Instead, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and give you the grace to apply this wisdom in your life.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Mark My Words” by Alistair Begg.