A sermon on the book of Proverbs by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 3 June 2018.
Audrey Hepburn once said, “If you ever need a helping hand, you will always find one at the end of your own arm. As you grow older you will find that you have two hands: one for helping yourself and one for helping others.” It’s a great quote that illustrates the power of words to open our minds, to change the way we think about ourselves and the world, to change the way we behave.
Many people are dismissive of the power of words. Actions, they say, speak louder than words. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But they ignore the fact that words inspire, words bring hope, words create new possibilities and open doors to new opportunities. With words we seal agreements, we make commitments, we end wars or keep the peace. The right word spoken by the right person at the right time in the right way can save the lives of thousands of people.
But what has enormous power for good can have the same power for evil. With words we can destroy reputations, ruin friendships, stir up arguments and bring down empires. The two most influential men of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, both knew the power of words. One of them sparked a war that killed 50 million people. The other not only led the defence of his country, but brought lasting peace to Europe for the first time in generations.
Words have the power of life and death. This power is shown in the book of Proverbs in two simple ways. Firstly, that these proverbs, these concise general statements, were collected at all and published in Holy Scripture is evidence of the power of words. And secondly, the fact that so many of the proverbs concern what we say and how we say it.
However, the sample of the proverbs that we took in the first three readings this morning also illustrates one of the problems we face in dealing with the proverbs. So, let’s look firstly at the organization of the Proverbs. They are only roughly organised according to theme, according to what the proverbs are about. In Proverbs 10, verses 6 to 14, most of the verses talk about talking. But verse 9 doesn’t, and verse 12 only probably does. The other two passages in chapter 17 and chapter 25 are the same. They aren’t organised by the theme, by the subject. The proverbs seem a bit jumbled together, as if the wise person has to digest the whole book’s message in order to understand any part of it.
The organising principle of the book of Proverbs is not subject or theme – proverbs about speaking in this chapter here, proverbs about money in that chapter there. It isn’t. If they have been organised together it seems to be on the basis of the kind of proverb.
Chapters 10 to 15 are full of contrasts. They have the little word but at the beginning of the second line:
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.
Ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but righteousness delivers from death.
Sometimes the contrast is between wisdom and foolishness or between righteousness and wickedness. Sometimes the contrast is between God’s approval or disapproval or between success and failure or wealth and poverty. Sometimes the connection is hard to see, but just one good point put next to a bad point. These chapters are dominated by contrast.
Chapters 16 to 22 are dominated by connections. The second half of the verse tends to either clarify the first half or explain it or make some kind of comparison:
Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.
Kings detest wrongdoing, because a throne is established through righteousness.
Then chapters 23 to 30 contain longer proverbs that maintain the same point over 2 or 3 or more verses:
Do not gloat when your enemy falls, when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.
Our three readings this morning came from each of these sections of the book of Proverbs. Together they build a picture that is worth more than a thousand words that we should watch what we say because our words, and the way we say them, possess the power of life and death.
Let’s look secondly at words of death. Proverbs chapter 10 verse 8 says,
“The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin.”
A chattering fool is someone who does not watch what they say. They speak impulsively. They can’t stop themselves. They say the wrong thing and they say too much. They give bad advice and they hurt people’s feelings without thinking. “I just speak my mind,” they say. “I just say whatever I’m thinking.” In the same way that a thief just takes whatever he wants.
A chattering fool may not mean to offend, but that doesn’t reduce the damage of what they say. They will come to ruin because they will lose a friend or they will make an enemy or they will betray a secret that they cannot afford.
For the same reason “violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked”. The chattering fool speaks impulsively, without thinking. But the wicked mean to cause harm by what they say. They slander the innocent, meaning that they make false accusations of wrongdoing against people who aren’t guilty of anything. They gossip behind people’s back, meaning that they spread stories about other people that may or may not be true but are intended to hurt their reputation or to get them into trouble. They give false testimony in court, telling lies so that the innocent are found guilty or so that the guilty are found innocent. They mock the poor, making fun of their misfortune. They make arrogant boasts, claiming credit for things that aren’t real. They betray confidences, telling secrets that had been entrusted with them. They repeat stories about how someone did something bad to someone else, so that the quarrel gets worse instead of just blowing over. They tell lies so that someone else will believe something that isn’t true or do something that isn’t wise. They make promises they never intend to keep. The wicked do all these things in cold blood, in advance, knowing full well what they are doing. It isn’t stupid, it is wicked.
The chattering fool on the other hand, an impulsive person might do the same sort of things in hot blood, so to speak. They do the same things, they cause the same harm without meaning to. They speak what’s on their mind and there’s nothing on their mind. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, when they are angry. A quarrel is started. Words are said, and once they are out that can’t be taken back. The words we say, the comments we make, the letters and emails we write, the text messages we send, are like autumn leaves blown by the wind that can’t be raked up, and if they can be raked up they can’t be put back on the tree. Our words are like a spark and they can start a bushfire that can go out of control.
Let’s look thirdly at words of life. And the first thing a wise person does is to control their tongue. Proverbs chapter 17 says,
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent. Even a fool is thought discerning if he holds his tongue.
Or as I like to paraphrase it, “Silence is often mistaken for wisdom.” The wise person can keep a secret. The wise person might overhear rumours but doesn’t have to pass them on. The wise person thinks before they speak when a thoughtless word spoken in haste might have caused incalculable damage. No one else may ever know about the nasty remark you bit back or the letter you screwed up before you mailed it or the email you deleted before you sent it that could have ended a friendship. But you will know it, and that control will bring more satisfaction than you can imagine.
But if not speaking the wrong word can be so rewarding, imagine what it would be like to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Proverbs chapter 25 says,
A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
Meaning both beautiful and priceless. The wise tell the truth and can be trusted and believed. The wise point out a fault to a friend in private without drawing anyone else’s attention to it. The wise give a word of encouragement at just the right time to pick up those whom others are trying to crush. The wise give good advice when it is asked for and when it is wanted. In this way, as Proverbs chapter 10 says,
the mouth of the wise is a fountain of life.
The fountain here is not water being pumped out of a statue. A fountain is a spring of water gushing up out the ground. A fountain provides pure water filtered by layers and layers of rock, when a river or creek might be full of silt or carrying garbage and disease from the next town upstream. It is a source of life that can be depended on. Such are the words of the righteous, of those who fear the Lord because they trust him. Their words bring life. They heal arguments. They restore hope. They encourage the down hearted. They correct sinners. They give sound advice. Their words are powerful for the good of others.
Words have this power because God is a God who speaks. He created everything by his word of command. His word expresses his will and what he says happens. He has revealed his will to us in his law and in his prophets. But he has spoken most clearly to us through his Son Jesus Christ who is God’s eternal Word.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The Word was God with God, distinct from God and yet truly God. Just as my word is me in my absence expressing my will and purpose, so the Son is God’s divine message.
And the Word became flesh,
a human being, a person like us. This is God’s message to us that he was willing to be with us. That he would not stand for it that we would live and then die without him but that he would be with us so that we might live with him. Jesus Christ is God with us. The words and actions of Jesus reveal the Father, they express his will, they keep his promises, they achieve his purpose for the world. If you know him you know the Father. And the Father’s purpose was the death of his Son, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to him. Through his cross and his empty tomb, God still speaks his word, his gospel, his promise and his command, calling us to repent of the sins for which Jesus died and to trust in him.
We share communion which is God’s word, his gospel to us in action. Breaking the bread which represents the body of Jesus. Drinking the wine which represents his blood. Feeding on him by faith. Jesus is our Lord, our Saviour, our Master, our Friend. He is the Word of life. He is the Word of God that creates new things. He is the Word of God that brings us new life.
And so our words matter. God made us by his word, and he has saved us through his Son, his eternal word. God spoke to us and he created us to speak. Through our words we too become creators, makers of new things and of new possibilities. And so our words contain power for either good or evil, to bring life or death. We can make good things, beautiful things, priceless things. New thoughts. New hope. New choices. We can make good things with our words. The right person speaking the right word at the right time in the right way can be a fountain of life. Or we can make bad things worse.
So we have only two choices. We must control our tongue or our tongue will end up controlling us.