Wise speech marked Jesus out. But is it something we can learn?
When I was in corporate jobs I received quite a bit of training on presenting and speaking. The reason is that words are powerful. You might have a great idea, or important information, but if you can’t articulate yourself then no-one will ever hear what you have to say. The encouraging thing about this is that the corporate world believes you can change the way you speak. You can improve, change, become clearer.
Proverbs has much to say about good use of words. And you can learn, change, and grow in wisdom.
Mind your words
The Bible makes it clear over and over how powerful words are.
Proverbs 18:21 The tongue can bring death or life;
those who love to talk will reap the consequences.
In the New Testament, James has much to say. Read James 3:1-12. James points out the power of the tongue, and words. He emphasises the danger of harmful words. He shows how awful it is that one moment you say “Praise the Lord” and the next you say something unkind about someone.
Proverbs also has much to say about the possible harm from words, but we want to harness the power of words for good.
Our verses in Chapter 25 help us do just that. Read Proverbs 25:9-10. What’s the scenario?
- Someone (a neighbour, a friend) has wronged you in some way. Maybe someone else has too.
- Deal with each person directly. Don’t bring the other into it.
- “You did such-and-such, and so-and-so did it too” – no need to bring everyone’s dirt out for all to see.
- You end up looking like a loose-mouthed gossip.
- People will be slower to trust you in future.
It can be done with good intentions. You’re speaking to someone about their sin or temptation, and you think you’re being helpful with “Yes, I remember so-and-so doing the same thing.”
No. Wisdom says the right thing to the right person. Remember Matthew 18:15-19 where Jesus gives instruction on how to deal with a Christian who wrongs you. The starting place is to say the right thing to the right person.
Now read Proverbs 25:11. The idea here is that you have a proverb or wise advice – it’s a lovely thing, lovely as a golden apple.
- But to say it at the wrong time can just be stupid or hurtful.
- It just sounds like, “I told you so” – rarely helpful.
- So the emphasis here is on “timely”. To offer wise advice at just the right time puts the lovely advice in a lovely place, like a golden apple in a silver basket.
So wisdom speaks the right thing to the right person at the right time. But wisdom also knows how to listen. Read Proverbs 25:12. Your ear is decorated with gold if you use it to listen well. What does that have to do with your own words? You’re unlikely to speak wisely until you have listened well. Listen with a humble ear.
Now read Proverbs 25:13. There are quite a few proverbs about messengers. In the days before text, email, even letters, you’d send a messenger. You’d hope he’d actually remember the message and deliver it faithfully, as the sender intended. A messenger like that is a delight to their employer! (Think of sending a child to a shop for something!) It requires (a) attentive listening to the sender, (b) clear delivery of the message, (c) humility not to embellish or distort the message.
Christ has sent us all into the world to tell his message. You will delight him with your attentive listening, your clear and faithful delivery, your humble accuracy. Delight your master; deliver his message.
And then read Proverbs 25:14.
- Jude uses a similar image to describe false teachers who sound amazing but deliver no good thing.
- Your own words might sound amazing, but your heart can harbour all sorts. You promise much; you give little.
- E.g. “I love the church!” But you do so little for it.
- The commandment not to take the LORD’s name in vain isn’t about swearing. It’s a command not to take his name (“I’m a Christian”) and empty that of meaning.
Wise words are to the right person, at the right time, sensitive to the person, true to Christ.
Listen to yourself speak
Now, back in the corporate world, a few times I was part of meetings that were subject to “conversational analysis” – who spoke? How helpful was it? Who took over? Who was silent? Think back to a conversation you had with someone this week with someone outside your immediate family. A proper chat.
What’s it like to be in a conversation with you?
- Conversation works in turns. But did you dominate your conversation? Was it more one-way than two-way?
- Did you say, “Yes, and…” or was it all “Yes, but…” – did you build or only contradict and break down?
- When you spoke, did you ask questions, or were you mostly making statements?
- Did you ever interrupt?
- Were you competing, trying to get one-up?
- If you listen to conversations around you with these sorts of questions you will hear a lot of self-absorption, like conversational selfies. And you will see yourself, too.
But wise speech is the right thing to the right person, at the right time, listening with humility, seasoned with Christ’s own message of hope and life, with you being faithful and true to him. You can change. You must. There are big reasons:
Christ our example
It’s no surprise that Jesus himself should be our great example of someone wise in speech. The 4 four gospels record 339 questions that Jesus asked. Jesus knew the answers, but he was trying to engage, create conversation, encourage people to think, or even challenge someone else’s question.
It’s interesting to compare his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 with his talk with the woman of Samaria in John 4.
- Nicodemus was a respected religious leader and teacher.
- The woman of Samaria was a non-Jewish sinner – the very last kind of person anyone would have expected Jesus to spend time with.
He spoke with each according to where they were in their understanding of God. He asked questions. Then he listened to their answers and replied truthfully, clearly, helpfully. Both Nicodemus and the woman were driven to think through what Jesus was saying – and think what it would ask of them.
Proverbs 25 applied
So, with Proverbs 25 as our framework:
- V9-10 He spoke the right thing to the right person. He chose his words well and used language that would be helpful to each one.
- V11 Jesus spoke at the right time. Both Nicodemus and the woman found their conversations with Jesus uncomfortable, but challenging: Gold in a silver basket.
- V12 Jesus listened to them, which meant they were far, far more likely to listen to him.
- He never once said, “That’s just like me… I know how you feel… That happened to me…”
- You do that more than you realise. You can change.
- V13 Jesus knew he was sent into the world by the Father. He came to do his Father’s will. He delighted to do it – and the Father who sent him was “well pleased” and told 3 disciples to “listen to him”.
- But what you see from the conversations with Nicodemus and the woman is that how you deliver that message will vary person to person.
- V14 Christ was always who he said he was. He could be firm, gentle, violent, subtle, physical, verbal – but his perfect godly character was unchangeably consistent.
And, of course, his words are different from ours. But his use of words with people will always be something to learn and copy. But we can think even more theologically about words:
The Word made flesh
God’s words are especially powerful!
Read Psalm 33:6-9.
- “Let there be light” is a command (3rd person imperative).
- He commanded everything to exist.
- Specifically, he used words.
We even have his words recorded for us in the Bible. Jesus could say (Matthew 24:35) “Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.” But God has also spoken to us through his very particular “word”.
John 1:1 (CSB) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
- The Word. The expression of God.
- I can have a thought in my mind, unseen and unknown to you.
- I express that thought in a word. There is a union between the word and the thought.
- I speak that word – my breath breathes it out for you to hear.
- God is Spirit; unseen and unknowable to us, naturally.
- The Son is (Heb 1:3) the exact expression of [God’s] nature – like a plaster cast mould for making a replica of something – the infinite God. God begets God!
Can you sum up God in a single Word? Jesus (the whole person) is that word
- The Spirit is the breath that enables you to hear the word
Like Father, like Son
We mustn’t ever think of Jesus only as a man walking between Judea and Galilee. He was that. And he was (is) also the eternal Son of God. The Son is the exact Word, the perfect expression and revelation of the Father. So much so that Jesus could say “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9).
The infinite Son, the perfect Word and expression and revelation of the Father, has taken on flesh – become human – to come and save you from your sin.
- It is an act of astonishing condescension.
- He does not need you for anything. His bliss is independent of you.
- And yet, the God who spoke to nothingness and created everything has also spoken to us, his creatures, through his Son.
God’s word to you
Proverbs 25 is taken to a whole new level:
- Wisdom speaks the right thing to the right person. God speaks to you through his Son and calls you to salvation.
- Wisdom speaks at the right time. You were spiritually dead – a corpse – unable to do anything spiritually at all. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Timely indeed.
- Wisdom listens. The Spirit grants life for you to hear this Good News – that “wisdom” is granted to you. And in his infinite wisdom, he hears you when you pray.
- He hears you when you pray. Ponder that.
- Do you listen to him? Will you change?
- The Son of God delighted the Father by doing all he was sent to do – and still does, sending the Spirit out into the world to convict people of sin and to grant forgiveness.
- And God is all he is all the time – he cannot be otherwise.
These words about words in Proverbs 25 reflect the very nature of God. He is wisdom. Jesus is the wisdom of God. Jesus spoke beautifully, powerfully, helpfully, savingly. He sends you and me out to speak his word to others. In all your conversation, you are to be like him.
Listen to yourself; listen to others; think; repent; change. Growth in wisdom is growth in Christ, is growth in wisdom…