Setting the Whole World on Fire


The power and moral substance that reside in words, according to Scripture, presents a daunting challenge to the Christian. When Jesus said that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” he gave notice of how human expression gauges moral reality. When he went on to speak of good trees and bad trees producing fruit according to its kind, he then applied it to words that come from the abundance of the heart. Fast forwarding to the day of judgment, he warned, “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.” (Matthew 12:32, 33, 37). These words about words, therefore, that we find in Proverbs, are relevant and should inform our speech each day.

I. Sometimes it is better to say Nothing -Proverbs 17: 27, 28; 21:23; 10:19; Cf. James 1:19, 26

A.  Proverbs 10:19, 11:13; 17:27, 21:23 point to the occasional reality that silence often demonstrates great wisdom and intelligent patience. James admonishes that we should be “slow to speak” and goes on the say, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Discerning the occasion when words would merely corrupt a situation calls for understanding, sobriety and moral judgment. Corrupt and destructive uses of words include divisiveness (through slander and gossip) [Pr. 12:18; 16;28; 17:9] and flattery, [28:23; 29:5; Ps 5:9] and slander (even when what is said might be true, the result of telling it is not light unto holiness, but debasing of relationship. Sometimes covering means deceit and the attempt to hide evil as in Luke 12:2, 3, but sometimes it means respect and love for the well-being of another person. “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (11:13). The more one gives vent to his words, the more likely he is to tap into stores of unsanctified anger, selfishness, envy, and resentment (“When words are many, transgression is not lacking.”) Silence, therefore, expresses self-knowledge, a wisely mortified spirit, and prudence and avoids the great probability of giving offense and generating unproductive, uninstructive, and unedifying conflict.

B. To lodge the instruction of prudential silence in the mind, the proverbialist in 17:28 notes that even a fool can give the impression of wisdom if he simply avoids speaking. This is not quite the same, but close, to the wag’s advice, “You can remain silent and let people think you are a fool, or you can speak and remove all doubt.”

II. Sometimes speech creates stress and sometimes it heals the spirit – 12:17-19; 18:19-21; 11:13

A. Without words it is impossible to give expression to the truth. In Proverbs 12:17-19 we find these three phrases in juxtaposition to their deadly contrast. “Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, . . . the tongue of the wise brings healing [and]truthful lips endure forever.” The apostles knew that they must use words, both spoken and written to bear witness to what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:18-20; 5:28-32); The evidence of the change of heat wrought in conversion is found in confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord; willingness to be found with Christ even in reproach finds expression in continually offering “up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)

B. If words, however, are governed by a deceitful or hateful heart, or a foolish and incautious spirit, they can do great harm. Words tend to create a reality in the minds of those that hear them. From that supposed reality speculation develops until an episode of life is invented out of whole cloth that has no foot in reality and that establishes blame and opprobrium toward an unwitting and innocent party. The shelf-life, however, of such a tongue is short. So the dark side of words appears in these verses (12_17-19) as a blistering warning to make truth, honesty, and compassion the driving force in the use of the tongue “A false witness utters deceit. There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, . . . but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”

III. Words can create or cloak reality – Proverbs 26:20-24; 10:18

A. Words become the substance of destruction and strife. According to 26:20, 21 just as fire ceases, or never starts, where there is no fuel, so quarreling does not develop when a person of contentious words is not present. Paul warned against teachers that have no substance or truth in what they say, but they merely are out for a following and they create strife, deceit, and false teaching along the way (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

B. Words can be designed to create a false persona [26:23, 24]. In the same way that words reveal the character of a person’s heart, a deceiver can use his tongue to create a veneer of respectability (“Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent lips with an evil heart”), or even trustworthiness, when his motive is to create venues of advance in pleasure, possessions, and power for himself.  Jude warned against “loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage” (16).

IV. Carefully used in the right context, words bring refreshment – 25:11-13

A. Note the descriptive words when certain words are commended: “A word fitly  spoken”; “a wise reprover:” “ a faithful messenger.”  Even these words indicate the danger of speech, for it is helpful when pursued considerately, with insight, in truth, and with intent to edify.

B. Note that two of the similes (verses 11, 12) have to do with beauty. The gift of language is a beautiful thing in itself, and, when used for perverse ends, gives even greater distress because of the radical difference between the beauty of the vessel and the ugliness of the cargo. God’s eternal Son is called the Word, who is said to uphold the universe by the “word of his power.” Jesus’ own words carry such a weight f substance that he sets forth final judgment in the realm of hearing his words and doing them, on the one hand, and hearing his words and not doing them, on the other (Matthew 7:24, 26). When words, the gift of language and communication, are used corruptly it is an especially grave offense. Our depravity has manifested itself particularly in the use of speech: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Romans 3:13, 14). When used properly, therefore, human language is a reflection of the image of God both in a natural capacity and in spiritual quality. Both the vessel and the cargo are lovely, so “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

C. The other simile points to reinvigoration when energy and strength are gone. Knowing that a message will be delivered truthfully invigorates and gives strength to the one that sends him. For the task of being a prophet, Isaiah recognized particularly the sinfulness of his lips; the cleansing of the lips constituted the preparation of Isaiah for his call to a faithful ministry.” It was to be message of judgment (Isaiah 6:11, 12; eg 32:9-11) and comfort (40:1-5). The difficulty and complexity of this message required a faithful messenger. We see the same attention to the mouth in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:9 “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.” Then after a vision which implied watchful attention, God said, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”). The false prophets wearied Jehovah. In Jeremiah Jehovah said of them, “By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed.” (Jeremiah 14:15). Priests who should have taught truth made many stumble. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your instruction.” (Malachi 2:7-9) This reality shows why Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest man born of women (Luke 7:28) for his message was true; it was delivered faithfully in spite of ridicule, and the words were the most significant that any prophet had ever spoken, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Malachi, reporting the words of Jehovah, called him “My messenger and he will prepare the way before me.” And the people observed about John the Baptist, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” Paul knew the Apostolic calling demanded such a faithful messenger: “As men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:17) Also, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but out sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.” (2 Corinthians 3:5, 6). Again this task of receiving a message from the Master whose word must be delivered inviolably burdened Paul’s mind when he wrote, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy,” that is, “a faithful messenger to those who send him.” (Proverbs 25:13)

V. Sometimes, not to say something is a sin – 31:8, 9

A. These are words that the king’s mother taught him. He is not to pass over the powerless and poor in the administration of his kingdom. Rather he is to speak out for their rights. They are not to be trampled on by those that have social or economic advantage, but must have justice done for them. He is not to be as Ahab who stole Naboth’s vineyard, consenting to the devious wickedness of his wife Jezebel, but must use words, perhaps make laws in the form of royal proclamations, that institute justice, for the benefit of those that have no recourse but to such verbal propositions and the integrity of those that will enforce them.

B. Here we must point to the fulfillment of this picture of a just king in the person of Christ whose words were always in accord with truth and justice. Jesus Himself is called “the messenger of the covenant.” In his teaching as well as in his doing, he always spoke truth and established the perfect justice of God. One of the signs of his messiahship that he gave to John the Baptist was that “the poor have good news preached to them.” His voice was effectual for “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus used the formula “Verily (or truly) I say to you” 29 times. Although some of the occasions are duplicates, Mark and Luke use that wording 23 times together, and then John adds another 24 occasions. Jesus had absolute confidence that his words were true, even when he spoke about the future, about heaven, about judgment, about salvation, about things impossible for anyone else to know. He eschewed any pretension to a kingdom of this present age, but manifested himself as the one that was heir to the throne of David (Matthew 21). Jesus is the fulfillment of the just king that speaks words of truth and justice and shall be the just judge in the final day.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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