As we look once again into the book of Proverbs, we soon remember how difficult it is to read a chapter of this book like we’d read a chapter of any other book. As we go on in Proverbs, we soon realise that these sayings only yield their full meaning when read cumulatively, and no one saying on its own gives the whole picture. So Proverbs 18 may look like a series of random couplets, some of them unrelated to others, some repeating what came before or appeared elsewhere in this book of wisdom literature, some maybe qualifying or even seeming to contradict other statements.
And yet Proverbs 18 does have an interesting thread, bound together by sayings around words, mouths, lips, opinions, rumours, tongues, quarrels, stating a case, and speaking in haste. The text reminds us of some stinging truths – how easily we draw conclusions from hearing the bad report of a single person, forgetting that there must be another side to the story. Rumours and whispers are said to be like delicious morsels, our sinful nature latches onto them and gains some secret delight from the revelations, and they are said to ‘sink deep into the heart’ (verse 8). Then we are tempted to speak, to express opinions, before we see the full picture “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Proverbs 18:13 NLT).
The wise don’t allow this – they understand that there is a fuller picture, another side, and they keep an open mind until that picture emerges. They keep the bad report to themselves, maintaining quiet discretion and not allowing it to colour their opinion.
But its not only whispered words that are harmful. Words used openly and recklessly are said to pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18), and they hold the power of life and death. Words can be truly soul destroying.
Then, in the midst of this proverb, we see something that looks a bit out of place. “The human spirit can endure a sick body, but who can bear a crushed spirit?” (Proverbs 18:14 NLT). A sick, weak and broken body can be sustained with difficulty by a strong spirit, but a broken spirit cannot be endured, even by the physically strongest person. Now we begin to see how reckless words, hurtful outbursts, rumours and whispers can be so destructive. They destroy reputations, they break down trust, they assign labels such as ‘stupid’ or ‘worthless’ that drag people down like millstones. They truly crush the spirit like nothing else can.
And the greatest indictment is that this is not only a problem for unbelievers, for whom the tongue may be the weapon of choice, but also for us in the church. James, Peter and Paul all confirm this in their epistles. As we reflect on this chapter of Proverbs, let us pray for the Lord to help us to control our tongues so that we don’t crush people’s spirits. Let us plead with our Saviour every day to stand watch over our ears so we don’t hear the whispers, and to guard our tongues so that we don’t unleash its deadly poison (James 3:8). Let us ask for the Spirit’s help so that we never rush into unjust judgements, nor share those delicious morsels of rumour and gossip. Finally, may the Lord help us not to use words that cut down and diminish the hearer. Instead, “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29 NLT).