You are in a difficult trial. It is bearing down on you as a heavy weight. Then, just when you need a spiritual boost, at services the minister says something as though he is speaking directly to you. It may be corrective, or it may be reassuring. “A man has joy in making an apt answer, and a word spoken at the right moment—how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23; Amplified Version). The minister may have no idea that what he said was the right word at the right moment for you, but it was inspired by God to encourage you in that trial. And how good that is!
This highlights a fundamental truth. Whatever the minister said that was special or important to you shows us that words have power and meaning. God’s inspired words give light and understanding (Psalm 119:130). Words can be truth (Proverbs 22:21). Words can be righteous (Proverbs 8:8). Words can be pure (Psalm 12:6). Words bring wisdom (Proverbs 1:2). They can be sweet and as pleasant as a honeycomb (Psalm 141:6; Proverbs 16:24).
By contrast, words can also be full of iniquity and deceit (Psalm 36:3). They can be bitter and full of hatred (Psalm 64:3; 109:3). Words can flatter (Proverbs 7:5). Words can be grievous (Proverbs 15:1), and words can make one foolish (Ecclesiastes 10:13).
Let’s examine one proverb that highlights this special truth that words have power and meaning. If we apply this proverb, it will change our relationships, either with our spiritual family or our physical family. It is Proverbs 12:18.
Note that this proverb, like most others, is written in an antithetical style, meaning it shows a negative and then a positive application of a principle. Let’s consider the negative aspect of this proverb first.
Words Can Wound
Proverbs 12:18 begins, “There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword ….”
King David wrote often of this destructive power of words. “My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and the tongue a sharp sword. … The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords” (Psalm 57:4; 55:21). David felt the sting of words whose teeth were like “spears and arrows.” He felt the pain of a tongue like a “sword,” speaking sharp, cutting words.
Surely you too have been on the receiving end of a cutting word that caused hurt or a slandering word that wounded your reputation. Perhaps you have heard whispered abusive words that are “softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.” These words cut as surely as a sword, slicing asunder the bonds of friendship and love. “A froward [or perverse] man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends” (Proverbs 16:28).
Or perhaps you have been the one with “teeth [like] spears and arrows,” wielding your tongue like a sword. “[G]rievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). These are designed to inflict damage on another person. The damage is not seen physically as one struck with a sword, but the emotional injury these words cause can be devastating.
Just as prophesied, our world in this end time is filled with “scoffers” and “mockers” (2 Peter 3:3; Jude 18). This corrosive attitude is a curse in our modern age.
This “curse” can lead to another insidious aspect of words that wound. This can impact our lives so subtly, we may not even realize we are doing it.
How? Sarcasm: saying something we think is ironic or witty that actually means the opposite of what we are saying. The Greek word for sarcasm, sarkasmós, means a “sneer, taunt or mockery.” Sarcasm can develop out of a cynical, mocking attitude. Merriam-Webster defines sarcasm as “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or to give pain.” Healthguidance.org explains, “Sarcasm is very simply put when someone says something that everyone knows is untrue in order to draw attention to its ridiculousness. When it is used aggressively then, this will often mean taking what you have said out of context and exaggerating it to the point where it appears stupid or inane. [I]t is often essentially a mockery of your original comment, which is why it can be so hurtful and destructive” (Oct. 15, 2019). Sarcasm acts like a verbal hypodermic needle that delivers a “deadly poison” (James 3:8).
Evaluate your own speech. How often do you speak words that pierce and wound like weapons?
Words Can Heal
“[B]ut there is healing power in thoughtful words” (Proverbs 12:18; Moffatt translation). Words can heal!
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). A “fitly spoken” word has great value, especially when spoken with outgoing love to another person.
Our editor in chief drew attention to an excellent example of the healing power of words that occurred after the 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Washington Post reported on what happened at the first court appearance of the murderer: “One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing, did not turn to anger. Instead, while [the shooter] remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses” (June 19, 2015).
“These people offered this murderer forgiveness,” Mr. Flurry wrote. “That is amazing.” He quoted one woman at the hearing saying, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” “That is impressive!” Mr. Flurry wrote. “How many attitudes do you see like that? These people’s words came right out of the Bible, from the very words of Christ” (“How to Solve America’s Race Problems,” Philadelphia Trumpet, September 2015).
That attitude was shown by all those who spoke at that court hearing. They all said the same thing to this man: We forgive you. They did not rail on this man, on society or on the police. They did not use grievous words to stir people’s emotions or to encourage mob behavior. They used fitly spoken, thoughtful words that went a long way in bringing peace and healing to Charleston.
We must do the same within our physical families and within our spiritual family. We must speak words that defuse contention and strife, that promote peace (Matthew 5:9). Words that do not mock or deride, but that reconcile and restore. That is the challenge for us as Christians: to refrain from emotional, impulsive reactions to what someone may say, and instead maintain our composure and speak careful, acceptable words.
“The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable: but the mouth of the wicked speaketh frowardness” (Proverbs 10:32). Moffatt translates the first part of this verse, “The speech of good men is a breath of pleasure”!
This is not easy. It requires exercising the fruit of temperance (Galatians 5:23), especially with our tongue.
“Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm …. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” (James 3:3-5). Indeed, how much fire a tongue can inflame through the words we express!
“Each of us must learn to exercise wisdom in this area,” Mr. Flurry writes about these verses. “We must learn to say things that will encourage people and lift them up. When we fail to do that, we can easily beat people down. A parent can change the nature of creation in his own family, or alter the whole direction of his child’s life, just by the words he speaks to that child. Once your communication begins turning negative, that cycle becomes destructive very quickly. We must repent, and watch our tongue! Christ holds each one of us accountable for every word we utter!” (The Epistle of James).
Words can tear down. Words can build. Words can wound. Words can heal. We have tremendous power for good or ill in the words we use. We need God’s help in overcoming the carnal, hurtful use of words and replacing them with careful, thoughtful, wise words.
“Why is it so important that we learn to tame our tongues? Because we are preparing to teach every person who has ever lived,” Mr. Flurry writes. “We need the mind of Christ to direct everything we say. Jesus Christ continually spoke uplifting words while He was here on Earth. With His mind in us, we can do the same! We must control our tongue, because we are destined to control the universe” (ibid; emphasis added).
Let’s take up the challenge and strive to use words that heal, that uplift, that encourage, that bring hope to our families and to each other. In your interactions with others, bring to life this potent proverb—avoiding the warning of the first half and realizing the promise of the second: “There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.”