What the Proverbs Can Teach About Silence and Speech

We all know the childhood saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Although this may reassure young people who are subjected to name calling, it does not mean that our words cannot have a negative impact on others and on ourselves.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. (Prov. 10:11)

Starting off on a positive note, the first part of this saying reminds us that good words are not idle but can be truly life-giving — well beyond what we can understand at the moment. The image for the verbal source of life is a spring of water. In ancient Israel, the life of an entire city would often depend on one natural fountain. Jericho has lasted for eleven thousand years, since the Neolithic Period, because of the Spring of Elisha, as it is known today, pouring out water for the whole Jericho oasis. Jerusalem has existed for more than five thousand years because of the Gihon Spring providing water since the Chalcolithic Period (ca. 3500 BC) and the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000 BC), when the first buildings were constructed. Other cities — Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor, and others — also depended on a spring of water for their existence. Pilgrims still visit Mary’s Well in Nazareth, which was the water source that made the village habitable. People who were absolutely dependent on settling near springs of water would consider applying this image to the “mouth of the righteous” a very powerful symbol for life.

Note also that the proverb contrasts the “mouth of the righteous” with the “mouth of the wicked,” and not, for instance, the “mouth of the ignorant.” This is a moral difference, not one of knowledge. While knowledge is important and extremely useful, the upright and moral use of it makes the difference between manufacturing tractors that help farmers grow food or tanks that kill enemies to ensure that the food reaches only one’s friends and allies. Righteousness guides the physician to remove life-threatening cancer rather than take the life of an infant in the womb.

This article is from a chapter in The Proverbs Explained. Click image to preview other chapters.

The moral difference between the righteous mouth and the wicked mouth naturally applies to the words that the person speaks to others. Wise and prudent words can bring comfort and peace to people struggling with anxiety or sin, or make sense out of their lives when they are faced with moral struggles or catastrophe. The words of the righteous can lead them to embrace Christ’s life-giving love and forgiveness. We do well to pay close attention here to the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, most of which are directly related to speech: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. Grace bubbles out — like a spring — from speech that serves God’s will and brings truth and goodness to others, as well as to ourselves.

On the other hand, words that needlessly tear others down or spread falsehoods have incited violence throughout history. Karl Marx did very little by way of personal charity to relieve the pain and suffering of the working class, whose lives were truly miserable through the first century of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he made the lives of his own family miserable by his neglect, if not actual abuse, and adultery. What he did instead was write many words that concealed violence very thinly. For instance, he viewed the development of modern industry as the means by which the bourgeoisie produces “its own grave-diggers” through the “inevitable” proletariat revolution (Communist Manifesto). He wrote that religion “is the opium of the people,” and its abolition is the demand for the people’s “real happiness” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843). These words inspired the Communist governments of the twentieth century who killed more than 150 million of their own citizens, including millions of Christians. Marx’s wicked words concealed some of the most horrendous violence in history.

While Marx’s words had an extremely wide influence on modern history, the rest of us can learn from that extreme: when our words are wicked, emerging from ill will and selfishness, they are capable of releasing evil effects we cannot anticipate or control. Our task is to be wise enough to speak words of righteousness that will bring peace and life not only to ourselves but to the world around us, perhaps even after we have died.

Wise men lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near. (Prov. 10:14)

This proverb begins with wise people who “lay up,” or store, knowledge. This is more than just collecting facts, as if preparing for a lifelong game of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. Knowledge of the world is definitely a good in itself, but the knowledge of facts and data requires the wise person’s ability to organize and interpret that information. Wisdom takes the facts of life and makes good sense of them. When knowledge has been organized through key concepts and ideas, people become capable of seeing patterns and insights that are useful for forming a coherent view of the world. The organization of the various facts of life will include God’s revelation of truth in Sacred Scripture, the Sacred Tradition of the apostles, and the consistent Faith taught through the Magisterium.

This book is itself that kind of project; we have collected knowledge from the Scriptures, organized it thematically, and looked for patterns that will give us insights into life and faith. All people go through similar processes every day. When information appears to be useful, people want to remember it in order to use it in the future. For example, parents remember their children’s responses to various disciplinary techniques, and spouses remember the ef­fects their annoying habits have on their spouse. The organizing principles that underlie these remembered facts are the improvement of the children’s behavior or the development of a better relationship with one’s spouse. The same principle applies to all knowledge: people have certain goals and purposes that induce them to seek out some types of knowledge and remember them, while ignoring other things that seem irrelevant. The sage is the person who stores up and organizes the kinds of knowledge that are truly useful for living a good life with God and other people, both during this life and into eternity.

The “fool,” on the other hand, speaks and acts without knowing much or without understanding why some knowledge is especially important, good, and true, while other knowledge is unhelpful. For instance, gossip, whether from Hollywood or from the neighbor­hood, is generally useless information. People who speak without knowledge of the facts tend to speak too much and too loudly as a way to cover up their ignorance. This is more than annoying when the babbling fool is in a position of authority, as in politics, punditry, or teaching. The wise person seeks to know much, to organize that knowledge wisely, and to speak with truth and moral righteousness.

He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who utters slander is a fool. (Prov. 10:18)

Although the two parts to this proverb seem to be about different sins — hatred and slander — they actually are two sides of the same coin. The first part is a wise observation that makes a great deal of sense: to hide hatred or contempt for another person from others, we naturally have to say things about that person that we do not believe — or we are nice to that person’s face but speak badly about him or her to others. Perhaps we tell ourselves that the purpose of the deceit is to preserve the other person’s feelings, but often it just allows us to nurse our ill will longer. In this light, we can see that vices tend to compound one another — as when hatred leads to deceit.

The second part of the proverb teaches that speaking about our contempt or hatred in the form of gossip and slander is another form of evil. Slander spreads lies about other people, and detraction reveals information — false or true — that damages another person’s reputation for no good reason. This is a form of gossip that has historically been considered a very serious sin, in part because it’s so difficult to make right. Like falling dominoes or ripples in a pond, slander and detraction continue to spread out from the original source and can never be fully undone.

Wisdom frequently means remaining silent about things we know concerning another person. When it is prudent, we may go to the person ourselves and address the issue in a conversation. This can clear up the false elements of the slander and may help the person change the direction of his or her life for the better. Cruel rumors usually harden hearts and so do little good for anyone involved.

This saying is a warning against harboring hatred in our hearts and expressing it in our speech. Hatred in the heart tempts a person either to deceive others about it, or to commit the sins of slander or detraction. The solution is to be careful about our words, certainly, but first of all the lesson is to guard against the interior attitudes that breed hatred in our hearts.

The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the mind of the wicked is of little worth. (Prov. 10:20)

There are two points in this proverb. First, speech that comes from a person living a Christ-centered life can be incredibly valuable, even more so than choice silver. Righteous speech can evangelize, spreading the Good News of forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life with God, and peace in the heart. Speech can point out the meaning and goodness of life and convince others to improve their lives. In everyday life — at school or the workplace or the grocery store — our words can witness to the goodness of the Catholic Faith. A little kindness here, a little word of encouragement there add up to a precious contribution to the lives of other people. Words are one of the primary ways we radiate the love of Christ.

Second, this proverb tells us just how corrosive wickedness is. Abandoning God cuts us off from the Truth, and so our minds wither. No doubt there are many very smart people who are also wicked, but in using that intelligence badly they have made it worthless — unless and until they turn back to the Lord and His righteousness. Sin cor­rupts every part of life; even the seemingly most precious part — the mind — is rendered worthless when we are separated from Him. But with Him, even the lowly tongue is like silver.

The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense. . . . The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers men. (Prov. 10:21; 12:6)

These proverbs teach about the power of good speech versus the power of wicked speech — more specifically, the power of speech in the hands of the good versus that power in evil hands. If there’s one lesson that Proverbs wants us to take away about speech, it’s that words never lack power.

The first saying here would have been particularly meaningful to ancient Israelites, who were largely a farming people. The kind but firm exhortations of a father or mother could motivate the family to the work needed to feed themselves and to make a living. And to this day, of course, the words of wise and good leaders can move many people to wise and good action — whether to prosperity or, as in the second proverb, to freedom.

From Abraham Lincoln to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, history is full of people whose words have inspired and continue to inspire heroic action that leads to freedom and enhancement of the common good. That power to speak truth well is in all of us, with God’s help. We don’t have to be a powerful political figure to motivate a child to hard work and personal improvement, or to deliver a friend or relative from a sinful habit, such as drunkenness or drug use. Remember the Spiritual Works of Mercy, each of which summons us to use speech to help and inspire others in ways that are precious to God.

Another consideration when we are facing those difficult situations when wise and prudent speech may be effective is the need first to spend time in prayer and meditation. Let us ask the Lord which words and phrases to use, what tone to take, and how to respond to the challenges we face. Such prayer is not some last-minute stop-gap measure, but rather a time of reflection and peace in the Lord’s presence, seeking a wisdom that is beyond our immediate grasp. No one can plan ahead for the crises of life, but we can maintain our relationship with the Lord through constant prayer so that we are better able to handle the crises when they arrive.

Remember: the wicked and foolish people described in Proverbs rarely know they are wicked and foolish. The line between prudence and error is narrow and not always obvious; it is only through God’s grace that we stay on the right side.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Pacwa’s The Proverbs Explained: A Blueprint for Christian Livingwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ

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Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ is a respected Scripture scholar, author, and popular EWTN Television and radio host, as well as the founder and President of Ignatius Productions.

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