Listening to Wise Words
The childhood poem, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” may sound like a good comeback for a kid to say, but it is entirely untrue.
Many of us can testify to the fact that often times, the opposite is true. You likely don’t remember every bump, bruise, or broken bone in your life, but I’m sure you can remember some unkind remarks that cut you to the quick. Oftentimes, wounds caused by hurtful words can cause scars that remain with us for days, or even decades.
If King Solomon had been asked to amend the lyrics to that children’s poem, it would probably sound more like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt most deeply.”
Solomon, the wisest person in human history, recorded a number of proverbs about using words wisely.
We may think that wisdom is most needed for big decisions, tough environments, or pressure-packed situations. But in Ecclesiastes 10, Solomon reminds us that we need wisdom for minor decisions and everyday conversations in life.
Solomon writes, “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him” (Ecclesiastes 10:12).
In other words, all our words make an impact in the lives of others. Frankly, there is no such thing as a throwaway remark or a meaningless conversation. Every word has meaning and carries the power to build up or tear down another person.
To help us understand what wise words are, Solomon gives us four points of contrast between wise and foolish words.
First, foolish words are destructive. Notice again: “The lips of a fool consume him.”
In the Hebrew language, this sentence could be roughly translated, “A fool falls into his own mouth.” That brings to mind our American idiom, “He put his foot in his mouth.”
How often have we seen a politician, celebrity, friend, or family member, ruin the moment— or their reputation—by saying something that would have been better left unsaid?
Second, foolish words are devious. Solomon writes: “The beginning of the words of [the fool’s] mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness” (Ecclesiastes 10:13).
Devious, dishonest words are particularly dangerous in the church, as the apostle Paul described to Titus, identifying “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10). These are words spoken by unaccountable people who refuse to submit to the authority of God’s Word; they won’t be silenced by church leadership or accept discipline. Their words lead to evil madness, and cause others to act wickedly.
Third, foolish words are delusional. “A fool multiples words, though no man knows what is to be” (Ecclesiastes 10:14).
In other words, a foolish person who never knows when to stop talking will often find themselves digging a hole they can’t climb out of. Did you know that one of the most successful interrogation tactics for investigators and law enforcement is silence? The stress of the interrogation and moments of awkward silence by the interrogator will often cause a suspect to lose their filter and start running their mouths, saying more than they should. Ultimately, the suspect ends up providing evidence for their own conviction.
This verse also speaks about someone arrogantly speaking to their future, as if they know what’s going to happen. The foolish person thinks they have the future all figured out, while a wise person entrusts their future to the Lord (James 4:13-16).
Finally, foolish words are distracting. “The toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city” (Ecclesiastes 10:15).
The fool becomes so enamored with their own talking that they forget where they are, what they want to do, or where they need to go.
Every word we say should be filtered through the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, and the distracted fool fails to exercise patience, gentleness, and self-control.
To avoid these destructive, devious, delusional, distracting words, Solomon's advice is simple and clear: watch your words.
The apostle Paul expands on this advice in Colossians 4, where he reminds us to take full responsibility for our words. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Not only do our words have the power to build up or destroy, but the words of believers affect our witness— our testimony—for Jesus and His gospel.
I love the imagery of salt in this verse. While we often think of the salt on our dinner table as a flavorful seasoning, salt’s most practical purpose is food preservation. Putting salt on food prevents that food from becoming moldy or corrupted.
When so many people around you today are trying to corrupt the image of Jesus, let your words act as that salty influence, preventing that corruption and portraying the goodness of God through your speech.
Season your speech with the salt of wisdom. Make every conversation an opportunity to edify and encourage believers. And make sure your speech creates a bridge for unbelievers to easily cross over and find Christ.
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