Summary: The tongue has power for much good and for much evil, as these proverbs explain.
From now through summer we will explore the wisdom of the proverbs as found in chapters 15 and 16. You may wonder why I have chosen chapters 15 and 16 to preach. There is a profound reason. They are the middle two chapters! I intentionally chose a “non-method” so that I may approach these proverbs with as much anticipation as you, not knowing what they will teach me. We are going to take them as they were originally recorded and let them set the agenda for what topics we will consider.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Two manners of speaking are contrasted. Gentle speaking is contrasted with harsh speaking. The gentle word possesses positive power to defuse anger; the harsh word possesses negative power to stir up anger where there was none.
Note first of all the power of the tongue. It can be a powerful agent for peace or for trouble. And note in this instance where the power lies: it is not in what the tongue says, but in how it speaks. Does that sound familiar? Paul expressed the same principal in Colossians 4:6: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Knowing how to speak will lead one to saying the right things at the right time. This is an extremely important principle the proverb is presenting. It does matter how we speak to others. It does matter that we take into account how the manner in which we speak will affect the person we are speaking to. It is not enough to know what to say; we must know how to say it. Indeed, we cannot know what to say if we do not know how to say it.
If only Solomon’s own son, Rehoboam, had listened to this counsel. Solomon, for all his wisdom, had his own faults and one of them was pushing his own people hard to create his personal wealth and luxury. After his death and his son takes over, the people see their opportunity to lighten the hardship Solomon had placed on them. They go to Rehoboam and say, “Our father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” Rehoboam’s response exactly fulfills this proverb. He checks first with his father’s counselors who advise him to give a favorable answer. He then checks with counselors his own age who advise him to give this response: “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” Instead of turning away anger and winning the loyalty of his people, he stirred up their wrath which led to rebellion. All he had to do was give a soft answer. Why didn’t he? The reason is obvious – pride. Nobody is going to tell him the king what to do! Nobody is going to accuse him of being weak and giving in to demands.
If Rehoboam had listened to his father’s counselors, he would have continued to have the people’s service. He could have acknowledged that there was some justification to the people’s concerns; he could have asked for their leaders to meet with him and worked out some form of compromise; they then would have respected him for listening to them and gladly continued to serve.
The one who speaks harshly thinks he is asserting his authority or at least making himself heard. What he is really doing is stirring up needless anger. Parents, the best parent counselor I’ve ever read is John Rosemond. He is in the paper weekly and has at least one book out. He has a no-nonsense approach to parenting, but he shows time again that the most effective manner of discipline is the kind that displays a calm resolution in the parent. James Dobson makes the same case.
What if you don’t have authority, but need to get action? Always try the considerate approach first. I’ve found that in the majority of times, asking “Could you do…?” instead of saying, “Do…,” gets the response I desire. Most of us respond well when asked politely. Most of us feel offended and become defensive when spoken harshly to. That is what the proverb acknowledges. If you want good results and to be someone that people respect, learn to speak softly, learn to be considerate; think first how what you say and the manner in which you say it will be received.
A good exercise for you to do is to think back over a situation in which you angered someone. Examine yourself. Sometime the person will be angry out of his own sin. Jesus made many people angry. But Jesus was perfect; we are not. Just as likely we stirred up anger out of a harsh spirit. Are you willing to look at yourself in such an honest manner to detect your own harshness? It is not easy. I hate doing it. I hate even more having to admit my fault to others. But if you are able to face your own harsh spirit, you are likely to experience a softening.