Wise Words (Prov 26:17-28)

I suppose one working definition of “wise words” could be offering “the right words at the right time in the right place” founded on a knowledge of God’s law and his kingdom. But let me say at the outset, when I was preparing this morning’s address, I had no particular person in mind. If you feel that these words seem to be speaking to you directly, perhaps you need to take time out to sit and pray, and ask why and what you are going to do about it?

So, have you ever stopped to consider how important words are? I say words because these days we have to take social media and other forms of communication into account rather than just speech and the passage from the Book of Proverbs that was read for us this morning provides a warning about the use of harsh words and speaking out of place.

Words enable us to communicate our wants and our needs: they can be used to express love, comfort and encouragement: using words we are able to empathise and sympathise and yet … words can also hurt people as surely as slowly sticking a knife between their ribs. However, we are also warned that controlling our tongues is one of the most difficult tasks we may ever be faced with.

In his letter, written in the middle of the first century to Christians everywhere, St James says:

“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.” (Jam 3:3-6)

Elsewhere in Proverbs it says:

“Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword,
but wisely spoken words can heal.”

Our task then is to avoid the thoughtless words and offer wisdom. And so, I would like to take as my text for today, a line from the gospel according to … well, Bambi.

The film “Bambi” was first released way back in 1942 and those of you who young enough to remember it may recall that when Bambi, the baby fawn, was born he wasn’t very stable on his legs: much like the newly born foals I have been watching throughout the Spring and early Summer at Peel Hall.
So if you will now forgive a double negative, when a young rabbit called “Thumper” first meets Bambi and sees how difficult it is for him to remain standing he remarks, in a very audible voice, that, “he doesn’t walk very good.” Thumper is immediately scolded by his mother for those words, and he is made to repeat what his father had taught him that very same morning …

“If you can’t say something nice,
don’t say nothing at all.”

That pearl of wisdom, and I use the word “wisdom” intensionally, has variously become known as “Thumper’s principle”, “Thumper’s rule”, or “Thumper’s law” and it is still quoted and applied my many people to this day … and so it should!

But why was Thumper scolded?
Why is it better to say nothing rather than criticise or say an unkind word?

Expressed using different words, Thumper’s Rule appears in various places throughout the Bible. Time and time again, the importance of saying something nice or not saying anything at all is bought to our attention … and none more so than in the book of Proverbs. But before I return to Thumper’s Rule let’s look at this morning’s reading because I think it offers us three vital bits of advice which I would summarise as:

  • Don’t be a fool and rush in where angels fear to tread.
  • Don’t be the one to add fuel to a fire because without your input the flames will probably die down more quickly


  • Take care not to shoot yourself in the foot.

Let’s try and take those points one at a time.

Firstly, how many times have all of us been tempted to get involved in someone else’s conversation or quarrel without stopping to think and without a full understanding of what is going on? Perhaps you may have stepped in to defend one of your children who has been involved in an argument with a friend only to find that you have completely misunderstood the situation and, it was the friend who should have been supported and defended rather than our own offspring. In all of those cases, we may have got ourselves involved with the best of intensions but quite often it results in us being turned on by both of the quarrelling parties who will use phrases like:

“what has this got to do with you” or

“you don’t know what you’re on about” or

“Go away and stay out of this!”

Proverbs says:

“Getting involved in an argument that is none of your business
is like going down the street and grabbing a dog by the ears.”

and I say, ‘good luck!’ Not only are you likely to get hurt you are also not helping the situation. Better to take your time … and listen … and gain full knowledge of any situation before offering advice and even then you may be better to speak in private rather than risk inflaming the situation further by speaking out in public. That brings me to my second point —

“Without wood a fire goes out;
without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

So not only are we advised to stay out of other people’s quarrels but we are also told not to make it worse by adding gossip: those personal opinions, rumours, half truths and even lies which are often spread by the unthinking and uncaring. The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about this. in chapter 10, verse 18 it says:

“Anyone who spreads gossip is a fool.”

And why a fool? Well in this morning’s reading (v22) it says —

“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to the inmost parts.”

Let’s face it, we love to listen to gossip: it forms the juicy bits of any conversation and as such, it is easily taken in and digested but, if you are the initiator, you may find out later that it has been regurgitated at a time and in a place over which you have no control … and with each retelling your words have become embellished and harsher sounding until, eventually, what you have supposedly said gets back to the person that you were originally speaking about … but now your name is being mentioned as the original source.

How would they feel, and almost as importantly, how would you feel in that situation? There is Jewish proverb which may be helpful which says:

“What you don’t see with your eyes,
don’t witness with your mouth.”

And sometimes, even if you did see it with your own eyes, or hear it with your own ears, it is often better and kinder to keep it to yourself. But gossiping can be like a reflex action, you don’t intend to but all of a sudden you realise that you have started the problem being that gossiping can provide enjoyment. For a short while you have the stage and you are the centre of attention: everyone is hanging on your words but you may be doing nothing more than setting a trap for yourself. Remember the warning:

“Whoever digs a pit will fall into it
[and] if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.”

So how do we avoid setting traps for ourselves, or getting into arguments, or upsetting people? Well the first thing to say is, “Don’t do it!”

“Don’t do something permanently stupid just
because you are temporarily upset or out of control.”

I don’t know who first said that but it surely is sound advice? But if it were that easy none of us would ever stray would we? Sometimes it feels as though we are genetically programmed to self destruct so — let me offer you a mnemonic which may help — you may have heard it before.

“Before you speak — THINK!”

Is what you have to say True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspiring?
Is it Necessary?
and is it Kind?

And if it is none of those things it is probably better to revert to Thumper’s Rule:

“If you can’t say something nice,
don’t say nothing at all.”

So let’s be aware of what we are saying. Let’s think through the consequences and pick out the desired outcomes before we speak.
Let’s be kind and thoughtful to those we meet and about whom we speak … and let’s get better at controlling our tongues so that we can avoid starting any more accidental forest fires.