When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Proverbs 10:19 | NIV | Other Versions | Context
If you want to learn about life (or death), go to the book of Ecclesiastes. But if you want to learn about how to conduct yourself in life, go to the book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs contain plenty of immensely useful wisdom sayings, majority of which comes from Solomon, who was known for his wisdom, but it will do us some good to remember that the verses in Proverbs are exactly that – they are proverbs, they are sayings that contain great wisdom. However, they are not promises. While it is recommended that we conduct ourselves as per advised by the verses, there is no guarantee that when you perform as advised, the result will be as predicted. However, that is not to say that we shouldn’t take the advise that comes from the proverbs. Instead, the contrary is true – wise sayings are wise because more often than not, they are close to the truth, and can be applied generally in our lives despite all our different circumstances. In this study, bearing in mind that this verse is a proverb and not a promise, we will examine the idea of words and how the quantity of words can be a meter chart for our level of wisdom.
When words are many, sin is not absent – Some people are more chatty than others – and that’s not a sin. In fact, in most cases, it would be nice to have a lively person around to dispel some of the gloom that creeps in easily in silence. Yet there are also times in which a not so chatty person suddenly speaks a lot, whether in an attempt to defend himself, prove a point or in an attempt to impress somebody. One of the most prominent examples of this verse is the three friends of Job – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, who heard about all the troubles that had come upon Job and went to sympathize with him and comfort him [Job 2:11]. Such great friends, really, and their motives were noble. They certainly did not travel those great distances and stayed with Job for so long to gloat at his misfortune. No, when they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aoud and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights [Job 2:12-13]. But we all know how the story unfolds. An epic debate spanning 28 chapters happened, where each of the three friends spoke a bit too much. As the debate progressed, the more they spoke, the more untrue accusations they made, and the more they inflicted misery on Job. Oh, if only they could have stayed silent, as they were during the first 7 days and 7 nights – No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. If the book of Job ended at Chapter 2, these guys would be the complete role models of true friendship. But no, they went on and on, “is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?“ says Eliphaz [Job 22:5]; You gave no waterto the weary and you withheld food from the hungry [Job 22:7]. And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless. [Job 22:9]. For he has oppressed the poor and left them destitute; he has seized houses he did not build [Job 20:19]. Perhaps they should have stopped speaking earlier. It wouldn’t be half as bad if they had ended after the first round of debate. Or perhaps, they shouldn’t have spoken at all.
but he who holds his tongue is wise – There’s a Chinese saying, the more you speak, the more mistakes you make. The lesser you speak, the fewer your mistakes. If you don’t speak, you won’t make any mistakes. Proverbs 10:19 is perhaps sculpted in a similar mould, yet not all that extreme. The Bible tells us that there is a time to be silent and there is a time to speak [Ecc 3:7]. When it is time to speak, and we keep our silence, that is a mistake, so the notion that you won’t make any mistake if you don’t speak cannot stand in the Bible. It is not that we should always not speak. It is not that we should always hold our tongue. But there is great value in listening more and speaking less – Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry [James 1:19|Article].
When words are many, and a lot is being said – it becomes a dire situation when there is no great thought and care given to the words being spoken. Non-constructive things, lies, exaggeration, idle things – they are not absolved from sin. Of course, when they are taken with care and spoken with love and wisdom, even if the words are many, it is a good thing. I’m sure there are certain people you enjoy listening to for hours and hours, simply because the words they speak are so learned and loving. I’m sure that there are also certain people whom you cannot stand listening to, for a variety of reasons.
It is difficult to always say the right things at the right time. Sometimes, we miss a beat, and that moment is lost. Sometimes, the same words when said at the wrong juncture, carries across a different meaning. It is hard. Words are probably the most commonly used tool to sin, or to err, compared to our eyes or our hands. It takes a lot of conscious effort and experience. But it all starts by practising. Meditate in silence instead of speaking too much. Listen and be concerned instead of instructing and commanding. There is great value in silence. But when it is time to speak, let us speak. When it is time to listen, let us listen.
May we all be wise in our speech, and sin not with our tongues.