Perhaps there is no theme in Proverbs that is more emphasized than the importance of regulating our speech.
“There is one whose speech is like a sword’s stabs, but the tongue of the wise is a balm.” Proverbs 12:18
“He who watches his mouth guards his life. He who opens wide his lips – disaster is his.” Proverbs 13:3
“The righteous man hates a deceitful word, while the wicked man will be ashamed and disgraced.” Proverb 13:5
What do we learn from these proverbs?
First, we see the tremendous capacity both for good and bad in the space of the roughly 25 cubic inches of our body that constitute the mouth.
The first proverb suggests, at least on the surface, that the use of the mouth can bring about the greatest harm, yet it can also cause the greatest benefit. We see this idea expressed through the contrast between words that have the damaging effect of a sword’s stabs and words that soothe like a balm.
Ah, but as we have learned, a proverb can carry multiple meanings.
The reference to the sword’s stabs could actually be understood in different ways: one, in which words are harmful and wrong; and, yet another, in which the painful words could be either the deserved and/or the natural consequence for foolishness and bad behavior.
We should also note that the Hebrew word, marpeh, means cure as much as it means balm. So, the proverb could be endorsing as wise the application, when needed, of tough medicine as a remedy, in lieu of, say, the softer touch of balm.
Regardless of which meaning we adopt, we should agree with the basic wisdom here: the words we speak matter greatly and can make a significant difference.
The new idea in the second proverb is the importance of guarding the mouth, being careful in judgment about speaking at all, and, when we speak, the words we use.
Life is at stake in speech. So are soul, heart, and emotions. Think of times in your life or in history when a crucial outcome was determined totally by the words that were spoken.
It’s not for no reason that the US Office of War Information made posters in World War II warning that “loose lips sink ships.”
Finally, the third proverb adds the idea that since the righteous listener hates lying, those who lie will be ashamed and disgraced. Is the righteous listener, God? Is the righteous listener a follower of God’s ways? I believe the proverb challenges us, as does the whole Book of Proverbs, to speak truly, wisely, and with good judgment, as if the answer to both questions is yes.