By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them. (ESV)
בְּֽפִי־א֭֭וִיל חֹ֣טֶר גַּאֲוָ֑ה וְשִׂפְתֵ֥י ח֝֝כָמִ֗ים תִּשְׁמוּרֵֽם׃
If all our words were put into print, the result would be: a single day’s words would fill a 50-page book, while in a year’s time the average person’s words would fill 132 books of 200 pages each! Among all those words there are bound to be some statements spoken in anger, carelessness, or haste. And someone is sure to get hurt.
Since often I write using my laptop at a variety of Starbuck locations, I am exposed to a myriad of conversations. Loud, obnoxious cell phone calls. Stodgy business conferences. Idle talk meetups. Annoying boardgame banter. I hear it all.
One morning I overheard a young woman on her cell grilling the person on the other end of the line like an CIA operative. Eventually she droned on about her need to “lose fat,” fleshed out every gory details of her recent eye surgery and fished voraciously for every scandalous minutia about some mutual friends. It was painful to witness her unmanaged tongue at work.
To deal with the need to manage our tongues, in Proverbs 14:3 Solomon focuses on the communication of the wise contrasted to the verbiage that pours out of the mouth of a fool.
Speech management is a theme threaded throughout the Book of Proverbs. Solomon continually warns his listeners one area where we demonstrate either wisdom or foolishness is the control of our tongue.
The unchecked mouth of a fool hurts others
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) wisely mused, “I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.” After delving into the sayings of Solomon regarding the use of the tongue, I find myself focusing more on what I am not saying than what I do utter. I observe when I hold back words that can hurt, stir up strife or damage someone’s reputation, the more peaceful my life is.
With negative speech, a cannonball of adverse words is propelled from our hearts targeted towards damaging others. Once that shell hits its mark, we have either lost the trust of another person or we’ve successfully set off a raging brushfire of ugly chit chat.
In Proverbs 14:3 Solomon characterizes the fool (אֱוִיל) as an arrogant, hardened person who does not seek wisdom. The fool speaks what he wants and has little desire to manage his choice of words.
The unchecked stream of words that rushes from the mouth of a fool eventually lands him in a world of trouble. Solomon pens his concern, “By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back” (ESV).
Is Solomon describing an actual stick used to whip or beat someone because of damaging words he has spoken? Most likely, the wise king uses the term “rod for his back” to portray the reckless consequences of loose lips that comes back to the fool like a boomerang.
You’ll notice in the NIV’s translation of Proverbs 14:3 the tongue itself can be the rod or staff used to slash at others, “A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride” (NIV). In Scriptures the mouth is often compared to a sword (Psalm 57:4; Psalm 64:3; Jeremiah 18:18; Revelation 1:16). The effects of a fool’s words are like staff dealing out verbal lashes on the backs of others.
The term “rod” (חֹ֣טֶר) speaks of a switch, i.e. a slender flexible shoot. In the present context, the “rod of correction” is a metaphor illustrating the consequences of foolish speech. When the insensitive talker spouts forth bruising statements that hurt others, he receives the “rod of correction” when he loses friends, destroys family relationships and experiences job loss. Because the fool refuses to cease from insulting others, he becomes a person to be avoided.
We live in a social media world where the aftermath of unkind comments we post online does not often come in the form of face-to-face verbal correction. Rather, on Facebook, if you are offensive to others, you are “unfriended.” On Twitter and Instagram you are “unfollowed” or “blocked.” Rarely, is there any true correction or maturation in this process.
In contrast, Solomon assumes his hearers live in a society where the offender experiences a face-off by those whom he has hurt. Today, we use “unfriending” to run away from the fallout of nasty comments we have made about others.
To sum up, Solomon is saying the prideful words of the foolish will get them in trouble, whereas the lips of the wise will keep them out of it.
The guarded lips of the wise protects his relationships
Here we come to the second half of the verse, “but the lips of the wise will preserve them” (ESV). Wise words protect a person from the punishment the fool with loose lips receives.
I am reminded of Proverbs 13:3, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Thus, a guarded mouth preserves the wise from the impact of foolish words spoken without much thought.
Your life runs much smoother when you guard your tongue. When you refrain from resorting to abusive speech, but use your words to promote peace and good will, your relationships are harmonious. Rather than your lips getting you in trouble, your lips preserve (תִּשְׁמוּרֵֽם) your life from negative consequences.
The lips of the wise exercise restraint in what they say. The prudent person protects himself from the discipline of negative consequences by speaking good things that encourage others. The discerning individual knows when to keep his lips zipped.
When your words are seasoned with humility and grace, you protect yourself from self-inflicted wounds. But when you allow pride to fill your lips, you open the door to destruction.
In 1887 the coffin of Abraham Lincoln was pried open to determine if it contained his body. What makes that act so remarkable is that Lincoln’s body had rested in that coffin for 22 years. Yet, 14 years later a rumor circulated again that Lincoln’s coffin was empty.
The furor so gripped the land that the only way to silence it was to dig up the coffin–again. The rumor was silenced when a handful of witnesses viewed the lifeless body of Abraham Lincoln.
All of this could have been avoided if people ignored the ugly rumors. Instead, the power of a tongue repeating falsehoods controlled the perspective of others.
Do you ever consider the damage you do when you repeat rumors about people you know, share information told to you in confidence and repeat it to others?
How many coffins need to be reopened to disprove ugly untruths that have leaked out of the unguarded mouths of fools?
Our responsibility is to keep ourselves from getting embroiled in controversies and arguments we created by controlling our tongues. Life is much simpler when the shield of wisdom is in place at the gates of our speech.