Part 2 of Wise Steps, a series on Proverbs
Text: Proverbs 18:21a
You can listen to this sermon here.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21a).
The Power of Our Words
According to Ray Ortlund, the book of Proverbs “has more to say about our words than anything else it addresses in our lives—more than money, sex, or family.” 
When I was a kid, I used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” But is there anyone who has never been harmed by words? We shouldn’t underestimate the power of our words. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Our words have the power to do great good or great evil, so we must be wise with our words.
In the book of James, the tongue is compared to a small spark, and James writes, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).
The Sin of Gossip
Sometimes people think that a sin like gossip is a “little sin,” but it destroys churches. The book of Proverbs addresses the sin of gossip. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9; cf. 16:28). “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov. 18:8). “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Prov. 17:4). “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler” (Prov. 20:19).
How would you answer the following question: Will a gossiper go to heaven? Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified,  and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37). This is true because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (v. 34). The apostle Paul states that “revilers” (“slanderers,” NIV) will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:10; cf. Rom. 1:29-30).
Think Before You Speak
How many times have you said to yourself, “I shouldn’t have said what I said”? And how many times have you said to yourself, “I should have said something”? How can we be wiser with our words? We need to think before we speak. “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28). Before we speak, we should ask ourselves three questions.
1. Is this the right thing to say?
We should remember the advice of Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (cf. 21:23). But this doesn’t mean we should always remain quiet. Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Instead of gossiping about others, we should encourage others with our words. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25). What we say should be beneficial to others: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
2. Is this the right time to say it?
Sometimes we are guilty of speaking when we shouldn’t. Other times we are guilty of not speaking when we should (e.g., sharing the gospel). Proverbs 15:23 says, “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (cf. 25:11). Sometimes saying a good thing can be a bad thing if the timing is wrong: “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing” (Prov. 27:14).
3. Is this the right way to say it?
It’s better to say nothing than to say the right thing the wrong way. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” We are to speak the truth, but we are to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). If you can’t speak the truth in love, don’t speak.
The Wise Words of Jesus
The book of Proverbs should not be seen as merely a book about good morals. We should view it as a way to follow the wise steps of Jesus. He has given us an example “so that [we] may follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus was the embodiment of wisdom. When he spoke, he always spoke wise words. The people of Nazareth “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22; cf. John 7:46). Sometimes the words of Jesus were very strong (e.g., “You hypocrites!”, Matt. 15:7).
Jesus knew when to speak and when not to speak. The apostle Peter writes, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:22-23). Imagine how difficult it was for Jesus to remain silent. But he remained silent because there was something more important than defending himself: dying for our salvation. He put others before himself, so he didn’t speak. If we always put others before ourselves, how would our words change?