Proverbs - Lesson 19

Wise Speech

Drawing from passages throughout Proverbs, Dr. Waltke looks at the topics of the power of words, the limitations of words, and the characteristics of wise speech (B.R.E.A.T.H.).

Bruce Waltke
Lesson 19
Watching Now
Wise Speech

I. Introduction

II. The Power of Words

A. Rewards and Damages – Proverbs 10:6-14

B. Antithetical and Synthetic Parallelism

C. The Power of Life and Death

III. The Limitation of Words

IV. Characteristics of Wise Speech

A. So What is Wise Speech?

B. Love Covers All Wrongs

IV. Sources of Good Speech

  • Dr. Waltke covers some introductory issues for the class.

  • The aim of this lecture is to determine our pre-understanding of life and Proverbs. Dr. Waltke discusses issues of God as author, human author as inspired, and Lectio Divina.

  • The preamble and initial verses are key to understanding Proverbs properly.

  • Second half of the Preamble dealing with the issues of moral and mental acumen.

  • We now meet the ten lectures in Proverbs of the parent's teaching to the son/daughter. When Dr. Waltke originally lectured, he skipped ahead to the discussion of politics, and is now resuming the normal order. Those lectures on politics are our lectures 24-26.

  • Dr. Waltke begins with a 20 minute summary of the class so far, and then moves into Proverbs 2 and "Safeguards Against the Wicked." This is the second Proverbs lecture.

  • After a seven minute review and some questions, Dr. Waltke moves into Proverbs 2 and its description of the purpose of godly character/fruit. It is a safeguard against the wicked man and woman, and closes in a summary of life, not death.

  • In dealing with 3:-12, Dr. Waltke raises the legitimate hermeneutical question if the book promises too much. Does it make promises it can't keep?

  • The value of wisdom and applying it to living it out in community.

  • Proverb's teaching on getting the family heritage (4:1-9), staying off the wrong way (4:10-19), not swerving from the right way (4:20-27).

  • The final part of the previous lecture.

  • Dr. Waltke concludes this lecture on 16:10-15 and the discussion on the king.

  • The author deals with the topic of the wicked woman. Proverbs 5:1-14.

  • Dr. Waltke continue his discussion of this topic, picking up at Proverbs 5:15.

  • The final lecture on this topic, picking up at Proverbs 8.

  • Covers the topic of money, drawing thematically from through the book. Proverbs 6:1-19; 10:1-5; Psalm 49; various passages.

  • After a 18 minute summary of the entire book of Proverbs, Dr. Waltke moves into discussing the topic of being money-wise but drawing from many different passages in Proverbs.

  • Dr. Waltke concludes the topic of money by talking about the value of wealth, and how to have enduring wealth.

  • Drawing from passages throughout Proverbs, Dr. Waltke looks at the topics of the power of words, the limitations of words, and the characteristics of wise speech (B.R.E.A.T.H.).

  • After introducing the need for a study on marriage, we look at the characteristics of a wise husband and a wise wife. One of the many points is that both husband and wife are to be involved in the teaching of their children.

  • This lesson focuses on the teaching of the children by both parents (with a discussion of 1 Timothy 2:12-3:1), believing that this teaching will be effective, and recognizing the dignity of the child (among other topics).

  • After a discussion of the structure of the famous poem in Proverbs 31, Dr. Waltke moves into a verse by verse exegesis, emphasizing her entrepreneurial spirit and social consciousness.

  • Discussion of Proverbs 30 with a strong emphasis in understanding its poetic structure.

  • Christians should be involved in politics. Politics and the Christian life are inseparable just as ethics and the Christian life are inseparable. A just government is the foundation for a nation's economic prosperity and social well-being. In biblical theology, the king is replaced by voting citizens.

    There is an outline for each lecture to help you follow the main points. You may also download a complete outline that includes comments from Dr. Waltke's research that he was not able to cover in the lectures.

  • After a review of the preceding lecture, Dr. Waltke talks about how we are in a spiritual and political war with "fools." The wise retrain evil by punishing wrong doers. Non-involvement is a vote for the wicked. The benefits of a righteous and just government.

  • What are the foundations for a good government? What are the characteristics of a good ruler?

  • Dr. Waltke concludes the class by summarizing the basic theology of Proverbs in an attempt to show that it is in agreement with the rest of the Old Testament. 

Prof. Bruce Waltke is acknowledged as the most accomplished scholar of Proverbs of this generation. His two-volume commentary on Proverbs and the relevant sections of his Old Testament Theology show an honesty and mastery of the text rarely seen. When you watch him teach, you will see both a magisterial handling of the material and also a gentleness that is not always present in a scholar of his caliber. This is an expansive class that covers the structure, theology, and content of the entire book. Some of the classes were even filmed in his home.

You may download the notes that Dr. Waltke is using as he teaches the course on Proverbs by clicking on the Lecture Notes link under Downloads on the home page.

I. Introduction

So I begin with the legend of the king who assigns a servant to bring the most valued thing in his realm back to him. The servant went out and came back with a silver platter and on it he had a tongue. And he said your highness; this is the most valuable thing in your realm. The king did this again to bring back to worth thing in his realm and so the servant returned with a tongue and said that this was the worst thing in your realm. So speech can be very good and constructive or it can be very bad and destructive. The Proverbs sums this up, ‘gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare vessel.’ In other words, there will be many more rich people than there will be wise people. Wise people who put spiritual values first are like a very precious vessel. I am going to divide the lecture into four parts: the Power of Words, the Limitations of Words, the Characteristic of Wise Speech and the Sources of Good Speech.

II. The Power of Words

A. Rewards and Damages – Proverbs 10:6-14

Our speech has the power to reward and damage ourselves and others. All nine of these verses represent a complex and interesting chiasm. It has an association with speech and communications. Notice how the mouth and lips keeps reappearing in the following verses:

Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.

[upi resha‘im yekasseh hamas] The name of the righteous will be used in blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool [we’ewil sephatayim, “lippy fool”] comes to ruin. Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out. He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool [we’ewil sephatayim, “lippy fool”] comes to ruin. The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. [upi resha‘im yekasseh hamas] Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers [yekasseh] over all wrongs. Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks judgment. Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites terror/ruin.

All blessings come from God but they are mediated through a human agent. And this entails people praying God’s blessings on the righteous. They are praying for those who go through life with an open hand, and that they will bless the person who uses wealth wisely because it serves the community. So they mediate God’s blessings on the head on those kinds of people, even though they are rare. Violence over whelms the mouth of the wicked. The bad words of the wicked get violence to stop them. It comes back on them so it destroys them. When people pray, they will say, ‘may he be like Abraham’ or like Jesus. So the righteous person will now be remembered, but the name of the wicked is rot. The lippy fool comes to ruin because they are usually talking while the wise are listening. In winking to the other person, you are including them in some kind of secret plot. In verse 10, the word ‘maliciously’ isn’t in the Hebrew as it is what is assumed. So the righteous speak as if they are a fountain of life but the wicked always intends to do harm through their speech. Interestingly, love covers all transgressions as wrongs are easily forgotten. Love draws a veil over everything. When there is dissension, hatred is usually in the background causing it. Whatever you say is misunderstood and it stirs up strife. Whenever there is love, a veil is draw over your faults and whatever is wrongly done is only an incident and not extemporary. If you hate a person and they do wrong, it is extemporary and not an incident. And you can tell when people hate you because of this. But you have the tension of rebuking wrong doing privately and at the same time, but you don’t want everybody to know. You draw the veil to protect that person; so many of the proverbs have to be held in tension.

(Note that parallelism as already mentioned is the foundation of Hebrew poetry and registers most obviously to the English reader as a balanced repetition. The symmetrical arrangement of parallel lines are about the same length (called “cola” or “stichs”) in which meaning, grammar, syntax, form, and stress balance reinforces one another and thus constitute the parallelism. Usually two parallel lines appear together, forming a “bicolon” or a “distich. In synthetic parallelism the second or third lines of the unit are not synonymous or antithetic to the first line but advance the thought in a variety of other ways. The Proverbs have associations with other proverbs which create a contextual depth to them which has to be studied and pondered on.)

B. Antithetical and Synthetic Parallelism

So you see in verse 6, it has mouth and then in verse 8, it has lips. Verse 10 deals with the chattering fool and even the winking is a form of communications. Verse 11, you have the mouth again and the lips in verse 13 and the mouth in verse 14. These proverbs are being brought together because they deal with speech and communication to a large extent. And you will notice that there are four verses of antithetical parallels in each half; first in verses 6-9 and then in verses 11-14. So antithetical to me is like an up and down movement. Note in verse 6 then, a ‘but’ and in verses 7, 8, and 9. So they are all antithetical (this means they are direct and unequivocal opposition). But verse 10 is not antithetical, but instead is synthetic and linked by striking repetition of verses 8b and 10b. The winking maliciously is hurting the other person and causes grief to the other person. But bad speech will hurt yourself and it will make you come to ruin. So this is synthetic parallelism of bad communication. So in bad communications, you hurt others and yourself as well. The next four are all antithetical again with the second part of each verse having a ‘but’. So we have the first four antithetical parallels and then we have a synthetic center line with two negatives and then four more antithetical parallels again. Verses 6-7 are a couplet that is linked by blessing, righteous and wicked. Blessing escalated from present to future. By antithesis it can be said that blessings do not crown the head of the wicked and violence does not overwhelm the mouth of the righteous.

Verses 8-9 are also a couplet that is linked by educability of the wise in 8a and consequently blessing in 9a, and by tragic fate of the wicked in 8b and 9b. There is encouragement to accept the teaching. The wicked tries to cover their tracks by perversity, but they will be discovered and so they will be hunted down. Verses 11-12 are linked by a pun on yekasshe. In that light verse 12 probably probes the spirit behind verse 11. Then verses 13-14 are linked by hkm (wise and wisdom) as well as by metonymies for communications of lips and mouth. So for verses 11-14, it is a way of speaking that will help the other person and give them life or damage the other person which is violence. Compare verses 6b and 11b in Hebrew:

6 Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.


Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.



upi resha‘im yekasseh hamas.


The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.



upi resha‘im yekasseh hamas.

Hebrew has no case endings and so you can put the subject or the object first whereas in English typical word order is subject, verb and then the object with additional prepositional phrases if any at the end. In verse 6, Hamas becomes the subject and then yekasseh means to cover or conceal so it reads, ‘violence covers the mouth’. So violence is the subject in this case and it brings destruction upon a wicked mouth. But in verse 11, violence is the object as seen, ‘but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.’ It is the same Hebrew verb, to cover. So one is your mouth is covered in violence and the next is your mouth is covering violence. The first one in this pun is referring to damaging yourself and then bringing violence on the other person. So the pun is that speech and either reward or damage yourself and others. This is why parables are riddles and it is a way of training the mind to think. There is a transition of hurting himself and then hurting others, helping others or damaging others.

To close this part of the lecture, in my mind the brilliance of this material is the proof of Solomon authorship. It took a very brilliant mind to put this together. In this Solomon coins the proverbs both individually and collectively to match each other. It would take a computer and the correct programming to understand how it was all put together. Solomon had a mind with information like the sand in the sea. The proverbs have associations and there is a danger of reading them individually and not collectively the way they should be read.

C. The Power of Life and Death

In Proverbs 11:30, the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and those who win souls are wise.’ The fruit are the words and deeds and we experience constant healing by feeding on the Tree of Life. There is an intentional irony in regards to the clause of those who win souls is literally ‘who take away life.’ What the righteous say is a tree of life and if you feed on it then you are healed and restored. In Proverbs 13:14, ‘the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a person aside from the snares of death.’ There is only one fountain, but many traps and that is an abundant life with God and the teaching of the wise by its straightforward style and by its moral excellence attracts people to drink from it life-giving truth. If you speak well with good substance and good style, people will turn aside and drink from that instead of ending up in the snares of death. The proverb assumes that a person is on a road mined with lethal traps. In 18:20-21, ‘from the fruit of their mouth a person’s stomach is filled; with the harvest of their lips they are satisfied. Death and life are in the hand of the tongue, and as for those who love it; each one will eat its fruit.’ The fruit refers to one’s own speech. There is an oxymoron, you eat the fruit of your lips and in ‘you eat what you are,’ is the same as the English proverb of ‘eat your words.’ What you give comes out to feed you.

So we have looked at the power of words. They have the power to reward you or damage oneself. It has the power of life and death. By bad teaching, we can lead people into eternal death. It has the power to destroy and to heal as stated in 12:18. Proverbs 6:27-29 reads, ‘a scoundrel plots evil, and on their lips it is like a scorching fire. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. A violent person entices their neighbor and leads them down a path that is not good.’ And the word of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. The reckless is a person who speaks without thought and at random so you need to put your mind in gear before you put your tongue in motion. By bad speech you can unconsciously damage people; this is why it is so important to think before you speak. And this is the case for Gossiping. Gossiping is so destructive; it slaughters, maims and kills people in their tracks. Those who gossips simply don’t love God but instead, they love themselves. Gossip makes you feel better than the other person. In Proverbs 12:25, we have a way of healing instead where we see that anxiety weigh down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up. This is true in life; sometimes I come away from meetings that really weigh me down but a kind word really helps me out. So we see that light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart and good news gives health to the bones (15:30). This light is a wise person that brings joy and good news. Instead of gossip, our natural words should be words of encouragement and kindness in order to heal. We see in 16:24 that gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Normally things that are sweet aren’t good for us as medicine is usually not sweet but gracious words have healing properties. To sum this up, realize that God calls us to love, not to be right. In a conversation, we often if not always want to prove that we are right. This is self-oriented, not God oriented.

III. The Limitation of Words

Words must be accompanied by deeds as shown in 14:23, ‘all hard work brings a profit, but mere talking leads only to poverty.’ In Isaiah 49:4, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.’ The answer to this is in Hebrews 6:10 where it says, ‘that God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. In 24:10-12 it shows that they cannot revise God’s history: ‘if you falter in a time of trouble, how small is your strength! Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, but we knew nothing about this, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?’ Faltering is showing yourself being lax and entails cowardice, fear, indolence, carelessness and a lack of resolute strength. There is a history with God that cannot be revised or changed. And a fool will not respond to words nor can a slave be corrected by mere words though they understand, they will not respond. The foolish slave needs a caning to free him from the slavery of his rebellious heart.

IV. Characteristics of Wise Speech

A. So What is Wise Speech?

A wise speech can be summarized by the words, ‘gentle BREATH.’ And in breath, I have the B that stands for boast not and R stands for restrained where E represents to not gossiping. The A is apt where the T is thoughtful with the H being honest. So if you have the gentle breath in speaking, you know to speak softly, gently, kindly and sensitively to the other person. You don’t boast about yourself but rather let other comment the things that you do. Nor boast about the morrow as you don’t control it. Be restrained in what you say and don’t gossip, full stop. Just don’t gossip, it hurts others. Look at the following with Proverbs 15:1-4:





A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.


The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gush folly.


The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, watching vigilantly evil people and good people.


The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

The verses pertain to communication and key words include answer and word, tongue and mouth and tongue again in verse 4. It is framed by gentle tongue and soothing and/or healing tongue. There is a theological dimension to verse 3 where the Lord upholds a good and healing tongue and punishes an evil and perverse tongue. Verses 1-2 is linked by a common topic of good speech verses bad speech and by a common syntax where a gentle tongue does not compromise truth and knowledge but instead, adorns it.

Judges 8:1-6 is a good illustration of a gentle word. It reads, ‘now the Ephraimites asked Gideon why he treated them the way he did by not calling them when he went to fight Midian. So they challenged him vigorously. He answered by a question, ‘what have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t the gleanings of Ephraim’s grapes better than the full grape harvest of Abiezer? God gave Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite leaders, into your hands. What was I able to do as compared to you? At this, their resentment against him subsided. Gideon and his three hundred men, exhausted yet keeping up the pursuit, came to the Jordan and crossed it. He said to the men of Sukkoth, give my troops some bread; they are worn out, and I am still pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings Midian. But the officials of Sukkoth ask do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?’ In this, Gideon showed kindness to the Ephramites in their angry questioning and so their resentment decreased and subsided. But notice the contrast with the officials of Sukkoth. They had gotten the generals but not the kings so they were still after the kinds. Gideon replied with a very harsh answer compared to the answer he gave the Ephraimites. This is a striking contrast between two answers from Gideon.

So again, we should not boast about tomorrow for we don’t know what any of those days will bring. In Proverbs 27:1, the word tomorrow means the nearest future. We are to let others praise us instead of ourselves as mentioned in verse 2 of the same chapter. Self-praise exalts self and so destroys relationships. People do not take the boaster seriously. They have their own way of testing others before giving them acclaim and entrusting them with power. There is a saying, ‘never knock down a door that you want to go through.’ In 2nd Corinthians 11:1-33 Paul had to make an exception, a judgement as to whether or not he should boast. His ministry and the people’s well-being were so important that he was willing to make himself a fool. Restrain yourself in starting a quarrel for it is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. (Proverbs 12:23) Be prudent and keep the knowledge to yourself. Interestingly Robert Boyd and Edmond Adio in Ego Speech, why No One is Listening to You, says that the average American open his or her mouth 700 times with 12,000 sentences with a total of 100,000 words, but reads less than three books per year. In Proverbs 17:27 we see that a person who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and those who have understanding are even-tempered. Abraham Lincoln said that it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

B. Love Covers All Wrongs

In proverbs 10:12 we see that hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs and an understanding person heals a broken relationship by retaining an appropriate silence, even when wronged. People gossip because of being proud and having the upper hand thus betraying a confidence they have trusted upon you. When something is spoken to you in confidence, divulging it advantages those who are wrong and disadvantaged. In Proverbs 15:2 we have the mouth of the fool gushes folly and evilness, but a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. When you weight up what to say, that implies self-control and being considerate and wickedness is not concerned with the well-being of others. Their rashness will come to ruin yet those who guard their lips preserve their own lives (Proverbs 12:3). Honesty is delightful to the Lord because he detests lying lips, but he delight in people who are trustworthy (12:22).

IV. Sources of Good Speech

The sources of good speech come from the heart, for out of that comes the way we speak. We see that an honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies (12:17). So it is from a person’s character, it’s from their heart. You have to judge the character of the person who is speaking. This also comes from sound doctrine as seen 22:17-18, ‘pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips. It is sound doctrine that gives you this. You need to walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm. In 13:20. Ultimately it is God’s grace by prayer and faith. We read in 15:8 that the Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him and in 15:29 it says that the Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. And finally in 16:3, we are to commit to the Lord everything that we do and he promises to establish our plans. We can actually choose to live in the presence of the wise; those who are encouraging, gracious and gentle; those who don’t stand on harsh words, who put others before them, not speaking words of gossip and discouragement. And as people who love the Lord, this is how we should be.