Years ago an anonymous writer penned a short poem about the merits of measuring our words.
A wise old owl sat in an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
There is a connection between wisdom and limiting what we say. Proverbs 10:19 says, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
We are wise to be careful about what we say or how much we say in certain situations. It makes sense to guard our words when we are angry. James urged his fellow believers, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Restraining our words can also show reverence for God. Solomon said, “God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). When others are grieving, our silent presence may help more than abundant expressions of sympathy: “No one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13).
Although there is a time to be quiet and a time to speak (Eccl. 3:7), choosing to speak less allows us to hear more.
Dear Lord, please grant me wisdom to know when to speak and when to listen. I want to encourage others and to care for them as You have cared for me.
Let your speech be better than silence; otherwise be silent.
Today’s reading focuses on how we use the words we speak. In verse 17, the emphasis is on the instruction and correction we receive; lying lips and slanderous words are the focus of verse 18. The point of verse 19 is that words can be so dangerous that we’re wiser to not speak than to speak too much, while verse 20 contrasts the speech of those with a right heart (which is like silver) against those whose heart is far from God (worthless). Finally, verse 21 describes how proper speech can be like food to the soul. In all of these sayings, we are challenged to carefully consider how we speak.
On La Gomera, one of the smallest of the Canary Islands, a language that sounds like a bird song is being revived. In a land of deep valleys and steep ravines, schoolchildren and tourists are learning how whistling was once used to communicate for distances up to 2 miles. One goat herder who is using this ancient language once again to communicate with his flock said, “They recognize my whistle as they recognize my voice.”
The practice of whistling also shows up in the Bible, where God is described as a shepherd whistling for His sheep. This image could be what the prophet had in mind when he described how God will one day whistle to bring a wandering and scattered people back to Himself (Zech. 10:8).
Many years later Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). That may be the whistle of a shepherd. Sheep don’t understand words, but they know the sound that signals the shepherd’s presence.
Misleading voices and distracting noises still compete for our attention (cf. Zech. 10:2). Yet God has ways of signaling us, even without words. By events that can be alarming or encouraging, He reminds us of His guiding, protecting, and reassuring presence.
Father, it is a noisy world. Thank You for always calling to us above the din and ruckus that distracts us. Help us to recognize Your voice and follow Your leading.
In March 2011, a devastating tsunami struck Japan, taking nearly 16,000 lives as it obliterated towns and villages along the coast. Writer and poet Gretel Erlich visited Japan to witness and document the destruction. When she felt inadequate to report what she was seeing, she wrote a poem about it. In a PBS NewsHour interview she said, “My old friend William Stafford, a poet now gone, said, ‘A poem is an emergency of the spirit.’”
We find poetry used throughout the Bible to express deep emotion, ranging from joyful praise to anguished loss. When King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle, David was overwhelmed with grief (2 Sam. 1:1-12). He poured out his soul in a poem he called “the Song of the Bow”: “Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided. . . . How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! . . . I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me” (vv.23-26).
When we face “an emergency of the spirit”—whether glad or sad—our prayers can be a poem to the Lord. While we may stumble to articulate what we feel, our heavenly Father hears our words as a true expression of our hearts.
Sometimes I do not pray in words— I take my heart in my two hands And hold it up before the Lord— I am so glad He understands. —Nicholson
God does more than hear words; He reads hearts.
Although Saul had treated David as his enemy, David did not treat Saul as his. When Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle, David honored them in the song in today’s passage, which opens and closes with the refrain “How the mighty have fallen!” (vv.19,27).