Learning to Listen Before Speaking

1 “But now, hear my speech, O Job,
    and listen to all my words.
Behold, I open my mouth;
    the tongue in my mouth speaks.
My words declare the uprightness of my heart,
    and what my lips know they speak sincerely.
The Spirit of God has made me,
    and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Answer me, if you can;
    set your words in order before me; take your stand.
Behold, I am toward God as you are;
    I too was pinched off from a piece of clay.
Behold, no fear of me need terrify you;
    my pressure will not be heavy upon you.

“Surely you have spoken in my ears,
    and I have heard the sound of your words.
You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression;
    I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me.
10 Behold, he finds occasions against me,
    he counts me as his enemy,
11 he puts my feet in the stocks
    and watches all my paths.’

12 “Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you,
    for God is greater than man.
13 Why do you contend against him,
    saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?
14 For God speaks in one way,
    and in two, though man does not perceive it.
15 In a dream, in a vision of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on men,
    while they slumber on their beds,
16 then he opens the ears of men
    and terrifies them with warnings,
17 that he may turn man aside from his deed
    and conceal pride from a man;
18 he keeps back his soul from the pit,
    his life from perishing by the sword.

19 “Or God disciplines people with pain on their sickbeds,
    with ceaseless aching in their bones.
20 They lose their appetite
    for even the most delicious food.
21 Their flesh wastes away,
    and their bones stick out.
22 They are at death’s door;
    the angels of death wait for them.
Job 33:1-22 ESV

Whatever credibility Elihu may lack due to his young age, he more than makes up for in swagger. He is an extremely confident individual who believes he has a divine calling to shed light on Job’s situation.

I speak with all sincerity;
    I speak the truth.
For the Spirit of God has made me,
    and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. – Job 33:4 NLT

Yet, Elihu tries to win Job over by emphasizing their commonality. Both of them, he points out, are products of God’s creation, having been “formed from clay” (Job 33:6 NLT). Since they are mere men who have been created by and belong to God, there is no reason that Job should refuse to listen to what Elihu has to say. He insists that he is no threat to Job.

So you don’t need to be afraid of me.
    I won’t come down hard on you. – Job 33:7 NLT

Having tried to placate Job by stressing their similarities, Elihu shifts gears and begins to address where he and Job disagree. He starts by condensing all of Job’s complaints down to one simple sentence.

You said, ‘I am pure; I am without sin;
    I am innocent; I have no guilt.
God is picking a quarrel with me,
    and he considers me his enemy.
He puts my feet in the stocks
    and watches my every move.’” – Job 33:9-11 NLT

This is an unfair and over-simplistic assessment of Job’s lengthy responses to Bildad, Eliphaz, and Bildad. In his desire to point out the flaws in Job’s arguments, Elihu resorts to reductionism, “the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, esp. to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it” (collinsdictionary.com).

A quick review of Job’s earlier speeches confirms that he believed himself to be innocent of all charges leveled against him by his three friends, but at no time did Job ever declare himself to be sin-free. His only point was that he was not guilty of anything worthy of the kind of suffering he had endured. He had done nothing to deserve the collapse of his entire fortune, the deaths of his children, or the loss of his health. And because Job believed God to be sovereign over all things, the only conclusion he could reach was that God was behind it all. In Job’s mind, either God caused his suffering or, for some reason, refused to prevent it.

But Elihu takes issue with Job’s conclusion, and rebukes him for his arrogant and disrespectful view of God.

you are wrong, and I will show you why.
    For God is greater than any human being.
So why are you bringing a charge against him? – Job 33:12-13 NLT

Elihu had not been listening. He heard the words that came out of Job’s mouth but he was oblivious to the state of Job’s heart. Rather than probe behind all the impassioned rhetoric of his suffering friend, Elihu placed himself in the position of being the thought police. He was so busy monitoring Job’s use of words that he was unable to hear what Job was trying to say. Job wasn’t attacking God; he was simply trying to make sense of his ongoing pain and suffering. Job wasn’t blaming God either. All he was asking for was an explanation and the hope of vindication.

But Elihu heard what he wanted to hear, and in his mind, Job was nothing less than a blasphemer. As he had sat listening to Job’s responses to the other three interrogators, Elihu had deduced that Job was disparaging the Almighty. This made Job an enemy of God. Elihu heard Job repeatedly declare that all he wanted was a response from God. Job was demanding that God give him an audience and provide him with answers. But Elihu suggests that God had already spoken but Job was not listening.

God speaks again and again,
    though people do not recognize it.
He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night…” – Job 33:14-15 NLT

Elihu asserts that Job had probably received word from God in the form of a dream but he refused to listen to what God to say. Without any evidence to back up his assertion, Elihu claims that Job had been warned by God but didn’t take the warning seriously. According to Elihu’s assessment, God had already revealed to Job the cause of his suffering. He had visited Job in a dream and warned him to repent or suffer the consequences.

He whispers in their ears
    and terrifies them with warnings.
He makes them turn from doing wrong;
    he keeps them from pride. – Job 33:16-17 NLT

Elihu’s conclusion was that Job could have escaped all his pain and suffering if he had only listened to God. Therefore, he was responsible for his own undoing. And, to make matters worse, Elihu suggests that God was still trying to speak to Job through his pain.

God disciplines people with pain on their sickbeds,
    with ceaseless aching in their bones. – Job 33:19 NLT

It was all so clear to the overconfident Elihu. Job had lost everything because he refused to heed the warnings of God, and his continued suffering was a sign of God’s ongoing discipline. It was as simple as that.

Elihu shows little or no compassion. He exhibits no empathy for his older friend because he has no personal experience with such matters. It is unlikely that Elihu has ever lost all that he holds dear. His has no concept of what Job has suffered. He has no basis for understanding the pain behind Job’s words. So, he resorts to simplistic deductions that paint Job as a stubborn and unrepentant sinner who is getting exactly what he deserves.

Like his three companions, Elihu meant well. He is not an evil man who is guilty of kicking his brother while he is down. He sincerely believes that he is in the right and has the solution to Job’s problem. But in his haste to be the bearer of “good news,” Elihu ends up being the harbinger of doom and gloom. His words bring little comfort to Job. Instead, they are condemning and rather condescending, treating Job like he is nothing more than a stubborn child in need of a spanking or a time-out.

Elihu will attempt to shine a dim glimmer of hope on Job’s darkened world, but it will be well outside of Job’s control. God will not listen to Job, Elihu asserts, but He may be open to “a special messenger to intercede for a person and declare that he is upright” (Job 33:23 NLT). So, in effect, all Job can do is sit in silence and hope for the best.

Both men agree that God is in control, but Elihu suggests that Job has no right to demand an audience with the Almighty. He totally rejects Job’s suggestion that God owes Him an answer and just might acquit him of any wrongdoing. For Elihu, that kind of thinking was ungodly and out of bounds for any faithful God-follower. But the young and inexperienced Elihu had a lot to learn. In time, he would discover the truth behind God’s words.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak

17 “I will show you; hear me,
    and what I have seen I will declare
18 (what wise men have told,
    without hiding it from their fathers,
19 to whom alone the land was given,
    and no stranger passed among them).
20 The wicked man writhes in pain all his days,
    through all the years that are laid up for the ruthless.
21 Dreadful sounds are in his ears;
    in prosperity the destroyer will come upon him.
22 He does not believe that he will return out of darkness,
    and he is marked for the sword.
23 He wanders abroad for bread, saying, ‘Where is it?’
    He knows that a day of darkness is ready at his hand;
24 distress and anguish terrify him;
    they prevail against him, like a king ready for battle.
25 Because he has stretched out his hand against God
    and defies the Almighty,
26 running stubbornly against him
    with a thickly bossed shield;
27 because he has covered his face with his fat
    and gathered fat upon his waist
28 and has lived in desolate cities,
    in houses that none should inhabit,
    which were ready to become heaps of ruins;
29 he will not be rich, and his wealth will not endure,
    nor will his possessions spread over the earth;
30 he will not depart from darkness;
    the flame will dry up his shoots,
    and by the breath of his mouth he will depart.
31 Let him not trust in emptiness, deceiving himself,
    for emptiness will be his payment.
32 It will be paid in full before his time,
    and his branch will not be green.
33 He will shake off his unripe grape like the vine,
    and cast off his blossom like the olive tree.
34 For the company of the godless is barren,
    and fire consumes the tents of bribery.
35 They conceive trouble and give birth to evil,
    and their womb prepares deceit.” – Job 15:17-35 ESV

Eliphaz has a way with words but it would be difficult to describe him as an encourager. He has a gift for crafting well-worded sentences that paint vivid images in the mind, yet do little to lift up the spirits of the one to whom they’re directed. This guy is a veritable factory of one-liners and memorable word pictures. His vocabulary is impressive, as is his ability to string together powerfully worded indictments that masquerade as well-intended counsel to his afflicted friend.

His gift of persuasion is hard to argue with and one can almost find themselves nodding their head in agreement as he waxes eloquent about Job’s guilt and his need for repentance. After all, he seems to know what he’s talking about and even claims to have plenty of hard-earned personal experience that lends him credibility and authority in the matter.

“If you will listen, I will show you.
    I will answer you from my own experience.
And it is confirmed by the reports of wise men
    who have heard the same thing from their fathers—
from those to whom the land was given
    long before any foreigners arrived. – Job 15:17-19 NLT

He claims to be backed by the wisdom of the ages, so his advice should be heeded and his words should go unchallenged. For Job to try and refute Eliphaz’s counsel would be to reject generations of proven insight into the human experience. He would be standing opposed to centuries worth of collective knowledge and stubbornly rejecting the tried-and-true insights of the sages.

How is Job supposed to withstand that kind of withering assault on his innocence? If he continues to hold his ground and stubbornly cling to his blamelessness, he will only add fuel to the fire and validate Eliphaz’s claims. After all, Eliphaz has carefully constructed his prosecution of Job, using any claims of innocence as proof of guilt. In his estimation, only the wicked would dare to lash out at God. A truly innocent man would show honor and respect by confessing his guilt and placing himself in the hands of the Almighty. And Eliphaz strengthens his case by comparing Job’s actions with those of the wicked and godless.

“The wicked writhe in pain throughout their lives.
    Years of trouble are stored up for the ruthless.
The sound of terror rings in their ears,
    and even on good days they fear the attack of the destroyer. – Job 15:20-21 NLT

Eliphaz is anything but subtle. He claims that Job is only getting what he deserves for a life of hidden wickedness. Job may have fooled his family and friends but he couldn’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. Now, he was getting his just desserts. At least, that’s how Eliphaz saw it.

He compares Job to a king who knows he is facing defeat at the hands of a more powerful foe but stubbornly clings to his false hope of victory. These kinds of fools “shake their fists at God, defying the Almighty. Holding their strong shields, they defiantly charge against him” (Job 15:25-26 NLT).

Don’t miss what Eliphaz is doing. He is setting Job up by turning every attempt at self-justification into proof of guilt. If Job even dares to question his circumstances, he is “shaking his fist at God” and “defying the Almighty.” This assertion virtually eliminates all options for Job. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. His persistent pleas of innocence will only confirm his guilt but so will a vow of silence. Eliphaz has painted Job into a corner and left him with no way out.

Sensing that he has Job on the ropes, Eliphaz increases the intensity of his attacks, painting his hapless friend as being overweight from a life of over-indulgence. He is fat and bloated from decades of excess and extreme wickedness.

“These wicked people are heavy and prosperous;
    their waists bulge with fat. – Job 15:27 NLT

Subtlety is not Eliphaz’s strong suit. He wields words like a sledgehammer, obliterating any semblance of hope that may remain in Job’s already fractured heart. Eliphaz has gotten personal by attacking Job’s physical appearance along with his integrity. Once again, Eliphaz is attempting to portray Job as a hypocrite and a fraud. He is not what he appears to be. Eliphaz has deduced that the pity-producing cries of his suffering friend are nothing but a cleverly orchestrated facade designed to distract and deceive. The more vociferously Job demands his guiltlessness, the more condemned he stands.

It’s quite clear that Eliphaz has no doubts regarding Job’s guilt. In his mind, Job is wicked and godless, and his losses are all the proof he needs to elicit a guilty verdict from the Judge of the universe. He believes he has God on his side and one can almost see the smirk on his face as he confidently asserts that the riches of the wicked “will not last, and their wealth will not endure” (Job 15:29 NLT). Job has seen his wealth evaporate before his eyes. He has nothing left. And, for Eliphaz, this is further proof of his friend’s culpability. With Job’s finances in shambles, he has no resources on which to rely, and Eliphaz knows it. In fact, he coldly states that Job’s poverty has left him with nothing to look forward to than a life of emptiness. It will be Job’s only reward. 

This man is relentless and compassionless. He has become so determined to prove himself right that he has become blind to the wrongs he has inflicted on his helpless and hopeless friend. Eliphaz has lost all capacity to see Job’s pain and provide solace. His words have become pain-inducing, not peace-producing.

The apostle James points out the danger of an unbridled tongue.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:26-27 NLT

Job was not a widow or an orphan but he was a man in great distress, and Eliphaz and his friends, in their self-righteousness, were using their tongues to burden him with a heavy weight of unnecessary pain and suffering. James went on to describe the damaging influence of an unbridled tongue.

…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were all adept at wielding their tongues but the byproduct of their efforts was anything but uplifting. Job had not been comforted or cared for. Their religious speech had not produced righteousness. And James would have called them out for using the same tongue with which they praised God to curse one who had been made in the image of God (James 3:9). In doing so, these men had put themselves in the place of God. Each of them viewed himself as Job’s judge, jury, and executioner.

I believe James would have counseled Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar to back off and reconsider how they were using their tongues. He would have asked them to examine their motives. He would have questioned the health of their own hearts and encouraged them to do a bit of personal soul-searching to see if their wisdom was really from God or not.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. – James 3:13-16 NLT

Each of us could stand to learn from the not-so-flattering examples of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. We would do well to consider our own tendency to give out unsolicited advice and, in doing so, to do immeasurable damage to those who desperately need a word of encouragement in their time of need. Each of us would be wise to consider the words of James.

You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. – James 1:19-20 NLT

May we not forget the words Jesus spoke to the self-righteous and quick-to-judge Pharisees: “…let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7 NLT)

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

When Well-Intended Words Become a Weapon

1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said:

“If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?
    Yet who can keep from speaking?
Behold, you have instructed many,
    and you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
    it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
    and the integrity of your ways your hope?

“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
    Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
    and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
    and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
10 The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion,
    the teeth of the young lions are broken.
11 The strong lion perishes for lack of prey,
    and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.”

12 “Now a word was brought to me stealthily;
    my ear received the whisper of it.
13 Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on men,
14 dread came upon me, and trembling,
    which made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face;
    the hair of my flesh stood up.
16 It stood still,
    but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
    there was silence, then I heard a voice:
17 ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God?
    Can a man be pure before his Maker?
18 Even in his servants he puts no trust,
    and his angels he charges with error;
19 how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
    whose foundation is in the dust,
    who are crushed like the moth.
20 Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces;
    they perish forever without anyone regarding it.
21 Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them,
    do they not die, and that without wisdom?’ – Job 4:1-21 ESV

We all have them – well-meaning friends who step alongside us during times of difficulty and seasons of suffering spouting sanctimonious sermonettes on our condition. They’re the Scripture police who tend to quote passages they don’t fully understand and draw conclusions based on scant information and little or no experience. These people don’t intend to hurt anyone, but in their zeal to “encourage,” they do more harm than good.

Job’s friend, Eliphaz, was one of these types of individuals. In the midst of all of Job’s grief and suffering, he shows up on the scene lobbing all kinds of theological and psychological hand grenades into Job’s pity party. He has taken one look at Job’s circumstances and reached a conclusion: Job is guilty of something. He has to be.

But Eliphaz prefaces his verbal barrage on his suffering friend with what appears to be a kind and gracious request to share his thoughts. He and his companions have completed a seven-day-long wake, where they sat by Job’s side as he mourned the deaths of his ten children and the loss of his entire economic empire. They sat in silence as their devastated friend attempted to heal from his deep emotional wounds while suffering from a debilitating and painful skin disease.

In time, Eliphaz grew impatient and decided it was time to speak. He had seen enough and was ready to help his friend come to grips with the real source of Job’s problems. Knowing that Job is in no mood to hear what he has to say, Eliphaz begs his friend to show patience as he shares his enlightened insights. Then, in a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to gain Job’s ear, Eliphaz flatters his suffering friend by recalling how Job had so often played the role of comforting counselor in the lives of others.

In the past you have encouraged many people;
    you have strengthened those who were weak.
Your words have supported those who were falling;
    you encouraged those with shaky knees.
– Job 4:3-4 NLT

In a sense, Eliphaz is saying, “I’m only doing what you would do if the shoe was on the other foot.” Eliphaz is trying to prepare Job for the “truth bomb” he is about to drop. In the lengthy speech he has prepared, Eliphaz is going to share some things that Job is not going to want to hear. Eliphaz knows his words are going to be painful and difficult to accept but they need to be said, and he challenges Job to accept them like a man.

He levels an accusation of duplicity, suggesting that Job has always been quick to hand out advice to his suffering friends but now that he is the one doing the suffering, he crumples like a house of cards.

But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart.
    You are terrified when it touches you.
– Job 4:5 NLT

These words seem to echo the sentiments found in the Book of Proverbs.

An open rebuke
    is better than hidden love!

Wounds from a sincere friend
    are better than many kisses from an enemy. – Proverbs 27:5-6 NLT

The heartfelt counsel of a friend
is as sweet as perfume and incense. – Proverbs 27:9 NLT

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend. – Proverbs 27:17 NLT

But friendship isn’t necessarily a guarantee of wise counsel. Well-intentioned friends can end up giving poor advice and questionable counsel. A close and intimate relationship doesn’t automatically qualify someone to serve as an infallible source of wisdom. Eliphaz meant well, and much of what he had to say contained a semblance of truth, but there was a great deal about Job’s situation to which he was ignorant.

From his limited vantage point, Eliphaz had come to certain conclusions regarding Job’s circumstances. From the outside looking in, he assessed the scene and determined the cause of Job’s suffering, and he validated his conclusions by spiritualizing them. He claims to have had a vision in the night.

“This truth was given to me in secret,
    as though whispered in my ear.
It came to me in a disturbing vision at night,
    when people are in a deep sleep.
Fear gripped me,
    and my bones trembled.
A spirit swept past my face,
    and my hair stood on end.
The spirit stopped, but I couldn’t see its shape.
    There was a form before my eyes.
In the silence I heard a voice…” – Job 4:12-16 NLT

Eliphaz doesn’t attribute this vision to Yahweh. He never claims to have received a word from God Almighty. He simply saw “a form” that whispered a cryptic message in his ear.

Can a mortal be innocent before God?
    Can anyone be pure before the Creator?” – Job 4:17 NLT

Eliphaz heard a voice but he could not name its source. He had a vision but he had no way of knowing who this “spirit” was or whether the message was God-ordained. From his ethereal night encounter, Eliphaz built an entire case against Job. He wrongly concluded that Job must be guilty of something. Otherwise, why would he be suffering so much loss and pain?

In the second half of his speech, he draws the following conclusion:

“…evil does not spring from the soil, and trouble does not sprout from the earth. People are born for trouble as predictably as sparks fly upward from a fire.” – Job 5:6-7 NLT

Bad things don’t just happen. They’re the result of bad choices made by individuals. In other words, you reap what you sow. And Job must have sown some really wild oats at some point in his past. Eliphaz admits that Job was a pretty good guy. He had been an encouragement to a lot of people over the years. He had been a source of comfort and strength to others when they needed him. He had always been there with a kind word and a listening ear. But he must have done something to deserve this bizarre turn of affairs. These things don’t just happen.

The problem with Eliphaz’s speech is that it contains a modicum of truth. He has a lot of good things to say but he suffers from bad timing and a lousy understanding of reality. He speaks of things he doesn’t know. He makes assumptions about things he doesn’t understand. He is judging based on the circumstances, but can’t see what God sees. He can’t even see God working behind the scenes. And isn’t that how we all approach the presence of trials and troubles in our lives?

We draw conclusions. We make assumptions. And we pass out words of wisdom like they were so much Valentine’s candy. We mix a touch of biblical truth with a little bit of home-spun wisdom and then baste our friends with this toxic marinade of self-righteous piety. Eliphaz was dispensing truth like a doctor handing out prescriptions for a condition he had yet to diagnose; a process that will render perfectly safe drugs potentially deadly. We do that when we reach hasty conclusions about the spiritual condition of others based on circumstances alone. It reminds me of the story in the Gospel of John. Jesus is walking with His disciples and they encounter a man blind from birth. His disciples reveal a lot about their theology when they ask Jesus, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?” (John 9:2 NLT). To their surprise, Jesus responded, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins, he was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT).

The truth is, we don’t know what God is doing behind the scenes. We don’t know why certain situations are as they are, and if we’re not careful, like Eliphaz we can hastily draw wrong conclusions and hand out poor advice. When Job needed comfort, he got unnecessary conviction. When he needed a listening ear, he got a lecture. Was a lot of what was said true? You bet. But it was misapplied and mistakenly meted out. In his commentary on the book of Job, John Gill says this about Eliphaz’s little speech:

“and he ‘said’ not anything by way of condolence or consolation, not pitying Job’s case, nor comforting him in his afflicted circumstances, as they required both; but reproaching him as a wicked and hypocritical man, not acting like himself formerly, or according to his profession and principles, but just the reverse: this was a new trial to Job, and some think the sorest of all; it was as a sword in his bones, which was very cutting to him; as oil cast into a fiery furnace in which he now was, which increased the force and fury of it; and as to vinegar an opened and bleeding wound, which makes it smart the more.” – John Gill, Exposition on the Entire Bible, the Book of Job

A big part of ministering to others is learning to listen well. Sometimes the greatest form of comfort is silence. But if you’re going to say anything at all, maybe we could take notes from the words of Isaiah.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. – Isaiah 35:4-5 NIV

Strengthen, steady, encourage, and point them to God. Lift them up, don’t tear them down.

Timely advice is lovely,
    like golden apples in a silver basket.

To one who listens, valid criticism
    is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry.

Trustworthy messengers refresh like snow in summer.
    They revive the spirit of their employer. – Proverbs 25:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


Worthy Words

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. James 3:1-12 ESV

It was Jesus who said, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT). He was responding to Pharisees and the teachers of religious law who had accused the disciples of eating food without having properly cleansed their hands.

“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” – Matthew 15:2 NLT

In response, Jesus accused these men of putting a higher priority on their man-made traditions than they did on the Mosaic law. They were guilty of violating the commandments of God. In fact, He put them in the same category as their disobedient ancestors whom God had accused of infidelity and unfaithfulness.

“These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Words matter. What we say with our lips reflects the condition of our hearts. And Jesus succinctly summed up the problem of the hypocritical religious leaders of Israel when He said: “the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).

In this chapter, James picks up on this same theme by pointing out the dangerous nature of the tongue. In doing so, he is simply continuing his emphasis on the importance of works, which are the visible manifestations of faith. For James, anyone who claims to have faith but fails to display any tangible evidence to back it up is only fooling themselves. Their faith is dead and lifeless.

It’s not that these people are devoid of actions or activity. But their behavior fails to measure up to God’s righteous standards. They were guilty of treating one another unfairly by showing favoritism to the rich and influential. They were claiming to love their neighbor while treating the poor among them as second-class citizens.

Now, James focuses his attention on the importance of their words. Like Jesus, James stresses the pedagogical nature of human speech. He even warns his readers to avoid becoming teachers within the body of Christ because God will hold them to a high account.

…not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. – James 3:1 NLT

Jesus had accused the Pharisees of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). Through their words and actions, they were instructing the people of God to disregard His commandments. And Jesus warned His disciples, “ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14 NLT).

The problem, according to James, is the uncontrollable nature of the tongue. It may be small but it’s extremely powerful and has the potential to do great damage. The words that come out of our mouths can leave a wake of destruction in their path: Hurt feelings, destroyed relationships, damaged lives from deceptive doctrines, ruined reputations, and apostate believers.

All this destruction is due to a simple muscle called the tongue. And James stresses the minuscule yet massive influence of this seemingly insignificant part of the human anatomy. He compares it to a tiny bit that allows a rider to dictate the actions of a horse. It’s like the small rudder by which a pilot can control the direction of a large vessel and determine its final destination. In comparison, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:5 ESV).

The issue here is that of control. A bit and a rudder are used to determine direction. They have the power to direct and influence something far larger than themselves. In the same way, the tongue, though small, can be used to influence others in both a positive and negative way. To fail to recognize the tongue’s potential for destruction is dangerous. James compares it to a tiny, insignificant spark that can set a whole forest on fire. And just to make sure his readers understand the comparison, James adds:

…among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

Think about what James is saying. The human brain is considered to have the processing power of a super-computer, yet it requires the tongue to communicate its thoughts and impressions. A thought unexpressed by the tongue remains trapped in the mind. But words, both spoken and written carry great power for good and evil. And unlike horses, dogs, lions, and other animals, the tiny tongue remains uncontrollable. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to tame the tongue. And James paints a rather bleak picture of the problem, describing the tongue as “restless and evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NLT).

But his point seems to be that, without God’s help, the tongue will continue to be a destructive force in the life of a believer. We have no innate ability to control what comes out of our mouths. We can try, but eventually, our words reveal the true condition of our hearts. Remember what Jesus said: “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). It begins with thoughts and ends with either actions or words. And what makes our words so dangerous is their power to influence others. That’s why James stressed the tongue’s power to teach. While others may not mimic our evil behavior, they may be influenced to listen to our words and follow our instructions. And James provides a convicting example of how the tongue can negatively influence the body of Christ.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. – James 3:9-10 NLT

This ties back to the problem of favoritism and partiality. The believers to whom James was writing were guilty of treating some within their fellowship with disdain – and all while they were worshiping God together. With their lips, they were praising Yahweh and denigrating their neighbors at the same time. And James calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:10 NLT

Their words and works were ungodly and unacceptable. With their tongues, they were doing irreparable damage to the body of Christ. And James points out the illogical and seemingly impossible nature of this kind of behavior among followers of Christ.

Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. – James 3:11-12 NLT

They had been redeemed and renewed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. They were new creations and had received new hearts and enjoyed the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They had the God-given capacity to live in keeping with His will and according to the example of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the life-transforming grace of God made possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 ESV

In his second letter to the very same congregation, Paul stressed the all-encompassing nature of God’s sanctifying grace.

…just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, and in the love we inspired in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. – 2 Corinthians 8:7 BSB

According to Paul, the tongue could be tamed. Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the believer’s speech can be purified and his words can be sanctified so that the body of Christ is unified and strengthened. Like the great king, David, we can ask God to help us tame the tongue so that our words produce good and bring Him glory.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:14 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Wine, Women, and Words

1 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
    What are you doing, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
    your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
    and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
    and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth for the mute,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:1-9 ESV

These proverbs are presented as the words of King Lemuel and the first nine verses come in the form of an oracle taught to him by his mother. The Hebrew word translated as “oracle” is maśśā’ and it refers to a message with a heavy burden. These are weighty or substantive teachings that were passed down from mother to son and then collected for distribution in Solomon’s book of Proverbs.

It would appear that Lemuel was a foreign king because his name appears nowhere in the chronicles of the kings of Israel of Judah. He could have been a proselyte to Judaism and, therefore, a worshiper of Yahweh. His mother, the former queen, could have been a descendant of Abraham or a convert to Judaism who passed down her faith to her young son. If the remainder of the chapter is biographical in nature and refers to Lemuel’s mother, it would be safe to say that she was a godly woman and had a tremendous influence on her son.

Verses 2-9 are the loving words of a mother to her son but they are rather unique in that they address the dangers facing a king. These words of warning come from someone who seems to have had firsthand experience in the matters she raises. As the former queen, it is likely that she had seen her husband, Lemuel’s father, struggle with these matters.

Her words are rather succinct and deal with three main topics: Women, wine, and words. She presents the first two as potential hazards to be avoided. It is not that either is particularly evil but that, for a king, they can prove to be dangerous and even deadly. Perhaps her husband had been a philanderer who allowed his love for women to destroy his marriage and weaken his kingdom.

Over the centuries, there has been repeated speculation that Lemuel was a pen name for Solomon. That would make the mother referred to in this chapter none other than Bathsheba. She would have had ample knowledge of the seductive influence that a woman can have on a man. And she knew what it was like to be the target of a man’s fatal attraction. After all, as a married woman, she had been seduced by King David and committed adultery with him. In an attempt to cover up the son their sin produced, David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. He then took Bathsheba to be his wife and she bore him a son, the fruit of their adulterous affair. But that son died in infancy, a punishment from God for David’s transgression. Then God blessed Bathsheba with another son, Solomon.

And when Solomon grew up and ascended to the throne of his father, it would make sense that Bathsheba would express concern about his apparent weakness for women.

“What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb?
    What are you doing, son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
    your ways to those who destroy kings. – Proverbs 31:2-3 ESV

The book of 1 Kings paints a rather lurid picture of Solomon’s attraction to the opposite sex.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The LORD had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the LORD.

In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the LORD his God, as his father, David, had been. – 1 Kings 11:1-4 NLT

Whether Lemuel was Solomon’s pseudonym and the loving mother in this passage was Bathsheba is all nothing more than speculation. But the biography of Solomon provides ample evidence that the maternal counsel found in this passage is more than merited.

But she didn’t stop there. She also warned her son about the dangers of wine.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, to guzzle wine.
    Rulers should not crave alcohol. – Proverbs 31:4 NLT

This loving mother seems to have firsthand experience with the dangers of alcohol. Perhaps she had watched Lemuel’s father struggle with controlling his consumption of wine and had seen how it had negatively impacted his ability to rule wisely. So, she pleads with her son to practice moderation and self-control. Notice her words. She does not forbid the use of alcohol but warns against its abuse. Lemuel is not to “guzzle” wine. He is not to “crave alcohol.” In other words, Lemuel is to avoid addictive behavior.

While the Scriptures do not completely prohibit the use of alcohol, there are plenty of verses that warn against it. And while there are some religious groups that abuse and misinterpret these verses, there are just as many that ignore them altogether.

In our desire to justify our use of alcohol, we tend to portray the Scriptures as seemingly silent on the topic. But repeatedly in the Book of Proverbs, we have seen Solomon warn his sons about the inherent dangers of alcohol consumption. In Proverbs 31, King Lemuel is warned against drinking to excess. This passage isn’t prohibiting the use of alcohol. In fact, in those days, to deny the use of alcohol in the court of a king would have been unheard of. It would have been absurd.

But excessive use of alcohol should be avoided at all times, especially by those who hold positions of responsibility and authority over the lives of others. The problem is that alcohol distorts the senses, muddies the mind, and can lead to poor decision-making. Whether you’re a king, national leader, company president, or a parent, the last thing you should want is to have your mind clouded by alcohol, rendering your judgment impaired and your ability to perform your responsibilities diminished.

There are far too many stories concerning wives whose husbands have struggled with a drinking problem. In many cases, these men were hard workers and loving husbands and fathers, who allowed alcohol to destroy their ability to lead and protect as they should. As Lemuel is warned, when they drink, they tend to make unwise decisions. They lose the capacity to think and rule wisely. Under the influence of alcohol, “they may forget the law and not give justice to the oppressed” (Proverbs 31:5 NLT).

They lose their moral bearings, their sense of right and wrong, and their understanding of justice. In the end, they make poor decisions that put their families at risk – financially, emotionally, and even physically. Alcohol in all its forms can be deadening and even deadly. Solomon warns us, “Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls. Those led astray by drink cannot be wise” (Proverbs 20:1 NLT). Here are a few of the other admonitions about wine and alcohol in the Book of Proverbs:

Those who love pleasure become poor;
    those who love wine and luxury will never be rich. – Proverbs 21:17 NLT

Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls.
    Those led astray by drink cannot be wise. – Proverbs 20:1 NLT

Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is,
    how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down.
For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake;
    it stings like a viper.
You will see hallucinations,
    and you will say crazy things.
You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea,
    clinging to a swaying mast. – Proverbs 23:30-34 NLT

In Proverbs, wine and mixed drinks are closely associated with the wicked and the immoral woman. It is almost always used in the sense of excess and over-indulgence. It appeals to the sensual side of man. It can dull our senses and feed the sinful side of our sensual nature.

There is a need for wisdom when it comes to the use of alcohol. We must be fully aware of its dangers. We must acknowledge its ability to impact and impair our judgment. It is a mind-altering, mood-enhancing substance that, if used wisely and appropriately, can have positive benefits. But it can also be misused and abused. It can destroy and divide. It can be used to escape reality and avoid responsibility. It can bring pleasure but it can also produce immoral behavior.

The final word of motherly advice has to do with words. Lemuel’s mother warns him to watch his tongue. Just as women and wine can have a negative influence, so can words. As a king, Lemuel wielded tremendous power. With a word, he could condemn or commend. He could use his authority for good or evil. So, she calls on her son to use his sovereign power to protect the less fortunate within his kingdom.

Open your mouth for the mute,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:8-9 NLT

A wise king understands that he serves God and acts as a steward of His divine authority. God defends the downtrodden and disadvantaged and He expects His vice-regent to do the same. Lemuel’s mother wanted her son to use the power inherent in his words for the good of all. She longed for him to judge righteously and to rule wisely.

Women, wine, and words. These three simple topics have the capacity to make or break any man, especially a king. And Lemuel’s mother loved him enough to warn him to tread carefully with all three.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Words of Wisdom

14 Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice,
    rising early in the morning,
    will be counted as cursing.
15 A continual dripping on a rainy day
    and a quarrelsome wife are alike;
16 to restrain her is to restrain the wind
    or to grasp oil in one’s right hand.
17 Iron sharpens iron,
    and one man sharpens another.
18 Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit,
    and he who guards his master will be honored.
19 As in water face reflects face,
    so the heart of man reflects the man.
20 Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied,
    and never satisfied are the eyes of man.
21 The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    and a man is tested by his praise.
22 Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle
    along with crushed grain,
    yet his folly will not depart from him.

23 Know well the condition of your flocks,
    and give attention to your herds,
24 for riches do not last forever;
    and does a crown endure to all generations?
25 When the grass is gone and the new growth appears
    and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered,
26 the lambs will provide your clothing,
    and the goats the price of a field.
27 There will be enough goats’ milk for your food,
    for the food of your household
    and maintenance for your girls. – Proverbs 27:14-27 ESV

Words matter because they provide a great barometer for measuring the condition of a man’s heart. They are the outward manifestation of one’s inner spiritual state and serve as powerful indicators of heart health.  Jesus put it this way:

“A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” – Luke 6:45 NLT

And the apostle James echoed the words of Jesus but added his own description of just how dangerous and deadly the tongue can be.

…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be! Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? – James 3:8-11 BSB

So, it is no wonder that Solomon’s collection of wise sayings has a great deal to say about the tongue and the vital role it plays in all our human interactions. It seems that the tongue has an almost unique capacity to cause joy or pain. With the tongue, we can lift a person up or tear them down. We can compliment or we can complain. We can use it to do good or a great deal of damage. And only a wise person knows how to wield the tongue correctly. When it comes to the tongue, timing is everything. The right thing said at the wrong time can end up producing a bad outcome.

A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning
    will be taken as a curse! – Proverbs 27:14 NLT

Knowing what to say and when to say it is vital if one wants their speech to be effective.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. – Proverbs 25:11 ESV

It takes godly wisdom to know when to speak up and when to shut up. And it requires discernment to know when you’ve said too much.

A quarrelsome wife is as annoying
    as constant dripping on a rainy day.
Stopping her complaints is like trying to stop the wind
    or trying to hold something with greased hands. – Proverbs 27:15-16 NLT

There may be ample reasons for a wife to complain about her husband’s behavior. She may have every right to express her dissatisfaction with his treatment of her, but this proverb describes a woman who persistently and unrelentingly nags her husband. Her words have become caustic and unproductive. Rather than changing her husband’s behavior, she ends up driving him away. But Proverbs 31 describes a very different kind of woman who uses her wisdom and her speech to produce a very different outcome.

She is clothed with strength and dignity,
    and she laughs without fear of the future.
When she speaks, her words are wise,
    and she gives instructions with kindness. – Proverbs 31:25-26 NLT

The tongue can be a helpful resource for lifting up and encouraging others. For a person with wisdom, it can be a powerful tool for transforming the lives of friends and enemies alike.

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend. – Proverbs 27:17 NLT

Praise is a powerful commodity but it should be used wisely and sparingly. Too much praise can produce pride. Too little praise can result in resentment and bitterness. Everyone needs to hear words of praise on occasion, but when it is given it must be sincere and well-deserved. False praise is nothing more than lying. Praising someone who has an addiction to praise can be destructive. Failing to praise someone who is deserving of praise is ultimately selfish and like stealing what is rightfully theirs.

The writer of Proverbs 27 knows the power of praise and warns us about it.

Fire tests the purity of silver and gold,
    but a person is tested by being praised. – Proverbs 27:21 NLT

Like fire, praise can do much good, but it can also be dangerous if treated flippantly or foolishly. He warns us against self-praise, which is basically bragging. Nobody likes to be around a braggart, yet we’re all guilty of it at times. We want others to know our accomplishments and to be impressed with our exploits. Self-praise can be as simple as hanging all your diplomas on the wall of your office for everyone to see. If it is meant to impress, it is self-praise, and self-praise is never attractive.

Self-praise can be as innocent as fishing for compliments by chumming the water with stories of your good deeds. It is manipulative and unattractive to watch. We are warned, “Let someone else praise you, not your own mouth – a stranger, not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2 NLT).

One of the hard realities of life is that the lack of praise we experience may be the result of us having done nothing praise-worthy. But it could also be that any praises we receive are meant for the ears of others. Those praising us may be telling our boss or supervisor. They may be praising us to their friends. We may not hear it, but we benefit from their praise just the same. If we HAVE to hear praise to benefit from it, our motivation needs to be questioned.

How we receive praise reveals much about us. “A person is tested by being praised” (Proverbs 27:21b NLT). In other words, if praise tends to make us proud and puffed up, it is exposing a heart problem. It is showing us that we have a character flaw. We crave praise. We are addicted to praise. We are motivated by praise.

If we don’t receive it, we lose our motivation. We become like an actor who loses his love of acting because he fails to receive the applause he thinks he so richly deserves. At that point, he is acting for the applause, not because he loves to act. If we require the praise of others to make us do what God requires of us, we are doing it for the wrong reason. Doing good deeds in exchange for praise turns our efforts into nothing more than a job. It becomes little more than energy expended in exchange for payment. But we are to do good deeds out of the motivation to honor God. Our efforts are for His praise and glory, not our own. Any praise we receive is an extra-added bonus. It is to be like a sacrifice. Those who brought sacrifices to God did not receive applause from the crowd standing around them. Their effort was what was expected of them as servants of God.

But praise is not a sin. It is a vital part of doing life together as human beings. The key is that praise is something to be given and not sought. It is like a commodity we have that is to be shared with others, sparingly and wisely. Too much praise, like too much honey, can make the other person sick. When it comes to praise, you can have too much of a good thing. And man’s love for praise can become insatiable.

Just as Death and Destruction are never satisfied,
    so human desire is never satisfied. – Proverbs 27:20 NLT

Praising a child for anything and everything can end up making them proud, arrogant, and addicted to praise. When they grow up and don’t receive it, they will become angry, resentful, and begin to question their own self-worth. Too little praise can be destructive as well. Withholding praise is nothing short of cruel. It is like refusing to pay an employee for a job well done. But for some of us, words of praise are difficult to produce. Maybe it’s because we failed to hear them as children. We are unaccustomed to hearing words of praise. But words of encouragement can be a gift we give to those in need. They can be like water to a thirsty man – refreshing, reinvigorating, and re-energizing. It takes wisdom to know how to use praise effectively. False praise is disingenuous and deceitful. It’s nothing short of flattery designed to benefit the one giving it. False praise is ultimately self-centered.

Praise is powerful. It has the potential for doing harm and good. So, it is to be used wisely and carefully. It is not something to be sought, but to be given. The praises of men should never be our motivation. Seeking to please God is what should drive us, inspire us, and motivate us. The praises of men, when given, are to be received humbly, gratefully, and with an understanding that the one who really deserves credit for them is God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Taming of the Tongue

17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own
    is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
19 is the man who deceives his neighbor
    and says, “I am only joking!”
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
    and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
    they go down into the inner parts of the body.
23 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
    are fervent lips with an evil heart.
24 Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
    and harbors deceit in his heart;
25 when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
    for there are seven abominations in his heart;
26 though his hatred be covered with deception,
    his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
27 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it,
    and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.
28 A lying tongue hates its victims,
    and a flattering mouth works ruin.
– Proverbs 26:17-28 ESV

When I think of the Proverbs I can’t help but think about the fool. This collection of wise sayings from the pen of Solomon contains a large number of references to the fool and foolish behavior. It also mentions other behavior closely associated with the fool, such as laziness, lying, dishonesty, unreliability, and an uncontrolled tongue. Some of the things Solomon has to say about fools seem humorous when you read them, but they are meant to be taken seriously. “Honoring a fool is as foolish as tying a stone to a slingshot” (Proverbs 26:8 NLT). The image this Proverb conjures up is meant to be ridiculous and ludicrous. Nobody in their right mind would do something as silly as tying a stone to a sling. It makes no sense. It would serve no purpose. It would be a waste of time. And that’s exactly Solomon’s point. Showering honor on a fool is useless and will produce no beneficial results. As The Message paraphrases this verse, honoring a fool would be “like setting a mud brick on a marble column.” Absolutely ridiculous.

So why does Solomon have it out for fools? Why does he have such strong words of warning against foolish people and foolish behavior? Because he understands the danger they pose to themselves and to society. In Solomon’s mind, fools are the epitome of the person who lives their life as if there is no God. David, Solomon’s father, had warned him early on in life, “Only fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good” (Psalm 53:1 NLT). In the minds of David and Solomon, the fool was not some innocent, bumbling buffoon who just happened to be a few bricks short of a full load. No, fools were a danger to society because they failed to honor God with their lives. Fools were pariahs and a drain on society, because of their refusal to work and their tendency to excuse their laziness with lies. They didn’t carry their load and were not to be trusted or tolerated. In this section of chapter 26, the emphasis seems to be on their words, which were worthless because they refused to listen to the wisdom of God.

Fools are just as prevalent today as they were in Solomon’s day. But we have become so much more tolerant of them. We have fools in places of power and influence. We watch fools entertain us on TV and in the movies, then listen intently as they share their words of wisdom with us on everything from marriage to politics and religion. We idolize and envy them for their lifestyles of excess and hedonism. Our government is well-stocked with fools who use clever words and inspiring speeches to win over constituents and solidify their power base. Yet as Solomon warns:

Smooth words may hide a wicked heart,
    just as a pretty glaze covers a clay pot.

People may cover their hatred with pleasant words,
    but they’re deceiving you.
They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them.
    Their hearts are full of many evils.Proverbs 26:23-25 NLT

And fools populate the body of Christ as well. Yes, you can be a believer in Jesus Christ and still live like a fool. A fool is simply someone who actively spurns the ways of God. He lives his life as if there is no God in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And the fool is one who hears God’s call but refuses to listen. The Christian fool is the man or woman who is spiritually lazy, avoiding the effort demanded to live according to God’s standards. They refuse to spend time in God’s Word, making up all kinds of excuses. They want the benefits of godliness without putting in any effort. They learn to cover what is really in their hearts with “smooth words.” They pretend to be something they’re not, and they are a danger to the body of Christ. Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. It is the natural and unavoidable consequence of a life lived apart from the life-changing wisdom of God found in His Word. Avoid the fool at all costs. Avoid foolishness at all costs.

And do everything in your power and with the Holy Spirit’s help to avoid sounding like a fool. It’s amazing how much the Book of Proverbs has to say about the tongue, which is just another way of talking about what comes out of our mouths. From flattery to lying, gossip to arguing, and rumors to wise words, there are countless passages that warn us about watching what we say. But as challenging as it is to keep a close eye on our tongue and the words it produces, we must also be wary of the words others speak to us.

It is amazing just how susceptible we can be to the words of others. As human beings, we can be so desperate for praise that we become easy prey for those who have less-than-righteous objectives. We can easily be taken in by flattery and false praise, which can be a dangerous mistake to make.

Solomon warns us to look beyond the words themselves to the heart of the one speaking. Words can be used to hide true motives, disguise intent, and distract the hearer by telling them what they want to hear. Like colorful glaze used to cover a drab clay pot, smooth-sounding words may be just a cover up to dress up what’s really there.

These kinds of people know full well what they’re doing. They’re hiding what’s really in their hearts and attempting to make you think that all is well. This can happen between a husband and wife, a parent and child, two friends, or two fellow believers. The real danger is that because we can be so susceptible to smooth words, we end up soaking in what they’re saying like a dry sponge. We’re so desperate to hear words of praise and flattery that we fail to consider the source or think about the intent.

Solomon makes it clear that he is talking about those who have wicked hearts that are filled with evil. He is warning us against people who have a reputation for hatred and wrongdoing. And yet, we can find ourselves actually buying into their lies because we find their deceptive words so appealing. We can be so desirous of kind words, that we will accept from even the most suspect source. But Solomon warns, “Don’t believe them!”

They’re lying. They don’t believe what they’re saying and you shouldn’t either. Consider the source. Think carefully about the heart of the one praising you. “A lying tongue hates its victims, and flattering words cause ruin” (Proverbs 26:28 NLT). Do not allow your need for praise to numb you to the truth.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were portrayed as dangerous and devious creatures, who usually took the form of beautiful women in distress and lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices. Casting caution to the wind and falling prey to the flattering cry of the Sirens, these seasoned sailors would steer their ships directly into the rocks along the coastline, resulting in their own deaths.

Remember, “They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils” (Proverbs 26:25 NLT). The wisdom of God gives discernment. It opens our eyes to the truth. Without it, we will listen to the smooth words and be deceived by the glossy veneer. To our own detriment. Don’t listen to the Siren’s call.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Man Believed the Word

46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 51 As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. 54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee. – John 4:46-54 ESV

After their two-day, unplanned stopover in Samaria, Jesus and His disciples left for the northern region of Galilee. He did so, in spite of the popular proverb He had quoted to His disciples: “a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44 ESV). Jesus was returning to Galilee, but He made His way to Cana, rather than His own hometown of Nazareth. He returned to the scene of His first miracle, where He had turned the water into wine.

In verse 45, John indicates that Jesus received a warm welcome in Galilee because many of the people had been eyewitnesses to the signs He had performed in Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover. With this reference to Jesus’ signs, John provides a link back to the miracle performed at the wedding feast in Cana. While the guests at the feast had no idea that Jesus had transformed ordinary water into wine, His disciples were fully aware of what had transpired.

This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. – John 2:11 ESV

And when Jesus had gone on to perform additional signs in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, John records, “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23 ESV).

The basis for their belief was the nature of the miraculous signs Jesus performed. And John makes it clear that the warm reception Jesus received in Galilee was due to “all that he had done in Jerusalem” (John 4:45 ESV). They too were attracted to and enamored by the miracles of Jesus. And His reputation as a miracle worker was spreading rapidly throughout all Israel. Which sets up the next encounter Jesus will experience.

While in Cana, Jesus received a visit from an unnamed government official who came seeking healing for his deathly-ill son. While we know little about this man, it is likely that he was a Jew who was in the employment of Herod Antipas, the unofficial “king” of the Jews, appointed by the Romans. This distraught father had made the 13-mile journey from Capernaum to Cana in the hopes that he could convince Jesus to return with him and heal his son.

But this man’s impassioned plea for help was met with what a somewhat caustic response from Jesus.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” – John 4:48 ESV

While it is unclear in our English translation, Jesus used the plural pronoun “you,” indicating that His comment was aimed at the Jewish people. Their belief in Him was fickle and focused solely on His ability to entertain them with His supernatural miracles. They loved the idea of a miracle-working Messiah. But Jesus had made it clear to Nicodemus that the key to eternal life was to believe in Him, not just the miracles He performed.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 ESV

They were believing in the miracle-performing reputation of Jesus, but not in the name of Jesus. It was not enough that He came declaring Himself to be the Son of God. They needed proof. They demanded signs. And the apostle Paul would later condemn his own people for their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the greatest sign ever given that proved the deity of Jesus.

Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. – 1 Corinthians 1:21-23 NLT

Undeterred by the seeming slight from Jesus, the desperate father begged Jesus to come to Capernaum and heal his son before it was too late. He was running out of time. His son was at death’s door and they still had a 13-mile journey ahead of them. If only he could get Jesus to agree to accompany him back to Capernaum, there might still be a chance that his son could live.

And Jesus answered the man’s impassioned plea with the simple response, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50 ESV). On that matter-of-fact statement from the lips of Jesus, the official “believed what Jesus said and started home” (John 4:50 NLT). He didn’t argue. He didn’t continue to plead with Jesus to come with him. He simply turned and began the 13-mile return trip home – believing the words of Jesus. No sign. No miracle. No proof.

The belief this man exhibited was of a different sort that those in Cana who believed because of the signs Jesus had performed in Jerusalem. It stood in stark contrast to the belief of Jesus’ disciples which had been based on His ability to turn water into wine. This man had believed the words of Jesus. And this distinction is significant. It brings to mind the testimony of God Himself, spoken at the baptism of Jesus.

“This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him! – Luke 9:35 ESV

The Jews were enamored by the works of Jesus but they refused to listen to His words. As long as He kept performing miracles, they kept believing, but that belief was misplaced. They were so busy seeking a sign, that they missed the Savior.

Later on in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus declaring the divine origin of His message.

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.” – John 12:49 ESV

And this was not the first time Jesus had claimed His words to be divinely inspired and spoken on behalf of His heavenly Father.

“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. – John 7:16-17 ESV

The people should have been listening to the words of Jesus, but they were too busy focusing their attention on the works of Jesus. And with their obsession over His miracles, they were missing the meat of His message.

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” –  John 14:10-11 ESV

In a sense, Jesus was stating that there were two sources of belief: His miracles or His message. But the truest form of belief was to receive the words of Jesus as the words of God because He spoke as God. And Jesus went on to assure His disciples that they too would go on to perform miracles and signs.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” – John 14:12-13 ESV

Their ability to perform miracles would be based on their belief in Him and who He claimed to be. He was the Son of God and had the full authority of God to share His power with those who placed their faith in Him.

John’s entire gospel is focused on the divinity of Jesus. He is declaring the divine Sonship of Jesus and providing indisputable proof that this Rabbi from Nazareth was indeed who He claimed to be: The Son of God and the Savior of the world.

And as further evidence of Jesus’ deity, John describes the scene that took place when the father ran into his servants on his way home. They met him alone the way with the good news that “his son was alive and well” (John 4:51 NLT). And when the father asked at what time his son had begun to improve, he was told, “Yesterday afternoon at one o’clock his fever suddenly disappeared!” (John 4:52 NLT). And John closes his account with the following words:

Then the father realized that that was the very time Jesus had told him, “Your son will live.” And he and his entire household believed in Jesus. – John 4:53 NLT

When Jesus had said, “Your son will live,” the man had taken Him at His word and headed home. Now, he received confirmation that His faith had been rewarded. His son was well. Jesus had spoken, the man had believed, and his son had been healed. But notice how John ends this story with the words, “he and his entire household believed in Jesus.”

Their belief was not in the miracle but in the one who had spoken the miracle into existence. They believed in Jesus. Their faith was not focused on the healing of their family member. It was directed at the one who spoke with the authority of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Words Matter

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

Jesus was anything but politically correct. He did not mince words or sugarcoat His opinions. And while He was filled with compassion for the lost, hopeless, and needy, He could be merciless with the self-styled religious leaders of His day. He viewed these men as overly self-important and enemies to His kingdom cause. He would later describe them as roadblocks to the gospel itself. Not satisfied with their own rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they were determined to keep anyone from following Him. And Jesus describes the results of their efforts in stark terms.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

These men, buoyed by their own sense of self-justified spiritual superiority, were blind to all that was taking place before their eyes. They could not bring themselves to see and accept the evidence of the coming kingdom. They couldn’t explain the miraculous works Jesus did, so they simply wrote them off as demonic in nature. Rather than accept Jesus as Messiah, they accused Him of being a servant of Satan. And now, Jesus is going to expose the damning nature of their own words.

The vitriol emanating from their mouths was nothing more than the byproduct of their own hearts. Words of praise and profanity flowed from the same lips. Somehow, they were able to offer prayers to God, while at the same time uttering blasphemies against the Spirit of God. And their words condemned them.

The apostle James would later describe the nature of their problem.

…no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:8-10 NLT

While Jesus begins His attack on the Pharisees by emphasizing their “bad fruit,” His focus is on their words. All that Jesus says in these verses is tied to the accusation the Pharisees leveled against Him.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

They falsely accused Jesus, and their words revealed the sorry state of their hearts. They despised Him and were out to destroy Him. Their hearts were filled with jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, hatred, and even thoughts of murder. And Jesus places all the emphasis on their words. What they were saying was important because it exposed the inner condition of their hearts. They didn’t believe in Jesus. That was painfully obvious. And all their outward displays of righteous behavior stood in stark contrast to their words. It really didn’t matter how often they prayed, how many laws they kept, how holy they appeared, or how well-respected they appeared to be. It was the words they spoke in regards to Jesus. And long after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the apostle Paul would write:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

The Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They would even go out of their way to put Him to death. And even after news of His resurrection would spread throughout Israel, they would continue to reject Him as the one sent from God. Even the empty tomb and the documented appearances of Jesus would fail to dissuade the Pharisees from their disbelief. And Jesus would later describe their stubborn refusal to believe in His parable about Lazarus and the rich man.

If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:31 NLT

These men were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were intimately familiar with the writings of Moses and the prophets, but they were incapable of seeing all that those writings contained regarding the Messiah. Everything Jesus said and did was in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. But they couldn’t see it.

And Jesus is not surprised by their actions. In fact, He seems to indicate that He expected nothing less from them.

“How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” – Matthew 12:34 NLT

Their behavior was in keeping with their hearts. They were bad trees producing bad fruit. Their spiritual reservoirs were filled with bad treasure, so it was not surprising to see them spending their tainted resources to accomplish evil outcomes. But notice that Jesus shifts the focus from the present to the future. While their evil words and bad fruit were making an impact on the here-and-now, Jesus wanted them to know that it was the hereafter they needed to worry about.

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.” – Matthew 12:36-37 ESV

Which brings us back to the words of Paul:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. – Romans 10:9-10 NLT

Jesus was not saying that these men could save themselves from eternal condemnation by saying good things rather than bad things. He was not suggesting that men’s behavior and speech will be the criteria by which they will be judged. He is emphasizing that confession of Him as Lord and Savior will be the only means by which men are justified before God. Only by a declaration of faith in Jesus as Savior will any be saved. Words matter.

Later on, Jesus would ask His disciples an important and revealing question:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV

And the answers they gave reveal the confusion among the people concerning Jesus.

“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV

Notice what’s missing. There is no mention of the Messiah. The people were intrigued by Jesus but still unconvinced as to His true identity. Then Jesus makes the question personal, asking His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ESV).

And Peter, always the impetuous and impulsive one, responded:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV

And Jesus went on to commend Peter for his answer and to emphasize that his confession of Jesus as the Christ would be the foundational truth upon which the entire church would be built. Belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, would become the sole criteria by which man’s justification with God would be made possible.

But the Pharisees did not share Peter’s perspective. In their minds, Jesus was a glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners, heretic, and a threat to their religious way of life. As far as they were concerned, Jesus wasn’t the Christ, the Son of the living God, He was a tool of Satan and an unwanted pest to be exterminated. But Jesus wanted them to know that their words of false accusation were going to have longterm ramifications.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Power of Words.

And at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the Lord, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, ‘If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the Lord.’” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he arose and went to Hebron. But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!’” With Absalom went two hundred men from Jerusalem who were invited guests, and they went in their innocence and knew nothing. And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing. 2 Samuel 15:7-12 ESV

Another four years would pass before Absalom made the next move in his plan to overthrow his father and take the throne of Israel. The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which came out somewhere between 300-300 BC, has the time length of Absalom’s wait as 40 years. But this would seem to be a scribal error, because that length of time does not fit in with the chronological circumstances surrounding the story. But during his wait, Absalom had been anything but idle. He was carefully and craftily planning for the day when he would launch his attempt at a coup. And the day had arrived.

Absalom requested permission from David to return to Hebron, the town in which he was born, to offer sacrifices to God. The reason he gave for this trip was that it was in keeping with a vow he had made to God while he had been in exile in Geshur. He had promised God, that in exchange for his safe return to Jerusalem, he would offer sacrifices to Him in Hebron. Now, it seems to escape David’s notice that Absalom had waited at least six years to keep his vow to God. There had been plenty of time for him to go to Hebron. Why now? But this question doesn’t seem to cross David’s mind. He gave Absalom his permission and his blessing, saying, “Go in peace” (2 Samuel 15:9 ESV).

Little did David know, that his son was plotting his overthrow. As soon as Absalom got David’s okay, he sent spies to out to all the tribes of Israel in order to prepare for the next phase of his plan. These men were to spread the news of Absalom’s coup by telling the people, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!’” (2Samuel 15:10 ESV). He had established a network of spies throughout the kingdom that would help announce the news of his kingship as soon as the time was right. This little tidbit of information seems to indicate that Absalom had been winning over the hearts of the people throughout Israel, not just within the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He had been busy priming the pump and preparing the people for his takeover of David’s kingdom. And it would begin with his inauguration as king in Hebron.

Absalom had invited 200 guests to join him. We are not told who these individuals were, but they were most likely influential leaders and individuals whom he had established close relationships. The text tells us that they were ignorant of his plan: “they went in their innocence and knew nothing” (2 Samuel 15:11 ESV). But when Absalom sent for Ahithophel, one of David’s personal counselors, to join him in Hebron, it would seem to indicate that there were others involved in the plot. This whole thing had been well-planned and carefully orchestrated. And we’re told, “the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing” (2 Samuel 15:12 ESV).

Once again, we see Absalom biding his time. His was going to be a coup based on a strong public relations strategy. He was going to win through insinuation and incitement. He was going to defeat the mighty David through the spreading rumors of rumors and the instilling of doubt. He was slowly setting himself up as the rightful and logical replacement for the n0t-to-be-trusted king of Israel. He was busy portraying David as immoral and unjust, an incompetent leader and uncaring judge of his people. Absalom would win the kingdom without ever having to draw his sword and fight a single battle. He would win this war in the court of public opinion. He would take advantage of the peoples’ discontentment and foment increasing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. If Absalom had been given the benefit of the power of social media as we know it today, his efforts would have taken far less time. We know first-hand just how destructive and effective words can be. Whether its a Facebook post criticizing the current administration or a Twitter feed promoting a new product, these seemingly innocuous and ubiquitous bits of information are everywhere. They are a regular and ordinary part of our lives. We have seen careers ruined, political campaigns derailed, rumors become reality, lies be taken as truth, and uninformed opinions shared in ignorance and without discretion.

Absalom understood the power of words. He knew the destructive nature of innuendo and insinuation. Given enough time, he would be able to take down the most powerful man in the kingdom, without a fight. David’s reputation would be destroyed and his throne taken by a war of words and an onslaught of rumors, half-truths, and intimations regarding his leadership and moral character. But so much of it had been the result of his own sinful indiscretions and indecisive reactions to the events surrounding his life. He had brought this on himself. Absalom had simply exploited David’s weaknesses. And his determination to do so, to his own father, reveal the degree of his dissatisfaction and disdain for David. He was a son who had long ago lost any respect or regard for his own father. He saw David, not as a dad to be honored, but as an unfit king who deserved to be taken down.

David would later write in one of his psalms:

O God, you take no pleasure in wickedness;
    you cannot tolerate the sins of the wicked.
Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence,
    for you hate all who do evil.
You will destroy those who tell lies.
    The Lord detests murderers and deceivers. – Psalm 5:4-6 NLT

Absalom was wicked and proud. He was a murderer and deceiver. He was a liar and a lover of evil. And, as we will see, his plan to overthrow his father and take his throne, would be successful. But God would have the last word. In the book of Proverbs, compiled by Solomon, God’s chosen successor to David’s throne, we read the following words:

The plans of the godly are just;
    the advice of the wicked is treacherous.

The words of the wicked are like a murderous ambush,
    but the words of the godly save lives. – Proverbs 12:5-6 NLT

While David had made many mistakes and had brought much of what was happening on himself, he was still a man after God’s own heart. He still longed to serve his God and care for the kingdom he had been given to rule and reign over. He had not always done it well or with integrity, but his heart was right. Absalom, on the other hand, was an impetuous, headstrong upstart who cared more for himself than anyone else. He could not be trusted. His words, while powerful and effective, were deceitful and ungodly. Nothing Absalom had planned or put into action had been done with God’s guidance or approval. He had acted according to his own wicked heart. His motives had been purely selfish and driven by revenge against David. It is interesting to note that, years later, Solomon would write a proverb, addressed to his son. Perhaps he had his own brother, Absalom in mind when he penned these words:
My child, pay attention to what I say.
Listen carefully to my words.
Don’t lose sight of them.
Let them penetrate deep into your heart,
for they bring life to those who find them,
and healing to their whole body.
Guard your heart above all else,
for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:20-23 NLT
Centuries later, Jesus, a descendant of David, would pick up on this same theme:
But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT
Absalom’s actions reveal the condition of his heart. His words condemn him. And his words, while initially the cause of his rise to power, will be the reason for his demise.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson