The Strongest Muscle
Gerald Ratner was doing so well. He had started out in the jewellery trade at the tender age of seventeen and had worked like a slave for twenty-five years to turn his Ratner’s chain of jewellers into one of Britain’s most successful high street retailers. Hailed as the man with the Midas touch, he now travelled between his many luxury homes by helicopter or by classic Bentley. Then he accepted an invitation to dinner.
The leading company directors of London had recognised his success by inviting him to speak at their annual luncheon at a stunning venue on the same road as Buckingham Palace. Buoyed by the occasion, he joked in his speech that he sold jewellery at such fantastic prices “because it’s total crap… It’s cheaper than a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich and it probably won’t last as long.” He was smiling as he said it but nobody else was laughing. When his speech was broadcast on the evening news, shocked customers boycotted his stores and turned his lunchtime meeting into the most expensive meal in modern history. The value of the Ratner’s chain of jewellers plummeted by £500 million and he was fired as its CEO. Warren Buffet later observed: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”1
Solomon was even smarter than Warren Buffet so he spends much of Proverbs warning us not to underestimate the massive power of the human tongue. Whatever the medical facts, the tongue is without a doubt the strongest muscle in the human body. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” he warns in 18:21. “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity,” he adds in 21:23. In addition to littering the whole of Proverbs with warnings for us to guard how we use our tongues, Solomon gives us an entire chapter of teaching on the power of the tongue here in 12:6 to 13:3.
First, Solomon tells us to be honest. He tells us in 6:16-19 that the Lord detests both liars and their lying tongues, and he repeats in 12:22 that “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” To tell the truth is to be wise and righteous, and it provokes the Lord to bless us. To tell lies is to be wicked and foolish and it provokes the Lord to judge us. Our lies may fool people in the short term (12:19), but God will soon expose the truth (12:9) so that we become the only people fooled by our fantasies (12:11). Solomon warns us that those who set out to deceive others will ultimately deceive their own hearts (12:20), like Arthur Dimmesdale, the lying clergyman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, who mourns: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” Lying will bring us misery but truthfulness will bring us joy.
Next, Solomon tells us to be calm. Words spoken in anger may sound clever but they are very rarely wise. “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult,” he explains in 12:16, and he follows this up even more strongly in 15:1 by telling us that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” However trifling an angry riposte may seem at the time, it is “like a scorching fire” (16:27) and acts like the spark which starts a forest fire. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark,” James 3:5-6 exclaims as part of its New Testament echo of the book of Proverbs. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The way we use our tongues couldn’t be more important.
That’s why Solomon tells us to be thoughtful. Fools blurt out words without thinking and come to ruin in 12:23 and 13:3,2 but the wise set up a security perimeter between their lips and their lives by thinking before they speak. Unlike most of the muscles in the human body, the tongue is only attached at one end, so we must fasten it at the other end to wisdom. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords,” Solomon warns in 12:18, and Gerald Ratner reflected thirteen years after his costly luncheon that this warning is true:
It was a total nightmare. One day I was on top of the world, Mr. Big Shot flying on the Concorde… The next, I was a complete laughingstock. It was such a seismic event. It’s like BC – before crap and afterwards.
More positively, Solomon encourages us to be expectant. If the tongue has power to do great harm then it has equal power to do great good. Our words can rescue the dying (12:6), make our lives fruitful (12:14 and 13:2), and bring healing to the hurting (12:18). They can bring joy to the Lord (12:22), hope to the helpless (12:25), and life to a dying world (12:28). Note the deliberate reference in 12:14 to God using our tongues to make us little trees of life. In case we miss it, Solomon tells us more explicitly in 15:4 that “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.” Careless words can be destructive but that is only half the story. The other half is a wonderful promise that God can use our tongues to change the world.
Jesus modelled the lesson of this chapter for us perfectly. The New Testament tells us that
Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats… For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.’ (1 Peter 2:21-23 & 3:10)
So let’s not gloss over Solomon’s instruction on how to use our tongues. Let’s not ignore his claim that how we speak reveals whether we are truly wise or foolish, truly righteous or wicked. Let’s not ignore the echo of these words in James 1:26 and 3:2 which warn that if we fail to keep our tongue in check then we may not be followers of Jesus after all, and which promise that if we can tame our tongues by Jesus’ strength then we will be able to follow him in every other area too. Let’s learn from Solomon that, if wisely used, our tongues are far more valuable than all of Gerald Ratner’s jewellery put together. He tells us in 25:11: “The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.”
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, “Straight to the Heart of Solomon”, published this month by Monarch Books. See www.philmoorebooks.com
1. Ratner gave this disastrous speech in 1991, as recorded in Stephen Weir’s book History’s Worst Decisions: And the People Who Made Them (2008).
2. The Hebrew word used for opening wide our mouth rashly in 13:3 is only used in one other place in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 16:25 it refers to a prostitute opening her legs wide to passers-by. This should shock us into treating foolish talk as seriously as God does.