The Woes of Whispering (Proverbs 26:20)
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. —Proverbs 26:20
Chapter 26 of Proverbs is packed with similes and metaphors—over 16—pulled from everyday life to give us reminders of the harm done by fools and those who rely on them. Why such vivid pictures? Because we are so prone to folly, and apt to overlook it until it’s too late.
During a recent outing to a local coffee shop, I overheard two women talking animatedly. At first I was surprised they weren’t more discreet; more inclined to whisper. It was evident by their tone that the subject was a difficult and personal one. But after a few minutes I couldn’t help making out their actual words. Partly it was their volume—they weren’t whispering. But then I realized the other reason their words reached my ears over the din around us: I knew the people they were talking about.
At first, I felt self-righteous indignation. I should say something. But as I tried to figure out what I would say—what clever gotcha phrase would be most effective, and helpful—I also started to think of how many times I’ve been in their place. The public venue. The feeling of anonymity. The tendency to blab on about something upsetting that happened, over a cup of coffee with a close friend. The ease with which an update turns to complaining, murmuring, and gossip.
The Lord reminded me of Ecclesiastes 7:21, “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.”
Thankfully, my conscience kept me quiet. I decided, instead of saying something, to pray for help not to be a whisperer myself. I suspect if I had said something, my words, like wood, would only have added fuel to the fire. Who among us hasn’t overheard someone saying something unkind or uncharitable? Who among us hasn’t been the one doing the talking? When it comes to the sort of whispering Solomon is warning us to avoid, it’s not primarily about the volume of breath-only talking, but about the content of what’s being said when you lower your voice so that no one else will overhear. And it’s not only the whisperer he’s warning. It’s the listener, too. Both embark on a blaze-causing folly. The metaphor isn’t limited to Proverbs. James takes it even further writing,
…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it boasts of great things. Consider how small a spark sets a great forest ablaze. The tongue also is a fire, a world of wickedness among the parts of the body. It pollutes the whole person, sets the course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)
Why is the tongue so dangerous? Because the words it speaks can be “like delicious morsels going down into the inner parts of the body” (Proverbs 26:22). They are not easily forgotten, “in one ear and out the other.” They stick and they fuel suspicion, doubt, envy, anger, and all manner of thoughts that lead to strife and quarreling. These “delicious morsels” harm the person about whom they’re spoken as well as the person they’re spoken to. The fact that they’re “delicious” only makes them harder to resist. But resist we must. For “whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).
Ask the Lord to help you speak words that are loyal to your friends, words that build up and fit each occasion (Ephesians 4:29). Rob the fire of wood. Don’t be a whisperer but don’t listen to one either. It’s no less foolish to listen than it is to speak. Whether listening or talking, may we all, by God’s grace, be firefighters.
Are you more tempted to listen to whispering (gossip, murmuring) or to be the one doing the talking?
What might you do the next time someone else starts whispering to you about someone? How might you prepare in advance to turn the conversation in an edifying, God-ward direction?
How would it change your relationships to overlook the next time you hear a word whispered about you?