“If I could talk to the President, just imagine it. Talking with a Trump in Twittereeze.” (For those too young to recognize the tune, check YouTube or iTunes for the classic, “If I could talk to the animals.”)**
With my presupposition set, not that President Trump is an animal—but that the odds of me speaking to him are lower than the chance of me speaking to my late dog, Buford (R.I.P.). But if I could, especially after spending a year in the book of Proverbs, I would do my best to convey a few ideas about speech that are true for everyone—and remarkably so for a leader.
The foundation is constructed from a simple premise: what we say matters. Our words carry the potential to nourish, heal, and encourage or to scorch, destroy, and break a person’s spirit. What we say has the power to defuse and calm a conflict, or stir up the fight and produce even more anger (15:1). The sages (or wise persons) go to extremes to make their case—yet without exaggeration: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21a). Put simply, what we say and the words we use matter. And should we brush this idea aside, tell people we meant something other than what we said or say people shouldn’t be so picky, we do so at our own risk—because in truth, words matter. On this foundation, the sages build two principles. (In what is to come, I closely follow the language of the proverbs without any intent of dropping into the muck of political name-calling. Because words are important I let the proverbs speak for themselves.)
Principle #1: At times, wisdom should lead us to hold back or remain silent, as expressed by our proverb: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes the wisest thing to say is nothing, to hold onto what we know, rather than speak and cause trouble for others (10:14) or hurt ourselves (13:3). The sages call those who exercise the wisdom to restrain their mouths, “coolheaded” (17:27 CEB) or a person of “understanding” (NRSV). The “shrewd conceal” what they know (i.e., they do not feel compelled to speak), it’s the fool who speaks at every occasion and “proclaims their stupidity” (12:23). In fact, if only a fool could stay quiet—others might think they were wise (17:28). The problem, of course, is that a fool cannot stay silent anymore than we can stop an avalanche once it begins (15:28). All of which confirms the principle: wisdom teaches that there is a time to speak and a time when the best response is no response at all.
Principle #2: Also built on the foundation that our speech and words matter, the second principle regards our audience: wisdom not only enables us to know when to speak, but know to whom we should speak. The best example of this principle comes in Proverbs 26.
Don’t answer fools according to their folly, or you will become like them yourself. (26:4)
The statement is not difficult to understand: don’t respond to fools when they are speaking with folly (any type of foolish speech); (why?) because you will sound or become just like them. Don’t take the bait and join in their folly, have the wisdom to know not to respond to them.
The only problem with this principle comes with the next verse in Proverbs 26.
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will deem themselves wise. (26:5)
Looking back to 26:4, just what are we supposed to do? Should we respond to fools and put them in their place, or should we exercise the wisdom of silence? The answer? It all depends on the situation. These two verses drag us toward the often forgotten nature of proverbs: proverbs are limited statements of truth that rely on the speaker to recognize when a proverb “fits” a situation and when it doesn’t. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is not respond to fools, but at other times the wisest course of action is to speak. Wisdom is not a matter of memorizing the book of Proverbs and haphazardly quoting the sayings. Wisdom knows the content and when the content applies or does not apply to a situation.
So, we have a foundation with two principles. The foundation: our words matter—what we say and how we say it is important. Objections to the contrary—that to insist on careful speech is nit picking or hypercritical will not change this truth. On this solid stone, the sages build their principles. 1) Wisdom leads us to know when we should speak and when we should remain silent. 2) Wisdom enables us to identify those we should ignore and those to whom we should respond.
Obviously, I can’t talk to the President about these ideas (if I could I would, hopefully with wisdom). I do, however, believe this foundation and these principles would be most helpful to the President and our nation in dealing with situations from North Korea to Charlottesville (one specific thing for which we could pray). I also believe that we have something to learn from the sages—and it’s an easy dodge for us to go political instead of personal. In fact, a lot of political dialogue in social media ignores these personal principles…
**This post was prepared prior to President Trump’s speech on Monday, August 21.
 Prov. 10:21, 16:24, 12:25; I am reading from the Common English Bible
 16:27, 11:9, 15:4
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.