“1If I could talk to the President, just imagine it. Talking with a Trump in Twittereeze. 2Imagine reasoning with liberals, consulting with conservatives. What a neat achievement it would be.” (Thanks to the original lyricist, Bobby Darrin)
On Tuesday I began to sing my little song about speech in Proverbs, beginning with the assertion that what we say matters. In fact, for the sages, this claim is the foundation for everything they say about our words. Two principles followed: 1) Sometimes the wisest thing to say is nothing at all, rather than speaking and causing trouble for others or ourselves. 2) Wisdom enables us to identify the people we should ignore and those to whom we should respond. Today we continue our sing’ along with Proverbs by examining two more closely related principles about speech.
First, the sages place enormous emphasis on the contrast between truthfulness and honesty as opposed to lying and dishonesty. To steal a definition, honesty compels us to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Complete truth: not selective recall that may mislead. Whole truth: the situation or event as it is, not the way we want it to be. Nothing but the truth: we speak with clarity with an intention to be honest and forthcoming. The sages praise honest, reliable words that come from a heart devoted to truth (24:26): an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips (24:26), honest speech creates trust—in God (30:5) and in people, reliable messengers (truthful and trustworthy) are like a cold drink on a hot day (25:13), an honest witnesses save lives (14:25), and “truthful lips live forever” (12:19).
Opposed to truth, a lie is the intent to deceive—whether big or small. Everything I say may be true, but if leave out a few details, or tell the truth in such a way that I mislead the listener—I am lying. Subcategories of dishonesty in Proverbs include slander (the use of truth or lies to harm a person, 10:18) and flattery (insincere compliments or saying what we do not believe, 26:28). The liar does not love those to whom they lie (10:18, 26:28). Instead, people lie when they want something: friendship, a job, praise, or a bribe. The sages warn us, however, that whatever we may get from lying won’t last long (12:19, 21:6), and the Lord regards liars as abominations or detestable objects (6:17,19, 12:22).
The second principle explains why the sages place so much emphasis on our speech in general, and honesty in specific: our speech, especially the speech of our leaders, has the power to build or destroy community.
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Prov. 12:18 NRSV) By the blessing of the righteous a city is exalted, but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked. (11:11)
“The mouth of the wicked” refers to their words and speech, in contrast to the “blessing of the righteous”—most likely a reference to their words. It is this underlying concern for the community that keeps the sages so wound up about our words. For example, a lying witness not only mocks justice (19:28), they may cost others their lives (14:25). And a false witness had just as well hit people over the head with a club, or shoot them with arrows (25:18).
The sages also identify other types of speech that may destroy the community. Mockers, scoffers, and scoundrels could be charged with arson because they set entire communities on fire (26:21, 16:27, 29:8). Gossips enjoy spreading rumors and repeating secrets that separate close friends (11:13, 16:28). Or they add fuel to the fire of a quarrel that will burn down the community (26:20). The wicked person may conceal the violence they are planning behind their words (10:6,11), but may no mistake, their words will destroy their neighbors (11:9) -because their words are a deathtrap (12:6).
These ideas reinforce our prior observation that what we say, our speech is important: our words have the power to destroy us and to devastate our communities. Nothing is more toxic to our common welfare than dishonest speech (of all types). So not only do the sages urge us to exercise wisdom in deciding when we speak and to whom we speak, they encourage us to adopt the way of truth and honesty.
As I mentioned on Tuesday, I realize the odds of my speaking with the President are less than winning the Powerball jackpot three times in a row. And still, it seems obvious that this wisdom would be helpful for President Trump as he deals with situations from North Korea to Charlottesville, and as he speaks in the privacy of the White House and at his rallies. So if I could talk to the president, I would humbly remind him that as global leader, every word that he speaks carries enormous weight. I would also remind him that there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent, a time to respond to someone and a time to let it go. And from today’s study, I would encourage him—for the sake of the community he leads, to be rigorously honest. According to Proverbs, it matters whether or not he is truthful, or plays fast and loose with the facts. His speech has the potential to exalt our nation and the potential to cause division and damage.
I believe the same is true for all of us: we have much to learn from the sages about our speech. As I mentioned before, it’s an easy dodge to go political instead of personal: to disregard our speech (spoken or written) as we interact with others, whether we are talking about politics, religion, or our families. But I regret that for now, I must leave this task with you… at least until next year.*
*An excerpt of ideas from Exchanging the Good Life for a Life that is Good: The Challenge of Proverbs, forthcoming from Eerdmans Press in 2018.
 Please see “If I could talk to the President” from August 22, 2017
 See also 19:9, 21:28, 25:18, and 26:28