When I was younger, my parents would often share the verse, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver”(Proverbs 25:11). And I would nod knowingly because I’d heard it before. They would explain briefly that it meant to be careful with your words—use them well, in right ways, and at the right time. I understood that part, the meaning, but not the illustration used. I always thought that the second part of the verse was simply a pretty image and would, in passing, wonder why that particular image was so important. It is only recently that I began to reconsider that passage and realized that the writer was describing an image made of materials that required great craftsmanship and care.
Take the silver setting. The melding and molding of silver into a beautiful shape—whether that of a latticed basket, picture, or a setting of filigreed jewelry—would take incredible skill. The golden apples could either depict literal apples that were considered sweet, sweet-smelling, and healing to the person who held it—and would have required great care in the process of cultivation in a dry, semi-arid climate—or it could refer to skillfully-done gold filigreed spheres set in silver, like jewelry. Either way, the portrayed image depicts something that would require patience, care, skill, and attention to design and detail—whether in cultivation or crafting—for days, months, or even years before the items could be combined together into a setting of beauty. The silversmith, farmer (or goldsmith) had to learn how to do the work and then take the time to do the work well. Perhaps, the work was done from a place of solitude, with the intention and expectation that it would be enjoyed by others in the time to come.
Viewing that verse in this way, leads me to imagine that the work of speaking a word well and in the right season takes preparation, and is not something simply done in a moment. A word rightly spoken means behind-the-scenes work to prepare our tongues to say the right things. It’s easy to think that it is simply about making our words pretty in the moment, but I believe that it also implies undergoing a period of training…willingly. There is a carefulness to saying meaningful, powerful, life-altering words at the right time.
Do we want to become careful with our words, so that we know how to speak the right words at the right time? How do we make our words “fitly spoken”? There is a verse in the book of Isaiah that I think speaks clearly to this process and how we can be people that are careful with our words and that speak right words to others. Isaiah 50:4 (NASB) reads:
“The Lord has given me the tongue of disciples,
So that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word
He awakens Me morning by morning
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.”
When I first read this verse, I thought “Ok, Isaiah is talking about himself and his role as a prophet. Makes sense.” Then, as I began to study it, I realized that the speaker was acting in a servant-like role. I felt myself looking at the text and asking, like the eunuch from Ethiopia in Acts 8:34 who, reading from another Servant song in Isaiah 53, asks, “Was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?”
I believe the passage most clearly relates to the “Servant of the Lord” who is referred to in several passages throughout the book of Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah 42, the Servant of the Lord bears the Spirit of God and brings justice to the nations. Isaiah 50:4, and the few verses that follow, is distinctly separated from the verses before it, such that some of our English translations demarcate it with a subtitle that indicates that the Servant is speaking.
The Servant describes himself as having a tongue like that of a disciple—like one who has taken the time to listen, to sit at the feet of a teacher and gain wisdom. It describes a level of deference, a willingness to be trained in how to speak, to be trained as one who is taught—in order to become a teacher. It’s not a robotic repetition of something, but a posture of discipline from which a disciple speaks. A disciple has learned how to speak and because he has learned how to speak, he knows what words to say…and when to say them. He therefore has the ability to sustain a weary person (affirm or enable that person to keep going) with a word. Wow.
The second part of that verse describes a process. In the mornings, the Servant sat before God (Mark 1:35) and then He would hear what God was saying and speak what God would say (John 7:16). We see the examples of this in the Gospels, and it becomes so easy for us to relegate this again simply to the role and character of Jesus in the earth. Yes, He demonstrated this so powerfully in His earthly ministry, and we can’t do it how He did, but we are called to imitate Him. In the servant song itself, the Servant describes His tongue as like that of a disciple. I read what follows, then, as a characteristic that all disciples should have.
Whether someone is a disciple of Christ or not, we all as people learn how and what to speak from what we observe, listen to, and “awaken our ears” to. We have an opportunity for that to be from a place of wisdom.
So, how do we apply this? Seeking God in the morning, we can pray that He opens our eyes to see others (those weary and suffering) with compassion and that He stirs our hearts with a noble, pleasant theme so we can speak words of life to those that need it (Psalm 45:1). Secondly, we can ask God to open our ears to hear His heart and His words for the people that we will speak to or encounter that day—and each day. Lastly, we can ask God to train us to teach others with our words, to give “faithful instruction” (Proverbs 31:26), because “there is [so much] healing in the words of the wise” (Proverbs 12:18).
The world is weary. So many people need words from those who have learned how to use words in a way that bring life, restoration, and empowerment. Put simply: “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good (encouraging) word cheers it up.” (Proverbs 12:25). We are reminded to give a good word to build others up according to the need of the moment, so that it will benefit those that listen (Ephesians 4:29). Fitly spoken words.
We are justified by our words; do we speak in a way that reflects our discipleship? We speak from what’s in our hearts; have our hearts been awakened with compassion? Have we learned to curb ‘empty’ words? It is not always easy. The Servant passage in Isaiah 50 later describes the scorn and rejection that He faced. But we have beautiful promises tied to our words written in the scriptures themselves, that show how we overcome.
I’m reminded also of a poem by the late W.S. Merwin called “Language.” In the poem, he describes the words that we no longer say and the ones we’ll never say again and how “We need them./ Like the back of the picture.” In one interpretation of this (though it may not be his), the words we choose not to say remind us of where we’ve been, how we’ve grown, changed, and, hopefully, become better stewards of our words. In his poem, the words we never use again stand ready to bear witness (to that transformation), “trembling already for the day of witness.”
Another beautiful image.