An ancient Roman writer once said, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
I confess that has been a hard lesson for me, personally. Once, when someone asked me “Why do you talk so much?” I responded, “Because the sound of my voice comforts me!” As a big smile came on both our faces, it was clear he got my point. We humans are enamored with our own voice, and it shows up in the funniest ways. For instance, most people hate hearing their voice played back from a recording. “Do I really sound like that?” It’s why every good, public speaker HAS to listen to recordings of him speaking so he can improve his craft. But everybody has to develop the discipline of knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen!
Look at our lesson today in Proverbs 12:23-13:9:
A prudent man conceals his knowledge, but fools proclaim their folly. The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor. Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad. A righteous man turns away from evil, but the way of the wicked leads them astray. A slothful man will not catch his prey, but the diligent man will get precious wealth. In the path of righteousness is life, but the way of error leads to death. A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence. He who guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. The soul of the sluggard craves, and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. A righteous man hates falsehood, but a wicked man acts shamefully and disgracefully. Righteousness guards him whose way is upright, but sin overthrows the wicked. One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth. The ransom of a man’s life is his wealth, but a poor man has no means of redemption. The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be put out.
It is a unique feature of the Book of Proverbs that it takes on an almost “sing-song” swaying back and forth between wisdom and foolishness. Traditionally, the writer of Proverbs is the wise King Solomon, and this Book of the scriptures is part of the “Wisdom” literature of the Bible. The purpose of the book was precisely to teach the wise way of living for anyone who has been blessed with the covenant of God and His grace to know the true nature of creation and the true relationship with the Creator. The book is meant to give we humans a “short cut” or “crib sheet” so that we don’t have to learn the hard way! Too bad we can’t seem to actually do that!
Solomon wants us to appreciate that knowing when to speak and when to stay silent is part of becoming a wise person. He tells us today that a prudent man conceals his knowledge but a fool proclaims his folly. In other words, keep silent and let folks think you’re a fool or open your mouth and remove all doubt!
The power of this insight says that a person who has given attention to his inner life will naturally be able to discern when he should keep his own counsel and when he should speak. The maturing discipline of observing your situation, contemplating the best course of action, and then taking action requires an attention to the details of your surroundings that a less patent man simply won’t take the time to do. So, that less patient man speaks too soon or too much or misses the point entirely and communicates, by his words, he is not the man to depend on for wisdom or insight. He may be entertaining and be the life of the party, but when it comes to ordering your life, his voice isn’t what you want or even need to hear.
But let the thoughtful man speak, and his words carry a weight that demands attention and respect. It’s a sad thing when we fail to appreciate the power of a life where lessons have been learned and a treasure of wisdom is available to us, but we ignore it for the entertainment value of the noisy!
Today, do you know when you speak and when you listen? It rarely comes naturally to us so it’s best if we do the hard work of being in communion with wiser people than ourselves to pick up on the wisdom of silence and the humility of learning. Do that, and you’ll understand why it’s so important to be Orthodox on purpose!