No topic in the book of Proverbs more clearly illustrates the way of God and the way of fallen man, or the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness, better than the subject of the tongue. The Proverbs address the incredibly diverse effects that can be accomplished with our speech. The tongue can bring life or it can bring death. It can cheer or it can cause despair. It can guide or it can mislead. It can bless or it can curse. It can honor God or it can be the instrument of blasphemy. Due to the tongue’s potential for both good and evil, it receives some of Solomon’s most precise analysis.

You don’t have to live too many years before you learn first-hand about the potential for good and the potential for harm that resides in our tongues. Generally speaking, we are so very careless with our words. Some of our most bitter memories are not of being struck by another person, but of being spoken to or spoken of harshly by another person. Most of us can recall episodes when we felt crushed by the words of another, or when we felt the keenest sense of betrayal due to words spoken by another. Set against these experiences are those times when someone has spoken kindly to us or about us and that has brought us satisfaction. And we all have known the comfort that comes from words of encouragement and support during a time of trial.

Our words are the most effective weapon we possess for destruction and the most effective means we possess for building up. The difference between these two extremes is the words we choose to utter and the manner in which we choose to utter them.

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Pro. 10:19)

This is a verse that serves as one of the foundational principles when it comes to understanding the Biblical doctrine of language, in general, and the use of the tongue, in particular. Solomon doesn’t say what we might expect him to say. He doesn’t say “when there are many bad or hurtful or hasty or negative words, transgression is unavoidable, he simply writes that when there are “many words,” transgression is unavoidable. This should tell us something about communication immediately; it should tell us that much talk tends to result in a negative outcome. Our words, when they are prolonged, tend to degenerate in character and that means that transgression is always a potential product.

Because of our fallen natures, if we speak a lot, we are going to sin. This is a simple formula that Solomon sets before us. Consequently, the second half of this verse makes complete sense: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” If, because of our sin natures, much talk is likely to produce transgression, then the person who wants to please the LORD and not cause offense with words will be the person who governs the tongue. Much talk leads to sin, so less talk eliminates the opportunity for sin.

Let’s consider some of the vocabulary Solomon uses in this verse. First, there is the word “transgression” (pesha). What exactly does Solomon mean when he says that when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable? This term is a basic Hebrew word meaning “trespass” or “sin.” There’s no mystery here. Solomon says that many words lead to sin—that is, the violation of some aspect of God’s Word. In fact, you’ll notice, he says that sin is unavoidable when we speak many words. The phrase Solomon uses refers to something that cannot be stopped, something that must occur given a set of circumstances. In this case, sin is that which cannot be stopped or that which must occur when this circumstance—many words—is present.

Solomon sets before us the opposite of speaking many words: “but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Here, the word translated “restrains” (chasak), of course, is significant. This term means “to spare, to keep back, to withhold, to hinder, to hold in check.” This notion is clear enough. This word describes an act of self-discipline or self-control by which the words that are spoken are few and do not, therefore, lead to transgression.

Solomon teaches that the preferred alternative to the use of many words is the use of controlled speech. If speech is controlled, and we’re talking about quantity as well as quality, we are less likely to commit a sin with our tongue. Therefore, since avoiding anything that violates God’s will is a chief mark of a wise man, Solomon pronounces that man who governs his mouth as “wise.”

This is, once again, a foundational verse because it deals with words, in general, not just “bad” words or inflammatory words. This text warns us that if we talk too much, we are going to sin—and I would point out that Solomon says nothing about our motives or our sense of justification for speaking many words. He flatly warns us that if we talk a lot, we are going to sin and he says that this outcome is unavoidable. Only a fool will hear what Solomon says in this verse and think he is immune or think he can still talk much about people or circumstances without falling into sin. If we take this verse seriously, we should be people of measured speech; we should be people who are known for their reserve when it comes to talking.

In terms of a practical response to this teaching, I would say be aware of the tremendous power of language. We need to give attention to this aspect of how God has made us. We are made in such a way that words have deep and lasting impacts on us. We cannot control how others use words, but we can control how we use them. And in recognizing the power of the tongue, determine that you will use it in a God-honoring manner. Discipline yourself to speak responsibly and in a controlled fashion. Make it your goal to build up others by your words—not through false flattery, but through words that edify.