Wisdom: Knowing When and How to Speak


How to Acquire Wisdom

Wisdom is learned or acquired, primarily, from three sources of information: First, from God; specifically, studying the spiritual and moral instructions of his word; second, from prayer, talking to God, seeking his guidance about how to live well with and among other human beings; and, third, from experience, life itself, learning one’s strengths and weaknesses. In particular, a wise person seeks to be an effective communicator, knowing what to say, where to say it, when to say it, how to say it and when to remain silent.

Content of Communication:
Knowing What to Say

The sage or author of Proverbs teaches that it takes wisdom to choose the right words in communicating with someone. As the sage writes, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” (Proverbs 15:28, NIV). The Hebrew word (yehgeh) translated “weighs” may also be translated “considers,” “muses,” “meditates” or even “studies.”1

Impulsivity: Not Thinking before Speaking

It is unwise, being relatively easy, to blurt out words freely, unthinkingly and carelessly. Instead, a person’s words should be filtered through his or her brain. As another sage or wise person, Sirach, who lived in the second century B. C., says,

“Oh for a guard (NRSV) to be placed over my mouth
and a seal of discretion to close my lips,
to keep them from being my downfall,
and to keep my tongue from causing my ruin!
Lord, Father and Master (NRSV) of my life,
do not abandon me to the tongue’s control,
or, because of it (Paraphrase), allow me to fall”
(Ecclesiasticus 22:27-23:1, NEB; cf. 1:29b).

Similarly, Sirach writes, “Be quick to listen, but take time over your answer” (Ecclesiasticus 5:1, NEB). “Knowing what to say” is the content of communication, using the right words to express clearly one’s thoughts or ideas. Listen, first, non-defensively to understand what the other person is saying, not with the intention to debate, proving that he or she is wrong. Then, after an understanding what has been said, a reply or response may be given to him or her. Therefore, a wise person thinks before speaking, choosing his or her words carefully in communicating with others.

There is another reason for wanting wisdom to know what to say, which is “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keep himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23, NIV, 1984 ed.). Likewise, Sirach writes, “Honour or shame can come through speaking, and a man’s tongue may be his downfall” (Ecclesiasticus 5:13, NEB). It is not wise, then, to be too wordy, speaking too freely and unthinkingly around others.2 Thus, a person should use words cautiously or carefully, even guardedly, watching out for what he or she says, because those who are listening might use with the speaker’s words against him or her.

Location or Situation of Communication:
Knowing Where to Say It

Knowing where to speak relates to the right place or context for communicating with someone. For example, when the religious leaders discover a woman in the act of adultery and bring her before a crowd to punish her, Jesus waits until the crowd disperses; then, in private, he admonishes her to stop her behavior (cf. John 8:1-11). Saying something to a person in the wrong place, say, around other people, may embarrass or even humiliate him or her, resulting in a failure to communicate with him or her.

Timing of Communication:
Knowing When to Say It

The sage teaches that it requires wisdom, which is the proper insight into a person’s situation or need, to speak the right words at the appropriate or right time, saying, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23, NIV; cf. 10:32). A similar proverb says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, NIV, 1984 ed.). Speaking the right words at the right time is satisfying, both to the speaker and the person to whom they are spoken.3

Likewise, Sirach writes, “The wise man is silent until the right moment, but a swaggering fool is always speaking out of turn” (Ecclesiasticus 20:7, NEB). Therefore, it requires wisdom to know when to speak words that are fitting to a person’s situation or problem.

The Manner of Communication:
Knowing How to Say It

Knowing how to speak refers to the right manner of delivery, that is, the way a person comes across in communicating with to others, being, for example, respectful and gentle, as opposed to, say, being condescending and angry. The apostle Peter, for example, instructs believers on how to communicate with others, namely, “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15, NIV). Similarly, the apostle Paul refers another manner of communication, which is “speaking the truth in love” Ephesians 4:15, NIV).

Knowing How to Answer an Angry Person

The sage teaches that arguing or yelling at a person that is already mad is the wrong way to address him or her, saying, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). The wise person learns not only to control his or her passions or desires but also his or her mouth. For instance, in a moment of anger, being offended or hurt by someone’s comment or action, a person should not speak. Rather, he or she should, first, wait for the emotion to subside, becoming calm; then he or she can think rationally or clearly to communicate with the offender.

In Proverbs 15:1, the Hebrew word translated “harsh” literally means “hurtful.”4 Responding to an angry person with offensive, hurtful words, evokes or provokes him or her, adding, as it were, “fuel to the fire,” making his or her anger even worse and prolonging it. In a similar proverb, the author writes, “A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel (Proverbs 15:18, NIV). It takes wisdom, then, to know how to answer or address a person.5

The Silence of Communication:
Knowing When to Refrain from Saying It

The author of Proverbs teaches that it is wise to refrain from speaking, especially when an “argument” or disagreement becomes “heated,” highly charged emotionally, saying, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NIV, 1984 ed.). In a similar proverb, the wise person author writes, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Proverbs 11:12, ESV). Still another proverb says, “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3, NIV).

Sirach writes, “Answer a man if you know what to say, but if not hold your tongue“ (Ecclesiasticus 5:12, NEB). Similarly, the sage says, “A reproof may be untimely, and silence may show a man’s good sense” (Ecclesiasticus 20:1, NEB). Silence “speaks!” In other words, not saying anything is “saying” something; no communication is communication; or no response is a response, namely, a non-verbal response. It takes wisdom to know when to remain silent.

A prayer to communicate wisely might be as follows:

Grant me the wisdom to know
what to say,
where to say it,
when to say it,
how to say it,
and when to remain silent,
which itself is a form of communication.


  1. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), p. 1000. Also, to convey the wrong words to someone prevents communication from occurring. They “shut down” the conversation, with the him or her refusing to listen any further.
  2. John G. Snaith, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: Ecclesiasticus, eds. P. R. Ackroyd, A. R. C. Leaney, et al. (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 69.
  3. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, op. cit., p. 998.
  4. Sid S. Buzzell, “Proverbs,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck et al. (USA, Canada and England: Victor Books, 1985, 5th printing 1988), p. 937.
  5. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, pp. 992, 997.

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