In addition to thoughtful and timely words, we are called to speak truthful words. Proverbs 12:19 uncovers the underlying difference between truthful and false speech. Truthful speech, because it is rooted in the very character of God himself, is eternal. Once spoken, it does not change or decrease in value. But lies change and fade quickly. Like all sin, they may appear true or profitable in the short run (thus their popularity), but that fantasy cannot endure for long. Compared to the eternal nature of truth, lies last only a moment. A wise person therefore seeks to speak only that which is true.
When the book of Proverbs was written, two types of untruthful speech were strictly forbidden in Israel. Both focused on the matter of personal reputation. The first was false testimony, which had primary application to legal matters. Civil contracts in that day were made verbally and in public, attested to by witnesses, thus making personal testimonies crucial. Criminal investigations in that pre-scientific age were not focused on material evidence—the clues that are at the heart of modern detective dramas. Instead, guilt or innocence was generally determined by oral testimony. Two witnesses agreeing with one another was considered conclusive. False testimony in court was therefore condemned even by the secular authorities, for it could cost a person his or her freedom . . . or life.
Of course, false testimony is prohibited in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16), and false speech in general is denounced throughout Scripture (e.g., Leviticus 19:11, Jeremiah 9:3–6, Ephesians 4:25, Colossians 3:9). Even for the Christian, lying can come with surprising ease. But lying is always a losing bet. Lies cannot endure.
The second type of untruthful speech forbidden in Israel was slander and gossip. Slander, by definition, is false information about someone else, while the rumors shared as gossip may be true or false. Yet the Bible classifies gossip as untruthful speech, and every bit as bad as slander, because it shares important characteristics of all false testimony. Most importantly, gossip is often based on lies, and is frequently motivated by a desire to harm another person—so gossip fails the timeliness and thoughtfulness tests as well!
As a pastor, I learned that nothing is more destructive to the health of a church than gossip. How sadly true is the testimony of Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” Gossip is inherently destructive to community, destroys relationships, and causes divisions; it “separates close friends.”
James’ comments on the tongue reveal that the destructive power of gossip in the church is nothing new:
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)
Gossip can destroy not only a reputation, but entire communities. Under some conditions, a single spark of gossip can quickly engulf a church in the flames of rumor and speculation. At other times, like something smoldering under the surface, the damage may occur more slowly, but be every bit as real.
Excerpted from A Proverbs Driven Life by Anthony Selvaggio