A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 15:1 (ESV)
Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman played a major role in fomenting street turmoil during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. For his efforts, Hoffman, along with the other members of the Chicago Seven, were charged with conspiring to incite a riot and with contempt of court.1 Over a decade later, Hoffman was still urging his admirers to be rude in their dealings with authority: “Remember that manners were invented by kings to maintain power. The determination to interrupt business as usual is often misunderstood as ill-mannered. Don’t let the ‘king’ define your behavior.”2
He was right in suggesting that there is a time to “interrupt business as usual.” The biblical prophets showed this. But Hoffman was wrong about the invention of manners. God invented them, as His Word demonstrates.
Proverbs 15:1 instructs the reader in wise decorum, with both benefit and risk. If one’s speech is conciliatory and self-effacing, then the conversation will more likely continue to a fruitful conclusion. If, instead, one leads with insult or menace, communication will probably break down, and the backlash can be fierce. Of course, in handling proverbs such as this one, it is important to use words such as “likely” and “probably,” for this book offers rules of thumb rather than hard-and-fast predictions or promises. Occasionally, a soft answer will do nothing to cool the other’s temper, and caustic speech may simply demoralize the hearer. But, as a general rule, this proverb is true.
Proverbs 15:1 is not cast in the language of absolute morality. It does not say that tender speech is by definition godly or that hard words are an abomination to the Lord. If so, then the strident John the Baptist was reprobate, not deserving the high praise Jesus gave him in Matthew 11:11. But if one understands this proverb as a matter of prudence for those engaged in the workaday affairs of life, then it fits perfectly.3
Examples spring readily to mind – at the store, in the post office, at the driver’s license center, in a ticket queue, on a crowded walkway, in a parking lot, at a sporting event, or in the neighborhood. And the principle applies equally to all parties involved, whether clerk or customer, coach or player, bicyclist or pedestrian. And in each setting, Christians should take the lead in gracious speech, disarming conflict and advancing cooperation by precept and example.
Of course, one need not enter the marketplace to use this maxim. It serves quite well in the home and church, where a lot of senseless strife could be avoided with its employment. Again, this is not to say that all speech in these sectors must be quiet and even bland to please God. There are certainly occasions for sharp rebuke and stern pronouncements. But these cannot be the norm, for they would lose their effectiveness in a general atmosphere of bitterness. And if Christians are to be salt and light in the world, they must cultivate the ways of grace along with their zeal for truth.
1 Some of the convictions and charges were later overruled on account of procedural irregularities in the original trial.
2 Abbie Hoffman, “How to Fight City Hall,” The Best of Abbie Hoffman (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1989), 373. This article was originally written for Parade magazine in 1984.
3 It is doubtful that Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, was the king Hoffman had in mind. But even if he was, Proverbs comes by the inspiration of God, not the imperious heart of an earthly monarch.