As the unknown author of 1 Kings summarized Solomon’s great wisdom, he said that it surpassed that of all the sons of the east (1 Kgs. 4:30). Then in 1 Kgs. 4:32 he said, “He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.” The book that we call Proverbs very likely contains most, if not all, of his wise sayings. Most of Solomon’s proverbs are short statements that compare the benefits of wisdom with the consequences of foolishness. The primary theme of this collection is to seek and to retain wisdom. Those who are not willing to do so are characterized as fools and are warned of the danger of such folly.
Some of the proverbs are difficult for us to comprehend because they are steeped in the culture and the practices of the ancient Hebrews. Others, however, are easily understood in any generation and in any place. One of these timeless proverbs is found in Prov. 15:1. Solomon said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up strife.” This is a theme that resonates with us because most of us have actually witnessed the truth of this statement.
How often has a simple misunderstanding or a minor disagreement escalated into a raging argument because the individuals involved spoke harshly to one another? Such things have happened often enough in most people’s experience that we are not surprised when they do. Too many times we allow our hurt feelings or our pride to spark angry words that just make the situation worse. A Cold War-era cartoon perfectly captures what so often happens. It showed a figure in a fireman’s suit spraying liquid on flames. The caption said, “Again the Russian fireman rushes to the scene. In his eyes, determination. In his hose, pure gasoline!”
We generally expect that most people are going to respond in kind to any slight committed against them. Although we expect it, we all know that it isn’t the best way. We even have an adage to the effect that one can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar. Even so, many people are unwilling to let such things go. We think we must get our licks in, as it were, in our own defense, if nothing more. The wise man Solomon would shake his head in wonder at our foolishness.
The counsel of the wise man is that we should respond in gentleness in order to avoid further unpleasantness. This, too, is something most of us have experienced. We have watched in awe as an angry situation is diffused by a calm and gentle response. We have gone away from such incidents impressed with the wisdom and humility which kept things from getting out of control.
While all people can appreciate this principle at work, those of us who are Christians have an obligation to practice it. We must do so, not only because it is the wise way of handling conflict, but also because of the example of our Lord. Many times during the course of His ministry His enemies made scathing accusations against Him. In none of these cases did the Lord lower Himself to the kind of slanderous words that were spoken against Him. Instead, He always remained in control, and responded with words that made His opponents, and the people who witnessed these confrontations, think about what they had said and done.
The Lord could have called twelve legions of angels to His defense as He hung on the cross. Instead, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). If the Lord could give a gentle answer as He was being crucified, surely we can give a gentle answer in all our petty conflicts.