Proverbs 15:1 | Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick?

A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)

Actually, forget the stick

It was President Theodore Roosevelt who repeated the old adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” as an expression of his foreign policy. I believe what he meant by this was that America should be a gentle nation, but one with such strength that no one would dare threaten it.

As a foreign policy, Mr. Roosevelt’s statement is sound. In the lives of individuals, however, it is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10). In fact, our text teaches us a different policy by way of observation: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

The Hebrew word Solomon used, translated in our text as soft, is rak. It means tender and comes from rakak (raw-kak’), a primary root meaning to soften. He used the same word in Proverbs 25:15:

By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.

Rather than merely speaking in a whisper, Solomon refers to speaking in a gentle tone: one that is quiet, measured, even. He tells us that speaking in such a way “turneth away wrath.”

Wrath, as translated in our text, is chemah (khay-maw’) or chema (same pronunciation), and means heat. It comes from yacham (yaw-kham’), meaning to be hot. It is anger of extreme intensity, much like the phrase “hot with anger.” It is well expressed by the English word fury. Solomon is saying that responding in a gentle tone turns away wrath, cools the heat, calms the fury.

Solomon, as he often does in his proverbs, contrasts the soft answer’s effect on wrath: “but grievous words stir up anger.” The word Solomon used here is etseb (eh’-tseb). It means an earthen vessel, toil or pang. It comes from atsab (aw-tsab’), a primary root meaning to carve that is used as a verb meaning to worry, pain or anger. It’s similar to the Chaldean word atsab (ats-ab’), meaning to afflict. Grievous words are words that cut, words that inflict wounds. Such words, Solomon tells us, stir up anger.

The truth revealed in our text is one that we can easily observe in our own lives and in our modern world. Soft, quiet words, gentle tones, have a soothing, calming effect on the person who has exploded in a fury. Grievous words, cutting, wound-inflicting words, insults, cause their target to become angry. It’s as simple as that; but the deep truths of God’s word often are.

What does this mean for us today? Jesus said in Matthew 7:12 that:

whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

And Brother Jacob (erroneously called James in the New Testament) observed in James 2:10 that:

[o]ut of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

We need to make sure that our words are soft words, not grievous ones. Brother Paul tells us in Colossians 4:6:

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

Speak softly and forget the stick.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. Our text teaches us by way of what method?
  2. What does Solomon mean by “a soft answer”?
  3. What is the contrast presented in our text?
  4. What truth does Solomon present in our text?
  5. What does our text mean for us today?