Proverbs 15:1 “A soft answer [turns] away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.
Here we have a scenario that speaks of tension and confrontation. Solomon is telling his son about how to deal with a wrathful person. Whether this person’s wrath is justified or not is not said, and it’s immaterial. The point is the person is angry and he needs to be defused.
Don’t fight fire with fire.
The right response is not to fight fire with fire. I like what one commentator has said on this verse:
“[O]ne angry word will always beget another, for the disposition of one spirit always begets its own likeness in another…” (Clarke)
So, the best way to deal with someone who is angry is to respond with a calm and reasonable answer. Because if angry words will only beget more anger, then kind ones will beget kindness.
When the writer of this proverb mentions a “soft answer,” here’s what he is not saying:
- He is not saying you should be patronizing (condescending).
- He is not saying you should necessarily be in agreement with the wrathful person’s argument.
- He is not saying you should be weak, or that you should immediately capitulate.
He is saying you should be gentle. The word used here, while it can mean “weak,” in this context means “tender.” That implies a desire to help this person to get past their anger and come to a solution. You can’t see solutions when you’re angry. You can when you’ve calmed down, and a wise person understands this because “grievous words” only stir up more anger.
It’s not about winning the argument; it’s about reconciliation
Of course it’s our natural response to respond angrily when someone speaks angrily to us. But responding to anger with “grievous words,” means we’re more concerned with getting our way out of the argument rather than getting God’s way.
The word translated “grievous” is the Hebrew word ’etseb, which means “toil” (usually painful toil), or “pang” that comes from pain either in body or in mind. It’s used seven times in the Old Testament and always in a bad light. In Jeremiah 22:28 it’s even translated “idol” and depicted as something to be cast out as worthless.
As Christians, our job on earth is to reconcile ourselves and others back to God in all of our dealings. That’s especially true when someone is angry toward us and our feelings get hurt. So, if we’re to do away with those grievous and toilsome words. Where do we get the tender ones from?
Proverbs 15:28 gives us an answer:
“The heart of the righteous [studies] to answer: but the mouth of the wicked [pours] out evil things.”
“Studies” means to “murmur,” and by implication to “ponder.” Have you ever seen an angry person so angry he mutters to himself? Sometimes they don’t mutter; sometimes they just talk real loud to anyone who’ll listen. What is the angry person doing? He’s turning to himself and his own circumstances to bolster his argument. In his own way he’s meditating on reasons why he should be angry – and he may even be right on a few of those arguments.
But what does the wise man do? He meditates to, but instead of turning to himself, he turns to God to find out God would have him to do.
Two prime examples of this are Moses and David. Whenever Moses had to deal with angry Israelites, or whenever David found himself on the run from the wrath of King Saul, what did they both do? They cried out to God and looked to him for an answer. Why? Because they weren’t looking for a way to vindicate themselves. They were looking for a way for God to be glorified.
When someone is angry with you, do you seek to win the argument, or are you seeking a reconciliation that honors God?