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Less is More

Wisdom found in using an economy of words

Proverbs 17:27-28

27 He who has knowledge spares his words,
And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit.

28 Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace;
When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.


Proverbs 10:19

19 In the multitude of words sin is not lacking,
But he who restrains his lips is wise.


As the final notes of brass and the tik-tik-tik of the drums of the Marine Corps Band drifted into the autumn air, Senator Edward Everett stepped forward on the reviewing stand and placed his notes upon the podium. He subconsciously positioned his body for speaking by placing his feet just-so, and with his right hand in a fist behind his back, raised his left hand palm-upward like a Roman orator. He cleared his throat and began to speak:

STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature…

The Civil War was at its crescendo and great battles were raging across two thousand miles of states and territories from New York City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. A new military cemetery was being dedicated, with bodies of fallen soldiers being moved from mass graves near where they fell in the surrounding farmland nearly five months before, to newly marked graves in neat rows on the quiet hillside. The Senator continued: 

It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner…

The audience was made up of national and local leaders, educated foreigners, military personnel, government employees who had traveled from Washington, invested townspeople, and gaping locals. The Senator spoke for nearly two hours–an astounding 13,607 words–and when he finally ran out of steam, the crowd showered him with thunderous applause. 

Next, the program called for a hymn to be sung by the Baltimore Glee Club, to be followed by remarks from the President of the United States.

The President, a tall, lean man with bony features and dark countenance, stepped to the platform and delivered a short speech. Perhaps you have read a copy of it. It began: 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…

Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” as it came to be known, was just 271 words long, a mere hiccup compared to the massive speech made by the Senator. Penned in Washington and revised the day before, Lincoln spoke so briefly that many onlookers failed to realize when it was over. As Lincoln stepped from the podium there was an embarrassed silence with polite clapping from the crowd, and the program moved on.

In the months and years to follow, Lincoln’s speech would become one of the most well-known and best loved speeches in American history. [For more info on the background of the Address, and a dramatic reading of it, check out this fascinating clip from Ken Burns’ acclaimed PBS series The Civil War]

As newspapers printed copies for consumption, people began to note with awe its brilliance. In its brevity and focus, the Address reflected shades of Thucydides, and its Biblical tones rang in the hearts of readers. Some months later, Senator Everett wrote to Lincoln:

I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.

There are sayings like “less is more,” and that “brevity is the soul of wit.” These phrases make sense to you intrinsically, because like most wise sayings, they can already be found in the book of Proverbs. 

Solomon, in Chapter 17, reveals just such wisdom: 

27 He who has knowledge spares his words,
And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit.–Proverbs 17:27

As Solomon seeks to instruct the young people of Israel, he works to instill in them that wisdom cannot be bought with an abundance of money, or coerced into the heart. Wisdom must be pursued and won, often after long years of experience. Just as the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so the shortest distance to Godly wisdom is not in smooth-talk or flowery speech, but in an economy of words.

In verse 27, we see a couplet of positive versets describing an image of the wise  person who practices restraint on speech. He uses words sparingly.

This is practical for many reasons, especially when it comes to teaching others. Years ago, I had a professor of preaching in seminary who gave terrific advice. As he observed his students cramming acres biblical text and analysis into the relatively small parcels of real estate of their sermons, he reminded us: 

“Remember, you cannot say it all. If you try to say it all, then you will end up saying nothing.”

If you are too verbose, use “ten-dollar” words, or three words where one will do, your audience may tune out, or as Tim Keller says, “they simply won’t wade through it all.”

The wise person of direct, functional, and yet meaningful speech, is a model of self-control and restraint. The “calm spirit” that he possesses as a result is a result of his talk being well thought-out and measured for effect. 

Another translation of this phrase is “cool spirit.” Commentator Bruce Waltke explains that Egyptian culture considered personality types to be “hot” or “cool. A passionate, impulsive, quick-tempered personality was “hot.” A calm, calculating, reserved personality was “cool.” 

Solomon is literally saying here, that the person who uses fewer words more effectively and maintains his wise composure, is “calm, cool, and collected.”

Solomon considers this so important that he repeats this principle elsewhere in his work:

19 In the multitude of words sin is not lacking,
But he who restrains his lips is wise.–Proverbs 10:19

Excessive words or speech can convey lack of wisdom in that you can be perceived as someone who really knows nothing–or very little–on a subject, and yet is willing to foolishly speak to it anyway. You can come across as a “know-it-all,” who cannot be told anything. This can actually shut down profitable conversations with others who may have actual wisdom and knowledge to share with you. It is boorish and can tarnish both ones reputation as a friend and as a Christian. There are fewer more effective turn-offs to Christ than one of His followers who dominates hearers.  

Plus, one with poor biblical knowledge who speaks beyond his learning and understanding of scripture or doctrine can quickly wander in the territory of heresy or being a false teacher. The spiritual consequences of this on both hearer and speaker is enormous.

This is the wisdom of self-restraint. Think of every internet argument that you have taken part in or have witnessed online. It is usually a series of posts or statements that escalate quickly out of control as people call names and fight to get the last word. There are no real winners, only losers. In the most extreme cases, the participants can get “canceled,” as online enemies contact employers or the press to punish their rivals in the real world. People have lost jobs, livelihoods, and even their lives in extreme cases.

Which brings up another aspect: the more you say, the more your words can be held against you. In this modern world, the internet is forever, and impulsive words of online posts will float around online forever, ready to haunt the one who uttered them. 

Which brings up the next part of Solomon’s wisdom of restrained speech:

28 Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace;
When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.–Proverbs 17:28

There is wisdom in blessed silence. This proverb is similar to a contemporary saying:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

This folksy witticism is often attributed to Mark Twain and even Abraham Lincoln. Its earliest recorded instance is in a book of verse and sayings compiled by author Maurice Switzer in the early 1900’s. Doubtless, it reflects far more ancient origins, and perhaps even this proverb. 

The wiser you are about a subject, the fewer words you will need, and sometimes it is best to simply not speak.

Controlling the tongue is a step toward self-control, as you learn from James:

1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.–James 3:1-2

When you resist the urge to share every thought that comes into your head, or give an opinion on every event or subject in life, you will begin to gain self-control over your life.

Are you “calm, cool and collected?” Or are you “hot tempered” and lacking in self-control?  Jesus reflects the restraint and wisdom of this proverb in everything He says and does. Jesus, by very nature, is the wisdom of self-restraint. Who, being in very nature God, went willingly, and silently in obedience to His death for you and me:

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.–Isaiah 53:7

Jesus stood before Pilate, and could have dethroned the Roman official with just one declaration, yet remained silent in the face of mocking unbelief:

14 But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.–Matthew 27:14

Years later, Peter remembers the wise, suffering savior, who bore the shame in silence and in love, knowing that He answered not to men, but to His Father in heaven:

23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;–I Peter 2:23

The restraint and even silence of Christ serves as an example to you and me. The next time you are tempted to enter into heated argument, or feel one spiraling out of control, can you throttle back your words and be the one to diffuse the conversation with gentleness and love?

Do you feel pressure to always have an answer, or find yourself trampling on the words of others to have your say? Do you talk too much?

You may not even realize it if you do. Ask a trusted friend and you may be surprised at the answer. Pray to see yourself as others do, and that your speech will reflect the “calm, cool, and collected” wisdom of Jesus, seasoned with grace and salt: 

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.–Colossians 4:6


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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