“He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip” -Proverbs 20:19 (NASB)
As Christians, we should not only be able to rightly discern sound doctrine, but we need to be able to discern sound character. There are many things we all may fail in, but that doesn’t mean we should never be corrected and rebuked for bad character. As we are cautious about heresies that tend to infiltrate our western churches, so we also must be cautious concerning red flags about other people’s character.
In this particular portion of Proverbs, Solomon warns us about a particular problem in human nature – gossip. Particularly, it is gossip that spreads (mis)information, truthful or not, that brings a stain upon another person, intended or unintended. Whether done ignorantly or maliciously is not the warning here. The warning that this proverb is trying to help us understand is that a slanderer comes with a warning sign: A mouth that doesn’t shut.
I picked the Scripture version above because it is the best translation that I think projects the concept of this passage. Although not word for word, if I had to summarize and use the GRV (George’s Revised Version), I would say something like this:
“He who is gossiper reveals secrets, therefore do not have fellowship with or share information with those that are constantly opening their mouths.”
The reason why I worded it this way is because there are a few words in this Scripture that give the picture of someone who is always saying something, or sharing information about others, who will inevitably spread information about you.
The first Hebrew word, רָכִיל rakiyl (talebearer, gossiper, informer), is a word that describes someone that tells others information or “tales” (thus the term “talebearer” in certain translations). Chances are, it will be about things that they have no right to share, or were told in confidence something that they should not tell others. Everyone knows someone like this, so this should be of no surprise that these kinds of people have been around for ages. The next word is פָּתָה pathah (one who opens his lips). This word gives a linguistic picture of something spacious and wide, but is used idiomatically to speak of someone who can’t keep their mouth shut. It relates to our English idiom of disgust when we say, “You know, you got a big mouth!” There are no limits, self-control, or barriers to the kind of information that this person will share! Finally, the last word is עָרַב `arab. This word conveys fellowship and sharing. Other uses include giving a pledge, but in this context, it is like exchanging pledges. In other words, there is a trade or transaction of information, which always happens if you are going to communicate meaningfully with another human being.
If you notice, the gossiper has to open their mouths and tell someone something that they should not. And this is the WARNING SIGN that we should all take heed to. If there is someone who spreads information about someone else, they will spread information about you. The best way to confront the person is to ask, “Am I supposed to know this information?” Or, if you hear information that may not be accurate, you can correct or inform the individual, taking into the consideration that it’s information that you are not able to openly express as well. Sometimes, a gossiper shares misinformation to gain more information to use it at their whim, so be careful!
The point is primarily this. Scripture warns us to be discerning of individuals that just can’t seem to keep their mouth under control, especially when it comes to information that we should not be privy to. Now, I am a talker. I love linguistics. I love communicating with my brethren about what’s on my heart and how I feel, but I usually only speak to a small circle of discerning friends about certain individuals that have caused me angst. The catch here is that the kind of speech that I should not exchange with someone else is information that may defame, stain, or hurt another individual’s reputation, or spread information that a person has confided with me on. I am not to divulge or indulge anything that I discern to be slanderous. This discernment is a muscle that we need to exercise and make stronger in our day and age where clicking “share” or sending emails without face-to-face conflict is so prominent. And our spiritual palates need to be trained to refuse the juicy morsels that so often cause our gossiping ears to salivate.
Even though I have painted an evil picture upon a person whose disposition is as I previously mentioned, I need to make it a point to inform you that gossip is forgivable. Oftentimes, slander is not tolerated, and it shouldn’t be. But we must remember that we are obligated to show forgiveness toward those who are of this kind of character. If a person is repentant about it, we must show mercy. While it is true that we will probably be more discerning in the future, we should never shy away from offering reconciliation, even if it may take a little while to come to fruition. The sin of gossip is a sin of the heart that is manifested in the tongue, and Christ died for that sin too.
I leave you with Psalm 15 as an exhortation of what a godly character should look like. Of course we know this is not an exhaustive list, but it is still an important one nevertheless. I have highlighted verse 3 in reference to what I have written thus far for your instruction.
Psalm 15 (NKJV)
The Character of Those Who May Dwell with the LORD
A Psalm of David.
1 LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?
Who may dwell in Your holy hill?
2 He who walks uprightly,
And works righteousness,
And speaks the truth in his heart;
3 He who does not backbite with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;
4 In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honors those who fear the LORD;
He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
5 He who does not put out his money at usury,
Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.