Proverbs 15:4 - Translation and Commentary
A healing tongue is a tree of life, but crookedness in it is a breach in the spirit – Proverbs 15:4 (My translation)
The power and importance of the tongue is a massive biblical theme that could fill volumes, and there are many biblical passages discussing it in different ways. Two of the most notable passages, closely connected to this study of Proverbs 15:4, are Proverbs 18:21, and the very famous passage from the New Testament: James 3:1-12. Both passages go hand in hand with what I am about to discuss, but for now, I will refrain from discussing them in detail, as there is a great deal to be said about the proverb currently in the limelight.
Proverbs 15:4 has always been a favourite of mine. Not only is it simple and beautiful, it is thought provoking and far-reaching as well. It is one of those nuggets of wisdom and insight into humanity and relationships that one could live by successfully for a lifetime and more, without ever needing to be very spiritual either. It is just simple, pragmatic wisdom in a succinct, yet full-bodied poetic statement.
It begins with the Hebrew noun מרפא/marpe, meaning, “healing, cure, health” (BDB, p. 951), which is derived from the verb רפא/rapa, meaning, “heal” (BDB, p. 950). It is then attached to the word “tongue”, לשון/lashon in Hebrew, forming a beautiful and intriguing construct in this proverb: מרפא לשון/marpe lashon: “healing of the tongue/a healing tongue”.
Kind words; praise; encouragement; speaking the truth; repentance; heartfelt confession; prudent advice; or genuine love and admiration communicated verbally are all examples of what come to mind by this ancient, figurative expression. Furthermore, to ascribe healing to the tongue or to one’s words, as an innate power, is also surprisingly modern, antedating many contemporary psychotherapeutic concepts such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for instance. And, to further bolster the significance of the tongue’s healing power, Solomon (the author according to tradition) then links it to the very familiar appellation עץ חיים/ets chaim, or “tree of life”.
Now, one could get very speculative about the nature of the Tree of Life in the creation story and its appearance here in the book of Proverbs, and begin forming some wild theories, but that would be an epic distraction from the point Solomon is making here. Those words certainly appear in this proverb, and they lend it tremendous significance. However, in this proverb עץ חיים/ets chaim does not carry the definite article (the), in which case it is “a tree of life” rather than “the Tree of Life”, as we read it in the book of Genesis. I feel this is important to note, as it seems, in my mind, to lend a significance related to the Tree of Life in the creation story but without referencing it for its own sake. Rather, its use in this proverb draws our attention to the concepts of restoration, healing and continuity of health. This is especially so with regard to relationship, which is fundamental to humanity and being human, and therefore the allusion to Genesis is really quite appropriate.
Like any good proverb, however, 15:4 comes with a stern warning that is both extremely sobering, as well as foundational. Part b) of the proverb utilizes the noun סלף/seleph, meaning, “crookedness, crooked dealing”, and the verb from which it is derived סלף/salaph, means to “twist, pervert, overturn” (BDB, p. 701). The noun is then coupled with a word formed by adding the common preposition, ב, usually translated as “in”, to the feminine singular suffix ה. Added together you get a short word, בה/bah, meaning, “in it”. This is important because it is the anchor for what I believe the proverb is intending to say.
Now, you can think of part b) as referring to either crookedness in a healing tongue or simply as the opposite - a crooked/destructive tongue. However, if we’re to think of this phrase “crookedness in it” as referring to basically the opposite of a healing tongue, then the proverb seems to lose some of its impact. This is because it is quite obvious that mere slander, insults, rudeness etc., are detrimental to relationships between human beings on any level, and therefore it isn’t terribly profound or insightful to mention it. Instead, I believe the idea in this proverb refers more specifically to treachery or deceitfulness.
Truth mixed with lies; apology without sincerity; disingenuous praise; kind or loving words with a malicious hidden agenda; a directive given for selfish gain or self preservation at the expense of another – these are examples of what might be thought of as a healing tongue with crookedness/perverseness in it, or with ill intent behind or at the heart of it.
Further support for this understanding is found in the only other occurrence of the noun סלף/seleph in the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs 11:3. Here סלף/seleph is part of a construct phrase “the crookedness/crooked dealings of the treacherous”, where it is coupled with a semantically related verb בגד/bagad, meaning, “act or deal treacherously” (BDB, p. 93). To be tangential just briefly, I will occasionally cite semantically related words to the word in question, as a way of getting at the real essence of a word. This is known in linguistics as a semantic field. It is one way of determining how best to translate a given word or idiomatic phrase, especially when concerning ancient languages. In this case, I feel the example from Proverbs 11:3 supports the understanding of treachery or deception very well.
The final phrase of Proverb 15:4, “a breach in the spirit”, as I have chosen to translate it, is especially interesting. The word that I have translated as “breach” is שבר/shever, meaning, “breaking, fracture, crushing, breach, crash” (BDB, p. 991). For your perusal, a few passages where the word appears will give you a sense of the devastation this word refers to: Proverbs 17:19; Isaiah 30:13-14, 51:19; Lamentations 3:46-48. The word points to certain destruction, devastation and brokenness. However, its meaning in Proverbs 15:4, is a little different. It is used here in connection to the word רוח/ruach, meaning, “breath, wind, spirit” (BDB, p. 924), which is another possible allusion to Genesis, as this is the word used to describe the life God breathed into every living creature (Genesis 6:17, 7:15). We also find the "in"/ב preposition attached to רוח/ruach in this proverb, and therefore we are talking about a breach or fracture in one’s spirit.
Now, as we are dealing with the power of the tongue with respect to relationships, the translation has to reflect something of the devastating effect of deception on the inner life of a human being. It seems reasonable to me that, as a healing tongue, being a tree of life, is suggestive of ensuing health, peace and wellness; crookedness and treachery in that tongue is then highly suggestive of the ensuing devastation of a breach in one’s spiritual and emotional defences. In this instance, I have derived my understanding of its meaning in Proverbs 15:4 from its use in Isaiah 30:13-14, mentioned above, where we are given the image of a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse.
To further widen the scope of the meaning of this proverb, one might also consider the devastating effects of self-deprecation, self-condemnation or cynicism. Knowing the positive truths about one’s life and self-worth, yet deceiving oneself with what is contrary to that truth can be extremely detrimental to one’s emotional well-being and peace of mind. Moreover, using kind words and a healing tongue with ill intent can also constitute a breach in one’s own inner life and stability, as one’s gain at the expense of another will ultimately lead to inner ruin, if a conscience is present that is. As I have said, the warning of this proverb is very sobering and definitely far-reaching. How much more so is the blessing of a tongue of pure healing and good will then? It is no less than a tree of life.