"A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much." Proverbs 20:19.
Preachers get teased about talking too much. We do talk a lot. Some of it is expected, like sermons and Bible classes. It would be unusual for a preacher to stand up on Sunday morning and say, "I’m sorry, but I have nothing to say this morning." It might be unusual, but it might also be appreciated!
But the idea in this proverb is not about talking too much; it is about talking irresponsibly. There is a difference between someone who talks incessantly, even though that can be terribly annoying and unnerving, and someone who talks irresponsibly. The idea of talking irresponsibly is connected to the first part of the phrase about a gossip betraying a confidence. Someone who talks too much can betray a confidence, but it is not the AMOUNT of the talking taking place that is the problem in this verse. It is the intent and the irresponsibility of the talker that is in focus here: Gossip.
Gossip is a killer. Several verses in Proverbs address the problem of gossiping:
Proverbs 11:13 - "A gossip betrays a confidence ..."
Proverbs 16:28 - "A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates friends."
Proverbs 26:20 - "Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down."
There is not much good that can be said about gossip. Gossip is more than annoying and unnerving: it is destructive. In Romans 1 Paul lists gossip along with sexual sins and murder as evidence of God’s wrath being revealed against us. In 2 Corinthians 12:20 Paul lists gossip as one of the sins that he fears will disrupt the church.
God’s teachers (Solomon and Paul) were both concerned about building healthy communities. They wanted families and churches to live together in openness, honesty and love. They wanted people to live together in mutual respect and concern for the other.
Gossip undermines all of these healthy, constructive attitudes. Gossip is the opposite of openness and honesty. Gossip is conducted in quiet and in secret, hidden from the view of others. It’s message is whispered and cherished as "choice morsels" (Proverbs 18:8).
Gossip is the opposite of love and respect: you can not love and respect the person you are vilifying with malicious secrets. Nor do you really love the person you are passing on the delectable morsels to, since you are drawing them into your sin with you. Friends don’t do that to friends. "A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks irresponsibly."
Both Solomon and Paul prefer words that are constructive: words that encourage, promote healthy community relations, and build character in others. For example, in Proverbs 10:21 Solomon writes, "The lips of the righteous nourish many ..." The word for "nourish" in Hebrew is "to shepherd." So, the words of the righteous man "provides the nutrition necessary for the development of godly character." (Dave Bland, Proverbs, 116). "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians 4:29).
A gossip talks irresponsibly and destructively. He shatters community, whether in a family, church, or other social setting. But a wise man talks encouragingly and constructively. He talks responsibly. A wise man nourishes the hearts and minds of others. He builds community in human relations. He benefits those who listen by providing nourishment for the development of their godly character. The gossip or the wise man ... which one do you think is blessed by God?
(From the forthcoming book, "Roaring Lions, Cracking Rocks, and other Gems from Proverbs)