"The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse." Proverbs 10:32.
Children can sense when decency has been violated. I was driving Wes and Jenny home from school when Wes asked me what a certain phrase meant. He was eight years old and had never heard that term before at home. I asked, "Where did you hear that?" "On the playground," he answered. "I’m glad you asked me what the phrase meant before you started using it. It’s not very nice, and I’ll have to explain it to you later when your five-year old sister isn’t around. She doesn’t need to hear about that yet."
Jenny had been sitting in the middle of the pickup seat during this conversation. Her eyes were big with curiosity and her head swivelled back and forth between Wes and me as we talked. When she heard that she would be denied the explanation until she was a bit older, she covered her ears with her hands and said, "Go ahead and tell him Dad, I can’t hear anything." "You can’t?" I asked her. "No, I can’t," she replied. I waited until later.
Children may not know what a vulgar term means, but they can sense if it has the ring of impropriety about it if they have never heard it spoken before in the home, church or other social gatherings of family and friends. They sense that an order has been violated and they are curious, even uncomfortable, about what it might mean.
This order or appropriateness is what Proverbs 10:32 is about. People who are righteous or wise in matters of godliness and propriety speak words that are fitting and pleasant; people who are not wise or righteous speak words that violate sensibilities and offend. The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse
It seems strange to speak of lips as having knowledge, doesn’t it? "The lips of the righteous know what is fitting." Can lips know anything? This is an example of a common figure of speech in Proverbs known as metonymy, where one object is used in place of another object it is related to. Here, lips are used in the place of a heart that is attuned to God and his will. Such a heart is filled with a sense of God, his moral teaching, and his high regard for other people. The lips of this person express the substance of a heart filled with godly wisdom and righteousness, uttering words that are fitting and pleasant.
The lips or mouth of the wicked, however, speak what is perverse. Perverse means to "turn upside down" (Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, p.76). It implies that proper order has been completely disrupted and upended. Instead of an atmosphere of appropriate speech characterized by intelligent discussion, respectful tones and encouragement for one another, perverse conversation is distasteful, even ungodly. The effect of such speech is to "confound the moral judgment of others, and to overthrow God’s rule" (Waltke, Proverbs. 1:480).
Do Christians take the subject of appropriate speech seriously enough? Are we occasionally lured into conversation or humor muddied by base innuendo or course language? Do we engage in negative, slanderous putdowns of other people? We may regard such offenses as inconsequential, but Proverbs 10:32 challenges our casual disdain. The mouth of the wicked (speak) only what is perverse. Another proverb threatens that such a tongue shall be "cut out" (Prov. 10:31) by God himself. Such a warning constrains us to examine our hearts and temper our tongues.
To be perverse means to turn God’s order upside down. It means to reverse the intention God had for the heart, purity and innocence, and fill it with filth and degradation. It means that when a heart that is impure speaks, wickedness flows forth. That wickedness may be gossip, slander, lies, course jokes, crude expressions or threats of violence. All of these manifestations of perverseness give evidence of a heart in need of cleansing. Even small children with tender hearts sense this. If only Christian adults had such spiritual orientation!
Our words reveal the substance of our heart. The lips of the righteous know what is fitting because they speak from a heart influenced and shaped by the Creator.