Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. Proverbs 26:20-21
A lightening strike, a dropped cigarette or a campfire not properly extinguished can smolder for days, finally igniting a few dry leaves culminating in a forest fire that can burn for weeks, even months. Trees and homes miles away from the spot where the fire began can be torched in minutes from the inferno unleashed by that original smoldering ember. Under the right conditions, forest fires can become impossible for even multiple teams of fire fighters to put out. It may take the arrival of fall snows to finally extinguish the blaze. Or, as the sage says, a fire may not play out until it is deprived of a substance to burn. There is a three-step progression in the scenario I have just presented: a smoldering ember, dry kindling, and finally, a raging fire.
A similar three-step progression is present in these two verses in Proverbs. First, there is the smoldering ember, a quarrel between two people. Then there is the dry kindling to feed that ember and give it greater life, gossip. Gossip is the spreading of tales by the participants in the quarrel. With enough time and gossip the third step is realized, strife. The quarrelsome man who can’t or won’t keep his discontent or disagreement contained, but must spread it through the kindling of gossip, fuels the fire until it becomes a bitter conflict involving numerous parties. Strife, or discord, is one of the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:20), and it can burn out of control, scorching and burning people miles away from the original smoldering ember.
A quarrel is simply a verbal battle between two people. There is usually some degree of heat and flame of emotions in the verbal feud, but in time quarrels usually die down.
Like a fire, though, quarrels can be fed highly combustible material. For a fire it is dry wood; for a quarrel it is gossip. Gossip in this verse also means whisper in Hebrew. The idea is that one is going around on the sly whispering damaging things against someone else’s character and position. Should one or more of the participants in the quarrel take their grievances to others, not for wise counsel on how to handle the situation but rather to whisper against and slander the other party, then more people are dragged into the fray. Soon five, six, even ten or more people may be agitated and riled up against each other, and they may not even know why!
I have seen situations of two people frothing in anger against each other over what other parties in the quarrel had told them. These guys were not original participants, and didn’t even know all the details of the initial argument. They were just dragged in and began burning like dry timber and they didn’t even know why. Situations like this can erupt at work and church, burning with a fury that can last for weeks. It may not die out until everyone involved is literally exhausted and singed from the heat of the verbal and emotional blaze.
After once such inferno I asked a participant in that holocaust, "What happened? What was going on to create such a blaze where people were fighting and seemed to hate each other?" She said, "I don’t know. Everyone was just so angry and excited and saying things that were so mean. I don’t know how it started and why it went on for so long. But it was very ugly and unnecessary."
It started as a disagreement between two people that became a quarrel. The quarrel was not allowed to die down but was fed with the kindling of gossip and slander, causing it to burn hotter and wider. Soon, a dozen people were sucked into the blaze of bitter conflict, angry, hot, and ready to do battle on a larger scale. And no one really knew why.
Quarrels, gossip and strife are the external manifestations of a deeper issue in the heart of the one engaged in this unholy activities. The inner issue is and evil and malicious spirit. The evil spirit of one who creates discord and contention among other people is discussed in the next several verses, where the Sage says, "A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit" (Prov. 26:24). Verse 26 says his wickedness will be eventually become known.
Families, churches, businesses and community programs can be devastated in the incineration caused by the slanderer. To protect yourself and those around you, simply do not engage this man or woman. Only by joint refusal to participate in the ungodly triad of quarrels, gossip and strife can we starve the fire of fuel and save our relationships.