A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Proverbs 25:11
Knowing what to speak, to whom to speak and when to speak is a function of godly wisdom. "It is only fools who speak all the time, without regard for the circumstance ... The wisdom formula is to speak the right word to the right person at the right time" (Longman, 453).
A well-timed word has several positive attributes to it. One, it reaffirms our value. A teenager cut from the basketball team, a husband and father terminated from his job, a wife reeling from an unsought-for divorce all suffer from devastating hits to their lives and psyches, pain felt very deeply within their being. A corollary to such blows is that we question our own worth or value. We have, after all, just been rejected by a team, business and relationship from which we drew a significant sense of our own identity. We may wonder if we will ever find another place or person to belong to. A well-timed word at this juncture can rescue us from swimming in the sea of self-doubt and reaffirm that we are people of worth.
Two, an apt word refocuses our vision. Lingering in the shadow of our damaged self-worth is blurred vision. The future looks foggy at best, and any vision we may have left is bleak, even ominous and threatening. It is natural that from the humiliating defeats and emotionally disturbing setbacks would come reticence to face the future. What lies ahead? If I have failed now, what prospects do I have for better results in the future? If I have been rejected, can genuine love ever find me again? A timely word to such a person is one that considers their circumstances, acknowledges the pain and uncertainty choking their heart, and offers even the slightest vision that the future can be faced.
Three, an appropriate word is one that rekindles hope. The future is very uninviting when it seems to offer only prospects of continued gloom and doom. Living with the fear of never belonging again, lacking financial resources or having no one to bond intimately with is gloomy. But that well-timed word, if embedded and nurtured in the heart of the sufferer, can eventually sprout and grow, offering vision and hope of a brighter future that we can participate in.
Finally, a well-timed word can even deliver necessary rebuke. To rebuke someone is to expose them to the truth of their situation, their attitude or behavior, and the appropriate response they need to make. Rebuke is usually appropriate for someone who persists in inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Rebuke may not apply initially to someone struggling with situations of rejection and hurt as I descried above, but, there may come a time when even they need a gentle nudge to open their eyes. "Ok, you lost your job, I’m very sorry. But you are not likely to find another job by watching tv all day, seven days a week. It’s time to pull yourself together and get back out there." It may seem out of place discussing rebuke after describing an apt reply as one that reaffirms value, refocuses vision and rekindles hope. But, an apt reply isn’t limited to situations of encouraging the broken-hearted; it can also apply to those pursuing paths that can render them hard-hearted. (For more discussion of an apt reply functioning as rebuke, see the essay "Judicial Decisions).
The finesse of Jesus’ response to the woman entrapped in sin demonstrates the power of the apt reply. Even if she didn’t know the law the woman knew the Pharisees initially advocated stoning her. That is quite a blow to one’s self-composure and image! Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you." But he didn’t withhold rebuke. "Leave your life of sin," he said next. He acknowledged her sin and told her to abandon it, choosing instead to live morally and spiritually. With this gentle rebuke and freedom from condemnation, the woman’s value was affirmed and was she free to envision a future of hope and second chances (John 8:1-11).
An apt word delivered to a hurting soul is "a masterpiece of human art" (Bland, 225), comparable to richly designed apples of gold in settings of silver. The beauty of both enrich our lives and testify to the wisdom and skill of the master artisan who crafted them.