Sir Walter Scott relates how, when he was a lad of fifteen, he was at a house to which came Scotland's famous poet Robert Burns. Some question was asked about a painting on the wall. Scott was the only one who knew the facts, and with a timid voice he told the great poet what he wanted to know. Long after, Scott treasured the light in the eye of Burns and the kindly greeting and recognition that he gave him. According to another account, Burns not only gave Scott a kind look but on another occasion said to him: "You will be a great man in Scotland, my lad. You have it in you to be a writer." Scott went home and cried all night for joy at this word of recognition and encouragement from the great poet.
When Martin Luther was entering Worms to make his great stand before the emperor and the Diet, that stand that means so much to mankind today, an old knight clapped him on the shoulder, and said: "My dear monk, my poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever made in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God's name, and be of good courage, God will not forsake thee."
The Bible has wonderful examples of the power of speech and the blessedness of the "word fitly spoken" (Prov. 25:11). There was the incident of Naaman and Elisha. Naaman had come all the way from Syria to be cured of his leprosy; but when Elisha sent out his servant to meet him and told him to go wash seven times in the Jordan, Naaman was in a rage and, turning his chariot about, started homeward. But one of his officers spoke the word in season and said to him, "My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saithnto thee, Wash, and be clean?" (II Kings 5:13).
Naaman saw the sense in this, put down his pride and anger, went and washed in the Jordan, and his flesh became as the flesh of a little child.
When Grant received the news, after his great victories in the West, that the Senate had confirmed his nomination to the grade of lieutenant general and commander in chief of all the armies of the Union, almost the first thing he did was to write a letter to Sherman. In that letter he says: "While I have been eminently successful in this war, in at least gaining the confidence of the public, no one feels more than I how much of this success is due to the energy and skill, and the harmonious putting forth of that energy and skill, of those whom it has been my good fortune to have occupying subordinate positions under me. There are many officers to whom these remarks are applicable to a greater or lesser degree proportionate to their ability as soldiers; but I want to express my thanks to you and McPherson as the men to whom, above all others, I feel indebted for whatever I had of success. How far your advice and suggestions have been of assistance, you know. How far your execution of whatever has been given you to do entitled you to the reward I am receiving, you cannot know as well as I do."
There, indeed, was a beautiful word of gratitude and thanks, and "fitly spoken . . . like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Prov. 25:11).
Addison has a passage in The Spectator about the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, how some authors must stay there until the influence of their evil writings has disappeared. But who can tell when that influence will come to an end?
We stand by the side of him from whose loved eyes the light of this life is fading, and eagerly do we strive to catch the word which the lips of the dying man are struggling to pronounce. Often, even to the most attent ears, that word is lost. The man would like to speak but cannot. How strange is that moment when the great stillness comes down and it is clear to the watchers that these lips have spoken in this life their last word. Now not a single word can be added; now not a single word can be retracted. What we have spoken, we have spoken.
O friends, let our words be words which shall have a sweet echo yonder in the Great Day, words which have blessed and not cursed, helped and not hindered, encouraged and not discouraged, heartened and not disheartened, increased and not diminished men's faith in man and in God, brightened and not dimmed the hopes of man for life here and glory hereafter. "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips!" (Ps. 141:3.)
The rule of silence enforced by the Trappist monks is a searching comment on the power of ill-advised speech to do injury. Words are the ambassadors of the soul. Imagine a spring landscape without thie light of the sun! So would history be without the life and the color given it by words. It was said of Luther that his words were like battles.
Religion, freedom, vengeance, what you will—
A word's enough to raise mankind to kill.
Likewise, a word is enough to hold mankind back from killing and to inspire him to noble thinking and glorious living.
No one ever used words with such beauty and charm as John Bunyan. Take Pilgrim's Progress out of English literature and how much it has been impoverished! In Grace Abounding John Bunyan tells how one day he was sitting on a bench outside a neighbor's shop window, "cursing, and swearing, and playing the madman, after my wonted manner." Within the window sat a woman, herself loose and ungodly but who, shocked at Bunyan's profanity, expostulated with him and told him that his words made her tremble.
This reproof silenced and sobered him, and from that time forward he was able to leave off swearing. Bunyan relates this incident as one of the steps in his conversion. Who knows what part that courageous and spontaneous rebuke and warning played in the history of Bunyan's glorious life.
I'm careful of the words I say to keep them soft and sweet.
I never know from day to day which ones I'll have to eat.—Lay o' the Land
Learn this and you'll get along, no matter what your station: An ounce of keep-your-mouth-shut beats a ton of explanation.
It is better either to be silent or to say things of more value than silence. Sooner throw a pearl at hazard than an idle or useless word; and do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few.
Many wise words are spoken in jest, but they can't compare with the number of foolish words spoken in earnest.
The next time you receive a letter that carries the word "Sincerely" above the signature of the writer, pause a moment and think of the origin of that word. As you may recall, it was first used as "sincerely," meaning "without wax," by ancient sculptors to mark a flawless piece of work. Wax was then commonly employed to conceal defects, to patch a chipped nose, a poorly shaped finger, etc. Sincerely is too honest a word to be used loosely, but it is a good word when consciously employed.