Am guessing that a lot of us admire the person who can use humor, thoughtfulness, or a self-deprecating comment to defuse the tension of an angry moment. Maybe that’s why I’ve become so intrigued with the proverb that says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). I’m convinced that there is more here than a reminder not to yell at one another.
The neighborhood of this proverb
The previous proverb (14:35) reminds us that anger isn’t always wrong. Solomon provided balance when he said, “The king’s favor is toward a wise servant, but his wrath is against him who causes shame.”
At its best, angry emotions show that we care enough to be upset when someone or something we value is in danger. This is like the anger of the king (14:35) who becomes emotional when one of his servants acts without regard for the needs of others.
Seems clear though that wisdom will keep this emotion on a short leash. Solomon’s “rule of the soft answer” helps us think twice about emotions that can be as dangerous as “explosive fumes”.
The danger behind the anger
Anger is like a guard dog. It can help us protect ourselves, our property, and those who need our help. But a quick temper is like a junkyard dog. Regardless of whether we call him “Nero,” “Porkchop,” or “Sunrise,” he will act on his own instincts. Without training, fencing, or a short leash, he will bite a friend as quickly as he will attack a thief.
The motive behind this proverb
So what is Proverb 15:1 saying to us? Is it just encouraging us to lower our voices to avoid waking the sleeping dog? My guess is volume, while a factor, is less of an issue than motive. Seems to me that the controlling principle of the best soft answer is that it is motivated not just by wisdom– but by love.
A voice raised in love is less threatening than a thought whispered in contempt. A loud “Yes, I’m upset. I care about you!” is more calming than a softly spoken “You’re nothing but a worthless version of your father (or mother).”
“What I do with my time is none of your business” is a harsh answer even when it’s said softly through smiling lips. On the other hand, “What can I say? What I said was thoughtless and mean. You didn’t need to hear that from me!” is likely to be “soft” even if expressed with loud regret.
Proverbs 15:1 isn’t just about volume control. It’s warning us about harsh responses that, even when whispered, awaken anger because they’re spoken as a threat. “Soft” words tend to defuse anger, regardless of their volume, because they’re an offer of safety.