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Sound Speech in the Twenty-First Century
Sound Speech in the Twenty-First Century
Barbara Montrose

In ancient Israel, the Promised Land was divided up and then awarded to its new owners amazingly without dispute. But civil war almost broke out soon afterwards.

Picture this historic scene: The children of Israel had just begun to settle in the land of Canaan. Under the direction of Joshua and Eleazar the priest, the vast acreage of the Promised Land was distributed to families and individuals.

The land east of the Jordan was given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. The members of these tribes had successfully performed their duty to their brethren in providing armed men to stand side-by-side with the remaining tribes to displace the wicked inhabitants on the west side of Jordan.

Being shepherds, these tribes were well suited to their eastern location—yet upon their departure to claim their inheritance, Joshua was naturally a bit concerned that they could become tempted by the heathen customs of the nations on that side.

The headquarters of Israel had been moved from the temporary encampment at Gilgal to Shiloh—a town in a central location where the tabernacle could be relatively accessible to all. Yet being on the opposite side of the Jordan still made things a little more difficult for these tribes.

Then something interesting happened:

“When they came unto the borders of Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by Jordan, a great altar to see to” (Joshua 22:10).

How did the remaining tribes react?

We read in Joshua 22:11, 12 that when the announcement was made, the children of Israel immediately gathered together to go to war against these brethren.

Can you imagine what would have happened if they had hastily carried out their plan? What a disgrace it might have been to the one nation on earth that had been miraculously led by the one true God—the Creator of the universe—to honor Him and His laws!

But actually the western tribes did indeed have legitimate cause for alarm:

“The law of God prohibited, on pain of death, the establishment of another worship than that at the sanctuary. If such was the object of this altar [east of Jordan], it would, if permitted to remain, lead the people away from the true faith.”1

Phinehas to the rescue

Yes, in the heat of the discussion, the immediate reaction was to go right ahead and simply wage war. But instead, somehow it was decided that first a delegation would be sent to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. Representatives from each of the western tribes would go as a team and inquiry would be made of these brethren as to why they had erected such an altar.

Remember Phinehas, the brave man who had distinguished himself by zealously halting the idolatrous Baal-peor disaster in Numbers 25:1–9? He was now the one entrusted with leading the delegation. Here was obviously a decisive man of action—yet how did he handle this particular mission, and what kind of verbal appeal did he make?

We read in Joshua 22:15–20 that the delegation expressed deep concern that the building of the altar constituted a trespass against the Lord to rebel against Him. They reminded the brethren about the plague that had come upon Israel because of the iniquity of Peor and the iniquitous robbery of Achan that had brought the wrath of God upon all Israel, rendering him and his family worthy of death by stoning. Solemn, sobering comparisons!

The invitation was made to come and worship at the Lord’s designated tabernacle in Shiloh and a final appeal urged them to no longer rebel against the Lord and His people by having their own altar.

Strong words indeed! Yet, thankfully, Phinehas and the delegation exercised the patience to take the time to wait for their brethren to respond.

The reasonable explanation

“Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh answered, and said unto the heads of the thousands of Israel, the Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord, (save us not this day,) that we have built us an altar to turn from following the Lord, or if to offer thereon burnt-offering or meat-offering, or if to offer peace-offerings thereon, let the Lord himself require it; And if we have not rather done it for fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the Lord: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord. Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice: but that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before him with our burnt-offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace-offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no part in the Lord. Therefore said we, that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say again, Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt-offerings, nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between us and you. God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn this day from following the Lord, to build an altar for burnt-offerings, for meat-offerings, or for sacrifices, beside the altar of the Lord our God that is before his tabernacle” (Joshua 22:21–29).

The beauty of reasoning together

What was the result of the explanation given by the eastern tribes?

“And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spake, it pleased them. And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the children of Manasseh, This day we perceive that the Lord is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the Lord: now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord. And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the princes, returned from the children of Reuben, and from the children of Gad, out of the land of Gilead, unto the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought them word again. And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt. And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God” (verses 30–34).

A happy ending! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all disputes among brethren and sisters would end so successfully? How easy it is to jump to conclusions about others and misinterpret their motives!

The Lord’s messenger warned in her day: “Envy, jealousy, suspicion, fault-finding, and false witnessing have existed. There are unconsecrated hearts among you, who turn everything said or done, even under the special direction of God, in a wrong way. The power of Satan’s temptations is strong upon these, and they view things in a perverted light. They please the enemy by their criticisms, and by making a man an offender for a word. In many of these cases that are criticized there is no actual sin; the suspicion is the result of the condition of the mind that entertains it. If one crosses their path, they have no unity or fellowship with him. They feel disgusted with all he may say or do. Those who have confidence in them share their feelings and sentiments. A spirit of retaliation is secretly at work; yet those who are thus creating disaffection and disunion, and planting the seeds of jealousy, all the while claim to be firm believers in the truth. Such do not practice the spirit of the truth. The leaven of their evil surmisings permeates the company where it exists, and God is dishonored, the principles of truth are degraded, and the Christian experience is marred and dwarfed.

“Now, is it not high time to change this order of things, and seek true repentance. This unsanctified element has weakened the church, and given a large place to the devil. Is not this something to repent of, something to bring us to the foot of the cross in deepest humiliation, until Jesus shall be found of us, and be chosen as our guide, our counselor, our Alpha and Omega? He is the Rock that is higher than we.

. . . There is hope for the erring; it is not too late for wrongs to be righted.”2


“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

How are we to approach difficult and delicate subjects?

There are times in life when someone has hurt us—maybe unknowingly and without any evil intentions whatsoever. But he or she has hurt us nonetheless and we feel impressed that somehow we really need to address the issue. After all, Matthew 18:15 tells us that we can go ahead and do this: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”

But how?

“Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass: Because I will publish the name of the Lord: ascribe ye greatness unto our God” (Deuteronomy 32:1–3).

The Lord here declares that even doctrinal subjects need to be given gently, with words distilled as the dew upon the tender herb. What happens if you bombard delicate plants with torrential rain? They can become totally uprooted and wash away. The same thing is true with new souls—and even with established friends.

High-tech, but out of touch?

Let’s face reality. Today we live in a fast-paced world. We think we just don’t have time to spend in a lot of extraneous conversation (or so we assume). We think we are being super-efficient by texting or emailing when, in some cases, it really would be more appropriate to speak face-to-face. After all, we manage to convince ourselves, surely we are just saving precious time.

In reality, however, might it actually end up that we don’t have time to spend in repairing the tremendous damage that can result by hasty, thoughtless communication? This is something we need to consider. . . .

Dr. Mike Bechtle recently wrote a book entitled, You Can’t Text a Tough Conversation. The title speaks for itself. But in the book the author explains that the deeper meaning of communication is largely lost in today’s society. Sometimes it is only an illusion that we are in touch with one another—because unfortunately, body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are absent when we text or tweet. We cannot see how the other person is responding to what we are saying, and we can easily miscommunicate and offend people as a result. Emoticons or emojis help, of course, but often they are not enough to make up for the loss. Let’s recall the example of Jesus:

“Even the crowd that so often thronged His steps was not to Christ an indiscriminate mass of human beings. He spoke directly to every mind and appealed to every heart. He watched the faces of His hearers, marked the lighting up of the countenance, the quick, responsive glance, which told that truth had reached the soul.”3

The other person’s perspective

Another factor that comes into play is that today we live in a more global environment. The world is smaller than ever, and we frequently find ourselves in contact with people from different geographical areas.

The result has of course been enriching to all of us. Yet there are some communication tips we should realize. Back in 1959, anthropologist Edward Hall identified some distinctions between the way members of various cultures deliver messages. For example:

The self-disclosure and direct, straight-talk appreciated by some will likely come across as aggressive and insensitive in others where subtlety and indirectness are valued instead.

Some tend to convey information in explicit verbal messages. Self-expression, persuasiveness, clear, eloquent speech, and verbal fluency are considered assets. But others rely on time, place, relationship, and situation to convey their message and may refrain even from saying “no” directly. Listeners fill in the blanks around the point and read between the lines of what is being said. This approach is designed to avoid upsetting people and works fine wherever it is understood—but less so where it is not.

The result of these different styles of communication is, of course, a greater risk of miscommunication—and the enemy of souls monopolizes on this to cause confusion. He paints a twisted picture from what was actually intended, taking fiendish glee in causing discord and strife among those who genuinely intend to be in harmony.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in the vast realm of communication—but it gives a taste of the challenge we face when we seek to love one another in a multi-cultural society.

The key, of course, is Jesus Christ—looking to Him and following in His footsteps. He is willing to help us, but we need to realize our limitations and repent when we realize we have miscommunicated with someone and possibly hurt him or her in the process.

“Few are willing to follow the Saviour’s example of meekness and humility. Many ask the Lord to humble them, but are unwilling to submit to the needful discipline. When the test comes, when trials or even annoyances occur, the heart rebels, and the tongue utters words that are like poisoned arrows or blasting hail.”4

How can we learn to communicate better?

This is not simply something that can be pasted on the outside; it needs to radiate from within. The best communication is generated from the converted heart.

“Incorrect speech, wrong habits, must be overcome. God would have every man correct in speech, correct in habits, possessing knowledge that will give him a standing place among men. . . . Let us determine to put ourselves to the task of learning in the school of Christ.”5

“The religion of Jesus never degrades the receiver, nor makes him coarse and rough; nor does it make him unkind in thought and feeling toward those for whom Christ died. . . .

“Some are in danger of making the externals all-important, of overestimating the value of mere conventionalities. The results will not warrant the expenditure of time and thought given to these matters. Some who are trained to give much attention to these things will manifest little true respect or sympathy for anything, however excellent, that in any way fails to meet their standard of conventionality. Anything that would encourage ungenerous criticism, a disposition to notice and expose every defect or error, is wrong. It fosters distrust and suspicion, which are contrary to the character of Christ, and detrimental to the mind thus exercised. Those who are engaged in this work gradually depart from the true spirit of Christianity. While the gospel constantly sanctifies and ennobles the receiver, it will never lead us to cherish selfish and exalted ideas of our own ability or merit in contrast with that of others. It never nurtures pride and self-esteem. Every soul who sees Christ as He is, will abase self. He will exalt the Saviour as the ‘chiefest among ten thousand,’ the One ‘altogether lovely’ (The Song of Solomon 5:10, 16).

“The most essential, enduring education is that which will develop the nobler qualities, which will encourage a spirit of universal kindliness.”6

Ancient insights for today

“How forcible are right words! but what doth your arguing reprove? Do ye imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, which are as wind? Yea, ye overwhelm the fatherless, and ye dig a pit for your friend” (Job 6:25–27).

“With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding. With him is wisdom and strength, he hath counsel and understanding. . . . He removeth away the speech of the trusty, and taketh away the understanding of the aged” (Job 12:12, 13, 20).

What about if someone does not communicate nicely to me?

“Give love to them that need it most. The most unfortunate, those who have the most disagreeable temperaments, need our love, our tenderness, our compassion. Those who try our patience need most love. We pass through the world only once; any good thing we can do, we should do most earnestly, untiringly, with the same spirit as is stated of Christ in His work. He will not fail nor be discouraged. The rough, stubborn, sullen dispositions are the ones who need help the most. How can they be helped? Only by that love practiced in dealing with them which Christ revealed to fallen men. Treat them, you say, as they deserve? What if Christ had treated us thus? He, the undeserving, was treated as we deserve. Still we are treated by Christ with grace and love as we did not deserve, but as He deserved. Treat some characters as you think they richly deserve, and you will cut off from them the last thread of hope, spoil your influence, and ruin the soul. Will it pay? No, I say no, a hundred times no. Bind these souls who need all the help it is possible for you to give them close to a loving, sympathizing, pitying heart, overflowing with Christlike love, and you will save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins. Had we not better try the love process?”7

“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Colossians 4:6).

1 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 518.
2 The Review and Herald, December 18, 1888.
3 Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 73.
4 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 176.
5 Medical Ministry, p. 200.
6 Christian Education, pp. 201, 202.
7 The Spalding and Magan Collection, pp. 144, 145.