Proverbs 25:11 is found in a four-verse cluster of similes:
“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.
Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear.
Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master.
Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of gifts never given” (verses 11–14).
In order to help give context to Proverbs 25:11, let us reverse the order of the verses and paraphrase them in a form that is a bit less poetic:
“A person who promises gifts but never gives them is like clouds and wind without rain.
A trustworthy messenger is like a cold drink at harvest time; both are refreshing.
The rebuke of a wise person should be just as pleasant to the listening ear as earrings of gold are pleasant to the physical ear.
Proper words are like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
All of these similes take natural or physical phenomena that everyone would recognize as good or bad and then applies them to human behavior and gives a spiritual judgment based on wisdom:
Verse 14: In such a dry climate as Israel has, rain is a gift. When clouds and wind come, they seem to promise rain. When they do not deliver, it is a disappointment. The lesson is, don’t promise gifts and then fail to give them.
Verse 13: A cold drink is very refreshing to a person who is working hard. The lesson is that a faithful person can be very refreshing to the person who is counting on him or her to complete a task.
Verse 12: Rebuke is often offensive to the one who receives it. However, this is the wrong response. Just as earrings of gold are an enhancement to the ear, so a genuine rebuke should be a benefit to the listener.
Verse 11: A wise word, spoken at a proper time, is a thing of beauty. The NIV translates the verse this way: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.” A “ruling” is something we normally associate with some kind of official judgment, perhaps in a court of law. When a person goes to court, he expects that the rulings will be correct. When a judge or a court gives a faulty ruling or, worse, a corrupt ruling, it is an ugly thing. Flawed rulings are inappropriate and do not belong in a court of justice. On the other hand, when the judge delivers a correct ruling and justice is served, it is a beautiful, attractive thing. A correct ruling in a court means that the ruling is attractive and the court is attractive as well. It is like apples of gold in settings of silver—both are valuable and beautiful.
Other translations, including the ESV, use the phrase a word fitly spoken. In this translation there is no indication of an official ruling but simply a word that is appropriate for the setting. Regardless of the context, an improper word or an incorrect judgment can be a terrible thing. Scripture warns of the terrible destruction that the tongue can cause (see James 3:6.) A proper word at the proper time is a wonderful thing.
The meaning of the term translated “apples of gold” is uncertain. It could refer to a number of other fruits including citrons, quinces, oranges, or apricots. All of these have a yellow-to-orange color, which could be thought of, in a poetic sense, as “golden.” So the verse might be talking about golden-colored fruit served in a silver bowl. This would certainly be quite appetizing and pleasant to the eye.
More likely, apples of gold in settings of silver refers to some type of artistic carving. A column of silver adorned by carved fruit of gold would be an opulent and beautiful piece of art. Each element would enhance the other. You would not expect to find a solid golden fruit hung on a piece of old wood, nor would you expect a silver setting to be adorned by fruit carved from some inexpensive material. A silver setting with golden fruit is about as opulent as you could imagine in ancient times. A correct word, spoken in the proper context is just as beautiful, opulent, and valuable.
Only some parents can give their children trust funds, estates, and huge fortunes as an inheritance. But every parent can give their children fitting words—encouraging words, truth at the proper time, and good advice. This will be just as valuable as “apples of gold in settings of silver” at today’s precious metal prices.