The ancient sages highly revered elegant and concise language. In Proverbs 25:11–14, Solomon presented a series of symbolic statements concerning speech with succinct sophistication. He began by saying, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, ESV). With this maxim, Solomon stressed the importance of good counsel.
The word translated as “fitly” in Proverbs 25:11 occurs only here in the Old Testament, making its exact meaning somewhat unsure. Some translators link it to an Arabic word meaning “time.” If this is accurate, a word fitly spoken seems to imply “a word spoken at the right time” (CSB) or “at the proper time” (NASB). The New Living Translation agrees with this meaning: “Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket.” The New English Bible also aligns with this idea, describing the word spoken “fitly” as being “in season.”
Other translators associate the original Hebrew term with a word that means “wheel,” thus rendering the modifier as “well-turned” or “well-spoken” as in “artfully expressed.” The NET Bible concurs: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver, so is a word skillfully spoken.”
The “apples of gold in a setting of silver” seem to refer to exquisitely crafted ornamental jewelry or artwork. The language evokes a design that has been etched, sculpted, or engraved in silver, like filigree. This interpretation supports the idea that well-spoken words have attractive and valuable qualities because skill and artistry have gone into fashioning them.
Proverbs 25:12 continues the jewelry imagery: “To one who listens, valid criticism is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry” (NLT). Just as a beautifully constructed filigree necklace is pleasing to the eye, so is a word fitly spoken to the ear. The delicacy of the piece attracts the eye, just as a carefully chosen comment pricks the heart and mind.
“Especially to give a reproof with discretion, and so as to make it acceptable,” explains Bible commentator Matthew Henry. “If it be well given, by a wise reprover, and well taken, by an obedient ear, it is an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold, very graceful and well becoming both the reprover and the reproved; both will have their praise, the reprover for giving it so prudently and the reproved for taking it so patiently and making a good use of it. Others will commend them both, and they will have satisfaction in each other; he who gave the reproof is pleased that it had the desired effect, and he to whom it was given has reason to be thankful for it as a kindness” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson, 1994, p. 1,012).
Proverbs 15:23 agrees that a word fitly spoken pleases both the speaker and listener: “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!”
The Bible is abundantly clear that our words are important. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” says Proverbs 18:21. What we say can either destroy lives or save them (Proverbs 12:6). Jesus said, “And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you” (Matthew 12:36–37, NLT).
The apostle Paul taught that fitly spoken words—words that fit the occasion—build up those who hear them: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV). We can either tear people down with our words or let our conversation become a channel of grace and life as Jesus Christ did: “Everyone spoke well of him [Jesus] and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22, NLT).
A word fitly spoken will give grace to the hearer and be attractive, pleasant, desirable, and full of God’s wisdom. Paul told the Colossians, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). Even a challenging word of rebuke or discipline can be phrased so gently and tactfully that it is accepted and even prized as a valuable jewel. When we make use of carefully crafted words that dignify rather than denigrate the hearer, not only do we bless the recipient, but we benefit as well with the joy of knowing our words were well-received and put to good use.