Character Studies in the Book of Proverbs – Part 6: The Talebearer

Man is by nature an inquisitive being. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It is a God-given attribute, which helps us to learn and develop through life and to acquire the knowledge that is necessary to enable us to function as God intended. We can, however, misuse the faculties which God has given, and we recall it was the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ beyond that which was permitted, and at the instigation of the adversary, that first brought sin into the world, Gen. 3 .5.

We have already noticed in our studies in the Proverbs, that the use or abuse of knowledge often determines the respective characters of the wise man and the fool – how they each handle the things which they ‘know’. On our journey through life, we acquire all sorts of knowledge in a variety of ways. A great deal is accumulated in an encyclopedic manner and stored in the memory. We also learn many things that can be used in a beneficial way for ourselves and others. Or we can use knowledge gained, in a malicious and damaging way to the detriment of all concerned.

The character before us in this present study is neither a new nor an endangered species! When the Levitical law was given, included in those instructions for the daily walk of the people of God was a clear prohibition. ‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people’, Lev. 19. 16. This ‘first mention’ sets the tone for the kind of behaviour we can expect from those who engage in this activity. We observe this character ‘going up and down’, flitting from one to another like a restless fly. Trying to find an ear prepared to listen to some snippet, some story, often embellished and usually unedifying, regarding another believer. Notice too, the talebearer of Leviticus was ‘among’ the Lord’s people. Not a stranger but one of the family, a brother, a sister, well-liked and accepted. Quite often the centre of attention, regularly invited to the homes of others, yet sowing discord among the people of God. Rather like the unregenerate Athenians who ‘spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing, Acts 17. 21. Or those in 1 Timothy chapter 5 verse 13 who ‘learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not’. The context is that of ‘younger widows’, but sadly, the admonition is appropriate to all – brethren and sisters!

It would seem the warning of Leviticus was timely, if sadly unheeded by some, since the wise man of Proverbs saw the need to challenge his audience on account of the same pernicious behaviour. In chapter 11 verse 13, the talebearer is seen as one who lacks integrity. He, together with another, has been told of a matter in confidence – something to be retained as a subject for private prayer. The man ‘of a faithful spirit’ behaves impeccably. The matter is concealed, shared only with the Lord, a burden carried for another. Without doubt, he will receive a blessing. The talebearer takes a different route. Instead of heading for the throne of grace, he immediately charts his course in the direction of another believer. With a self-important air, and with lowered voice, he betrays the confidence of his friend. The damage done is irrevocable. Words spoken cannot be recalled. Of course, he has made it clear that what has been revealed is in complete confidence! He will then seize the first opportunity to tell another, but this time it is a slightly decorated version of events!

We are told that a man, or a woman, is known by the company they keep. In chapter 16, there are principles for godly living clearly set out by the wise man. There are a number of characters here that have occupied our attention in previous studies. However, in verses 27 to 29 a rather unsavoury group is found who, sadly, have no ear for the wisdom given. Here we find the ungodly man, the froward man and the violent man. But wait – who is that standing between the froward and the violent in verse 28? It is none other than the talebearer, but here in this present company he has disguised himself, he will not act openly, he is just a whisperer. A word in the ear of another, a knowing glance, a raised eyebrow. It is enough to cause doubt and suspicion until his objective is achieved, and he succeeds in driving a wedge between those who were good friends. It is interesting to note that in Romans chapter 1 verse 29, the whisperer is found in exactly the same kind of company as in Proverbs chapter 16; he will gravitate to his own kind. How sad that sometimes the features seen in this character are even in evidence among the people of God!

Our next encounter with the talebearer is in chapter 18. In this chapter a number of characters are speaking, and we are reminded of James chapter 3 where the tongue, its use and misuse, comes under scrutiny. In verses 6 and 7 of Proverbs chapter 18, the fool is heard expressing opinions in his usual manner, loud, ignorant and provocative. Nobody is taken in by him, it is all too obvious what he is. In verse 8, however, the talebearer speaks. His approach is far more subtle. His words are well chosen and well directed, sharp and incisive. He knows exactly what to say to inflict the most hurt, to have maximum effect. How often have such words resulted in private tears and silent misery as they ‘go down into the innermost parts'?

In chapter 18 verse 8, and in chapter 26 verse 22, where the words are repeated, it has been suggested by some that the word ‘wounds’ could better be translated ‘dainty morsels’. 11 A search through Strong’s Concordance and O.T. Word Studies by Spiros Zodhiates, found no particular support for the change, but if there is merit in it, then it throws a different light on the verses above. It shows the talebearer imparting some particularly ‘tasty’ details, readily received by the listener, savoured and enjoyed, ready to be passed on at the first opportunity.

There are just two more encounters with this man in the Proverbs. The first is in chapter 20 verse 19, which gives us an insight into his mode of operation in order that we may be on our guard. Then finally in chapter 26 verse 20, where we are instructed in how to deal with this offensive individual.

Secrets and the confidences of others are this man’s stock-in-trade. Without access to these he is rendered ineffective. So, how does he persuade others to confide in him? Chapter 20 verse 19 gives the answer. He flatters them! He tells them things that they like to hear, he appeals to their pride. This may go on over a period of time until the trap is fully prepared. The unsuspecting victim is taken in; surely this man can be trusted, and he is so caring, so sympathetic. However, no sooner is the confidence gained than it is betrayed. The wise man’s counsel is simple and apposite, ‘meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips’. Don’t get involved, don’t be taken in, and, most of all, don’t tell him anything.

There is a need for discernment among the people of God. We must be able to distinguish between those who have a genuine interest in our well-being, who share our burdens, strengthen our hands and carry our confidences to the grave. While there are others who simply wish to make merchandise of our circumstances.

The final glimpse of our character is in chapter 26 verses 20 to 22. The wise man envisages a situation ‘where there is no talebearer’. He draws an analogy between a fire, fuelled by wood and coals, and strife fuelled by the talebearer’s nefarious art. To put out the fire or remove the strife, take away that which each feeds upon. How much bitterness and division would be avoided among the people of God if the talebearer was denied access, if ears were closed to his or her words? If we made it our ambition to promote only that which was of positive good in our brethren and sisters, if our conversation was more of Christ and less of each other, maybe the talebearer would be unable to operate amongst us.


1 RV, NIV.


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