Apples of Gold and Apples of Discord
I am always miffed when fellow Christians misunderstand a certain apple in the Bible (if you’re thinking Garden of Eden, don’t; those weren’t apples). Before I explain exactly what I mean, let me tell a little story to give some background.
The “apple of discord” comes down to us from Greek mythology. As the story goes, there was a celebration up on Mount Olympus (the wedding feast of Achilles’ parents, in fact), and everyone was invited except for Eris, goddess of discord. Of course, no one would blame you for leaving someone with a title like that off of your guest list, but Eris was quite upset about the whole elitist business. To get even, Eris crept to the edge of the banquet and hurled a golden apple into the midst of the guests. It landed with a crash among the plates and goblets, rolling ominously along the length of the vast banquet table, with a heavy sound of metal on wood, every eye following its progress, until finally it came to rest between the three chief goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. All three noticed an inscription on the apple: “to the farest.” Naturally, an argument arose about which could be the intended recipient and finally it was decided that an impartial human man should be made to judge, so Paris, prince of Troy, was chosen for the task. After much deliberation and promised rewards from each goddess, Paris ruled in favor of Aphrodite, who rewarded him with the most beautiful (mortal) woman in the world. Unfortunately for Paris, and everyone else, that woman was already married—her name was Helen.
I’ve rehearsed that story because I believe God speaks of the same apple. What’s more, I think He recommends its employment, tempered, of course, with wisdom. I have Proverbs 25:11 in mind: “A word fitly spoken / is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (ESV). These are the apples I alluded to above, the one’s I sometimes see brothers and sisters misunderstanding. I have heard the verse bandied about, both in personal exchanges and more generally, as an exhortation to Christian politeness, sensitivity, or pleasantness—i.e. politically correct discourse. It works as the conservative Christian’s great click of the tongue and wag of the finger when some zealous bible-believer starts saying something unpopular or seeker-unfriendly.
That understanding of the proverb, though, fails to consider its amplification (the repetition with emphasis common to Hebrew poetry) in verse 12: “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold / is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” It gives us an explanation of the previous verse and what it means for words to be fitly spoken. Counsel and reproof are the concerns of these proverbs. The “words” in 25:11 are not “fitly spoken” because they are like gold—pleasing to the eye and to the touch—but are of the worth and quality of gold because they are fitly spoken. The words rendered as “fitly” in the ESV can also be translated as “in the right circumstances” or “in the right time.” A word being fitly spoken depends on a wise reprover who knows when to speak it. This more important requirement not only trumps the more polite understanding mentioned above, it contradicts it.
Saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said often means saying the unpopular thing—reproofs are always inconvenient truths. Which is precisely why we should understand the golden apples of Proverbs 25 as analogous to Eris’ golden apple. Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect (few are), but sometimes the reproof spoken in its right time has to be hurled into a group of revelers without ears to hear. There is scriptural support for this in the tactics of Nathan the prophet before King David. The fact that he smuggled his rebuke in a parable shows us just how aware he was of the unpopularity and unattractiveness of what he had to say, but he hurled his golden apple anyway.
Why am I talking about this here? Because we have seen the public opinion turn entirely against words fitly spoken, to the point that even some in the Church counsel political correctness and politically-motivated sensitivity. Case in point, the discourse surrounding homosexual unmarriage (see this recent KC post for a fine example of golden apples in that arena). Or, more immediately, the trial of abortion doctor, Kermit Gosnell. The media’s silence about the trial and the work of many Christians to publicize the details and explain their significance is a fine example of the Church seeing the need for golden apples and a willingness to hurl a few. That is a discipline we need to cultivate, without also cultivating the fear of criticism or bad reception. We are to be a savour of life to the living, but a smell of death to those who are perishing. Just so, our golden apples can be apples of discord to those who need rebuke or take council with the wicked. Not that perishing is permanent; Scrooge repents, but only after he is faced with the vision of his own grave. The proverb does not give us license to speak without grace and without love, but it is the hard words that can recall the dead to life. Go out, then, and break up the false wedding feasts in expectation of the one true marriage supper of the Lamb. Speak boldly, then, in the confidence that words fitly spoken are more than honeyed words, they are apples of gold in settings of silver—treasures with an inherent value that depends not on the fans they make but on the lives they save.