Starting a fire requires fuel and something to ignite the fuel. In particular, fires need heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any of those three ingredients and no fire will burn. When it comes to the fire of drama, whisperers are the fuel.
For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
The word whisperer in Proverbs 26:20 is the Hebrew word nirgan, referring to a person who speaks softly and typically maliciously. We would call this person a backbiter, a slanderer, or a gossip. Whisperers communicate in a low voice for the sake of privacy, but there is nothing discreet about the consequences of their whispers. Whispers burn like logs on a fire and keep conflict going. That’s the point of the proverb: For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. Where no one is off in the corner sharing the new juicy detail they heard, the fire of drama dies out. Secret, personal, quiet whispers are the fuel of fights.
So who are whisperers and how can we identify them?
It’s easy to envision downright mean and snotty teenage girls whispering crassly about a classmate, caricatured in sitcoms and movies like Mean Girls. It’s also easy to visualize those girls all grown up, now with more money, wearing fancier clothes and better makeup, badmouthing and backbiting their neighbors over tea and finger sandwiches.
But not all whisperers wear their ill-intent so grossly. Some whisperers are more subtle, stoking the fire with sympathy and solace. We can identify these whisperers as those who:
- see drama unfolding and jump in to offer their support. They ask for specific details in order to commiserate (or so they can better pray for the situation), confirming the victim and condemning the wrongdoer, all with the pretense of great care.
- think they are helping by passing on information. They want others to be prepared and not caught off-guard by finding out at an inopportune time or from an unreliable source.
- claim they are being kind by not talking to the person directly. They believe it would be mean to tell it to the person’s face, after all, they wouldn’t want to embarrass someone or hurt another’s feelings.
- present themselves like the only ones who understand.
- leave other things undone or who aren’t responsible for much in the first place (cf. [1 Timothy 5:11-15]). Free time enables fixers, with nothing better to do than than collect, coordinate and disperse bits of idle data.
- seek out weak and gullible targets. They hide from the strong and avoid sharing with those who they suspect would stop them. They don’t seek out wise counselors because wise counsel isn’t what they’re after. This, of course, is part of the reason they whisper, so the strong won’t overhear and shut them down.
- like to reveal the secrets of others (cf. Proverbs 20:19 and expose the sin of others (cf. Proverbs 17:9).
No matter what posture a person takes, flashing lights and loud alarms should go off in our heads if someone begins talking to us with phrases like, “You wouldn’t believe…” or “Did you hear about…?” or “I don’t know if this is true or not, but….”
Whisperers feed the fire. Yet without sticks, there’s nothing to burn and the fire goes out. So if the whisperer shuts his mouth, the drama dies out and the fire is extinguished.
On a practical note, we can’t forget that someone who is willing to whisper to us is probably willing to whisper about us. If they share someone else’s secrets they will eventually do the same with ours. They may not do it in the same hour, but if that’s their character, what makes us think our friendship is different, especially if and when that friendship ends?