Proverbs is not quite written in poetry, but there are similarities. Many of the couplets in Proverbs show poetic feature, and the result is something that, while clear in Hebrew, needs a little help to be clear in English.
This is why you will find the ESV render this verse as “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” while the NASB renders thusly “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.”
Which is right? The answer is “Both.” The comparative structure can go either way, and differing Hebrew experts give differing answers. I cannot claim skill enough to rule here. You should just be aware that your Bible, nor your pastor-teacher’s Bible, is wrong. The translators just took Hebrew from different professors.
A further note of interest in the language is the concept given to the word “word.” While NASB and ESV leave it as word, NLT takes it as “timely advice.” NIV goes right ‘round the bend and renders it as “ruling,” holding on to the idea that Proverbs is addressed from one king to another. While that background is accurate, you lose some of the applicability by making this only about rulings.
Now, on to the content itself. The gold and silver, even with the apples involved, is more likely about artistic beauty than about food. Or, if the stomach rules the eye, these are golden delicious apples on nice plates. Either way, again, almost does not matter. The concept is something exceptionally pleasing and hard to come by.
So is the word fitly spoken, or presented properly. A good word at the right time is not the easiest of things to come by. Though it is a remarkable help, it is not the most common possession.
Further, and this is why I like the mixed image of fruit and gold, it is not an accidental moment. Consider this:
1. Fruit takes time to grow. Apple trees must be planted, tended, and then produce in good season. One rarely finds an accidental apple. It may be accidental to this generation, but was intentional in the last.
2. Jewelry, art, precious metalwork require skill. They require training, practice. Though there are natural artists who need less practice, all need training.
Now, apply this idea. What do we see?
If we are going to be the refreshing blessing of people who speak rightly, then it’s going to take time to cultivate and craft. Not to learn guile and subterfuge—that’s the work of Washington DC, not of God-honoring people.
Rather, we need to so soak the perfect words, from the perfect Word, so that we are able to present the fit word in its good time. This is our joy and privilege.