The word, “tongue” is often used in Scriptures to refer to the words we speak. This is a figure of speech known as metonymy in which a word is replaced with another that is closely related to it. A good example is, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Here, the “pen” represents the written word and the “sword” represents military might. Similarly, the statement in Proverbs 25: 15b – “a soft tongue breaketh the bone” – means that wise and gentle words are able to influence and overcome the hardest of hearts.
The tongue is a seemingly insignificant part of the body. Yet it “boasteth great things”. Rightly did the apostle James warn of its vicious and destructive power: “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. 7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: 8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3: 5-8).
We use our tongue daily. Sadly, we also use our tongue freely. When hurt or offended, or when we do not get our way, we are quick to respond with angry and malicious words. In our unguarded moments, we often speak evil of those we envy or dislike. No wonder James calls the tongue, “a fire, a world of iniquity … an unruly evil, full of deadly poison”.
“Who can measure the evils which arise from scandal, and slander, and profaneness, and perjury, and falsehood, and blasphemy, and obscenity, and the inculcation of error, by the tongue? Who can gauge the amount of broils, and contentions, and strifes, and wars, and suspicions, and enmities, and alienations among friends and neighbours, which it produces? Who can number the evils produced by the ‘honeyed’ words of the seducer; or by the tongue of the eloquent in the maintenance of error, and the defence of wrong? If all men were dumb, what a portion of the crimes of the world would soon cease! If all men would speak only that which ought to be spoken, what a change would come over the face of human affairs!” (Albert Barnes).
In his epistle, the apostle also tells us that one can gauge a man’s faith by his speech. If we profess to be a Christian, but fail to curb our tongue, our “religion is vain” or worthless (Jas. 1: 26). This means that if we speak without restraint, we may not even be saved! On the other hand, when we govern our tongue, we govern ourselves: “For in many things, we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (Jas. 3: 2).
What other lessons can we learn from Scriptures concerning the tongue or the words we speak?
o Our words can save or kill
The power of the tongue is reiterated in the Old Testament: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Prov. 18: 21). Words can save a life. Some examples – a judge or jury clearing a suspect of murder; a counsellor giving hope to one contemplating suicide; a doctor prescribing a life-saving treatment to a seriously-ill patient. On the other hand, our words can provoke others to anger, sow discord, tear down relationships, destroy reputations, ruin lives and even kill.
“A man may do a great deal of good, or a great deal of hurt, both to others and to himself, according to the use he makes of his tongue. Many a one has been his own death by a foul tongue, or the death of others by a false tongue; and, on the contrary, many a one has saved his own life, or procured the comfort of it, by a prudent gentle tongue, and saved the lives of others by a seasonable testimony or intercession for them. And, if by our words we must be justified or condemned, death and life are, no doubt, in the power of the tongue” (Matthew Henry).
Words are powerful. We can use our lips for good or for evil. As Christians, let us choose to honour God with our lips. Let our words communicate love and grace. Speak to comfort, cheer and minister to another.
o Our words proceed from the heart
The words we speak reveal the condition of our heart. In Matthew 12: 34-35, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Calling them “vipers”, he chided them for their evil thoughts and actions which proceeded from their wicked, unbelieving hearts: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things”. The word, “bringeth” has the idea of the heart’s spontaneous response.
Our heart is the fountain of both our words and actions. The words we speak stem from the affections and thoughts of our heart. Let us ask ourselves: What do our words reveal about us? Do we speak kind and gracious words? Or do we speak hurtful and malicious words? May our words reflect a renewed heart that has been sanctified by God’s grace.
o Our words justify or condemn us
Closing His address to His wicked hearers, Jesus warned them that God would judge them for “every idle word”: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12: 36-37). The word “idle” in the original has the idea not only of vain or empty but also thoughtless, false, wicked and injurious, such as a false witness against a neighbour.
None can hide from the Lord’s all-seeing eye. Our words will testify for or against us in the day of judgment. Let us therefore guard our lips from speaking idly or wickedly.
(… to be continued)