The Power of the Tongue
For the past couple of mornings, I’ve been waking up realizing that I haven’t needed my alarm clock because lately we’ve had a noisier (but cuter) alarm clock waking us up an hour or two earlier than usual!
Little Luca wakes us up bright and early and loves to tell us about how good he slept in the night (sometimes can be a little insensitive when mom and dad didn’t have a good sleep)! But even then, Emily and I love cuddling with him and asking him questions and listening to him answer them as he babbles on and on…and we just cannot wait to hear his first official words!
It’s crazy to think that Luca’s first official word will likely be one of the words that Emily and I have repeatedly said to him or around him! This is why I always say “daddy” to Luca, but when he’s hungry and grumpy he usually mumbles “umumumum” (which is when Emily gives me the look of victory)…
Either way, Luca’s first words will probably melt our hearts, yet I dread the day when some of his words could very well do the opposite because kids are cute little sinners right…
But that’s the power of words—they can either build up or tear down; they can either give life or do the opposite.
Just think about how God created the world—he spoke the earth into creation (Hebrews 11:3). He said, “let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26) as he spoke mankind into being.
Yet, think about how the fall of mankind into sin happened. The serpent spoke to Eve and cast doubt on God’s words, which led to the first lie and the first sin, resulting in death.
Despite that, however, think all the more about how God brought about His plan of salvation for His people—he spoke promises to His people, which was eventually embodied in the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), Jesus Christ!
So how do we handle the power of our words, if our tongues are guilty and capable of either building up or tearing down because of sin?
The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about this, so let’s start with Proverbs 18:21 and what it says about the power of the tongue (which is what I titled this sermon):
The Power of the Tongue
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (18:21).
Those who love to use it, or employ the power of the tongue, will reap the fruit of either death or life. This will be our roadmap for today because we will look at what the book of Proverbs says about the power of the tongue and what it manifests itself in—as well as what they lead to.
In doing so, I will point out four observations, four applications, and two questions at the end. But the first observation I’d like to point out is that the power of the tongue is evidenced by the power of wicked words.
The Power of Wicked Words
“By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown” (11:11).
Nations of old have been overthrown due to their wickedness (Deuteronomy 29:23), and here it is attributed to the wicked mouth. Not only do the power of wicked words overthrow cities, but they also burn like fire.
“A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire” (16:27).
James 3 picks up this idea and talks about how the small tongue is a fire that can burn your body and soul (James 3:5-6)! A few verses later, James also talks about how that fiery tongue is notoriously capable of blessing God while cursing men, which makes as much sense as drinking fresh and salty water from the same fountain (James 3:10-12)!
“Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent [burning] lips with an evil heart. Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbours deceit in his heart; when he speaks graciously, believe him not, for there are seven abominations in his heart; though his hatred be covered with deception, his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly” (26:23-26).
Not only do wicked words have the power to overthrow cities and burn like fire, but they have the power to hide their true form. Isn’t that’s scary?
Picture this. This person is someone who can smile at you and talk to you and maybe even laugh with you, while deep down is actually burning with hatred against you and wants nothing but your demise. Yet they deceive and cover it up by saying nice things to you.
Talk about the opposite of speaking truth in love—that is, speaking falsehood in hatred. Flashes of Genesis 3 once again But the promise is clear for those who don’t give in to the lie: the glaze on the pot will wear off eventually, and the deception will be exposed (Hebrews 4:13).
But beyond masking hatred with gracious words, here is another form of deception that masks itself with humorous words:
“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, ‘I am only joking!’” (26:18-19).
Have you ever had this madman moment? Have you ever mindlessly shot hurtful comments at someone and said “I’m just joking” afterwards? Perhaps one of the easiest and most common ways that we shoot people down today (which is more often intentional than not), is by playing off our fiery, destructive words as “joking.”
Yet the root of this is deceit and dishonesty—listen to this next proverb:
“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer [slanderer/gossip] separates close friends” (16:28).
Proverbs 18:24 notes that some friends stick closer than a brother. Yet, we find here that whisperers (slanderers) can separate these tight-knit friendships—gossip is so powerful that it breaks family ties! What’s worse is that gossip, as damaging as it is, is so deceptively satisfying:
“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (18:8; see also 26:22).
This proverb is so mightily important that it is repeated twice in the book of Proverbs.
Matt Mitchell explains in his book, Resisting Gossip, that delicious morsels are the most addictive snacks that we like to devour quickly; it tastes great going down, but it has lasting and poisonous effects deep down in our bodies (p.22-23).
In fact, this is what the power of wicked words offer: satisfaction like delicious morsels (much like the fruit in Genesis 3 that was pleasing to the eye)—but satisfying only to the point where you realize what the consequences are.
So we’ve seen that the power of wicked words can destroy cities, burn like fire, mask hatred with nice words, play off cheap shots as joking, and break close friendships through gossip—which is deceptively satisfying.
Yet, Proverbs makes it clear that the power of wicked words bear fruit, and the fruit of wicked words is death.
Fruit of Wicked Words: Death
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (13:3).
Here we see a characteristic of someone who employs wicked words—they have a big mouth. Not just in a general sense, but the emphasis here is that this person opens wide his lips to the point of death:
“A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul” (18:6-7).
Even then, the fool will not stop talking because in his mind, he is the only who is right and everyone else is wrong. And he does so to his physical and spiritual demise. This is not only for big-mouths and know-it-alls, but also for gossips and deceitful liars:
“A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish” (19:9).
Listen to the gravity of these words—they will not go unpunished; they will perish. The fruit of wicked words is death, so if you’re wise, take heed.
And this leads us to our third observation, in that the power of the tongue can also employ the power of wise words.
The Power of Wise Words
“There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel” (20:15).
Lips of knowledge are worth more than anything that money can buy. There are things that you can sell and afford to lose, but lips of knowledge are of priceless worth that you cannot afford to lose.
Beyond the power of untouchable treasure, lips of knowledge surround you with power: “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right” (16:13). “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend” (22:11).
Kings back then had absolute power, so these proverbs exhort the reader to speak righteously and graciously in order to gain favour with the most powerful person in existence. On top of kingly power, wise words have the power to do what physical strength cannot do:
“Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (12:25).
Even the smallest and weakest person can outmuscle the biggest and strongest person in the room by lifting the weight of a man’s soul through his good and wise words.
More than gladness, wise words lead to something much greater: the fruit of wise words is life.
Fruit of Wise Words: Life
“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (16:24).
Unlike tasty yet unhealthy snacks like gossip that kill you eventually, wise and gracious words are good and healthy foods that enrich both body and soul. Think of gracious words like healthy foods—even though you’d rather eat pizza and cheeseburgers, fruits and salads are better for your wellbeing in the long run.
“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (21:23).
That is, whoever keeps his mouth and tongue from saying wicked words that lead to death. But beyond choosing the healthy option and saving ourselves from trouble and death, our wise words can save others as well:
“The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers them” (12:6).
Words are powerful not only to destroy but to deliver. When people are steeped in gossip or lies, we need to remember that they are headed for the cliff—so we can actually use our tongues wisely for the sake of saving their lives. Instead of overcoming evil words with evil words, overcome their evil words with good words so that they can see the life that is in you!
The Apostle Paul picks up this idea in Romans 12:20-21 (see Proverbs 20:22; 25:21-22) and tells the believer to heap burning coals on their head—that is, to help them realize that they need to turn back and repent in order to find life!
The question for us is this: if we know that people who try to kill us with their words are headed to death and damnation, then will we just try to save ourselves? Or would we heed this proverb and try to save them as well by using our gracious words against their wicked words?
This proverb is such an amazing picture of the gospel in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners—that is, while we were still his enemies (Romans 5:8). If we are in Christ, then can’t we do the same with our enemies even as they wound us with their wicked words?
The power of the tongue can be used in such a life-giving way for those who are on their way to death, even as they themselves wait to kill. That’s the power of wise words, which arguably is more powerful than the power of wicked words.
So we’ve seen that the power of wicked words through gossip and deceit that can tear down cities and burn the bridges of friendships are satisfying like delicious morsels, but such satisfaction is temporary since the fruit of wicked words is death.
Meanwhile, the power of wise words that are beyond treasure and kingly authority are all the more satisfying because the fruit of wise words leads to life—not just for us, but for others as well.
With that said, I suggest four applications from the book of Proverbs that employ the power of the tongue wisely:
1. Be Slow to Speak
“The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” (12:16).
When your feelings are hurt, you have two choices in that moment: 1) be a fool and let the whole world know that you’re hurt and offended while risking hurting others more, or 2) be slow to speak and wisely ignore an insult in order to avoid hurting yourself and others—including your own perpetrator.
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (29:11).
If you ever want to hang up a 29:11 reference on your wall, I’d pick this one over Jeremiah because you can take this as is! When you get the urge to vent your anger, whether it’s to a friend or to Facebook, remember that only a fool headed for death would do such a thing—because the main goal of venting/ranting is to really hurt others with your hurt, be it in their face or behind their back.
Rather, be a wise person who is slow to speak and slow to anger because you know your sinful instincts will just hurt or destroy—rather, your goal is to heal and restore, even if it’s your own perpetrator.
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).
When we’re hurt by wicked words, we usually buy into the lie of being “healed” by immediately defending ourselves and venting/ranting our anger to pass it on to others rather than be slow to speak.
However, being slow to speak and being slow to anger is the first step to true healing and restoration for yourself and others. Is this what we truly want in the moment?
If we’re being honest, we’re not slow to speak often times because we want revenge rather than restoration. But if we’re wise, we will recognize from the Word of God that immediate responses and rash words are sword thrusts that don’t help anybody.
Wise people, be slow to speak. And when we do speak, 2) speak selectively.
2. Speak Selectively
“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (15:28).
Speaking selectively means taking the time to think carefully about our words before we say it, which means using discernment in order to speak wise words instead of wicked words.
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (26:4, see also 26:5).
Speak selectively by choosing wise words over the foolish words that you were hurt by. Otherwise, you are just joining the foolish train that is on route to death.
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (10:19).
Speaking selectively and choosing wise words might mean saying less words, sometimes even none in the moment—because the more words we utter, the more likely we are to hurt than heal.
And as we speak selectively, we would do well to 3) speak softly in the process.
3. Speak Softly
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).
Angry answers will only result in angry answers. But soft and gentle answers have a higher probability of eliminating the anger.
Now, what I’m not saying is that every soft answer needs to be fluffy and cuddly answers with zero truth in them—otherwise, we wouldn’t be loving people if there’s no hard truth in our soft answers (Ephesians 4:16).
As Jason preached a couple of weeks ago, the blessing of discipline and rebuke can be given softly and lovingly in all truth! Nonetheless, what the Proverbs are emphasizing here is that soft answers go miles further than harsh responses.
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (15:4).
Notice the imagery here: a gentle tongue is a tree of life. The tree of life is the blessing (Proverbs 3:18) of man’s restored relationship with God (Revelation 22:2). Do you want true restoration? Start with a gentle tongue, because with it you could break the hardest of hearts:
“With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (25:15).
This is the power of wise words and soft answers—they can break a bone without even laying a hand on it. As we plan to speak slowly, selectively and softly, we also need to find the right timing and 4) speak in season:
4. Speak In Season
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (25:11). “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (15:23).
A soft, well-thought of answer in the right time and circumstance is worth more than gold or silver. In the same way, an appropriate answer in good timing is nothing short of good.
What I’m also not saying here is that we always need to wait weeks and months and years to answer someone wisely, but we need to discern the best timing for a wise effort at restoration.
But what if all of these steps don’t work, and your wise words are still met with a foolish response? I was tempted to skip this proverb, but we have to deal with it: “Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge” (14:7).
In some cases, the wisest thing to do is to leave. I’m not suggesting to do so in a rude manner or to just “give up,” but there are moments when we need to discern what we are giving up. Like Jesus said, “don’t throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6).
If you are dealing with a fool who won’t listen to your repeated efforts of wisdom, then don’t waste your wisdom on them. Paul did this in Ephesus when people attacked him as he preached the gospel:
“He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-9).
Either way, the power of the tongue can boast of great wisdom when these four applications are taken into account: being slow to speak, speaking selectively, softly, and in season.These result in wise words that lead to life for ourselves as well as for others.
But I want to ask a couple of questions before we end here today. We’re capable of using the power of wise words, yet we are so much more prone to using the power of wicked words. So is this a mouth problem?
Is This A Mouth Problem?
“A man of crooked heart does not discover good, and one with a dishonest tongue falls into calamity” (17:20).
Do you see the connection? In fact, this connection between the mouth and heart in Proverbs are consistent throughout the Bible. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 12: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…for out of the heart come..false witness [and] slander” (Matthew 15:18-19).
Why is that? Jeremiah 17 describes the sinful human heart and how it is deceitful above all things and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9)! Then, Paul says in Romans 3 that because of our sick and sinful hearts, no one does anything good because our mouths are full of curses and bitterness and that we only use our tongues to deceive (Romans 3:10-14).
The Bible clearly says that this is a heart problem. Yet, this is why Jesus came and gave us better promises in the New Covenant, which included the promise of spiritual heart surgery:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses…and I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Because of this, we are now truly able to walk in God’s ways and obey him because we have Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, dwelling in our new hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17)!
So, the second question for today then is this: how does this affect our mouths?
How Does This Affect Our Mouths?
Now, with our new hearts, we can put off old tendencies and habits and put on our new identity in Christ—new hearts that follow God, new creation that’s being conformed to the image of Christ, and new lips that speak words of wisdom!
“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (16:23).
Our new hearts enable us to use good judgment with our tongues and discern whether our words are wise or not, which adds persuasiveness [teaching/learning] to our lips. When we stumble, we go to our heart doctor by faith, who enables us to continue speaking wise words that give life to ourselves and others despite our sinful tendencies.
Also, we who have new hearts build up and encourage one another with our words so that it becomes second nature to us, especially when we are faced with wicked words and the temptation to respond foolishly.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:22-25).
We would be wise to practice these four applications from Proverbs, which exhort us to be slow to speak and speak selectively, softly, and in season, because these words lead to life for us and others.
And this is super important because the Day will come when we will have to give an account for every careless word we say (Matthew 12:36; Hebrews 4:13), where our “off the cuff” statements that we have habitually said either privately or publicly will be exposed.
This is why we’re going to close with the song Take My Life and Let It Be because this song is a prayer to God that says, “Take my voice and let me sing, always only for my King; take my lips and let them be filled with messages from thee.”
May the power of our tongues unleash only the power of God through the power of wise words!