Two thousand years ago one of the early Christians wrote : "The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell" (Epistle of James 3:5-6).
And three thousand years ago King Solomon and other writers collected proverbs and sayings from the wisdom of the Middle East. Here are a dozen uses of the tongue that continue to bother us.
Destructive Tongue - "With their mouth the godless would destroy their neighbors" (11:9).
Belittling Tongue - "Whoever belittles another lacks sense" (11:12).
Foolish Tongue - "The mind of a fool broadcasts folly" (12:23)
Cutting Tongue - "Rash words are like sword thrusts" (12:18)
Gossip Tongue - "A gossip goes about telling secrets" (11:13, see 26:28)
Discouraging Tongue - "Perverse words break the spirit" (15:4).
Malicious Tongue - "The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels" (18:8).
Unteachable Tongue - "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, only in expressing personal opinion" (18:2)
Nagging Tongue - "A wife's quarreling is a continual dripping of rain" (19:13, see 21:9).
Bragging Tongue - "Haughty eyes and a proud heart - the lamp of the wicked - are sin" (21:4, see 27:1-2)
Insensitive Tongue - "Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart" ( 25:20).
Noisy Tongue - "Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing" (27:14).
But Solomon also knew that our tongues can be a joy to others :
Enchanting Words - "The tongue of the righteous is choice silver" (10:20).
Feeding Words - "The lips of the righteous feed many" (10:21, as in "food for thought")
Wise Words - "The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom" (10:21).
Guarded Words - "One who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence" (11:13).
Healing Words - "The tongue of the wise brings healing" (12:18).
Gentle Words - "A soft answer turns away wrath" (15:1).
Life-giving Words - "A gentle tongue is a tree of life" (15:4, see Genesis 2:9).
Appropriate Words - "To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone" (15:23).
The contrast between the good and the bad use of words is so great that we might despair of ever learning to say anything right. "Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humans, but no one can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:7-8).
But the Book of Proverbs explains that it is not the tongue but the heart that needs sweetening. Good words emerge like a fountain from a heart made pure by the wisdom of God. "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11). That is why it is so important to "keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life" (4:23).
Jesus was perhaps quoting these proverbs in his words to the woman of Samaria. "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:14). He also rejected the legalism of trying to control our outward behavior. As he explained to the Pharisees, trying to control our tongue never does much good. "How can you speak good things, when you are evil. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings out evil things out of an evil treasure" (Matthew 12:34-35).
In the Book of Proverbs wisdom is pictured as Sophia who longs to touch our hearts with the wisdom that she has in abundance (Proverbs 2:6-10, 9:1-6). In the Old Testament she was called Ruakh Elohim, the wind of God who moves us and inbreathes us (gives inspiration). In the New Testament she (he) is called the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit waits to be invited to be at home in our hearts. "Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding" (14:33). Such people are appreciated and honored. "Those who love a pure heart and are gracious in speech will have the king as a friend" (Proverbs 22:11).
Which is why I love the prayer "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name" (used at the beginning of the communion service in Anglican and American Episcopal churches).
(based on a Bible study given at St. John's Church, Portsmouth, Kingston,
May 10, 2000)