Tag Archives: speech

The Untamed Tongue

 

In the book of Job, there’s a sub-current theme that has largely gone unnoticed but deserves a closer look.  This theme is developed around the use of words and speech throughout the book, so much so that 22.5% of the Hebrew found in the book is related to key terms for speech.  For comparison, the book of Isaiah uses these same key terms 22.7% of the time, while Deuteronomy and Proverbs are 34.2% and 8.7% respectively. (see Barrick, William, “Messianic Implications in Elihu’s ‘Mediator Speech'”)

While the principal speakers of the book of Job – Bildad, Elihu, Eliphaz, Job, the Narrator, Zophar, and the Almighty God – all use or make reference to words or speeches, by far and away the majority is by Job himself (Note that Satan, Job’s servants, and Job’s wife do not make use of these words).  This should be unsurprising for at least the basic reason that Job is the central figure and does the majority of the speaking, however, the larger meaning likely has more to do with the overall interpretation and understanding of the book as a whole, namely that even righteous Job cannot tame the tongue.

While we are told early on in the book that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil”, it is by his own admission that his tongue has tripped him up with respect to speaking about his affliction, its divine purpose and meaning, and more importantly, questioning the very character of God, Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job 42:3  

In chapter 4, during the speech of Eliphaz, he reminds Job that in the past, his “words have upheld him who was stumbling” yet as the affliction wears on and indwelling sin continues to be stirred up, Job’s words are unable to be restrained. This affliction, brought about by the hand of God, served to stir up settled sin in the heart of Job, out of which the overflow spilled to his words.

In the Book of James, which some have argued (rightly) is a New Testament commentary on the Book of Job, the Apostle draws the readers attention to the dangers of the untamed tongue, first by way of introduction in chapter 1 and then by way of exposition of this intro in chapter 3. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that James has Job in mind when he mentions this section, particularly as he describes mankind’s ability to tame all sorts of creatures, but not the tongue, For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:7-8  This should especially call to mind the references to the creation of beasts and birds, reptiles and sea creatures, that Yahweh uses in His response to Job in chapters 38-41.

Commenting on this verse in James, Puritan Thomas Manton writes, 

The tongue is barely subdued for any good use.  And in this life God does not give absolute grace to avoid every idle word.  This refutes the idea of the power of free will alone; we cannot tame one part of the body.  Consider the offenses of the tongue and you will see that you must walk humbly with God. (CCC on James, pg. 195)

With Job, we are given evidence and insight into the life of a truly righteous man who reveals that in the midst affliction, even he is unable to tame the unruly tongue that speaks out of the abundance of the heart (Luke 6:45).  Job fell victim to the trappings of the “last word” in an argument and looseness of his words toward Almighty God.  If Job fails in with regard to the untamable tongue, what hope is there for us?

Turning again to Manton we get sound counsel in this regard,

Though we have lost our power, God must not lose his right.  Weakness does not exempt us from duty; we must bridle the tongue, though we cannot do this ourselves.

Even if we cannot bridle it, God can.  The horse does not tame himself, nor the camel himself; man tames the beast, and God tames man.

He then offers two methods for the duty of taming the tongue

  1. Come before God humbly; bewail the depravity of your nature,  manifested in this uncontrolled part of the body.

  2. Come earnestly.

Finally, we may gain superior wisdom from the pen of the divinely inspired Apostle James who writes that we should, “be quick to hear and slow to speak.”  James 1:19

The example of Job and the exhortation from James stand as stark witnesses that the tongue is an untamable viper.  Nevertheless, let us labor in this duty; let us mourn when we fail; let us extend grace to those whose tongues speak with liberality; and let us follow the example of our Lord, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:23

The Taming of the Tongue

 

In the book of James, chapter 3, the author begins a penetrating discourse on the most deceptively wicked member of the human body, the tongue.  While in the original letter there were no chapter breaks or verse numbers, it’s interesting that most all Bibles would begin chapter 3 with, “Not many  of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  Following in context, James builds his argument against the tongue.  In the broader context, it would not be difficult to make the argument that teachers and preachers should be especially on guard with their tongue since words have meaning and consequence and as such they must be extremely careful not to spread false doctrine or knowledge of who God really is.  But it would seem here that James has a more general audience in mind, namely everyone, because this passage so greatly details the problem that each of us have in taming the tongue.

In verse 3, James begins his discussion by using several analogies to describe the tongue.  First is the bridle of a horse as he states ,”If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”  The bit, as part of the bridle equipment of the horse, is essentially a mouthpiece used to control the horse.  In essence you have on average nearly a half-ton animal being controlled by a small piece of metal placed in their mouth.  Figuratively speaking, James is equating this to the tongue, in that it directs the whole body.  If we have control of the tongue, then we control the rest of ourselves.  Sounds easy enough right?  I mean if an animal nearly 5 times the size of a human can be controlled via the mouth, surely we can too right?

In verse 4, he continues with another analogy this time that of a ship’s rudder, “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”  Again, note James’ contrast of a large object managed by a smaller, seemingly inferior object.  It would seem then that since a large ship is controlled by such a small rudder at the hand of the captain, that we as people should be able to control our tongues and likewise our own bodies.  But James is methodically building his argument against the easiness of that idea.

The author pulls together his analogies by bringing the focus to the tongue in verse 5, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  This verse isn’t a direct assault against the pride of man in boasting so much as it is a description of the tongues “piloting” abilities, much like the horse’s bit and ship’s rudder.  But in the second part of verse 5 we can see a change in direction from analogous descriptions of the tongue to the damaging effects of the untamed tongue.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?  Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”  James 3:5-12

Let’s summarize how James describes the tongue: 

  • A fire
  • A world of unrighteousness
  • A stain to the whole body
  • Source of fire
  • Set on fire by hell
  • A restless evil
  •  Full of deadly poison
  • Used for cursing people

This is a deeply penetrating list and should convict each of us about the things we say, the carelessness of our words, and how we speak to others.  Think about it, gossip, rumors, and lies spread like a fire.  Even if untrue they have potential to do serious harm to another person’s character or reputation.  Sarcasm, backbiting, malicious words, belittling jokes can do serious damage to another person.  Think it can’t?  Consider the rampant online bullying that has caused teens to act out in violence or to harm themselves.  Our words matter.  Coarse or perverse talk, foul-language, name calling, are more examples of the tongue’s wickedness (Ephesians 5:4).  All of these things and so much more are evidences of the heart, as Jesus tells us, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Matthew 12:34b

The Apostle Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  This should be the goal for each of us, to speak words that edify and build one another up, rather than corrupting talk that destroys and tears down.   But if James’ argument from verse 8 above is true, and it is, how can we possibly control our tongues and offer only good words of encouragement rather than words of destruction?

I offer 3 solutions, which I am in great need of as well:

  1. Renew your mind.  As believers, we are repeatedly reminded in the Bible to renew our minds (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23, Colossians 3:10, Philippians 4:8).  This comes by way of filling our minds with the things of God, i.e. His Word and prayer, while reducing, even eliminating, worldly influences to our mind, i.e. unwholesome movies/music/conversations.  Truly input = output.  In doing this surely we will eliminate much of the damage caused by careless words, by lessening their frequency of use.
  2. Filter your speech.  Many times, as I know I’m severely guilty, we offer up sarcasm for a quick laugh, or unintentionally hurtful comments for the sake of humor.  This really spills over from pride, or in a more obvious way the desire for the approval of man.  Everyone wants to be liked and often we think that through quick wit or sarcasm this develops a likeable characteristic at far too often the expense of others.  If we just stopped to realize that by filtering our speech and allowing words of encouragement and edification to flow freely it would garner more respect from people.  James 1:19 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Slow to speak.  In other words, think before you speak.    
  3. Apologize often.  More often than not, a hurtful word just “slips out”.  Maybe it is the tone or the context in which something is said and perhaps even no true harm was meant.  But in the end the damage has been done. In these cases, apologize, quickly yet sincerely.  Genuinely ask forgiveness and grow from it.  Luke 17:3-4 says “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to  you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”   Here we see repentance and forgiveness working together within a brotherly/sisterly relationship.  Sometimes we need the wrong brought to our face in order to recognize it.  Other times, we recognize it ourselves and apologize.  Either way, reconciliation is important to maintaining the relationship (Matthew 5:24).

Our speech, i.e. tongues, have such a great potential to glorify God by praising Him, sharing His glorious Gospel with unbelievers, and teaching and edifying fellow believers.  But it also has such great potential to destroy or cause serious damage, hurt or harm to not only others, but to ourselves as well.  I know personally, I need God to work in my heart such that my tongue comes increasingly under control.  Surely I am not alone in this.  Diligently seek the Lord for His help and choose your words wisely and carefully.  Renew your mind with the things of God, filter your speech by being slow to speak, and apologize sincerely when those occasional discouraging or hurtful words come out.

Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”