Funny things words are: while they are intangible, yet they can break the strongest of men, and while they are merely sounds formed by air, lips and tongue, yet they have the ability to straighten the back of the lowliest of souls. The Proverb says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” (18:21a, ESV). No one is impervious to the destruction of words. It is said that Mark Twain made the comment that “A lie travels around the globe while truth is putting on his shoes.” Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” Every person has been lied about, and every one of us have been broken with words.
How often we have seen a major newspaper make front page headlines on a person or matter, only to have to retract it on page Z14. But that is not unlike the rest of us. We are too often not very careful with our words; gossip, slander, and angry words come flying out of our mouths or off of our fingers in text or social media. Many times we find we were wrong, and when we have to admit it, we are not quite as vocal or boisterous as before. We’d rather bury our apologies.
Yet, words have power. They carry tremendous power. Some words sting. Some cripple. Some kill. Yet others are a salve, a balm that when applied liberally can bring healing and life. The truth, when spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15), can do both. It can cut, and cut deep, but also prove to be the healing that one needs.
There is a second part to that verse though: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit,” (18:21, ESV). The question with this statement is about what the antecedent to “it” is. There are various arguments as to whether it is “power” or “tongue,” but I argue it is “tongue.” The reason being that this is not the only verse about words in this chapter. It is filled with proverbs about speaking.
“The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook,” (18:4, ESV).
“A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating,” (18:6, ESV).
“A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul,” (18:7, ESV).
“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body,” (18:8, ESV).
And there are more, but notice verses 7 & 8 especially. The lips are a snare to the soul and gossip goes down into the inner parts of the body. Those sound an awful lot like, eating the fruit of what comes from the tongue. One cannot take back what he/she has said. Their souls, innermost being, or stomachs will have to live with every word that comes out. Many things said can be reversed with a simple apology, but many things cannot. I still remember being 14 and telling my sister I hated her. As soon as it came out, I tried to take it back, saying that I hated “this, our arguing.” A few years ago, I asked if she remembered the argument when I said that. She didn’t. But it went into the depths of my being. I do not believe I will be able to forget such words. You may have a similar story.
I am a work in progress. By God’s grace I am growing in my speech, though I am not where I wish I was. So I encourage you to remember these words with me and let them sink deep into your soul: “Know this, my beloved brothers: be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” (James 1:19, ESV)