In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth with words. He said, “Let there be,” and there was — and there is. So important were words to God that of all the creatures He created, His image bearers are the only ones to possess language. As we will see, that can be both blessing and curse.
After my wife, Danielle, brought our son into this world, she meditated on reflecting God as a giver of life. I felt a little left out. I still kinda do. But I remind myself that I have my words, and they impart life as well. Women are still unique, of course, but they are not alone in their ability to reflect God by bringing life into this world.
Words can also bring death. When God created the universe with words, He gave them immense power to both bring life and destroy it. Some words have so much power that they should not be spoken. Every language and culture has different ones, but in United States English we call them “four-letter” words. Although swearing is commonplace in American culture, some profanity, like racial slurs, is widely disapproved of.
Aramaic, too, had a powerful four-letter word that Jesus talked about: “Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council” (Matthew 5:22).
Because of the power of words doing both good and harm, they will be judged along with our actions (12:36, 37). Having been given language as God’s creation, we must use words. Even though they are powerful, we cannot remain silent. Proverbs 18:21 makes clear that although “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” we still must speak because “those who love it will eat its fruit.”
What will you say today? Will you give life and reflect our Creator? Or will you bring death and reflect our Adversary?
Verbal and physical harm
Our culture tends to devalue the power of words. Many say that sticks and stones are the real material that can do real damage to us, but throughout the Bible, words are treated as real as a physical act of violence.
Take, for example, two laws in Exodus 21. Verse 15 says, “He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” Verse 17 says, “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” Here, a verbal curse is treated exactly like a physical punch. Both are powerful, and so their power must be constrained by the same deterrent.
The Old Testament’s concept of violence includes not just physical actions or cursing but also accusations. In Deuteronomy 19:16-19, the law talks about a witness who is hamas. The translation of this word varies from “false” to “malicious,” but the Hebrew hamas means “violence.” It reads:
If a [hamas] witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (NRSVUE).
If the words of the false testimony will result in physical harm to someone, they will be judged as such. The hamas witness will receive physical punishment for their verbal hamas.
Justice for verbal violence
Wrong words are worthy of complaining about to God. At my local church, we recently took six weeks to work through the Psalms, and we were all struck by how common it is for the psalmists to pray concerning the speech of others. It is bothersome to be surrounded by bad words.
Psalm 35 is an example of one such concerned psalmist, David. You will not find in this psalm any physical evil being done. The enemies lay traps that will become David’s grave/pit (v. 7), but their only concrete actions are lying and mocking (vv. 11, 16). David sees this to be as bad as being eaten by lions (v. 17). He writes in verse 20, “For they do not speak peace, but they devise deceitful matters against the quiet ones in the land.”
David is quiet in the face of false charges and inconsiderate jeers. He simply prays and promises right speech once God resolves the problem.
The promise of good words is sprinkled throughout Psalm 35 in verses 9, 18, and 28. “Then,” David says, he will rejoice, thank God before the congregation, and tell of God’s righteousness and praise all day long. Then refers to when God rescues David by silencing the domestic enemies (v. 25, ESV). If God silences the bad words being spoken, then David promises good words to be spoken about Him.
Furthermore, David desires God to use words to rescue him. He cries out, “You have seen, O Lord; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me!” (v. 22, ESV). If God will speak into his life, then David will know that the enemies are wrong. Then he will have confidence in God’s care for him and will use his words to show his gratitude.
Psalm 35 is all about words. Used wrongly, they are devastating weapons. Used rightly, they are salvific salve. We speak the best words when we worship corporately, share the good news of God’s salvation, give encouragement, and build others up. In using these words, we are loving God and neighbor with our whole selves, just as Jesus says in Matthew 12:34: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Better vs. less
In Disney’s 1942 film Bambi, Thumper’s father missed a nuance in his classic advice. If you recall, the rabbit, Thumper, repeats the counsel of his dad: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, then don’t say nothin’ at all.”
The Bible doesn’t agree with this, however. We cannot refuse to use what God created to powerfully bring forth life. Instead, when we have nothing nice to say, we must resolve to find the good to say and speak it. Let the words we speak demonstrate that we are God’s unique image bearers.
I think Paul would agree on this point: speak better, not less. At the conclusion of his famous summary in Ephesians 4 of the purpose of the gifts to equip the saints, he reminds his readers that this will require “speaking the truth in love” to grow up in every way into Christ (v. 15). Paul reinforces this with the command “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (v. 29).
Do not be content with neutrality in your speech; pursue love through your words. When necessary, apologize for any wrongdoing. Just as we desire God to speak life into us as He did in the beginning, so we should strive to speak life into others. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can.