The Power of Speech, for Good or Evil
On the first day of Earth’s initial week, at some point following a primary creation, the inspired Genesis record declares: "And God said. . . " (Gen. 1:3). This expression is found no fewer than ten times in Genesis 1.
The reader is thus introduced to the power of speech.
Later the psalmist would write: “He spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast” (Psa. 33:9). A New Testament writer adds his comment: “By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3).
On the sixth day of that glorious primal week, the first human beings were brought forth. Initially, there was Adam, formed directly from the dust of the ground (2:7). Presently, the Lord spoke to the man: “And Jehovah God commanded the man saying” (Gen. 2:16); the obvious implication is that Adam could understand the communication without any previous formal education in language.
On the same day, Eve was fashioned out of man’s side (Gen. 2:21-22). Then, Moses records these words: "And the man said. . . " (2:23). Following, are the first recorded words of a human being. God has spoken; and mankind, made in the very image of the divine Being, likewise has the ability to speak. Of the millions of biological creatures that adorn this planet, only humans have the ability to communicate through verbalized speech. Clearly, “speech” is a very special gift from the Creator.
The Fountain of Sweet and Bitter
In that small document that bears his name, James, the Lord’s half-brother, has a brief dissertation on the power of human speech (3:1-12). Under the figure of the “tongue,” he discusses what a powerful force speech is. No man has the ability to control his words entirely. The tongue is a force either for blessing or cursing. It is a life-long challenge to magnify the former, and attempt to eliminate the latter. In this study, we will briefly address some of the ways the gift of speech can either bless or curse.
A Proper Use of the Gift of Speech
As one considers the “gift of speech,” he might initially contemplate the proper use of this endowment.
First, the foremost use of one’s speaking ability ought to be the praise of his Creator. The Hebrew title of the book of Psalms is rehillim (“praises”). In the earliest times of biblical revelation, inspired writers praised God for his magnificent acts of creation, his benevolent operations of providence, and for the gracious provisions of redemption. He is “worthy to be praised” (Psa. 18:3), and the words of our mouths, coupled with the mediations of our hearts, ought to be aimed at being acceptable unto him (Psa. 19:14).
Jesus, in the model prayer, framed the address to God in this fashion: “Our Father in the heavens, Hallowed be your name” (Mt. 6:9). The expression “hallowed” suggests the idea of holding in reverence, treating as holy (cf. Isa. 8:13; 29:23; Ezek. 36:23; 1 Pet. 3:15). The phrase reflects a form of praise. Each new day should begin with an anthem of adoration to our wonderful Maker.
Second, the ancient Greeks prided themselves on their wisdom. But Paul, in a letter to the saints at Corinth (in Greece), argued that true wisdom is that which derives from God. Furthermore, the apostle declared that sacred wisdom was made known by means of the spoken word, as conveyed through the apostles and others who possessed the means of divine revelation. This matter is discussed quite comprehensively in 1 Corinthians 2. Note the repeated emphasis on “words” and “speech” in this segment of the letter.
Surely, then, out of this background the Christian does not have to be convinced that one of his prime duties is to employ his gift of speech to speak forth words of truth so that his contemporaries may know of Heaven’s saving plan. The Great Commission is about preaching and teaching (Mt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16).
Third, there is also power in speech to bless our fellows in a great variety of ways. By words we have the power to edify (build up), to exhort, and to console our brothers in Christ (1 Cor. 14:3). Through speech we may lovingly reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with longsuffering and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2). We may offer words of comfort in troubling times (1 Thes. 4:18). Indeed, a word fitly spoken [at the appropriate time] is like apples of gold in a network of silver (Prov. 25:11).
What a challenge it is to use our power of speech in a fashion that is helpful to others and glorifying to God.
The Perversion of the Power of Speech
There is a dark side — very dark — to the power of speech. Not infrequently this marvelous gift is so wantonly abused. We would be remiss in our responsibility if we did not, in some measure, throw the floodlight of Scripture upon some of our weaknesses in this area.
First, perhaps the greatest violation of speech imaginable is when man employs his tongue to deny the very One who made him. The fool says: “There is no God” (Psa. 14:1; 53:1). In a vivid passage that spotlights skepticism, a prophet of God chastised a cold-hearted people. “You turn things upside down: Shall the potter be esteemed as clay; that the thing made should say of him that made it, ‘He made me not’; or the thing formed say of him that formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” (Isa. 29:16). What vileness of tongue!
Second, as indicated earlier, God, by means of an inspired revelation (compiled ultimately in that volume of literature called the Bible), has spoken to man with a message designed to lead him to heaven. Men must know that truth in order to be set free from the consequences of sin (Jn. 8:32). It is a wickedness of indescribable proportion to alter the character of that divine message so as to lead men falsely, thus depriving them of the hope of life eternal.
Jesus warned: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Paul spoke of those who “pervert” the gospel by attempting to change the character thereof, mingling it with other systems (e.g., Judaism – Gal. 1:6-8).
Again, there are those who handle the word of God “deceitfully” (doloo – to falsify, adulterate) (2 Cor. 4:2), rather than handling it “aright” (in an orthodox fashion – 2 Tim. 2:15). To “wrest” the Scriptures is to “twist” or “torture” them, and such can only bring “destruction” to the perpetrator (2 Pet. 3:16). Who has not been exposed to a torturous treatment of Scripture?
Third, a terribly serious violation of the gift of speech is the distortion of truth. Truth is intrinsic to the very nature of God. He is a “God of truth” (Dt. 32:4; Isa. 65:16), who cannot lie (Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Lying is an assault upon the very fabric of God’s being. It is classified as a sin (Psa. 59:12) that Jehovah hates (Prov. 6:19; 12:22).
The first recorded lie in the Bible was perpetrated by Satan, who, as a result of that foul deed, has become known as the “father” of lies"(Jn. 8:44). Man, by virtue of long-standing habit (cf. Eph. 2:3), has a weak propensity toward lying (Rom. 3:13), and believing lies (Rom. 1:25; 2 Thes. 2:10-12).
History is replete with examples of such. Cain lied about the murder of his brother (Gen. 4:9). Abram lied about the identity of Sarai (Gen. 12:13; cf. 20:5), and Jacob and Rebecca lied to Isaac (Gen. 27). Peter lied about knowing Christ (Mt. 26:58,69-75), and the first case of “church discipline” involved Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to God, misrepresenting the matter of a contribution to the Jerusalem church (Acts 5:1-11).
Lying is strongly condemned in the New Testament (Eph. 4:25; Col. 3:9-10), and the final book of the New Testament warns that “all liars” will have their portion in the hell of fire (Rev. 21:8). It is a matter of some amazement, therefore, that some folks, who profess a friendship with the Christian system, and who have defended it admirably in some ways, nonetheless argue in favor of “defensive lying” in certain circumstances.
Norman Geisler contends that
“the Bible indicates that there are occasions when intentionally falsifying (lying) is justifiable. Rahab intentionally deceived to save the lives of Israel’s spies and was immortalized in the spiritual ‘hall of fame’ (Heb. 11)” (Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, p. 122).
Rahab was commended for her faith, not her lying. She is honored for her courage and her acknowledgment of the workings of the true God (Josh. 2:9), not the manner in which she pursued the protection of the Hebrew spies. Her lying is no more excused than was her harlotry.
Fourth, the days of this dawning millennium might be characterized most appropriately as the “age of vulgarity.” We’ve come a long ways from those days when men refrained from the use of vile language in the presence of “a lady,” and Rhett Butler’s single-word profanity shocked a nation in Gone With The Wind. Filth and coarse language flow like raw sewage down the main streets of insensitive America. Even some skeptics have had enough of it.
In a book written shortly before his death, noted infidel Steve Allen rails against the speech depravity that inundates our culture (see Vulgarians At The Gate, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2001). He decried the plague of profanity as a breach of common “morality” and manners, though he had not a clue as to the basis of morality, or how to defend it.
The Scriptures speak of “filthy” talking (Eph. 5:4). According to Greek authorities (see Baur, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testment, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 29), the term “filthy” (aischrotes) entails “behavior that flouts social and moral standards, shamefulness, obscenity” while “shameful speech” (aischrologia – Col. 3:8) denotes “speech of a kind that is generally considered in poor taste, obscene speech, dirty talk.”
“Lascivious” speech (cf. 2 Pet. 2:18) is that designed to conjure up illicit sexual images and ideas. “Corrupt” (morally unwholesome, harmful) communication (Eph. 4:29) is likewise condemned. “Foolish (literally, moronic) talking” is speech that reveals a stupid mentality, while “jesting” suggests off-color humor (cf. Eph. 5:4).
But Jesus taught that men will give account for their words in the Day of Judgment (Mt. 12:36-37), For a further consideration of this topic, see our "Are Some Sins “Excused”?".
Fifth, one abuse of speech is abusive speech! The inspired psalmist dramatically foretold the verbal abuse that would be heaped upon Christ in connection with the Savior’s death. The Lord’s adversaries would “laugh [him] to scorn” and “shoot out the lip.” They would mock him, saying, in essence: “Commit yourself unto Jehovah; let him deliver you. Let him rescue you, since he is supposed to delight in you so much!” (Psa. 22:7-8). And, just as predicted, when he hung upon the cross, “they that passed by railed on him” (Mt. 27:39) and “scoffed at him” (Lk. 23:35).
The Greek term for “railed” is one familiar to the English reader. It is blasphemeo, anglicized into the form “blaspheme.” Though the derivation of the word is a bit uncertain, it likely comes from the roots blapto (to injure) and pheme (speech), hence, speech that injures (cf. W.E. Vine, Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Iowa Falls: World, 1991, p. 87). One thing is certain. Men have mastered the science of injuring one another with their words. It is not difficult to find ample examples to illustrate the abuse of speech.
Some men, who have never laid an abusive hand upon their wives, have unmercifully flayed them with razor-sharp tongues. Where does a man think he obtained the right to get in his wife’s “face” and talk to her like a Marine drill instructor? It is little wonder that some women have such a void of self-esteem. Their brutish husbands have cursed them, screamed in their faces, and belittled them in all sorts of humiliating ways.
Some women are equally adept at the art of tongue-lashing. They criticize their husbands to the children and before their lady friends. They “dig” and disrespect them in public. It is no surprise at there is a plague of unhappy homes — as husbands and wives engage in the war of words.
Similarly, many parents are verbally abusive with their children. They yell at them, profane them, inform them of how stupid and clumsy they are. Abusive husbands and wives were educated by abusive parents, in all probability. Unrestrained language is the root of many evils.
To return to James’ admonition for a moment, the inspired servant of the Lord reminds us of how rigorous a task it is to control the human tongue. It is like a raging fire that requires maximum effort to subdue. Indeed, the tongue is like a consuming fire ignited, as it were, by hell itself (3:6).
It is a fresh challenge each day to channel speech for good, and not for evil — to use it wisely and benevolently, rather than stupidly and malevolently. May God grant us the wisdom and strength to use our gift of speech consistent with is holy will.