Thornleigh Seventh-day Adventist Church (Sydney, Australia)

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The Power of the Tongue

1 Aug 2009, Dr Barry Wright

(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)


Life and death are held in the power of the tongue.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates who lived from 469 BC to 399 BC was declared by the sacred oracle in the city of Delphi to be the 'wisest man in the world' living at that time. While he never wrote a book during his lifetime, his life and ideas were recorded by his famous pupil, the great philosopher, by the name of Plato (Broughton, 1988: 230).

The story is told that one day a young man came to him to ask if he would teach him oratory. Because the boy talked so much, Socrates asked to double his fees. Asking him why he was being charged double the amount, Socrates replied, 'Because I have to teach you two sciences.' The first of these is to learn how to hold your tongue, and the other, how to speak.' He continued by saying that 'the first science is the more difficult, but aim for proficiency in it, or you will suffer greatly and create trouble without end' (Tan, 1991: 1421).

It would seem that the capacity to listen is as important as the capacity to speak.

Life and death are held in the power of the tongue.

While Socrates seemed to have much to say on this subject, we can learn much more from the writings of the man called Solomon. In contrast to Socrates this son of David was to be called the wisest man whoever lived. In the book of Proverbs, written primarily by him in the early part of his reign as king of Israel, we find many principles of holy living and high endeavour. These principles were seen to be heaven born and ones that would eventually lead to godliness and govern every act of life (White, 1943: 33,34).

It was through the wide dissemination of these principles and the recognition of God as the one to whom all praise and honour belong, that his early reign became one typified by an uplift in morals as well as an increase in material prosperity (Ibid). 

We know from 1 Kings 4: 32 that Solomon 'uttered three thousand proverbs' and wrote 1005 songs. We also know from 1 Kings 4: 29 that God had given him wisdom and an understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. This makes him particularly qualified to write this book containing these many words of wisdom. Solomon was also a philosopher and a scientist of no mean ability. He was additionally an architect of a Temple that was to become one of the wonders of the world as well as being a king (Mears, 1983: 196).

In these proverbs, that Ecc 12: 9 says were sought out and put together by Solomon, we find practical godliness. Every relationship in life is mentioned in these verses including our duty to God, to our neighbours, the duty of parents and children and our obligations as citizens (Ibid: 195). In amongst all these we find the many references to the power of the tongue.

In Proverbs 10 we read in:

V11 'The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.'

V13 'Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks judgement.'

V14 'Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.'

V19 'When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.

V20 The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is little value.'

Solomon is making it clear that words are very powerful.

They can destroy and tear down or they can impart life and build up.

Words can shape our life and our destiny.

Life and death are held in the power of the tongue.

It would also be helpful today to listen to the words of the master teacher found in the book of Matthew as He places a challenge before the Pharisees of His day. Let's read what Jesus had to say in Matt 12: 34-37.

'You brood of vipers, how can you that are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on that Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.'

When Jesus said in Matt 12: 34 that 'For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks' He was making very clear that what goes on in our minds determines the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of our speech. The 'heart' refers to the mind, the source of all thoughts, the source of all feelings, the source of all actions and motives. As positive and negative actions stem from the mind, so do positive and negative words.

Words are thoughts made audible. They are the overflow of the hearts wellspring and while the tongue seems to often have a mind of its own, it derives its character entirely from the choices of the person who owns it.

We also need to recognise that the things we say every day will have important consequences not only to those around us, but to our own souls as well.

Jesus, in making His comments to these men was showing that mind control is the basis of speech control. The tongue, it would seem, becomes an index to the heart. Therefore, it would appear that the abundance of 'mouth trouble' that afflicts mankind is the 'heart trouble' with which we were all born and have seemingly added to by the wrong choices w make throughout our lives.

We also need to take note that while Jesus is saying that idle words are sin and that we are condemned or justified by our words, he wasn't suggesting that we earn merit by using good words. All he is saying here is that consistently good words are evidence of the changed heart while evil words are evidence that change still needs to be made.

What then is the permanent remedy for this problem?

The Scriptures make it very clear that the only permanent remedy lies in the power of the Master Teacher. He is the only one who can transform our hearts and minds and enable us to speak words that are pure and of good report. We also need to cherish God's Word and as the apostle Paul reminds us in Phil 4: 13 we can do everything through Him who gives us strength. We need to choose Jesus every day. We need to feed on His word, store in our minds the positive truths and promises it contains. When we are tempted to say things that are evil we need to ask Him for His power, claim His victory and then praise Him for it.

The depth of the issues involving the tongue in Scripture are further dealt with by the apostle James who describes himself in James 1: 1 as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let's read what he had to say in James 3: 2-12 (NIV).

'We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praises and cursing. My brothers this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.'

Let me tell you that life and death are held in the power of the tongue.

A word out of our mouths may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything or destroy it all. Remember, it only takes a spark to start a fire burning. It only takes a small mechanism in the mouth of the horse to control all of its actions or a rudder controlled by the helmsman to guide the ship. However, it is important to note that while the tongue may give direction to the whole body, it is directed in turn by the will (Nichol, 1957: 526). With our tongues we can either bless God our Father or we curse the very men and women He made in His image. 

Throughout history there have been many who, by their very words, have been responsible for setting the course of an entire nation for good or for ill, oft times involving millions of people.

The Second World War provides one very good example of how easy it is to have this happen. The Third Reich was to last twelve years and four months, but it caused a holocaust of destruction on this planet more violent and earthshaking than anything the world had previously experienced. At one point during the War, the Germans reigned supreme from the Atlantic to the Volga, from Norway to the Mediterranean. Then, as the Allies turned the tide, the German people were to be thrust down to the uttermost depths of destruction, desolation, and despair. However, during the high days of their power, the German High Command instituted a reign of terror that outdid in savagery all the oppressions of the past (Phillips, 2003: 100).

The human cost of Hitler's attempt to seize world power staggers the imagination. Thirty-five million lives were lost. On the battlefields, one out of every twenty-two Russians were killed, one out of every twenty-five Germans, and one out of every 150 Britons. The toll on the Jews was even higher. The records show that two out of every three European Jews were to perish as a result of Hitler's attempt to purify the race. They, along with the Slavs, were looked upon as sub-humans who were unfit to live (Ibid: 101).

While it may sound simplistic, it would seem, as many suggest, that all of this carnage was to be kindled by one man's tongue. Adolph Hitler was a master orator who was able to whip his audiences into a frenzy of hysteria. He could often mobilize millions of people at a word. His well-known fit of rages not only cowed visiting statesmen, but they also paralysed his top generals. Even the German people themselves, who were urged on by the lash of his tongue and mesmerized by the power of his words, fought on and on, long after the war was lost, until all of Germany was reduced to rubble (Ibid).

Hitler was once recorded as saying that 'Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.' Added to this thought, Goebbels, his propaganda minister once wrote that 'Propaganda has absolutely nothing to do with truth.'

Destructive words can come in many forms: Lies, criticism, gossip, flattery, impulsiveness, scorn, argumentativeness and anger. All these are out of harmony with the principles outlined in the Scriptures and spoken about by Jesus Himself.

The apostle James was right when he said that a great forest can be set ablaze with one small spark. The destruction of Europe during the Second World War could not provide a more poignant example of how this could take place.

Life and Death are held in the power of the tongue

Another very good example of the awesome power of the tongue is seen in the life of a young German Monk who enters a time of history when Christians as a whole were feeling further away from God than ever (Robinson, 2006: 1).

After having his own Damascus Road experience, where he is almost struck by lightening, Martin Luther's life changes forever. The year is 1505 and this young man now vows to leave his study of law to become a monk and join the religious monastic life in the German city of Erfurt (Ibid).

Within the space of twelve years he had transformed from a young priest who had never read the Bible to become a Doctor of Theology, a popular professor, a charismatic preacher, a scathing critic, a prolific and profuse writer, and an accomplished translator (Ibid).

Luther's work in 1517 referred to as 'The 95 Thesis' was nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and it was this act that began a deep and irrevocable breach with the Roman Church. It commenced what is now known in history as the Protestant Reformation.

It was not simply the content of his message, but the persuasiveness with which it was delivered that gave him his audience. Speaking in the common language of the people Luther was able to transfer the thoughts of a very powerful intellect into words that could be easily understood at every level of society (Ibid: 3,4). The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg was only to help magnify his influence particularly with the use of his translation of the Scriptures into the common language of the people.

Luther was to become a spark that set Europe ablaze with a fire that just couldn't be quenched. As such, he was to join a long list of those found in the Scriptures whose words were to not only to bring great blessing to others, but also to bring honour to God as they continued to boldly express their faith.

A very good Scriptural example of the power of words was to be found in the life and work of the apostle Paul. He was seen as the earliest and most influential interpreter of Jesus' message and teaching and, as such, he was also seen to be the one who was to lay the groundwork for the Christianisation of the then known world.

Born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus, Paul was brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of the man called Gamaliel, the most illustrious rabbi of his day. This grounding in Jewish orthodoxy was to confirm Paul's description of himself in Phil 3: 5 as being 'a Hebrew of the Hebrews'. While this account shows that his Jewish heritage was to mean much more to him than his Roman citizenship, the latter was to become a privilege that worked to his advantage during his apostolic ministry (Lockyer, 1986: 805).

In his early schooling, Paul proved to be an apt pupil and this led to his increased enthusiasm and zeal for the Jewish Law that found a ready outlet in his assault on the infant church in Jerusalem (Ibid).

Acts 9 tells us that at the height of his campaign of repression he was to be confronted on the road to Damascus by his risen Lord and, in an instance, his life was completely changed. He then becomes the leading champion of the cause that he been trying to overthrow as he now sets out to proclaim the Good News of Salvation to the Gentile world (Ibid: 806).

While Jesus' ministry had been largely confined to the Jewish people, Paul now becomes the apostle to the Gentiles who needed to hear the message he was to bring in a form that they could understand.

In the ministry of Jesus, outsiders were seen as the social outcasts of Israel while to Paul, outsiders were to be those outside the Jewish nation. While the principal was the same, its application was to be very different.

Paul's achievement was to communicate to the Greco-Roman world the Good News announced by Jesus in terms that could be fully understood within their own language and culture.

Paul's words were to bring new life and hope to a people who lived in a world where very little hope was to be found and with the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit the impact of the seeds sown by the apostles could be seen in the rapid spread of Christianity right across the western world. It should be noted that Paul's letters, together with the gospels, were to become the foundation of the Christian movement and his words were to continue to challenge all people down through the years of history to our modern day (Ibid: 813).

Life and death are found in the power of the tongue.

Solomon in his Book of Proverbs reminds us again that the words of the wise person will be like silver (10: 20). He also says they are like 'a tree of life' nourishing many (15: 4) and like food to the hungry (10: 21). He likens the words of the righteous to refreshing water for the thirsty (10: 11; 18: 4) and like medicine for those that are sick (12: 18).

However, the best example of how effective righteous words can be was when Jesus was on earth. When Jesus was speaking in the temple courts to the crowds that were there, we even see the hardened hearts of the temple guards beginning to melt. Their testimony is to be found in John 7: 46 (NIV) where they made it clear that 'No one ever spoke the way this man does'

The reaction of the two disciples who walked with Him from Emmaus was typical of the reaction of people he met throughout His life and ministry while on earth. Their words are recorded in Luke 24: 32 where they said: 'Did not our hearts burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures.'

Jesus' words were wise, uplifting, encouraging, knowledgeable and cautious. Even when He issued a rebuke, He did so in a spirit of love, with the intention of saving the offending person. He understood the force of simple eloquence and the power of silence (White, 1940: 353).

Positive, encouraging words can inspire both the listener and the speaker and we see this marvellous life-giving power when we show cheerfulness, courage, faith, hope and love. On the other hand, we find many types of speech that ultimately cause sorrow, hostility and misery. Solomon cautions us throughout his writings to consider carefully the words we use and how we say them. As such, we always need to ponder what effect our words will have on those who are listening.

It has been said that each of us speaks about 16,000 words every day, enough to fill a few books in a week. In our lifetime we could fill an entire library with the words we have said.

I wonder what kinds of books they would be. There would probably be a few comedies and horror stories among them, maybe a little poetry and definitely some high drama. As we browse through this library I wonder how many of our books we would be proud to have authored and how many we would wish to be designated as 'anonymous' or to carry a 'pen name' instead?

Solomon reminds us again in Prov 25: 11 that 'A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.'

It is my prayer this morning that we follow Jesus' example with words that bring comfort, conviction and renewal and that all be done in a spirit of love recognising the eternal consequences that are involved.

Let us never forget that life and death are held in the power of the tongue.



Broughton, S.  (1988)  Great Lives - Over 1000 men and women who have shaped history. London, UK:Kingfisher Books

Drake, A.  (2007)  The Power of Our Tongue. Series: Faith that Works. Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino. Web site:

Lockyer Sr. H.  (1986)  Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary.Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers

Mears, H. C.  (1983)  What the Bible is all About. Ventura, California, USA: Regal Books

Nichol, F. D.  (1957)  Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary Vol 7, Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association

Phillips. J.  (2003)  Exploring the Epistle of James - An Expository Commentary. Kregel Publications

Robinson, N. T.  (2006)  The Accessibility of Luther. Unpublished Critical Overture paper. Hist 609.

Tan, P. L.  (1991)  Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations. Hong Kong: Nordica International Ltd.

White, E. G.  (1943)  Prophets and Kings. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.

White, E. G.  (1940)  The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association

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