Proverbs 17–18: Death & Life in the Power of the Tongue

Read the Bible in 2011Week 33: Thursday

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
And those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 18:21

Thursday’s Bible reading is Proverbs 17–18. These chapters are in the third section of Proverbs: “The first book of Solomon.”1 Speech continues to be a theme, and as I was reading I thought of this verse from James:

“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.”
James 1:25

This verse always catches me up short. It’s quite a check on spiritual pride; it’s a quick, but significant test and really teaches humility. In his commentary on Proverbs, Derek Kidner has a very helpful summary of Proverbs’ teaching on words:

“As many as three out of the seven abominations listed in Proverbs 6:16–19 are examples of the misuse of words: such is their importance in Proverbs. What is taught about them may be grouped under three headings.”2

I found Kidner’s headings and points to be so insightful that I want to list them for you. He briefly discusses each and gives applicable verses. I haven’t quoted all of what he has written, but I have tried to pull out most of the verses he cites so that you can read them. I’m sure we’ve all been wounded by words, and we’ve also wounded others so I’ve quoted him regarding the power of the tongue because it is so important. If we can grasp and remember that death and life are in the power of the tongue, then we will be more diligent to guard what we say. He points out that his first heading describes both good or evil words.

I. The Power of Words
Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21
This power springs from largely two qualities.3

1. Penetration. What is done to you is of little account beside what is done in you, and the latter may be for good or ill. The feelings, or morale, may be lacerated by a cruel or clumsy thrust (‘like the piercings of a sword’, Proverbs 12:18), and a wounded spirit, who can bear? (18:14); equally, they may be vitalized by a timely word (12:18b, 25), and the whole body with them (sweetness to the soul and health to the body 16:24, RSV; cf. 15:30).  One’s attitude to another person may be deeply affected by a mere whisper, unforgettable as soon as relished (18:8), and one’s self-esteem ruinously inflated by flattery (which entangles its victim, 29:5, by the craving it induces and by the ill-judged actions it invites).  Above all, beliefs and convictions are formed by words, and these either destroy a man or are the making of him (11:9; 10:21).4

2. Spread. Since words implant ideas in other minds, their effects ramify—again, for good or evil….[16:27b, 28a RSV; 6:14; 10:10; 16:30; 12:14; 10:11 (cf.18:4); 15:4]5

II. The weakness of words

1. They are no substitute for deeds…. [14:23 RSV]
2. They cannot alter facts….  [26:23–28, 28:24, 24:12]
3. They cannot compel response…. [29:19; 2:3,4; 17:10; 17:4]6

III. Words at their best.

a. The marks of them
1. They will be honest… [16:13 cf. 24:24–26; 25:12; 27:5, 6; 28:23]
2. They will be few…. [17:28; 10:14; 13:3; 11:12, 13; 10:19]
3. They will be calm…. [17:27; 18:13, cf. 17; 15:1; 25:15]
4. They will be apt…. [15:23; 10:20; 25:11; cf. 25:12; 22:11; 10:32]7

b. The making of them
1. Study [15:28, 15:2, 2:6, 16:1]
2. Character [14:5, 12:17, 10:20, 4:23]8

In his last point regarding character, Kidner reminds us of these words of the Lord Jesus:

“For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”
Matthew 12:34b

After working through this, I better understand why James said, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” Our tongue reveals our heart.

I want to include one more verse on our words.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
Ephesians 4:29

This is a hard battle. I know it, and you know it. Only by God’s help and power can we learn to control our words, for changed words mean first of all a changed heart; and God is the One who changes our heart. May the Lord enable us to daily persevere in giving grace to others through our words.

UPDATE: I’ve added the first footnote reference that I had inadvertently omitted, and I’ve also changed the section order from the second to the third. My apologies for the inaccuracies.
Isaiah 42 Photograph: – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications
1A. F. Walls, “Proverbs,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., p. 550.
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8Derek Kidner, Proverbs, pp. 46, 46, 46, 47, 47, 48, 49.

Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter

3 thoughts on “Proverbs 17–18: Death & Life in the Power of the Tongue

  1. It was by God’s Word that the universe was spoken into being. As we are created in God’s image, our words are also containers for power: either for good or for evil. It is why the enemy of our souls works so hard to corrupt what comes out of our mouths. He knows what is unleashed when we speak words that reflect death, not life.

    Many of us are far too careless with our words, and it shows in the current state of the church. Even more so, as these words are reflective of what’s in our hearts, we need God’s daily process of sanctification to change our hearts and enable us to speak His words of love, mercy, and grace to a world that desperately needs to hear them. The only way that we will know His words is to spend time daily in His Word and the cleansing that results in our own hearts. Thank you for this reminder.

  2. You’re welcome!

    Your comment fits right in with Kidner’s section on the making of “words at their best”. Brief as it was, I found his points and discussion on the making of “best” words—study and character—to be the most helpful and insightful summary I’ve seen or heard about learning to speak right and godly words.

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