The Tongue: Life and Death Are In Your Mouth!

Proverbs 18:20-21

October 9, 1994 | Ray Pritchard

Proverbs has a lot to say about what we say. In fact, the subject of the tongue and how we use our words is perhaps the preeminent theme of this book. Over 150 times in this book alone, Proverbs refers to our lips, our mouth and our tongue. One of the central issues of the Book of Proverbs is how you use your tongue. I think all of us remember reading in the book of James where it says “Though the tongue is small, it is set on fire of hell. With the same tongue we bless the Lord and curse our friends.”

Words are important. After all, God created the universe with words. He spoke and it was so. Our Lord Jesus was called THE WORD. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”


Two reasons why words are important:

1. Because of the sheer quantity of words we use.

Do you have any idea how many words you use in the course of an ordinary day? To illustrate, let’s take the books of Tom Clancy. I’m sure you have read or heard of those techno-thrillers: “Hunt for Red October,” “Cardinal of the Kremlin,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Sum of All Fears,” “Without Remorse.” His works are always very thick, about 500-700 pages. You could use it for a door stop or throw it at somebody you disagreed with. There are 1/2 million to 3/4 million words in an average Tom Clancy novel. How long would it take you to say as many words as he writes in one of his books? According to researchers, each person here will open his mouth an average of 700 times in a day. In those 700 times, you will use an average of 18,000 words. Those 18,000 words would translate to about 54 printed pages. That means that in one year, an average person would fill 66 books of 800 pages each. Every year you write with your words 66 volumes that are larger than those Tom Clancy novels. No wonder Jesus said, “By your words you will be condemned and by your words you will be justified.” Is it any wonder that the fastest growing segment of radio today is talk radio? The sheer quantity of the words we use is amazing.

2. Because of the amazing power of words.

With your words you either say something worthwhile or something that is not worth anything at all.

Think of what a few words put together can convey. “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” were the first words spoken over the telephone. “What hath God wrought?” were the first words sent by Morse code over the telegraph wire. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were the words spoken by Neil Armstrong 25 years ago. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country,” spoken by John F. Kennedy at his inauguration. If you have cable TV, maybe you have been watching C-SPAN and seen the Lincoln-Douglas debates that are being reenacted all over the state of Illinois. I was watching one yesterday and it brought to mind the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, probably the most famous words ever spoken by any American President. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal.” Your words are important, because with your words you either say something worthwhile or something that is not worth anything at all.

These are the words of Proverbs 18:20-21, “From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled; with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied. The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”  Whether you know it or not, there is the power of life and there is the power of death within you. Everything you have said this week has either been life-giving or death-dealing, and there is nothing in between. The tongue has the power to kill, to destroy, to hurt, to maim and to assassinate.

Right Uses of the Tongue

1. The tongue may be used for wise counsel and sound advice.

Proverbs 10:31 says, “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom.” Proverbs 15:7 says, “The lips of the wise spread knowledge.” What comes out of a righteous man? Wisdom. What comes out of a wise man? Knowledge. These two things ought to be coming out of your mouth all the time.

I have a few friends in my life who are like that. Every time they speak, they speak wisdom and knowledge. Some of them are people I have known for 20 or 30 years. Some of them are people I don’t talk to very often. Some of them are people I may not talk to except once every ten years. But because they are people of wisdom and knowledge, I know that if I have not talked to them for ten years, I can go back to them and say, “What do you think about this?” And even though he hasn’t seen or heard from me for ten years, because his lips speak wisdom and knowledge, he can say, “I don’t think you should do this; I don’t think you should do that; Ray, have you thought about this?” Invariably when I talk to people like that, my life is enriched because the lips of the righteous bring forth wisdom and knowledge. Blessed are you if you have a few people in your life who can speak wisdom and knowledge to you. And blessed are you doubly if you have the ability to speak wisdom and knowledge to other people.

2. The tongue can speak rebuke and reproof.

Proverbs 17:10 says, “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” If you find a man of understanding and you rebuke him, he will be impressed by your rebuke more than if you find a fool and beat him with a lash 100 times. That is because a wise man, a man of discernment, is a man you can come to and say, “My friend, I think you’re on the wrong path. My friend, I’m not sure about what you’re doing. Before you do that, stop and think. Let’s talk for a bit.” Blessed is the man who has a friend who is willing to come and give you advice like that.

Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” At this point I like the King James version better. It says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Better to have a friend tell you the hard truth than have somebody try to butter you up and cover up the hard thing you need to hear.

Whenever I think of this I always think of my dear friend from Texas, Randy Miller. Randy was in the church I pastored in Texas. One year he served as the Chairman of our Elder Board. One of the things I learned about Randy was he always had a certain method of doing things. He was very orderly, not given to flamboyance, very much an administrator, doing things the right way.

He would come to me about once every other week and would always have one of those spiral hand notebooks. He’d sit down and say, “Pastor, I want to talk to you.” He’d go over all of his points with me, and then most of the time he would finish it and then turn the page. The second page would always be about me. He would say, “Pastor, this is hard for me to say, but when you said that last week in the sermon, you didn’t mean it this way, but this is how some people took it.” Or, “Pastor, when you didn’t take time to talk to those folks, they were really hurt.” Or, “Pastor, I know you think we ought to do this, but I’m not sure it’s the right idea.” Or sometimes, “You said this and you shouldn’t have and you need to do something about it.” I discovered this: he was always right, 100% of the time. He was a friend who loved me enough to tell me when I was making a mistake. You want to know how I feel about Randy Miller today? I haven’t seen him in five years and three months now, but I love him like I love my own brother. I consider him one of my best friends. He’s welcome in my home anytime.

3. The tongue may be used for encouragement.

“An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Proverbs 12:25

“The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.” Proverbs 15:4

“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!” Proverbs 15:23

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24

I bet when you read that, you think it is just metaphorical. Any medical doctor or nurse will tell you that’s not metaphorical at all. If you talk to people who work in the healing profession, they will tell you that whenever there is a patient who is surrounded by positive, optimistic, caring people who build him up and affirm him, that person has a much better chance of getting better and will normally recover a lot faster. When you have a patient who is off by himself and has no encouragement, or who is surrounded by negative, critical, pessimistic people, that person will have a much harder time getting better under normal circumstances. Why? Because pleasant words literally bring health to the bones. How blessed are you if you have somebody who comes alongside and uses words to lift you up. Doubly blessed are you if you are an encourager.

How many of your words this last week were words of encouragement? How many of your words were words to build up? How many times in the last week did you find it necessary to criticize, to tear down and destroy? My friend Dr. Howe in seminary used to say, “Gentlemen, it takes no size to criticize.” Anybody can sit in the critic’s corner and just tear something down. Are you the kind of person that other people are glad to see coming into the room, or are you the kind of person that causes other people to turn their face away? One reason may be that they see you as a negative, discouraged, critical person. Everybody has troubles and problems. Nobody gets a free ride from earth to heaven. How blessed you are if you use your tongue to lift up and encourage the people around you.

4. The tongue may be used for witnessing to others.

“The lips of the righteous nourish many.” Proverbs 10:21

That means that you can use your lips to help bring people to God. You can use your lips to give spiritual nourishment to other people.

“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.”Proverbs 11:30

That means that somebody, somewhere, opened their mouth and gave you the gospel. You are a Christian because somebody shared the gospel with you, spoke on the radio, from a pulpit, or because somebody close to you spoke the words of life to you. What have you been doing to become a tree of life where you work, at your school, to your friends, to your neighbors, to your loved ones? By your lips you should give such good fruit that people come and want what you have.

Wrong Uses of the Tongue

1. The tongue may be used for flattery.

“Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel.” Proverbs 20:17

That is a picturesque verse. If you get ahead in life by buttering other people up, by telling people what you think they want to hear, what you end up is chewing on rocks.

“A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” Proverbs 26:28

“He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue.” Proverbs 28:23

That means that I love Randy Miller. Isn’t it funny that after five years, when I prepared this sermon, his name popped into my mind? This is exactly what this verse means. He has gained favor with me because years ago he talked with me the way I needed to be talked to. Now I count him as somebody I love and as a dear brother.

The world tells us that you smooze your way to the top. Butter people up, brown nose your way to the top, tell people what they want to hear. The Bible says exactly the opposite. If you rebuke somebody in love, they will love you much more than if you give them empty, meaningless flattery.

2. The tongue may be used for quarreling.

“A fool’s lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating.” Proverbs 18:6

I meet people like this every week. I hear some of these smart alecks on TV and think, “What somebody needs to do is take that guy out behind the woodshed in the name of Jesus.” The world is full of fools. The Bible says his mouth invites a beating.

“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” Proverbs 29:11

Young people, you’ll never learn a better lesson than this: learn to control your temper. How many of us have undergone tremendous heartache because at a crucial moment we lost our temper and spouted off when we should have been silent. A fool says that since you have it inside, you have to get it out. There are a lot of times when if you have to get it out, you’d be better off to go down to the basement, lock the door, turn on the stereo real loud and get it out where nobody can hear you. A wise man keeps himself under control.

“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered.” Proverbs 22:24-25

What that means is that we shouldn’t run around with people who act like that. If you run around with hot heads, you’re going to become a hot head yourself. The verse goes on to say, “Or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.” This week I got a call from a dear friend in another state. He is going through a terrible divorce right now. He started out friendly, they always do. They rarely end that way and this one is not ending that way for various reasons. He called me on Thursday with some unbelievable news. He said, “Ray, you won’t believe it, but while I was watching, she drove up to my house with a 24 foot U-Haul and took everything out. She took out the chairs, the tables, the pictures. She took out the tablecloths, the china, the linens. She took everything. There is nothing left. I didn’t find out until a couple of hours later that she took my clothes. She even took my underwear. You can’t believe how angry I am right now. I want to go down there and put a bullet through her head.”

Unless you’ve been there you can’t really understand what it’s like. If you have been through it, you understand the depth of emotion. I said to my dear friend, “Whatever you do, don’t go down there. If you go down there, you’re going to lose your cool and lose everything. Whatever you do, don’t have a confrontation and don’t blow up at her.” I gave him some advice that has helped me over the years in some tough times. I said, “Remember these words: If you keep your cool, you can’t lose. If you lose your cool, you can’t win. If you lose your cool now, you’re going to pay for it for the rest of your life.”

Oh, the power of angry words! Let an angry man start taking a drink, and those words start uncontrollably coming out. That’s why Proverbs warns us about this.

3. The tongue may be used for gossip.

“He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool.” Proverbs 10:18

“A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” Proverbs 16:28

“He who covers over an offense promotes love.But whoever repeats the mater separates close friends.” Proverbs 17:9

That means that you don’t have to tell everything you know. You don’t have to make everything right. You can cover over some things so you can go on with life.

Three questions to ask yourself whenever you’re tempted to tell something to someone else about what somebody has done:

Is it true?

Is is kind?

Is it necessary?

There wouldn’t be any gossip if we used those three questions before speaking.

4. The tongue may be used for lying.

Proverbs 6:16-19 gives us the seven things the Lord hates. Two of them are a lying tongue and a false witness who pours out lies.

“A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful.” Proverbs 14:25

“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.” Proverbs 12:19

5. The tongue may be used to seduce to evil.

Proverbs 5 talks about the lips of an adulteress. It says her lips drip with honey.

“Keeping you from the immoral woman (or man), from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife (or husband.)” Proverbs 6:24

“The mouth of an adulteress is a deep pit; he who is under the Lord’s wrath will fall into it.” Proverbs 22:14

Your tongue, which is meant to bless God, can be used to drag other people down into sin. Don’t do it.

6. The tongue may be used to talk too much.

“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Proverbs 10:19

That verse is a tough one for a preacher, because I make my living talking.

“He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.” Proverbs 13:3

“A man of knowledge uses words with restraint.” Proverbs 17:27

“Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Proverbs 17:28

That means that you don’t have to have an opinion on everything. You don’t have to comment on everything that goes by you in life. You don’t have to answer every question. How blessed we would all be if we would learn to listen more and to speak less.

How Shall We Tame The Tongue?

1. Admit you have a problem.

You will never be healed until you admit there is something wrong. This is an area with which I have struggled for a number of years because I am paid to talk, because I am good at talking, because I can talk myself into and out of almost anything. My tongue has gotten my into trouble a lot of times through flippant comments or sharp put-downs or foolish comments about people’s motives. In preaching this sermon I am really preaching to myself.

2. Memorize James 1:9.

This is the best single verse on the tongue in all the Bible. It says, “Let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” You wouldn’t have too many interpersonal problems anywhere if you just put that verse into practice.

3. Ask a friend to hold you accountable.

That means going to a friend and saying, “Listen, I have a problem with this. If you ever hear me saying something that sounds like something that I as a Christian shouldn’t say, don’t let it pass. Be enough of a brother to come to me and say, ‘Either I didn’t understand that, or I understand it and you shouldn’t have said it.’ “ Sometimes you need a friend who loves you enough to tell you to take a time out, to not say anything else, because it’s bad enough already.

4. Yield your tongue to God.

Have you ever done that? Have you ever said, “Lord, my tongue now belongs to you?” That’s where Romans 6 comes in, talking about yielding the members of your body to God. Have you ever told the Lord, “I have been using my tongue for myself. I am now going to use it for you. Here are my lips, let me speak for you. Here is my mouth, let my mouth speak the words that you want.” Proverbs 16:1 says, “To a man belongs the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.” That verse means the tongue can be put under the Lord’s control. That’s a great thought. Your tongue, which today may be set on fire of hell may become a tongue under God’s control. He can give you new lips. He can give you a new tongue. He can put new words in your mouth. He can baptize your speech. Shall we not yield our tongue to him? Shall we not give him our lips? Shall we not give him our speech? Shall we not say, “Oh, Heavenly Father, here is my tongue, let it speak only for you? Let my words lift up and not tear down.”

Hymn 568 says, Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. The third verse has that wonderful phrase which goes this way: “Take my lips and let them be filled with messages for thee.”

Oh God, help us today and this week to yield our lips to you and so may they be filled with messages for thee. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?