Vol. 5, No. 10
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First Kings 20:1-30 tells a story of Ben-Hadad who attempted to take Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. He sent messengers to Ahab, the king of Israel, and demanded silver, gold, his loveliest wives and the king's children. Ahab, so afraid of this Syrian king, willingly offered to submit to this cruel request. Ben-Hadad, who wanted to anger Israel into war, sent the messengers back saying that his servants would come the next day and take all from Israel that he liked. Ahab consulted his elders about this cruelty. The elders told him not to honor Ben-Hadad's requests and this certainly meant war. Ben-Hadad then boasted that nothing would be left of Samaria except handfuls of dust. Ahab's reply stated, "Let not the one who puts on his armor boast like the one who takes it off." Through the providence of God, who was disrespected and displeased by Ben-Hadad's boast, the innumerable army of Syria was defeated by the small army of Israel and Ben-Hadad was captured.
This story illustrates the importance of the tongue in pleasing God. Although the northern kingdom of Israel repeatedly sinned against God, he was still their God. No one would destroy God's people until he decided they were to be destroyed. Ben-Hadad's boastful comment revealed a pride and arrogance that angered God. If Ben-Hadad had never said those words, if he had controlled his tongue, maybe God would have used him to punish the sins of Israel. Unfortunately for Syria, his words brought the wrath of God and little Israel was the chosen weapon of punishment. The very words spoken by his tongue were more dangerous than the threat of defeat by Israel because he did not please God by what he said.
In the Book of James, the use of the tongue is explored. James 1:26 states, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless." A favorite Christian hymn says, "In word or deed as God decreed, do all in the name of the Lord." Sometimes, Christians fail to understand how important the correct use of the tongue is to living faithfully. If a man cannot control his tongue well, the Scripture indicates that his religion is in vain. This means that the man deceives himself into believing that his worship is acceptable to God when his very words condemn him to God. How is such a thing possible?
Many people perform well the duties of Christianity, but such actions are worthless if what one speaks continually displeases God. If a man never misses Bible study and worship service but is verbally abusive to his family, his attendance and worship are in vain. The duties of Christianity must be performed from the heart and this will be reflected in the words a Christian speaks. James 3:1-12 contains a discussion of the tongue that reflects its importance to all Christians seeking salvation.
James paints a very true picture of the power and danger of the tongue. He says, "If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body" (v. 2). "Anyone" means any person or disciple of Christ whether young, old, rich, poor, male, female or any other distinction one might make. "Perfect" is not meant to indicate perfection but a maturity in the faith or a full exercising of Christianity. Controlling the tongue is remarkable, for many are troubled by it. If one can control the tongue, obviously the whole body is under control. James is clearly emphasizing that the difficulty to control the tongue is greater than attempting to control any other part of one's body. Hence, it is much more important to control the tongue than any other part of the body. Why is this so?
Admittedly, the tongue is small compared to many other parts of the body. Yet, like the bridle of a horse or the rudder of a ship, it possesses great potential for the salvation or destruction of the body that it leads (verses 3-4). The tongue is a muscle that has many necessary physical uses. When a man speaks, his tongue reflects what is in his heart, and that is where the danger of the tongue lies. The tongue is small yet it boasts great things like a little spark that causes great fires (verse 5). Just look again at the example of Ben-Hadad whose army was destroyed by God because of his boastful statement. The tongue has the ability to destroy individuals, families and congregations if used improperly.
It is hard to argue with James' inspired words on the tongue. When used sinfully, it is "a world of iniquity" and the most wicked of all members of the body (verse 6). One can never be sure how much harm the misuse of the tongue can cause. The tongue is a weapon of profanity, slander, blasphemy, scandal, lies and mischief. Clearly, it is important for a Christian to speak only words of spiritual edification. We must soberly consider all we say because the tongue is such a dangerous tool for sin.
Once an animal is tamed, it is tamed for life, never to return to a state of wildness (verse 7). The tongue can never be fully tamed according to James (verse 8). It can be restrained, but in one unguarded moment, it can cause irreversible damage. This is why it is so important for a Christian to be constantly aware of what is said. Each one of us must be conscious of this painful truth that at any moment we can sin by our very words. Anything capable of evil and uncontrolled is capable of great injury. The tongue fights, it seems, against all restraints and seems to be looking for a way to freely exercise its evil intents. Again, a beast is never truly tamed. Any one of us would give much to take back sinful words uttered in a rash moment of anger or thoughtlessness, but that very act is impossible. Unfortunately, our sinful words seem to have a longer impact than the kind words we have said to edify others.
James goes on to point out the hypocrisy of the tongue in verses nine through twelve. With the same tongue men bless God and curse men. This should not occur, but the unruly tongue is clearly capable of such contradictory action. God created the tongue to be used for holy purposes. It would be wrong for it to be used in any other manner, yet men use their tongues for sin and salvation it seems. James illustrates his point by pointing out the absurdity of a spring producing both fresh and bitter water. This is something that "ought not be so." He asks, "Can a fig tree...bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh."
The tongue of man seems to be a creature of its own will, able at times to be holy and sinful. It is important that Christians learn to control their tongues to the best of their abilities. It is the most important member of the body to "bridle" for it reflects the heart of the one who uses it. Clearly, the tongue is not evil, but the heart (mind) that controls it must remain sober and focused on doing the will of God. James clearly urges all to be perfect, mature, developed in the words we speak as Christians. "In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise" (Proverbs 10:19). "Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles" (Proverbs 21:23). Every Christian would do well to heed Solomon's advice and speak as he ought.