Old Testament Wisdom for the Tongue
Theology to Direct our Speech
In our lives, we constantly wrestle with questions about how we should use our tongues in speech: whether to speak, what to say, and how to say it. As we search God’s Word for answers, the Old Testament offers more wisdom for our tongues than we might initially recognize.
Some of the Old Testament’s instructions for our tongues are clear and absolute, as in the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Ex. 20:16). Or, many stories vividly warn us about the painful consequences of lying, blame-shifting, manipulating, complaining, murmuring, bearing false witness, and foolish oaths and vows (e.g., Gen. 3:1–5, 10–13; 20:1–13; 27; 29:23–25; 34:13–31; 39:13–20; Num. 11:1–3; 13:32–14:37; Judg. 14:15–18; 16:1–21; 1 Sam. 14:24–46; 2 Sam. 11:6–25; 15). Other uses of the tongue, however, are more difficult to know how to apply in our speech (e.g., Gen. 42:7–25; 44:1–17; Ex. 1:19–21; Josh. 2:1–21; Judg. 4:18; 1 Sam. 21; 27). Further, the Old Testament sometimes speaks in riddles, mysteries, and proverbs that do not give categorical rules, but principles that require wise discretion (e.g., Prov. 26:4–5).
In this article, we will reflect upon the Old Testament’s theology of the tongue, which insists that God’s Word must shape our words. In the first part, we will give particular attention to the foundational story of Genesis 1–3. Then, we will draw out several practical principles of wisdom for the tongue from the whole Old Testament.
An Old Testament Theology of the Tongue (Gen. 1–3)
The Old Testament proclaims that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Negatively, the fear of the Lord teaches us how not to speak: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil:…the froward [perverse] mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:13). Positively, the fear of the Lord also teaches us to pattern our speech after God’s speech, from whose “mouth cometh knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6).
While the whole Old Testament explores these issues, the opening chapters of Genesis poignantly summarize the basic issues at stake. Genesis 1 establishes that God’s Word is powerful and creative, giving life and blessing. He creates by a simple word of command (“Let there be…”; Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). Then, he blesses what he creates (Gen. 1:22, 28; 2:3). To this day, God’s words continue to “do good to him that walketh uprightly” (Mic. 2:7). As creatures made in God’s image, our Creator has given us the capacity to resemble him in our speech (Gen. 1:26–27). This does not mean that our words possess the same authority as God’s Word (Job 38:2; 40:3–5; 42:1–6). Nevertheless, God has endowed our words with power resembling his own, so that our words may be health to others (Prov. 12:18; 13:17; 16:24).
Genesis 2 reveals how God’s Word distinguishes between good and evil. God commands Adam to eat from every tree in the garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9, 16–17). By this, God sets the example that our own words should also distinguish rightly between good and evil: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20; Prov. 17:15; 24:24–26).
In Genesis 3, we discover that God had honestly sought to protect life by his warning that death would be the penalty for sin: “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17b). Too late, Adam and Eve learned the folly of disregarding God’s Word (Gen. 3:7–24). Similarly, we speak wisely when we warn others of spiritual danger that they do not yet see: “The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death” (Prov. 13:14).
Why, then, did Adam and Eve depart from God’s Word? Tragically, another figure arose to challenge God’s wisdom: “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1). The word “subtil” appears elsewhere to describe the “crafty” tongues of the wicked (Job 5:12; 15:5), as well as the “prudent” wisdom of the godly (Prov. 12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:8, 15, 18; 22:3; 27:12). The serpent’s “wisdom,” however, is counterfeit. The Bible calls it “folly.”
So, the serpent speaks to seduce Adam and Eve to doubt God’s Word in three ways. First, the serpent questions God’s goodness: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Gen. 3:1). Second, the serpent denies the consequences of sin: “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Third, the serpent promises blessings for disobedience: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Thus, the book of Proverbs repeatedly warns us not to be fooled by smooth, flattering, and seductive words (Prov. 2:12–19; 5:1–4; 6:23–24).
Jesus explained the close connection between the devil’s lies and murder: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44). By lying to Adam and Eve, the devil murdered the whole human race. Thus, we must pray for protection from the wicked who similarly “have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3).
The great problem of Adam and Eve’s original sin, though, is that we are not only victims of the seductive, flattering, false, and murderous speech of others. We also become perpetrators of false speech. The Fall poisoned the tongues of every human being born in the line of Adam. God’s Law demands that we speak in holiness as his image-bearers, but our tongues too often resemble the false speech of the serpent. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we receive forgiveness for the sins of our tongues and strength to put away corrupt communication, so that we may begin to speak in edifying words that “minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29).
Practical Old Testament Wisdom for the Tongue
Toward the end of conforming our words to God’s Word, the Old Testament is an invaluable resource. Let us now consider seven practical principles of Old Testament wisdom for transforming the tongue.
First, we must fix it in our minds that God will judge our speech (Jer. 9:3, 5, 8–9; Mic. 6:12–13). Often, people imagine that God cannot see or judge their wicked words: “God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it” (Ps. 10:7, 11); or, “Who shall see them?” (Ps. 64:3, 5); or, “How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?” (Ps. 73:8, 11). The Lord, however, both sees and judges: “But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly shall they be wounded. So they shall make their own tongue to fall upon themselves” (Ps. 64:7–8; 50:19–21; 1 Kgs. 21).
Second, we must recognize that our speech is binding: “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee” (Deut. 23:21; Judg. 11:29–40; Eccl. 5:4–7). Once we have made a promise, we must keep our word (Josh. 9:19; Prov. 6:1–5). The Lord promises to bless the one who “sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (Ps. 15:1, 4).
Third, because God will judge us for our binding speech, the Bible teaches that it is often better not to speak at all: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Eccl. 5:2; Prov. 10:19; 17:27; 29:11, 20). There is certainly a time to speak, rather than holding our peace (2 Kgs. 7:9; Esth. 4:14; Eccl. 3:7; Prov. 26:4–5); however, silence can make even a fool seem wise (Prov. 17:28).
Fourth, rather than speaking, the Scriptures call us to listen: “The wise in heart will receive commandments: but a prating fool [lit, “a fool of lips”] shall fall” (Prov. 10:8; Prov. 18:2; 21:28). Consequently, we must be careful about what we hear, since as we hear, so we will speak: “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20; 17:4; 22:17–18; 1 Kgs. 12:6–11). We should therefore pray that the Lord would give us “the tongue of the learned” that comes from having first listened to God’s Word with humility (Isa. 50:4, 5).
Fifth, when we do speak, our speech should reflect our frailty, rather than boasting over power that we do not really possess: “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (Ps. 12:3–4; 2 Kgs. 19; Dan. 3:16–18). Therefore, we must not boast about our plans or achievements (Prov. 27:1; Dan. 4:28–37; Jas. 4:13–17). Especially, we must never presume to speak for God: “Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues, and say, He saith” (Jer. 23:31).
Sixth, the proper use for our tongues is to glorify God and to love our neighbors. So, our speech should be “faithful,” “soft,” “wholesome,” “spoken in due season,” “prudent,” “pleasant…, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones,” and “fitly spoken” (Prov. 13:17; 15:1, 4, 23; 16:24; 25:11; 1 Sam. 25:23–35). Further, our words should protect the innocent and vulnerable from the wicked: “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:9; Prov. 11:9; 12:6; 31:8; Esth. 7:1–6).
Seventh, we must cling to the gospel promise that the same God who created the tongue will teach those who trust in him to speak (Ex. 4:10–12). Through a King who will “reign in righteousness…, the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly” (Isa. 32:1, 4). When Christ comes, he promises that “the tongue of the dumb sing” (Isa. 35:6) so that, one day, among God’s people, no “deceitful tongue be found in their mouth” (Zeph. 3:13). While we may struggle to tame our tongues today, God himself promises a future when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear” to the only living God, through Jesus Christ his Son (Isa. 45:23; Phil. 2:10–11).
The Old Testament contains a treasury of wisdom for the tongue. Some parts are immediately clear, while others may remain “hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16) and in need of further reflection. All of it, however, is “written down for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11) and “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Let us therefore study our Bibles in prayer that God would conform our words to his Word, so that our “tongue also shall talk of thy righteousness all the day long” (Ps. 71:24).
Originally published as: Jacob D. Gerber, “Wisdom for the Tongue (1): An Old Testament Theology of the Tongue,” The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth 30.6 (2022): 238–39. Republished here with permission.