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"A man shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth: and the doings of a man's hands shall be rendered unto him."—Prov. xii. 14.

"In the transgression of the lips is a snare to an evil man: but the righteous shall come out of trouble."—Prov. xii. 13.

"A fool's vexation is presently known: but a prudent man concealeth shame."—Prov. xii. 16.

"He that uttereth truth showeth forth righteousness, but a false witness deceit."—Prov. xii. 17.

"The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment."—Prov. xii. 19.

"Lying lips are an abomination unto the Lord: but they that deal truly are His delight."—Prov. xii. 22.

"There is that speaketh rashly like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health."—Prov. xii. 18.

"A prudent man concealeth knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaimeth foolishness."—Prov. xii. 23.

"The words of the wicked are a lying in wait for blood: but the mouth of the upright shall deliver them."—Prov. xii. 6.

"Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad."—Prov. xii. 25.

There is nothing which seems more insubstantial than speech, a mere vibration in the atmosphere which touches the nerves of hearing and then dies away. There is no organ which seems smaller and less considerable than the tongue; a little member which is not even seen, and, physically speaking, soft164 and weak. But the word which issues out of the lips is the greatest power in human life. That "soft tongue breaketh the bone."280280   Prov. xxv. 15. Words will change the currents of life: look for instance at a great orator addressing his audience; how miraculous must it seem to a deaf man watching the speaker that the quiet opening of a mouth should be able to produce such powerful effects upon the faces, the movements, the conduct of the listeners!

We are coming to consider the importance of this diminutive organ, the ill uses and the good uses to which it may be turned, and the consequent necessity of fitly directly and restraining it.

On the use of the tongue depend the issues of a man's own life. It may be regarded as a tree which bears fruits of different kinds, and such fruits as his tongue bears a man must eat. If his words have been good, then he shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth.281281   Prov. xiii. 2. "A man's belly shall be filled with the fruit of his mouth, with the increase of his lips shall he be satisfied."282282   Prov. xviii. 20. The fruits which grow on this tongue-tree are death and life—the tongue produces them—and he that loves the tree shall according to his love eat the one fruit or the other; if he loves death-bearing speech he shall eat death; if he loves life-bearing speech he shall eat life.283283   Prov. xviii. 21. So deadly may be the fruit of the tongue that the mouth of the fool is regarded as a present destruction.284284   Prov. x. 14. So wholesome may be the fruit of the tongue that the tongue of the wise may be actually denominated health.285285   Prov. xii. 18.

In the case of the fool it is always very obvious how165 powerfully the tongue affects the condition of the speaker. His lips are always coming into strife, and his mouth is always calling for stripes. It is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul.286286   Prov. xviii. 6, 7. In the transgression of the lips always lies the snare for the evil man: ultimately all men are in effect condemned out of their own mouths.287287   Prov. xii. 13. The tongue proves to be a rod for the back of the proud and foolish owner of it, while the good man's tongue is a constant life-preserver.288288   Prov. xiv. 3. As an old proverb says, a fool's tongue is always long enough to cut his own throat. On the other hand, where the tongue is wisely used it always brings back joy to the speaker in the end.289289   Prov. xv. 23. Thus whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles,290290   Prov. xxi. 23. but the man who does not take the pains to hear, but gives his testimony falsely, shall perish.291291   Prov. xxi. 28. While the use of the tongue thus recoils on the speaker for good or for evil, it has a wide influence also on others. "He that hath a perverse tongue falleth into mischief,"292292   Prov. xvii. 20. but when speech is good, and such as it ought to be, "the words of a man's mouth are like deep waters, a gushing brook, a well of wisdom."293293   Prov. xviii. 4.

Thus it is of vast and obvious importance how we use our tongue. If our speech is gracious we shall win the friendship of the king,294294   Prov. xxii. 11. and it is a pleasant thing if we "keep the words of the wise within us and if they be established together upon our lips."295295   Prov. xxii. 18. It is better for us to be poor than perverse or untruthful in our speech.296296   Prov. xix. 1, 22. Our teacher, especially our Divine Lord,166 will rejoice inwardly and deeply "when our lips speak right things."297297   Prov. xxiii. 16.

We are now cautioned against some of the evil purposes to which the tongue may be turned, and as all the heads of evil are passed in review we realize why St. James spoke of the tongue as "the world of iniquity" (iii. 6); and how profound was our Lord's teaching that out of the mouth proceed the things which defile a man (Matt. xv. 18).

First of all, the tongue is a fruitful source of Quarrelling and discord. A fool cannot hide his vexation, but must immediately blurt it out with the tongue.298298   Prov. xii. 16. When he is angry he must utter it all at once,299299   Prov. xxix. 11. though a wise man would keep it back and still it, so concealing shame. No one is more certain to come to grief than "he who provokes with words."300300   Prov. xix. 7. All the Proverbs in this selection are in the form of a distich. This affords a fair presumption that this verse with its three clauses is mutilated; and the presumption is confirmed by the fact that the third clause adds nothing of value, even if it be intelligible at all, to the sense. There is good reason, therefore, for believing that this third clause is the half of a distich which has not been preserved in its integrity; all the more because the LXX. have a complete proverb which runs thus: ὁ πολλὰ κακοποιῶν τελεσιουργεῖ κακίαν, ὃς δὲ ἐρεθίζει λόγους οὐ σωθήσεται. "He that does much evil is a craftsman of iniquity, and he that uses provoking words shall not escape." Perhaps in the Hebrew text which was before the Greek translators מְנַדֵּף appeared instead of מְרַדֵּף, and לֹא הָיָה instead of לֹא־הֵמָּה. These irritating taunts and threats are like coals to hot embers, and wood to fire;301301   Prov. xxvi. 21. in their absence the contention would quickly die out. It is therefore the wise counsel of Agur to one who has done foolishly in exalting himself, or has even entertained for a moment the arrogant or167 quarrelsome thought, "Hand on thy mouth!" for speech under such circumstances produces strife as surely as churning produces butter from milk, or a blow on the nose blood.302302   Prov. xxx. 32, 33. Rash, inconsiderate, angry words are like the piercings of a sword.303303   Prov. xii. 18. If only our wrathful spirit made us immediately dumb, anger would never go far, it would die out as a conflagration dies when there is no wind to fan the flames.

But again, the tongue is the instrument of Lying; one of its worst disservices to man is that when it is well balanced, so that it easily wags, it often betrays him into untruths which his heart never contemplated nor even approved. It is the tongue which by false witness so often condemns the innocent.304304   Prov. xii. 17. A worthless witness mocketh at judgment; and the mouth of the wicked swalloweth iniquity.305305   Prov. xix. 28. And though such a witness shall not in the long run go unpunished, nor shall the liar escape,306306   Prov. xix. 5, rep. ver. 9. yet, as experience shows, he may have brought ruin or calamity on others before vengeance falls upon him. The false witness shall perish,307307   Prov. xxi. 28. but often not before he has like a mace or a hammer bruised and like a sword or a sharp arrow pierced his unfortunate neighbour.308308   Prov. xxv. 18. It is the tongue which glozes over the purposes of hate, and lulls the victim into a false security; the fervent lips and the wicked heart are like a silver lining spread over an earthen vessel to make it look like silver; the hatred is cunningly concealed, the seven abominations in the heart are hidden; the pit which is being dug and the stone which is to overwhelm the innocent are kept secret by the facile talk168 and flatteries of the tongue; the more the tongue lies in its guileful machinations the more the heart hates the victims of its spite.309309   Prov. xxvi. 23-28. A righteous man hates lying, but the wicked, by his lies, brings disgrace and shame.310310   Prov. xiii. 5. The lie often appears to prosper for a moment,311311   Prov. xii. 19. but happily it is an abomination to the Lord,312312   Prov. xii. 22. and in His righteous ordering of events he makes the falsehood which was as bread, and sweet to the lips, into gravel which breaks the teeth in the mouth.313313   Prov. xx. 17. The curse which is causeless is frustrated, and so also is the empty lie; it wanders without rest, without limit, like a sparrow or a swallow.314314   Prov. xxvi. 2.

Closely allied to lying is Flattery; and to this vile use the tongue is often put. Flattery is always a mistake. It does not attain its end in winning the favour of the flattered; for in the long run "he that rebuketh a man shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue."315315   Prov. xxviii. 23. If it is believed, as often unfortunately it is, it proves to be a net spread in the path, which may trip up, and may even capture and destroy, the unwary walker.316316   Prov. xxix. 5.

Another evil use of the tongue is for Whispering and tale-bearing. "He that goeth about as a tale-bearer revealeth secrets"—he is not to be trusted, it is better to have nothing to do with him. Disclosing the secret of another is a sure way of incurring reproach and lasting infamy. Such a habit is a fruitful source of rage and indignation, it brings black wrath to the169 countenance of him whose secret has been published, just as a north wind spreads the rain clouds over the sky.317317   Prov. xi. 13 and xx. 19; xxv. 2, 23. Cf. "Whoso discovereth secrets loseth his credit and shall never find friend to his mind" (Eccles. xxvii. 16). The temptation to tattling is great; the business of a gossip brings an immediate reward; for the corrupt heart of man delights in scandal as an epicure in tit-bits: "The words of a whisperer are as dainty morsels which go down into the chamber of the belly."318318   Prov. xviii. 8, rep. xxvi. 22. But what mischief they do! They separate bosom friends, sowing suspicion and distrust.319319   Prov. xvi. 28. Where there is already a little misunderstanding, the whisperer supplies wood to the fire and keeps it burning; apart from him it would soon die out.320320   Prov. xxvi. 20. But if he thinks there is any prospect of a reconciliation he will be constantly harping on the matter; one who seeks love would try to hide the transgression, but the scandalmonger is a foe to love and the unfailing author of enmity.321321   Prov. xvii. 9.

But there is Mischief, more deliberate and more malignant still, which the tongue is employed to plot, to plan and to execute. "With his mouth the godless man destroyeth his neighbour."322322   Prov. xi. 9. "The words of the wicked are a lying in wait for blood."323323   Prov. xii. 6. "The mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things,"324324   Prov. xv. 28. blasphemies, obscenities, curses, imprecations. "A froward man scattereth abroad strife."325325   Prov. xvi. 28. He deceives, and in bitter raillery declares that he was only jesting; he is like170 a madman casting firebrands, arrows, and death.326326   Prov. xxvi. 18, 19. We know what it is to hear a man pouring out foul, abusive, and impious language, until the very atmosphere seems enflamed with firebrands, and arrows fly hither and thither through the horrified air. We know, too, what it is to hear the smooth and well-turned speech of the hypocrite and the impostor, which seems to oppress the heart with a sense of decomposition; righteousness, truth, and joy seem to wither away, and in the choking suffocation of deceit and fraud life itself seems as if it must expire.

It is a relief to turn from those worst uses of the tongue to the more pardonable vices of Rashness and Inopportuneness of speech. Yet these too are evil enough in their way. To pass a judgment before we are in possession of the facts, and before we have taken the pains to carefully investigate and consider them, is a sign of folly and a source of shame.327327   Prov. xviii. 13. So impressed is our teacher with the danger of ill-considered speech that he says, "Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him."328328   Prov. xxix. 20. And even where the utterance of the tongue is in itself good it may be rendered evil by its untimeliness; religious talk itself may be so introduced as to hinder the cause of religion; pearls may be cast before swine: "Speak not in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of thy words."329329   Prov. xxiii. 9. There must be some preparation of spirit before we can wisely introduce Divine and heavenly things, and circumstances must not be chosen which will tend to make the Divine things seem mean171 and contemptible. It may be good to rebuke an evildoer, or to admonish a friend; but if the opportunity is not fitting, we may make the evildoer more evil,—we may alienate our friend without improving him.

Considering then what mischief may be done with the tongue, it is not to be wondered at that we are cautioned against excessive speech. "In the multitude of words there wanteth not transgression, but he that refraineth his lips doeth wisely."330330   Prov. x. 19. "He that guardeth his mouth keepeth his life; who opens wide his lips gets destruction, and a fool spreadeth out folly."331331   Prov. xiii. 3, 16. "In all labour is profit, the talk of the lips tends only to poverty."332332   Prov. xiv. 23. "Wisdom rests in the heart of the understanding, but even in the inward part of fools all is blabbed."333333   Prov. xiv. 33. "In the fool are no lips of knowledge" because he is always talking.334334   Prov. xiv. 7. There is a quaint and pertinent passage in Lyly's Euphues:—"We may see the cunning and curious work of Nature, which hath barred and hedged nothing in so strongly as the tongue, with two rowes of teeth, and therewith two lips, besides she hath placed it farre from the heart, that it should not utter that which the heart had conceived; this also should cause us to be silent, seeinge those that use much talke, though they speake truly, are never beleeved." "The tongue of the wise uttereth knowledge aright, but the mouth of fools poureth out folly."335335   Prov. xv. 2. "A fool hath no delight in understanding, but only that his heart may reveal itself."336336   Prov. xviii. 2. One who is always pouring out talk is sure to be pouring out folly. The wise man, feeling that all his words must be tested and weighed, is not able to talk very much. When your money is all in copper, you may afford to throw it about, but when it is all in gold172 you have to be cautious. A Christian feels that for every idle word he utters he will have to give account, and as none of his words are to be idle they must be comparatively few; the word that kindles wrath, the lie, the whisper, the slander, can therefore find no place on his lips.

This brings us to the Good and beautiful uses of the tongue, those uses which justify us in calling the tongue of the wise Health.337337   Prov. xii. 18. First of all the tongue has the gracious power of soothing and restraining anger. It is the readiest instrument of peace-making. Gentleness of speech allays great offences,338338   Eccl. x. 4. and by preventing quarrels, disarming wrath, and healing the wounds of the spirit, it maintains its claim to be a tree of life.339339   Prov. xv. 4. מַרְפֵּא is best rendered here and in Eccl. x. 4 by "gentleness." It is just that quality of humility and submission and tranquillity which our Lord blessed as meekness. If in the tumult of passion, when fiery charges are made and grievous provocations are uttered, the tongue can be held in firm restraint, and made to give a soft answer, the storm will subside, the angry assailant will retire abashed,340340   Prov. xv. 1. and the flaming arrows will be quenched in the buckler of meekness which opposes them. Nor is the tongue only defensive in such cases. The pleasant words, spoken out of a kindly and gentle nature, have a purifying effect;341341   Prov. xv. 26. they cleanse away the defilements out of which the evil passions sprang; they purge the diseased humours which produce the irritations of life; they supply a sweet food to the poor hearts of men, who are often contentious because they are hungry for sympathy and love. Pleasant173 words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, health to the bones.342342   Prov. xvi. 24. They must be true words, or they will not in the end be pleasant, for, as we have seen, the sweet bread of falsehood turns to gravel in the mouth. But what a different world this would become if we all spoke as many pleasant words as we honestly could, and were not so painfully afraid of showing what tenderness and pity and healing actually exist in our hearts! For another beautiful use of the tongue is to comfort the mourners, of whom there are always so many in the world. "Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop." There are these stooping, bowed-down hearts everywhere around us. We wish that we could remove the cause of sorrow, that we could effectually change the conditions which seem unfavourable to joy; but being unable to do this, we often stand aloof and remain silent, because we shrink from giving words without deeds, pity without relief. We forget that when the heart is heavy it is just "a good word that maketh it glad."343343   Prov. xii. 25. Yes, a word of genuine sympathy, a word from the heart,—and in trouble no other word can be called good,—will often do more to revive the drooping spirit than the grosser gifts of material wealth. A coin kindly given, a present dictated by a heart-felt love, may come as a spiritual blessing; on the other hand, money given without love is worthless, and seldom earns so much as gratitude, while a word in season, how good it is!344344   Prov. xv. 23. It is better than silver and gold; the discouraged and despondent heart seems to be touched with the delicate finger of hope, and to rise from the ashes and the dust174 with a new purpose and a new life. It must, of course, be in season. "As vinegar upon nitre so is he that sings songs to a sad heart."345345   Prov. xxv. 20. But the seasonable word, spoken just at the right moment and just in the right tone, brief and simple, but comprehending and penetrating, will often make the sad heart sing a song for itself.

Great stress is to be laid on this seasonableness of speech, whether the speech be for comfort or reproof. A word fitly spoken, or to preserve the image implied in the original, a word that runs on its wheels in the just and inevitable groove, is compared to a beautiful ornament consisting of golden apples set in an appropriate framework of silver filigree.346346   Prov. xxv. 11. In such an ornament the golden apples torn from their suitable foil would lose half their beauty, and the silver setting without the apples would only suggest a void and a missing. It is in the combination that the artistic value is to be found. In the same way, the wisest utterance spoken foolishly347347   Cf. Eccles. xx. 20: "A wise sentence shall be rejected when it cometh out of a fool's mouth, for he will not speak it in due season." jars upon the hearers, and misses the mark, while a very simple saying, a platitude in itself, may by its setting become lovely and worthy. The best sermon in a social gathering will seem out of place, but how often can the Christian man by some almost unobserved remark correct unseasonable levity, rebuke unhallowed conversation, and lead the minds of the company to nobler thoughts. The timely word is better than the best sermon in such a case.


The use of the tongue in Reproof is frequently referred to in these proverbs. "A wise reprover upon an obedient ear" is compared to "an earring of gold, an ornament of fine gold."348348   Prov. xxv. 12. And rebuke is, as we have seen, preferred before flattery.349349   Prov. xxviii. 23. But how wise we must be before our tongue can fitly discharge this function! How humble must the heart be before it can instruct the tongue to speak at once with firmness and tenderness, without a touch of the Pharisee in its tone, to the erring brother or the offending stranger! A rebuke which springs not from love but from vanity, not from self-forgetfulness but from self-righteousness, will not be like an earring of gold, but rather like an ornament of miserable tinsel chafing the ear, the cause of gangrene, a disfigurement as well as an injury. But if we live in close communion with Christ, and daily receive His stern but tender rebukes into our own souls, it is possible that we may be employed by Him to deliver timely rebukes to our fellow-men.

There are two other noble uses of the tongue to which reference is constantly made in our book; the Instruction of the ignorant, and the Championship of the distressed. With regard to the first, we are told that "the lips of the wise disperse knowledge," while of course the heart of the foolish not being right cannot possibly impart rightness to others.350350   Prov. xv. 7. It is only the wise in heart that can claim the title of prudent, but where that wisdom is "the sweetness of the lips increaseth learning."351351   Prov. xvi. 21. "The heart of the wise instructeth his mouth and addeth learning to his lips."352352   Prov. xvi. 23. The lips of knowledge176 are compared to a precious vessel which is more valuable than gold or rubies.353353   Prov. xx. 15. To teach well requires earnest preparation, "the heart of the righteous studieth to answer."354354   Prov. xv. 28. But when the right answer to the pupil is discovered and given it is beautifully compared to a kiss on the lips.355355   Prov. xxiv. 26.

But never is the tongue more divinely employed than in using its knowledge or its pleadings to deliver those who are in danger or distress. "Through knowledge the righteous may often be delivered."356356   Prov. xi. 9. The mouth of the upright will deliver those against whom the wicked are plotting.357357   Prov. xii. 6. It is a great prerogative of wise lips that they are able to preserve not themselves only but others.358358   Prov. xiv. 3. The true and faithful witness delivers souls.359359   Prov. xiv. 5, 25. It is this which gives to power its one great attraction for the good man. The ruler, the judge, the person of social consideration or of large means is in the enviable position of being able to "open his mouth for the dumb, in the cause of all such as are left desolate, to judge rightly and minister judgment to the poor and needy."360360   Prov. xxxi. 8, 9.

The Press—that great fourth estate—which represents for us the more extended use of the tongue in modern times, illustrates in the most vivid way the service which can be rendered where speech is fit, and also the injury that can be done where it is rash, imprudent, dishonest, interested, or unjust.

After thus reviewing some of the good uses of the tongue, and observing how they depend on the state177 of the heart,361361   Note the intimate connection between conduct and speech in such a proverb as xvii. 4. When we do evil we are always ready to listen to evil talk, when we talk deceitfully we are preparing to go on to worse deeds of evil, to listen to tongues of destruction. Note, too, how in xii. 5 the thoughts and the counsels of the heart come before the words and the mouth in v. 6. we cannot help again laying stress on the need of a wise self-control in all that we say. He that refraineth his lips doeth wisely. A man of understanding holdeth his peace.362362   Prov. xi. 12. "He that spareth his words hath knowledge."363363   Prov. xvii. 27. "Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is counted wise, when he shutteth his lips he is prudent."364364   Prov. xvii. 28. Cf. the old Norse proverb:— "An unwise man when he comes among the people Had best be silent: no one knows That he nothing knows unless he talks too much." If only the uninstructed and foolish person has sense enough to perceive that wisdom is too high for him he will not open his mouth in the gate,365365   Prov. xxiv. 7. and so in listening he may learn. "Of thine unspoken word thou art master," says an Indian proverb, "but thy spoken word is master of thee." We are to be swift to hear, but slow to speak: we are to ponder all that we hear, for it is only the simple that believes every word, the prudent man looks well to his going.366366   Prov. xiv. 15. As St. James says, summing up all the teaching that we have reviewed, "If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his heart, this man's religion is vain."367367   James i. 26.

And now there is only one other point to be noticed, but it is one of vast importance. As we realize the immense power of the tongue and the great issues which depend on its right or wrong employment; as178 we sum up all the evil which its tiny unobserved movements can accomplish, and all the rich blessings which it is, under right supervision, capable of producing; and as from personal experience we recognise how difficult it is to bridle the unruly member, how difficult it is to check the double fountain so that it shall send forth sweet waters only, and no bitter, we may be awed into an almost absolute silence, and be inclined to put away the talent of speech which our Lord has given to us, not daring to use it lest in using we should abuse it. But here is the answer to our misgiving: the plans and preparations of our hearts belong to us, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.368368   Prov. xvi. 1. This most uncontrollable organ of the body can be put under our Lord's control. He is able to give us "a mouth and wisdom," and to make our words not our own but the utterance of His Holy Spirit. There may be "an ocean round our words which overflows and drowns them," the encircling influences of God, turning even our faultiest speech to good account, neutralising all our falterings and blunderings, and silencing our follies and perversities.

Shall we not put our lips under our Lord's control, that the answer of our tongue may be from Him? While we seek daily to subject our hearts to Him, shall we not in a peculiar and a direct manner subject our tongues, to Him? for while a subjected heart may keep the mouth from speaking evil, if the tongue is to speak well and to be employed for all its noble uses it must be immediately moved by God, our lips must be touched with a coal from the altar, our speech must be chastened and purified, inspired and impelled, by Him.

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