Words, The Power Of Life And Death
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
If you’re thinking that something feels a little different about the order of the service this morning, it’s because there is. We have shifted the normal service order around a bit, so that we can end with communion.
If you are just joining us this morning, we are in a series in the Book of Proverbs. We are calling it “Wisdom for All of Life.” We’ve talked about Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly; we’ve talked about the simple, the fool and the scoffer; and fathers and sons. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about friends and neighbors; sex; family; and work. But this morning, we take up the topic of words and their tremendous power.
Let’s pray and we’ll get to work…
This weekend is special to me, because I have friends visiting from Tucson, Arizona, where we just moved from. They Carpenter family (Robert and Cindy, and their children Jordan and Erin) has some family out this way and they were kind enough to stay with us for a bit on their trip. I’d love for you to get to say hello to them. Cindy and Jordan were great co-workers and friends.
Thinking about the power of words all week and knowing I would see them this weekend, reminded me of a few things that others said to me as I left that church in Tucson to come here.
When I announced to the whole staff that I was leaving, it was a hard conversation, but it was very meaningful. And various members of the staff said very, very kinds things, including Cindy. And after I left, Jordan sent me an email that was so thoughtful. I actually printed it out and put it in my ‘happy folder.’ Not many things make it to that folder. And Jordan, you called me the first morning I was preaching here at Community, which people might not think is a big deal to call someone at 7:30, but it is when your time was 4:30am. Your words spoke life into me.
But during that same season, I also remember one long conversation with another couple. It did not go as well. In fact, it did not go well at all. And a few of the things that were said… well… they crushed me. And what they said, they said in front of my wife. I remember the next day my kids and I were at a birthday party and I could hardly function because those words cut so deep.
Maybe I should have been able to shrug it off better and have thicker skin and all of that, but I was reminded that it’s not true that “Sticks and stones will break my bones / But words will never harm me.” No, words are powerful—powerful to heal and to hurt.
If you have a Bible, turn with me to Proverbs. I’m going to read a number of verses this morning, but the central, overarching proverb for the sermon comes from Proverbs 18:21. It reads,
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.
The last cause—“and those who love it will eat its fruits”—I think is where we get the phrase, “you’re going to eat those words.” The author notes that words have great power, both for life and for death, and not only that, but he notes this: what we do with our words comes back to us (we have to eat them), like a razor sharp boomerang that affects others for life or for death, and then we ourselves ultimately have to catch.
I want to use this verse as a helpful way to organize all of what Proverbs has to say about words, or at least much of what Proverbs has to say about words (since there are over 100 verses in the book that address the subject; by my count, more verses than any other topic).
In the first point, I want to talk about what Proverbs has to say about the power of words with respect to death. In the second point, I’ll discuss ways that words can be life. But a shorter way to say this is to say that we’ll be talking about “words as switchblades” and “words as scalpels.”
1. Words as switchblades
“Death… [is] in the power of the tongue.” In my study of Proverbs, I found at least 20 ways to categorize the types of death that can happen when words become a switchblade. Just to name a few, the types of words that kill are dishonest words (6:17, 19; 12:17; 12:22; 16:30; 24:28; 25:14, 18; 26:28); perverse words (10:31); seductive, smooth words (4:10; 5:3; 7:21); mere words, i.e., when action was needed (14:23; 29:19); flattery (26:23-28; 29:5); mocking (17:5; 19:28; not like Elisha mocking the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel); and on and on it goes. Don’t worry, we are not going to study all of these. I’m going to mention a few things about three categories.
The first switchblade I’ll mention in more detail is gossip, or what Proverbs sometimes calls “backbiting.” I found about a half dozen verses that talked about gossip (18:8; 25:23; 26:20; 20:19; 11:13). Consider, Proverbs 25:9-10,
Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret, lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.
Next week Jason will talk more about the theme of “Friends and Neighbors,” but I bring up these verses this week because there are few things that can destroy relationships like gossip. The verse doesn’t actually use the word “gossip,” but that’s what it’s talking about when it mentions “reveal[ing] another’s secret.”
It’s interesting because it assumes that it’s possible that you may be arguing with your neighbor—as I said last week, Proverbs lives in the real world. It says, “Argue your case with your neighbor himself.” In other words, God is instructing believers to resist the temptation to bring other people into the conversation that are not there. It’s a tempting thing to do. It can happen so quickly that you don’t even notice that you’ve done it.
“Did you heart that Sally was pregnant?”
“NO, really? I don’t think they are married?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what I saw Sarah put on Facebook.”
“You know, I heard a few people talking and they don’t like what you’re doing.”
“Really? What people? Did you tell them to talk to me?”
Words of gossip are switchblades that kill. How many a brothers or sisters in Christ have had their reputation killed with it.
1B. Boasting, self-praise
Or consider another switchblade. Consider boasting or self-praise. Several verses on this (25:6-7; 27:21), but look at this one from Proverbs 27:1-2,
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.
The half-brother of Jesus, James, who has a lot to say about the power of the tongue (especially 2:1-12), alludes to Proverbs 27:1 as he speaks about the folly of bragging about “tomorrow.” James writes (James 4:13-16),
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
It’s not wrong to plan for the future—there are even Proverbs that point this out clearly (14:8: 21:5, 29)—but what is wrong, what is evil, as James calls it, is to be overly self-assured about things, especially that thing will go our way, and especially things so out of our control.
The third switchblade is rash, or we might say hasty, unreflective words. These are the thoughtless words said in anger. The text or tweet or email or post that should have never been sent. Let’s look at this one from Proverbs 12:18,
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
The author says that rash, unreflective words are like a fool going about with a sword swinging in every direction. Having these type of words are not to be viewed as a virtue, yet too often, and this is just my observation, people brandish this switchblade as though it were a badge of honor—“I just tell it like it is; I just shoot from the hip and call it like I see it.” Well, being a straight shooter is one thing, but if you mean you’re a thoughtless dude waving around a sword, then no, that’s not good.
Speaking of waving around swords, this morning, I brought my machete from home. Nobody get nervous; nothing is going to happen. But I wanted to show it to you. I got it in Costa Rica as a souvenir when I went there on a trip in High School. It used to have a fancy case leather case, but I don’t know what happened to it.
I haven’t gotten it out much over the years, until recently because I have a 6-year-old son. When we first moved here, the place we were renting had a big wooded area behind it and he and I would go out and chop things. In fact, his birthday was April 1 and I had promised after church we would go out and chop stuff, but it was terrible out—sleet blowing sideways. But I promised, so we bundled up and went to the woods to chop stuff. It was a good time. Short, but good.
But I hope you can appreciate that fact that I didn’t just hand him the lethal weapon and say, “Go for it. Have at it.” No.
Just like I won’t give it to him this morning after church, and say, “Sure, you can hold it and play with it; take it to Sunday school with you. I don’t care. Bring it to Vacation Bible School with you next week. Take it to the playground share it with the other kids.” No. I don’t do that, in case you were wondering.
Rather, we went over a bunch of rules and guidelines for the machete—hold it by the handle; hold it by your side; thoughtfully look around you before you swing; only chop trees that have already died and are on the ground; these types of things. In other words, don’t be hasty or rash with it.
Why the instruction? Because it’s sharp and it can hurt people. So it is with our words.
We laughed at the thought of a machete on the playground—though it was a nervous laugh—but a good friend of mine once pointed out something helpful about words when talking about this passage (“Living a Wise Life: A Matter of Life and Death, Proverbs 18:21” by Pastor Jeremiah York on February 2, 2014 at New Life Bible Fellowship, Tucson, AZ). How many of our children come home from school cut up with words, because no one ever taught the other kids how to use their words? How many kids come home, go up to their room desperately not wanting to go back to ‘wherever’ because they are tired of bleeding from cuts by switchblades? Keep that in mind, parents. And don’t add to their wounds.
The opposite of a switchblade that brings death, might be a scalpel that brings life. And, as the Proverbs 18:21 says, the tongue also has this power.
2. Words as scalpels
In my study of Proverbs, I found about a dozen ways to categorize the types of life that can be produced when words as a scalpel.
Just to name a few, the types of words that give life are honest words (4:24; 16:13; 12:19; 24:26); healing words (12:18); sustaining words, i.e., words that provide sustenance (10:21:12:25; 13:2); precious words (20:15); gracious, kind words (16:4; 22:11); and on and on it goes. I’m going to just take three of these types of scalpels and show a verse from Proverbs and give an example of each.
The first scalpel is calming, restrained speech. Consider Proverbs 17:27-28,
27 Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. 28 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
This proverb speaks to the opposite of rash words. It’s the opposite of a kid on the playground with a machete. It is tempered, measured, and maybe even silence, as opposed to just blurting things out (cf., 10:19; 12:23; 10:14:11-12-13; 18:13, 17).
God desire for us, normally, to shun inflammatory rhetoric—the type of rhetoric that only stirs things up: the punchy sound bite, the edgy bumper sticker, the provocative headline. I say ‘normally’ because there is a place for words that rile people, but this shouldn’t be our default setting.
The second scalpel that I want to mention is “constructiveness” (cf. 10:11, 21, 31; 15:4; 16:21, 23; 31:26). Consider Proverbs 16:22a, 24,
22 Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it…24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
These proverbs talk of “good sense” and “gracious words.” I’m calling that constructiveness. Almost anybody can point out what is wrong, but what a blessing it is to have someone that can be constructive, someone who opens their mouth not just to point out problems but to offer solutions.
2C. Boldness for a justified cause
The third scalpel is “boldness for a justified
cause.” This one may surprise you a little since I have chosen calmness and restrained speech previously. I take this scalpel from Proverbs 31:8-9,
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
I mentioned last week that fathers play a tremendous role in Proverbs, and that’s true, but so do mothers. In vv. 1-2 of this chapter, we learn that these proverbs come as a mother’s advice to her son King Lemuel. Mothers matter too.
This verse teaches us to be bold, not just for the sake of being loud, but for a cause, a justified cause. It means speaking up for something that matters. Christians don’t speak up because they want to hear themselves talk; we speak up because we have a message that matters.
I think about a hero of mine, a pastor that preached in a local church for over 30 years, and nearly every year in January he would break from whatever series they were doing, whatever book they were in, and he would preach on back to back Sundays about “life” one week and “racism” the next. He did this to correspond with the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, which falls near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and then MLK day. That’s not the only way it can be done, or even the way everyone should do it, but we have do to it. But it is a way.
I think of the time when Brooke and I were dating. We were at some friends house to watch a movie and almost all of them were Christians. It was not a good movie. I knew pretty quick, we can’t stay. You instead of saying, “Guys, thanks for inviting us, but I’m going to pass on this one,” which really would have been pretty weak-sauce, I said, “Hey, guys, thanks of inviting us, but I’m going to take Brooke back to her house because she has to get up early.” We get up. We leave. We get out the door, and Brooke didn’t have to say a thing. She didn’t even have to make eye contact. I knew. I knew I was a coward!
With God’s grace, we have to speak up for, as the Proverb says, those who are destitute, those who are needy, those that cannot pay us back. We have to have boldness for a justified cause.
So what are we to do? I have several applications; they are not long.
- Silence: let it become a friend.
- Wait to send emails, texts, posts, etc
- For import conversations, prefer face-to-face (or at least voice to voice) over email or text. Just because you can text something doesn’t mean you should
- Consider that if you are going to mention a problem, think about trying to have a potential solution as well.
- With respect to gossip, we can say things like, “I’m sorry, but I have no right to hear this,” or “you really need to take this up with them” (Dr. Collins, Psalms and Wisdom Literature, class notes while at Covenant Seminary).
- Make your scalpels as sharp as possible. Don’t have blunt words, have sharp words. Not sharp switchblades, but sharp scalpels. You and I are going to use words, we are going to do surgery, so let’s make it count. Work on your ability to use language well. Take note of others when they do so (or do not). Maybe you could go to community college and take a night class on poetry, not so that you can become a professional poet, but so that you have a better facility with language so that you can bless someone at their retirement ceremony, or give a toast at a wedding, or use your words to encourage the congregation at a membership meeting. Maybe write a novel, not so that it can be published, but rather so that you can practice telling good, compelling stories to your grandkids when you tuck them into bed. You say, “Pastor, that’s not practical.” I know, I know, I know. I just don’t want to be a pastor of small sermons and small itty-bitty applications; I want you to dream.
There were several applications but these won’t ever be enough to solve our problems with our tongue, because words come from the heart. Proverbs make this point very clear (10:8, 20; 12:6, 23; 15:14, 28; 16:23; 22:11; 24:2). Jesus also makes this connection when he says, “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
I remember the moment when I realized this. It was terrifying. At church, while doing announcements years ago where was confusion as to whether we were still collecting donations for a crises pregnancy center. I glance at the senior pastor. He nodes, Yes. So I blurt out, “O, we are still taking money. The church will always take your money.” It sounded funny in my head. Not so funny out loud. Then all day: words, words, and more words—prayers, casual conversations, a lunch with a couple in the congregations after church, and then at night, youth group—word, words, and more words. At the end of the night, I realized, ministry—like life—comes from the overflow of the heart.
In other words, if we think we have a problem with our mouth, it’s because we have a problem with our heart. Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This is often why the imagery for the mouth in Proverbs is a fountain (10:11; 13:14; 18:4).
All of this means, we need the gospel. We will never speak words of life, until we hear them from God to us. We will never use our words as God intends, as you want to use them, as you want them used to you, until we hear from God, he love spoken over us. And one of the places we see, and hear, the love of God for us most clearly, is in the practice of taking the Lord’s Supper. I’ll going to close in prayer, invite the worship team back up, and Jason will lead us in communion.