Reprinted from When Thou Sittest In Thine House, by Abraham Kuyper, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1929. Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Every gift of God brings its temptation. For it can either be used for God’s glory, or misused in the service of sin.
This applies, surely not least, to the wondrous gift oflanguage, that high privilege whereby, among all creatures, man distinguishes himself.
For though in our times reports are abroad of a language of animals, and a man of learning has devoted three years of his life to the study of the supposed language of apes, already now the folly of the undertaking has been exposed by the result.
True, animals make sounds, and these sounds vary, and from this difference of sounds something can be understood. When a dog growls, it means something altogether different from when he barks, whines, or howls, and we understand well what these different sounds of a dog mean. But all this has nothing in common with language.
We ourselves have such sounds, to express sensation, as when we laugh or cry, sigh or groan, scream or jubilate. But our speech, our language, the gift to express ourselves in words is something wholly by itself. That you have a language you can speak, means that you belong to a people that for ages have exercised thought, for those thoughts and the connection of those thoughts have found asound, have cast that sound into words, and that, carrying this language in you and speaking it, by those words and by those sounds you are able to have communion of thoughts with your people.
Human language therefore stands so high and is so glorious a gift of God that the Son of God Himself assumes the name of the Word of the Father. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
It is by the Word that our God has made the heavens.
He bears all things by the Word of His power. And when even now some mighty event takes place in the world, it is because a “Word of God” has gone out, which never returns to Him void, but doeth that whereunto He hath sent it.
So the difference is evident.
He who drifted and wandered off seeks for our human language to find a point-of-connection in the sound of an orangutan; while he who lives by the Holy Scriptures finds this connecting-point in the Son of God, who is Himself the eternal Word of God. This must be so.
For the mighty antithesis is and remains, whether you take man as having come up from the ape, or…as created after the Image of God.
For this reason human language stands so high, and human song, which melts word and melody into one, excels so far the song of nightingale and lark.
Only language, the word, is a power which is ever yet able to maintain the competition with the money-power.
That wondrous word in our human language, which draws out the soul, and is able to enter deeply into the heart of the neighbor.
In poetry it works as by magic a world of thoughts around you, and is able to estimate and govern the world in which you dwell.
Our language is the vehicle of our seriousness and of our mirth. It breaks the tension of our sorrow and gives expression to our joy. It creates fellowship of soul with soul. It gives birth to the sociability of life. It weaves a tie around man and man. And, above all, it is language in which we express God’s thoughts, make confession of His holy name, pray to the eternal, and lose ourselves in adoration and praise before His majesty. To the faithful in Israel this latter stood even so mightily in the foreground that they shrank from the idea of losing in death their mouth and their language and their word and their song of praise, and therefore so frequently moaned: In the grave who shall give Thee thanks? (Ps. 6:5).
Yet language cannot spend itself exclusively in praise and thanksgiving.
Our human language is also given us for the practice of fellowship and love toward our neighbor and of goodwill and seriousness among our fellowmen.
But thereby originates temptation.
There is indeed another temptation for our human word, the carnal temptation to swear and take the name of our God in vain. A temptation so strong that many people cannot utter a sentence without an oath forming a part of it. But this temptation we here pass by. We now speak only of the temptation that in our language is abroad among men.
This temptation also is of many sorts. The temptation to flatter, the temptation to lie, the temptation to taunt, and so much more. But also the temptation to be hasty in one’s words, and this especially God’s Word condemns, as we read inProverbs 29:20: “Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him.”
Against this temptation one should be warned, especially in everyday home-life.
In public, or in more or less strange places, among those with whom we are less familiar, one naturally more or less restrains himself. Here speech is bound to a more polite form. One thinks before one speaks. Sometimes one even complains that at such times words are slow, rather than that they come too fast.
But in the common trend of family-life among those with whom one feels at home and at ease, when no forms bind us, and words are freely spoken, the temptation is but all too great that the word discards the bridle, goes beyond the limit, is too hasty, in passion, in petulant folly, or in familiarity exceeding all bounds, to say bluntly what should have remained unsaid, and thoughtlessly to let one’s tongue run away with oneself.
This subverts the ordinance that God gave with respect to language, your human word. His ordinance is that first there should be the thought, and that this thought, as the soul, should embodyitself in the word.
In your speech according to God’s ordinance, your heart, your head, must govern, and your word, your organ of speech, must be servant and serve.
But as a matter of fact this order is frequently reversed. So you meet people who are sometimes called moulins Ã paroles, i.e., word-mills. With whom the tongue speaks of itself, and always keeps on talking, and rattles—like a clock that always ticks. An endless stream of sounds and dripping of words, which makes you seasick and wears you out.
Then rules not the rider the horse, but the horse, here the rattling tongue, runs away with the rider, and what you hear is no longer the utterance of a warm heart or of a clear head, but a leaking gutter that cannot be stopped.
Now this seems, when it does not go too far, sometimes a great convenience. Then one is never confused, can say everything, and has what the world calls an easy flux de bouche, i.e., a rare outpouring of a flood of words.
The trouble in the domestic circle, that such continuous speech disturbs the peace and finally creates such weariness, is by no means yet the worst.
No, it is far worse when such hasty speech inadvertently makes one lose all self-control and moderation in his words, till nothing more is spared, and one literally says everything that comes to mind.
In the domestic circle, in familiar intercourse, this is the cause of so much bitterness and disturbance of spirits, of so much disputation and estrangement.
Then one word brings out another, the tongue of one sets that of the other free, the eloquence of the Evil One masters husband and wife and child and servant. The one tries to excel the other in rapidity of speech. Lack of patience cuts the other short. The one constantly interrupts the other. It becomes a raising of voice against each other. Abusive language sends blood from the heart to the head. And the end of it is that the divine gift, which was given us for the utterance of praise and love, serves time and again at the table, in social intercourse, and familiar fellowship, to disturb the domestic peace.
But this must not be so.
Our language, the glorious gift of speech, we have received of our God, and ours is the responsibility how we use also this gift of our God.
And therefore, with the use of our human word, God’s Word warns us so solemnly, before all things else, to be on our guard against hastiness of speech.
Not of course, as though taunting, lying, flattering, and cutting with the word were not far worse, but because all these other evils hang together with this one ordinance of our God, that with respect to language, the word must be servant, the word mustserve, and not rule.
To keep silent betrays so much higher grace than speech. Speech is silver, says the Scripture, but silence is gold. To hold one’s tongue in leash, and when it is on the point of saying the evil word, totame it, is evidence of noble strength of soul. “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue,” says the Proverb-poet, “keepeth his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23).
And therefore see to it, also with your children, when the young twig is readily bent. Especially a child speaks quickly and thoughtlessly. And upon you rests the responsibility, when instead of having accustomed your child by your own more quiet seriousness to a more easy flow of words, youoverhasty have added your part to his already so great hastiness of speech, by the unrest in words that in your home-circle you have made to be a second nature to yourself.