Like the helm of a ship or a bit in the mouth of a horse, the tongue is a very little member (Jam. 3:3-5). Perhaps we are most conscious of our tongues when tasting a little food or drink, though we probably do not lap water with our tongues “as a dog lappeth,” as did the 300 soldiers of Gideon (Jud. 7:5). But it is especially in its capacity for language that the tongue “boasteth great things” (Jam. 3:5), even greater than steering the bulk of a ship or controlling a powerful horse. If you have ever used a glossary (derived from the Greek: glossa, “tongue”), then you know something of the arsenal wielded by the tongue. So much is the tongue bound up in all forms of human communication that the Bible speaks of the Hebrew tongue and the Greek tongue (Rev. 9:11), the tongue of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4), and the nations “whose tongue thou shalt not understand” (Deut. 28:49). A tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth is a silent tongue, which the psalmist prayed would be his tongue “if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps. 137:6). The tongue of a man with a heart overflowing with the beauty of the King and His bride is “the pen of a ready writer” (Ps. 45:1).
As a vehicle for language, the tongue holds the capacity for tremendous evil. The wicked whose throat is an open sepulcher also “flatter with their tongue” (Ps. 5:9). They “whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words” (Ps. 64:3). The “tongue of the strange woman” lures many into her net of adultery and destruction (Prov. 6:24). Among six, yea seven abominations to the Lord is not only a proud look and hands that shed innocent blood, but also “a lying tongue” (Prov. 6:17). The wicked even dare to “set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth” (Ps. 73:9). No such affront against the God of glory shall remain unanswered, for “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things” (Ps. 12:3)! Not even a drop of water shall be spared to cool the tongue of those cast into the consuming flame of eternal wrath (Luke 16:24).
But James was not thinking of the worldly wicked when he described the tongue as a fire. And not just any fire, but “a world of iniquity, so is the tongue among our members” (Jam. 3:6). The wildfire that consumes bramble, houses, and forests compares nothing to the tongue that “is set on fire of hell.” Not trees, but brothers and sisters, living, breathing persons, fuel the flames of the unruly, untamable, poisonous tongue (Jam. 3:8). Before you open your mouth (or your inbox, or your phone, or your social media account) consider carefully, for “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). Rather, “keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Ps. 34:13).
But as terrifying as the potential for evil is, so thrilling are the possibilities for a good use of the tongue! “The tongue of the just is as choice silver” (Prov. 10:20) and, though some speak like the piercings of a sword, “the tongue of the wise is health” (Prov. 12:18). More persuasive than abrupt and sharp words, “a soft tongue breaketh the bone” (Prov. 25:13). More thrilling yet is the use of the tongue in the worship of most holy God! The living vow of the believer is, “And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the day long” (Ps. 35:28). And why should it not, when the Lord has filled our mouth with laughter “and our tongue with singing” (Ps. 126:2)?
The Lord God Himself has a tongue. No more than we can see the hand of God that upholds and governs the universe can we see the tongue of the Lord when “his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire” (Is. 30:27). But even as the Lord took on human hands by which He placed His healing touch on the ears and tongue of the deaf and dumb man in Decapolis (Mark 7:31), so He assumed a human tongue of His own. Indeed, it was the will of the Lord God to give Jesus “the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Is. 50:4). In His darkest hours on the cross He cried, “my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15). But rising from the dead and ascending to the heavens, Christ has been given a name above every name, “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).
Now in the Old Testament it was only the prophet who could say, “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (II Sam. 23:2). But when cloven tongues of fire rested visibly above the heads of 120 believers, filled with the Holy Ghost they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:3, 4). So it began in Jerusalem that Parthians, Medes, Elamites and many others declared in amazement, “We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). And from heaven the ever-growing multitude continues to sing its new song to the Lamb, “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
So whether like Moses you are “of a slow tongue” (Ex. 4:10) or “of a stammering tongue” (Is. 33:19), or whether you have been given “the tongue of the wise” (Prov. 15:2), take heed to your ways that you sin not with your tongue (Ps. 39:1), keep in your tongue “the law of kindness” (Prov. 31:26) and let your “tongue also talk of [God’s] righteousness all the day long” (Ps. 71:24).