Sunday we continue our walk through some of the wisdom literature of the Bible, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, in our series Timeless Wisdom. We turn first to the book of Proverbs — a collection of wisdom sayings in the Hebrew scriptures. There, in the twelfth chapter, we find sayings about the wisdom of speaking and the wisdom of remaining silent, as well as the enduring power of truth-telling.
The New Testament letter of James picks up on this theme with powerfully graphic imagery. The strange thing, says James, about the tongue is that it is the smallest of the body parts. It is the smallest, but don’t be deceived about its smallness. The tongue is like the rudder on a huge ship — the whole ship’s course is determined by the small rudder in the water. With horses, says James, we just get control of their mouths with bits, and then their whole bodies follow. The tongue, he says, is the smallest part of the body, but it can direct the whole course of a person’s life.
He then uses another image which powerfully makes his point: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” Picture the image of a brush fire in your mind. The picture was one that the people of Palestine knew well — just as we know it well in Texas. In the dry season the scanty grass and low-growing thorn bushes and scrub were as dry as tender. If they were set on fire, the flames spread like a wave which there was no stopping.
The picture of the tongue as a fire would also have been a familiar image to the first readers of James’ letter. The book of Proverbs says, “Worthless people dig up trouble; their lips are like a scorching fire. Destructive people produce conflict; gossips alienate close friends.” There are two reasons why the damage which words can do is like a fire: First of all, the damage is wide-ranging. Words can damage at a distance. A word dropped at this end of the country can damage someone at the other end. The Rabbis of the first century had this picture: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue. Has the tongue a hand? No, but as the hand kills, so the tongue. The hand kills only at close quarter; the tongue is called an arrow because it kills at a distance. An arrow kills at forty or fifty paces, but of the tongue it is said (Psalm 73:9), ‘They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.’ It ranges over the whole earth and reaches to heaven.” Just like a fire, the tongue can wound and hurt and kill from a distance. If that was true when those words were first written, image the power of words today in the age of social media.
The other reason that a harmful or untruthful word spoken is compared to a fire is that it is uncontrollable. In the tinder-dry conditions of Palestine a forest fire was almost immediately out of control; and no one can control the damage of words. There’s an old saying: “Three things do not come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity.” There is nothing as difficult (impossible, really) as killing a rumor. There is nothing as impossible as obliterating an idle and destructive story.
Sunday we will hear the timeless wisdom of Proverbs and James: wisdom that is needed today more than ever. As we prepare for worship on Sunday, I invite you to read and think about these words of wisdom. What do these words mean for the way we live our lives and conduct ourselves? What do they mean for us as a community or a nation?
Grace and Peace,