BE CAREFUL LITTLE TONGUE
by Bob Wheeler
As we have seen in Eph. 4:17-24 Paul describes the transformation that should take place in a person’s life when he becomes a Christian. We are to “put off . . .the old man” and “put on the new man” (vv. 22,245). He then goes on to say “therefore” (v. 25). He is about to describe the practical implications of this inward transformation.
And the first thing he mentions is lying. “Therefore, putting away lying . . .” (Eph. 4:25; NKJV). He then quotes a verse from the Old Testament, Zechariah 8:16: “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.” In Zechariah chapter 8 the Lord promised the future restoration of Israel. But then He says,
“’These are the things you shall do:
Speak each man the truth to his neighbor;
Give judgment in your gates for truth, justice and peace;
Let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor;
And do not love a false oath.
For all these are things that I hate,’
Says the Lord.”
Perjury, of course, is a violation of the Ninth Commandment. But the underlying principle is that we should not harm our neighbor in any way through what we speak, and that includes even thinking about doing it: “Let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor.” All of our dealings with each other must be done in honesty. And so detestable in the sight of God is dishonesty that He says He “hates” it.
Having quoted the verse from Zechariah Paul goes on to explain: “for we are members of one another.” The natural tendency of the unregenerate heart is to see ourselves as isolated individuals in competition with each other. If my interests conflict with your interests, I am going to defend myself. And if that means that I have to lie about something I will do it. But that is the essence of human depravity – the willingness to hurt each other in order to advance our own interests and that in complete disregard for the will of the Maker.
What the Bible says instead is that we are connected to each other. Our actions affect each other, and we should have enough of a care and compassion for each other that we would never do anything to harm each other’s interests. I should care for you as much as I care for myself.
But sins of the tongue involve more than just perjury or even lying. For later in the chapter Paul gives this word of instruction: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (v. 29). And then he goes on in the next chapter to say that among the things that should “not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” are “filthiness,” “foolish talking,” and “coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (5:3,4).
Paul here speaks in very general terms – he does not give us a list of four-letter words banned by the Federal Communications Commission. But the word translated “corrupt” in 4:29 literally means “rotten” or “putrid,” which conveys the image of something which is both ugly and disgusting and at the same time utterly worthless. Commentator H.C.G. Moule says that it refers to “all talk tainted with moral decay, the miserable innuendo, the double entendre of sin, as well as more involved impurity . . .” And Paul draws a contrast between this “rotten speech” and “what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”
As noted above, in chapter 5 verse 4 Paul condemns “filthiness,” “foolish talking,” and coarse jesting.” “Filthiness” means that which is ugly, shameful or base. Another commentator, Marvin Vincent, says it refers to obscenity. The word translated “coarse jesting” originally had a positive connotation in secular Greek – it described a person who was witty and urbane. Here, however, it has the negative connotation of coarse jesting or buffoonery.
The basic principle here is that we are to use our tongues in a constructive manner, with the end in view of helping others rather than tearing them down. Do we use our speech to ridicule others, make light of the sexual relationship, brag about our own misdeeds, or make ourselves look good at someone else’s expense? Then it is a misuse of an instrument that God intended for constructive purposes. We should be using our tongues to encourage and edify others, not make fun of them or destroy their reputations. Be careful little tongue what you say!