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Difficult Bible Passages: Proverbs 18:21

May 14, 2020

This is another passage so often massacred by Christians:

I really must retitle this series. Most of the passages I have looked at are not all that difficult to be honest. But most of them have been massacred by various folks, such as cultists and heretics. Sadly however they are also mangled by Christians who know or care little about proper biblical hermeneutics.

Having just a modicum of understanding about basic principles of biblical interpretation would help so many believers to avoid numerous cases of Scripture-twisting and badly handling the Word of Truth. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/14/general-principles-of-biblical-interpretation/

The passage under consideration here says this: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Too many folks abuse and misuse this verse. They push an almost magical and New Age spin on the power of words. It is just the tired old silliness known as the Positive Confession Movement, the Name It and Claim It Movement, or the Word of Faith teaching. I have dealt with this errant theology plenty of times already, such as in these pieces:

billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/

billmuehlenberg.com/2014/06/20/positive-confession-and-the-new-age-movement/

billmuehlenberg.com/2013/05/14/god-prayer-and-positive-confession/

billmuehlenberg.com/2018/11/06/faith-or-presumption-prayer-or-magic/

What I have said there would pretty well explain how we should NOT run with a text like Prov. 18:21. But let me spend some further time looking at this movement in general, and this verse in particular. I do so in part because of a recent social media exchange with one Christian.

I had mentioned that a great elderly saint of God was near death with inoperable cancer, and how we need to pray for him and his family. So this guy came along and replied this way: “People need to be careful how they speak. Death and Life is in the power of the tongue. Pray and stand on the word of God in faith and speak life. Don’t pray and say he’s dying! That just cancels out the prayer.”

When another person challenged him, he got even more huffy: “I have been a committed Christian for over 35 years – because i quote the word of God you are calling it hocus pocus?? I would rather be in faith any day! Jesus said when he returns will he find faith on the earth Luke 18:8.”

Oh dear. My immediate reply was this: “We need to pray here, not push pet theological agendas thanks. Christians are realists, not magicians. We will all die eventually. There is nothing unChristian or unbiblical in saying that. We will pray that God’s will be done here. Mind over matter stuff is New Age mumbo jumbo, not biblical Christianity.”

And living in the real world does NOT cancel out prayer! Facing reality is exactly how we should pray – not living in a land of make believe. Also, Satan of course quoted Scripture as well, but Jesus rebuked him for doing so. Simply ripping a few texts out of context and ignoring the totality of Scripture helps no one. As always, we must compare Scripture with Scripture.

As to the power of the tongue, yes Scripture gives us a lot of general truths about how our speech can have helpful and edifying outcomes, or destructive and debilitating outcomes. That does NOT of course mean we can create reality with our words, as the New Age Movement insists, or the mind over matter theology claims.

Once again, knowing a bit about basic interpretation principles will go a long way here. The writer of this proverb is using a well-established literary device known as a merism. It involves a combination of two contrasting words to refer to an entirety. Within the two poles or extremes lie the sum total of a given category or range.  

When we say “we searched high and low” for something, we mean we looked everywhere. This is a merism. This figure of speech is used extensively in biblical poetry (and some prose). The very first verse of the Hebrew Scriptures for example employs it.

When we read in Genesis 1:1 that God created “the heavens and the earth” that is a way of saying he created everything – the entire universe. A verse like 1 Kings 4:25 is another clear example of this: “And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.”

So in this particular proverb we are learning about how speech can cover quite a wide range, both for good and for evil, for encouragement and for discouragement. So the point is to be careful in what we say. Any parent knows that they can tear their children down or build them up, depending on what they say to them.

The verse obviously does not mean that I have some sort of magical power to kill or make alive. If I say to someone, “drop dead,” they are obviously not going to fall dead right in front of me. And if I tell a 97-year-old hospital patient clearly on the natural course of death, “you are going to live” it is not likely going to happen. Sure, we can pray for everyone. But prayer must align with God’s will, not wishful thinking.

As I have said elsewhere, the proverbs are general rules of life, not specific absolutes: “One of the most important things we need to understand about the proverbs is they are NOT absolutes or unbreakable promises or ironclad guarantees that are made to everyone, everywhere, and at all the times. They are general principles that apply to life, but the right time or circumstance can be crucial in applying them.” billmuehlenberg.com/2018/05/24/bible-study-helps-proverbs/

There are numerous proverbs about guarding our speech and taking care about what we say. The principles are obvious: what you say can build others up or tear them down. Thus we have other proverbs and psalms, such as:

Proverbs 15:4 The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

Psalm 141:3 Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Proverbs 26:20 Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.

Proverbs 15:1-2 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.

Once again, this has nothing to do with creative visualisation, or believers having God-like powers to create something out of nothing. Only God can create ex nihilo. We are not God, nor little gods, as some of the Word of Faith teachers have taught.

The point is, the fool comes to grief – even death. That is a common theme found in Proverbs. As Tremper Longman says about this verse, “Death is the end of the road for those who use speech to hurt others. But before that come shame and disgrace: ‘Spouting off before listening to facts is both shameful and foolish’ (Prov. 18:13).”

David Hubbard explains the merism used here: “‘Death and life’ refer to the impact (‘power’; lit., ‘hand’) of speech on others. They are extreme ways of describing the harm and blessing of what we say.” That is, our words can bring us together or tear us apart.

As Bruce Waltke puts it, “The deadly tongue disrupts community and by its lethal power isolates its owner from community and kills him. The life-giving tongue creates community and by its vitality gives its possessor the full enjoyment of the abundant life within the community.”

And as Scripture throughout repeatedly reminds us, what comes out of us – our actions and our words – simply reflects what is already in us. Jesus made this quite clear when he said:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:17-20).

That is exactly what this proverb is speaking about. As Paul Koptak comments:

Let us burn into our minds the picture that all of our practices of speaking and listening end up in the “inmost parts” or “stomach” (18:8, 20–21), and let us make a conscious effort to reject gossip and other forms of put down. We can further imagine that saying or listening to such talk is like eating junk food – tasty perhaps, but ultimately empty and even harmful. Do we really want mean-spirited and critical words to churn around inside us? Daily vigilance over what we say and hear are akin to habits of healthy eating.

So we must always be cautious in what we say. Our words can be a force for good or for evil. But, no, we cannot kill people by simply opening our mouth, nor can we necessarily make alive. That we can pray for people who are ill and trust God for healing is another matter. But it is the will of God, not our words, that determines such things.

To see how foolish the name it and claim it teaching is, if I have a broken arm, and it is clearly just hanging there while I am screaming in pain, it would be absolutely useless for one of these folks to say to me: “Brother, you need more faith! Stop the negative confession! Claim your perfect health! Do not cancel the power of prayer!”

Um, that is not faith – it is foolishness. God does NOT want us to live in a fantasy world. We are to live in the real world as God created it. Sure, we want to see things from God’s perspective, and have faith. But what matters is faith in a great God, not our own great faith.

[1639 words]

15 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Proverbs 18:21

  • Yes! I am edified to read this. I was saved in movements that had ‘little gods’ theology like that and I am glad to be out of it now!
    A good explanation I heard of this verse once was the true power of words. Words can make marriage vows and other covenants.
    Words can also condemn to death or spare life. It is with words that wars are declared or armadas launched, or peace negotiated.
    So saying that human words don’t have supernatural powers isn’t downplaying the importance of our words at all. They are still weighty things indeed!
    You’ve also reminded me that I need to dig up your article about figures of speech in the Bible. I keep having these sorts of conversations with my older children lately and I think it would come in handy.

  • Amen!

  • Thanks Bill.
    Yes I have heard some Christians use this in regard to Covid-19.
    And probably we have all heard of the various Muslim professions about exemptions from Covid-19.
    Re faith: Some people will even take a phrase quite out of context an use it to condemn.
    A classic for that is Rom 14:23 “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin”.

  • Yes it is faulty logic to say that other people will be judged by what we say. The scriptures, including the words of Jesus, are clear that the person we may be killing with our words is ourselves.

    Mat_12:34 Offspring of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

    Luk 6:44 For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush.
    Luk 6:45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth the good. And an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth the evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

    Mat_12:36 But I say to you that every idle word, whatever men may speak, they shall give account of it in the day of judgment.
    (MKJV)

    Etc. etc.

    This is why I despair when I see Christians running with deceitful, worldly terminology and even blaspheming and saying things like “holy @#$%”, because this is what the world says to do, and not realizing they are bringing condemnation onto themselves and need to repent and stop themselves from just repeating what the world has been feeding them with. Not only this but, if they are doing that, they need to seriously consider getting their eyes out of darkness (Mat 6:22).

    Words are important and the analogy of the spiritual armor (Eph 6) makes this clear.

  • “They (proverbs) are general principles that apply to life, but the right time or circumstance can be crucial in applying them.”
    Many of them are “narrative, not normative”, “descriptive, not prescriptive” ie one cannot form a doctrine out of them.
    Like in the first 10 chapters of Acts, the miracles described & speaking in tongues were confirmatory signs that the Holy Spirit can come to indwell the new Christians, outwardly confirmed by their baptisms – only described 3 times in Acts (chapters 2, 10, & 19)

  • “Abracadabra” AKA “I create as I speak” is the stuff of “magick” – a poor attempt to play at being God, the real Creator.

    Elsewhere in Scripture, the tongue and the word are metaphorically described as swords (Re 1:16; 19:13,15,21; Heb 4:12; Isa 49:2; Prov 12:18; Ps 57:4). The Old Testament phrase “the edge of the sword” is literally in Hebrew “the mouth of the sword”! Ancient weapons with the haft as an open mouth and the sword blade as the tongue actually have survived to the present day [For more, see abstract of Joshua Berman’s related Vetus Testamentum article at https://brill.com/view/journals/vt/52/3/article-p291_1.xml%5D!

    As our Lord said in another context and connection, “Those who take up the sword will die by the sword.” (Mat 26:53).

  • When I pray for someone to be healed I do so saying if it be your will but many times get told that negates my prayer because God’s will is OUR will. As if he is OUR servant clap clap do what I command God.

    The way some talk about the church as the bride of Christ you would think after the second coming we will become the 4th member of the trinity. They don’t out and out say that of course but their words indicate that. You don’t always have to say the words we will become God to mean that. Blasphemy can be indirect as well as direct.

    All said I agree we should guard our tongues more, ESPECIALLY Christians, some of whom have quite the reputation as gossips. I hated the saying growing up “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. As someone who was teased a lot I can tell you that is false. A broken bone or bruise can heal quickly but words cut deep and those wounds take much longer to heal. What’s worse you can see a bruise or broken bone the wound from hurtful words cannot be seen but is just as real.

  • Thanks Bill for another superb article which takes me a while to digest. I guess bullying and its consequences is a good example of how words can ruin someone and even drive them to commit suicide. We have to be so careful of our words as it is hard to apologize or try to amend them as we get caught off guard sometimes. My husband tells of his mother, dying from cancer, asking the nurse why she felt so bad. The busy nurse replied, ‘because you are dying’ which is the last thing my husband’s mother wanted to hear although it was the truth. Which comes to another question that sometimes puzzles me – it is alright to tell a lie? We tell our children not to lie but I imagine it depends on the circumstance as the nurse above should have told a white lie and made attempts to increase the pain medication etc. However, Rahab in the Bible comes to mind as she lied to spare the lives of the two spies and then Jacob, pressured by his mother, lied to his father Isaac to get the blessing – I wonder if God had another plan to get Jacob the blessing?
    Thank you for your articles – I don’t know how you can keep up with putting out an article nearly every day and the abuse/nasty criticism you have to endure. I hope God helps you to quench all those darts of the evil one so that you get a good rest.

  • Nicely written. A logical explanation of an often misinterpreted Biblical concept. Thanks Bill.

  • John Wesley had a tongue and was not afraid to use it in reprimand when necessary – from volume 2 of his journals –
    “Sunday 9th September 1759
    I met the Society at seven, and told them in plain terms, that they were the most ignorant, self-conceited, self-willed, fickle, untractable, disorderly, disjointed Society that I knew in the three kingdoms: and God applied it to their hearts, so that many were profited, but I do not find that one was offended.”
    I doubt that the snowflake generation of today could bear up under such criticism.

  • Yes quite right Kerry.

  • Great article! We deal with this and other one-liners all the time in women’s ministry. The lack of sound doctrine and theology is astounding today. Thanks again!

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