Searching the Scriptures: What Sayest the Tongue?

Robert J. Matthews


What Sayest the Tongue?

Since the tongue can be employed for good or evil, the scriptures contain many instructions about it. These include prohibitions against profanity, gossip, murmuring, and idle words, as well as direct commands to speak certain things.

On profanity, the Ten Commandments caution: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. …” (Ex. 20:7.) Later, the Savior said:

“But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:

“Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

“Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matt. 5:34–37.)

Jesus criticized the manner of some for using “vain repetitions, … for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them. …” (Matt. 6:7–8.) The Savior further explained that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” (Matt. 12:34, 36–37.)

James offers one of the most acute observations about man’s use of his tongue:

“… If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

“Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, withersoever the governor listeth.

“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

“For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

“But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

“Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” (James 3:2–10.)

The Lord spake from Mt. Sinai: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Ex. 20:16), and in latter-day revelation we are instructed to “cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another, … and let your words tend to edifying one another.” (D&C 136:23–24.) Among the Church members there is to be “neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking.” (D&C 20:54.)

Paul admonished Timothy: “… be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation. …” (1 Tim. 4:12.) He instructed the members of the Church to “strive not about words to no profit, … shun profane and vain babblings … [and] foolish and unlearned questions … , knowing that they do gender strifes” (2 Tim. 2:14, 16, 23), and to “do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God …” (Philip. 2: 14–15).

Paul further warned against being “doubletongued” (1 Tim. 3:8) and against “tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Tim. 5:13). He told his hearers to “let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” (Col. 4:6.)

Proverbs contains many references to the use of the tongue:

“A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23.)

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures [vessels] of silver.” (Prov. 25:11.)

“These … things doth the Lord hate: … a lying tongue, … A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” (Prov. 6:16–19.)

“An hypocrite with his mouth destroyeth his neighbour: … A talebearer revealeth secrets.” (Prov. 11:9, 13.)

“… a whisperer separateth chief friends, … [and] he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” (Prov. 16:28; Prov. 17:9.)

“Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.” (Prov. 26:20.)

“Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.” (Prov. 27:2.)

“He that hath knowledge spareth his words. …” (Prov. 17:27.)

“Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” (Prov. 21:23.)

“Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him.” (Prov. 29:20.)

Peter wrote: “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile.” (1 Pet. 3:10.)

The Psalmist observed that sometimes there is deliberate incongruity between the mouth and the heart: “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.” (Ps. 55:21.) And again: “… they bless with their mouth, but they curse inwardly. …” (Ps. 62:4.)

Many of the foregoing passages decry profuse talking, yet there are times when it is right to speak much, even prodigiously. The Lord has said: “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them.” (D&C 60:2.)

“… pray vocally before the world as well as in secret, and in your family, and among your friends, and in all places … in public as well as in private.” (D&C 23:6; D&C 19:28.)

Nephi lamented that he was not “mighty in writing, like unto speaking” (2 Ne. 33:1); Moroni said that the Lord had “made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost” (Ether 12:23); and Alma observed that “the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them …” (Alma 31:5).

Furthermore, the Lord has said that the words of the prophets “ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth” (D&C 21:5), for “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38).

And finally Paul told Timothy to “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2); and in latter-day revelation we find a similar injunction to Thomas B. Marsh:

“Contend thou, therefore, morning by morning; and day after day let thy warning voice go forth; and when the night cometh let not the inhabitants of the earth slumber, because of thy speech.” (D&C 112:5.)

Robert J. Matthews