Posted: May 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

A Biblical Theology on the Ethics of Speech

Our choice and use of words in everyday life comes at a great, albeit, forgotten challenge if we legitimately follow the guidelines given to us throughout the biblical corpus pertaining to what I call the ethics of speech. Through both testaments, there are passages and certain verses tracing a theme speaking to us regarding how we are to use our words, how we are to choose our words, where our words come from, the power undergirding our every word, and the effects our words can have on others. Dynamics such as humor, wittiness, sarcasm, edification, and frustration are all evinced by our words and the Bible, though unbeknownst to most, speaks directly to each of these.

Furthermore, what we say with our words is how we communicate the word of God and his gospel to others. I will be examining differing texts regarding what they say specifically to our use of words, and will argue that the Bible is specific in its insight of what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. A study on the ethics of speech in our day and age is crucial for the Church, for this is one way we can be set apart and heard as distinct from unbelievers. Today’s culture and sadly, even Christians will often go as far as they can to get a laugh from others, despite what may be said to evoke a laugh; e.g. sarcasm, boorishness, or immoral humor. Furthermore, as certainly any husband and wife can testify along with others who are not married, there is no rewind function on our words. We can never truly take back what we say, as much as we might wish to from time to time. Thus, how important it is to glean from the commands and imagery wrought in the Bible pertaining to what we say and how we say it.

Thoughtful Words
The Psalmist
in 37:30 speaks wisdom and on his tongue justice. The law is written on his “heart” (v. 31). Thus, in harmony with his “heart,” he speaks wisely (49:3) and thus establishes justice. When adverse times arise and when under expressions of hostility, the wise man knows how to speak wisely and righteously. This is reiterated in Proverbs 10:31-32 when the righteous are known to be those who speak distinctly with wisdom, in contrast to the wicked. Waltke comments on this saying:

“Wisdom” here is a metonymy for speech that brings the addressee into harmony with the Lord and with his eternal government and so yields eternal life. The speech of the righteous which is implicitly likened to fruit (see Prov. 25:11), revives whoever feasts on it. The perverse speech of wicked people, by contrast, seeks to overthrow this ethical order upheld by the Lord and expressed by his revealed wisdom. This verse (v. 32) now defines people’s character by the nature of their speech. Here rāṣôn is a metonymy for speech that finds favor with the Lord and possibly with humanity.

Hence, there is an ongoing theme that the righteous are to have distinct speech compared to the wicked.

Proverbs 15:28
speaks to our use of words in light of where they come from and how we use them out towards others: The heart of a righteous person יֶהְגֶּה (ponders) [its] answer, but the mouth of wicked people blurts out harmful things. יֶהְגֶּה – hgh – carries meanings such as “to think about,” “to meditate,” and “to weigh.” In context, v. 28 encourages the youth to think before he speaks. The following then explains why this is so important: the Lord answers the righteous, but excludes the wicked. In v. 30, the imagery of “light of the eyes,” and “fatten the bones,” highlights the content and positive effects of a message. V. 28 contains a contrast between hgh in the sense of “thinking,” and speaking. It also pairs together “heart,” which rehearses words and “mouth” which delivers them. The implication derived from the meanings of “to weigh,” and “to meditate,” is that Christians can mentally choose more appropriate words to respond with to a given situation in contrast to impulsiveness. Luther sheds light here translating hgh as bedenkt which can mean reflection and also consideration. In the NT Peter demonstrates the opposite of this more than once (Matthew 16:22-23; Mark 14:29). The antithesis to the above is rash talk, blurting out, or to gush forth with “evil sayings.” Application gleaned from this is we are not to speak with haste, but with contemplation. Furthermore, our words, though this may go without saying, are to be truthful. This would include one’s use of gossip. Regarding gossip, Tremper Longman says:

Rumors are negative reports are negative reports about other people based on uncertain evidence. They are spread to injure people, not to help them. Gossip may ultimately turn out to be true, but that does not exonerate those who speak it to others. If true, then the report is being given to inappropriate people at an inappropriate time.

A Word of Edification
we are to meditate on our words realizing we are called to use different words in different circumstances which will make us more distinct as God’s people, then it rightly means our words are also not to be used for things such as gossip or sarcasm, which can do the opposite of building up and edifying.

Paul, in Ephesians 4:29 uses πᾶς μὴ, a different Greek form of Semitic root to emphasize that “every, each” word that comes from the mouth is to be wholesome. And, though he is speaking to a group, στόματος is singular which means this command pertains to each person of the group. The adjective σαπρὸς is used in antiquity of rotten wood, withered flowers, and rancid fish. It generally refers to things which are worn out or useless or that which is of little worth. Though, there is no real parallel in the OT it is seen elsewhere in Matthew and Luke. However, here it is best to translate it as “unprofitable” or “unwholesome.” Victor Pfitzner believes this may find its root in Jesus when he asserted what comes from a person’s mouth defiles him (Matt. 15:11). This may not be too far off as it is seen elsewhere that Jesus lived this out as the one who redefined Israel as people on whose hearts God wrote the Law. This adds further depth to the theme of the righteous being called to speak differently by way of what has been written on our hearts, the Law, and by way of our supreme example, Jesus.

Concerning specificity of word choice, Ephesians 5:4 tells us what to stay away from. Αἰσχρότης does not appear in the LXX, but does in classical literature where it means “ugliness, deformity,” but here it means obscenity. The adjective form in classical literature means something which “causes shame, dishonoring,” and occurs 11 times in the LXX. In Genesis 41:3, רָעֹות means “evil, bad.” It is used four other times in the NT, all by Paul. Colossians 3:8 sheds light on Eph. 5:4 using αἰσχρολογίαν, a more specific word meaning “foul language, obscene speech.” Mωρολογία pertains to “silly, foolish, senseless talk.” Not found in the LXX, it refers to empty and speculative speech; it detracts from issues of faith and edifying discussion. Pertaining to sarcasm, εὐτραπελία was used in classical times meaning “witty, wittiness.” Furthermore, it is alluded to as laughter characterized by the youth and also as buffoonery and boorishness. However, probably not the best to interpret it that way, since people are will do anything to get a laugh. In context, Hoehner sates:

It most likely indicates jesting that has gone too far, thus becoming sarcastic ridicule that cuts people down and embarrasses others who are present. It is humor in bad taste. Believers should build up and not destroy, even in humor. Or, since in the context the preceding words were concerned with sexual sins, εὐτραπελία could even have reference to dirty jokes or humor with suggestive overtones. This does not mean humor cannot be used by Christian. However, it should not be employed at someone’s expense this running counter to Paul’s injunction to edify each other (4:29).

Thus, we are called to οἰκοδομὴν one another, that is, to build up each other, speaking beneficial words, contributing to spiritual growth, not hindering it. Therefore, as discussed above, we are to meditate and weigh our words then use them to build up one another.
The Power of Words: James 3:5-6

In James 3 there are many figures one loses sight of the ground, for the “tongue” itself is figure for human speech and tongue and body as synecdoche for speech and conduct. As is generally the case with James, his meaning is painfully clear: make every effort to keep control of the tongue. (emphasis added, see above cf. Eph. 4:29) Furthermore, in v. 5, comparing the effects of speech to those of fire is well attested as are analogies about fire spreading in a forest (Isa. 9:18). Controlling a fire sometimes cannot be possible. Is this what James is saying about the tongue? I think James is referring to how momentous it is to be able to control the tongue in light of how small and dangerous it can be. However, looking at καθίσταται in v. 6, the exegete must discern whether or not it is a true middle or a passive. If one takes it as middle, then we have to accept some degree of volition on the part of the tongue itself. If passive, then we need to ask who sets the tongue in our members. Does one blame God for this evil in our midst, or is there someone else to account for this unruly member? The middle voice makes more sense, for God did not make us to be sinful. The tongue is the embodiment of our sinfulness.

The things of which the tongue boasts of can be bad and pessimistic things. The metaphor of small fire burning an entire forest is similar to Plutarch, which sheds comparative light. The effect of the tongue on the whole of existence is portrayed with the participle “setting on fire” (φλογίζουσα), and is traced back to Satan. For that is the sense of the last part of the sentence, involving a word-play with the antithesis of active and passive: “being set on fire by Gehenna.”

As the righteous children of God, we are to be choice in our words so when we speak, we will speak at the right times, and in such a way that our words will be like fruit for the listener to feast on, reviving them. Furthermore, it is with our words that we can greatly damage others, even to the point of turning them away from God and his Gospel. It can rightly be said, the fruit of our lips (speaking) may be ripe enough for the hearer to bite from (hearing) and come to know the one, true, and living God.


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