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There are many who scarce set any guard upon their expressions, as if their tongue was their own, and subject to no law, and they had a right to annoy others at pleasure. Yea, some who have had the character of goodness, have transgressed here by falsehood, or hastiness of speech, or
An offence of this kind is taken notice of in Moses himself, who was so remarkable for meekness. “They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sake; because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips,” Psal. cvi. 32, 33; referring, probably, to what is recorded in Numb. xx. 10, " And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto him: Hear now, ye rebels ; must we fetch you water out of this rock ?”
But I need not insist farther on this particular; though it may be of some use to satisfy us of the difficulty of governing the tongue, that men of excellent characters, who have been almost faultless in other respects, have been surprised into some offences of this sort.
2. Another thing which shows the difficulty of governing the tongue, is the many offences it is liable to.
I need not enumerate them all; but it is very obvious that they are numerous. Some are guilty of a light and frequent use, or bold profanation of the name of God. Others are murmurers and complainers; and because every thing in the world is not to their mind, they take great liberties in complaining of the methods of Providence, or the conduct of their superiors and governors.
There are obscene discourses, called by the apostle
corrupt” and “ filthy communication,” Eph. iv. 29; Col. iii. 8. which ought not to proceed out of the mouth of a christian.
Falsehood is supposed to be a very common fault in the dealings of men one with another ; where truth ought to be strictly regarded, as the great bond of society, and of confidence in each other.
Abusive speeches, proceeding from anger or contempt, are too common among men.
Our blessed Lord has condemned all such expressions when he shows the guilt of those who say to their brother, “ Racha," or, “ thou fool,” Matt. v. 22. How apt are some, upon occasion of slight provocations, to break forth into very abusive and contemptuous language against those who have, or are supposed to have, disobliged them!
Calumny is another great fault of the tongue, which too many are guilty of, for carrying on selfish designs, and to weaken and disparage their enemies or rivals. And many arts of detraction there are, divulging lesser faults that might be concealed or passed by, without detriment to any; aggravating the known offences of men, lessening the merit of good and commendable actions, or converting actions that are innocent, or at the most suspicious only, into heinous transgressions.
Flattery is another fault of the tongue, and an abuse of the noble faculty of speech; when, to carry on designs of private interest, we deceive men, by ascribing to them excellences they are destitute of, and thus fill them with an empty conceit of imaginary worth, and encourage sloth and indolence, or otherwise mislead them to their great detriment.
Ridicule, ill applied, is another fault of the tongue. Some make a mock at sin, and would scoff away the weighty and awful truths of religion. Some endeavour to bring the sacred scriptures into contempt. Others expose their neighbours by ridiculing the natural defects and infirmities of the body or the mind, which are no real faults, but their own unhappiness.
There is a fault, which we may style the uncharitableness of the tongue; when men strive to lessen all those who differ from them in opinion, representing them as prejudiced, or destitute of a love of truth, and out of the favour of God and the way of salvation. And accordingly they pronounce hard and unmerciful sentences of condemnation
them. St. James seems particularly to have an eye to this conduct; and he shows, that it cannot proceed from a principle of true religion. It may indeed consist with a profession of religion; but it is inconsistent with virtue and true piety. Sincere praises of God, and severe and unrighteous sentences against our neighbour, can no more proceed from the same mind, than bitter and sweet water from one and the same fountain. Consequently, if men so condemn their brother, their love of God is not sincere and genuine. So in his argument, ver. 9, 10, “ Therewith bless we God, and therewith curse we men, made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter q”
Another fault of the tongue, which we are sometimes guilty of, is too great severity of reproof and censure of real offences and miscarriages. This is one thing which St. James has an eye to in this context, when he cautions against being many masters: intending to soften the rigour of those
who are forward in taking upon them that character. St. Paul has particularly cautioned against the same thing. “ Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself
, lest thou also be tempted,” Gal. vi. 1. Another fault of the tongue is talkativeness, or a multitude of words, in which, as Solomon says, “ there wanteth not sin,” Prov. x. 19. This fault St. James has an eye to in several of his directions and observations in this epistle, particularly in the text above cited : “ Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.” Where be seems to condemn talkativeness, abstracting from the consideration of what is said; when men speak with little or no regard to, or thought of, doing good or harm. Which, though it may seem an indifferent matter, or of no great consequence, yet an indulgence of such a disposition leads men into many offences; inasmuch as when innocent or indifferent topics of discourse are exhausted, such will not fail, in order to gratify that disposition, to go into defamation and scandal ; so it is in conversation; and the like temper will show itself on other occasions. Some may desire to be “ teachers of the law,” 1 Tim. i. 7, who are unacquainted with its design; and may affect prolixity of discourse, and use a multitude of words, not because their subject requires it, but to gratify the disposition to discourse, and an ambition of shining as very knowing men, and fluent speakers.
These and other faults there are of the tongue; and this is one thing that shows the difficulty of governing it.
3. And we shall be farther satisfied of this, if we consider the causes and springs of these faults; and there are many of them. This was observed by St. James. Does he say of the tongue at ver. 6, 6 That it setteth on fire the whole course of nature ?” He adds: “ And it is set on fire of hell.” There are within bad principles, that give the tongue this wrong direction, and set it on work for mischief. Biasphemy, or evil-speaking, is one of those defilements which our Lord says come from the heart," that is, from some bad disposition there. And St. James, ver. 14, 15, ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.”
The causes of the offences of the tongue are such as these, Unbelief and discontent. These were the causes of the murmurings and complaints of the people of Israel against God and Moses, in the wilderness; and the many murmurings and complaints of men in all ages, are owing to the
like causes. Other springs and principles of faulty discourse are inordinate self-love, pride, arrogance, envy, and ill-will, contempt of other men, and a disregard to their interests, covetousness, emulation, and ambition. These lead men into falsehood and defamation, for promoting their own gain, and lessening those whom they envy, or whose influence stands in their way. St. Paul speaks of some who
taught things which they ought not for filthy lucre's sake," Tit. i. Il. Some depart from the truth, and forward erroneous conceits, because they are pleasing. Detraction is one way of lessening those who are eminent, and of carrying a point against them. St. John had experience of this, and therefore says in his third epistle: “ I wrote unto the church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence, receiveth us not. Wherefore if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words."
These and other causes there are of the offences of the tongue. And when it is considered how, difficult it is to root all these bad principles out of the heart of man, it must be apparent, that governing the tongue is no easy thing: for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh," Matt. xii. 34. The streams will partake of the qualities of the fountain ; and according to the root, so will the fruit be.
II. In the second place some arguments should be mentioned, to induce us to use our best endeavours to bridle the tongue.
And St. James does presently furnish us with three considerations to this purpose ; First, the importance of the thing to the good of the world. Secondly, its importance to us; forasmuch as without it our religion would be vain. And thirdly, it is a great perfection.
1. The importance of this matter. St. James has illustrated this by several instances and comparisons, the “ bit in the horse's mouth, the helm of ships,” and “ fire,” a spark of which kindles into a devouring flame. That is, the use or abuse of the tongue is of much importance, and great things, for good or evil, are effected thereby, in the state, in lesser societies, and among particular persons. By the right use of the tongue truth is recommended, virtue promoted, the peace and happiness of mankind advanced. By a perverse employment of speech the peace of society, of families, and particular. persons, is interrupted and disturbed; the interests of error are promoted, instead of those of truth; good designs are obstructed, or quite defeated; the reputation of innocent, and even excellent men, is
blasted; seeds of animosity and dissension are sown among brethren, friendships broken and dissolved, and many bad effects produced, more than can be easily numbered,
How much did Joseph suffer by the calumny of his miss tress ! how long, before his reputation could be vindicated, or his innocence cleared up! And sometimes the reputation of the innocent and virtuous is for ever ruined by malicious and artful detraction. We have a remarkable instance of the bad effect of a studied misrepresentation of things in the history of David. When he fled from Jerusalem, on occasion of Absalom's rebellion, Ziba, servant of Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, came to David, bringing him presents. “ And David said unto him; Where is thy master? And Ziba said unto the king : Behold, he abideth at Jerusalem; for he said : To-day shall the house of Israel restore me to the kingdom of my father. Then said the king to Ziba : Behold, thine are all that pertained unto Mephibosheth," 2 Sam. xvi. 3, 4. But when David returned victorious, and in safety, to Jerusalem, it appeared, that during the time of his absence, Mephibosheth had lived with all the outward tokens of mourning and affliction, without putting on his usual ornaments, or taking the refreshments, customary in times of peace and prosperity. “ And when he met the king, David said unto him: Wherefore wentest thou not with me, Mephibosheth? And he answered: My lord, O king, my servant deceived me. For thy servant said : I will saddle me an ass, that I may ride thereon, and go to the king, because thy servant is lame. And he has slandered thy servant unto my lord the king. But my lord the king is as an angel of God. Do therefore what is good in thy eyes.” What now is the answer which David makes to Mephibosheth, after so submissive a speech, and so full a defence of himself? It is this. “ The king said unto him: Why speakest thou any more of thy matters? I have said : Thou and Ziba divide the land.” An answer, if we may presume to judge, unworthy of David. It seems to that Ziba's story still made impressions upon him, and that he was not fully reconciled to Mephibosheth; or else, that he was unwilling to own how much he had been deceived and imposed upon by the artifice of Ziba, Mephibosheth's servant. Such effect had flattery and slander, improbable slander, upon the mind of king David.
David seems not now to have recollected the resolutions which he had formed, the plan of government which he had laid down to himself before his settlement on the throne of Israel. When he said : “ Whoso privily