Words of Life or Death

Words of Life or Death


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Proverbs:  Words of Life or Death

A week ago Tuesday around dinner time I was exhausted.  It had been a full day, and I was exceptionally tired.  And when I get tired, I am tempted to turn into an angry dog that just had its food taken away.  That evening I was on the edge.  Irritable.  Critical.  I was snapping at my wife.  She had done nothing wrong.  It was all on me.  Several times I had to pause and pray, “Lord, I don’t know how to stop this.  Help.”

Finally I just went into my office and read for a while.  Though it wasn’t as good of a choice as speaking kind words, at that moment it felt like saying nothing was better than being rude.

The next morning I thought about James 3, which many have called “The Proverbs of the New Testament.”

James 3:5–8 ESV  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8  but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

That evening, it felt like my tongue was a wild, untamed animal.  It felt like I had no control over my lips. 

A Proverb I memorized over 35 years ago still comes back to me:

Proverbs 18:21 NIV The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

My tongue…your tongue has the power to bring life to others.  Joy, hope, peace, encouragement, instruction, growth in Christ.  And it has the power to bring death.  Discouragement, criticism, offense, pain, distrust.

One way or another, we will eat the fruit of our words.  We will reap what we have sown.

The fruit will either be delicious and sweet, and give health to our souls and to others.

OR, the fruit will be rancid and maggot-infested, and give disease to our souls.

In a household, our relationships will either thrive or be destroyed.

Our friendships will be strengthened or hurt.

Churches will prosper or flounder. 

Even the workplace  will flourish or become toxic. 

All of us face this challenge.  No one escapes the wild animal called the tongue.  We all know this, if we honest and humble.

If I were to ask every one of us to name some situation in the past month where your words have brought death, not life, we could each make a list that would cause us pain.

And if you couldn’t name something, you may be blind and full of pride.  Or you have a poor memory. 


We are in Week 7 of an 8-week series on Proverbs.

Today our focus from Proverbs is our words.  It’s one of the most common themes in Proverbs.

And when I say our words, obviously I mean what is audible coming out of our mouths.

But we also use words that come from our fingers and our thumbs.  In email, messaging, and on social media.  Even those words have the power of life and death….and we will eat its fruit. 

First, let’s take two minutes for a brief review of Proverbs. 

What is a Proverb? 

A proverb is a concise statement of wisdom, often worded in a clever way to make it easy to remember.  You could say they are distilled, to-the-point sentences about life.

But Proverbs is so much more than reducing life down to clever words like you would find in a fortune cookie.

It is about developing skills for godly living.  It is about learning how to live life in the way of reality, the path that God has this life to be lived.


Proverbs comes down to two quite divergent ways to live.  And only two ways. 

Wisdom or folly

Righteousness or wickedness

Life or death

Prudence or naiveté

Knowledge or ignorance

This topic of wisdom—including wisdom in our words—this is a deeply spiritual, heavenly topic.  

Proverbs and having wisdom is not primarily about intellect.  It’s not about having a high IQ. 

In fact, the smartest among us in this room (as we would measure that in IQ terms) could be the biggest fool in God’s eyes.

Fundamentally, wisdom is about a walk with God through his Son, Jesus.  This is about a life of grace from God through faith in his Son.  We cannot dissociate Proverbs from Jesus and the life he called us to.

The Apostle Paul wrote that in Jesus Christ

Colossians 2:2–3 ESV  … are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

You and I will never find true, heavenly wisdom without the Presence and the Power of Jesus Christ.

Proverbs on our Words

So the topic of our words…our tongue… is a vast subject.

For this morning, we have to narrow it down.

What is our goal today?  Is it to be a pleasant person to be around?  Well, yes, but it’s much more.

This verse here points to my goal this morning.

Ephesians 4:29 NIV  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Paul starts with the negative:  Stop speaking unwholesome, corrupt, useless words.

But then he strongly emphasizes what we ought to do instead:   Speak what is helpful to build others up according to their needs.  That it may benefit them. 

When Paul says to “build them up,” what does he mean?  He means, “to help them grow up…to mature…in their faith in God and the knowledge of Jesus.”  All our words should have as their end goal to build others up spiritually. 

This is the noblest goal I can think of when it comes to our words…second only to the goal of using our words to worship God and pray to him .

What is Paul’s compelling motivation for this?  What does he want in the heart?

James asked, “Who can tame the tongue?”

So what is the power source for speaking in this way?

We look to the beginning of this same chapter in Ephesians. 

Ephesians 4:1 ESV I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

The driving force behind all of God’s commands is who God is and what he has done for you.

Paul here makes it clear that he wants you, Christian, to know the glorious, eternal calling you have in Jesus Christ. 

This calling to heaven and to adoption as his children is the loftiest, most glorious calling you can ever have in this life.

Paul wants you to remember that…. and then to live life in the way that calling deserves. 

Paul is really after renewal of our hearts and our minds.

He wants a new foundation in our hearts.

The more we have that… the more we will have the desire and the power to obey vs. 29…. to have words that build up.

Jesus spoke quite clearly about how crucial the heart is related to our speech.

Luke shared this verse four weeks ago in his sermon.

Matthew 12:34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks out of what fills the heart.

 What the heart is filled with… that is what will spill out.

If our hearts are filled with darkness and evil, that is what will come out.

If our hearts are filled with faith in the living God, that is what will come out.

We can also examine this conversely.

If angry, hurtful words are spilling out of me, I can know immediately something is wrong inside.

If kind, gracious, building words are pouring out, I can know God is filling me. 

So today, if you remember nothing else, remember this:

The goal of our words is to build others up in Christ.  To point them to Jesus.

The source of strength and wisdom to that end… will come from filling our hearts with the things of God.

This is no simple task of  mere self-improvement. 

Our speech is a deeply spiritual matter empowered by God. 

Topics in Proverbs re: our Words

Let’s look at some examples in Proverbs.

Let’s get a taste of the godly wisdom you can find in Proverbs concerning our words. 

Wound or heal

Proverbs 12:18  Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

With our words, we can be like a madman—a fool—with a sword.  We swing it wildly and carelessly, and we cut people to pieces.

Or, as a wise man and wise woman, we can be like a surgeon with a scalpel in his hands, carefully cutting to bring healing and life.

Not long ago, I was offering some advice to someone.  I wanted it all to be helpful and building.  However, I said one thing that was hurtful.  My words were reckless.  The person was rightfully offended, and I had to apologize.


Proverbs 16:24 ESV Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

Think for a moment of someone you know who is simply a gracious, kind person.   Do you have them in mind?

That person is like the sweetness of honey.  He or she gives life.

Oh for all of us to be that gracious person!  In our audible words.  And in our typed words.

This takes wisdom.  And this takes having our hearts filled with the Holy Spirit.

A word at just the right time

Proverbs 15:23 ESV  To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!

We can speak all kinds of truth, but sometimes it simply is spoken at the wrong time.  But to say the right thing at the right time is priceless!  The Spirit of God wants to give us wisdom to know not just the “what” but the “when.” 


What about quantity of words? 

Proverbs 10:19 ESV  When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.

When our words are many, sin is simply unavoidable.  Some of us in this room—you can decide who you are— talk too much… to the point of sinning in some way.  But the person who wisely restrains his words—whether verbally or on GroupMe or Facebook— is a prudent and discerning man or woman.

And along with that:

Proverbs 18:2 NIV  Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.

How many times have many of us—myself included—acted the part of a fool because we simply want to air our opinions??

We don’t really want to understand the other person.  Or the other side of the debate.

We don’t pause to think before we speak.

We don’t let others talk and listen to them. 

This happens on social media.

It happens in conversation at the dinner table.

It happens in our Bible studies and Community Groups.

When we do this, Solomon says we are fools. 

The wise man or woman grows, through the help of the Holy Spirit, to restrain what he says or types. 


Solomon also gives us so much insight on lying and slandering.

Proverbs 26:28 ESV A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

We lie for all sorts of reasons.   To make ourselves look better.  To hurt someone.  To cover up a sin or a mistake. 

But when we lie to someone, we hurt them.  And it is not only unloving;  Solomon says it is hateful.

When the Holy Spirit is filling us, and we are tempted to lie, wisdom awakens us to speak truth. 

Gentleness vs. harshness

O instead to have words that are gentle instead of harsh.

Proverbs 15:1 NIV A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

 Just last week, my daughter took her dog in a neighborhood dog park.  And two men there got into a shouting match over one man’s dog that was aggressive.  Harsh words from one man led to anger from the other, which led to more harsh words….and on and on.  It was a bit unnerving for my daughter, so she left.  If just one of those men had the power to control his tongue, a shouting match would not have developed. 


What does Proverbs have to say about listening?

Proverbs 18:13 NIV To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.

Years ago we had a seminar on listening.  I went into it thinking I was a fairly good listener.  Uhh, no, I wasn’t.  My habit was, that as someone was talking to me, I was processing my brilliant three-point answer to fix their problems.  And I would blurt out my brilliance.  To answer before truly listening and understanding is not simply a bad idea.  It leads us down the dark path of folly and shame.

The heart

Let me finish with one more Proverb that gets to the core of the issue:

Proverbs 15:28 NIV The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.

The heart of the righteous.  As I have said, the heart is key.  The righteous, godly, wise man or woman considers.  Ponders.  Reflects on how to speak and answer.

But the wicked, foolish, ungodly man or woman spews out words like a volcano blowing out burning lava.  Like vomiting all over others with words. 

This is just a sample of what is in Proverbs.   Proverbs is a goldmine. 


True wisdom is not merely knowing the right thing.

True wisdom is the inclination to do the right thing. 

By the help of God, we can grow more in wisdom each passing year. 

So what can we do to grow in our goal of wisdom with our words?    To first have our hearts transformed by Christ.

And then have to have in our hearts the power and wisdom to use our words in a way that honors the Lord, that builds up our fellow Christians, and that testifies to the world of the glory of our Savior?

Let me offer five things for you to consider.

  1. Remember our forgiveness in Christ, and be at peace.

Remember that James says the tongue is like a wild animal, and no one can tame it. 

In our un-tamedness, we have bitten other people.  And unless we are full of pride and are blinded, we feel the pain and guilt and shame of that.

To that, Jesus would say, remember what I have done for you.  Remember that I died in your place, taking your guilt and shame on my back while hanging on the cross and dying.

Jesus Christ is the only Person in history who never sinned in his speech or in any other way.  Therefore, he could become the Lamb of God, sacrificed in payment for our sins.  His work was complete.

So if you feel the weight of sin and shame from your words, draw near to Jesus to find his grace.

Hebrews 4:16 NASB95  Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”  (Romans 8:1) 

So draw near, don’t pull away.

We can move forward in faith only as we anchor ourselves on the truths of our forgiveness and God’s grace.

  • Learn to abide in Christ.

We need more than a tweak to our mouths.  We need more than five tips to good words. 

We need an overhaul.  We need transformation on the inside.  We need Jesus to come in and fill us up.  As I mentioned from Matthew 12, “The mouth speaks out of what fills the heart.”

We must learn to abide in Christ.

John 15:4–5 ESV Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

To abide in Jesus sounds nebulous, but it means to stay near him.  To dwell with him.

To stay by his side.  To have his Word dwell in us (in vs. 7). 

Now, granted, he promises to his children he will never leave us or forsake us.

This is about us drawing near and staying close.

So He calls us to abide him.  When we do, and only then, will we bear good fruit.  Our words will be life-giving, not lethal. 

Part of abiding in him is walking in prayer with him.  Worshiping.  Thanking. 

And asking him for help.  Asking for wisdom.  Asking for grace to have words that bring life, not death. 

King David of Israel had a beautiful prayer.  I pray often:

Psalm 19:14 NIV May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

I memorized this verse decades ago.  Consider memorizing it yourself, and make it a frequent prayer. 

Ask the Lord to fill our minds and hearts with godly wisdom. 

James 1:5 NIV If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Abide in him and ask him for wisdom, and he will give it. 

So let us to learn to abide in him, and so be transformed from the inside out. 

  • Read and memorize Proverbs on Speech.

35-40 years ago, I memorized dozens of Proverbs.  The Holy Spirit still reminds me of them today. 

And like Cliff suggested last week, there are 31 chapters.  Read one chapter or a portion of a chapter every day of the month to grow in the wisdom of God.  Today is the 18th, so read some of Chapter 18. 

  • Help and get help. 

We need to help one another with our words.

One example:  Say, in our Bible studies and Community Groups:  If the conversation is going badly—complaining, gossip, or simply some unfruitful words—we can graciously and boldly say, “Hey friends, shall we talk about something else more profitable?”

I vividly remember years ago as a young Christian, I had a habit of joking a lot, and often it was sarcastic and cutting others down.  One friend in our church talked to me graciously yet bluntly.  He said, “Brad, I’ve noticed you have a habit of cutting other people down.  It’s not honoring to the Lord, and it’s not building others up.”  It was humbling to hear him say it.  But he was so right.  It was a life-changing moment for me to wake me up from a problem I knew I had. 

Not only should we help one another, we need to get help for ourselves.  To seek advice about our own speech and our hearts. 

Humbly ask a trusted and wise friend:  How is my speech?  Too much?  Hurtful, building?

For some of us, we may have too little speech.  We are not speaking often enough, and we are missing opportunities to build others up in the faith. 

Let’s graciously help one another.   And humbly get help.

  • Find resources on Proverbs to help you grow in wisdom.

One commentary:  Derek Kidner, published by Tyndale.  Buy a hardcopy on Amazon for $16.

Also, I have put a list of Proverbs on our website.  It’s organized by Topic.  A PDF file to save for future use and study.  Virtually every verse in Proverbs is listed somewhere.

www.stonebrook.org   Find “Resources” tab, then to the dropdown menu, “Recommended Resources.” 


Let me wrap up with this.

Proverbs 18 says the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

James 3 says the tongue is like a wild animal, and no one can tame it.

Well, no one can tame the tongue except Jesus Christ.

Jesus is in the business of changing our lives.  Of conforming us to his character.

Of reshaping and renewing our hearts to be filled up with heavenly wisdom and insight.

Out of that heart renewal, the goal for our words is lofty.

I will finish with what I mentioned earlier.

Ephesians 4:29 NIV  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

By God’s grace and power and wisdom, as we abide in him, he will enable us to influence people for Jesus, leading into eternity.