Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. The rapid motion of a viper's tongue gives you the idea of its sharpening it; even thus do the malicious move their tongues at such a rate that one might suppose them to be in the very act of wearing them to a point, or rubbing them to a keen edge. It was a common notion that serpents inserted their poison by their tongues, and the poets used the idea as a poetical expression, although it is certain that the serpent wounds by his fangs and not by his tongue. We are not to suppose that all authors who used such language were mistaken in their natural history any more than a writer can be charged with ignorance of astronomy because he speaks of the sun's travelling from east to west. How else can poets speak but according to the appearance of things to an imaginative eye. The world's great poet puts it in "King Lear":
"She struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent like, upon the very heart."
In the case of slanderers, they so literally sting with their tongues, which are so nimble in malice, and withal so piercing and cutting, that it is by no means unjust to speak of them as sharpened. "Adders' poison is under their lips." The deadliest of all venom is the slander of the unscrupulous. Some men care not what they say so long as they can vex and injure. Our text, however, must not be confined in its reference to some few individuals, for in the inspired epistle to the Romans it is quoted by the apostle as being true of us all. So depraved are we by nature that the most venomous creatures are our fit types. The old serpent has not only inoculated us with his venom, but he has caused us to be ourselves producers of the like poison: it lies under our lips, ready for use, and, alas, it is all too freely used when we grow angry, and desire to take vengeance upon any who have caused us vexation. It is sadly wonderful what hard things even good men will say when provoked; yea, even such as call themselves "perfect" in cool blood are not quite as gentle as doves when their claims to sinlessness are bluntly questioned. This poison of evil speaking would never fall from our lips, however much we might be provoked, if it were not there at other times; but by nature we have as great a store of venomous words as a cobra has of poison. O Lord, take the poison bags away, and cause our lips to drop nothing but honey. Selah. This is heavy work. Go up, go up, my heart! Sink not too low. Fall not into the lowest key. Lift up thyself to God.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. To sharpen or whet the tongue imports the keenest and most extreme kind of talkativeness, much more to sharpen the tongue "like a serpent." Naturalists tell us that no living creature stirs his tongue so swiftly as a serpent, and serpents are therefore said to have a treble tongue, because, moving their tongue so fast, they seem to have three tongues. The Psalmist means -- the wicked speak thick and threefold, they sting and poison me with their tongues. --Joseph Caryl.
Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. This is an exact description of the way in which a serpent darts out his tongue before he inflicts the wound. See him: his head is erect, and his piercing eye is wildly and fiercely fixed on the object; the tongue rapidly appears and disappears, as if by that process it would be sharpened for the contest. Thus were the enemies of David making sharp their tongues for his destruction. -- Joseph Roberts, in "Oriental Illustrations of the Sacred Scriptures", 1835.
Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent, etc. Is it not a fact, that there are many men, the very existence of whom is a baneful poison, as it were? They dart their livid tongue like the tongue of a serpent; and the venom of their disposition corrodes every object upon which it concentrates itself; ever vilifying and maligning, like the ill omened bird of night. --Pliny.
Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. As the adder skilfully prepares herself for her work of death, so do the unhappy children of slander and falsehood prepare themselves, by every possible effort, for injuring their unoffending victims. -- John Morison.
Verse 3. In St. James's day, as now, it would appear that there were idle men and idle women, who went about from house to house, dropping slander as they went, and yet you could not take up that slander and detect the falsehood there. You could not evaporate the truth in the slow process of the crucible, and then show the residuum of falsehood glittering and visible. You could not fasten upon any word or sentence, and say that it was calumny; for in order to constitute slander, it is not necessary that the word spoken should be false -- half truths are often more calumnious than whole falsehoods. It is not even necessary that a word should be distinctly uttered; a dropped lip, an arched eyebrow, a shrugged shoulder, a significant look, an incredulous expression of countenance, nay, even an emphatic silence, may do the work; and when the light and trifling thing which has done the mischief has fluttered off, the venom is left behind, to work and rankle, to inflame hearts, to fever human existence, and to poison human society at the fountain springs of life. Very emphatically was it said by one whose whole being had smarted under such affliction, Adders' poison is under their lips. --Frederick William Robertson.
Verse 3. Slander and calumny must always precede and accompany persecution, because malice itself cannot excite people against a good man, as such; to do this, he must first be represented as a bad man. What can be said of those who are busied in this manner, but that they are a "generation of vipers", the brood of the old "Serpent", that grand accuser and calumniator of the brethren, having under their tongues a bag of "poison", conveying instant death to the reputation on which they fasten. Thus David was hunted as a rebel, Christ was crucified as a blasphemer, and the primitive Christians were tortured as guilty of incest and murder. --George Horne.
Verse 3. Man consists of soul and body; the body is but the shadow, or at best but the bearer of the soul: it's the soul that bears God's image; it's the soul especially for which Christ died. Now, by how much the soul is more precious than the body, by so much are the helps more excellent, and the enemies more dangerous than the body's. The body is fed with meat; but it is perishing meat ( 1 Corinthians 6:13 ); but the food of the soul is the heavenly manna ( John 6:27 ). Answerably, the enemies are more hurtful, for that that hurts or kills the body toucheth not the soul; but what hurts or kills the soul kills the body with it, and destroys the whole man. The conclusion is, that therefore the bane or poison of the soul is much more hideous, horrible and hateful than that of the body; and of that poison speaks the present Scripture: adders' poison is under their lips.
A strange text, some may say, and 'tis true; but it is the fitter for these strange times, wherein the poison both of soul and body so far prevails. The words do describe in part the malignant and malicious nature of the unregenerate and sinful man; and to that purpose are they cited by the apostle to the Romans ( Romans 3:13 ). The asp is but a little creature; but not a little poisonous. So little a creature hath been the bane and death of many a great person; let one suffice for all. That royal and renowned Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, chose rather to die by the biting of two asps than to be carried in triumph at Rome by Augustus. The manner of their poisoning is this, -- he that is bitten by the asp falls forthwith into a gentle sweat and a sweet sleep, and his strength and vital spirits decay and weaken by little till he die; thus the present pain is little, but the stroke is deadly. And even such stings are the tongues, and such swords the words of wicked men. And no marvel; for what can come but poisonous words and actions from them whose very inward nature is all poison within!
The poison of the soul is only sin, and this is like to poison in many respects. Poison, wherever it enters, stays not there, but diffuses itself all over the body, and never ceaseth till it has infected all. Such is the nature of sin; enter where it will it creeps from one member of the body to another, and from the body to the soul, till it has infected tim whole man; and then from man to man, till a whole family; and stays not there, but runs like a wildfire, from family to family, till it has poisoned a whole town, and so a whole country, and a whole kingdom. Woeful experience proves this true, both for Popish opinions, idle fashions, vain customs, and ill -- examples of all sorts, which once set on foot, spread themselves over the politic body of church and commonwealth, like a gangrene or a leprosy over the natural body, or like a poison through all the blood. Poison, having entered anywhere, as it seeks to creep presently over all, so desires it especially to seize upon the heart; such a malice and pride lies in the malignant nature of it, that it aspires to the heart; and such a craft and cunning lurks in it, that having once entered, it creeps closely and unfelt till it gets to the heart; but having possessed itself of that sovereign part of man, then like a tyrant it reigns and rages, and infecting first the vital blood and noble parts, it diffuses itself over all and every part. And such is the nature of sin, the spiritual poison of the soul; enter where it will, it is tim heart it aims at, and it will never stay till it comes there. The truth of this is so clear that proofs are needless; for who knows not that the senses are but the doors or windows, but the heart is the throne, and the soul itself the seat of sin: and hence it is that Solomon advises, -- "My son, keep thy heart with all diligence": Proverbs 4:23 . --William Crashaw, in "The Parable of Poyson", 1618.
Verse 3. Adders' poison is under their lips. The word rendered "adder", bwfk[, achsub, occurs here only; and it is perhaps impossible to determine what species is intended. As the word, in its proper signification, seems to express coiling, or bending back -- an act common to most serpents -- the name has perhaps no determinate reference; or it may be another name for the pethen, mentioned under Job 20.; which seems also to have been the opinion of the Seventy, as they render both words by, avpif, and are followed by the Vulgate (aspis).
As to the poison, it will be observed, that in the venomous serpents there is a gland under the eye secreting the poisonous matter, which is conveyed, in a small tube or canal, to the end of a fang which lies concealed at the roof of the mouth. This fang is moveable at the pleasure of the serpent, and is protruded when it is about to strike at an antagonist. The situation of this poison, which is, in a manner, behind the upper lip, gives great propriety to the expression, "adders' poison is under their lips." The usage of the Hebrew language renders it by no means improbable that the fang itself is called !wfl lashon, a tongue, in the present text; and a serpent might then be said to sharpen its tongue, when, in preparing to strike, it protruded its fangs. We do not see any explanation by which a more consistent meaning may be extracted from the expression here employed. --John Kitto, in the "Pictorial Bible."
Verse 3. Often the tongue of the serpent is spoken of as the seat of its venom. This is popular, not scientific language. --William Swan Plumer.
Verse 3. Adder. The word acshub (pronounced, ak-shoob), only occurs in this one passage. The precise species represented by this word is unknown. Buxtorf, however, explains the word as the Spitter, "illud genus quod venelmm proeul exspuit." Now, if we accept this derivation, we must take the word acshub as a synonym for pethen. We have already identified the Pethen with the Naja haje, a snake which has the power of expelling the poison to some distance, when it is out of reach of its enemy. Whether the snake really intends to eject the poison, or whether it is merely flung from the hollow fangs by the force of the suddenly checked stroke, is uncertain. That the Haje cobra can expel its poison is an acknowledged fact, and the Dutch colonists of the Cape have been so familiarly acquainted with this habit, that they have called this reptile by the name of Spuugh Slange, or Spitting Snake, a name which, if we accept Buxtorf's etymology, is precisely equivalent to the word acshub. --J.G. Wood, in "Bible Animals."
Verse 3,5,8. Selah. We meet with Selah here for the first time since Psalm 89. From Psalm 90 to Psalm 140 no Selah occurs. Why omitted in these fifty we cannot tell any more than why so often recurring in others. However, there are only about forty Psalms in all in which it is used. --Andrew A. Bonar.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
Verse 3. The depraved state of the natural man as to his speech.