What Does “Life and Death Are in the Power of the Tongue” Mean in the Bible?

Debbie Wilson
What Does “Life and Death Are in the Power of the Tongue” Mean in the Bible?

Proverbs 18:21 says “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The tongue can be used as a weapon to harm and destroy or as a tool to build and heal. What kind of impact do your words have?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Maybe you’ve said it, but do you believe it? Someone revised this into, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

Our newspaper carried the tragic story of a teenaged girl who began an online relationship with an admirer in a cyberspace chat room. The boyfriend, who was really her neighbor posing as someone else, broke up with her and wrote that the world would be a better place without her. The girl read those words and killed herself.

When has an acid tongue burned you? Or kind words refreshed your soul? We’ve all wished we could retract a thoughtless jab or had the perfect word to say at the right time. The Bible tells us the types of words that bless and curse.

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What Does "Life and Death and in the Power of the Tongue" Mean?

The Bible shows the difference between a life-giving tongue and a destructive one. 

John Gills Commentary explains it this way: "death and life are in the power of the tongue - of witnesses, according to the testimony they bear; of judges, according to the sentence they pass; of teachers, according to the doctrine they preach; of all men, who, by their well or ill speaking, bring death or life to themselves and others. Some, by their tongues, by the too free use of them, or falsehood they utter, are the cause of death to themselves and others; and some, by their silence, or by their prudent speech and prevalent intercession, secure or obtain life for themselves and others; yea, judgment at the last day will proceed according to a man's words, "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned", (Matthew 12:37); the tongue is the instrument either of a great deal of good, or of a great deal of evil ."

Matthew Henry adds this helpful explanation: "The testimony of our consciences will be for us, or against us, according as we have or have not governed our tongues well. According as the fruit of the mouth is good or bad, unto iniquity or unto righteousness, so the character of the man is, and consequently the testimony of his conscience concerning him. "We ought to take as great care about the words we speak as we do about the fruit of our trees or the increase of the earth, which we are to eat; for, according as they are wholesome or unwholesome, so will the pleasure or the pain be wherewith we shall be filled.’’ Bishop Patrick. A man may do a great deal of good, or a great deal of hurt, both to others and to himself, according to the use he makes of his tongue. Many a one has been his own death by a foul tongue, or the death of others by a false tongue; and, on the contrary, many a one has saved his own life, or procured the comfort of it, by a prudent gentle tongue, and saved the lives of others by a seasonable testimony or intercession for them. And, if by our words we must be justified or condemned, death and life are, no doubt, in the power of the tongue."

Using the words BLESS and CURSE let’s consider the power each of our tongues wield.

Building                                              Critical

Loving                                                Unwholesome

Encouraging                                       Ridiculing

Soothing                                             Sharp

Spirit-filled                                           Evil

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Do my Words Bring Life (Build Up) or Bring Death (Cut Down)?

Building - Building words instruct, improve, build up, edify, affirm, or promote growth.

“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” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV).

Sincere compliments and words of affirmation strengthen people’s positive traits. God’s Word builds us up by telling us who we are in Christ and how to live victoriously.

Critical - In contrast, critical words judge and find fault. They tear down, beat up, and focus on defects and inadequacies.

“With their words, the godless destroy their friends” (Proverbs 11:9 NLT).

A client tried to give her critical mother the perfect Christmas gift. With little money, she listed ten projects her mother wanted done and promised to complete them. When her mother opened her gift and read the list she said, “Is that all?” With three small words she crushed her daughter.

Do you want to be known as a problem identifier or an encourager? A giver or life or a giver of death? Criticism may come more easily than craftsmanship. Be a craftsman anyway.

Are my words loving or unwholesome?

Loving - Loving words reflect God’s nature. Love is the hallmark of a believer and the perfect regulator of the tongue (John 13:35; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love seeks a person’s eternal best and tells the truth in a constructive way. It never flatters, but warns, confronts, and protects.

“Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church” (Ephesians 4:15, 25).

“Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law” (Romans 13:10).

“An open rebuke is better than hidden love!” (Proverbs 27:5).

“Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6)

“As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” (Proverbs 27:17).

Check the motive behind what you want to say. Sincere love blesses people.

Unwholesome - Unwholesomewords are the opposite of loving words. Theymake unfair comparisons. “Why can’t you be like…” They use people as a dumping ground for worry, needless chatter, and negative information. Such talk harms people’s mental and moral well-being.

Whereas love speaks the truth for the good of the hearer and shows respect, unwholesome words manipulate and use people and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:29-30). Discard this talk like overripe fruit.

“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” (Ephesians 4:29).

“A lying tongue hates its victims, and flattering words cause ruin” (Proverb 26:28).

“In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverb 10:19).

“Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).

A gossip betrays a confidence; separates close friends; keeps a quarrel going (Proverbs 11:13; 16:28; 26:20, 21)

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Does My Tongue Encourage (Life) or Ridicule (Death)?

Encourage - To encourage is to inspire with courage or hope, to hearten. Encouragement provides the home team advantage. It urges people to be brave and exercise their God-given gifts. It says “I believe in you. Through Christ you can do it. You’re not alone.”

We encourage people by showing respect for them, even when their opinions are different from ours. We listen and empathize instead ofminimizing the pain of those hurting.

“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13). 

“Encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Geese in flight honk to encourage the goose in front who breaks the resistance of the wind.My husband is my cheerleader. He encourages me to exercise my spiritual gifts even though they take time away from domestic responsibilities. Would those close to you call you a cheerleader?

Ridicule - Converselyridicule mocks, derides, taunts, and name-calls. Ridicule is a form of rejection and devalues people made in God’s image.

A friend’s family called her “Little Dummy” growing up. Name-calling is not funny to the one derided. Ridiculing words cloaked in a thin veil of “humor” still hurt. Even if you don’t mean ill, if the person is injured by them, your tongue has become a destructive weapon not a life-giving tool.

Ridicule can also take the form of making light of someone’s sorrow.

“Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).  

“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart”(Proverbs 25:20).

Before you ridicule someone, remember James 3:6 says destructive words are fueled by hell.

Is My Tongue Soothing or Sharp?

Soothing - Soothing words heal. A quiet and gentle spirit is precious to God and doesn’t need to snap and yell.

“The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15).

“She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” Proverbs 31:26).

“And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition; if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24, 25).

When we abide in Christ, we stay calm and composed. In quietness and trust we find strength (Isaiah 30:15).

Sharp words - Sharp words cut and slice like a chef’s knife. Sharp words include insults, jabs, and curse words usually spoken in anger and bitterness.

“You who practice deceit, your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor” (Psalms 52:2)

“I am in the midst of lions; I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts — men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” (Psalms 57:4).

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “If it is not necessary to scold, it is necessary not to scold.” Save strong tones to sound the alarm and protect, not to harm and scar.

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What Power Fuels My Tongue and Words - the Spirit or Satan?

Spirit-filled words - Spirit-filled words provide the power and wisdom to harness the tongue. The Bible says, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).

Self-effort can’t tame the tongue. Neither can good intentions. We need the power of God. And we have it!

Ephesians 5:17-20 commands us to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. Our words reveal who controls our heart. A life filled with the Holy Spirit pours out blessing and thanksgiving. Spirit-filledlips make sweet music, instead of noisy gongs.

Jesus said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil” (Matthew 12:34-35).

“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Present your tongue to God as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:13). Ask Him to fill you with His Spirit. Practice offering Him praise and thanksgiving (Psalm 34:1) and watch God infuse your tongue with life-giving power.

Spirit-filled lips bless God and people. Submit your heart to God and hand Him the reins to your tongue.

Evil-fueled words - The Scripture says a tongue not under the control of the Holy Spirit is a restless evil set on fire by hell and controlled by the evil one (James 3:6).

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8 NIV).

“But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. And I say to you that every careless word what men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgement. For by your words you shall be justified, and by you words you shall be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 NASB).

“But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them” (Matthew 15:18 NIV).

 “You let your mouth say anything evil.Your tongue plans deceit.You sit and talk against your own brother. You slander your own mother’s son. When you did these things, I remained silent. That made you think I was like you. I will argue my point with you and lay it all out for you to see” (Psalms 50:19-21).

I have a precious friend who radiates Jesus. She has blessed me in many ways with her prayers, encouragement, and insights from her walk with God. But she’ll tell you she used to have a “potty mouth.” When she gave her heart to Jesus, He transformed not only her heart but also her tongue.

The tongue is small but powerful. Unbridled it dispenses deadly poison. Bridled by the Holy Spirit it blesses, refreshes, and gives life. Is your tongue heaven’s tool or hell’s weapon? Give your heart and tongue to Jesus today.

“Take control of what I say, O Lord,and guard my lips” (Psalm 141:3). 

A Prayer for Power over the Tongue

Lord, I know my tongue often gets ahead of my mind and heart. I am quick to speak and I repent of the many thoughtless things I have spoken. I am sorry for words I have spoken in anger or in gossip. Please help me to see when I am about to speak without thinking and to check my heart. Help me be slow to speak. Help me Lord to be a person full of loving words, full of your Spirit, overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control. Amen.

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Drawing from her personal walk with Christ, twenty-four years as a Christian counselor, and decades as a Bible teacher, Debbie W. Wilson helps people live in God’s grace so they can enjoy fruitful and full lives. She is the author of Little Women, Big God and Give Yourself a Break. Her latest book, Little Faith, Big God, is to be released February 2020. She and her husband Larry founded Lighthouse Ministries, a nonprofit ministry offering counseling, life and relationship coaching, and Bible studies. She is an AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers Association) certified speaking and writing coach. Debbie enjoys a good mystery, dark chocolate, and the antics of her two standard poodles. Share her journey to refreshing faith at debbieWwilson.com.