[A22] God's Gift of Speech (The Small Catechism)

“The boneless tongue, so small and weak,
Can crush and kill,” declared the Greek.
“The tongue destroys a greater horde,”
The Turk asserts, “than does the sword.”
The Persian proverb wisely saith,
“A lengthy tongue, — an early death;”
Or sometimes takes this form instead:
“Don’t let your tongue cut off your head.”
“The tongue can speak a word whose speed,”
Says the Chinese, “Outstrips the steed.”
While Arab sage doth this impart:
“The tongue’s great store-house is the heart.”
From Hebrew hath the maxim sprung —
“Though feet should slip, ne’er let the tongue.”
The sacred writer crowns the whole:
“Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.”

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22. God’s Gift Of Speech

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” — Exodus 20:16.

“I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” — St Matt. 12:36-37.

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.” Thus did the Psalmist speak when he had meditated on God’s works, especially as he found it in his own nature.

We human beings are, indeed, wonderful creatures — wonderful as to our origin and nature; wonderful as to the constitution of our being, and the adaptation and use of the various members with which God has endowed us; wonderful as to the part we are to play in this great universe; wonderful as to our end. Do we think of these things as often and as seriously as we should? Would it not have a salutary influence on our conduct if we did think a great deal more of them?

These bodies of ours, of which the Psalmist says that they are fearfully made, are units. But each body is formed of a number of members of widely differing character and use. There are, besides many others, hands and feet, eyes and ears, nose and tongue. Each of the members of the body serves a different, often a widely different, purpose; but each one of these helps to form that wonderful unit — the body, the home of the soul, yea, the temple of God Himself.

The members of the body are all important And if we were compelled to sacrifice any one of them we should probably hesitate long before we could decide which one it should be. However this may be, there is but little doubt as to which of these members is used most frequently, which gives us most of pleasure, which gets us into trouble oftenest. It is the tongue, the organ of speech. The tongue, though subject to abuse, as are all our other members, is a gift of God. There is much evil speech, but before ever sin came into existence there was speech in Heaven, and speech in Eden. Let us then have in mind, as the underlying thought of our discussion, this fact: Speech is God’s Gift.

Thought, Language, Speech

Before we proceed to consider speech as to its practical usage in the affairs of life, I invite you to consider with me what we may call the philosophy of speech; that is, some of the deeper thoughts it suggests. It will help to impress the import and importance of the following more practical discussion. Three words present the matter which I ask you to consider with me and not only in this hour, but in many an hour to come. They are: thought, language, speech.

Man is a thinking creature. He is able to take hold of things with the inner man, with the hands of the spirit. With these hands he is capable of taking things apart, even the things which are immaterial, intangible. He analyzes them, looks at them first in one light, then in another. He is often able to combine the data thus secured into proper, legitimate conclusions. This faculty of thought is a wonderful one. It tells us that mere flesh and blood is not all of man, that there is something immaterial, spiritual in man’s make-up and that this spiritual something is the real man. This power of thought tells us that man lives on a higher plane than anything else in this world.

We cannot think rationally, sanely, till we are able to resolve our ideas into language, words, and combinations of words. Have you ever thought of what a truly wonderful thing language is — this contrivance by which we are enabled to convey to others, through the medium of words, these incarnations of our thoughts, the impalpable possessions of our souls? We talk, we write, constantly; but I am afraid we seldom remember that this is one of the marvels of life. This is another one of the things which lifts man to a position high above everything merely material, yes, high above every other creature that God has put into this world.

Finally, there is speech, the power of articulating, of expressing, by means of words, through the medium of the voice, the far-reaching thoughts of the mind, the deep feelings of the soul. What a faculty! How godlike its possibilities! We have in human speech one of the marvels of the universe. If the earnest consideration of these things does not lead thoughtful people back to God, and to the conviction that we are the children of an all-wise Father, then I do not know of anything in the realm of nature calculated to do so.

The Tongue

The tongue is the member whereby uttered speech is made possible. Back of the tongue is the man with his character. And the tongue is continually laying bare, like the scalpel in anatomical dissection, the soul of its owner. Every day we are revealing, through our words, the kind of men and women we are at heart. In all ages the part the tongue has played in the affairs of life, for good or ill, has been recognized. And most of the peoples of the earth have proverbs which express their conception of the power of the tongue to heal or hurt. Some of the most suggestive of these have been put into verse, as follows:

“The boneless tongue, so small and weak,
Can crush and kill,” declared the Greek.
“The tongue destroys a greater horde,”
The Turk asserts, “than does the sword.”
The Persian proverb wisely saith,
“A lengthy tongue, — an early death;”
Or sometimes takes this form instead:
“Don’t let your tongue cut off your head.”
“The tongue can speak a word whose speed,”
Says the Chinese, “Outstrips the steed.”
While Arab sage doth this impart:
“The tongue’s great store-house is the heart.”
From Hebrew hath the maxim sprung —
“Though feet should slip, ne’er let the tongue.”
The sacred writer crowns the whole:
“Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.”

What power is recognized to be in the tongue! What power to hurt, to harm! What power to bless! Like all man’s other members, the tongue needs to be converted so that its power will be used for good and not for ill.

Truth

The tongue should ever be enlisted in the service of truth. This is indicated by the commandment we are studying. It says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” These words point, primarily, to some form of judicial procedure and require truthful dealing there; but the injunction is much more comprehensive. It implies that there is to be truthfulness in all things.

So many people are careless in the handling of truth. They do not seem to have any appreciation of its beauty and worth. They handle it as unknowing children might handle costly wares, with the result that it is often broken and outraged at their hands. When people thus handle truth it shows a coarse moral fibre, and that their ideas of life and living move on a very low plane.

Truth is a subject so large, so interwoven with every subject in the world, that it is practically inexhaustible. Truth is the foundation both of the moral and physical universe. All that God requires of the children of men as duty is but the expression of truth in terms of action. Failure to love and worship God aright, failure to love and serve our fellowmen aright, what is this but a species of falsehood? It is so because it is a failure to act in conformity with the constitution of our being. Such failure takes us out of the sphere where life moves harmoniously and starts it in the direction of conflict, the end of which will be that it misses its true goal.

There can be no knowledge and no communication of knowledge without truth — the truth which is inherent in the nature of things, the truth which sets forth the relations of things. In all the phenomena of the universe God is revealing Himself — the great original, unchangeable, eternal truth. And only as we come to know God and the way in which He is giving expression to Himself in nature and the relation of things do we really come to know the truth. The true child of God, therefore, is best qualified to understand what truth is.

In the sphere of spiritual things God has given to the world, for its enlightenment and guidance, a special revelation of truth. His Word, the sacred Scriptures, is this body of truth. This volume contains and communicates to man the knowledge of God’s person and the work He has done to make possible man’s salvation. The world has no other body of truth given for this purpose. The Bible is not only a book of information, but a book of power; because in and through it the Spirit of God works effectually, where not opposed, to lead men into fellowship with God Himself who is the truth.

How inexpressibly precious, in its nature and purpose, is truth. Truth is related to the very heart of God and to all the deep mysteries of the universe. And he who violates truth, in any of its many forms, sins against himself, the universe and God. How we ought to love truth! How we ought, by God’s gracious help, to teach our souls to recoil from all untruth!

When we speak of a man as truthful, our first thought usually is of his speech; that he is guarded and careful in what he says. As every person of character loathes lying, and has no use for the liar, the person who has no regard for truth; so every person, even the liar himself, appreciates the person who loves and speaks the truth. There is no truer criterion of inherent nobility of character than a native love of truth, and the care such a person exercises in his speech; guarding it scrupulously against the semblance of untruth, jealous of the truth.

These few observations on the general character of truth ought to enable us to appreciate, still better, God’s gift of speech, and emphasize the care with which it should be guarded and the blessings of which it may be the means of bestowal.

Proper Speech

Let us now consider some of the blessings of which speech may be the fruitful parent. Speech is much used in Heaven. The angels, we are told, are ever busy sounding the praises of their great Creator. We know how, on that first Christmas night, they came down to earth to sing their glorias over the manger of the new-born Saviour. And when Jesus, grown to man’s estate, walked the earth, words of healing, words of wisdom, words of peace, words of life, were constantly falling from His lips. Never man spake as He did.

And what blessed speech it was when the Apostles went forth on their mission to the people sitting in the starless night of ignorance, and spoke forth to them the Gospel of light and life. What blessed speech it was when the missionaries of all ages went forth and found souls yearning for the true bread of life, and pointed them to Jesus, who is this bread of life.

All the greatest joys of this world are intimately associated with the proper employment of speech. How much speech means to the family circle. Through it the members give their recitals of conflicts and victories, renew their vows and make their avowals of continued affection. The delights of lovers, as they plight their troth, and form the plans whereby two lives pursue a common purpose, are enhanced as they put these dreams into words and utter them in speech. Friendship is a sacred word. It is speech which cements the tie, as friends in their association recount the experiences of the past, and seek to explore the untrodden path stretching into the future. Consider the fond mother as she presses her child to her breast; note the light from the faraway land which beams in her eye, as she listens to the imperfect prattle of her first-born, and answers with that depth of feeling which can have its birth only in a mother’s soul. These, and many other innocent and ennobling delights, are inseparably connected with the employment of this God-given gift of speech.

There is a time when it is well to be silent — a time when silence is golden; a time when it shows a loving, considerate heart to keep the lips sealed. If to speak means harsh judgment; if it means bitter, cutting words; if it means to condemn, then, unless truth and justice absolutely demand speech, it is best to keep silent. When suspicious or unsavory rumors about a neighbor come floating around, it is generally best to keep silent or to counteract them by recounting some of the good things we can usually find to say of those same persons. Bringing the truth home to ourselves: when we are spoken against, when our good name is assailed, when our best-meant efforts are misunderstood or misrepresented, when our natural hearts would prompt a reply that would scorch and wither, through words that are veritable arrow-points covered with poison, then is a good time to be silent; then is the time to remember Him of whom it is said: “When He was reviled, He reviled not again.” To do this, is not easy; indeed, for mere flesh and blood it is impossible. But for those in whom Christ largely lives and rules, it is possible. Let us remember the beatitude spoken especially for those who are called upon to endure such treatment: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” Let us give no cause for offense, have a good conscience, and then — keep silent.

Perhaps most of us ought to say less than we do, or at least change materially the character of much of our speech. The Apostolic injunction is: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19). We have the statement of inspiration that “in the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). The thought that every word shall be weighed in the unerring balance of God’s impartial judgment, and that the character of our speech, as the revelation of the condition of our souls, will have much to do with our acceptance or rejection at the hands of God, should tend to sober us and lead us to weigh well our words.

With all the exercise of due caution, there is still plenty of room for the use of proper speech. The largeness of the sphere where speech may be employed to brighten, cheer and help the world is indicated in the language itself. How many words there are in our vocabulary which are most intimately bound up with the noblest virtues and sweet est amenities of life. It takes speech to put into them the breath and bloom of life. Take the words love, kindness, courtesy, sympathy, good-will, gentleness, friendship, mercy, forgiveness, comfort, prayer, praise, and many others — when these words come from the lips of persons in whom the realities for which they stand have first been wrought into life, and then come forth pulsating with the warmth of loving hearts, accompanied by conduct that confirms the sincerity of their utterance, how much they add to the joy of living, both on the part of those who hear and those who speak them.

Let us, then, employ this blessed, God-given, gift of speech as it ought to be used: to God’s glory, for the accomplishment of His purposes in the lives of our fellowmen. Let us use our tongues to make life better and brighter for others as well as ourselves. Let us not be afraid nor hesitate too much to speak the word of appreciation, of good will, of encouragement, which will make someone else feel god’s gift of speech better. As a result, we ourselves shall also feel better. Such words have a reflex ennobling effect. To this end we must cultivate our speech, not only or mainly as to form and fluency, though this also is well worthwhile; but especially as to quality. True culture of the heart will ever manifest itself in graciousness of speech. A good heart will give forth helpful speech, even though it may limp as to grammar and logic. A corrupt or embittered heart will give forth speech which wounds and kills, even though it may be faultless as to diction and utterance. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” says Christ.

No other agency has ever done the good in the world which the tongue has done. The extent of its helpfulness is beyond all computation. It does not always take an oration to do a great deal of good. A few words often suffice. A brief word of advice has often changed the course of a life that was being misspent. A word of encouragement has put new life into a downcast, disheartened brother. A word of friendly goodwill has given to many a despairing person a new vision of human brotherhood. A word of love and appreciation has lifted the galling bur den from the shoulder of a weary, despondent toiler, making life worth living and toil a benediction. Ponder the following lines, and then ask yourself whether it describes your conduct:

“A nameless man amid the crowd
That thronged the daily mart,
Let drop a word of hope and cheer
Unstudied from the heart.
A whisper on the tumult thrown —
A transitory breath, —
It raised a brother from the dust,
It saved a soul from death.
O word! O thought! O germ of love!
A thing at random cast,
Thou wert but little at the first,
But mighty at the last.”

Was it you who spoke that little word which gave a downcast, despondent brother his new grip on life?

Especially ought all of us who are professing Christians to speak more frequently, more freely, to others on the all-important subject of their soul’s welfare. I know that there is a seemingly natural reticence on this score which it is hard for most of us to overcome. I conceive that there are two chief reasons for this reticence. We are all conscious of our own frailty in living what we profess. I wonder, however, whether the chief reason is not this that it is a sly work of the devil bent on hindering God’s work of rescuing souls? Whatever the cause, it can, in large measure, be overcome. History records that when Cyrus captured Sardis, a soldier who did not know King Croesus, was about to strike him on the head with a scimitar. Croesus had only one son, a youth who, all his life, had been dumb. But when he saw the danger threatening his father, so violent was his agitation and the effort to speak that the string of his tongue was loosed, and he was enabled to cry out: “Soldier, spare the life of Croesus!” So it will be with us. If Christ Himself has become dear enough to us, if the worth of perishing souls is adequately realized, we shall find the required speech to make known to men their need of Christ and His preciousness to them if they learn to know Him. We speak of the value of friendship. A precious theme! But have we reached the heights of friendship when we are interested in a person’s physical and financial welfare, but fail in our efforts to interest that person in spiritual things, fail in our efforts to make him possessor of the greatest of all riches, the imperishable riches of God’s Kingdom?

We should all come nearer doing our duty if we had the spirit of the Scotch mother whose bairn, a student in a theological seminary, was getting ready to deliver his first sermon. Her last word to him, as he was about ready to ascend the pulpit, was: “Spake a gude word for Jesus Christ.” Yes, let us take or make the opportunity to speak a good word for Christ!

In the community, in the school, in the home, in the church, we need more people — men, women, and children, who will use their tongues for God and the good of their fellowmen; people who have the courage to speak a word for the absent when they are attacked, who will try to find something good to say of their neighbors when others are looking only for faults; people who have a pleasant word to say of and to the living, and not wait to send them flowers when they are dead; people whose presence, because of their cheerful, helpful words, radiates sunshine and dispels the clouds. Such words are “like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Such people are the salt of the earth. Men will rise up and call them blessed. And if their loving words proceed from faith, God will add His benediction.

There is only one place where this grace can be learned — in fellowship with Christ, in the school of the Spirit. But there must be an effort to practice what the Spirit prompts. Our children should be trained, from earliest years, to practice restraint in speech; restraining the evil word, constraining themselves to speak the helpful word at the opportune moment. But only as we open wide the door of the heart and let Christ come in richly, not to sojourn, but to abide, will any of us gain a reason able mastery over this naturally unruly little member.

We should all try to learn so to speak, as we journey through this lower world, that our tongues will be trained to take part with the heavenly choir above in the song of Moses and the Lamb; where—

“Innumerable choirs before the shining throne
With harp and trumpet raise
Glad notes till Heav’n’s vast halls vibrate the tone
Of their melodious praise;
And all its host rejoices,
And all its blessed throng
Unite their myriad voices
In one eternal song.”

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

Luther's Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

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