Series Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (episode 5)
These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.
It is worth repeating that the desperation causing us to cry out to God begins to fade as God takes care of our needs. He meets us at the place of our repentance, and we are satisfied—for the moment. The distress dissipates, and we gradually adapt to this world's comforts, conveniences, and culture. We turn our back on the One who rescued us, only to resettle in the world. We become sated, no longer hungering and thirsting. No more do we cry out of spiritual poverty.
The Psalms of Ascent (120-134) address our continuing need for divine presence as we serve others and seek to be a people in the world but truly not of it.
What happens once we begin our journey in earnest? Many difficulties beset us. One that is unfortunately all too common in Christian communities is that of gossip and slander. Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree (Ps 120:2, 4).
Have you ever been victimized by gossip, malevolent talk, or slander? It is very distressing. There is something almost innate in most of us where we feel we have an inalienable right to be understood on the one hand and to be assumed as well-intentioned in our actions on the other. Consequently, we are easily upset when someone maligns our motives or misconstrues our actions. But if they begin to speak about it in malicious and maligning ways, it is painful on so many levels.
The psalmists knew of what we speak, namely, using the tongue as a weapon of destruction. This is a shared human experience.
Ps. 57:4 My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts—the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.
Ps. 64:3-5 Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
Ps. 5:9 For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.
Ps. 12:1-4 Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. [...] those who say, "With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?"
Now notice the contrasting parallelism in 121:6-7. The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. They will keep and guard those in need.
Let me quote from an ancient Jewish commentary on Genesis that shows what a grave offense these tongue-related sins were to the biblical mind in the times of Jesus (and still are today).
"Why does the psalmist compare these words to an arrow rather than to other weapons (Ps 120:4)? All other weapons smite from close quarters, whereas the sharp arrows of the tongue smite from a distance. Even so is slander, for it is spoken in Rome but it kills in Syria."
"And why likened to coals of the broom bush? All other coals are extinguished inside when they are extinguished on the outside, but the coals of the broom bush are still burning within even though they are extinguished without. So is he who listens to slander. Even if you go and appease him and he lets himself be appeased, he is still burning within."
Two of the Ten Commandments relate directly to your speech. You shall not take the name of Yahweh in vain (not use it lightly, not misuse or misrepresent it). You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Human nature, with its tendency toward iniquity, rebellion, and self-centeredness, reveals itself in speech. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire (James 3:5)! The LORD specifically prohibits these abuses.
The phrase bear false witness is fascinating in Hebrew because it uses the same root from which Jesus pulls the word for church (edah). A false witness speaks falsely but is himself false. Jesus says, "My church, by contrast, is the edah, my witnessing body. Kingdom people bear witness to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, my people speak and act truthfully."
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37).
Here are some wise sayings from Jewish sages that I have found particularly helpful on such a critical but overly familiar subject.
One teacher said, "If a man publicly puts his neighbor to shame, it is as if he shed blood." Another rabbi responded, "You have spoken well, for we see on such occasion how the red disappears from a person's face and the pallor comes."
"Your fingers are tapered because if you hear bad speech, you are to stick them in your ears like pegs. Do not listen!"
"There are four great sins which correspond to four great virtues, in that man is punished for them in this world, and their capital (or stock) remains in the form of punishment dealt out to him in the world to come: idolatry, incest, murder, and slander. The last is as bad as all three put together."
Since, in Jesus' day, it was common to be martyred for your faith, Jewish leaders had to make hard decisions like this one. If you are faced with the threat of death, which commandments of the Torah can you set aside to spare your life or the life of someone else?
After considerable deliberation, they ruled four commandments cannot be set aside if death is at stake. All others can. The four are prohibitions against 1) idolatry, 2) sexual immorality or adultery, 3) slander and blasphemy, and, 4) murder. Slander and blasphemy carry the same weight as idolatry, immorality, and murder!
Slander is spoken of as the third tongue in Hebrew because it slays the speaker, it slays the one spoken to, and it slays the one spoken of.
We need to learn to check our speech.
Check it out. Reflect on what you say and how you say it. Quiet yourself and ask, "What does my speech reveal about the condition of my inner person?"
Keep it in check. The wise sages of Israel reflected that words fitly spoken are like pure silver, but silence is golden. We are designed with two ears and one mouth so that we listen twice as much as we speak.
My friends, if you and I are to make this spiritual pilgrimage up to the New Jerusalem, we must learn that our speech reflects our inner being, and, the gift of speech is to bless God and the ones He has made in His image and likeness.
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.