The Tongue Has the Power of Life and Death

The Tongue Has the Power of Life and Death

Many people in the church believe that the words we speak are powerful because they have metaphysical and reality-shaping power. Arguing based on Proverbs 18:21, they see a correlation between the words we speak and what happens to us: in essence, you can create your reality, for good or ill, by the words you speak.

This idea is the reasoning (at least a part of it) behind the whole positive affirmation business – make positive affirmations because your affirmations shape your reality. Put simply, you become what you affirm. People in this camp believe you should not make negative statements (which for some include statements like “I am terribly sick”) because, again, you become what you affirm.

However, a deeper look at Proverbs 18:21 will show that the biblical consensus is that our words have moral and ethical power rather than metaphysical power. This is not a mere play on words; the difference between those two has massive implications.

The context of Proverbs 18:21

The first nine chapters of Proverbs contain many invitations to embrace wisdom (Chapters 1-4, 8, 9), reject folly (Chapter 6, 9), and run away from adultery and the adulterous woman (Chapter 5, 6:20ff, 7). The father laid out the benefits of wisdom and the dangers of folly (and adultery) as a way to persuade the son to choose wisely.

But what is wisdom and what is folly? And how does the distinction between those two play out in “real” life (as we call it)? The Proverbs of Solomon (chapters 10-22:16) provide the answer to those questions. Proverb after proverb, the father keeps distinguishing between wisdom and folly as they manifest in daily life while also showing the consequences of the two to encourage the son to choose wisdom.

Proverbs 18 contains a disparate number of proverbs that tie into the overall theme, as explained above. In verse 21, we have the popular proverb: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Before considering what life and death mean, let’s focus on the second part of the verse: those who love it will eat its fruit. People who love to use the tongue – those who love to talk – should understand that the words they speak (like everything else) bear fruits. Moreso, we eat out of the fruits our words bear. We will partake of the consequences of our words – whether for death or life. Our words don’t merely affect others; they affect us as well.

But what’s the nature of this fruit-bearing? In what way do our words bear fruits that can be classified as death or life?

Let’s track back and consider other proverbs related to the tongue in this chapter.

In verse 4, we see that the words of the mouth are deep waters while the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream. While an ordinary person’s words are obscure like deep waters, the words of the wise are clear like a rushing stream. This verse introduces a differentiation between the nature and quality of words that we will still consider later on. There are obscure words, and there are clear words that characterize the wise.

In verse 6, we begin to see some of the consequences of our words. The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. When fools speak, strife and beating result.

Verse 7 also agrees: the mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives. A fool’s words bring negative consequences to him. Why is this? Because his words generate strife which causes him to be beaten, making his lips a snare.

The next verse makes another differentiation in the type of words we speak. Here, the focus is on gossip. Gossips are like choice morsels (favourite food) that easily go to the inmost parts. We enjoy gossips and take them in like we do our favourite food.

Verse 20 makes the same point as verse 21: words have consequences (fruits), and the one who speaks them participates in those consequences as much as those who hear it. The fruit of our words will fill our stomach, and the harvest of our lips will be so abundant that they will satisfy us (for good or ill). We will drink from our cup and eat from our plate – another way to say that we will fully bear the consequences of our speech.

From these verses, two streams of thoughts arise: differentiation and consequences. By differentiation, I mean that Solomon introduces moral distinctions and categories in the words we speak. There are obscure words, wise words, words of fools, and gossips. By consequences, I mean that the different kinds of words we speak (differentiation) bear different fruits.


Let’s flesh this out a bit.

Solomon uses many moral categories to differentiate the kind of words we speak. On the negative side (let’s call it bad tongue), we have:

  • Lying tongue/words: Proverbs 6:17; 12:19; 21:6; 26:28
  • Flattering tongue/smooth talk: Proverbs 6:24; 28:23
  • The mouth of fools: Proverbs 15:2
  • Perverse/deceitful tongue: Proverbs 15:4; 17:20
  • Destructive/evil lips: Proverbs 17:4
  • Sly/backbiting tongue: Proverbs 25:23
  • Harsh words: Proverbs 15:1

On the flip side (let’s call it good tongue), we have:

  • The tongue of the righteous: Proverbs 10:20,31
  • The tongue of the wise: Proverbs 12:18; 15:2; 31:26
  • Truthful lips: Proverbs 12:19
  • Soothing/wholesome tongue: Proverbs 15:4
  • Self-controlled tongues: Proverbs 21:23
  • Gentle tongue: Proverbs 25:15; 15:1

You should notice here that the distinction between the different types of tongues is a moral one. Lies, flatteries, folly, deceit, harshness, evil, and backbiting are moral categories. Similarly, righteousness, wisdom, truth, wholesomeness, self-control, and gentleness are moral categories.

Solomon does not introduce any metaphysical distinction between words. All the distinctions are moral. Why is this important? As we will see, the consequences (fruits) of words are determined by this moral and ethical distinction.

Also, notice that the distinction Solomon makes is absolute: they apply to everyone across the board. Gentle words spoken by an unbeliever are in the same moral category as the believer’s righteous words. Similarly, the lies of a believer and the unbeliever’s smooth talk are in the same category.


Since there are moral distinctions in the words we speak, there are differences in the consequences. On the one hand, the consequences can be positive or negative; on the other hand, they can be internal (consequences to the speaker) or external (consequences to the hearer).

(Note: Where the consequences are neutral, I include it on both sides. I did the same when the consequences can be both internal and external)

Internal, positive consequences

These are positive consequences of words to the speaker:

  • From the fruit of their mouth a person’s stomach is filled; with the harvest of their lips they are satisfied – Proverbs 18:20
  • The tongue of the righteous is choice silver – Proverbs 10:20
  • From the mouth of the righteous comes the fruit of wisdom – Proverbs 10:31
  • The tongue of the wise brings healing – Proverbs 12:18

External, positive consequences

These are positive consequences of words to the hearers.

  • The words of the mouth are deep waters but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream – Proverbs 18:4
  • The tongue of the righteous is choice silver – Proverbs 10:20
  • From the mouth of the righteous comes the fruit of wisdom – Proverbs 10:31
  • The tongue of the wise brings healing – Proverbs 12:18
  • The soothing tongue is a tree of life – Proverbs 15:4
  • She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue – Proverbs 31:26
  • Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious – Ecclesiastes 10:12
  • A gentle answer turns away wrath – Proverbs 15:1

Internal, negative consequences

These are negative consequences of words to the speaker:

  • The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating – Proverbs 18:6
  • From the fruit of their mouth a person’s stomach is filled; with the harvest of their lips they are satisfied – Proverbs 18:20
  • Fools die for lack of sense – Proverbs 10:21
  • Fools are consumed by their own lips – Ecclesiastes 10:12

External, negative consequences

These are negative consequences of words to the hearers:

  • A perverse tongue crushes the spirit – Proverbs 15:4
  • Like a north wind that brings unexpected rain is a sly tongue – which provokes a horrified look – Proverbs 25:23
  • A harsh word stirs up strife – Proverbs 15:1

Differentiation and consequences

What do you notice?

If you paid attention to the above verses, you would see a causal relationship between the type of words (the moral quality – good or bad) and the consequences.

Morally good words (wise, righteous, gentle, and soothing) bear positive fruits for the speaker and the hearers. Conversely, morally bad words (perverse, sly, harsh, and foolish) bear negative fruits for the speaker and the hearers.

It is the moral quality of words that determines the fruits they bear.

Furthermore, notice the nature of the consequences. There is nothing metaphysical here. The consequences are psychological (crushes the spirit, tree of life, gracious), social (strife, healing, choice silver, turns away wrath), mental (lack of sense, faithful instruction, wisdom), moral (wisdom), and emotional (a horrified look, gracious, turns away wrath).

The power of words lies in their moral content and how that affects those who speak and those who hear psychologically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. There is nothing in Solomon that suggests words can modify reality in some metaphysical way.

God’s words, not our words

Only God’s words have metaphysical powers. “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalms 33:6). “The universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:3). God spoke creation into existence (Genesis 1) in the beginning, and the Word by which he created the world is none other than Jesus (John 1:1-3).

And this universe continues to exist because Jesus upholds it by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3). As G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Only the words of the triune God are decisive for the creation and shaping of reality.

Therefore, while our words can have psychological, emotional, social, mental, moral, and emotional consequences on us and others, we should not attach metaphysical powers to our words. Our words are significant because of their moral value, not their ability to create or modify reality. Your positive affirmations may impact your psychological wellbeing, but it does nothing more than that – confessing that you will get the job or have already gotten it will not create a job for you; it might only help you be in the right frame of mind to crush the interview and get the job. Affirming health won’t prevent diseases and saying “I am terribly sick” won’t, in itself, worsen your health.

Death and life

Therefore, the death and life of Proverbs 18:21 should be seen in psychological, emotional, social, mental, and moral terms. Your words can cause someone to have an emotional or psychological breakdown, leading to depression or suicide. In that sense, your words have the power of death. Consider the sadness, sorrow, and anger that Peninnah’s words provoked in Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-8).   

They can also do the opposite – cheer someone up and give them a reason to live and overcome their trials. In that sense, they have the power of life. Consider Deborah’s words to Barak that encouraged him in the battle against Sisera (Judges 4:14).

Words can also have a social impact that puts relationships (individual and communal) to the sword or bring them to life. At the individual level, consider how Abigail’s words saved Nabal from certain death (1 Samuel 25). The crowd’s innocent words led to an eternal animosity between Saul and David (1 Samuel 18).  

At the communal level, false reports and information have led to wars among and within nations. Consider the role of false reports and information in the US’s decision to join WW1. Words have encouraged people to fight for freedom and liberty. Consider the impact of Patrick Henry’s speech on the American fight for freedom and Winston Churchill’s speech on the English people’s determination to fight Nazi Germany.

These are the kind of effects that Solomon has in mind in Proverbs 18:21.

The power of words in James 3

James recognizes the ease with which we falter with our words. Infact, anyone who is never at fault in his words is perfect already since he would be able to keep the whole body in check (verse 1-2).

The tongue might be small, but like the small bits control the horse and the rudder the ship, it has massive consequences (verse 3-5). As little as it is, it can set the whole course of life on fire, like a little spark sets a forest on fire (verse 5-6). The one who cannot control his tongue will see it, together with the whole body, set on fire by hell (verse 6).

We can see here that the tongue is indeed powerful. It’s “small but mighty.” Another manifestation of its power is the difficulty of taming it. We have tamed all kinds of animals but not the tongue (verse 7-8). No wonder that out of it comes both praise and cursing (verse 8).

Notice that there is nothing metaphysical in James’s description. In verse 2, he talked about moral perfection. In verse 6, it is the moral evil that results from the tongue. In verses 9-10, it is the dualism of using the same tongue to curse men and praise God. All of his focus is moral.

What do we do with the tongue?

While our words don’t have creative or metaphysical powers, they have massive psychological, emotional, mental, moral, and social impacts on us and others. Consequently, the bible encourages us to pay attention to our words and sanctify our tongue.

James wants us to “keep a tight rein” on our tongues (James 1:26). Peter admonishes us to keep our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech if we love life and desire to see good days (1 Peter 3:10). Who doesn’t love life and desire good days? Then we must keep our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech.

Paul summarized the negative and positive aspects perfectly: “Do not let any wholesome 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). Here is Paul again in Colossians: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

Since the bible sees our words in moral and ethical terms, the focus is always on transforming our words from the ungodly to the godly, the impure to the pure, and the immoral to the moral. There is nothing about positive affirmations because our words can change reality and make things happen.


What makes good words good and bad words bad is not primarily the consequences. Good words are righteous, and bad words are unrighteous. Bad words are sins, and we should be seeking to overcome them because they are sins and not just because they lead to evil consequences. Good words are righteous, and we should seek to grow in them.

We will give account for the empty words we speak (Mathew 12:36). Those who slander others have no part in the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). Liars will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur (Revelation 21:8).

Therefore, we should not think about our words in mere utilitarian categories. Bad words are sins, and those of us who are dead to sin must count (reckon) ourselves as dead to all sorts of bad words (Romans 6:11). Good words are righteous, and those of us who are alive to righteousness must count (reckon) ourselves as alive to all sorts of good words (Romans 6:11).

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