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An Examination of the Tongue

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 3:13–14

While words can encourage, help, and heal, the apostle Paul offers his divinely inspired warning that words are most prominently used as weapons. Indeed, fallen humanity is characterized by deceptive, destructive communication.


In all my life, every time I have gone to the doctor to be checked out, the doctor does the same thing. I guess they all learn in medical school that you begin by taking that little wooden Popsicle stick, putting it in the patient’s mouth until he gags and commanding, “Say ahhhh,” which makes him gag even more. The truth is, a good physician knows that the mouth is a key window into the physical condition of the body. 

Our Lord, the divine Physician, is no less thorough. He knows that our tongue—our mouth, our speech—is a window into our heart. The Bible says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matthew 15:18).

In his inspired description of humanity, Paul has revealed in verses 10 through 12 who we are. Now in verses 13 and 14, he takes a look at what we say.

And what we say is revealing—and powerful. Our words can make or break a marriage, a family, a church. It should be no surprise that as Paul describes human sinfulness, he gives us the divine diagnosis. He makes four statements here about our true condition. Here is the first one: the throat exposes hidden depravity.

Paul is actually quoting Psalm 5:9: “Their throat is an open grave.” More literally, it says, “an opened grave.”[1]

Just as the opening of a grave reveals death and decay within it, so the opening of the mouth reveals the death and decay that is in the human heart.

Have you ever lifted the hood of an automobile and looked inside? It might be shiny and clean on the outside, but under that hood is a lot of dirt and grease. You cannot even check the oil gauge without getting your hands dirty. Well, open the hood of your heart—the mouth—and apart from the cleansing work of Christ, you are not going to find much down their but the dirt and grease of sin.

Paul’s second diagnostic observation is that the tongue produces great deception. He writes in verse 13, “They use their tongues to deceive.”

The Greek word for “deceive” in this verse means “to lure,” as a fisherman would bait a hook to deceive a fish.[2] That fish thinks it is going to get something for dinner, but the fisherman is the one who is going to have dinner.

The truth is, we can deceive one another—and the fallen human heart is good at it. We demonstrated that at a very young age. I never had to teach any of my children to tell a lie; but I had to work hard at teaching them to tell the truth.

Now don’t misunderstand; unbelievers can tell the truth. But Paul is not referring to singular acts of speech but to the fallen nature of humanity. Humanity has the ability and skill to deceive one another.

Deceiving out of fear, deceiving for financial gain, deceiving by exaggeration, deceiving through unkept promises, deceiving by withholding the truth, deceiving by means of flattery—these are just a few of the reasons and ways the tongue can be used to deceive others.

Next, Paul gives us the third diagnostic result from this divine examination: the lips produce untold damage. He writes in verse 13, “The venom of [vipers] is under their lips.”

This is not very flattering, but Paul is telling us the truth. He is effectively saying that underneath the human tongue is a sack of venom, and we can use our words to strike at each other, to hurt each other—like a snake that injects venom with its fangs.

Our mouths are dangerous weapons. No wonder Solomon wrote in Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Are you building your children up? Are you injecting life into your marriage, your church, your workplace? Or are you tearing them all down—poisoning everything around you with your destructive and discouraging words?

That is the power of the tongue.

Paul then gives us his fourth and final diagnostic result from this divine examination: the mouth reveals internal despair. In verse 14, Paul writes, “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

The Greek word for “curses” refers to discrediting and defaming another person. In the same way, mankind curses God, using His name in ways that discredit His holy character. You know, I have never heard anyone curse, using the name Buddha or Allah. It seems like the name of God—or the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ—is a favorite expression of profanity. Let me tell you, profanity is the language of a heart that is far from God.

Some time ago I was having lunch with a very wealthy real-estate investor and his wife. They had just begun visiting the church I pastored. I had the sense that he wanted to impress me and perhaps be given some form of prestige in the church. Early on, during lunch, he let slip a curse word in his conversation. I could tell his wife was mortified. He kept talking, as if he had said nothing wrong. I just kept eating. A little later on, another curse word slipped out in his conversation. Eventually, he said, “Pastor, I want to know how I can make a significant contribution in the life of your church?” I said, “Well, what I think you need to do is come to church for a while and grow up in your walk with Christ—let the Word of God change your heart. Because while we have talked, you have used profanity; and if you used it with me, it lets me know you’ve got some spiritual growing up to do first.” His wife sat there nodding her head in agreement. We did not stay for dessert, and I never saw him again.

Beloved, we are children of the King. Do not use the language of the gutter; stay away from vulgar language and off-color jokes and comments. Ask the Lord to clean up your language—for His glory.

According to the apostle Paul’s description of fallen humanity in this passage, one of the most distinctive differences between an unbeliever and a believer is their vocabulary. He writes here that the unbeliever’s mouth is “full of curses and bitterness.”

“Bitterness” (pikria) refers to hostility and anger and resentment in the human heart.

  • If there is bitterness in the heart, it will come out through the mouth.
  • If there is hatred in the heart, it will find expression through the mouth.
  • If there is resentment in the heart, it will spill out through the mouth.

Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

And let me tell you, beloved, becoming a Christian doesn’t automatically erase the problem. We must constantly examine our hearts for sinful attitudes that come out through our conversation.

In Colossians 4:6 Paul is writing to Christians when he says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food, so we ought to season our speech with appropriate words, choice words. It will add the flavor of grace and kindness and wisdom to everything you touch in life.

What are some of the words that can season your vocabulary? Let me give you a few that you were probably taught in childhood, and they are just as important as you grow older—words like: please, thank you, I appreciate what you did; I’m sorry . . . I was wrong; I love you; I forgive you.

Maybe today, you can begin to season your marriage, your parenting, your job environment, your church, your world, by communicating words like those.

Let’s learn to pray this little prayer I memorized years ago: “O Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and then nudge me when I’ve said enough.” Well, I think I’ve said enough for now.

[1] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. IV (Baker, 1931), 345.

[2] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nelson, 1985), New Testament, 151.

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