Only in James do we find such direct language about the tongue. James actually takes it even further, saying that “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 8 No one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing” (James 3:6, 8-10).
That’s really harsh! But experience tells us that it also is true! What is it about the tongue? It’s simply that anything once uttered never can be wholly retracted. One can repudiate almost anything that has been put in writing. But something that is spoken inevitably and invariably carries with it the way that it is said and heard: the content is paramount, to be sure; but there’s also the tone of voice, the body posture, the facial expression, the context in which it was spoken, and the opportunity for rebuttal, retraction or clarification, etc. Yes the tongue definitely can be “a fire, the very world of iniquity... a restless evil full of deadly poison.”
And so David says that he will voluntarily guard his ways that he might not sin with his tongue. This is good advice for all of us. It’s far too easy for us to be self-assured and confident, traits that might be viewed as assets until they spill over into arrogance, defensiveness, a critical spirit, a harshly negative attitude towards others, a confrontational manner, an entire way of being that completely contradicts who we are to be as Christians. We feel vindicated as long as we are certain that we are “right.” But how can we measure “being right” when we simply are dug into a particular position, right or wrong? Again, the things we say and the ways that we say them cannot be retracted. Once we have spoken, the damage has been done.
What next? The psalms are full of apparent non-sequiturs, as though the writer simply leaps from one thought to another with great abandon, perhaps under the banner of poetic license. Psalm 39 is no exception: David spills his guts about the need to muzzle his tongue and then suddenly says that his heart was hot, his thoughts were burning and his tongue begins to speak about the transitory nature of life. Is this really a non-sequitur, or is there a connection that makes sense of the whole progression of thought?
David moves from the problem of unbridled speech to the matter of where that problem fits within the broader scope of human existence. Don’t we often justify harsh language by saying that we simply were being truthful in “delivering our souls,” in “telling it like it is,” in seizing the moment to say things that just “needed to be said?” Sometimes we gloss over such things with a smile and the catch-phrase, “Just sayin.’” But what if in so doing we are displaying exactly what James has labeled “the very world of iniquity?”
Perhaps James is thinking of David when he moves on to speak of how the tongue can “set on fire the course of our life.” David, after speaking of sinning with his tongue, immediate moves on to a prayer for perspective, pleading with God and saying, “Make me to know my end and what is the measure of my days, how transient I am” (vs. 4). In that broader context, perhaps harshly delivering one’s soul is not all that necessary if it causes pain and offends the person on the receiving end of our dismissive tirades.
David admits that his lifetime is as nothing in God’s sight, at best a mere breath! This is the proper perspective for the bridled tongue: not that we are in ever-worsening sorrow for losing the opportunity to “tell it like it is,” but that we have escaped the “uproar for nothing” (verse 6) and the “reproach of the foolish” (verse 8).
What is the right perspective that we so frequently lack? David says two things:
1) “I do not open my mouth because it is You Who have done it” (verse 9), and
2) “With reproofs you chasten a man for iniquity” (verse 11).
What about “it is You Who have done it?” David is acknowledging the sovereignty of God. When he measures his own transitory life against the work of an eternal, omniscient and omnipotent God, suddenly he gains a spiritually healthy perspective on his own self-importance. In my English translation of Luther’s German, we read (vs.5-7),
Lord, teach me to know
That the end of all my days must come,
And my life has its measure;
And I must leave it.
See now, all my days here are but a handbreadth to You,
And my lifetime is as naught to You.
Ah, as nothing are all frail mortals who confidently dwell here.
They wander about as a shadow,
and make themselves live in vain disquiet;
They gather possessions, yet they know not who their heirs will be.
So there’s the rub. Where’s the answer? David provides several, but two leap out from the verses that follow:
1) One is in verse 7, “My hope is in You.” That’s why we opened our service this evening singing “My hope is in the Lord.” The hymn’s refrain ends in a very psalm-like fashion: “and everlasting life and light He freely gives.” Once again it is the divine, eternal perspective that provides the antidote to our earthly woes. When we speak in a harsh and hostile way, we are placing far too great an emphasis on our own sense of what is right and justified, even while knowing with David that our life is “a mere breath,” “a shadow,” “a handbreadth,” a vain show of frantic activity that leaves us with a heightened awareness of our finite frailty,
a strong sense that we are perishing.
2) The second answer comes nearer the end of the psalm in verse 12, when David resorts again to prayer. He had pleaded with God for deliverance from his transgressions in verse 8, but now he says: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a guest with You, a sojourner like all my fathers.” Matthew Henry suggests that here, at last, David has reached the end of himself and is praying better than before. The answer again is a matter of perspective: David finally comes to see himself as God’s guest, a sojourner, one whose transitory life on earth must be lived in such a way that it has eternal value, and that will give him the basis for a final smile before God welcomes him to his eternal home.
Many commentators have called Psalm 39 a “Funeral Hymn” and accordingly have interpreted everything in it as David’s attempt to come to terms with death, with some terminal illness from which he did not expect to recover. Personally, I see that as probably being the perpetuation of some early interpretation that may have merit, but that definitely is not the only way to view the psalm. Clearly David is struggling with the question of mortality, with the transitory nature of this life in the context of God’s broader scheme of things.
I think Martin Luther got it right, whether or not he had the best manuscript evidence in front of him, when he has David asking in verse 7, “Now, Lord, in whom is my comfort?” And his response to his own rhetorical question is, “My hope is in You.” There is no hope or comfort in any other. As Isaiah later would write, “"Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation" (Isaiah 12:2). I see this psalm not as a cry of despair in the face of death, but as a confident understanding that God is on His throne, He is always on His throne, and our life has its meaning only in terms of the adage that “God is not finished with us yet.” Yes, this life is short. Yes, as Job wrote, “Man wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten. Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 13:28, 14:1). But Job also affirms triumphantly, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth” (19:25).
“How should we then live?” This is the title of a book and film series by Francis Schaeffer that profoundly influenced the worldwide evangelical community in the late 1970’s and is past due for a second round. His title comes from Ezekiel 33:10 (KJV): “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” God gives Ezekiel the right answer in the next verses: “As I live!” declares the Lord GOD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?”
There are two other places in Scripture where Schaeffer’s question is answered clearly. One is from Psalm 90, a psalm attributed to Moses, where he says, 10 “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away.” Then he adds, 12 “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
How do we go about acquiring a heart of wisdom? Probably the best starting point is to immerse ourselves in God’s Holy Word, consciously sitting at the feet of the Holy Spirit to hear whatever it is that God wishes us to hear each and every day. We are bombarded with the noise of our existence, with all the sounds and voices that crowd out the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is very easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that those voices are saying something so worthwhile that the diversion is justified. These may be things that are not without merit; but it comes down to pursuing spiritual priorities that will dictate the vital answer to “how should we then live?”
The other passage that addresses the same question takes us back to James once again (chapter 4): 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
Take note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this on the surface, certainly nothing with which any capitalist American Christian would disagree. But reading on, here is what James says next: 14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
Have we found our way back to where we started with Psalm 39? Are we back to the tongue and our proclivity towards arrogant speech and self-interested boasting? Perhaps we are and that seems to be part of what James is saying here. But he throws us an expected curve in the next verse, which he prefaces with “therefore:”
17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
What a surprise! James is speaking in the same terms as David and Moses about the brevity of life, but instead of telling us just to watch out tongues, or to number our days, or to turn back from our evil ways, or even to hope in God, James tells us to watch out for our sins of omission! How can that be what follows his “therefore?”
A moment’s reflection gives us the answer. All of us are in possession of God’s clear self-revelation: His Holy Word. And that Word of God is our instruction manual: it is loaded up with simple formulas such as “Do this and live.” That’s what Jesus said to the lawyer in a famously instructive conversation that goes to the heart of what we are saying tonight (Luke 10:25-37). It begins with the lawyer asking, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus asks the lawyer, “What is already written in the Law of God?” The lawyer gets is right when he says exactly what Jesus Himself would have said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, “100%! Do this and live.”
But the lawyer, being a lawyer, just has to ask one more question: “And who is my neighbor?” Do you remember Jesus’ answer? He tells a parable, the famed parable of the Good Samaritan. We will save looking at the parable for another night, but here’s the point: “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” And if “the right thing to do” can be so tidily summed up as loving the Lord with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we do in fact know exactly what it is that we should do. Jesus concluded the conversation by saying to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
We need to recognize that in this transitory life that resembles withering grass and fading flowers, a vapor that vanishes away like a rotten thing or a moth-eaten garment, we already know the answer to “How should we then live?” We simply need to live it. “Do this and live.” To do otherwise is to be “one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it,” and “to him it is sin.” Instead, may we throw ourselves at the feet of the Great Tutor, the Holy Spirit, Who, says Jesus, will guide us into all the truth (John 16:13).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen