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They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
the poison of vipers is on their lips. — Psalm 140:3
Everybody has heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” However, anybody that has been the victim of slander or bullying can confirm that words can be as harmful as physical trauma and deadly as a vipers venom.
Speaking slander, לשון הרע (lashon hara) in hebrew, is a serious violation of the Biblical commands. There are at least 31 biblical commandments that address the issue of slandering.
When Miriam spoke negatively about her brother, Moses, God immediately rebuked her and she was afflicted with a skin disease as punishment. The punishment was very similar to the punishment for leprosy. For seven days she had to remain outside the camp because of her slanderous tongue.
Lashon Hara, or slander, literally means “bad language.” This even includes talking bad about somebody even if what is being said is true. Establishing the command of only speaking what is honest, and of a good report is at the core of the christian life.
There is a Jewish story that illustrates the dangers of a slanderous tongue:
A man went around his community telling malicious lies about the local rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged for his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter it to the winds.” The man thought this was a very strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect all the feathers.
The Psalmist says that, “Whoever of you desires life…guard your tongue from evil.”
The words that you speak are like arrows shot from a bow. Once released, like an arrow, they cannot be stopped, the harm and destruction they cause cannot be halted.
In Psalm 140, there is a psalm entirely around the topic of slander.
In it, the psalmist desires protection from slanders who have “made their tongues as sharp as serpents, the poison of vipers is on their lips.” The slanderer is described as being “violent” and wicked.” Their words are as a trap set to destroy him.
God in his goodness has given us two gates for our words – our teeth and our lips – to keep our tongue from slander. We need to only speak words that are truthful, helpful, necessary and kind and in doing so, we speak pleasant words that are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the body.