Sunday, July 25, 2021

Bitter Words Like Arrows

When the knock came at the door, Balaam “the divine seer” had been having quite the array of misadventures – if you believe his tall tale, that is. Visions in the night of the gods (or, at least, spirits who said they were gods), claiming that the other gods were preparing to consume the world in darkness and drought. In the wake of that vision, Balaam had fasted and wept. When his friends asked him what was the matter, he chanted of the council of the gods, the command to sew up the skies like the flap of a tent. But then, drying his tears, Balaam had risen up and begun his incantation. He was a man whose words made things happen – for good or for ill. The visions the spirits conjured before him – well, with perseverance and repetition, he saw his words tipping the scales, striking down the threat. And through his words, he told himself, the world had been saved that day.1

But now, to that knock at the door. Balaam answered it, and it was the princes of a distant country called Moab. Their king Balak was summoning Balaam, desiring his services for gold and silver. The princes explained. You see, Balak was terrified – quaking in his boots – about a troublesome nation of nomads passing through his land – Israel, they were called. They and their God had toppled the people of Arad, they had overtaken Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan, and they'd been overheard singing taunting laments over Moab. No wonder Balak was worried. So Balak wanted to hire Balaam, the man whose words made things happen. “Come now, curse this people for me... He whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

The journey there was a challenge – visions in the night again, this time of Israel's God; harrowing near-death experiences on the road – but he made it. With repetition and perseverance, he hoped to earn his pay. He stood atop three peaks in succession – first Bamoth-baal, then Pisgah, then Peor – and tried to do his job. Balaam's fame was in sweet-talking, cajoling, and arm-twisting spirits and gods to give him the answer he wanted, to let him speak the word of his will. And he was determined to pronounce a curse over Israel, as he'd been hired to.

But it doesn't work. The LORD, God of Israel, intervenes and prevents Balaam's words from being weapons. The LORD will not be sweet-talked. The LORD will not have his arm twisted. Not even by Balaam. Forever independent, God “would not listen to Balaam,” but instead “turned the curse into a blessing” (Deuteronomy 23:5). God beats the sword of Balaam's tongue into a plowshare, takes the spears of speech and makes them be pruning hooks (cf. Isaiah 2:4). Try and try again three times over, Balaam simply can't curse Israel. The LORD has preempted every incantation. The only things that roll off Balaam's lips are words of life. His death-dealing decrees are frustrated on his tongue. His quest is distant from him, he has no idea how to deliver any oracle to Balak other than the LORD's blessing for Israel, and no incantation can get it under control.

So Balaam does the next best thing. Rather than pay back the fee of his hire, he speaks words of evil advice to Balak on his way out the door. Balaam “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14; cf. Numbers 31:16). And with those clever words, Balaam might as well have cursed Israel. Those words of war set in motion a domino effect that ended with 24,000 casualties in Israel (Numbers 25:9). Deadly words indeed.

Fast forward a number of centuries. Israel's tribes have warred and made peace, watched judges rise and fall, begged for a king and gotten Saul, then rejoiced under David. But David is on hard times. His son Absalom has swept Israel's hearts away and staged a coup in Jerusalem. David is off the throne and on the run. Fleeing his city over the Mount of Olives toward the Jordan River, David and his entourage pass a village where one of Saul's close relatives, a man named Shimei, lives. Shimei has, for decades, been resenting the loss of power and life for his family. So Shimei is delighted to see David suffer like Saul. He comes out and chases the group, mocking and cursing David, assailing him with insults. “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The LORD has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul (in whose place you've reigned), and the LORD has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is upon you, for you are a man of blood!” (2 Samuel 16:7-8). David's friend Abishai sees this as an attack: Shimei throws stones and curses alike, and the words are the more malicious missile. Abishai wants to put a stop to it, to behead Shimei. But David says no – no, with everything going on, Shimei might just be right. God might be inspiring these curses. Only time can tell that – it isn't yet clear. And bearing with Shimei's verbal violence may be something God will reward, something that can expunge David's guilt that landed him here (2 Samuel 16:9-14).

Time does tell. The LORD was not placing those curses on Shimei's lips after all. It was only his own violent tongue. Once Absalom is dead, David is on his way back, and as he reaches the verge of Jordan, who should appear but Shimei. Shimei hurries to fall in the dirt in David's path, admitting he was wrong, begging for mercy from the king. Abishai argues for merciless justice. But David chooses mercy for all who come, even Shimei – he says Israel has seen enough death for one day (2 Samuel 19:16-23). Shimei gets a reprieve. But then, one day, David is old and on his deathbed. He tells his son Solomon of Shimei and his murderous tongue. “Don't hold him guiltless,” the elderly David whispers. “Bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol” (1 Kings 2:9). In due time, Solomon reminds Shimei of how violently Shimei had treated and spoken to David when David was at his lowest. “The LORD will bring back your harm on your own head,” he announces (1 Kings 2:44). And at the hand of his executioner Benaiah, Shimei meets his end (1 Kings 2:46).

Now, here's my question this morning: What do these two stories from the Bible have in common? And here's my answer: They both debunk a popular children's rhyme. Do you know that one? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, / but words can never hurt me.” It's quite fashionable today to insist that words are ultimately harmless and powerless, that they can never hurt, can never be violent. We have to tell ourselves that, if we want to be absolutists for free speech. We tell ourselves this rhyme to deny fault for our undisciplined tongues. Otherwise, we'd have to change. And we all know (and maybe are) those whose mantra is, You can't tell me what to say!  I just tell it like it is!  I don't sugar-coat things!

Except the Bible reminds us that, yes, sticks and stones can break our bones, that's true – but words can hurt me. Words can break a soul. Balaam and Shimei both knew how to do exactly that. It's not just that speech can be forceful. It's that speech, used wrongly for the unjust harm of others, can cross the line into constituting what God calls 'violence.' One psalmist complains that his enemies “make their tongue as sharp as a serpent's, and under their lips is the venom of asps” (Psalm 140:3). In other words, the psalmist is saying that his opponents are people with violent, harmful mouths. Their words carry venom. Such speech can intoxicate and sicken those it's aimed at. And such people are explicitly described as “violent men who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually” (Psalm 140:1-2), whose words are like the cords of a net being woven to trap their target (Psalm 140:5). “Let not the slanderer be established in the land!” the psalmist cries (Psalm 140:11).

In another psalm, the psalmist laments, “I lie down amid fiery beasts: the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords” (Psalm 57:4). Spears, arrows, swords – that's weaponry, that's an arsenal. None of us go through life unarmed. The dread power of language is armament enough, and when we use it in beastly ways, savage ways, we might as well be a verbal berserker. Another psalm objects to “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” (Psalm 64:2-4). Again, in none of these psalms do the evildoers lay a hand on the psalmist's body. Their snares secretly work their injustice through inflicting social harm, mental harm, emotional harm (Psalm 64:5-6).

Solomon, collecting his proverbs, observes that there are people out there “whose rash words are like swords” (Proverbs 12:18). Words aren't only weapons when they're used in conscious malice. Sometimes, they're like a loaded gun being juggled by a fool: it's liable to go off. And sometimes our mouths just go off – not because we mean harm, but because we're not taking common-sense precautions to not do harm. Irresponsibility with our mouths can be just as deadly. When we speak rashly, when we flail our tongues without common-sense control, then rash words can be like a juggled gun or like swords swung wildly.

But not all violent words seem as obvious as swords and arrows. There's another psalm talking about an enemy whose “speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21). In other words, even words that seem gentle, seem smooth, seem so butter-like and so oily, can merely be masking the danger they carry. Their politeness is a facade, and behind the facade lurks danger waiting to strike. These Trojan-horse words, unwittingly brought within the city walls, contain violence within themselves – just you wait 'til nightfall, you'll see.

And, of course, from the New Testament, who can forget that vivid passage from James? “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our parts, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire wheel of birth, and itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). The human tongue “is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7). One minute we're using it to speak God's praises, and the next moment we turn it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). Not only are our words poison darts or arrows or swords, they can be spewed like a flamethrower, burning away at the delicate and oh-so-flammable social fabric on which all human community hangs, and without which we can know no peace. It brings hell to earth. Verbal arson is, in God's eyes, a serious crime. And note that James roots the wrongness of verbal violence in the fact that the targets of its harm are “people made in the likeness of God,” In Genesis, that's how God explains murder's evil to Noah on the same terms: murder and physical violence are attacks on God's image (Genesis 9:5-6). James now reminds us that verbal violence can be an attack on the very same image.

So it may be odd for us to get our American minds around – hence the need to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2) – but when it comes to God's commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” which forbids all sorts of unjust violence, we really can offend against this commandment without so much as lifting a finger. We can break it just by how we talk. Ancient Jews had no problem with this concept. One wrote about how the command against murder extends to cover all kinds of “insult.”2 And Christians down through history have seen the connection, too. One Scottish preacher in the 1600s declared, “This command is broken by injurious words... O what guilt will there be found to have been in imprecations, cursings, wrathful wishes, disdainful and passionate speeches, when Christ will call men to an account for breach of this command?”3 Even in our own century, one theologian observes how clear the Bible is that “our words can be used as murder weapons. What we say can be deadly at home, on the job, and in the church.”4 Modern commentators observe how “Jesus extends the sixth commandment beyond physical violence to include verbal abuse.”5

Are we getting the picture yet? The commandment against murder can be broken by words that are cruel to people. A rushing torrent or even a steady drip of insult. Reviling. Cursing. Bullying. Lashing out with our words, spoken or written, in such a way as to overwhelm someone's defenses and, intentionally or negligently, deal harm to his or her heart, mind, or soul. And maybe, indirectly, harm to his or her body, too.

In January 2019, a 13-year-old girl in Texas opened a closet door and found something that will likely never leave her. This girl's little brother Kevin was in the fifth grade. For months, Kevin had been bullied by his classmates. It wasn't just the one time things turned physical. It was the daily verbal assaults. It was the schoolmates writing on his tablet, “You don't belong here.” It was day after day of them telling Kevin, “Kill yourself.” And so, after the school's repeated insistence to his mother that they found no evidence of bullying, Kevin listened to his classmates. His big sister opened the closet door and saw her brother's body hanging there. His story stopped in fifth grade. The cruel violence of his classmates' words had a fair deal to do with it.6 Words can kill. It isn't for no reason that a Harvard study in 2007 found that, as far as childhood trauma goes, frequent verbal abuse has the same sort of serious long-term effects as physical abuse or even sexual abuse.7

And our culture is awash in verbal violence. It fills our airwaves. The more we tell ourselves words can't hurt us, the more we feel free from constraint to use them against others. In just the last ten days, looking at responses to a certain politician on social media, I've seen people decrying him as 'evil' and a 'liar' and a 'cheat,' accusing him of being a Nazi or guilty of genocide or terrorism, comparing him to excrement, cussing him out, calling damnation down on his head from heaven, and employing various sorts of crude language I can't possibly summarize for you in any decent way. Now, each of us is of course free to maybe like or maybe dislike that politician.  But is this healthy, is it good, this way we as a people behave? This culture of letting insults and curses fly, on the cheapest pretext we can find?

There's a lot of verbal violence on those streets – and in schools and jobs and homes. And we might at times be tempted to join in, to defend ourselves or our interests, when we live by fear. But the very psalmists who cried out against verbal violence show us a better way. In each psalm from earlier, the psalmist has an answer. In Psalm 140, he prays about it: “Let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them” (Psalm 140:9). In Psalm 57, he's already past the issue, so he can praise God that the verbally violent, having tried to trap him in a pit of their words, “have fallen into it themselves” (Psalm 57:6). In Psalm 55, betrayed by a close friend, he's confident: “I call to God, and the LORD will save me. … I will trust in you” (Psalm 55:16, 23). And in Psalm 64, he foresees how “God shoots his arrow at them,” bringing verbally violent people “to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them,” leading to shame for them (Psalm 64:7-8), relief for their target (Psalm 64:10), and glory for God (Psalm 64:9). Met with the verbal violence of the world, we pray and trust like the psalmist; we bear it like King David bore with Shimei; we even look for God to turn violence into blessing, like he did on the lips of Balaam. But we're scrupulous about not joining in, no matter how tempting.

And in that, we have the example of Jesus, great David's greater Son, whom Balaam unwittingly foretold as a star and scepter (Numbers 24:17). We know Jesus could be very hard on the self-righteous among the Pharisees and scribes. But though he was forceful, he was never verbally violent. The Sons of Thunder wanted to breathe down fire on the villages that turned them away; but Jesus denied them their wish (Luke 9:52-55). And Jesus warned his disciples to be very careful, because to insult our brother or sister puts us in danger of judgment here and now, while to speak contemptuously of our brother or sister hangs us over hell's flames (Matthew 5:22).

Jesus' word is a sharp sword, sharper than all the tongues of the violent, sharper than Balaam or Shimei could have dreamed. It's “sharper than any two-edged sword.” But it's wielded only in justice, and with a precision and care befitting a surgeon's scalpel, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). The sword of Jesus' speech never flinches, never flexes, so much as an atom away from where he intends it to land – and that intent is never to do harm to any soul. Because Jesus came to give life, to speak life (John 10:10). His words are themselves “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Every word he utters is aimed toward helping the world attain to the praise of God, peace with God, and health in God. So he didn't open his mouth to lash out when he was battered with insults and mockery, the verbal violence of Roman soldiers (Mark 15:18-20). He didn't lash out in judgment when the priests and scribes and Pharisees and common-folk insulted him and assailed him on the cross (Mark 15:29-32), like bulls and lions and dogs gnawing and roaring (Psalm 22:12-13, 16-17, 20-21). He endured their verbal violence as one more suffering, like a sheep silently surrendering to its shearers (Isaiah 53:7). “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23). He died with their insults ringing in his ears and battering his broken heart. But that broken heart died with complete trust in his Father that he'd hear a better word summoning him back to life. And with that trust, he felt no need to open his own mouth and lash out to shield his vulnerability.

And we are called to be like him. We must discipline our mouths to not curse or revile. We must drain our lips of their venom. We must never unleash bitter words like a volley of arrows into the ears of anyone, nor may we swing the swords of our tongues incautiously. For words are not toys. They can do violence. They can hurt. They can kill. And though sometimes we must justly lament, challenge, and rebuke, we need the skill of a surgeon. For we must not kill, must not hurt, must not surrender our mouths to violence. So let us wield our words soberly and with caution, bearing the command of God in mind and the example of Jesus in our heart. For his Spirit is a gentle voice indeed. Amen.

1  An ancient pagan prophecy by Balaam was partially preserved in plaster fragments. The quotes and summary above are from the translation by Baruch Levine, “The Deir 'Alla Plaster Inscriptions,” in W. W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., eds., The Context of Scripture (Brill, 2003), 2:142-145; but see alternative translations as “The Book of Balaam Son of Beor” in Shmuel Ahituv, ed., Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period (Carta Jerusalem, 2008), 438-465, and in Emile Puech, “Bala'am and Deir 'Alla,” in George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten, eds., The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Islam (Brill, 2008), 31-32.

2  Philo of Alexandria, On the Decalogue 170  (translated in Loeb Classical Library 320:91)

3  James Durham, The Law Unsealed; or, A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments..., 7th ed. (John Bryce, 1777 [1662]), 329

4  Philip Graham Ryken, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today's Moral Crisis (Crossway Books, 2003), 147

5  Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century (B&H Academic, 2010), 129

6  See, e.g., Chauncy Glover, “10-year-old kills himself after relentless bullying, mom says,” ABC13, 26 March 2019. <>.

7  William J. Cromie, “Verbal beatings hurt as much as sexual abuse,” The Harvard Gazette, 26 April 2007. <>.

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