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The phrase “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” comes from the Old Testament, Proverbs 18:21. What do you think it means?
It may refer to the days of kings, who had absolute power over their slaves or citizens, to the extent that one word from them could execute their subjects, rightfully or wrongfully. That reality still holds true today, when the dictates of powerful leaders control their subjects’ lives and deaths through the use of loyal militaries or civilian vigilantes.
Those armed groups might be seen as the sword of olden times, created to maim or kill human beings, even children and babies—as when King Herod’s commands issued forth from Judea, resulting in the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Jews of the time expected a messiah, who would lead a violent uprising against the Romans and the tyrannical rulers like Herod. Indeed, when Jesus Christ later revealed his new Faith, he said that he did not come to bring peace to the world:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. – Matthew 10:34-36
Yet in an example still used to today to describe the symbolic meaning of those words, Christ rebuked Peter when he took up his sword to defend Jesus against his captors in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to Matthew 26:52 Jesus said, “… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Many cite this incident to show that Jesus did not come with a literal sword. So what sword did Christ refer to when he said “I came not to send peace, but a sword”?
Most Biblical scholars agree that the sword refers to Christ’s tongue—his word and his teachings—that would divide and sever people from others. Some have interpreted this to mean a separation between believers and unbelievers, or from Christ’s teachings in general. As history shows, a sword divides and severs—but so can a tongue.
The word tongue often references the spoken word, and can have a literal or figurative meaning. “I bit my tongue,” is literal. That well-known metaphor from the Baha’i writings, “The tongue is a smoldering fire,” is figurative:
… when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge … He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vainglory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence, and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, pp. 192-193.
These other uses for “the sword of the tongue,” the Baha’i teachings say, can also cause division and disagreement: backbiting, calumny, and gossip.
Many of us may feel that gossip—talking about others in a negative way when they’re not present—may be innocuous or merely a part of human nature. Baha’is do everything in their power to refrain from gossip, which the Baha’i teachings condemn in clear and unequivocal terms:
Forget self and work for the whole race. Remember always that one is working for the world, not for a town or even for a country; because, as all are brethren, so every country is, as it were, one’s own.
Remember, above all, the teaching of Baha’u’llah concerning gossip and unseemly talk about others. Stories repeated about others are seldom good. A silent tongue is the safest. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 125.
Our contemporary culture seems to thrive on knowing what our friends, family and others are doing at every moment. Social media provides a whole medium just to share our thoughts and activities with and about others. Newspapers are full of accounts of personal stories pointing to the bad or good aspects of others. Yes, people are interesting and do interesting things, and we want to know—but what, ultimately, does gossip and backbiting accomplish?
If you’ve ever been the target of gossip or backbiting, you already understand what a deep injury it can cause to your inner life. Once lost or impugned, it can be impossible to retrieve our reputation and honor. When our lives become a target for sometimes false statements about us, or downright derogatory remarks shared with hundreds or thousands at a time, it can have serious consequences, none of them good. This kind of online or in-person bullying and backbiting has resulted in suicide, homicide or even worse.
But backbiting doesn’t just hurt others, the Baha’i teachings say—it injures our own souls when we do it:
Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.
That seeker should, also, regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 193.
So the next time you’re tempted to use your tongue as a sword, resist the temptation, and put it back in its scabbard—you’ll eventually be glad you did.