Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Power of the Tongue (Proverbs 18:21)

Complete this Proverb: “Death and life are in the power of __________.” The tongue (Proverbs 18:21)

A well-known children’s verse asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones/but names will never hurt me.” The book of Proverbs rejects this conventional wisdom, asserting that the tongue carries power, the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21).

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
And those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21 NASB)
The power of words is a common theme in the book of Proverbs. Kathleen A. Farmer (b. 1943) tracks:
A number of sayings (including several editorial clusters) are concerned with wise and foolish ways of using human powers of communication. Fully, a third of the sayings in chapters 10, 12, and 26 are related to this topic. The sayings acknowledge that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), that “a soft tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15), that “the lips of the wise will preserve them” (Proverbs 14:3), and that the speech of the “worthless” is “like a scorching fire” (Proverbs 16:27). Thus, the originators of these sayings endorse a viewpoint shared by many of their counterparts in other cultures. For instance in the Instruction of Ani an Egyptian sage says, “A man may fall to ruin because of his tongue” (vii.7-11; Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 420), and in the Elephantine texts the Assyrian scribe Ahiqar says, “More than all watchfulness watch thy mouth...For a word is a bird: once released no one can recapture it,” and “Soft is the tongue of a king, but it breaks a dragon’s ribs” (The Words of Ahiqar vii.98, 105b-106; Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 428-29). This same attitude is echoed in a later era by a New Testament author: “The tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small [tongue of] fire!”(James 3:5-8). (Farmer, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes: Who Knows What is Good? (International Theological Commentary), 84)
The potency of words is of particular interest in the book’s eighteenth chapter (Proverbs 18:1-24). Leo G. Perdue (b. 1946) explores:
Language is once again a common theme in this chapter of the second subdivision [Proverbs 18:1-24]. The recognition of the power of speech that creates and destroys life is reaffirmed: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21). A proper answer following careful hearing and moral reflection is emphasized by the sages: “The poor use entreaties, but the rich answer roughly” (Proverbs 18:23, see Proverbs 18:13, 15, 20). The depth of human speech that often escapes simple understanding is underscored in the saying “The words of the mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream” (Proverbs 18:4). It is only through wisdom, as moral reflection and careful thought, that understanding is obtained. By contrast, fools misuse language to their and others’ detriment: “A fool’s lips bring strife, and a fool’s mouth invites a flogging” (Proverbs 18:6, see Proverbs 18:7, 13). The abuse of language in the words of a whisperer misshapes his or her character (Proverbs 18:8). (Perdue, Proverbs (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 183-84)
Christopher B. Ansberry (b. 1980) concurs:
The thematic movement between the sub-collections is also evident with respect to their treatment of communication. Solomon 1B [Proverbs 16:1-22:16] reinforces various dialogical principles presented in the Proverbs 10-15. Several aphorisms describe the individual and communal implications of proper and improper speech (e.g., Proverbs 16:28, 30, 17:20, 18:7; cf. Proverbs 10:11, 21, 11:19, 13:2, 14:3). Other sayings highlight the inherent power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21; cf. Proverbs 12:18, 25), the forensic significance of dishonest speech (Proverbs 19:5, 9, 28, 21:28; cf. Proverbs 12:17, 14:5, 25), the effects of descriptive discourse (Proverbs 17:4, 7, 19:22, 21:6; cf. Proverbs 10:18, 12:19, 14:5, 25), and the value of silence (Proverbs 17:27, 28, 21:23; cf. Proverbs 10:19, 11:12, 13:3). These principles receive comparable attention in each sub-collection. (Ansberry, Be Wise, My Son, and Make My Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs, 108-09)
Proverbs 18:21 and its predecessor (Proverbs 18:20) form a two-verse cluster. Dave Bland (b. 1953) connects:
This proverb pair [Proverbs 18:20-21] describes the power of the organs of speech: mouth, lips, and tongue (see Proverbs 10:18-21). (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs (College Press NIV Commentary), 172)
The aphorisms are joined by a thematic buzzword: fruit. Christine R. Yoder (b. 1968) bridges:
The word “fruit” frames the...two proverbs [Proverbs 18:20-21]; it is the first word of Proverbs 18:20 and the last of Proverbs 18:21. Just as gossip is like delicious morsels that descend into the body’s innermost parts (Proverbs 18:8), speech—whether positive or negative—is like fruit and harvest (“yield”) that fills the bellies of speaker and hearer alike. (Yoder, Proverbs (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 200)
Knut Martin Heim (b. 1963) contextualizes:
Proverbs 18:20-21 introduce[s] a new sub-unit on the use of speech. They may still relate to the legal context of the preceding unit, although their application is much broader. Special attention has been given to their composition, as the many linking features,...daring metaphors and the almost paradoxical imagery demonstrate. Together, they vigorously challenge the untutored to learn the proper use of his “tongue”, for this ability will bring him immense profit to the point that it can save his life and/or enhance his life-style, while lack of eloquence may actually be perilous. (Heim, Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16, 251)
Proverbs 18:21 is the lens through which Proverbs 18:20 is best interpreted. Derek Kidner (1913-2008) apprises:
The second of this pair of proverbs [Proverbs 18:20-21], with its warning to the talkative, throws a sobering light on the first. Both of them urge caution, for satisfied (Proverbs 18:20) can mean ‘sated’: the meaning, good or bad, will depend on the care taken. James Moffatt [1870-1944] paraphrases Proverbs 18:20 well, but one-sidedly: ‘A man must answer for his utterances, and take the consequences of his words.’ W.O.E. Oesterley [1860-1950] quotes the witty saying of Ahikar: “My son, sweeten thy tongue, and make savoury the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows.’ (Kidner, Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 130)
The proverb’s first clause affirms the tongue’s power (Proverbs 18:21a). Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) informs:
Of the tongue is another common metonymy for good or bad in this book (Proverbs 10:20, 12:18, 15:2, 4 versus Proverbs 12:19, 17:4, 20), complementing “mouth” and “lip” in the proverb pair. And adds the parallel that qualifies verset A. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 86)
Riad Aziz Kassis expounds:
The tongue is viewed in Proverbs as the organ which expresses thoughts. A good tongue is regarded highly in Proverbs. The tongue is נבחר כםך (Proverbs 10:20) and as מרסא (Proverbs 12:18) and חיים (Proverbs 18:21; cf. Proverbs 15:4). Such descriptions suggest that speech does not consist of mere words spoken ‘in the air’, but has a powerful effect in life. Words are intended actions. The value of the tongue is seen in the fruits of good speech which bring satisfaction to both individual and community (Proverbs 12:14, 13:2, 18:20. (Kassis, The Book of Proverbs and Arabic Proverbial Works, 117)
Mark Driscoll (b. 1970) and Gerry Breshears (b. 1947) apply:
In many ways, the tongue is an indicator of the heart, because Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks [Matthew 12:34].” The disciple of Jesus learns to speak under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, who enables him or her to speak truthfully in love in a manner that is appropriate for both the hearer and for Jesus, who is listening to our words. The key is to get our time listening to God through his Word so that when we do speak, we echo Jesus with loving words. (Driscoll and Breshears, Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods, 202)
Death and life are in the “power” of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). Though most translations render the Hebrew yâd with its figurative meaning “power” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) or omit it (CEV, MSG, NLT), the word literally means “hand”.

Christine R. Yoder (b. 1968) clarifies:

Life and death are “in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21a); “hand” may refer to a person’s power, much as the English expression “The matter is in your hands” means you have control over it (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:36; Joshua 8:20). The tongue or speech one “loves” determines one’s fate, just as the choice between wisdom and folly has life and death consequences (Proverbs 1-9, see especially wisdom’s “fruit,” Proverbs 8:19; cf. Proverbs 31:31). (Yoder, Proverbs (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 200-01)
Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) relays:
“Are in the hand of the tongue.” James G. Williams [b. 1936] (1980:47) sees this as an allusion to Lady Wisdom: “The tongue is like a woman who offers fruit to her friends.” See the image in Proverbs 8:19. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (The Anchor Bible), 645)
Speech carries life and death implications. Similar consequences are relayed in Proverbs 13:3, 21:23. Roland Murphy (1917-2002) comments:
The significance of speech is intensified by the reference to death and life. Since these are particularly the domain of the Lord, there is a strong affirmation of “the power (literally ‘hand’) of the tongue.” Does this refer to the speaker or those he addresses? Perhaps both. There is a similar proverb in Sirach 37:18 concerning the power of the tongue over life and death. It is not clear what “it” in “love it” refers to. It seems to be the tongue and so would refer to the possibility of talking foolishly or wisely. This would seem to include the alternative of life/death. (Murphy, Proverbs (Word Biblical Commentary))
Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) affirms:
Speech has the power to give and preserve life and well-being and to bring death and destruction, both to the speaker (Proverbs 12:6b, 13a, 13:2a, 3, 18:7) and to others (Proverbs 10:11a, 11:9a, 12:6a, 13a, 18). Radaq [1160-1235] says that slander kills three people: its speaker, its listener, and its victim. Paired with Proverbs 19:29, however, Proverbs 18:21 concerns particularly its impact on the speaker. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (The Anchor Bible), 645)
Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) bounds:
The merism death and life (see Proverbs 2:18, 19, 5;5, 6, 8:35, 36, 12:28, 13:14, 14:27, 16:14, 15) comprehends all manner of weal and woe. Speech effects more than clinical death and life. The merism speaks of relationship within community or the lack of it. The deadly tongue disrupts community and by its lethal power isolates its owner from community and kills him. The life-giving tongue creates community and by its vitality gives it possessor the full enjoyment of the abundant life within the community. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 86)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) condenses:
Death is the end of the road for those who use their speech to hurt others. (Longman, How to Read Proverbs, 153)
While the proverb’s opening line is relatively straightforward, its second clause is problematic: “those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21 NASB). Among the challenges facing the interpreter are identifying the undefined “those”, “it” and “fruit”.

Allen P. Ross (b. 1943) theorizes:

The referent of “it” must be “the tongue,” i.e., what the tongue says. So those who enjoy talking, i.e. indulging in it, must bear its fruit. The Midrash mentions this point, showing one way it can cause death: “The evil tongue slays three, the slanderer, the slandered, and the listener” (Midrash Tehillim 52:2; see further James G. Williams [b. 1936], “The Power of Form: A Study of Biblical Proverbs,” Semeia 17 [1980]” 35-38). (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs~Isaiah (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 164)
Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) agrees:
Those tho love it [feminine]: Namely, the tongue. Those who cherish fine speech and hold it in respect will (as the preceding verse says) enjoy its fruit...Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890] wonders if the (feminine) antecedent of “it” refers to wisdom, which is the usual object of love in Proverbs, but the word is not available in the context. Since one does not actually love the tongue, Richard J. Clifford [b. 1934] identifies the antecedent of “it” (feminine singular) as “life” (masculine plural) or “death” (masculine singular) and translates “those who choose one shall eat its fruit.” But though it is true that a feminine singular pronoun can have a vague plurality as its antecedent, it cannot have a disjunctive antecedent (either-or), especially when neither of the antecedents agrees grammatically with the pronoun. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (The Anchor Bible), 645)
The use of “love” is also noteworthy. Robert Alter (b. 1935) interjects:
The choice of the verb “love” is revealing in regard to the underlying attitude toward language. A cultivated person delights in language and takes pleasure in its apt use, and this exercise of well-considered expression will redound to his profit. In this fashion, the ethic of articulate speech in Proverbs mirrors the form of the proverbs themselves, which, at least in intention, are finely honed articulations of wisdom, often exhibiting concise wit. (Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary, 272)
Some have contended that “those who love it” refers to loquacious people (Proverbs 18:21). Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) interprets:
Those who love it (i.e., “the tongue” [=speech]; see Proverbs 1:22) designates people who “are in love with language; they use it fastidiously, they search for chaste expression and precise meaning, and they have an end in view which they will reach because they know what language is for and how it can best be used to achieve its purpose.” Their objective may be good (i.e., producing life; cf. Proverbs 4:6, 8:17, 12:1, 13:24, 16:13, 22:11, 29:3) or bad (i.e., producing death; cf. Proverbs 1:11, 8:36, 17:19, 20:13, 21:17). (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 86)
Knut Martin Heim (b. 1963) educates:
The participle of אהב, “to love” denotes a continuous activity. The expression “to love the tongue” does not refer to someone who likes to talk a lot. Rather, it denotes the positive character who diligently improves his oral skills and knows how to employ them wisely, be it by saying the right thing at the right time or by remaining quiet when appropriate. (Heim, Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16, 251)
Another vague term which must be defined is “fruit”. Duane A. Garrett (b. 1953) investigates:
Some scholars take “fruit” to refer to consequences, good or evil, that follow upon one’s words. An alternative view is that “fruit” here is good fruit as opposed to barrenness. The meaning would be that speech is powerful and the wise use it economically in order to achieve the intended result. Through the careful choice of words, their language is fruitful...In my view neither is satisfactory. On the one hand, the statement that people are satisfied with the fruit (Proverbs 18:20) excludes the view that good or bad consequences are in view. No one is satisfied with something that does not have its intended effect. On the other hand, not all fruit is good, as the text implies in speaking of tongues’ having the power of death, a destructive force (Proverbs 18:21)...Rather, Proverbs 18:20 asserts that people have a sense of self-satisfaction about their own words. To put it another way, they delight in airing their own opinions. And yet the tongue can be highly dangerous. The purpose of these verses is to warn against being too much in love with one’s own words. One should recognize the power of words and use them with restraint. Voicing one’s views, here ironically described as eating the fruit of the tongue, can be an addictive habit with dangerous results. (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), 166-67)
Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) deciphers:
On its own this proverb could refer to eating (i.e., taking into one’s being) the speech of others, buts its close connection with Proverbs 18:20 suggests that it continues the oxymoron of eating the consequences in an exact correspondence to the way one speaks (cf. Proverbs 13:3, 15:23, 21:23). By placing in the outer core of its chiastic synthetic parallels word-initial “death and life” (Proverbs 18:21a) and word-final “fruit (Proverbs 18:21b), the proverb clarifies and intensifies the metaphor of “fruit” in Proverbs 18:20. Its inner core, matching “in the power of the tongue” with “those who love it,” clarifies that for the speech to effect life or death one must earnestly desire to speak, to pursue it, and to stick with it. This commitment to speech precedes the rewards of Proverbs 18:20, as eating precedes being filled. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 86)
Some have inferred courtroom implications. Kathleen A. Farmer (b. 1943) envisions:
Perjury (giving a false testimony) under such a system brings about a failure in justice: “A worthless witness mocks at justice” (Proverbs 19:28). The story in I Kings 21:1-29 (about Naboth’s vineyard) illustrates the lethal power lying witnesses can have. The saying that attributes the power of life and death to the tongue (Proverbs 18:21) may be most appropriately quoted in this legal setting. (Farmer, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes: Who Knows What is Good? (International Theological Commentary), 86-87)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (1954) construe the aphorism in terms of advice:
Proper advice has a wide effect on the society and on the individual who offers it. The development of such advice takes discipline and devotion. One has to love it in order to do it. If one does it well, then one can do well and be successful. (Kravitz and Olitzky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 184)
Others have seen a spiritual principle involved: inner vows become reality or in the words of Michael Jackson (1958-2009), “the lie becomes the truth”. D.J. Jewels exemplifies:
What we say has everything to do with what comes about in our lives. If we constantly talk death, eventually that will happen and you stop any kind of life from enveloping your being. If we talk life, on the other hand, we will bring that life into our being...If we can get a real understanding of this concept, we will begin to use what we say to our advantage instead of disadvantage...You attract life when you speak life and living into your being and you attract death when you do not. (Jewels, God’s Original Law of Attraction)
In a more mainstream outlet, Joel Osteen (b. 1963) quotes Proverbs 18:21 three times in his book, Your Words Hold a Miracle. He implores:
You can change your world by changing your words, and specifically by agreeing with and speaking the Word of God. (Osteen , Your Words Hold a Miracle: The Power of Speaking God’s Word)
While the verse’s particulars are debated, its main thrust is not: Words are influential. John Chrystostom (347-407), whose eloquence garnered him his surname which means “Golden Mouth”, preaches:
Christ makes the same point when he says, “By your own words you will be condemned, and by your words you will be justified” [Matthew 12:37]...The tongue stands in the middle ready for either use; you are its master. So also does a sword lie in the middle; if you use it against the enemy, it becomes an instrument for your safety; if you use it to wound yourself, it is not the steel but your own transgression of the law that causes your death. Let us think of the tongue in the same way, as a sword lying in the middle. Sharpen it to accuse yourself of your own sins, but do not use it to wound your brother...Hence, God has surrounded the tongue with a double wall—with the barrier of the teeth and the fence of the lips—in order that it may not easily and heedlessly utter words it should not speak. BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS 9.33-35. (J. Robert Wright [b. 1936], Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 123)
Ellen F. Davis (b. 1950) considers:
The first verse [Proverbs 18:20], taken by itself, could be read as a purely utilitarian statement: a good command of words puts food on the table. So I recently heard a patent attorney comment that his business is “selling words.” Such a utilitarian view of speaking is very common among us; words are widely regarded as marketable commodities. Politicians and advertisers are eager to find words that will sell but rarely feel morally bound by what they have said. A presidential press secretary, confronted with a clear contradiction in his remarks, observed that the earlier statement was “inoperative.” It is telling that he chose a word that comes from the world of machinery. One might say that we have become a culture of “word processors.” We rapidly produce words and delete them, hoping they will disappear without a trace from human memory, as they do from a computer screen...But the second verse [Proverbs 18:21] shows how inadequate is that mechanistic understanding of speech. The fruit-bearing tongue is a living source of nourishment, delight, sustenance. “A healing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4)...But words can destroy as well as heal: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” [Proverbs 18:21] That proverb is the opposite pole from our own: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” On the contrary, the biblical perception is that words are powerful bearers of intention, for good and for ill. In speaking, we imitate God, who once spoke the world into being. Serving God requires that our words further the intentions first expressed in God’s own purposeful word (Isaiah 55:11)...The widespread degradation of words in our culture point to the need to highlight the clear biblical witness in this matter, if the church is itself to be a center of godly speech that gives life to its members. Within the New Testament, the letter of James, whose thought at many points echoes that of the sages, names an undisclosed tongue as “a fire...a world of iniquity” (James 3:6). One contemporary theologian issues a profound and imaginative challenge to the church: to recognize itself as a “guild of philogians,” literally “word-lovers.” He challenges us, not to be better Scrabble players, but to engage in “that word-caring, that meticulous and conscientious concern for the quality of conversation and the truthfulness of memory, which is the first casualty of sin” (Nicholas Lash [b. 1934], “Ministry of the Word,” 476). Truthful words, backed up with our lives, are all that we offer God in worship. Caring words are often all that we have to offer one another, the best salve that we have for healing wounds, the best mortar we have for building up the whole body of the church. (Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Westminster Bible Companion), 112-13)
William Mouser (b. 1947) compresses:
Our words possess an awesome power for evil, but they also have an awesome power for good. For all that, words are not magic. Their power lies not so much in themselves as it does in the characters of those who speak them and those who hear them. (Mouser, Proverbs: Learning to Live Wisely, 36)
Actions may speak louder than words, but words are laced with power. All who have a tongue must remain aware of the power with which they are endowed. Like a puppy who must learn that its bite hurts, we must train ourselves in speech. Proverbs challenges us to hone these skills.

How would you restate Proverbs 18:21? Why is it true? Does the proverb take its own advice; are its word’s wisely chosen? How beneficial is being eloquent? Do you value words? What steps are you taking to improve your oratory skills? When have your words been used for good? For evil?

History is filled with examples which validate the proverb’s truth. Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) notes:

Never underestimate the power of words. For every word in Adolf Hitler [1889-1945]’s book Mein Kampf, 125 people died in World War II. Solomon was right: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). No wonder James compared the tongue to a destroying fire, a dangerous beast, and a deadly poison (James 3:5-8). Speech is a matter of life or death. (Wiersbe, Proverbs, Be Skillful: God’s Guidebook to Wise Living, 133)
Woodrow Kroll (b. 1944) illustrates:
It’s naïve to think that our words don’t have an influence on others around us...Even offhand comments, like the one a reviewer made about “Richard’s chubby sister,” can have devastating results. When Richard’s sister, singer Karen Carpenter [1950-1983], heard this comment, she became so obsessed with losing weight that she soon became anorexic and died of heart failure when she was only 32...A story like that may be the exception rather than the rule, but we’ve all experienced the hurt that can come with someone else’s words. (Kroll, Proverbs: The Pursuit of God’s Wisdom, 83)
Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. (b. 1949) adds:
The tongue can kill—literally. I heard about a woman in Los Angeles who took her own life. All she wrote in her suicide note was this: “They said.” In his suicide note, Vince Foster [1945-1993] of the Clinton White House wrote of Washington, “Here ruining people is considered sport.” “Death [is]...in the power of the tongue.” That is why Jesus said, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Words do not even have to be intentional to be deadly; they can be careless. (Ortlund, Proverbs: Wisdom that Works (Preaching the Word))
Our own tongues may not produce such dire consequences but they have great effect. The death blow our tongue deals is often to those closest to us. Chip Ingram (b. 1954) cautions:
Recognize the power of your words. The Scriptures say that there is life and death in the power of words (see Proverbs 18:21). What comes out of your mouth literally has the power to make or break a person’s day—or ruin his life. Especially if that person is younger. Especially if that person looks up to you. Especially if you are married to that person. (Ingram, The Miracle of Life Change: How God Transforms His Children, 226-27)
Given their significance, the sage’s words imply invoking caution before speaking. Knut Martin Heim (b. 1963) discerns:
The second saying presents him with a crucial choice: life or death [Proverbs 18:21]. By choosing to cultivate his eloquence through hard work, he will gain security and improve his standing...As Raymond C. Van Leeuwen [b. 1948] has observed, “Proverbs 18:21 plays on the feminine grammatical gender of ‘tongue’ to give the saying an erotic tinge...and to turn the hearer’s thought to the powerful ambiguity of love, either for wisdom and life, or folly and death. This connection with the themes of Proverbs 1-9 is heightened by the following saying, in which love of wife parallels love of Lady Wisdom.” (Heim, Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16, 251)
Thankfully, the tongue’s power can also be used for the ultimate good. J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988) formulates:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue”—think of that! Your tongue can be used to give out the gospel, and this will give life. It can also be used to say things that would drive people away from God which makes it an instrument of death. The little tongue is the most potent weapon in this world. (McGee, Proverbs (Thru the Bible Commentary Series), 161)
Charles R. Swindoll (b. 1934) assents:
Stop and consider this: “Faith comes from hearing” only when words have communicated the right message, the right way, at the right time (Romans 10:17). God gave humanity the responsibility to carry out His evangelistic, redemptive plan for the world, and we have a solemn responsibility to use words...to accomplish his great command. (Swindoll, Living the Proverbs: Insights for the Daily Grind, 25)
Words can be used for good or evil. The choice is ours.

Which is more powerful, the spoken or written word? Why? Do you exercise restraint in your speech? What is the most good your words have produced? What is the most harm? When have you used your tongue to share the gospel?

“The tongue like a sharp knife, kills without drawing blood.” - Chinese proverb commonly misattributed to the Buddha