A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.
In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.
She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):
Words, words, words, words.
I’m so sick of words.
I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…
If you are in love, show me.
Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.
What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)
On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)
When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.
That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.
The power of oratory
That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.
We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.
They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.
We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.
We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.
Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.
Biblical wisdom for Americans
This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.
We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?
We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.
As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.
So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.
I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.