Careful with Fire… and Words

Jan 23, 2015 3042

by Milton Hook

FireThe tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark …. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be so …. Can a salt spring produce fresh water? – James 3:5,10

James argues for virtuous speech, words that praise God and our peers.

The gift of speech is a marvellous attribute of humanity. Animals do communicate in a very simple and often remarkable way but human speech is a complex characteristic. Primitive cultures have a relatively limited vocabulary because they have not adopted or adapted many words from other cultures.

The Hebrew language, while it is richer than many primitive ones, is sparing of words. It has fewer than 10,000 words in its vocabulary. Culturally, it tended to be isolationist and therefore did not adopt many words from other nations. The Greeks, however, spread far and wide, carrying their language with them and adding to it until its vocabulary reached about 200,000 words. The Oxford English Dictionary is said to have about 250,000 words in it. Other sources claim the English vocabulary is nearer to a million words, borrowing from all parts of its vast empire.

Arguably, the more words we have at our disposal the better we should be able to praise God. But, of course, it works the other way also —- the same enormous vocabulary can be used to curse God and abuse our peers.  The poet, Will Carleton, wrote these words of caution:

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;

You can’t do that when flying words:

‘Careful with fire,’ is good advice we know,

“Careful with words,’ is ten times doubly so.

Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead,

But God himself can’t kill them when they’re said.

– Milton Hook

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