“He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction” (Prov. 13:3). “A guard upon the lips is a guard to the soul: he that is careful, who thinks twice before he speaks once, that, if he hath thought evil, lays his hand upon his mouth to suppress it, that keeps a strong bridle on his tongue, and a strict hand on the bridle, he keeps his soul from a great deal of guilt and grief, and saves himself the trouble of many bitter reflections on himself, and others upon him” (Matthew Henry). Alas, how many are now saying — by their very attitude and actions “our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (Psa. 12:4). “Speak not evil one of another, brethren” (James 4:11). Is not this a word which is much needed by some of us today? Alas, in some quarters the habit of discrediting others behind their backs has become so common that it is regarded almost as a matter of course; the mentioning to others of a brother’s faults or a sister’s failures, the repeating of unfavourable reports which have come to our ears is so general that few appear to make any conscience thereof. Nevertheless, God still says “Speak not evil one of another, brethren.” Yes, this is an exhortation which requires to be prayerfully taken to heart by not a few. Personally, the writer has to acknowledge with shame that this Divine injunction has not had the restraining influence upon his unruly tongue which it ought, and in what follows he desires to preach unto himself as well as to others. How solemn it is to observe that one of the sins mentioned in that awful catalogue enumerated in Romans 1:29-31 is that of detraction or injuring the reputation of others– “whisperers, backbiters”: therein does the corruption of man’s vitiated nature evidence itself. To stain the good reputation of another is highly reprehensible. God commanded us to love our neighbour as ourself, and this requires that I am to be concerned not only about his person and property, but to protect his good name. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Prov. 22:1 ), and therefore to rob a man of his good name is worse than stealing his property.
A citizen of Zion is thus described: “He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour” (Psa. 15:3).
“Speak not evil one of another, brethren” (James 4:11). That which is here forbidden is the saying of anything, be it true or false, to the prejudice of another. God requires that our words should be governed by “the law of kindness” (Prov. 31:26), and anything which would hurt or injure the reputation of another is to be rigidly eschewed. Whenever I cannot speak well of my brother or sister, I must say nothing at all. It is devilish and bitter feelings against them (Rev. 12:10). God requires that our words should agree with love as well as with truth. Since Christians are brethren, the last thing they should be guilty of is defaming one another. “Take no heed unto all words that are spoken” (Eccl. 7:21). “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Prov. 19:27). Beware of evil listening! Those who receive tales about others, who delight to hear of the failings of their brethren, encourage evil speakers in their sin and are partakers of their guilt. “The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue” (Prov. 25:23). The Christian is not only bidden to abstain from all evil speaking himself, but is required to discourage this sin in others by frowning on it and endeavouring to put it out of countenance. Slanders would not be so readily spoken as they are, if they were not so readily heard. “Many abuse those spoken evil of, only in hopes to curry favor with those they speak to” (Matthew Henry). Disappoint them by showing your disapproval.
Since it be a grievous sin to speak evil of a brother in Christ, how much greater is the offence when it is committed against one of His ministering servants! True, they are not faultless, yet their blemishes are not to be blazed abroad, but should be covered with the mantle of love. “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:8): observe the emphasis — ye should be afraid to speak evil against any one, much more against My honoured servant. It is at our peril that we say or do anything against the servants of God, for He reckons those who touch them as touching “the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:8). “Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm” (Psa. 105:15) is His express command. To speak evil of others proceeds from ill will or malice, either desiring that they should be made odious in the esteem of others, or being quite indifferent if that effect be produced. To say that no harm is intended is to talk foolishly: “As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?” (Prov. 26:18, 19). Much repeating of the ill reports about others issues from an uncharitable readiness to believe the worst: “For I heard the defaming of many, fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it” (Jer. 20:10). But the chief cause of this evil is an unruly tongue, nor are we likely to seek grace for bridling that member until we really make conscience of this sin. It is both striking and searching to note how often the Holy Spirit addresses Himself to God’s children on this subject. Many are the verses in the Book of Proverbs which contain salutary instruction for the right use of our tongues. So also in the New Testament exhortations are frequently given against the wrong use of our tongues. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31). “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).
“Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1, 2): there must be the definite and daily “laying aside” of these bad habits if we are to preserve a healthy appetitet for spiritual things. “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile” (1 Peter 3:10): But is all speaking evil of another unlawful? No, though even here it is hard to keep clear of sinning. There are times when it is a duty to caution our friends against those who might prove a menace to them: if I know one is about to buy an article that has been misrepresented, or trust some money to a dishonest person, then I must faithfully raise my voice in warning. If I should be summoned as a witness in court, then I am bound to tell what I know. Yet, where the glory of God and the honour of His Gospel is at stake, or where there is danger of a brother being imposed upon or wronged, and my duty to speak out is plain, nevertheless, the following cautions need to be heeded. First, take pains to fully verify what you have heard, and make sure that what you relate is true. Second, do it in a right spirit: not censoriously, nor with delight, but with godly sorrow. Third, be impartial, and if occasion requires you to mention another’s faults, be careful not to conceal his virtues. Except where the glory of God plainly requires it and the good of our neighbour or brother demands it, we must refrain from all evil speaking of others.
If we are duly occupied with and humbled over our own many faults, we shall have neither time nor inclination to dwell upon or publish those of others. If we properly heed the exhortation of Philippians 4:8, we shall cultivate the habit of admiring the graces in our brethren instead of like filthy flies settling on their sores. Certain it is that if we are not tender of the reputation of others, God will make us taste of the bitterness of this affliction for ourselves: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7); “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt. 7:2). How solemn is that word, “speaking evil of you: who shall give account to Him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead” (1 Peter 4:4, 5). Well may we pray, “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Psa. 141:3).
“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” Ephesians 4:29