“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21a). We will first begin by setting the contextual background of this text. Second, we will provide the meaning of this text and, third, we will consider supportive evidence.

First, the contextual background: it is that of a courtroom scenario

Proverbs 18:16–21 forms part of a unit that deals with courtroom scenarios. The unit can be analysed and broken down in the following way:

  • 16 – gives us a picture of a person that buys justice through a gift before a judge or a king or a court official. The gift here is a bribe intended to corrupt justice (see Proverbs 17: 8, 23).
  • 17 – gives a picture about the cross examination of the first litigant at law. Matthew Henry states that: “The plaintiff having done his evidence, it is fit that the defendant should be heard, should have leave to confront the witnesses and cross-examine them, and show the falsehood and fallacy of what has been alleged, which perhaps may make the matter appear quite otherwise than it did. We must therefore remember that we have two ears, to hear both sides before we give judgment.”
  • 18 gives us a picture of a divine intervention in a case through the casting of lots that ends disputes, e.g. Prov. 18:16, Prov. 18:17. The statement presupposes that the living God is the ultimate judge in every matter requiring the execution of justice.
  • 19 – is a picture of an offended brother (by blood or by choice) who, because of the ‘contentions’ is irreconcilable. He is difficult to reconcile. However, he will, upon the divine intervention (v.18) be made reconcilable.
  • 20–21 are to be taken together and properly give us the picture of the role of the mouth and lips in the courtroom.

Second, understanding the meaning of Proverbs 18:20–21

  1. Observe that the two verses are supposed to be taken and interpreted together. They are a set of synonymous parallelism meaning that they share the same thought using different words. They teach us the inevitable role of the mouth and lips in matters of litigations.
  2. Observe also that the parallels employ agricultural metaphors of eating and being satisfied with fruit (v.20a; 21b) and with the harvest (v.20b). The metaphor employed in these two verses warns against the giving of false testimony in court or otherwise.  Hence, they inform us about the outcome of both good and bad testimony given in matters of litigations.  Even though the first litigant will be subject to cross-examination (v.17), it is ultimately God alone that will have the final say on the matter (v.18). The idea of the harvest points to this conclusion. It does not matter even if justice is corrupted through a bribe, the Lord God will still have the final say. Remember, God alone is the Lord of the harvest! (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2). The Lord will recompense with either ‘life’ or ‘death’ (v.21) in this life or in the life to come. It is a statement of fact.

Notice also that the metaphor changes from the orchard to the grain field. “From the fruit of his mouth (that is to say the orchard) a man’s stomach is filled; with the harvest from his lips (that is to say the grain field)” (v.20).

The word “harvest” in Proverbs is sometimes used to mean the income or simply the firstfruits, e.g. Proverbs 3:9. Sometimes it is used to mean the profits, the gain, or the increase, e.g. Prov. 3:14 & 14:14. The metaphor presupposes that speech, whether good or bad, fully impacts upon the speaker as well as the hearers by a divine recompense of either life or death (v.21a).

  1. Observe closely that the outer frames of the parallel statements are joined by a catchword “fruit”. It is the first word of v.20a and the last of v.21b. The organs of speaking such as lips and tongue (v.20b, v.21a) make the inner core of the statements. “His lips” (v.20b) is parallel to “his mouth” (v.20a) and “to the power of the tongue” (v.21a). These statements prove the emphasis of these two verses is good and bad speech. It is speech offered in the courtroom under oath.
  2. Observe, finally, that eating of one’s own speech is a figure of speech known as an oxymoron. Bruce K. Waltke, in his commentary on Proverbs says, “In other words, to satisfy one’s hunger by what comes out of the mouth is an absurdity (It is an apparent contradiction or an oxymoron). Nevertheless, the oxymoron forces the thought that whatever a person dishes out, whether beneficial or harmful, he or she will feed on to full measure through what his audience in return dishes out to him”. We can conclude that the words in Prov. 18:20 and 21 are retributive in nature.

Third, the contextual supportive evidence

  • The first parallel clause in 18:20 closely relates to Prov. 12:14a. So, according to this parallelism, the fruit of one’s lips is his talk or his speech. When someone speaks positively with a view to help others, he will in turn bring healing to them as is stated furthermore in Prov. 12:18b. When he speaks the truth under oath, justice will be upheld, and the truth will set him free. However, when he lies under oath, the Lord shall accordingly judge him by making him eat back his own words (18:21b).
  • The same parallel clause in 18:20 can also be related to what is already taught in Prov. 13:2. This is an antithetical parallelism. It is distinguishing between the characters of the righteous (wise) with that of a wicked (foolish) person. It implies that what one reaps is consistent with one’s character. The word rendered “good” means what is pleasant to taste and smell; while that translated “violence” in the parallel line signifies what is crude and unripe. It means that what this good man gives out by way of his mouth is consistent with his righteous character. On the judgment day, he will reap life everlasting (Gal. 6:8). The evidence of his ultimate blessings tomorrow can be attested to with the outcome of the fruit of his mouth today (13:2a).

Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Proverbs, says; “Words pass; their fruit remains… The desire of the treacherous is for violence. But the KJV and RV give a more direct counterpart to the statement in the first line that words bring a tangible return.”

  • The first clause in 18:21a about the tongue (or, as in v.20a, about the mouth) relates also to what is already taught in Prov. 13:3.

You will note that this verse follows logically upon 13:2. Since speech bears good or bad fruit, the organs of speech must be carefully controlled. This conclusion is what 18:21 seeks to teach.

Conclusion

Finally, notice also that in Prov.18:20 the statement “he is satisfied” is repeated for emphasis. Firstly, his “stomach is filled” (v.20a) and, secondly, “from his lips is satisfied” (v.20b). This is to show the outcome of one’s speech or his fruit or his ultimate harvest, e.g. Prov. 13:5. This verse is a build up from 13:2 and 3. We are taught that the righteous person can control the fruit of his mouth (13:2) by guarding precisely his speech (13:3). Now we are being taught in 13:5 that he manages to do so by hating falsehood, lies, wrongs, deception, disappointment, false oath, or simply swearing falsely. It is this same understanding that is applicable to 18:20. Therefore, 18:20 is simply a summary of what has already being taught elsewhere in Prov.12:14, 18; 13: 2, 3, 5.

The wicked person will eat the fruit of his mouth as characterised by his violent speech (13:2b) because he is unable to bridle his speech due to his long-windedness (13:3b) and as such “shame and disgrace” is what will be his lot in life (13:5b). He will also not escape the judgment of God for being careless with his tongue in matters to do with breaking the 9th Commandment, (Ex. 20:16). This man will be made to eat the fruit of death (18:21) and this is recompense consistent with his wicked character.

Clearly the verse in question, Prov. 18:21, is sadly twisted out of context by the wealth and health, Word of Faith preachers, who use this verse (and others) to show that there is creative power and literal power of life and death in the tongue. Reading Proverbs in its context, we can see that words have influence to build people up or to bring them down. The words have power to destroy them but it is not because words have some magical creative power and the literal power of life and death.

If words can kill, why do nations make guns and missiles for war? Why not just use words? Why do we need all the medical equipment in our hospitals? Since the Lord used words to create the world and the universe, why don’t some of these faith preachers also create a new universe? By the way, some witch doctors also practice the power of words (tongue), as a solution to a person’s problem. They may ask their victims to repeat a phrase or the name of the person, and claim that what you want will be granted. We are not God. Only God can create with words.

If you read Prov. 18:21 in its context, i.e. reading the whole chapter, you will that the simple meaning of this verse is that words are influential and can have serious consequences, but they are not magical nor creative.

Bibliography

Tremper, Longman III. 2006. Proverbs: A Baker Commentary on the

Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids

Waltke, Bruce K. 2004. The Book of Proverbs: The New International

Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapid: Eerdmans Publishing Company

Kidner, Derek. 2008. Proverbs: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.

Inter-Varsity Press: Nittingham, England.

Matthew, Henry, Proverbs: e-sword, on line commentary.