A CHECK TO AN UNGOVERNED TONGUE: Part One, The Evil Wickedness of Taking God’s Name in Vain

Published in 1833.


[It was brought to my attention by a Christian scholar as to Charles Spurgeon thoughts about Matthew Henry and his Commentary on the Bible; who he describes; “First among the mighty for general usefulness we are bound to mention the man whose name is a household word, MATTHEW HENRY. He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections.”  Having read Matthew Henry’s Commentaries for many years, and donating my own 1843 and 1844 volumes of his commentaries for a worthy cause, I can concur. Yet how many have read some of his other works?  This series of posts will deal with the tongue. A subject that is as timely as it is timeless. And if you find yourself with some spare time for devotions, read some of his other works as well. –MWP]

The criminal we are now dealing with, is pronounced by an inspired writer, “An unruly evil, full of deadly poison,” –James 3: 8.

…and, which is a very great discouragement to any attempt for the reformation of it. It is there said, “That the tongue can no man tame:” not that it is impossible for men to govern their own tongues, but it is extremely difficult, and next to impossible, to reclaim and reform the extravagances of other people’s tongues. And yet, though no man can tame this unruly evil, doubtless, the almighty grace of God can. With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible; even this. And that grace; though not tied to any methods in its operations, yet, ordinarily, makes use of the endeavors of men, as means to accomplish and effect its purposes.

Against this Goliath, therefore, we go forth to battle, though armed only with a sling and a stone, in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom it hath defied; leaving the success of the attempt to him who made man’s mouth, and is alone able to new-make it, as he certainly does, wherever he gives a new heart.

And we will first mention particularly the most common and daring extravagances of an ungoverned tongue, and severally show the evil of them; designing and endeavoring thereby to confirm the innocent, and, especially, to reform the guilty: and then we will, in some general directions, offer something toward the cure of these epidemical diseases. And God grant that this labor may not be altogether in vain!

I   Profane swearing is one of the common transgressions, or rebellions rather, of an ungoverned, ill-governed tongue. A sin so common, that in most places it is become the vulgar dialect of all sorts of persons, with whose poisonous breath the air itself seems to be infected; and yet a sin so exceeding sinful, that the tongue is therein set against the heavens, (Ps. 73:9) insults over and tramples upon that which is most sacred and honorable.

The malignity of this sin lies especially in the prostituting of that solemn appeal, which by an oath is made, to God’s knowledge and justice, to the most impertinent and trivial purposes. Devout and religious swearing, when we are duly called to be sworn, is an ordinance of God, whereby we give unto him the glory due unto his name, as an omniscient, true, and righteous God. Profane swearing is a scornful and insolent contempt of that ordinance, treading it under foot, as a common thing, and thereby doing despite to him, for whose honor it is intended. It is a sacrilegious alienating of those forms of speech which are consecrated to the glory of God, and turning them to a profane and wicked use; like Belshazzar’s polluting the vessels of the temple, by gracing his drunken revels with them, which filled the measure of his iniquity. It is trifling and jesting with that, which in its own nature is awful and reverend, and which ought at all times to be treated and attended to with the greatest seriousness.

Some accustom themselves wholly to this language of hell; all their discourse is corrupted by it. They cannot talk with you about business, nor tell you a story, nor give you an answer to the most common question, but almost every other word must be an oath. It is so familiar to them, that it passes altogether unregarded; charge them with it, and they will tell you in the next breath, they do not know that they swore.

Others, with whom it is not altogether so common, yet think it no harm now and then, when they are in a passion, or speak earnestly, or when they are in company with those to whom they know it is agree able, to “rap out an oath,” (as they call it,) and perhaps, to multiply oaths; and by these frequent acts, at length they contract a habit, and become as bad as the worst. It may be, some swear under pretense of gaining credit, nobody will believe them unless they swear what they say; and I know no wise man will believe them the sooner for it; for he that can dispense with the sin of profane swearing, which he gets nothing by, I fear will not boggle much at the sin of willful lying; especially, when anything is to be got by it. Others swear under pretense of striking an awe upon their inferiors, nobody will fear them unless they swear at them; that is, they would rather be dreaded and shunned, as roaring lions and ranging bears, than respected and honored as wise, sober, and religious men, who make conscience of what they say and do, even when they are ever so much provoked.

And there are many who are such hearty well-wishers to this sin, that though they have not yet learned to swear distinctly, and in plain English, for fear of the censure, either of the law, or of their friends, or of their own consciences, yet they venture to lisp this language, and have the Shibboleth of an oath, upon every occasion, at their tongue’s end. Though it be not swearing at large, and in express terms, it is the abridgment of it; it is swearing in short-hand. They have learnt to contract wicked words, and to disguise them by half words, which, as they have the resemblance of profane swearing, take rise from it, and border upon it; are bad words, and at the best, are idle words, for which they must give account in the judgment; and being more than yea, yea, and nay, nay, more than bare affirmations and negations, they come of evil, Mat. 5:37. No wise man will say he knows not what, or that which has no sense at all; and no good man will say that which he knows has the appearance of evil, and borders upon a bad sense.

And now, O that this paper might seasonably fall into the hands of the swearer, the common swearer, and the more cautious one, and might (by the blessing of God) be an effectual and happy means to convince and reform both the one and the other, before the flying roll which carries the curse (which we read of as the swearer’s doom, Zech. 5:3, 4.) come into their houses, or, which is worse, into their souls, to consume them : that is a roll which cannot be slighted and thrown by, as I suppose this paper will.

You ask sometimes, “What evil there is in swearing?” Why so much ado should be made about a common form of speech, and a man made an offender for a word. You plead, that it hurts nobody, words are but wind. But you will not say so, if you can but be persuaded seriously to weigh the following considerations, and to fix them in your minds:

1   Consider what an enmity there is, in profane swearing, to the Blessed God, and what an indignity is done by it to his glorious and fearful name. Would it not be justly interpreted a very high affront to a magistrate, though a man like yourselves, if you should send for him in all haste, to keep the peace, to decide a controversy, to seize a criminal, or to do any act of his office; and when he comes, it is all ludicrous, and a jest, and you intend nothing but to make a fool of him, and to expose him and his authority to contempt and ridicule? How would such an intolerable abuse be resented among men, especially if it were often repeated! Yet just such an affront, a daring affront, does the insolent swearer put upon God Almighty ; making his truth, justice, and omniscience to attend all the extravagances of an ungoverned passion and an unbridled tongue.

And the affront is so much the worse, because it reflects upon his government, profanes his crown, disgraces the throne of his glory, vilifies his judgment seat, and attempts to make it mean and contemptible, and thereby to render it questionable.

And is there no harm in this? Whence can this proceed but from that carnal mind which is enmity against God, and from a rooted antipathy to him, and to his dominion? To this poisonous fountain the

Psalmist traces all these bitter streams, (Ps. 139:20). “Thine enemies take thy name in vain.” It cannot be imputed either to the lusts of the flesh, or the lusts of the eye, or the pride of life; this is a forbidden fruit that neither is good for food nor pleasant to the eye, nor at all to be desired to make one wise, or bespeak one so; the sinner is not led to it by the love of pleasure, or the hope of any gain or reward; it can, therefore, proceed from nothing else but a spirit of contradiction to God Almighty, a contempt of his honor, and a hatred of his government This sin, as much as any other, seems to have taken occasion from the commandment, and to have pat forth itself purposely in defiance of the divine law; so that it may be questioned whether there would have been such a sin as profane swearing, if it had not been prohibited by the third commandment Now this renders the sin exceeding sinful, and adds rebellion to it; and the swearer being a transgressor without cause, (as the Psalmist speaks, Ps. 25:3) is a sinner without excuse, and sins purely for sinning sake.

And do you think, O man, whoever you are that thus affronts the majesty, ridicules the government, and defies the judgment, of the eternal God, that you shall go unpunished? Be not deceived, God it not mocked. He is jealous for the honor of his own name, and will not see it trampled upon and made a by-word, as it is by every profane swearer. You would resent it, if your names should thus be turned into a proverb, and jested with by every idle fellow; and what then will God do for his great name, which is thus abused? Shall he not visit for these things? Shall not his soul be avenged on such sinners as these? Yes, no doubt, when the day of recompense comes; for, he has said, Vengeance is mine, I will repay. Nemo me impune lacessit —No one provokes me with impunity!

2  Consider what an evidence it is against yourselves, that you have no fear of God before your eyes. Though you should indeed neither fear God nor regard man, yet why should you hang out a sign to give notice of this to everyone who passes by! What need you declare your sin as Sodom, and thus publicly proclaim the devil king in your souls? Is it not enough, that you harbor in your hearts a secret enmity to God and godliness, but dare yon thus avow the quarrel, and openly wage war with heaven? Dare you thus bid defiance to all that is sacred, and wear the livery of Satan’s family? Is it not enough that your hearts are graceless, and you yourselves in the interest of the kingdom of darkness, but you must be industrious to let the world know this? Thy wisdom fails thee, indeed, if (like the fool Solomon describes) when thou walkest by the way, thou thus sayest to everyone that thou art a fool, Eccl. 10: 3.

Shall I beg of you to consider this a little: You are called Christians; your baptism, which I take it for granted you have not renounced, entitles you to that worthy name ; you live in an age and place wherein it is your honor to be called by that name; it will do you neither credit nor kindness to have your Christianity disproved; nay, you would take it as an affront to have it questioned; this you would have looked upon as a thing so certain, that “As I am a Christian” must pass for an oath with you, or vehement assertion; which gives just cause to suspect that you have little value for your Christianity, since you are so willing to pawn it, as you do other sacred things, upon every trifling occasion. But while thus you boast of your Christianity, you do with your own tongues disprove it by your common swearing, and plainly give yourselves and your profession the lie. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. I see not how it is possible that such a daring contempt of God’s sovereign authority, and sacred name, as profane swearing (especially where it is commonly used) most certainly is, can consist with the reigning fear and love of God in the heart, and that sincere regard to the glory and honor of God, which are necessary to denominate a man a true Christian.

When Peter was charged with it as a crime, that he was a disciple of Christ, he took this method to make it appear that he was not, he began to curse and to swear, Matt. 26:74. His speech indeed betrayed him to be a Galilean; but this manner of speech betrayed him to be none of the followers of Christ, for none of them used to curse and swear; all that knew anything of their Master, and his life and doctrine, would certainly conclude so. When Peter therefore cursed and swore, he did as effectually deny his Master, as when he said, “I know not the man”: It was but once that Peter was thus guilty, and many a bitter tear it cost him; let none, therefore, make Peter’s example an excuse for their swearing, unless they intend, as he did, to signify thereby that they disown Christ, and their Christianity; and since they are resolved not to be ruled by their religion, they disclaim all hopes of benefit by it. I have that charity for you, as to believe that you will not do this professedly, and, therefore, you should be so just to yourselves, as not to do that which amounts to it, and which is capable of such a construction, and which, the apostle tells us, endangers our falling into condemnation, James 5:12. While there is a possibility of your being heirs of heaven, and of the inheritance of the saints in light, prove not yourselves the children of hell, by your speaking the language of that kingdom of darkness.

3  Consider what an injury it is to those with whom you converse. You think it does no harm to others, because it does not hurt them in their bodies, goods, or good name; but is harm done to the souls of others no harm? Nay, is it not the worst harm you can do them? If those who hear you swear be wicked, their hearts are hardened by it, and their hands strengthened, that they may not turn from their evil way; from your poisonous breath they take their infection, and add this to all their other sins. And is it no harm to propagate sin, and to support the devil’s interest, as his agents, and factors for hell? Yes, it is harm to them who are thus, by your means, instructed and confirmed in wickedness; and you will find it harm to you too, when you shall bear the iniquity of those who by your example are taught and encouraged to swear. To what a height will your account rise, when you shall be to answer for all the sins you have thus been accessary to! Which, though it aggravate your sin, yet will not excuse those who have learnt this evil from you, nor lessen their account; for they also shall die in their iniquity.

If they who hear you swear have the fear of God in their hearts, and any concern for his glory, their hearts are grieved, and their hands weakened. It may be, that they have not courage to reprove you for it, but it troubles them, and saddens their spirits, to hear God’s name dishonored, and his sovereignty thus insulted, and to see you thus sell your souls, and all your valuable birthrights, for less than a morsel of meat. It spoils the pleasure of their conversation with you, makes them shy of your company, and, perhaps, dull and uneasy in it; such an affliction it is to them to hear you swear. When David had mentioned those who take God’s name in vain, he immediately adds, “Do I not hate them, am not I grieved because of them?” Ps. 139:21. Though now perhaps you make a light matter of this, and rather take a pride and pleasure in thus creating vexation to a good man; yet, shortly, you will find it had been better that a mill-stone were hanged about your neck, and you cast into the sea, than that you should willfully offend one of Christ’s little ones. They are the words of our Lord Jesus, and we are sure no word of his shall fall to the ground.

Besides this, is it no harm to bring the curse of God into your house, which shall consume it? Is it no harm to add to the measure of the nation’s guilt, and to increase God’s controversy with it? Because of swearing, the land mourns, (Jer. 23:10) the land of your nativity, and is it nothing to you that you contribute to its grief, and to the reproach which this, as other sins, puts upon any people? Prov. 14:34.

4  Consider, how very frivolous all your pleas in defense of this sin are, and how unbecoming one who pretends reason. When your own consciences sometimes rebuke you for it, and admonish you to reform, you shift off these convictions with such trifling excuses as you would be ashamed to oiler in any other case. I cannot think of more than two things that you can allege in your own defense, and they have neither of them so much as the color of an excuse; while there is all that intrinsic malignity in the sin which we have already showed you, and God has declared he will not hold you guiltless.

Be persuaded, therefore, to break off all intimate society and conversation with those, who not only do such things, but have pleasure in them that do them; and with David, (Ps. 119:63.) be companions with those that fear God and keep his precepts, and then you will find it no hard matter (by the grace of God) to break off this wicked practice, however much you have been accustomed to it; and to forbear that language which you know is so provoking to God, so displeasing to all good men, and so destructive to the peace and welfare of your own souls.

Set a double watch before the door of your lips, that you thus offend not. Abstain from all appearances of this sin; avoid temptations to it. If gaming have ensnared you in it, either never play at all, or fix it as a principle, that as there is no gain, so there is no game, worth a profane oath. Keep up a dread of the sin, which certainly you will do if you truly repent of it. Tremble to hear others swear. Learn to pray, and then you will not be so apt to swear.