Taken and adapted from, “THE MISCELLANEOUS WORKS OF THE REV. MATTHEW HENRY” Volume I
Published in 1833.
Lewd, obscene, and filthy talk, is another of the vile evidence of an unsanctified, ungoverned tongue.
It is a thing to be greatly lamented, that this impudent sin, which bids open defiance to virtue and honor, and wages war with them, like a spreading leprosy, stains the beauty of our land, turns a Canaan into a Sodom, and is become an epidemical disease. For the relief of those who are infected with it, and who are not incurably unclean, I would in a few words show you the evil of it.
1 Consider what an offence it is to the pure and holy God, who takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the uncleanness of your lips, as well as of your hearts and lives. It is a violation even of the law of nature, which prescribes modesty, and teaches us to blush at everything that is immodest. The Law of Moses provided for the keeping up of this hedge of chastity, and in many instances punished that which broke through this hedge. It was one of the laws of Romulus, (some of the most ancient human laws that are extant,) Nequis obsccena verba facit—none should dare to speak an obscene word. But (which to us is above all) the law of Christ is very express against all filthiness and foolish talking and jesting, and appoints, that fornication and all uncleanness should not be once named among Christians without the greatest abhorrence, Eph. 5: 3, 4. And is the law of Christ nothing with you? Can you go so directly contrary to it, and yet hope to prosper? God has told you plainly there, (vs. 5.) that such unclean persons have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God, and (vs. 6.) that because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. And you cannot suppose that the fixed laws of heaven should be dispensed with to gratify your base lusts. The law of Christ shall either rule you or judge you.
2 Consider what an evidence it is against yourselves that you are possessed by the unclean spirit and are under his power. Out of the abundance of the filthiness that is in the heart the tongue speaks thus filthily, and from that root of bitterness arises this gall and wormwood. The abominable lewdness that is in the heart, and is harbored and indulged there, boils up in this noisome dross. Stinking breath is a sign of putrid lungs. While you please yourselves and your companions with this dirty language, you do but foam out your own shame, and sport yourselves with your own deceivings. You think you show your wit by it, but indeed you show your wickedness, and declare your sin as Sodom, as those who are not ashamed, and cannot blush. Chastity and modesty have been virtues, are so, and will be so, howsoever much they are despised and disdained by the first-rate sinners of the age; and that which is a virtue, is a praise, is an honor: which if you want, yet you need not proclaim that you do so, nor be proud of your shame.
Unclean thoughts may, through the infirmity of the flesh, and for want of watchfulness, come into the minds of those who disallow them, lament them, and strive against them, knowing that even these thoughts of foolishness are sin: but unclean discourse is much worse, and more exceeding sinful, for thereby you signify your approbation and allowance of those unclean thoughts; you put an “Imprimatur” to them, and consent to the publication of them for the common service of the devil’s kingdom.
3 Consider what a great deal of hurt it is likely to do to others. Though this sin does not so immediately reflect upon the blessed name of God as swearing does, and, therefore, has not so much malignity in its nature, yet it does more toward the corrupting of the minds of others, and the propagating of vice and wickedness, than perhaps any other tongue-sin whatsoever, and so is more mischievous in its consequences. Such tinder is the corrupt heart of man to these sparks, that one unclean word to an unguarded soul may be the unhappy occasion of a thousand unclean thoughts, which may produce a world of iniquity. If this root of bitterness thus spring up and sprout forth, thereby many are defiled, (Heb. 12:15) more than perhaps you are aware of: and your account in the great day will rise high, if you must be answerable for all that uncleanness which has been spawned in the minds of others by your lewd talk.
Filthy stories, and songs, and jests, are the pestilential breath of hell, which propagates the infection of sin; old Satan’s wiles, by which he betrays unwary souls into their own ruin. And those unclean lips which help to lay those snares, are factors for the unclean spirit, and by debauching the minds of others with their vile discourses, perhaps serve the devil’s kingdom, and the interests of it, as effectually as those who debauch the bodies of others with their vile adulteries. Evil communications corrupt good manners. If those who hear your lewd talk be not so bad as to be infected by it, certainly they are so good as to be offended at it. He is unfit for civil company, and breaks the law of good manners, who takes a pleasure in saying that which a wise and good man must frown upon, and hear with shame, or with an angry countenance.
Therefore, let all who have accustomed themselves to this language, be persuaded to leave it off, and henceforward to set such a careful watch before the door of your lips, that they never more offend thus with their tongue: and if at any time they think this evil, let them lay their hand upon their mouth, (Proverbs 30:32) that it go no further. That mirth is dear bought, which is purchased at the expense of the favor of God, the honor of virtue, and the purity and peace of our own consciences. Better to lose your jest, than to lose all these jewels. Dread the consequences of it, not to others only, but to yourselves. Those who allow themselves in the transgression of the laws of modesty, it is to be feared, will not long be governed by the laws of chastity.
The way of sin is downhill.
And let me bespeak all who are well-wishers to religion and virtue, not only to be very cautious themselves never to say anything that looks like lewdness, or looks toward it, but in all companies to contrive how they may put this vice to the blush, expose it to contempt, and dash it from your presence. They who would approve themselves strictly modest, must never seem pleased at the hearing of that which is otherwise, nor laugh at an immodest jest or story, lest they should have fellowship with these unfruitful works of darkness, which ought to be frowned upon, and reproved rather. Let it be seen that you can be merry and wise, merry and modest. Reckon it a burden to dwell among a people of unclean lips, (Isaiah 6:5) and pray to God that (according to his promise, Zeph. 3:9) he would turn our people to a pure language, that we may be fit to call upon the name of the Lord.
Having thus mentioned some of the vices of an ungoverned tongue, (especially those that are most common with such as are openly profane,) and given some particular hints of argument against them, I shall now close with some general directions for the reducing of the exorbitant power of an unruly tongue.
1 See that the heart be truly and thoroughly sanctified by the grace of God. If you would have the disease cured, you must lay the axe to the root, and meet it in its causes. The offensive humor within must be purged out, else these eruptions, though they may be checked for a time by external restraints, yet will never be healed. The right method prescribed by the great Physician, is first to keep the heart with all diligence, and then by that means to put away the disobedient lips. See Prov. 4:23, 24. The way to heal the poisonous waters is, like Elisha, (2 Kings 2:21.) to cast salt into the spring, Make the tree good, and then the fruit will be good. It is out of an evil treasure in the heart that evil things are brought; men speak slightly of God, and spitefully of their brethren, because they think so; let but the thoughts be rectified, and the language will be soon reformed.
If the law of holy love to God and your neighbor were written in your hearts, and you were, as you should be, actuated and governed by these as a living commanding principle, you would not dare to offend either the one or the other with your tongue; that good treasure laid up in the heart would bring forth good things to the use of edifying, which would manifest grace in him that speaks, and minister grace unto the hearers. The fear of God always before your eyes will be an effectual restraint upon you from saying that by which either his name is dishonored, or his law violated. The grace of God is a coal from the altar, which if it touch the tongue, the iniquity of it will be purged away, Isaiah 6:7.
Let the throne of Christ be set up in your hearts, and his love shed abroad there, and then you will not call it a needless preciseness to be thus careful of your words, but a necessary strictness, because by our words we must be justified or condemned. Then you will not call it a task and a slavery to be thus tied up, and to speak by rule, but an honor and a pleasure; for assuredly this blessed change, wrought in the soul by the renewing grace of God, will open such surprising springs of present joy and comfort, as will abundantly balance all the uneasiness which corrupt nature will complain of in these restraints.
2 Solemnly resolve against these and all other tongue-sins. Let holy David’s vow be yours, and bind your souls with it this day, “I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue”; and remember, as he does there, that you have said it, that you may not break your promise, Ps. 39:1, 2.
While the result of your convictions is no more but this, that you hope you shall govern your tongues better for the future, and that, for ought you know, you will not swear so much as you have done, and in the mind you are in, you will not speak so many idle filthy words as you have spoken—if this be all, you leave room for Satan to thrust in with his temptations; faint purposes are soon shaken, and prove to no purpose: but when you are come to a point, and without equivocation, or mental reservation, will solemnly promise that by the grace of God you will never swear nor curse anymore; you will never take God’s name in vain anymore; you will never speak a lewd or scurrilous word anymore; this fortifies the stronghold against the tempter, who (like Naomi, Ruth 1:18) when he sees you are steadfastly resolved, will leave off speaking to you.
Renew this resolution every day, especially if you have a prospect of any occasion which will be a more than ordinary temptation to you. Thus set a guard upon the door of your lips, and at some times double your guard, where you find yourselves weakest and most exposed. Try the strength of your resolutions, and do not for shame suffer yourselves to be baffled in them. Only remember to make and renew these resolutions, in a dependence upon the grace of Jesus Christ, which alone is sufficient for you. Peter resolved against a tongue-sin in his own strength, but it failed him, and he was made ashamed of his confidence; confide therefore in divine strength only.
3 Keep out of the way of bad company. Speech is learned by imitation, and so is corrupt speech. We are apt in discourse to conform to those will whom we do associate; and therefore, if we would keep those commandments of our God which relate to the government of the tongue, we must say to evil doers. Depart from us, Ps. 119:115. Converse not familiarly, and of choice, with those who accustom themselves to any evil communication, lest you learn their way, lest you learn their words, and get such a snare to your souls as you will not easily disentangle yourselves from.
That dread and terror, and abhorrence of swearing and cursing, and all profane discourse, which all who are virtuously and piously educated, are conscious to themselves of at first, is apt to wear off by frequent and free conversation with those who use such language. It is excused as a slip of the tongue, which does nobody any harm; nay, it I justified as a fashionable ornament of speech; and so by degrees the debauched conscience comes to be reconciled to it, and at last the tongue is taught not only to lisp the same cursed language, but, with a great deal of art and assurance, to speak it plain. Joseph himself, in the court of Egypt, had unawares got the courtier’s oath, by the life of Pharaoh.
If you love your souls, therefore, be very careful what company you keep; choose to converse familiarly with those of whom you may learn that which is edifying, and by those whose discourse and example you may be made wiser and better; and avoid the society of those by whom, without a greater degree of wisdom and watchfulness than you can pretend to, you will certainly get hurt to yourselves. Improper words are sooner learned than unlearned. Therefore, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not, (Proverbs 1:10) though they do not say, (as they there, v. 11 Come, and let us lay wait for blood,) “Come, and let us swear and curse, and bid defiance to all that is sacred;” but palliate the temptation, and make it look very harmless, “Come, and let us take a glass and be merry over it.” If they be such as are commonly profane and lewd in their discourse, fear a snare in their company, and keep at a distance from it. Walk not in their counsel, stand not in their way, sit not in their seat, Ps. 1:1. Make no friendship with those who make no conscience of their words, and who show that they have no veneration for the blessed name of God. Remember Solomon’s advice, (Proverbs 14:7) and be ruled by it; “Go from the presence of a foolish man, when thou perceivest not in him the lips of knowledge.”
4 Think twice before you speak once. We often speak amiss, because we speak in haste; when that comes out which comes uppermost, what can it be but froth and dross? Moses spoke unadvisedly with his lips, not consulting with himself before he spoke, and then he said that which shut him out of Canaan, Ps. 106:33. What we speak in haste, we often find cause afterwards to repent of at leisure. David more than once reflects with regret upon what he said in his haste, and we have all a great deal of reason to do so. Our second thoughts, if we would take time for them, would correct the errors of the first; and we should not offend with our tongues so often as we do, if we would but consider what we say, before we say it. The heart of the righteous studies to answer that which is fit and seasonable, while the mouth of fools pours out foolishness.
Be sparing of your words, and then you will not have so many bad words to answer for as most have; for, in the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, and different vanities. You have often been the worse for speaking, but seldom the worse for keeping silence. Many a thing which you have said, you would have smothered and suppressed if you had but allowed yourselves the liberty of a serious and impartial thought upon it. “Little said, soon amended.”
You dare not profane God’s blessed name with your unhallowed breath, if you would but think seriously what a God he is whom you thus blaspheme and provoke. You durst not curse yourselves or others if you would but consider the weight of the curse, and what a fearful thing it is to fall under it. You dare not scoff at religion if you did but consider how sacred and honorable it is. Reason in other cases is of use to rectify the mistakes of imagination; use it here then.
5 Have a care to the account that is now kept, and must shortly be given, of all your idle wicked words. You believe the Holy Scriptures, you do well. Now they tell you what will be in the end hereof. The word of God will judge you shortly, therefore, let it rule you now.
Notice is now taken of all you say, whether you are aware of it or not. There is not a word in your tongue, though spoken in haste, and not regarded by you, but God knows it altogether, and a book of remembrance is written. God told the prophet Ezekiel what the people said of him by the walls, and in the doors of their houses, (Ezek. 33:30) and he can make a bird of the air to carry the voice of that which is said in the heart, or in the bedchamber, Eccl. 10:20. You think you may curse and swear securely when you are out of the reach of those who would reprove you, or inform against you; and because God for the present keeps silence, you think he is altogether such a one as yourselves, as careless of his government as you are of your duty; but he will reprove you, and set them in order before you, and make it to appear that he kept an exact account of all you said: Now consider this, ye that forget God, (Ps. 1:21) stand in awe of this, and sin not with your tongues. Take heed, God hears; were you in the presence of some grave men that you had a reverence for, you would have a care what you say, and shall not the presence of the great God strike an awe upon you?
But this is not all, the day is coming when there will be a review; when the books that are written will be opened, and all your profane oaths and curses, and corrupt communications, will be found upon record there, and produced as evidence against you. He that is to be the Judge in that day, has himself expressly told us, (Matt. 12:36) every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment; and if for every idle word, much more for every profane and wicked word. What an account will they have to make, all whose breath was corrupt, till their days were extinct; who always allowed themselves a boundless liberty of speech from under the dominion of religion and right reason, and never took care by repentance, and prayer, and reformation, to empty the measure of guilt they had filled, nor to balance the account in the blood of Christ which cleanses from all sin.
Think not that any profession of religion which you make will excuse you, or stand you in any stead in that day, while you thus contradict it, and give the lie to it, by the extravagances of your tongues. The word of God has laid it down as a certain rule, (Jam. 1:26) If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, that man’s religion is vain; and if your religion be vain, it will never bring you to heaven, and then I need not tell you whither your irreligion will bring you.
It will be the eternal doom of those who persisted in their tongue-sins, and would not be reformed, that their own tongues shall fall upon themselves, (Psalms 64:8) and if they do, they will sink them to the lowest hell, in which the remembrance of all the sins of an ungoverned tongue will be very bitter, and bring oil to the flames. We read of it, as the misery of condemned sinners, that they are tormented in a flame, where they have not a drop of water to cool their tongues. Words are soon spoken, and when they are spoken are soon gone, and yet words spoken against an earthly prince, though repented of, have cost many a man his life; and shall it then be difficult to us to believe, that words spoken against the King of kings, and never repented of, shall exclude men from his kingdom, and lay them forever under his wrath? It is commonly said, “Words are but wind,” but wicked words will prove such a mischievous wind, as will not only keep the soul out of the blessed haven of rest and happiness, but sink it into the gulf of everlasting destruction.
6 Reflect upon it with sorrow and shame, and great regret, if at any time you have, ere you were aware, spoken any wicked word. Keep conscience tender in this matter, and if, through the surprise of temptation, you any way offend with your tongue, let your heart presently smite you for it, humble yourselves greatly before God for it, pass it not over with a slight careless, ” God forgive me,” but be in pain and bitterness at the remembrance of it; abhor yourselves, as holy Job, when he was reflecting upon his tongue-sins, and repent in dust and ashes. If you can easily forgive yourselves what is past, it is to be feared you will easily be brought to do the like again.
Lastly, Pray earnestly to God for his grace, to keep you from sinning with your tongue. Though the tongue be an unruly evil, yet he can tame it who sets bounds to the proud waves of the sea, and once stopped the lions’ mouths. To him, therefore, you must apply yourselves by faithful and fervent prayer, and put yourselves under the conduct and custody of his grace, which will be sufficient for you if you seek it, and improve it, and go forth in the strength of it. Let David’s prayer be yours daily, (Ps. 141:3.) Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, keep the door of my lips; for without his assistance we can do nothing. Pray against provocations to these sins, and pray for wisdom wherewith to govern yourselves in the midst of provocations; Watch and pray, that either you may not be led into temptation, or, however, not overcome by it. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask it of God.
And now what shall be the success of this endeavor? Shall all our reasoning with you, in love to your souls, be slighted and laughed at like the foolish banter of your vain companions? Can we not prevail for a reformation of your language, when we plead the honor of God, the law of Christ, the good of your brethren, and the welfare of your own souls, and you have nothing to plead to the contrary but a foolish, wicked custom? I hope better things, and things that accompany salvation.
Your tongue is your glory, do not turn this glory into shame, but use it as your glory, by honoring God and edifying one another with it; so shall the tongue which is thus accustomed to the language of Canaan, sing Hallelujahs eternally in the New Jerusalem.