The Improper Use at the Tongue

By Ron Daly

God’s word warns against the improper use of the tongue in both the Old and New Testaments. James chapter 3 should be read and studied regularly as it shows how serious the misuse of the tongue is. James presents the tongue as “a little member that boasteth great things” (v. 5), “a fire, the world of iniquity among our members, which defiles the whole body, which sets on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell” (v. 6), “a restless evil, full of deadly poison, that no man can tame” (v. 8), “Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men” (v. 9), a member which “out of the same mouth cometh forth blessings and cursing” (v. 10), a member of the body which is used for evil purposes by those who are not characterized by the wisdom which is from above, but who are filled with I ‘bitter jealously and faction in the heart” (v. 14), “wisdom not from above, but which is earthly, sensual, devilish; and filled with confusion and every vile deed” (vv. 13-18). Please, consider with me some of the important texts and words in the Old and New Testaments which relate to our subject of study.

Old Testament Words and Passages

Backbiter. There are two Hebrew words which are translated “backbiter.” The first is ragal, and means “one who goes about maliciously as a slanderer, one who speaks maliciously about another” (cf. Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 920, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, p. 756). This word is used by David in (Psa. 15:1-3), where it is written, “Yahweh, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy Holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh truth in his heart; He that slandereth (ragal) not with his tongue, Nor doeth evil to his friend, Nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor. . . “

The second word is sether, and it means “a secret slanderer, or hidden gossip, one of sly tongue” (Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, p. 26, Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 712, Genesius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, p. 597). Proverbs 25:23 says, “The north wind bringeth forth rain; So doth a backbiting (sether) tongue an angry countenance.” The point of the inspired writer is, no one is made happy to discover that he has been the object of hidden slander and gossip!

Mouth. The Hebrew word is peh. Proverbs 13:3 says, “He that guardeth his mouth keepth his life; But he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.” The teaching of this text is “the one who opens his mouth” speaks on every subject, gives his opinion on every matter, even those things which he does not know; and even if he does know whereof he speaks, he should not for the things about which he speaks are none of his business! And, by “opening wide his lips” by engaging in gossip, destruction will be his end. As an old commentator wrote, “God gave us two eyes, and two ears, but one tongue fenced with teeth!”

Slander(er). The Hebrew word dibbah, meaning “Whispering, defamation, evil report, calumny, to spread a rumor” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 179, Genesius, Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, p. 184). “He that hideth hatred is of lying lips; And he that uttereth a slander (dibbah) is a fool” (Prov. 10:18). Another Hebrew word is lashan which means, “to tongue or make tongue, to use the tongue boldly, to slander, to backbite” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 546, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, p. 443). “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbor, him will I destroy: Him that hath a high look and a proud heart will I not suffer” (Psa. 101:5). This text describes a person of a triple tongue, (1) The man who is slandered, (2) The one to whom the slanderer communicates the slander, and (3) The man who is himself the slanderer. Hence, three deadly wounds are inflicted!

Talebearer. This word comes from two Hebrew words. The first is nirgan which means, “a chatterer, a garrulous person; hence a whisperer, calumniator, a backbiter” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 920, Gesenius’ Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon, p. 567). In Proverbs 18:8 it is stated, “The words of a whisperer are as dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts. ” The teaching is that the busybody is a meddling croaker whose words are dangerous because they are eagerly listened to by others! The second word is rakil which describes a “slanderer, defamer, detractor” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 940, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, p. 769). In Leviticus 19:16, Yahweh said, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor: I am Yahweh.” Proverbs 11:13 says, “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets; But he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth a matter. ” Proverbs 20:19 says, “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets; Therefore company not with him that openeth wide his lips.” The teaching is, A walking busybody is one who trades in scandal, revealing what has been confided in him, and told in confidence; he is a newsmonger! A gossiper needs two things in order to thrive and they are: (1) someone or something to gossip about, and (2) someone to gossip to. We should supply neither! Where there is no tale receiver, there will be no talebearer.

Whisperer. Again the Hebrew word nirgan which means “a backbiter.” Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse man scattereth abroad strife; And a whisperer separateth chief friends.” The ambition of the backbiter is to destroy friendships by spreading rumors, scandal, and unfounded allegations, lies, or half-truths in order to create distrust and suspicion.

New Testament Words and Passages

Whisperer. The Greek word is psithurismos which means “to speak into one’s ear, secret slander” (cf. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 676, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich’s Lexicon, p. 901). Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:20 that he did not want to find the saints in Corinth with “strife, jealousy, wraths, factions, backbitings, whisperings (psithurismoi), swellings, tumults.” Also see Romans 1:29.

Backbite. The Greek word is katalalos which means “to slander, to speak evil of” (cf. Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich’s Lexicon, p. 413, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 333). This is listed among those things which are objects of the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18-32).

Busybody. The Greek word is periergazomai which means “one who meddles with, or bustles about other people’s matters, one who is unnecessarily inquisitive about the affairs of others” (cf. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 502, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich’s Lexicon, p. 652). In 2 Thessalonians 3:11 Paul wrote, “We hear of some among you idle, that work not at all, but are busybodies.” See also 1 Thessalonians 4:11.

Meddler. The Greek word is allotrioepiskopos which means, “an overseer of business belonging to another, possibly an informer of other’s affairs” (cf. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 29, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon, pp. 39,40). In 1 Peter 4:15 the apostle commands, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil-doer, or as a meddler in other men’s matters.”

Prating. The Greek word is phluareo which means “to bring unjustified charges against, malicious gossip, unfounded rumors” (cf. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 655, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich’s Lexicon, p. 870). According to 3 John 10, Diotrephes was “prating” against John and the brethren.

Tattler. The Greek word is phluaros which means “a babbler, one who bubbles or boils over (with words), one who gossips” (cf. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 655, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich, p. 870). In 1 Timothy 5:13, Paul writes of young women who “learn to be idle, going about from house to house: and not only idle, but tattlers (phluaroi) also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.”

Distinguishing Between Gossip, Whispering, and Backbiting

How Do We Know What May Properly Be Spoken or Asked?

Gossip is wrong because it involves idle talk, chatter, verbal nonsense, news spread by a tattler, rumors, information without fact or substance. The word as a noun refers to the person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors, especially about the private affairs of others. It is not wrong to inquire about or into the spiritual or physical well-being of others. It is not wrong to receive information about the spiritual and physical state of others. It is right to be concerned about brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have apostolic precedent for this (Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 1:27; 1 Cor. 1:11).

The following questions with the appropriate answers are critical in assisting us in determining what should and what should not be spoken; what should and what should not be heard. (1) Will I help or hurt the person’s character by repeating this information? (2) Would it be better left untold, even if true? (3) Will anyone be edified if I repeat this information? (4) What is my motive for telling it? (5) Am I really seeking to build or destroy, to hurt or heal? (6) Will I cause unnecessary suspicion to surround the person by repeating the information? (7) Is the information true? (8) Is there any basis for it? (9) Is it rumor or innuendo? (10) Will anybody be made better by telling it? (11) Is the information about something which has been made right with God and man? (12) Is the information about something which has been repented of and stopped? If so, shouldn’t it be left alone? (13) Will I help the one who is spreading the rumors by receiving what he is telling? (14) Do I want to be an accessory in the commission of a sin against another person by receiving information which I should not be privy to? (15) Will I feel better towards the one being talked about by hearing the idle talk being spread about him by a gossiper? (16) Am I assisting in strengthening the character of one whom I allow to gossip about others? (17) Or am I becoming a party to their evil doings? (18) Can I with good conscience say that I am a friend of one from whom I receive information about the private affairs of others? (19) Am I responsible for the unfaithfulness of others when they have been hardened by the deceitfulness of sin through my assistance by spreading unfounded charges about them, or by listening to others do the same? (20) How many people have left active service to Christ by my going to them with unfounded charges and allegations received from others?

What Should One’s Attitude He Toward Those Who Backbite, Whisper, and Gossip?

Do not fuel the fire of such a poisonous snake. Do not be a tale receiver. Do not let “the dog bring a bone, and he will not carry one away!”

Tell those who are guilty of such a sin to mind their own business, do their own work, and stay home (1 Thess. 4:11).

Do not associate with a gossiper (Prov. 20:19; 2 Thess. 3:14-15). Stay as far away as possible from such a person, for they are like rodents that scour dump sites, looking for any piece of dead refuse which the maggots have not already consumed!

Expose by name, all those who persist in this vicious sin, so that the weak and unsuspecting will know who they are in order to rebuke and avoid them (Eph. 5: 11; 3 Jn. 9-11).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 15, pp. 464-465
August 6, 1992