Sins of the Tongue
Jeremiah 23:37-40
Thus shall you say to the prophet, What has the LORD answered you? and, What has the LORD spoken?…

Great part of the prophetical writings is occupied with denunciations of vengeance on the Jews, for their obstinacy, ingratitude, and perverseness. Hence the message which a prophet was commissioned to deliver was frequently and appropriately named "The burden of the Lord," as being heavy with woes about to fall on the impenitent. But it would appear that the Jews not only gave no heed to the messages which they received, but were accustomed to turn them into ridicule. They were in the habit of coming to the prophet, and asking him if there were any new burden from the Lord; using the word in such a way as to indicate contempt, or to mark that they thought it good material for a jest. In consequence of this, God expressly prohibited the use of the word "burden." He forbade any who should come to inquire of the prophet, to put the inquiry into the shape, "What is the burden of the Lord?" but required a more simple form of speech, "What hath the Lord answered? and, What hath the Lord spoken?" Very probably it appeared to the Jews quite an indifferent thing what word they used; and they may even have said, that as they had not invented the word, but had derived it from God Himself, they could not be much to blame in persisting in its use. But God viewed the disobedience in a wholly different light, and considered it deserving of most severe vengeance. Whatever had been the crime with which God had been charging the Jews, He could not have followed up the accusation with the denunciation of sterner punishment: "Behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you, and I will forsake you, and the city that I gave you and your fathers, and cast you out of My presence." Now, this is our subject of discourse, the using a prohibited word drawing upon a nation the extreme vengeance of God. You must all be aware of the importance which in the Bible is attached to our words, and you may be disposed to wonder, if not to complain, that the utterances of the tongue should be made so indicative of character, and so influential on our portion for eternity. Our Saviour expressly declared, "By your words ye shall be justified, and by your words ye shall be condemned"; as though actions might be wholly put out of account, and words might determine our everlasting allotments. God gave Adam his vocabulary, as well as that fine intellectual equipment which might excogitate things worthy of being embodied in its magnificent expressions. We may fairly regard language, the power of expression, as the great distinction between man and the brute. Reason is often spoken of as constituting this distinction; but speech, itself equally an endowment from God, may more justly be regarded as separating the two. There is a much nearer approach to reason in the instinct which an animal often displays than there is to language in the inarticulate sounds which the animal utters. Wonderful power! that I can now stand in the midst of this assembly, and use the air which we breathe in conveying to every one the thoughts which are now crowding the hidden chambers of my own soul; that I can knock therewith at every man's conscience and at every man's heart — transfusing myself, as it were, into those impenetrable solitudes, filling them with the images that are passing to and fro in my own spirit, or causing kindred forms to rise or stir in hundreds that are around me. Every one condemns the prostitution of reason, because every one regards reason as a high and a palmy attribute, and therefore, when the intellect is unworthily employed, degraded to the ministering at the altars of scepticism or sensuality, there is an almost universal sentence of indignant reprobation; but language might be put before reason. It is reason walking abroad among the myriads of human kind; it is the soul, not in the secret laboratory, and not in its impalpable mysteriousness, but the soul amid the crowded scenes of life, formed and clothed, and submitting itself to the inspiration, and influencing the sentiments of a multitude. And if this be language, I know not why any one should be surprised that so great heinousness is attached to sins of the tongue. God "will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain." It is grievous to think of God irreverently; the soul should be His sanctuary, and to profane Him there is to aggravate contempt of God, by offering it at the shrine which He reared for Himself; but it is yet more grievous to speak of Him irreverently. But now let us further point out to you, that the Jews were guilty of turning solemn things into ridicule; and this of itself might suffice in vindication of the severity of their sentence. It is quite evident that scoffing and sneering were quite common in Jerusalem, and that the word "burden" was contemptuously used in the way of ridicule or joke. The Jews did not invent the phrase, or devise for themselves the applying it to the messages which God sent through His prophets. God Himself calls some messages burdens — an appropriate title, which well defined their chief subject-matter, for vengeance was the great theme of the prophetic announcements. But such a use of the word burden gave occasion for wicked comments and remarks. It were very easy, if we may use the expression, to pun upon the word; and without any concern for the awful significance which God had attached to the phrase, the Jews diverted themselves with the sayings, and asked the prophets for burdens, that they might turn them into ridicule, or provoke laughter at their expense. Now, let us suppose that jesting with solemn things was the head and sport of the offence. Was, then, the offence trivial? We might judge that it were, if opinion were to be guided by the frequency with which a light thing is done. How often is a scriptural expression ludicrously used! How often is a text, a saying, quoted in some jocular sense, or in some absurd application! There could be no readier way of practically bringing the Bible into contempt, and weakening or destroying its influence upon men, than the making ludicrous applications of its statements, or using its expressions to give point to a joke, or force to a witticism. What helps your laughter will not long retain your reverence. Let not, therefore, the temptation of saying a good thing, or of giving a laughable turn to certain words, prevail on you to use Scripture irreverently: you will hereby harden yourselves more than you can calculate, and you will give an untold advantage to your spiritual adversaries. It is to sharpen all the arrows of the devil, to sharpen your wits on the Bible. Be jocular with what else you will; but revelation, with its statement of everlasting things, be ever serious and reverent with this.

(H. Melvill, B. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Thus shalt thou say to the prophet, What hath the LORD answered thee? and, What hath the LORD spoken?

WEB: You shall say to the prophet, What has Yahweh answered you? and, What has Yahweh spoken?

A Contemptuous Use of the Phrase, The Burden of the Lord
Top of Page
Top of Page