Though many of the biblical proverbs speak of the power that lies at the ready in the use of words, few delineate the tongue’s power as boldly as the saying found at Proverbs 15.4:
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4 NIV)
The italicized words represent a difficulty faced by translators of the text, for the Hebrew expression understood here as ‘a tongue of healing’ can as easily depend upon a Hebrew root of similar appearance that would offer up a translation like ‘a gentle tongue’. The NRSV, for example, reads the proverb in this way:
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4 NRSV)
The first translation, then, understands the tongue with respect to its healing capacity, the second in connection with its manner of employment.
When we come to what the proverb wants to teach us about such a tongue, no difficulties impede: it is (like) a tree of life.
The way one speaks, we are told, deploys the hidden but powerful dynamic of life. ‘Tree of life’ imagery in the Bible lays hand to twin notions. On the one hand, one admires the tree for its own powerful manifestation of persistent and sometimes luxuriant life. On the other, one values such a tree because the fruit it produces feeds people.
Both reasons to admire such a tree are in view here. Both sketch out a picture of what wise speech is and does.
The proverb displays its customary reluctance to see just one side of a story, especially if that tale is so uniformly positive as to fuel cheap utopias. Sadly, one might feel, there is usually more to tell.
The same organ that can produce such life when used with the disciplined care for others that is the sage’s way can just as well be assigned to a destructive mission. When deceit animates this powerful muscle, it is more than strong enough to crush the human spirit.
Now the proverb plays off the perverse potential of the tongue against either its medical value or its gentleness as these are described in the first line.
Between nose and chin there lies in ambush an army of possibilities.
It is like walking around with a super-hero in one’s mouth. We wonder whose side he will turn out to be on.