I said, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent, not even saying anything good. But my anguish increased; my heart grew hot within me.
“If you don’t have anything nice to say…”
I would guess most of us can finish that line. Maybe you learned it from your mother or father. Maybe it was a cautionary word from a teacher or a pastor. Maybe you learned it from Thumper the rabbit in Bambi! Perhaps it was a line gently spoken to you in love…or perhaps it was ironically spewed out in frustration or anger! Some of us took those words to heart, others ignored them entirely. A few of us may have made it our excuse for saying nothing at all…ever!
Oh yeah, and if you haven’t heard that phrase before, it ends with “…don’t say anything at all.”
There is plenty of wisdom communicated in that phrase. Certainly, saying nothing is better than saying something hurtful, unkind, or untrue. But what does it mean if we “don’t have anything nice to say?” Isn’t that a sad state of affairs? Is that even ever true?
David begins Psalm 39, not with a vague warning or a piece of sage advice, but with a confession—a story from his personal experience. David had made a vow to keep “utterly silent,” hoping perhaps, that his silence would keep him from saying something he shouldn’t say, or something that might be twisted and turned against him. He reasoned that it was better to say nothing at all than to risk saying the wrong thing. He had been hurt in the past, and he wasn’t going to make himself vulnerable again. “If I just keep my mouth shut, things will go better for me this time.” But David soon discovered that bottling things up isn’t a good long-term strategy.
“But my anguish increased; my heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue…” (Ps. 39:3)
A hot heart bubbling over a burning fire is a bad combination! Keeping the lid on a boiling kettle will eventually lead to an explosion. Things weren’t better bottled up. So, David decides to take the lid off…to unmuzzle his mouth and end his silence. But notice to whom he directs his first words…God. The final ten verses of Psalm 39 are a prayer of humble confession and petition. Saying nothing at all wasn’t the solution. Saying the right thing at the right time to the right people is the only way to relieve the pressure. There is far too much power and potential in words to simply stay bottled up.
The Bible is all about the power and potential of words—both positive and negative words. David is perhaps referencing his own words of wisdom in Psalm 34:
“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” (Psalm 34:12-13).
James, the brother of Jesus, echoes David’s words 1000 years later:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 1:19, 3:8)
But in spite of the dangerous power of words, there is also a great potential for good. God spoke the world into existence with a word (Psalm 33:6); Jesus was the Word of God that became flesh (John 1:14, ); Paul teaches us that it is through a combination of belief and words we are saved (Romans 10:9-10) and that it is truthful, loving words that build up the church (Ephesians 4:15). John tells us that the word of our testimony will triumph over the power of Satan! (Revelation 12:10-11)
David’s mistake wasn’t in filtering out the destructive words, it was in muzzling the wonderful words that bring forgiveness, freedom and life.
So, “if you don’t have anything good to say…” then perhaps you should keep your mouth shut. But is that ever true? If we belong to God—if we are followers of Jesus—then we DO have something good to say! Not only something we CAN speak, but something we MUST speak. We must speak our deepest struggles and desires to God in prayer; we must speak encouraging and challenging words to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must speak words of healing and deliverance and hope to everyone around us. Keeping those good words to ourselves will only lead to spiritual anguish, frustration and explosion.
This is still the season of Easter! We are still invited to live in the reality, and the hope, and the confidence of the resurrection. And we are consumed by our need to share those powerful words of life with the world around us, whether we realize it or not. Jesus Christ is that Word of life. So, find the life…celebrate that life…and share the life you’ve found in Jesus. And always stay thirsty for him!