By Michael E. Brooks
“The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ then they would say to him, ‘Then say, “Shibboleth!”‘ And he would say, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites” (Judges 12:5-6 NKJV).
Shova, one of the cooks at Khulna Bible College greeted me after devotional one morning with the question (in the Bengali language), “Have you eaten breakfast?” I responded in Bengali, “Gi” (“Yes”).
She and the others in the room laughed and asked “Are you a Muslim?” I had been taught that Gi means yes, but whoever told me that had not explained that in common practice in Bangladesh, Islamic people use that term; others normally say “Eh”. By my choice of words, I sent the message that I was of the Muslim religion.
In the Old Testament story of a battle between the men of Gilead and the men of Ephraim, when the defeated army of Ephraim attempted to retreat back into their home territory, their accent made them vulnerable to the soldiers of Gilead who guarded the crossing points of the river. They denied their identity, but their speech betrayed them.
One of the games I play while traveling is to attempt to identify the country of origin of people whom I overhear by their language or accent. I am by no means expert in the multitude of languages, dialects, and accents in this world, but it does not take a lot of experience to begin to recognize certain ones. One’s background is often revealed by his speech.
When Nehemiah governed Judah, after the Jews’ return from captivity in Babylon, many of the people (men) intermarried with women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab.
Nehemiah comments, “And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people” (Nehemiah 13:23-24).
Nehemiah’s concern is not so much that the children were of mixed descent. Far more troubling is the revelation that their loyalty and interest was to the other linage, not Israel.
Implied is that if they were learning only the language of their mother, they would also absorb her religion, culture, and moral views. There would be no adherence to faith in the God of Israel or obedience to his laws. Their choice of language told much about their upbringing.
In the New Testament we are reminded constantly of the importance of our speech.
“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:29-30).
Our relationship to the Holy Spirit is confirmed or denied by the content of our speech. What a powerful lesson.
James reminds us:
“Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (James 3:10-12).
I once set out vines which I had purchased as Concord grapevines. When they began to bear fruit, the grapes were small and bitter, obviously wild grapes. The company which sold the vines quickly refunded their price. The fruit identified the parent (Matthew 7:18-20).
So do our words identify the heart or spirit which gives them utterance. A Godly spirit does not produce cursing, gossip, lies, or filthy speech. Rather, such a spirit speaks things which encourage and bring glory to God.
The path to our eternal home is perpetually watched and guarded against sin. Many may be refused entrance in part because of their speech. Let us guard our tongues and always seek to gladden the Spirit by which we are sealed.