On Sin as a Corruption of Language
A Twilight Musing
By Elton Higgs
From the beginning of creation, God manifested Himself as a user of language, One Who spoke things into being and then named them. Each act of creation was a result of His Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). His next act was to separate the light from the darkness, and to name them, Night and Day (1:4-5). God continued this process for the next five days of creation, speaking into existence the Heavens, the Earth, and the Seas and giving them their generic names. In the process of creating plant and animal life, God designed each species to reproduce “according to their kind,” thus giving each of them unique characteristics that enabled them to be identified by name. Finally, on the sixth day of creation, God had a conversation with Himself (i.e., between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit): “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Thereby, the pinnacle of creation, human beings, were to be sentient, aware of themselves and of God, and, unlike the beasts of the field, capable of speech.
The first man, Adam, was given mastery over all the rest of God’s creation, and a part of that responsibility was to name the various animals (Gen. 2:19-20). In doing so, he manifested a key characteristic of his bearing the image of God; that is, he used language to define what had already been created, as God did for the Earth and the Seas and the Heavens. It was also by verbal commands that God informed Adam of his responsibilities and warned him against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17). In the unfallen state of the original creation, language was an emanation of the nature of God, with a direct, unambiguous, perfect relationship between speech and the referents of speech. There was no need for symbol or metaphor. God spoke and material things came forth exactly as He spoke them. Adam named the animals and that was their distinctive nomination. God gave His commands to Adam and Eve, and His words were fully comprehended and happily followed. Truth reigned in creation and gave perfect balance and coherence to the new world that God had pronounced good (Gen. 1:31).
All was well until by Satan’s power a lying serpent was introduced into the Garden of Eden. With his deceptive speech, he tempted Eve. “He said to the woman, ’Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden”?’” (Gen. 3:1b). When the woman replied that God forbade only eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Serpent made a direct assault on the veracity of the Word of God, so that the woman accepted the Serpent’s word rather than God’s Word. Satan used corrupted, lying speech to sow doubt about God’s perfectly truthful speech. After she had eaten the forbidden fruit, Eve in turn persuaded Adam to partake of the fruit as well. As Eve was condemned for listening to the Serpent rather than to God, so was Adam condemned for listening to his wife rather than to God (Gen. 3:17). As a result, humankind’s communion with God was broken because they accepted the perverted language of their evil Adversary rather than God’s truth.
It is significant that from then on, sin was compounded by the failing of humans to listen to, believe, and obey the Word of God, and by the continued corruption of language through lying. Cain ended up slaying his brother Abel because he would not listen to God’s warning against being angry with him (Gen. 4:6-7). Cain “spoke to his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) and lured him into the isolation of the field so that he could kill him there. Mankind became increasingly evil afterward, leading to God’s sending a flood to drown all the sentient life He had created except for Noah, his family, and selected animals. Several generations after Noah, mankind pridefully used their unity of language to raise an idolatrous tower to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). In response, God went down and confused their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7).
What follows in the Old Testament is the sordid account of God’s Word being rejected, even when He issued it in great detail in the form of the Law issued to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is significant that two of the Ten Commandments explicitly address sins of the tongue (taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness); in addition, implicit in honoring one’s parents is the obligation to listen respectfully to their words and not to speak ill of them (see Mark 7:10). Throughout the O. T. books of poetry and the Prophets, false speech is at the root of people’s rebellion against God.
A good number of the Proverbs inveigh against sins of the tongue, such as “crooked speech,” and “devious talk” (Prov. 4:23-24). Another proverb points out that
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:19-21). The prophets also regularly detail sins of speech among the wicked acts of the people. Isaiah excoriates those who tell such blatant lies that it’s like turning things on their head and despising the Word of God.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! . . . Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 5:20-24)
Jesus warned in his teaching that sinful speech is at the root of alienation from God and is subject to His judgment.
You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:34-37)
The epistle of James makes even more graphic the peril of the tongue as an untamable source of evil:
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
When God finally sent the remedy for all of this sinful disease into the world, His Son Jesus Christ, He was described as the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(Jn. 1:1-4, 14)
“The Word became flesh.” The Word that created the world in the first place--the essential and pure language of God if you will—brought light and salvation to the fallen creation that was corrupted by humans listening to the wrong word. Only by this supreme and ultimate sacrifice could the consequences of thousands of years of corrupted hearing and perverted speech be eradicated.
The book of Revelation presents a picture of perfectly restored language in the Kingdom of God. The book begins with messages from God the Spirit to seven churches (chapters 2 and 3); each message is introduced by the phrase “the words of” and ends with “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Chapters 4 and 5 depict the words and songs of praises to “him who is seated on the throne” (4:9) and to “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12). After a cascade of catastrophes to be brought by God on a wicked earth (chapters 6-18), we are ushered into the concluding chapters of Revelation in which God’s original purposes for the world He created are finally brought to fruition. Chapter 19 begins with more words of praise to God and preparation for the great wedding feast between the Lamb and His bride, the Church, those have been faithful to their redemption by the blood of the Lamb. But the Lamb of God is also a conqueror, and He is depicted in Rev. 19:11ff as the righteous Judge who makes war. We know this is the Son of God who lived, died, and conquered death, because His unique name is “the Word of God” (19:13).
We do well to remember the power of words for good and ill, and to realize that the gift of language we take for granted is God’s tool for communicating His will and our tool for spreading His Word about that will. We even have the power to share in God’s creative power of words by shaping language into beautiful poetry or narratives of history or imaginative fiction. In a practical way, we use language to share our understanding of God and the world He created. But like all gifts from God, language can be used responsibly only when sanctified by His Spirit. Like Isaiah when he saw God and heard His command to speak to the people (Is. 6:1-7), we are “of unclean lips” and are in need of an application of God’s purifying fire to our lips so that we may speak not merely our words, but His. Our enablement is incomplete now, but we have the hope of being eternally in the presence of the Very Word Himself.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)