Question: "What does it mean that the tongue of the wise promotes health (Proverbs 12:18)?"
Answer: People spend a great deal of time, energy, and money in search of ways to promote health and wellness. One technique they may overlook is found in the Bible: “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health” (Proverbs 12:18, NKJV).
Not only can the tongue promote health and healing, but Proverbs 18:21 tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” In these proverbs and many other Scripture passages, the word tongue is a metonymy that refers to our spoken words. Most modern Bible translations render Proverbs 12:18 in less figurative language: “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing” (NLT).
Proverbs 12:18 reads like an observation: “There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (CSB). In other words, some people break out in thoughtless and insensitive language, causing a spiritual or emotional wound like a knife piercing into the listener. In direct antithesis, wise people choose words that bring healing to others. A concise form of this Proverb might say, “Rash words hurt; wise words heal.”
There is deadly poison in thoughtlessly spoken words, and there is healing power in judiciously chosen words. The right words are like good medicine that can make a person well: “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). To use the metaphor of Proverbs 12:18, some people use their sword-like words to wound, give offense, promote corruption, and injure reputations. Those are the words of the reckless. In contrast is the tongue of the wise, whose wholesome words bring common sense, discernment, comfort, soundness, and benefit to others. Even when bringing reproof, the tongue of the wise is healing.
Despite its being a small instrument, the tongue holds tremendous power to produce both good and evil. James describes the harm we can cause to ourselves and others with our spoken words: “In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God” (James 3:5–9, NLT).
When James says, “No one can tame the tongue,” he’s not implying that there’s no hope for us and that Christians should give up trying to control their speech. On the contrary, James is teaching the need for divine help. No one has it within himself, without the grace of God, to master his tongue and keep it in line. Even when he thinks he has his tongue under control, a person will often allow an unwise or hurtful word to slip out. The tongue is truly unruly. Although difficult, taming the tongue is imperative: “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (James 1:26, NLT).
Believers in Jesus Christ are called to be wise; after all, it is the tongue of the wise that promotes health, and we should strive to speak life and healing rather than cursings and death: “For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong” (James 3:2–4, NLT).
To have the tongue of the wise that promotes health, believers must depend on power from God’s Holy Spirit. With God’s help, it is possible to gain victory over the terrible evil that carelessly spoken or malicious words can produce. While perfect victory over sin is impossible in this life, significant triumph is not only possible but essential (Romans 6; 8:2–3; Hebrews 7:25; 1 Peter 2:24; Titus 2:14).
Proverbs 10:11 says, “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life.” Wholesome, godly words flowing from our mouths have the power to stimulate mental, physical, and spiritual processes that can restore someone to a healthy, sound state. The tongue of the wise promotes health when God’s people speak life-giving, edifying, compassionate, beneficial, appropriate words.
If we are wise, we will seek the Lord’s help in controlling our tongues. We will let our speech always be gracious (Colossians 4:6) and use our words to promote health, healing, and life. As Paul taught, we should “let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV).