“Holy” gossiping: Reflections on how the psalms view the misuse of the tongue
Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). Pastors are expected to uphold this commandment. Failure to maintain the standards of truthfulness and objectivity causes unforeseen damage, especially in cases that affect other people’s lives. Misuse of the tongue is probably a leading factor in causing disunity among the believers. The tongue counteracts many positive works in the community. Raising awareness about such misuse and seeking to prevent and solve its terrible consequences becomes an imperative for every person who serves the God of peace and truth.
Given the complexity of the issue, I believe that the Psalms’ reflections on the misuse of “tongue” inform, sharpen, and correct our understanding and practice. The Psalms are well qualified for this task, because “of all the sins in the Decalogue it is surely that of the ninth commandment which receives the fullest treatment” in the Psalms.1
What is "holy" gossiping?
For lack of a better term, the phrase “holy” gossiping in this article is used to depict soliciting and spreading false and misleading information about other people or other faiths with the purpose of hurting them. It depicts also intentional and unintentional misrepresenting of other persons’ or other faiths’ beliefs and stressing their perceived fl and misconceptions on certain matters at the expense of their other qualities and contributions. The label “holy” serves here to highlight the fact that much gossip is camouflaged by pious intentions and so easily mistaken for zeal or good. However, alleged pious appearance does not make gossiping less sinful; if anything, it makes gossiping more deceitful. Such misuse of the tongue tends to make its way into our communities. Knowingly or unknowingly, most of us become purveyors or victims of “holy” gossiping—from passing easy judgments on other people to perpetuating false stereotypes about other faiths and nonbelievers.
The Psalms provide numerous descriptions of the activities of purveyors. They lie (Pss. 4:2; 5:6; 12:2; 119:69), speak cordially with their neighbor but secretly devise malice (Pss. 28:3; 55:21), spread false witness (Pss. 27:12; 35:11, 20), twist the victim’s words (Ps. 56:5), ridicule (Pss. 22:6; 35:16; 69:12; 119:51), and accuse and threaten (Ps. 7:3–5, 8; 109:25; 119:4).
The evils of "holy" gossiping
Three metaphors in the Psalms illustrate the gruesome nature of the purveyors of gossip. (1) The purveyors are often compared with a hostile army that attacks the helpless and surrounds them with devastating forces (Pss. 3:6; 27:3; 55:18; 56:1; 59:1–9). (2) They are compared with hunters and fishers who set traps and nets, dig hidden pits, sit in the dark, lurk and lie in wait, and shoot their deadly arrows (Pss. 7:15; 9:15; 31:4; 35:7, 8; 64:4; 140:5). (3) They are compared with ravenous beasts that suddenly spring on a person (Pss. 7:2; 22:12, 13; 27:2; 35:21).2
The psalmists often use the imagery of animals to illustrate the vicious nature of gossip. Some of those creatures are a lion (Pss. 22:21; 57:4; 58:6), dogs (Pss. 22:16, 20; 59:6, 7, 14, 15), and a serpent (Pss. 58:3–5; 140:3). These animals are noted for their deadly mouths. Their threatening roar, bark, and hiss and their awful teeth that tear and kill remind the psalmist of the slanderers’ work. “[T]he psalmists’ choice to deploy specifically animal metaphors within the rhetoric of complaint sets in stark relief the imminent danger the ‘wicked’ pose to society and the innocent individual.”3
The metaphors of hunting tell of the scheming and luring character of gossiping. The victim usually does not become aware of the danger before it is too late (Pss. 64:5; 140:5; 141:9). A swarm of bees (Ps. 118:12), a herd of bulls (Ps. 22:12), and a pack of dogs (Ps. 22:16) highlight the collective work of the enemies. The malicious talk is compared with swords, spears, and arrows to underline its violent nature and terrible consequences (Pss. 55:21; 57:4; 58:7; 59:7; 64:2–6).
Many purveyors of gossip live in self- deception, believing that their deeds will go unpunished by God (Pss. 10:11, 13; 50:19–21; 64:5; 73:11). However, the psalms relentlessly denounce them and tell of God’s impending judgment (Pss. 12:3–5, 7; 15:2, 3; 50:21, 22; 59:12, 13; 75:2).
Unmasking "holy" gossiping
Disclosing “holy” gossiping poses a great challenge. How do the Psalms help in raising a new awareness? Consider a few examples from the Psalms.
First, “holy” gossiping usually denies any hope for the victim and undermines the victim’s experience with God. Israel’s enemies readily used Israel’s misfortunes as an opportunity to blaspheme God’s name and to cause humiliation and pain to God’s people (Pss. 73:8–11; 74:10, 22). The enemies are overjoyed to spread the word that God has forsaken the psalmist when he is in distress (Pss. 3:2; 22:8; 71:11). Though the psalmist also feels that God has made him see trouble, he trust- ingly reaches out to God’s grace that will restore his life again (Pss. 38:1–3, 15–18, 21, 22; 41:4; 71:20, 21). The enemies, however, wish to portray the psalmist’s present sorrow as beyond any repair (Pss. 35:15, 16; 38:19, 20; 41:5–9; 71:11, 13). They exaggerate the victim’s fault and insinuate lies for no reason (Pss. 35:11, 19; 38:19; 69:4). Malice and jealousy drive the work of the purveyors, and they rejoice in their victim’s distress (Pss. 35:19, 26, 27; 38:16).
Second, Israel’s enemy asks, “ ‘Where is their God?’ ” (Ps. 115:2). The question is meant to undermine the power of Israel’s God and drive the people into despair. It implies that the Israelite religion is false and ineffective (Ps. 94:4–7). Notice that the enemy spreads the word to others. It is “their God” and not “yourGod” like in a dialogue (Ps. 115:2). “Many are saying of me: ‘God will not deliver him,’ ” and not “tome” like in a dialogue (Ps. 3:2, NIV; emphasis supplied). Gossipers evade dialogue because they do not seek answers and reconciliation but use the opportunity to prove their point and destroy the victim’s reputation (Pss. 13:4; 35:21, 25; 41:5–8). The Psalms demonstrate that malicious talk can easily escalate into violence and persecution (Pss. 31:13; 74:3–8).
A third example of the subtlety of malicious talk is the Babylonians’ request of the Judean captives to sing the songs of Zion (Ps. 137:3). This case implies hidden motives and scheming. The captors’ alleged desire to share in the Judean’s story turns to be a plot to torment the people by bringing up the obvious discrepancy between the glorious Zion in Israel’s hymns and the present Zion lying in ruins. The captors’ request is designed to humiliate the Judeans and pronounce victory over their God. Sadly, today some opportunities for reconciliation and fellowship are spoiled by some people’s plotting to humiliate other persons or other faiths and pronounce victory of their own views over theirs.
Fourth, one does not have to agree with the other in everything to refrain from malicious talk. The Psalms denounce the idols of other nations, but this is always done to acknowledge the universal character of God’s reign, namely to highlight the truth that the Lord is the God of the whole earth and of all nations (Pss. 86:8–10; 96:4, 5; 97:6, 7; 115:3–15). It is never done to praise the good in the psalmists or in their community, but the good in God, who gives life to all. The Psalms never demean but always uplift others in the vision of a grand worship of the sovereign Lord of all creation (Pss. 33:8; 67:3–5; 96:7–11; 117:1, 2; 145:21; 148:11–13; 150:6). Later, we will see that the psalmists’ imprecatory language against the enemies is uttered only in God’s presence. The Psalms uplift God’s sovereign justice that ensures the well-being of all creation (Ps. 33:5) and acknowledges that evil is ultimately self-destructive (Pss. 34:21; 35:7, 8; 37:14, 15).
One day in church, a boy spoke about his neighbors whose religious practice was different from his family’s own. A girl wondered why his neighbors did not do the things the way they did. The boy replied: “It is because they do not read the Bible, like we do!” Adults often laugh at children’s blunt statements, but do we not basically say the same things sometimes? Even if the neighbors’ practice was not biblical, the boy’s answer reflects the core of “holy” gossip. First, it supposes the neighbors’ habit of not reading the Bible. Second, it praises our habit of reading the Bible, rather than promoting the goodness of God’s truth. Third, it endorses the breach between “them” and “us” (“us” being the better ones), rather than reaching out in love. These tasks are challenging even for mature believers. The Psalms caution us to speak of others with greater sensitivity and fairness and to look for better ways of sharing our opinions and beliefs. One step toward that goal is admitting and rejecting any form of “holy” gossiping.
Dealing with "holy" gossiping
We shall not discuss here the steps that the minister and the community should take in making things right. Rather, we shall look for some answers that will help the victims. The psalmists were often victims of slandering and scheming and so have much to say about one’s conduct in such situations.
The first thing that we notice in the Psalms is the victims’ acknowledgment of the wrong done to them. Resentment and sorrow over the situations are expressed “with perfect freedom, without disguise, without self-consciousness, without shame— as few but children would express it today.”4 Some modern readers are appalled at the psalmists’ language (Pss. 35; 64; 109). However, “if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim.”5 (The psalmists protest against injustice, violence, and abuse.) Their language is passionate because they take right and wrong more seriously than we do sometimes.
Second, the psalmists acknowledge God’s sovereignty by submitting their grief and rage to Him and leaving the vengeance to Him. The psalmists’ imprecatory language against the enemies is uttered only in God’s presence and not before other people whom it does not concern (Ps. 39:1–4). Only God’s justice can fully rectify the victims’ distress (Pss. 9:8; 75:7; 94:2). However, “giving the outrage over to God does not mean giving the responsibility of the community over to God,”but “moving past the need for human vengeance and moving on to working to make sure that the source of what brought on the imprecatory words never happens again.”6 In the case of gossiping, one of the ways of making sure that it never happens again is raising awareness of its many subtle forms and grave consequences. Ministers should intentionally engage in this through preaching, giving seminars, strengthening the fellowship of the community, and providing counseling for healing and reconciliation. The individuals who experienced the awful impact of slandering can become a positive force in their surroundings and help others. Psalms are prayers and so do not necessarily reveal everything about dealing with the problem. Other biblical texts provide additional practical steps (e.g., Matt.18:15–20).
Third, in giving their hurt and resentment over to God, the psalmists experience the transformative power of divine grace (Ps. 31:20–24). The shift from lament to praise is evident in many psalms of lament (Pss. 13; 22; 73; 77). Sharing their innermost sentiments with God strengthens the psalmists’ trust in divine justice and deliverance, and the psalmists are able to offer praise amidst trials. Yet, in some psalms, lament dominates to the end (Pss. 38; 74; 88). The psalmists know that one need not pretend in divine presence. “The faith expressed in the lament is nerve—it is a faith that knows that honest facing of distress can be done effectively only in dialogue with God who acts in transforming ways.”7 The fact that lament is spoken to God tells of active, insistent hope in divine intervention (Pss. 74:2, 22; 88:1). Hope involves patient waiting for divine vindication and healing (Pss. 5:3; 37:7–13; 38:15).
Preventing "holy" gossiping
On the prevention of “holy” gossiping, the psalmists offer a strategy that involves at least four steps.
First, they call the sufferer to “refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret,” because “it leads only to evil” (Ps. 37:8, NIV). The psalmist resolves here not to pay back the purveyors with the same measure, but shares his complaint with God (Pss. 38:13–15; 39:1–4). The acknowledgement that God is the ultimate Judge should keep everyone from doing anything that would put them in the company of the wicked (Ps. 34:12–14).
Second, the Psalms remind us that we can manage our tongue only with God’s grace. “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3, NKJV). The psalmist alludes here to the guarding of the city gates. In ancient times, the city gates protected the city (Josh. 2:5, 7; 2 Chron. 33:14). The gatekeeper had a crucial role because he was the first to detect danger and raise an alarm to the city (2 Sam. 18:24). Taking possession of the city gates meant owning the city (Gen. 22:17). The imagery also points to the temple gates that were guarded by the Levites and prevented anything impure from entering the temple (1 Chron. 26:1–19; 2 Chron. 8:14). The psalmist prays that the words of his mouth are always pleasing to God (Ps. 19:14).
Third, “the Psalms themselves are examples of the positive use of the tongue for the praise of God. This makes its negative use to destroy other people especially reprehensible.”8 The psalmists’ praise strengthened theirs and others’ faith in God, supported the fellowship of the believers, and brought honor to God (Ps. 22:22–28; 35:27, 28).
Fourth, the Psalms never take misuse of the tongue lightly. So should we, who seek to serve the One whose words are always pure and reviving (Pss. 12:6; 119:103).
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1 Gordon J. Wenham,“The Ethics of the Psalms,”in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. David Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 186. See, for example, Pss. 4:2; 5:6, 9; 10:7; 12:2; 15:2–4; 27:12; 28:3; 34:13; 35:11, 20; 50:19, 20; 52:2–5; 55:9–11, 21; 59:12; 64:3–5; 66:13, 14; 69:4; 73:8, 9; 101:5; 109:2; 120:2, 3; 140:3; 144:11.
2 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 130, 131.
3 William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 141.
4 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 23.
5 Ibid., 30.
6 Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford,“The Theology of the Psalms,”in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods inContemporaryScholarship,ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 91, 92.
7 Walter Brueggemann, ThePsalmsand the Life of Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 69.
8 Wenham,“The Ethics of the Psalms,”187.