What Does it Mean That ‘Life and Death Are in the Power of the Tongue’?

Words are containers of power that create action. They build up or they tear down. Words have the power to bring life or death physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This isn’t magical. It’s a matter of cause and effect.

Danielle Bernock
couple arguing, how to civil in an uncivil world

Proverbs 18:21 says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. What does it mean by “in the power of the tongue?”

This Scripture isn’t the only place we see life and death being in the power of the tongue. In fact, its connection to the issue of life and death is found throughout Scripture. This means it would be wise to understand the power of the tongue.

Untangle the Tongue

The Book of James tells us that “the tongue is a small part of the body” (James 3:5). But it goes on to talk about the tongue as if it has a personality, not like a physical part of the body. The key takeaway about the tongue is the words it produces. So, let’s look at Proverbs 18:21 like that.

Life and death are in the power of the words the tongue produces.

There are two things going on there. There are words, and there is a production of them.

We know what words are but how are they produced? Those words come from the heart before they land on a person’s tongue. So, now let’s look at the verse that way.

Life and death are in the power of the spoken words that come out of the heart.

James goes on to say how this looks.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).

When the Bible is talking about the power in the tongue, it’s talking about the words we say.

Revealing the Power

Words are containers of power that create action. They build up or they tear down. Words have the power to bring life or death physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This isn’t magical. It’s a matter of cause and effect.

1. Physical. Words can bring life through encouragement, or a kind and proper warning. For example, a person gives hope to a suicidal person, a doctor advises lifesaving surgery, or a severe weather warning advising what precautions to take.

The words of a judge or jury have the power to give or take away life. These words have more power than if the person is in fact guilty or not guilty.

Physical death can be the result of hateful words or words spoken in rage or anger.

2. Emotional. What we say has a profound impact on other people’s hearts.

A soothing tongue [speaking words that build up and encourage] is a tree of life, But a perversive tongue [speaking words that overwhelm and depress] crushes the spirit (Proverbs 15:4, AMP).

Some wound as they speak, like swords; but the tongues of the wise heal (Proverbs 12:18, BST).

A crushed spirit is a wounded soul within their emotions. A traumatized soul shuts down their emotions, in essence killing them. Words that carry life can bring the dead emotions back to life through healing.

3. Spiritual. Jesus came to give us life — abundant and eternal life.

The thief comes only that he might steal and might kill and might destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).

Here are words that lead to spiritual life or death.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved (Romans 10:9-10).

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5:11-12).

You can find many more scriptures on this subject.

You Have a Choice

The issue of life and death has always been a choice. From the beginning, God has always given humanity a choice between life and death.

In the Garden of Eden, he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the center for the choice between life and death.

Before Moses led the children of Israel into the Promised Land, they were offered the choice between life and death.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction (Deuteronomy 30:15).

When Israel was under siege by the Babylonians Jeremiah was sent to offer the choice between life and death.

Tell all the people, “This is what the LORD says: Take your choice of life or death!” (Jeremiah 21:8).

The power in your tongue is ruled by your choice. Humans are the only creation of God that have the ability to choose their words.

However, that can be difficult to master.

But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8).

If this is true where did the choice go? It’s still there. God has given us the way to choose life and tame our tongues.

How to Choose Life

The way to choose life and tame our tongues is deeply rooted in Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life, as well as the word made flesh.

He taught us that what we need to do to tame our tongues is pay attention to what is in our hearts. Although he is rebuking the religious leaders in Matthew, the truth is seen again in Luke.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say (Matthew 12:33).

A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart (Luke 6:45).

Being filled with him fills our hearts with life. Also, James and Paul tell us how to put the right things in our hearts.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:16).

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you (James 1:19-21).

God also helps us choose life and tame our tongue through the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and remind you of all that I said to you (John 14:26).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).

But you, dear friends, must continue to build your most holy faith for your own benefit. Furthermore, continue to pray in the Holy Spirit. Remain in God's love as you look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, which brings eternal life (Jude 20-21).

Life and death are in the power of the tongue and we can choose to speak life.

For further reading:

Why Does the Bible Have to Tell Us to Be Kind to One Another?

What Does it Mean to Praise God?

What Does it Mean to ‘Love Your Enemies’?

The Bible and Emotional Abuse

How Can I Guard My Heart?

How Do We Know What Truth Is?

What Is the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Fizkes


Danielle Bernock is an international, award-winning author, coach, and speaker who helps people embrace their value and heal their souls through the power of the love of God. She’s written Emerging With Wings, A Bird Named PaynLove’s ManifestoBecause You Matter, and hosts the Victorious Souls Podcast. A long-time follower of Christ, Danielle lives with her husband in Michigan near her adult children and grandchildren. For more information or to connect with Danielle https://www.daniellebernock.com/


Originally published February 24, 2021.