“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
That’s George Burns at his acerbic best. And it’s true enough, that in a world so saturated with the concept of style over substance, simple honesty loses its premium value. That’s the claim made by the writer of Psalm 12. He begins:
“Help, Lord, for no one is faithful any more;
those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbour;
they flatter with their lips
but harbour deception in their hearts.”
The words “faithful” and “loyal” mean true, straightforward and honest. Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, Lord, and you have to weigh up how much you can trust what they say. As Peterson paraphrased it: “The last decent person just went down, All the friends I depended on gone.”
David Foster Wallace takes it further (in a piece about modern advertising):
“An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defences even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”
Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but it’s what’s going on in Psalm 12. Once you move the boundary stones of what’s true and what’s false, or good and evil, then you have no clear idea where you stand. Jesus rounded on the critics who said he was casting out demons by the power of Satan by showing where such serious illogic leads – to a place where God is excluded (Matthew 12:31).
Isaiah (6:5) expresses a similar experience: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips….”
In a counter-measure, the Psalmist contrasts the sincerity of God with the insincerity of the people who “doubletalk with forked tongues.”
“The words of the Lord are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible,
like gold refined seven times.”
The writer reaches for God because people had let him down. He felt as if even the godly people had stopped being godly and those committed to God had failed in their commitment. Elijah echoed the sentiment in 1 Kings 19 (“And I am the only one left”) as, of course, Jesus did himself.
So the Psalm contrasts the uncommitted and treacherous with a faithful God who is committed to the deliverance of His people.
It’s all to do with the words we speak. When we try to defend ourselves or work from our own mental and emotional resources, then it comes out as flattery, boasting or power-play. We butter other people up, or brag about ourselves, or try to manipulate to gain control -sometimes all within the same conversation! And it’s deeply inappropriate. This is the Psalmist’s reaction:
“May the Lord silence all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue – those who say,
‘By our tongues we will prevail;
our own lips will defend us – who is lord over us?’
The Psalmist was fed up with flatterers. He was disgusted by those who boasted. However, he paints an even uglier picture as he describes those who refuse to submit their speech to the Lord. They declare boldly- “We can say what we want and nobody can do anything about it!”
In the New Testament, James also disagreed that a person was free to speak in any way he wanted. He condemned those who spoke so freely as to offer curses and condemnation towards others in their ugly battle for supremacy within the church. (James 3:1-12)
Your tongue is intended to bless, not to curse. Every piece of sarcasm or frivolity -let alone every strand of gossip or half-truth- is not working for God. Can bitter water come out of a fresh spring?
The Psalmist tells us that a motivating factor in God taking action is when he sees the oppression of the weak and the suffering of those who are in need. It is a climactic moment when God begins to act in order to protect those who have sought to hurt us.
In this case, it isn’t death or destruction that God is seeking to protect the weak person from, but rather simple character assassination. In other words, God has a way of protecting a person’s reputation.
Psalm 37:1-8 has been a great comfort to me in times of character assassination. There the Psalmist declares that we should trust God and continue doing right and just not worry at all. Meanwhile, in the midst of the mudslinging, God is busy revealing the truth and the justice of our cause. If we allow ourselves to become angry and let our mouth loose, God is unable to properly defend us because we have taken on that responsibility for ourselves.
Lord, set a guard on my lips, that the words I speak may work for you. Make me a man of peace and truth, that I may create peace with my words, and that I may live out of the truth of who you are.
Sanctify my tongue that it may work to bless today.
In Jesus’ name.