The Word of God gives to us detailed instruction in the life of godliness. Not only do we find in the Word of God the entire summary of the doctrines of the Christian faith, but we also receive instruction in the life of the Christian, the life of the Christian which flows out of that doctrine. We read, for instance, in I Thessalonians 4:1, 2, “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.” There we learn that the Word of God is for our instruction as to how we ought to behave, how old men, young men, women, wives, boys, and girls should live.
Again, in I Timothy 4:11, the apostle says to Timothy, “These things command and teach.” What things? The details of a practical godliness. Again, in II Timothy 3:16 we read, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
Instruction in righteousness that we stand in desperate need of is instruction in the use of our tongue. For it is the tongue, according to James 3, which is our measure and the standard of our religion. If any man, says James in chapter 1:26, “among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue,” this man’s religion is vain.
True religion will be found in bridling the tongue. David makes this a matter of prayer in Psalm 141. Because David is concerned that he live a life of practical godliness, he is very concerned about the use of his tongue. So he prays that God would sanctify his tongue, make it holy. He brings the needs that he has concerning his speech before the throne of God in order that, through prayer, he might receive grace to speak in a way that is pleasing to God. He says in verses 2 and 3: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” He is asking God to set a watch over his tongue.
Do you pray like that?
If you would open your Bible to Psalm 141, you would find that in the first two verses the psalmist brings general petitions to God in prayer, petitions that God would both hear him and give him assistance in his prayer. He says, “Let my prayer come before Thee, and help me as I offer up my prayers that my prayers might be acceptable, that they might be as the incense that the priests would burn in the temple. Lord, assist me as I pray. Help me. Before even praying, I am asking, O Lord, give me grace to pray so that my prayer might be a true prayer.” Do you pray like that?
But then, what is the first thing that he prays for? Verse 3: “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” He goes on in verse 4 to pray about his heart. Then, in verse 5, he continues to pray about patience under opposition and rebuke. But at the very top of his list of petitions is a prayer concerning his lips. He says, “Set a watch (or, literally, a guard, a sentry) over my mouth. Keep the door of my lips.” What he is asking God is that there be something to restrain what comes out of his mouth.
David was a military man. He uses here a figure from the battlefield. He speaks of a watch or of a guard – someone who was appointed to stay awake outside of a prison compound and keep watch so that none can come out of that prison compound who should not come out. David says, “Lord, place a guard, a sentry, at the door of my mouth. Guard my lips.”
We read in the Word of God that Moses was the meekest man who lived on earth. Yet he spoke unadvisedly with his lips. He said, “Hear now, ye rebels!” We read in the Word of God that Peter, one of the great apostles, cursed and swore. We read concerning Job, a man who was perfect and upright, that he cursed the day of his birth. David knew the wisdom of asking God for assistance. He knew his weakness. He understood that that weakness was especially in that words came out of his mouth which ought not. So he asks God, “Lord, give me a defense. Set a guard before my lips.”
Do you pray like that?
This was something that was very important to David.
Could it be that we sin so grievously with our tongues exactly because we have not prayed out of the earnest knowledge that David possessed, because it does not live in us how great the sins of our tongue are and how much we need God’s grace to protect our mouth? Is this one of the things you pray for each day? Do you pray, “Lord, set a watch over my lips,” as you go forth into the day thinking of all the circumstances and all the people whom you are going to confront, and the fact that you will deal with and respond to them with your tongue? Do you pray, with respect to that child, that boss, that fellow worker, your husband or wife, “Lord, set a watch before my mouth. Guard the door of my lips”? Or do you just let the door of your lips swing open on well-oiled hinges and words come out impelled by whatever emotion controls you at that moment? Do you pray that God restrain you?
I am going to suggest four sentries, four guards, that should be before our lips, guards that we should post, by the grace of God, at our mouth. They are these: truth, love, necessity, and wisdom.
If words want to come out of your mouth, the guard Truth says “Halt. I am truth. Do you answer to my name? Are you true?”
Perhaps those words would respond to the guard Truth, “Well, I’ve heard…. I’m not exactly sure if what I’m going to say is true, but I’ve heard….”
Then the guard Truth says, “Back in! Don’t come out. If you are to come out of the lips of the child of God, you must answer to my name! You must be true.”
If words would come out of your mouth now, and they say to the guard Truth, “Oh, yes, I’m true. What I’m going to say is true,” then the guard Love stands before those words and says, “Halt! Do you answer to my name? Are you spoken in love? Are you coming out because love demands that you come out? Are you speaking the truth in love? If you are not speaking the truth in love, back in. You don’t come out. Keep your mouth shut.”
Then the words come out and answer to Truth. They say, “Yes, we are true.” And they answer to Love and say, “Yes, we are going to be spoken in the love of God.” But then there is another guard that stands before those words. His name is Necessity. He steps forward and says, “Halt. My name is Necessity. Do you answer to my name? Is what you’re going to say necessary, or is it coming out because you would like simply to talk? You say, ‘Well, we’re just going to talk. We’re just going to be on the phone.’ Is it necessary for what you are about to say about that other person? Is it necessary for you to say that about that person?”
Finally Wisdom steps forth. He says to your words, “Is it the part of wisdom for you to speak these words at this time? Or would it be better for you to go back in for a few moments of further thought, or for a few hours or for a few days, until the appropriate time comes for you to say what you want to say?”
The words that come out of my mouth must answer to Truth, Love, Necessity, and Wisdom. Set a watch over my mouth. Do you pray for that watch, for that guard? You understand the need, do you not?
Now I have a question especially for the children who are listening – and I hope they are. Here is the question, a very simple question: When does a guard at a prison need to be alert? The answer is, obviously, all the time. Do prisoners who want to come out of the prison break out of the prison after announcing or telling the guard when they are going to come? Do they say, “Dear guard, please be awake at 3 A.M. in the morning because we intend to escape”? Of course not! They try to come out at the most unlikely moment, especially when the guard is tending to be the least watchful. So when does a guard need to be watchful? He needs to be watchful all the time. When do you need to watch the words that are coming out of your mouth? All the time! We are sometimes provoked and impatient. How quick the tongue can respond. We can be aroused and be quick to exaggerate. Be on your guard all the time. Watchfulness, says the Word of God, over the words of our lips is a constant necessity. It is more important that you be watchful over your words than over your investments, over your checkbook, and over your health. How careful, how alert we can be to watch over those things – investments, checkbook, and health. We are very careful about that. The Word of God says, “Exercise watchfulness over what comes out of your mouth all the time.”
Understand that prayer and watchfulness go together in the Bible. When David asked for help, when he asked for a guard for his mouth, he meant, “Lord, make me watchful.” And he asked God to do that through prayer. God makes alert. But that is the answer to prayer. Prayer’s answer is not, “Lord, deliver me from lust, evil friends, parties, ungodly music,” and all of a sudden, poof! By a wonder it happens. No. His answer is, by working in you His grace so that you will and you do of His good pleasure.
So, David says, “Set a watch. Set a watch, O Lord. May I be constantly watchful over my words.”
So the Scripture, Psalm 39:1, says, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.” The word “bridle” there is a muzzle, but over the mouth. You put a muzzle over a dog’s mouth so it cannot bite you. David saw himself in a situation where he did not trust himself to speak at all. So he says, “I will keep my mouth shut until that time when I am in control of what I am going to say. I am not going to shoot from the hip and aim later. I’m not going to talk first and then think. No, I will aim my words.”James 1:19, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Let your ears be trigger sensitive, ready to hear, and let your tongue be hesitant, not hair-triggered, like a well-oiled automatic pistol. But let it be slow to speak. Be swift to hear. Listen. Be ready. But be slow to speak. Proverbs 10:19, “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.” The person who opens his lips without any conscious effort to screen what is coming out will not lack sin. Sin will come out. But he that refraineth his lips is wise. Proverbs 17:27, “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.” Spare your words. Be a miser.
Now, children, think about the words you spoke this week to your sister, brother, playmate. Did those words answer to the four guards (Truth, Love, Necessity, Wisdom)? Suppose that for every word that was spoken correctly and pleasing to God you would receive a nickel, and that for every word this week that you spoke without thinking, words which produced arguments, stinging, hard words, words that cut, for every one of those words you had to pay a nickel, at the end of the week would you be wealthy or would you be in debt? Spare your words. Spend them wisely. Give them careful consideration that they might be the words of life, that they might be pleasing to your heavenly Father. Set a watch over your lips.
We must know the need of being watchful. We know that need, do we not, when it comes to bad breath. If you eat some garlic, you watch out when you open your mouth, because you are very concerned about what other people’s nostrils will smell. Words are much more important than odors, because words go down into the innermost part of a man and a woman. The effect of our words can last to eternity, for it is by our words that we build each other up to eternal life. How much more careful ought we then to be about the words that come out of our mouth than we are about bad odors that come out of our mouth. Set a watch. There are many words that simply have to go back in so that other words, fitly framed, may come out. Words which will build up and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let God’s Word put us in continual remembrance of our need for prayer, the prayer that our speech and words be holy.
Lord, I need these watchmen. I need the watchmen of Truth, Love, Necessity, and Wisdom. I want my mouth to be an instrument of Thy praise and of Thy truth. I do not want my words to be part of the vile and corrupt stream of human words that flow in a torrent today. I want my words to be part of that clear and crystal stream, the words which impart the life of Christ and the knowledge of God, that stream that proceeds from the throne of God.
Then, pray before you speak. Not think before you speak, but pray before your speak. Think of Nehemiah 2:4, 5. Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer. He had heard that the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins. His heart was burdened over the sins of his people. So he stood before the king with a sad countenance. We read, “Then the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad?” And the king went on to ask him, “For what dost thou make request?” We read, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king….” How long do you think that prayer of Nehemiah was? It lasted the length of time between the question that the king asked and the answer that Nehemiah gave. In that split second, or seconds, Nehemiah prayed, “Lord, help me. Let the words of my lips be acceptable to Thee as I now answer the king.” “I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king….” He spoke prayerfully. He spoke his words in the consciousness that he was in the presence of God, who would judge and know his heart and the accuracy of what he said.
Set a watch over my mouth. Keep the door of my lips when I get on the telephone, when I sit down to visit, when words begin to flow and other people become the subject of the conversation, when I am angry, impatient, happy, grieving, whenever. Set a watch over my lips.
Keep those four guards awake, Lord, with eternal vigilance: Truth, Love, Necessity, and Wisdom.
Lord, make my mouth Thy servant, that the words of my lips and the meditation of my heart may have Thy approval.
Is that your prayer? God make it ever more so!
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we repeat the words of David’s prayer: Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth. Keep the door of my lips. Amen.