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Job’s friend Zophar thought he knew all about snakes. But, like many superficial observers of nature, he was quite wrong. He mistook the forked tongue of the viper, a venomous snake, for the poison fangs. The wicked man, he confidently asserted, shall suck the poison of asps; the viper’s tongue shall slay him (Job 20:16).

The viper’s tongue cannot kill. It is a harmless organ which the snake uses to sense its environment. The fatal strike is carried out by two hollow fangs, designed like hypodermic needles, and also equipped with extremely powerful muscles so that these efficient death dealing instruments can be driven deep into the victim’s tissues, blood vessels and nerves. Unlike Zophar, David got it right: the poison of snakes is under their lips (Psalm 140:3 quoted in Romans 3:13).

The bushmaster of the Caribbean islands (Lachesis muta) may lay claim to be the world’s deadliest serpent. It is the world’s largest viper. Specimens ten feet long are not uncommon in Trinidad, and some over twelve feet long have been captured by oil workers in the remote rainforest. The twin hypodermic fangs may be nearly an inch and a half long. A human victim may succumb to a bite in ten minutes if a major blood vessel is punctured. One ounce of bushmaster venom can kill ten thousand men.

A spider’s venom

But for sheer potency, bushmaster venom cannot compare with the incredible mixture manufactured by the female West Indian Black Spider (Latrodectus mactans). It is mind-boggling to consider that a quantity of venom so small as to be only visible with a powerful microscope, injected by this tiny spider into a human with a body two thousand million times its own volume, can and will in a few minutes affect every organ and all parts of a person’s system, quickly stopping heart and respiration and paralysing the nerves. The arachnologist Rod Preston-Mafham describes the effects that overcome the hapless victim: intense pain throughout the whole body, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, profuse sweating, muscle spasms, and finally breathing difficulties.

Our tongues contain venom

James tells us that our tongues can be as deadly as a viper’s lethal strike or a spider’s sting: it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (3:8). Many sad episodes in the history of our body derive from brothers failing to follow the advice of James. The poison of the human tongue is a cocktail of scandal, evil speaking, unproven charges made without evidence, hasty unkind words, and outright libel. When this poison is injected into the body of Christ, it can produce symptoms very similar to those of Latrodectus. I have watched a beloved elderly sister reading a ‘poison pen’ letter start to sweat profusely, experience dizziness, and have breathing difficulties.

Venom is the secret weapon of the “devil.” Tragedy inevitably ensues when it is used by saints. Over the last few years, I have asked many brothers in Christ if they felt justified in using this weapon. Most of them responded that they did feel justified when they felt threatened or when circumstances required that they cry aloud and spare not (Isaiah 58:1). Personally, I feel that the Lord Jesus finds this attitude very, very sad. Moreover, I think that he will hold such brothers to account. James again (he always hits the point, doesn’t he?): he shall have justice without mercy, who has showed no mercy (2:13). In my opinion, our greatest challenge in trying to live the truth today, and the greatest crisis facing our brotherhood, is to be able to have dialogue with one another, to differ, even to contend as brothers, but to do so without producing venom, in brotherly love.

There will come a day when that old serpent will be cast into a bottomless pit (Revelation 20:3). Whosoever loveth and maketh a lie will be thrust outside the holy city among the dogs (Revelation 22:15). Let us keep a rein on our unruly tongues and so avoid that terrible fate.

Alan Eyre

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