Nevertheless they flattered him with their mouth, and they lied to him with their tongues. Psalm 78:36 (Hebrew World translation)
Tongues – The psalmist observes that people return to God in adversity. When they have emptiness, years of trouble and death, they flock to the Almighty for comfort and help. They remember that God is their fortress and their redeemer.
Because they show no constancy in their love, they are soon flattering God and lying to Him. The psalmist considers this a case of lashon ha’ra (the evil tongue). For the rabbis, this was the greatest of all sins. To understand their concern, we need to look a little deeper into their thinking.
Lashon ha’ra is speech that disparages another person, even when it is true. Perhaps it is all the more dangerous when the words spoken are actually true, for it then avoids the charge of slander but at the same time diminishes the person. I have no doubt that each of us has experienced the effects of lashon ha’ra. Someone said something about us that was in fact true, but it was said in such a way that we were humiliated, ridiculed or shamed. Perhaps this is the reason we commonly say, “The truth hurts.” What concerned the rabbis is how ubiquitous these actions are. The very fact that such disregard for the well-being of another is such a common aspect of our speech meant that nearly everyone is defacing the image of God in another person without giving it a second thought. That’s why the rabbis considered it the greatest sin. It is the sin of indifference to the image of the Creator spread across the whole world. In fact, the Talmud taught that the ancient temple was destroyed because of lashon ha’ra. Serious indeed!
In this verse, the psalmist points out that lashon ha’ra is not limited to our denigration of God’s image in human beings. We exhibit the same sinful behavior toward God when we flatter Him (patah – to entice, to deceive, to enlarge) and lie to Him (kazav – to lie, to bear false witness). No wonder James is so concerned about the power of the tongue. If it can bring down the temple, what can it do to the temple of the Holy Spirit?
Will it take adversity for us to confront this most common of sins? Or will we read, understand and be healed?
Topical Index: lashon ha’ra, evil tongue, lying, deceiving, Psalm 78:36