The seasoned and successful warrior learns to recognize dangerous terrain from which ambush or sniper fire might come. This is just as true of the spiritual warrior as it is of physical soldiers – if we are oblivious to where attacks may come from, we are likely to fail repeatedly.
As a highly successful warrior king, David doubtless learned to be aware of areas that might conceal enemies and from which a salvo of arrows or other sudden attack might come, and we have only to read his psalms to see that he was just as aware of the directions from which spiritual attacks might come – whether from his own nature or from external enemies. Notice what he says in this regard in Psalm 141:
“Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers …” (Psalm 141:3-4).
David’s words here are intriguing – he asks for help not fall prey to wrongful words (“mouth”/ “lips”), thoughts (“heart”), or deeds (“deeds”) that would compromise his desire to obey God, and there is more to these verses than first meets the eye. Although David does not say so explicitly, based on a pattern we find in the Psalms, he appears to list the dangers in order – not in order of sinfulness, but in order of likelihood of the danger occurring. Here and elsewhere, he not only places the danger of wrongful speech first, but he also places a double emphasis on that danger by repeating it (“guard … my mouth,” “watch over… my lips”).
Many of the Psalms follow this same pattern in speaking of right or wrong expressed in words, then in thoughts, and finally in deeds – almost always with the same double emphasis placed on speech. For example, the behavior of the righteous and unrighteous is contrasted in exactly this way.
We read of right behavior: “The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just. The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip” (Psalm 37:30-31). Right words are mentioned twice, then thoughts, and finally deeds.
The same pattern is found of wrong behavior: “But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant” (Psalm 78:36-37). Again, words are mentioned twice, then thoughts, and deeds.
So it is perhaps not surprising to see this pattern in many other contexts – as when the psalmist writes:
“I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer” (Psalm 66:17-19). Sometimes, words are only stressed once (for example, Psalm 49:3-4), but the pattern of words, thoughts, and deeds usually remains the same.
Interestingly, in the New Testament we find the apostle Paul also frequently placing speech before deeds (Colossians 3:17, 1 Timothy 4:12, etc.), as does Peter (1 Peter 3:9-11). In stressing the great importance of speech the apostle James goes so far as to say: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). James follows this up by stressing: “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:2).
Putting these scriptures together, we see a clear pattern that confirms what David tells us. We must be continually alert to the dangers of own possibly wrongful words, thoughts and deeds – and especially our words – if we are not to be surprised and overthrown by the hidden tendencies of our own natures and external temptations.
This makes good sense. If we are trying to do what is right in our lives, actual wrongful deeds may be the least likely dangers we will have to grapple with. It is more likely that we will usually face attacks in our thoughts – and, according to what David tells us, perhaps the greatest dangers on a day to day basis come through words spoken hastily, in frustration, in anger, or in some other unconsidered way.
Understanding and remembering this bit of spiritual “military intelligence” can help us in our day to day walk. And the military analogy we have used here is one used by the warrior David himself:
“They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows. They shoot from ambush at the innocent; they shoot suddenly, without fear” (Psalm 64:3).
Keeping this principle in mind of guarding against wrongful words, thoughts, and deeds (often in that order) can help us to remain vigilant and to avoid the surprise attacks we all sometimes face from within our own natures as well as from without.