Some people have written bestsellers documenting their entrance into heaven. They claim to have died and returned to tell us what they saw. Suffice it to say, their accounts rarely match accounts of similar events recorded in Scripture. Those taken into the throne room — like Isaiah, for example — do not tell us about seeing their favorite loved ones or eating their favorite snacks.
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne” (Isaiah 6:1), Isaiah begins. He details how the end of this King’s robe filled the entire temple. He documents mighty beings lit on fire, flying around the King’s throne, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of armies.” The foundations tremble at the sound of their thunderous voices (Isaiah 6:1–4).
Isaiah does not sigh with relief, or whistle for his long-lost dog. Eyes from the throne pierce him like sword thrusts. The prophet, in response, calls down a curse upon himself: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5).
Isaiah unravels before the Holy One who knows him completely: every sin, every twisted motive, every secret deed. He throws the gavel down upon himself and immediately pleads guilty. Did he even know what sin was before this moment?
And as Isaiah sees what I take to be the preincarnate Son upon the throne (John 12:41), he smites himself for, of all things, the use of his tongue.
Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of armies! (Isaiah 6:5)
His eyes see the Holy King of Israel, the God of armies, and he does not run to sit on his lap, but falls to his face, confessing the evil, not only of his tongue, but of the tongues he lived among on earth. Here he did not lament that he dwelled among a people of sexual immorality, murder, or idolatry. What he said, and what the people said — their conversation — horrified him before the Righteous One.
The Sin of Careless Speech
If we each saw the Lord today, we would dread how unclean our mouths have been. Take inventory of yourself: hasty words, cursing words, violent words, lustful words, blaspheming words, false words, lying words, gossiping words, flattering words, harsh and belittling words. Just how many rats have proceeded from that sewer?
Paul, in bringing all humanity under condemnation before God, quotes the Psalms to indict us:
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (Romans 3:13–14)
But this is the Old Testament, we may think. Isaiah and the psalmists didn’t know Christ as we do. Their God, all lightning and thunder, had not yet fully revealed his merciful side.
Yet hear what Christ himself says:
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36–37)
“If we each saw the Lord today, we would dread how unclean our mouths have been.”
In confronting the Pharisees about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, Jesus, arguing from lesser to greater, adds a category to our dark speech: careless words. Even thoughtless words — not just blasphemies against the Holy Spirit — will be measured and weighed. People will give an account of every one. All of them. Millions and millions per mouth. Recorded. Remembered. Required at the judgment seat of Isaiah’s God.
Only Human After All
What exactly are careless words?
Careless words are idle, purposeless, lazy, and useless. The Greek word for “careless” (argos) is used to describe men who stand around in the marketplace when they should be working (Matthew 20:3–7), people who go from house to house wasting time and causing trouble (1 Timothy 5:13), Cretans who do not produce the good they ought (Titus 1:12). Idle words wander about unproductive, travel around causing trouble, refuse to bless as they ought. And we will give an account for every single one.
Perhaps you share my fallen response: That seems a little excessive. We’re only human, after all.
But as Isaiah found out firsthand, that excuse will not work. Whatever thoughts he had before he saw this God, they all changed the moment he stood before the throne. The prophet voiced the sentence of death against himself. When we are tempted to think this standard too harsh, John Calvin points us in the right direction:
Many look upon this [being judged for every careless word] as too severe; but if we consider the purpose for which our tongues were made, we will acknowledge, that those men are justly held guilty who unthinkingly devote them to trifling fooleries, and prostitute them to such a purpose.
Each will give an account for exactly the reason Calvin cites: our tongues were made for glorious purposes.
Fountain of Life
I am tempted to have low expectations of judgment because I have a low view of words — a view Jesus does not share. He will review our careless words with us because he expects our words to incline toward usefulness, to yield godly effect, to be seasoned with salt, to give grace to our hearers.
To avoid blasphemy, slander, and lying is too small an aim for a human mouth. Silly, careless words also stink as sinful words because all our words ought to be worth speaking. They should work for good, produce fruit, aim at others’ benefit, and stand in unflagging support of God’s glory. Each mouth, given power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21), should be overflowing with life — and with God’s words of eternal life, even if the hearers only hear death.
“To avoid blasphemy, slander, and lying is too small an aim for a human mouth.”
Redeemed hearts and new creatures alone will beget this kind of speech. All of humanity, like Satan himself, “speaks out of [their] own character” (John 8:44). After telling the Pharisees that they cannot speak good because they are evil, Jesus offers the contrast: “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good” (Matthew 12:35). Good words originate from good hearts, which God gives in new birth.
Learning from Seraphs
Isaiah felt crushed by the weight of a world of wicked and worthless words pressing down upon him. Seeing God and hearing the flaming voices, singular in purpose of praise, exposed Isaiah’s own life of unclean speech. In that room, profane and purposeless talk held no place.
But this did not end his story. He judged himself worthy of death, but God had more grace to give, as he does with us. A flaming messenger brought to Isaiah’s lips coals from the sacrificial altar (upon which the King himself — the Lamb of God — would rest as Isaac’s ram, slain). And when the Lord asks whom heaven should send, Isaiah turns from cursing himself for his mouth to eagerly volunteering to go forth to speak as God’s ambassador. “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
Forgiveness met him as it meets us, repurposing and commissioning the mouth of even the most foolish and idle talkers. What was once given over to darkness can now be used to praise God and bless mankind. Seeing the glory of Christ banishes small purposes for redeemed tongues. And amazing grace sends us forth as the seraphs to speak of Christ.