Speech and salvation 3: God puts the words right in your mouth

This is the third post in a series about gospel speech. Read parts 1 and 2.

“I’m not gifted enough!”

Maybe you think that you’re not qualified to speak the gospel to people because you’re not gifted enough. But if you’re a Christian, you already have the greatest gift in the world. It’s a gift that makes you talk.

Throughout the Old Testament, there is a recurring pattern:

  1. Sin
  2. Salvation
  3. Speech / singing

This is how God works, according to the Bible. People sin against God, repeatedly and inexcusably. God is therefore rightly angry with people. But instead of simply judging them, he saves them, proving how powerful he really is. And then, once he’s given them this great gift of salvation, God does something to their mouths. He puts a speech or a song in their mouths, and tells them to speak over and over again about how amazing his salvation really is.

Here are three places in particular where this pattern is clear. These are very significant parts of the Old Testament. In fact, the apostle Paul refers to them repeatedly in his letter to the Romans.1

Deuteronomy 32 is a song Moses taught to Israel just before they entered the promised land. It’s a song they must keep in their mouths, singing it constantly, never forgetting it (cf. Deut 31:19, 21). It’s a strange song for a nation to sing. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of a national anthem. It’s not a song about Israel’s glory, but Israel’s shame. Israel, according to this song, is a rebellious nation. They deal corruptly with God. They aren’t God’s children. They are blemished and crooked and twisted and greedy and scoffers and demon-worshippers and perverse and cheats and foolish and venomous. Israel is powerless and weak and utterly corrupt. But God is powerful and righteous. He will show his power through Israel; both by judging his enemies, and also by rescuing his powerless servants (see e.g. v. 36). He gives Israel the great gift of salvation.

But even though the song is about Israel’s sin and Israel’s salvation, it’s not just a song for Israel alone. It’s a song that is put into Israel’s mouth, so that everybody else can hear how God helps those who can’t help themselves. God doesn’t just rescue his weak and foolish people, he also uses them as his global mouthpiece. Israel’s job is to sing of God’s greatness to the world:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth …
For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! (Deut 32:1, 3)

Isaiah 59 echoes this same pattern. The chapter describes the total depravity of Israel at a particularly dark time in their history. Israel’s hearts, hands and mouths are defiled, because they are not upholding God’s justice. Nobody, none at all, is doing what is right. But the uselessness of God’s people doesn’t mean that God himself is powerless. He is powerful; he will achieve his purposes to judge the world and to deliver Israel, despite their sin:

He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. (Isaiah 59:16)

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD. (Isaiah 59:20)

What does God do once he’s saved Israel? He gives them a role; a task. This task is to speak God’s word; to have this word of salvation in their mouths and to declare the light of God’s glorious power to the nations:

“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 59:21)

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:3)

Psalm 51 is a song of David, king of Israel, after he had stolen a man’s wife and then arranged his murder. David is stricken, and begs for forgiveness. He realises that he deserves nothing from God. But he knows that God’s response to his sin will prove God’s justice and power. In fact, his broken spirit and contrite heart will enable him to be a mouthpiece for God, to shout to the world of God’s mercy and power:

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:12-15).

For David, as for Israel, salvation is a matter of the mouth as well as the heart.

Do you notice, in all three passages, that the singers are exactly the right people to sing the song? The song / speech is about God’s salvation, not about human achievement. And so the singers / speakers aren’t powerful people, or talented people, or upright people. They’re weak people, broken people, sinful people. But when God saves these sinners, they also become gifted singers; singing (or speaking) about God’s salvation to the world. The gift they’ve received isn’t a melodious voice, or a clever turn of phrase, or a quick wit. The gift is salvation itself. Since they’ve been saved from sin, they’re qualified to talk about salvation from sin. If you’re a Christian, you already have the greatest gift in the world.

You’ve been saved. It’s a gift that makes you talk.

This is the third post in a series about gospel speech. In the next post, we’ll think about another objection: “I’m not really a ‘speaking’ Christian.”

1 Paul quotes these passages explicitly:

  • Deuteronomy 32 is cited in Romans 10:19, 12:19 and 15:10.
  • Isaiah 59 is cited in Romans 3:15-17 and 11:26-27.
  • Psalm 51 is cited in Romans 3:4.
  • Psalm 32, another Psalm about David being forgiven and then proclaiming God’s word, is cited in Romans 4:7-8.

12 thoughts on “Speech and salvation 3: God puts the words right in your mouth

  1. Lionel, thanks for this sin-salvation-singing pattern. All the more powerful for the way it pops up in Romans.

    Just to push you…

    How does the individual in Israel relate to this (mainly) corporate responsibility? All in the choir, all writing songs, all joining in as part of the congregation?

    And how does this OT singing/praising activity relate to evangelism in the NT, given the singing was largely as the gathered people of God, whom the nations observed, rather than the scattered people of God going to the nations?

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  3. Hi Sandy, I’m going to be slightly cheeky and say that I hope that questions about community organisation, mission strategy and individual roles will be addressed more directly by future posts in this series; so stay tuned.

    These Old Testament passages address the real core issues (God, sin, salvation, speech), but I don’t think they’re particularly helpful in addressing issues of community organisation and mission strategy. Why?
    1. We don’t really have much information about how individuals in Israel related to the corporate worship. What information we do have (in the books of Kings and the prophets, for example) tends to describe the bulk of Israel in quite negative terms. So according to the Bible, the main way Israel relates historically to these these passages is by her sin!
    2. The passages themselves (especially Deuteronomy and Isaiah) are primarily describing future eschatological expectations for Israel’s corporate salvation-speech, not giving details about how that salvation-speech was supposed to be organised in the present or the future.
    3. The New Testament tends to read the passages as eschatological expectations about God, sin, salvation, speech, etc. which are now fulfilled in Christ (e.g. Rom 15:10). It doesn’t seem to be interested in trying to emulate or even to modify the community or mission patterns of Israel.

  4. Lionel,
    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this recently. This is quite off topic to the specifics of your post. However, I wonder of the life-long Christian’s (as compared to the teen or adult convert) ability to verbalize something akin to what the OT passages record.

    Certainly, we don’t need to in the same way as we have God’s word for us to proclaim. And, even the life-long Christian has plenty to sing about in relation to his/her sin and redemption. Still, it is a trend that sadly has taken the mainline churches, among others, down here in the States – many members that make up mainline churches are full of people who’ve been lifelong “Christians” without a new song to about God and his great work. Combine that with liberal teaching and preaching and it isn’t a good path.

    All that say, I am looking forward to the rest of your series and how the above relates to the individuals.

    Thanks for your work!

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