I stand confidently by the passage in the book of Leviticus that states, “Winged insects that have four feet are detestable.” I might even add that insects really in general are detestable, though maybe with the exception of fireflies or ladybugs or praying mantises—the kind of insects we are taught not to fear but to wonder at.
But there is one kind in particular that I find worth wondering at even as I find them and their invasion thoroughly dreadful. “Periodical cicadas” emerge from their secret bug lairs every 17 years to mate and lay their eggs—500 trillion eggs to be exact. Quite detestably, they come creeping out of the ground in astonishing, invasive populations, in what is the single greatest regular outpouring of insect life on the planet.
For a few weeks, periodical cicadas emerge across the country in droves, dodging people and cars, devouring horticulture, and then dying in mass numbers, leaving behind their winged bodies as a stinking reminder of their brief existence and their promised return. In exactly 17 years, like clockwork, they will be back. Scientists have no idea how they mark the passage of time, how they mysteriously know to come creeping out of the ground again like miniature space invaders in a science fiction novel. As one scientific observer notes, the periodic cicada vividly reminds the world that “underneath our tidy gardens and parks lurk vestiges of untamed nature.”
Interestingly enough, it is the lurking presence of periodical cicadas, a presence of which we are unaware until they are restlessly stirring among us, that comes to mind whenever I consider a New Testament teaching on speaking. James teaches about the power of the tongue and its unleashed and creeping presence within our lives. And his language is just that evocative. He writes, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:7). James is writing so that his audience might see in what is untamed and detestable the dire need for God’s mercy. “For with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (3:9-11).
Christian thought makes clear a truth to which we can all testify. Words spring forth from our tongues at times unplanned and untamed. Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza once noted, “[E]xperience more than sufficiently teaches that people govern nothing with more difficulty than their tongues.” In the Psalms, we read of destructive words emerging from hearts filled with destruction, tongues speaking deceit from throats that are open graves. The psalmist sees the connection between the emerging words and the soil of a heart, also seeing clearly our need for God to cultivate it. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my rock and redeemer.” It is one of our most honest and indispensable prayers—for much lurks beneath the soil.
Like insects whose communal emerging reminds us that all is not as tidy and peaceful as it appears within our gardens, so the tongue reminds us that much is lurking within our hearts. The tongue is a detestable creature, a restless evil. In its toxic influence we are reminded of our need for one who hears our words, quiets our tongues, and gives us a better word. We remember the God who made tame the lions that shared a den with Daniel and the ravens which brought Elijah bread both morning and night. It is this God who can tame also our tongues.
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