What is “it” in Proverbs 18:21?
Proverbs 18:21 reads, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
The first point I want to make about this question is that it shows that the reader is reading Scripture carefully and recognizes that this verse requires some thought to understand. I commend the questioner for this. So many of us read Scripture too thoughtlessly. We have the expression that what we tell a person “goes in one ear and out the other” meaning that the person does not really think about what he is told. We need to be careful we do not treat Scripture the same way. It is truly God’s Word to us. The apostle writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17).”
Reading this verse in an English translation the “it” in question could refer to “Death and life”, or “the power of the tongue”, or just “the tongue.” The first and last of these options seem unlikely. Death and Life are the universal options put before man (Deut. 30:15). Hebrew scholars Keil and Delitzsch write “According as he [man] uses his tongue, he falls under the power of death or attains to life. All interpreters attribute [verse] 21b to the tongue…But, “to love the tongue” is a strange and obscure expression.” So, the “it” must refer to the power of the tongue. This, in fact, agrees with the general warning of Scripture regarding the use of our tongue. In addition, notice the parallel structure in verse 20 where the “fruit of his mouth” is mentioned. Proverbs is poetry so we often find help in interpreting one verse by looking at the poetic structure of the verse or verses around it.
Therefore, this verse is one of the many verses of Scripture that warn against careless speech. The apostle James writes “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak (Jas. 1:19).” And, in chapter 3 he expands on the warning. There he continues with very graphic language to warn of the power of the tongue with the illustration “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things (Jas. 3:4-5a).” He emphasizes mainly the possible negative effects. But, the verse in Proverbs mentions both “Death” and “life.”
The 18th Century Bible teacher, William Kelly writes:
The mouth indicates the heart, as the Lord tells us both of the good man and of the wicked. [See Matt. 12:34; Lk. 6:45; Matt. 15:80–20 (Ed.)] Out of its abundance the mouth speaks. Here it is the other side — a man’s inwards satisfied with the fruit of his mouth, with the increase of his lips. How weighty then our every word if we bring in God! But if this satisfies man, the child of God can be satisfied with nothing less than God’s Word and grace. Hence too are life and death said to be in the power of the tongue, and so the issues in both good and evil. All Scripture declares it; all experience confirms and illustrates it.William Kelly, The Proverbs (Bible Truth Publishers: Addison, undated), 142-143.
So, there can be great benefit from careful speech. The apostle Paul quotes Isaiah (52:7) when he writes “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! (Rom. 10:15b).” And, Proverbs 25:11 tells us “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs has many warnings and encouragements regarding speech. So, the lesson from Proverbs 18:21 is that we can see the “fruit” of the use of our “tongue” either for good (“life”) or evil (“death”).
1. Kiel, Karl Fredreich and Delitzsch, Franz, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody: Henderson Publishers, 2011), Vol. 6, 276.