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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words


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Lâshôn (לְשֹׁנָה, Strong's #3956), “tongue; language; speech.” This word is thought to have the root meaning “to lick,” but this is a conjecture. The noun occurs in Ugaritic, Akkadian (Lishanu), Phoenician, and Arabic. In the Hebrew Old Testament it appears 115 times, mainly in the poetic and, to a lesser extent, in the prophetical books. The first occurrence is in Gen. 10:5: “By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” The basic meaning of lâshôn is “tongue,” which as an organ of the body refers to humans (Lam. 4:4) and animals (Exod. 11:7; Job 41:1)The extended meaning of the word as an organ of speech occurs more frequently. A person may be “heavy” or “slow” of tongue or have a stammering “tongue” (Exod. 4:10); or he may be fluent and clear: “The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly” (Isa. 32:4). And see the description of the “tongue” in Ps. 45:1: “My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the King: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” The word is often better translated as “speech,” because of the negative and positive associations of lâshôn. Especially in the wisdom literature the manner of one’s “speech” is considered to be the external expression of the character of the speaker. The fool’s “speech” is unreliable (Ps. 5:9), deceitful (Ps. 109:2; 120:2-3; Prov. 6:17), boastful (Ps. 140:11), flattering (Prov. 26:28), slanderous (Ps. 15:3), and subversive (Prov. 10:31). The “tongue” of the righteous man heals (Prov. 15:4). While the “tongue” may be as sharp as sword (Ps. 57:4), it is a means of giving life to the righteous and death to the wicked: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Prov. 18:21; cf. 21:23; 25:15). The biblical authors speak of divine inspiration as the Lord’s enabling them to speak: “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2; cf. Prov. 16:1). “Tongue” with the meaning “speech” has as a synonym peh, “mouth” (Ps. 66:17), and more rarely sapah, “lip” (Job 27:4).

A further extension of meaning is “language.” In Hebrew both sapah and lâshôn denote a foreign “language”: “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people” (Isa. 28:11). The foreigners to the “language” are well described in these words: “Thou shalt not see a fierce people, a people of a deeper speech than thou canst perceive; of stammering tongue, that thou canst not understand” (Isa. 33:19).

Lâshôn also refers to objects that are shaped in the form of a tongue. Most important is the “tongue of fire,” which even takes the character of “eating” or “devouring”: “Therefore as the [tongues of fire] devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff …” (Isa. 5:24). The association in Isaiah of God’s appearance in judgment with smoke and fire gave rise to a fine literary description of the Lord’s anger: “Behold, the name of the Lord cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire” (Isa. 30:27). Notice the words “lips” and “tongue” here with the meaning of “flames of fire,” even though the language evokes the representation of a tongue (as an organ of the body) together with a tongue (of fire). Also a bar of gold (Josh. 7:21) and a bay of the sea (Isa. 11:15) shaped in the form of a tongue were called lâshôn.

The Septuagint translation is glossa (“tongue; language”).

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Tongue'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. 1940.

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