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I have been struggling with this concept. What are "empty" words precisely?

Matthew 12:34-37

34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Are "empty" words in this case about empty promises or, as I've heard before, about misspeaking or is it something else?

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The word in the original Greek is αργος argos . It's Strong Number is 692 and the words used in the linked article are 'slow' 'thoughtless' 'idle' 'careless' 'lazy' and 'sluggish'.

The word, when used elsewhere in scripture (KJV) is translated 'idle' 'slow' or 'barren', such as I Timothy 5:13 'idle', Titus 1:12 'slow' and II Peter 1:8 'barren'.

Overall I understand the meaning to be that a word has been spoken which was not chosen carefully. It was spoken irresponsibly, casually or thoughtlessly.

Jesus says of his own words :

... the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. [John 6:64 KJV]

His words were careful, true and right. And he warns us that all of our words are recorded. And we shall answer for every one of them.

Words matter.

By our words shall we be justified. Or by our words shall we be condemned.

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The scriptures ascribe incredible significance to human speech:

KJV Proverbs 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

LXX 18:21 θάνατος καὶ ζωὴ ἐν χειρὶ γλώσσης οἱ δὲ κρατοῦντες αὐτῆς ἔδονται τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτῆς

The power can be life-giving (as in the example above) and it can foment endless trouble:

KJV James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

Jesus was speaking to Jews about being prepared to enter the approaching kingdom of God. His point is that the tree decides the fruit, not the other way around. The hypocrites in front of Jesus were as incapable of producing righteous speech as a bad tree being capable of bearing good fruit. And all the speech they produce is valueless and they will have to answer (probably to Jesus) in the soon approaching judgment. In other words, they were bad people so they spoke badly and one day they will have to eat their words before him.

Also at play is the principle below:

KJV Matthew 12:30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Those who hope to enter the kingdom must be holy in speech perhaps more so than in any other way:

NLT John 4:24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

The lexicon gloss is speech "without value" and "empty". I think that would compass all speech except holy speech.

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Again, the reason for the use of the words “empty” can be found in the previous verses.

Matthew 12: 22Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. 23All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” 24But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”

25And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26“If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27“If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 28“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29“Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. 30“He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

31“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32“Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

The fault of the speakers is that their words are malicious, meant to discredit Jesus and without reason: how can Satan be driven out by Satan?

Why Pure Reason Won’t End Tribalism

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I’m not talking about the obvious downside of tribal antagonism—the way it leads nations to go to war or dissolve in civil strife, the way it fosters conflict along ethnic or religious lines. I do think this form of antagonism is a bigger problem for Pinker’s thesis than he realizes, but that’s a story for another day. For now the point is that tribal antagonism also poses a subtler challenge to his thesis. Namely, it shapes and drives some of the cognitive distortions that muddy our thinking about critical issues; it warps reason.

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John 15:25"But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, 'THEY HATED ME WITHOUT A CAUSE.'

On top of that, since Jesus claimed it was not He who acted or spoke, but God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, the accusers were denigrating God, calling Him Beelzebub. The greater sin, though, is not the dishonoring of God, but the possible cause of stumbling by the accusers to the little ones. If the words were believed, those who refused to enter the Kingdom would have also prevented others from entering:

Matthew 18:5“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!

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Matthew 23:13“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

All Scripture from the NASB.

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