What Does "Idle Words" Mean in the Bible?
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What Does “Idle Words” Mean in the Bible?


In Matthew 12:36 (NKJV), Jesus says, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” This verse has led many Christians to wonder what exactly Jesus meant by “idle words.” Are all conversation and small talk considered idle words? Or was Jesus referring to a specific type of speech that displeases God?

In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine the meaning of idle words in the Bible. We will look at the original Greek word used in Matthew 12:36, consider the context of Jesus’ statement, explore other Bible passages about speech, and hear thoughts from Bible scholars. By the end, you will have a thorough understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding idle words and the importance of wholesome speech for followers of Christ.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Greek word translated “idle” refers to speech that is inactive, barren, or seemingly useless.
  • Jesus’ statement about idle words came after the Pharisees accused Him of operating by the power of Satan.
  • Idle words likely refer to careless speech spoken without regard for God or spiritual things.
  • Scripture consistently instructs believers to be careful and purposeful with their speech.
  • Wholesome speech seasoned with grace brings glory to God and benefits others.

The Greek Word for “Idle”

The first key to understanding Jesus’ statement about idle words is examining the meaning of the original Greek term. The Greek word translated “idle” in Matthew 12:36 is argos. This word occurs only 4 other times in the New Testament.

In Matthew 20:3, argos is translated “standing idle” and refers to unemployed workers in the marketplace. James 2:20 uses an adverbial form of argos to speak of faith without works being “barren” or unproductive. In 1 Timothy 5:13, argos describes younger widows being “idle” and leading to gossip, idleness, and meddling speech. And in 2 Peter 1:8, it refers to believers being “barren” or unfruitful in the knowledge of Christ.

The common thread is that argos conveys the sense of being inactive, barren, unproductive, or seemingly useless. When Jesus warns about “idle words,” He likely had in mind speech that is inactive or barren regarding spiritual truth and does not accomplish anything constructive.

The Context of Jesus’ Statement

The context surrounding Jesus’ statement also gives insight into His meaning. In Matthew 12, Jesus had just healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. The crowds marveled, asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matt. 12:23). But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (Matt. 12:24).

Jesus responded by pointing out how illogical it was to suggest that Satan would drive out Satan. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Jesus asserted that He drove out demons by the Spirit of God. He went on to say that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin.

It was in this context that Jesus warned, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36). The Pharisees had just carelessly flung around words accusing Jesus of operating by Satan’s power. In contrast, Jesus spoke with purpose and care, with full submission to the will of the Father.

Idle Words as Careless, Godless Chatter

Given the context, Jesus’ statement about idle words seems directed at careless speech spoken without regard for God and spiritual things. The Pharisees’ words were worse than idle; they were blasphemous. But even careless words reflect a heart that is distant from God.

Other Bible passages reinforce the need to be careful and purposeful with our speech:

  • “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” (Eph. 4:29)
  • “For every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36)
  • “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Col. 4:6)
  • “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” (Psalm 34:13)
  • “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.” (Prov. 13:3)

Followers of Christ should speak carefully and intentionally, seeking to build up others and glorify God with our words. Idle words reflect a careless disregard for the power of speech. As Jesus explained, we will give an account for every idle word on the day of judgment.

Wholesome Speech Seasoned with Grace

Rather than idle words spoken without forethought, Scripture calls believers to wholesome, gracious speech:

  • “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” (Eph. 4:29)
  • “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Col. 4:6)

Wholesome speech is useful for building others up spiritually and imparting grace. Our words should aim to benefit those who hear them and reflect the grace we’ve received from Christ.

Seasoning speech with “salt” also implies speaking with discretion, discernment, and wisdom. Godly speech uplifts others, brings glory to God, and promotes what is helpful and good. This type of speech contrasts sharply with careless chatter that tears down.

Be Slow to Speak

Scripture not only addresses wholesome speech but also instructs us to exercise restraint in how quickly and how often we speak. Ecclesiastes 5:2 cautions, “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” And James 1:19 explains, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”

As followers of Christ, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Rather than impulsively running our mouths, we ought to pause, think, and consider our words in light of eternity. The one who restrains his lips is prudent (Prov. 10:19).

Ask God for Wisdom

Since our speech has such powerful potential for good or harm, we need wisdom from above to know how to speak each day. James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

Jesus also assured His disciples in Luke 21:15, “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.” As we abide in Christ, He will supply the wisdom we need to speak words that build up others, glorify God, and thwart the enemy.


In summary, the “idle words” Jesus spoke of likely referred to careless Godless chatter that tears down rather than builds up. As Christians, we are called to wholesome, gracious speech that benefits others and honors Christ. This requires carefully thinking through our words rather than speaking impulsively. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit can empower us to “let no corrupt word proceed from our mouth, but only what is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). May our speech glorify God and minister grace to all.

Pastor Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.