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Taming the Tongue


Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

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1 Be not many masters. The common and almost universal interpretation of this passage is, that the Apostle discourages the desire for the office of teaching, and for this reason, because it is dangerous, and exposes one to a heavier judgment, in case he transgresses: and they think that he said, Be not many masters, because there ought to have been some. But I take masters not to be those who performed a public duty in the Church, but such as took upon them the right of passing judgment upon others: for such reprovers sought to be accounted as masters of morals. And it has a mode of speaking usual among the Greeks as well as Latins, that they were called masters who superciliously animadverted on others.

And that he forbade them to be many, it was done for this reason, because many everywhere did thrust in themselves; for it is, as it were, an innate disease in mankind to seek reputation by blaming others. And, in this respect, a twofold vice prevails — though few excel in wisdom, yet all intrude indiscriminately into the office of masters; and then few are influenced by a right feeling, for hypocrisy and ambition stimulate them, and not a care for the salvation of their brethren. For it is to be observed, that James does not discourage those brotherly admonitions, which the Spirit so often and so much recommends to us, but that immoderate desire to condemn, which proceeds from ambition and pride, when any one exalts himself against his neighbor, slanders, carps, bites, and malignantly seeks for what he may turn to a sinister purpose: for this is usually done when impertinent censors of this kind insolently boast themselves in the work of exposing the vices of others.

From this outrage and annoyance James recalls us; and he adds a reason, because they who are thus severe towards others shall undergo a heavier judgment: for he imposes a hard law on himself, who tries the words and deeds of others according to the rule of extreme rigor; nor does he deserve pardon, who will pardon none. This truth ought to be carefully observed, that they who are too rigid towards their brethren, provoke against themselves the severity of God.

2 For in many things we offend all. This may be taken as having been said by way of concession, as though he had said, “Be it that thou findest what is blamable in thy brethren, for no one is free from sins; but dost thou think that thou art perfect who usest a slanderous and virulent tongue?” But James seems to me to exhort us by this argument to meekness, since we are ourselves also surrounded with many infirmities; for he acts unjustly who denies to others the pardon he needs himself. So also Paul says, when he bids the fallen to be reproved kindly, and in the spirit of meekness; for he immediately adds,

“considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”
(Galatians 6:1.)

For there is nothing which serves more to moderate extreme rigor than the knowledge of our own infirmity.

If any man offend not in word. After having said that there is no one who does not sin in many things, he now shews that the disease of evil-speaking is more odious than other sins; for by saying that he who offends not with his tongue is perfect, he intimates that the restraining of the tongue is a great virtue, and one of the chief virtues. Hence they act most perversely who curiously examine every fault, even the least, and yet so grossly indulge themselves.

He then indirectly touches here on the hypocrisy of censors, because in examining themselves they omitted the chief thing, and that was of great moment even their evil-speaking; for they who reproved others pretended a zeal for perfect holiness, but they ought to have begun with the tongue, if they wished to be perfect. As they made no account of bridling the tongue, but, on the contrary, did bite and tear others, they exhibited only a fictitious sanctity. It is hence evident that they were the most reprehensible of all, because they neglected a primary virtue. This connection renders the meaning of the Apostle plain to us.

3 We put bits in the horses’ mouths. By these two comparisons he proves that a great part of true perfection is in the tongue, and that it exercises dominion, as he has just said, over the whole life. He compares the tongue, first, to a bridle, and then to a helm of a ship. Though a horse be a ferocious animal, yet he is turned about at the will of its rider, because he is bridled; no less can the tongue serve to govern man. So also with regard to the helm of a ship, which guides a large vessel and surmounts the impetuosity of winds. Though the tongue be a small member, yet it avails much in regulating the life of man.

And boasteth great things. The verb μεγαλαυχεῖν means to boast one’s self, or to vaunt. But James in this passage did not intend to reprove ostentation so much as to show that the tongue is the doer of great things; for in this last clause he applies the previous comparisons to his subject; and vain boasting is not suitable to the bridle and the helm. He then means that the tongue is endued with great power.

I have rendered what Erasmus has translated the impetuosity, the inclination, of the pilot or guide; for ὁρμὴ means desire. I indeed allow that among the Greeks it designates those lusts which are not subservient to reason. But here James simply speaks of the will of the pilot.

He now explains the evils which proceed from the neglect of restraining the tongue, in order that we may know that the tongue may do much good or much evil, — that if it be modest and well regulated, it becomes a bridle to the whole life, but that if it be petulant and violent, like a fire it destroys all things.

He represents it as a small or little fire, to intimate that this smallness of the tongue will not be a hindrance that its power should not extend far and wide to do harm.

6. By adding that it is a world of iniquity, it is the same as though he had called it the sea or the abyss. And he suitably connects the smallness of the tongue with the vastness of the world; according to this meaning, A slender portion of flesh contains in it the whole world of iniquity.

So is the tongue. He explains what he meant by the term world, even because the contagion of the tongue spreads through every part of life; or rather he shews what he understood by the metaphor fire, even that the tongue pollutes the whole man. He however immediately returns to the fire, and says, that the whole course of nature is set on fire by the tongue. And he compares human life to a course or a wheel: and γένεσις, as before, he takes for nature, (James 1:23.)

The meaning is, that when other vices are corrected by age or by the succession of time, or when at least then do not possess the whole man, the vice of the tongue spreads and prevails over every part of life; except one prefers to take setting on fire as signifying a violent impulse, for we call that fervid which is accompanied with violence. And thus Horace speaks of wheels, for he calls chariots in battle fervid, on account of their rapidity. The meaning then would be, that the tongue is like untamed horses; for as these draw violently the chariots, so the tongue hurries a man headlong by its own wantonness. 121121     “The course of nature,” or the compass of nature, that is, all that is included in nature, means evidently the same with “the whole body” in the preceding clause. There is no sense, compatible with the passage, in what some have suggested, “the whole course of life;” for what idea is conveyed, when we say that the tongue inflames or sets in a flame the whole course of life? But there is an intelligible meaning, when it is said, that the tongue sets in a flame the whole machinery of our nature, every faculty that belongs to man.

When he says that it is set on fire by hell, it is the same as though he had said, that the outrageousness of the tongue is the flame of the infernal fire. 122122     “A bad tongue is the organ of the devil.” — Estius. For as heathen poets imagined that the wicked are tormented by the torches of the Furies; so it is true, that Satan by the fans of temptations kindles the fire of all evils in the world: but James means, that fire, sent by Satan, is most easily caught by the tongue, so that it immediately burns; in short, that it is a material fitted for receiving or fostering and increasing the fire of hell.

7 For every kind of beasts. This is a confirmation of the last clause; for that Satan by the tongue rules most effectively he proves by this — that it can by no means be brought to due order; and he amplifies this by comparisons. For he says that there is no animal so savage or fierce, which is not tamed by the skill of man, — that fishes, which in a manner inhabit another world, — that birds, which are so quick and roving — and that serpents, which are so inimical to mankind, are sometimes tamed. Since then the tongue cannot be restrained, there must be some secret fire of hell hidden in it.

What he says of wild beasts, of serpents, and of other animals, is not to be understood of them all; it is enough that the skill of man should subdue and tame some of the most ferocious of them, and also that serpents are sometimes tamed. He refers to present and to past time: the present regards power and capacity, and the past, usage or experience. He hence justly concludes that the tongue is full of deadly poison.

Though all these things most suitably refer in the first place to the subject of this passage — that they claim an unreasonable command over others, who labor under a worse vice; yet a universal doctrine may be understood as taught here, — that if we desire to form our life aright, we must especially strive to restrain the tongue, for no part of man does more harm.

9 Therewith, or, by it, bless we God. It is a clear instance of its deadly poison, that it can thus through a monstrous levity transform itself; for when it pretends to bless God, it immediately curses him in his own image, even by cursing men. For since God ought to be blessed in all his works, he ought to be so especially as to men, in whom his image and glory peculiarly shine forth. It is then a hypocrisy not to be borne, when man employs the same tongue in blessing God and in cursing men. There can be then no calling on God, and his praises must necessarily cease, when evil-speaking prevails; for it is impious profanation of God’s name, which the tongue is virulent towards our brethren and pretends to praise him. That he may therefore rightly praise God, the view of evil speaking as to our neighbor must especially be corrected.

This particular truth ought also to be borne in mind, that severe censors discover their own virulence, which they suddenly vomit forth against their brethren whatever curses they can imagine, after having in sweet strains offered praises to God. Were any one to object and say, that the image of God in human nature has been blotted out by the sin of Adam; we must, indeed, confess that it has been miserably deformed, but in such a way that some of its lineaments still appear. Righteousness and rectitude, and the freedom of choosing what is good, have been lost; but many excellent endowments, by which we excel the brutes, still remain. He, then, who truly worships and honors God, will be afraid to speak slanderously of man.

11 Doth a fountain. He adduces these comparisons in order to shew that a cursing tongue is something monstrous, contrary to all nature, and subverts the order everywhere established by God. For God hath so arranged things which are contrary, that inanimate things ought to deter us from a chaotic mixture, sure as is found in a double tongue. 123123     There is a different reading at the end of the James 3:12, adopted by Griesbach, though rejected by Mill and others: οὕτως οὔτε ἁλυχὸν γλυχὺ ποιὢσαι ὕδωρ, “So neither can salt water produce sweet.” This reading is favored by the Syr. and Vulg., though the words are somewhat different.

13 Who is a wise man. As the lust of slandering arises mostly from pride, and as the false conceit of wisdom for the most part generates pride, he therefore speaks here of wisdom. It is usual with hypocrites to exalt and shew off themselves by criminating all others, as the case was formerly with many of the philosophers, who sought glory for themselves by a bitter abuse of all other orders. Such haughtiness as slanderous men swell with and are blinded by, James checked, by denying that the conceit of wisdom, with which men flatter themselves, has in it anything divine; but, on the contrary, he declares that it proceeds from the devil.

Then the meaning is, that supercilious censors, who largely indulge themselves, and at the same time spare none, seem to themselves to be very wise, but are greatly mistaken; for the Lord teaches his people far otherwise, even to be meek, and to be courteous to others. They, then, are alone wise in the sight of God, who connect this meekness with an honest conversation; for they who are severe and inexorable, though they may excel others in many virtues, do not yet follow the right way of wisdom. 124124     “Who is wise and intelligent among you?” let him by a good conduct shew his works in meekness of wisdom.”
   The arrangement here is according to what is common in scripture: Wisdom the effect first, then knowledge the cause or what precedes it. In what follows the order is reversed; knowledge distinguishes between good and bad works, and the good ought to be exhibited with that meekness which wisdom dictates.

l4 But if ye have bitter envying. He points out the fruits which proceed from that extreme austerity which is contrary to meekness; for immoderate rigor necessarily begets mischievous emulations, which presently break forth into contentions. It is, indeed, an improper mode of speaking, to place contentions in the heart; but this affects not the meaning; for the object was to shew that the evil disposition of the heart is the fountain of these evils.

He has called envying, or emulation, bitter; for it prevails not, except when minds are so infected with the poison of malignity, that they turn all things into bitterness. 125125     A similar order as to the words is found here as in the former verse: bitter envying is occasioned by strife of contention. There may be envying without contention, but it is contention that commonly makes it bitter.

That we may then really glory that we are the children of God, he bids us to act calmly and meekly towards our brethren; otherwise he declares that we are lying in assuming the Christian name. But it is not without reason that he has added the associate of envying, even strife, or contention, for contests and quarrels ever arise from malignity and envy.

15 This wisdom descendeth not. As hypocrites with difficulty give way, he sharply checked their haughtiness, denying that to be true wisdom with which they were inflated, while they were extremely morose in searching out the vices of others. Conceding to them, however, the term wisdom, he shews by the words he applies to it its true character, and says that it is earthly, sensual, devilish, or demoniac, while true wisdom must be heavenly, spiritual, divine; which three things are directly contrary to the three preceding ones. For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious. 126126     Scott considers that this wisdom was called “earthly,” because it sought earthly distinctions, and was of earthly origin, — “sensual,” or rather “natural,” as the word is rendered in 1 Corinthians 2:14, because it was the result of such principles as natural men are actuated by, such as envy and ambition, — “and devilish,” because it came first from the devil, and constituted the image of his pride, ambition, malignity, and falsehood.
   The word “sensual” has led some to suppose that the reference is to sensuality, the gratification of carnal lusts: but there is nothing in the passage that favors this view. The only things mentioned are envy and a contentious spirit, things which belong to natural man.

Sensual, or animal, is in opposition to what is spiritual, as in 1 Corinthians 2:14, where Paul says that the sensual or animal man receives not the things of God. And the pride of man could not have been more effectually cast down, than when thus is condemned whatever wisdom he has from himself, without the Spirit of God; nay, when from himself a transition is made to the devil. For it is the same as though he had said, that men, following their own sense, or minds, or feelings, soon became a prey to the delusions of Satan.

16 For where envying is. It is an argument from what is contrary; for envying, by which hypocrites are influenced, produces effects contrary to wisdom. For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others.

Some render ἀκαταστασία inconstancy, and sometimes it means this, but as it signifies also sedition and tumult, perturbation seems the most suitable to this passage. For James meant to express something more than levity, even that the malignant and the slanderer does everything confusedly and rashly, as though he were beside himself; and hence he adds, every evil work

17 But the wisdom which is from above. He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. 127127     “Pure,” ἁγνή, is to be understood according to what the context contains. It means what is free from taint or pollution: the kind of taint must be learnt from the passage. The wisdom from above is contrasted with the wisdom from below: the latter has envy and contention; the former is “pure,” being free from envy, and is “peaceable.” He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity.

But though he had sufficiently condemned hypocrisy, when he said that wisdom is pure or sincere; he makes it more clear by repeating the same thing at the end. We are hence reminded, that for no other reason are we beyond measure morose or austere, but this, because we too much spare ourselves, and connive at our own vices.

But what he says, without discerning (sine dijudicatione,) seems strange; for the Spirit of God does not take away the difference between good and evil; nor does he render us so senseless as to be so void of judgment as to praise vice, and regard it as virtue. To this I reply, that James here, by discerning or distinguishing refers to that overanxious and overscrupulous inquiry, such as is commonly carried on by hypocrites, who too minutely examine the sayings and doings of their brethren, and put on them the worst construction. 128128     The word ἀδιύκριτος is found only here, and has been variously rendered, because the verb from which it comes has various meanings, — to discern, to make a difference, to judge, to examine, to contend or litigate, and to doubt. It is rendered by the Vulg., as “not judging” — uncensorious; by Beza, “without contending” — incontroversial; by Erasmus, “making no difference” — impartial; and by Hammond, “not doubting,” i.e., as to the faith. “Uncensorious,” or, “impartial;” seems the most suitable rendering; not given to rashness in judging of others, or not shewing respect of persons, previously condemned in James 2:1. Then follows “undissembling,” not saying one thing and meaning another.
   There seems to be a complete contrast between the two kinds of wisdom. The wisdom from above is not envious, but pure; is not contentious, but peaceable; does not create confusion, but is patient and conciliatory; and instead of producing “every evil work,” it is full of mercy or benevolence, and of the fruits of benevolence, being not censorious or partial in judgment, and not dissembling, or acting dishonestly. By this comparison, we see what were some of the things included in “every evil work;” they were the reverse of mercy or benevolence, and its fruits, even censoriousness or partiality, and dissimilation. And yet those who exhibited all those evil things thought that they had wisdom! and even gloried in it!

18 And the fruit of righteousness. This admits of two meanings, — that fruit is sown by the peaceable, which afterwards they gather, — or, that they themselves, though they meekly tolerate many things in their neighbors, do not yet cease to sow righteousness. It is, however, an anticipation of an objection; for they who are carried away to evil speaking by the lust of slandering, have always this excuse, “What! can we then remove evil by our courteousness?” Hence James says, that those who are wise according to God’s will, are so kind, meek, and merciful, as yet not to cover vices nor favor them; but on the contrary in such a way as to strive to correct them, and yet in a peaceable manner, that is, in moderation, so that union is preserved. And thus he testifies that what he had hitherto said tends in no degree to do away with calm reproofs; but that those who wish to be physicians to heal vices ought not to be executioners.

He therefore adds, by those who make peace; which ought to be thus explained: they who study peace, are nevertheless careful to sow righteousness; nor are they slothful or negligent in promoting and encouraging good works; but they moderate their zeal with the condiment of peace, while hypocrites throw all things into confusion by a blind and furious violence.