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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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Jas 3:1-18. Danger of Eagerness to Teach, and of an Unbridled Tongue: True Wisdom Shown by Uncontentious Meekness.

1. be not—literally, "become not": taking the office too hastily, and of your own accord.

many—The office is a noble one; but few are fit for it. Few govern the tongue well (Jas 3:2), and only such as can govern it are fit for the office; therefore, "teachers" ought not to be many.

masters—rather, "teachers." The Jews were especially prone to this presumption. The idea that faith (so called) without works (Jas 2:14-26) was all that is required, prompted "many" to set up as "teachers," as has been the case in all ages of the Church. At first all were allowed to teach in turns. Even their inspired gifts did not prevent liability to abuse, as James here implies: much more is this so when self-constituted teachers have no such miraculous gifts.

knowing—as all might know.

we … greater condemnation—James in a humble, conciliatory spirit, includes himself: if we teachers abuse the office, we shall receive greater condemnation than those who are mere hearers (compare Lu 12:42-46). Calvin, like English Version, translates, "masters" that is, self-constituted censors and reprovers of others Jas 4:12 accords with this view.

2. all—The Greek implies "all without exception": even the apostles.

offend not—literally "stumbleth not": is void of offence or "slip" in word: in which respect one is especially tried who sets up to be a "teacher."

3. Behold—The best authorities read, "but if," that is, Now whensoever (in the case) of horses (such is the emphatic position of "horses" in the Greek) we put the bits (so literally, "the customary bits") into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about also their whole body. This is to illustrate how man turns about his whole body with the little tongue. "The same applies to the pen, which is the substitute for the tongue among the absent" [Bengel].

4. Not only animals, but even ships.

the governor listeth—literally, "the impulse of the steersman pleaseth." The feeling which moves the tongue corresponds with this.

5. boasteth great things—There is great moment in what the careless think "little" things [Bengel]. Compare "a world," "the course of nature," "hell," Jas 3:6, which illustrate how the little tongue's great words produce great mischief.

how great a matter a little fire kindleth—The best manuscripts read, "how little a fire kindleth how great a," &c. Alford, for "matter," translates, "forest." But Grotius translates as English Version, "material for burning": a pile of fuel.

6. Translate, "The tongue, that world of iniquity, is a fire." As man's little world is an image of the greater world, the universe, so the tongue is an image of the former [Bengel].

so—omitted in the oldest authorities.

is—literally, "is constituted." "The tongue is (constituted), among the members, the one which defileth," &c. (namely, as fire defiles with its smoke).

course of nature—"the orb (cycle) of creation."

setteth on fire … is set on fire—habitually and continually. While a man inflames others, he passes out of his own power, being consumed in the flame himself.

of hell—that is, of the devil. Greek, "Gehenna"; found here only and in Mt 5:22. James has much in common with the Sermon on the Mount (Pr 16:27).

7. every kind—rather, "every nature" (that is, natural disposition and characteristic power).

of beasts—that is, quadrupeds of every disposition; as distinguished from the three other classes of creation, "birds, creeping things (the Greek includes not merely 'serpents,' as English Version), and things in the sea."

is tamed, and hath been—is continually being tamed, and hath been so long ago.

of mankind—rather, "by the nature of man": man's characteristic power taming that of the inferior animals. The dative in the Greek may imply, "Hath suffered itself to be brought into tame subjection TO the nature of men." So it shall be in the millennial world; even now man, by gentle firmness, may tame the inferior animal, and even elevate its nature.

8. no man—literally, "no one of men": neither can a man control his neighbor's, nor even his own tongue. Hence the truth of Jas 3:2 appears.

unruly evil—The Greek, implies that it is at once restless and incapable of restraint. Nay, though nature has hedged it in with a double barrier of the lips and teeth, it bursts from its barriers to assail and ruin men [Estius].

deadly—literally, "death-bearing."

9. God—The oldest authorities read, "Lord." "Him who is Lord and Father." The uncommonness of the application of "Lord" to the Father, doubtless caused the change in modern texts to "God" (Jas 1:27). But as Messiah is called "Father," Isa 9:6, so God the Father is called by the Son's title, "Lord": showing the unity of the Godhead. "Father" implies His paternal love; "Lord," His dominion.

men, which—not "men who"; for what is meant is not particular men, but men genetically [Alford].

are made after … similitude of God—Though in a great measure man has lost the likeness of God in which he was originally made, yet enough of it still remains to show what once it was, and what in regenerated and restored man it shall be. We ought to reverence this remnant and earnest of what man shall be in ourselves and in others. "Absalom has fallen from his father's favor, but the people still recognize him to be the king's son" [Bengel]. Man resembles in humanity the Son of man, "the express image of His person" (Heb 1:3), compare Ge 1:26; 1Jo 4:20. In the passage, Ge 1:26, "image" and "likeness" are distinct: "image," according to the Alexandrians, was something in which men were created, being common to all, and continuing to man after the fall, while the "likeness" was something toward which man was created, to strive after and attain it: the former marks man's physical and intellectual, the latter his moral pre-eminence.

10. The tongue, says ÆSOP, is at once the best and the worst of things. So in a fable, a man with the same breath blows hot and cold. "Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (compare Ps 62:4).

brethren—an appeal to their consciences by their brotherhood in Christ.

ought not so to be—a mild appeal, leaving it to themselves to understand that such conduct deserves the most severe reprobation.

11. fountain—an image of the heart: as the aperture (so the Greek for "place" is literally) of the fountain is an image of man's mouth. The image here is appropriate to the scene of the Epistle, Palestine, wherein salt and bitter springs are found. Though "sweet" springs are sometimes found near, yet "sweet and bitter" (water) do not flow "at the same place" (aperture). Grace can make the same mouth that "sent forth the bitter" once, send forth the sweet for the time to come: as the wood (typical of Christ's cross) changed Marah's bitter water into sweet.

12. Transition from the mouth to the heart.

Can the fig tree, &c.—implying that it is an impossibility: as before in Jas 3:10 he had said it "ought not so to be." James does not, as Matthew (Mt 7:16, 17), make the question, "Do men gather figs of thistles?" His argument is, No tree "can" bring forth fruit inconsistent with its nature, as for example, the fig tree, olive berries: so if a man speaks bitterly, and afterwards speaks good words, the latter must be so only seemingly, and in hypocrisy, they cannot be real.

so can no fountain … salt … and fresh—The oldest authorities read, "Neither can a salt (water spring) yield fresh." So the mouth that emits cursing, cannot really emit also blessing.

13. Who—(Compare Ps 34:12, 13). All wish to appear "wise": few are so.

show—"by works," and not merely by profession, referring to Jas 2:18.

out of a good conversation his works—by general "good conduct" manifested in particular "works." "Wisdom" and "knowledge," without these being "shown," are as dead as faith would be without works [Alford].

with meekness of wisdom—with the meekness inseparable from true "wisdom."

14. if ye haveas is the case (this is implied in the Greek indicative).

bitterEph 4:31, "bitterness."

envying—rather, "emulation," or literally, "zeal": kindly, generous emulation, or zeal, is not condemned, but that which is "bitter" [Bengel].

strife—rather, "rivalry."

in your hearts—from which flow your words and deeds, as from a fountain.

glory not, and lie not against the truth—To boast of your wisdom is virtually a lying against the truth (the gospel), while your lives belie your glorying. Jas 3:15; Jas 1:18, "The word of truth." Ro 2:17, 23, speaks similarly of the same contentious Jewish Christians.

15. This wisdom—in which ye "glory," as if ye were "wise" (Jas 3:13, 14).

descendeth not from above—literally, "is not one descending," &c.: "from the Father of lights" (true illumination and wisdom), Jas 1:17; through "the Spirit of truth," Joh 15:26.

earthly—opposed to heavenly. Distinct from "earthy," 1Co 15:47. Earthly is what is IN the earth; earthy, what is of the earth.

sensual—literally, "animal-like": the wisdom of the "natural" (the same Greek) man, not born again of God; "not having the Spirit" (Jude 19).

devilish—in its origin (from "hell," Jas 3:6; not from God, the Giver of true wisdom, Jas 1:5), and also in its character, which accords with its origin. Earthly, sensual, and devilish, answer to the three spiritual foes of man, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

16. envying—So English Version translates the Greek, which usually means "zeal"; "emulation," in Ro 13:13. "The envious man stands in his own light. He thinks his candle cannot shine in the presence of another's sun. He aims directly at men, obliquely at God, who makes men to differ."

strife—rivalry [Alford].

confusion—literally, "tumultuous anarchy": both in society (translated "commotions," Lu 21:9; "tumults," 2Co 6:5), and in the individual mind; in contrast to the "peaceable" composure of true "wisdom," Jas 3:17. James does not honor such effects of this earthly wisdom with the name "fruit," as he does in the case of the wisdom from above. Jas 3:18; compare Ga 5:19-22, "works of the flesh … fruit of the Spirit."

17. first pure—literally, "chaste," "sanctified": pure from all that is "earthly, sensual (animal), devilish" (Jas 3:15). This is put, "first of all," before "peaceable" because there is an unholy peace with the world which makes no distinction between clean and unclean. Compare "undefiled" and "unspotted from the world," Jas 1:27; 4:4, 8, "purify … hearts"; 1Pe 1:22, "purified … souls" (the same Greek). Ministers must not preach before a purifying change of heart, "Peace," where there is no peace. Seven (the perfect number) characteristic peculiarities of true wisdom are enumerated. Purity or sanctity is put first because it has respect both to God and to ourselves; the six that follow regard our fellow men. Our first concern is to have in ourselves sanctity; our second, to be at peace with men.

gentle—"forbearing"; making allowances for others; lenient towards neighbors, as to the DUTIES they owe us.

easy to be entreated—literally, "easily persuaded," tractable; not harsh as to a neighbor's FAULTS.

full of mercy—as to a neighbor's MISERIES.

good fruits—contrasted with "every evil work," Jas 3:16.

without partiality—recurring to the warning against partial "respect to persons," Jas 2:1, 4, 9. Alford translates as the Greek is translated, Jas 1:6, "wavering," "without doubting." But thus there would be an epithet referring to one's self inserted amidst those referring to one's conduct towards others. English Version is therefore better.

without hypocrisy—Not as Alford explains from Jas 1:22, 26, "Without deceiving yourselves" with the name without the reality of religion. For it must refer, like the rest of the six epithets, to our relations to others; our peaceableness and mercy towards others must be "without dissimulation."

18. "The peaceable fruit of righteousness." He says "righteousness"; because it is itself the true wisdom. As in the case of the earthly wisdom, after the characteristic description came its results; so in this verse, in the case of the heavenly wisdom. There the results were present; here, future.

fruit … sown—Compare Ps 97:11; Isa 61:3, "trees of righteousness." Anticipatory, that is, the seed whose "fruit," namely, "righteousness," shall be ultimately reaped, is now "sown in peace." "Righteousness," now in germ, when fully developed as "fruit" shall be itself the everlasting reward of the righteous. As "sowing in peace" (compare "sown in dishonor," 1Co 15:43) produces the "fruit of righteousness," so conversely "the work" and "effect of righteousness" is "peace."

of them that make peace—"by (implying also that it is for them, and to their good) them that work peace." They, and they alone, are "blessed." "Peacemakers," not merely they who reconcile others, but who work peace. "Cultivate peace" [Estius]. Those truly wise towards God, while peaceable and tolerant towards their neighbors, yet make it their chief concern to sow righteousness, not cloaking men's sins, but reproving them with such peaceable moderation as to be the physicians, rather than the executioners, of sinners [Calvin].