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165

CHAPTER XIV.
THE HEAVY RESPONSIBILITIES OF TEACHERS.
THE POWERS AND PROPENSITIES OF THE TONGUE.
THE SELF-DEFILEMENT OF THE RECKLESS TALKER.

"Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. If any stumble not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. Now if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths, that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also. Behold, the ships also, though they are so great, and are driven by rough winds, are yet turned about by a very small rudder, whither the impulse of the steersman willeth. So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beasts and birds, of creeping things and things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed by mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison."— St. James iii. 1-8.

FROM the "idle faith" (πίστις ἀργή) St. James goes on to speak of the "idle word" (ῥῆμα ἀργόν). The change from the subject of faith and works to that of the temptations and sins of speech is not so abrupt and arbitrary as at first sight appears. The need of warning his readers against sins of the tongue has been in his mind from the first. Twice in the first chapter it comes to the surface. "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" 166 (ver. 19), as if being slow to hear and swift to speak were much the same as being swift to wrath. And again, "If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his heart, this man's religion is vain" (ver. 26). And now the subject of barren faith causes him to return to the warning once more. For it is precisely those who neglect good works that are given to talk much about the excellence of their faith, and are always ready to instruct and lecture others. That controversies about faith and works suggested to him this section about offences of the tongue, is a gratuitous hypothesis. St. James shows no knowledge of any such controversies. As already pointed out, the purpose of the preceding section (ii. 14-26) is not controversial or doctrinal, but purely practical, like the rest of the Epistle. The paragraph before us is of the same character; it is against those who substitute words for works.

St. James is entirely of Carlyle's opinion that in the majority of cases, if "speech is silvern, silence is golden;" but he does not write twenty volumes to prove the truth of this doctrine. "In noble uprightness, he values only the strict practice of concrete duties, and hates talk" (Reuss); and while quite admitting that teachers are necessary, and that some are called to undertake this office, he tells all those who desire to undertake it that what they have to bear in mind is its perils and responsibilities. And it is obvious that true teachers must always be a minority. There is something seriously wrong when the majority in the community, or even a large number, are pressing forward to teach the rest.

"Be not many teachers, my brethren;" or, if we are to do full justice to the compact fulness of the 167 original, "Do not many of you become teachers." St. James is not protesting against a usurpation of the ministerial office; to suppose this is to give far too specific a meaning to his simple language. The context points to no such sin as that of Korah and his company, but simply to the folly of incurring needless danger and temptation. In the Jewish synagogues any one who was disposed to do so might come forward to teach, and St. James writes at a time when the same freedom prevailed in the Christian congregations. "Each had a psalm, had a teaching, had a revelation, had a tongue, had an interpretation.... All could prophesy one by one, that all might learn and all be comforted" (1 Cor. xiv. 26, 31). But in both cases the freedom led to serious disorders. The desire to be called of men "Rabbi, Rabbi," told among Jews and Christians alike, and many were eager to expound who had still the very elements of true religion to learn. It is against this general desire to be prominent as instructors both in private and in public that St. James is here warning his readers. The Christian Church already has its ministers distinct from the laity, to whom the laity are to apply for spiritual help (v. 14); but it is not an invasion of their office by the laity to which St. James refers, when he says, "Do not many of you become teachers." These Jewish Christians of the Dispersion were like those at Rome to whom St. Paul writes; each of them was confident that his knowledge of God and the Law made him competent to become "a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the Law the form of knowledge and of the truth" (Rom. ii. 17 ff.). But in teaching others they forgot to teach themselves; they 168 failed to see that to preach the law without being a doer of the law was to cause God's name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles; and that to possess faith and do nothing but talk was but to increase their own condemnation; for it was to place themselves among those who are condemned by Christ because "they say and do not" (Matt. xxiii. 3). The phrase "to receive judgment" (κρῖμα λαμβάνειν) is in form a neutral one: the judgment may conceivably be a favourable one, but in usage it implies that the judgment is adverse (Mark xii. 40; Luke xx. 47; Rom. xiii. 2). Even without the verb "receive" this word "judgment" in the New Testament generally has the meaning of a condemnatory sentence (Rom. ii. 2, 3; iii. 8; v. 16; 1 Cor. xi. 29; Gal. v. 10; 1 Tim. iii. 6; v. 12; 1 Pet. iv. 17; 2 Pet. ii. 3; Jude 4; Rev. xvii. 1; xviii. 20). And there is no reason to doubt that such is the meaning here; the context requires it. The fact that St. James with affectionate humility and persuasiveness includes himself in the judgment—"we shall receive"—by no means proves that the word is here used in a neutral sense. In this he is like St. John, who breaks the logical flow of a sentence in a similar manner, rather than seem not to include himself: "If any man sin, we have an Advocate" (1 John ii. 1); he is as much in need of the Advocate as others. So also here, St. James, as being a teacher, shares in the heavier condemnation of teachers. It was the conviction that the word is not neutral, but condemnatory, which produced the rendering in the Vulgate, "knowing that ye receive greater condemnation" (scientes quoniam majus judicium sumitis), it being thought that St. James ought not to be included in such a judgment.

169 But this is to miss the point of the passage. St. James says that "in many things we stumble—every one of us." He uses the strong form of the adjective (ἅπαντες for πάντες), and places it last with great emphasis. Every one of us sins, and therefore there is condemnation in store for every one of us. But those of us who are teachers will receive a heavier sentence than those of us who are not such; for our obligations to live up to the law which we know, and profess, and urge upon others, are far greater. Heaviest of all will be the condemnation of those who, without being called or qualified, through fanaticism, or an itch for notoriety, or a craze for controversy, or a love of fault-finding, push themselves forward to dispense instruction and censure. They are among the fools who "rush in where angels fear to tread," and thereby incur responsibilities which they need not, and ought not, to have incurred, because they do not possess the qualifications for meeting them and discharging them. The argument is simple and plain: "Some of us must teach. All of us frequently fall. Teachers who fall are more severely judged than others. Therefore do not many of you become teachers."

In what sphere is it that we most frequently fall? Precisely in that sphere in which the activity of teachers specially lies—in speech. "If any stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man." St. James is not thinking merely of the teacher who never makes a mistake, but of the man who never sins with the tongue. There is an obvious, but by no means exclusive, reference to teachers, and that is all. To every one of us, whatever our sphere in life, the saying comes home that one who offends not in word is indeed a perfect man. By "perfect" (τέλειος) he means 170 one who has attained full spiritual and moral development, who is "perfect and entire, lacking in nothing" (i. 4). He is no longer a babe, but an adult; no longer a learner, but an adept. He is a full and complete man, with perfect command of all the faculties of soul and body. He has the full use of them, and complete control over them. The man who can bridle the most rebellious part of his nature, and keep it in faultless subjection, can bridle also the whole. This use of "perfect," as opposed to what is immature and incomplete, is the commonest use of the word in the New Testament. But sometimes it is a religious or philosophical term, borrowed from heathen mysteries or heathen philosophy. In such cases it signifies the initiated, as distinct from novices. Such a metaphor was very applicable to the Gospel, and St. Paul sometimes employs it (1 Cor. ii. 6; Col. i. 28); but it may be doubted whether any such thought is in St. James's mind here, although such a metaphor would have suited the subject. He who never stumbles in word can be no novice, but must be fully initiated in Christian discipline. But the simpler interpretation is better. He who can school the tongue can school the hands and the feet, the heart and the brain, in fact "the whole body," the whole of his nature, and is therefore a perfect man.

In his characteristic manner, St. James turns to natural objects for illustrations to enforce his point. "Now if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths, that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body." The changes made here by the Revisers are changes caused by a very necessary correction of the Greek text (εἰ δέ instead of ἴδε, which St. James nowhere else uses, or ἰδού, which here has very little evidence in its favour); for the text has been corrupted 171 in order to simplify a rather difficult and doubtful construction. The uncorrupted text may be taken in two ways. Either, "But if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths, that they may obey us, and so turn about their whole body"—(much more ought we to do so to ourselves); this obvious conclusion being not stated, but left for us to supply at the end of an unfinished sentence. Or, as the Revisers take it, which is simpler, and leaves nothing to be understood. A man who can govern his tongue can govern his whole nature, just as a bridle controls, not merely the horse's mouth, but the whole animal. This first metaphor is suggested by the writer's own language. He has just spoken of the perfect man bridling his whole body, as before he spoke of the impossibility of true religion in one who does not bridle his tongue (i. 26); and this naturally suggests the illustration of the horses.

The argument is à fortiori from the horse to the man, and still more from the ship to the man, so that the whole forms a climax, the point throughout being the same, viz. the smallness of the part to be controlled in order to have control over the whole. And in order to bring out the fact that the ships are a stronger illustration than the horses, we should translate, "Behold, even the ships, though they are so great," etc., rather than "Behold, the ships also, though they are so great." First the statement of the case (ver. 2), then the illustration from the horses (ver. 3), then "even the ships" (ver. 4), and finally the application, "so the tongue also" (ver. 5). Thus all runs smoothly. If, as is certainly the case, we are able to govern irrational creatures with a small bit, how much more ourselves through the tongue; for just as he who has 172 lost his hold of the reins has lost control over the horse, so he who has lost his hold on his tongue has lost control over himself. The case of the ship is still stronger. It is not only devoid of reason, but devoid of life. It cannot be taught obedience. It offers a dead resistance, which is all the greater because of its much greater size, and because it is driven by rough winds; yet its whole mass can be turned about by whoever has control of the little rudder, to lose command of which is to lose command of all. How much more, therefore, may we keep command over ourselves by having command over our tongues! There is nothing more in the metaphor than this. We may, if we please, go on with Bede, and turn the whole into a parable, and make the sea mean human life, and the winds mean temptations, and so on; but we must beware of supposing that anything of that kind was in the mind of St. James, or belongs to the explanation of the passage. Such symbolism is read into the text, not extracted from it. It is legitimate as a means of edifying, but it is not interpretation.

The expression "rough winds" (σκληρῶν ἀνέμων) is peculiar, "rough" meaning hard or harsh, especially to the touch, and hence of what is intractable or disagreeable in other ways (1 Sam. xxv. 3; Matt. xxv. 24; John vi. 60; Acts xxvi. 14; Jude 15). Perhaps in only one other passage in Greek literature, previous to this Epistle, is it used as an epithet of wind, viz. in Prov. xxvii. 16, a passage in which the Septuagint differs widely from the Hebrew and from our versions. St. James, who seems to have been specially fond of the sapiential books of Scripture, may have derived this expression from the Proverbs.

"So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth 173 great things." The tongue, like the bit and the rudder, is only a very small part of the whole, and yet, like them, it can do great things. St. James says, "boasteth great things," rather than "doeth great things," not in order to insinuate that the tongue boasts of what it cannot or does not do, which would spoil the argument, but in order to prepare the way for the change in the point of the argument. Hitherto the point has been the immense influence which the small organ of speech has over our whole being, and the consequent need of controlling it when we want to control ourselves. We must take care to begin the control in the right place. This point being established, the argument takes a somewhat different turn, and the necessity of curbing the tongue is shown, not from its great power, but from its inherent malignity. It can be made to discharge good offices, but its natural bent is towards evil. If left unchecked, it is certain to do incalculable mischief. The expression "boasteth great things" marks the transition from the one point to the other, and in a measure combines them both. There are great things done; that shows the tongue's power. And it boasts about them; that shows its bad character.6767   There is a story that Amasis, King of Egypt, sent a sacrifice to Bias the sage, asking him to send back the best part and the worst; and Bias sent back the tongue.

This second point, like the first, is enforced by two illustrations taken from the world of nature. The first was illustrated by the power of bits and rudders; the second is illustrated by the capacity for mischief in fire and in venomous beasts. "Behold, what a fire kindles what a wood!" is the literal rendering of the Greek, where "what a fire" evidently means "how small a 174 fire," while "what a wood" means "how large a wood." The traveller's camp-fire is enough to set a whole forest in flames, and the camp-fire was kindled by a few sparks. "Fire," it is sometimes truly said, "is a good servant, but a bad master," and precisely the same may with equal truth be said of the tongue. So long as it is kept under control it does excellent service; but directly it can run on unchecked, and lead instead of obeying, it begins to do untold mischief. We sometimes speak of men whose "pens run away with them;" but a far commoner case is that of persons whose tongues run away with them, whose untamed and unbridled tongues say things which are neither seriously thought nor (even at the moment) seriously meant. The habit of saying "great things" and using strong language is a condition of constant peril, which will inevitably lead the speaker into evil. It is a reckless handling of highly dangerous material. It is playing with fire.

Yes, "the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body." The right punctuation of this sentence cannot be determined with certainty, and other possible arrangements will be found in the margin of the Revised Version; but on the whole this seems to be the best. The one thing that is certain is that the "so" of the Authorized Version—"so is the tongue among our members"—is not genuine; if it were, it would settle the construction and the punctuation in favour of what is at least the second best arrangement: "The tongue is a fire, that world of iniquity: the tongue is among our members that which defileth the whole body." The meaning of "the world of iniquity" has been a good deal discussed, but is not really doubtful. 175 The ordinary colloquial signification is the right one. The tongue is a boundless store of mischief, an inexhaustible source of evil, a universe of iniquity; universitas iniquitatis, as the Vulgate renders it. It contains within itself the elements of all unrighteousness; it is charged with endless possibilities of sin. This use of "world" (κόσμος) seems not to occur in classical Greek; but it is found in the Septuagint of the Proverbs, and again in a passage where the Greek differs widely from the Hebrew (see above, p. 172). What is still more remarkable, it occurs immediately after the mention of sins of speech: "An evil man listeneth to the tongue of the wicked; but a righteous man giveth no heed to false lips. The faithful man has the whole world of wealth; but the faithless not even a penny" (xvii. 4).

"Is the tongue." The word for "is" must be observed (not ἐστι, nor ὑπάρχει, but καθίσταται). Its literal meaning is "constitutes itself," and it occurs again in iv. 4, where the Revisers rightly translate it "maketh himself:" "Whosoever would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God." The tongue was not created by God to be a permanent source of all kinds of evil; like the rest of creation, it was made "very good," "the best member that we have." It is by its own undisciplined and lawless career that it makes itself "the world of iniquity," that it constitutes itself among our members as "that which defileth our whole body." This helps to explain what St. James means by "unspotted" (ἄσπθλον) or "undefiled" (i. 27). He who does not bridle his tongue is not really religious. Pure religion consists in keeping in check that "which defileth (ἡ σπιλοῦσα) our whole body." And the tongue defiles us in three ways;—by suggesting sin to ourselves and others; by committing 176 sin, as in all cases of lying and blasphemy; and by excusing or defending sin. It is a palmary instance of the principle that the best when perverted becomes the worst—corruptio optimi fit pessima.

It "setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell." We must be content to leave the precise meaning of the words rendered "the wheel of nature" (τὸν τροχὸν τῆς γενέσεως) undetermined. The general meaning is evident enough, but we cannot be sure what image St. James had in his mind when he wrote the words. The one substantive is obviously a metaphor, and the other is vague in meaning (as the latter occurs i. 23, the two passages should be compared in expounding); but what the exact idea to be conveyed by the combination is, remains a matter for conjecture. And the conjectures are numerous, of which one must suffice. The tongue is a centre from which mischief radiates; that is the main thought. A wheel that has caught fire at the axle is at last wholly consumed, as the fire spreads through the spokes to the circumference. So also in society. Passions kindled by unscrupulous language spread through various channels and classes, till the whole cycle of human life is in flames. Reckless language first of all "defiles the whole" nature of the man who employs it, and then works destruction far and wide through the vast machinery of society. And to this there are no limits; so long as there is material, the fire will continue to burn.

How did the fire begin? How does the tongue, which was created for far other purposes, acquire this deadly propensity? St. James leaves us in no doubt upon that point. It is an inspiration of the evil one. The enemy, who steals away the good seed, and sows weeds among the wheat, turns the immense powers of 177 the tongue to destruction. The old serpent imbues it with his own poison. He imparts to it his own diabolical agency. He is perpetually setting it on fire (present participle) from hell.

The second metaphor by which the malignant propensity of the tongue is illustrated is plain enough. It is an untamable, venomous beast. It combines the ferocity of the tiger and the mockery of the ape with the subtlety and venom of the serpent. It can be checked, can be disciplined, can be taught to do good and useful things; but it can never be tamed, and must never be trusted. If care and watchfulness are laid aside, its evil nature will burst out again, and the results will be calamitous.

There are many other passages in Scripture which contain warnings about sins of the tongue: see especially Proverbs xvi. 27, 28; Ecclus. v. 13, 14, and xxviii. 9-23, from which St. James may have drawn some of his thoughts. But what is peculiar to his statement of the matter is this, that the reckless tongue defiles the whole nature of the man who owns it. Other writers tell us of the mischief which the foul-mouthed man does to others, and of the punishment which will one day fall upon himself. St. James does not lose sight of that side of the matter, but the special point of his stern warning is the insisting upon the fact that unbridled speech is a pollution to the man that employs it. Every faculty of mind or body with which he has been endowed is contaminated by the subtle poison which is allowed to proceed from his lips. It is a special application of the principle laid down by Christ, which was at first a perplexity even to the Twelve, "The things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man" (Mark vii. 15, 20, 23). The 178 emphasis with which Christ taught this ought to be noticed. On purpose to insist upon it, "He called to Him the multitude again, and said unto them, Hear ye all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man." And He repeats this principle a second and a third time to His disciples privately. "Are ye so without understanding also?... That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man.... All these things proceed from within, and defile the man." If even an unspoken thought can defile, when it has not yet proceeded farther than the heart, much greater will be the pollution if the evil thing is allowed to come to the birth by passing the barrier of the lips. This flow of evil from us means nothing less than this, that we have made ourselves a channel through which infernal agencies pass into the world. Is it possible for such a channel to escape defilement?


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