“Let every one be … slow to speak” (James 1:19).
Don’t rush into the role of a Bible teacher.
It is reported that when the Scottish Reformer John Knox was called to preach, he shed many tears and withdrew to the privacy of his room. He was grieved and greatly troubled at the prospect of such an awesome responsibility. Only the compelling grace of the Holy Spirit Himself enabled Knox to fulfill his calling.
John Knox understood the importance of being “slow to speak.” He knew that God holds teachers of the Word accountable for what they say and will dispense a stricter judgment to them if they violate their ministry (James 3:1–2).
In one sense, God holds everyone accountable for what they say. You are to “let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). But being “slow to speak” doesn’t refer to vocabulary or opinions. It refers to teaching the Word. You are to pursue every opportunity to hear God’s Word but must exercise reluctance in assuming the role of a teacher. Why? Because the tongue reveals the subtle sins of one’s heart and easily offends others (James 3:2).
Does that mean you should never teach the Bible? No, because God commands every believer to “make disciples … teaching them to observe all” that Jesus taught (Matt. 28:19–20, emphasis added). And the Spirit gifts many believers to be preachers and teachers of the Word. Paul said, “I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
You must take every opportunity to share the gospel with others; and if God has called and gifted you to teach the Word, be faithful to do so. But remember, those are serious and sacred responsibilities. Be sure your motives are pure and your teaching accurate. If someone is offended, let it be by the convicting power of the Word, not by something you said at an unguarded moment.
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord to teach you to guard your tongue and to speak only what is edifying to others.
For Further Study: Read Proverbs 10:19, 13:3, 17:28, and 29:20, noting what each verse teaches about wise speech.
1:19a The rest of this chapter gives practical instructions as to how we can be firstfruits of His creatures. It sets forth the practical righteousness which should characterize those who have been born again by the Word of Truth. We know that we were begotten by the word in order to manifest the truth of God. So then, let us now discharge our responsibility.
We should be swift to hear. This is an unusual command, with almost a trace of humor in it. It’s like saying, “Hurry up and hear!” It means that we should be ready to hear the word of God, as well as all godly counsel and admonition. We should be teachable by the Holy Spirit. We should be slow to speak. It is surprising how much James has to say about our speech! He cautions us to be guarded in our conversation. Even nature itself teaches us this. Epictetus noticed so long ago: “Nature has given to man one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” Solomon would have agreed heartily with James. He once said, “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction” (Prov. 13:3). He also said, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). Compulsive talkers eventually transgress.
1:19b, 20 We should be slow to wrath. A man who is quick-tempered does not produce the kind of righteousness which God expects from His children. Those who lose their temper give people a wrong impression about Christianity. It is still true that “he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32).
- My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,20. for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
Throughout the letter in general and here in particular, James talks directly to his readers. He tells them what to do and what not to do. Here he says, “Take note of this.” And what should they know? In typical Semitic parallelism he states the proverb:
Everyone should be
quick to listen
slow to speak
slow to become angry.
Speakers who have the talent to express themselves fluently and eloquently are much in demand. They receive recognition, admiration, and acclaim. James, however, puts the emphasis not on speaking but on listening. That is more important than speaking.
Listening is an art that is difficult to master, for it means to take an intense interest in the person who is speaking. Listening is the art of closing one’s mouth and opening one’s ears and heart. Listening is loving the neighbor as oneself; his concerns and problems are sufficiently important to be heard.
James cautions his readers to be fully aware of the words they speak. In effect, he echoes the saying of Jesus, “But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37; consult Eccles. 5:1–2; Sir. 5:11).
When James says that we must be slow to speak, he does not advocate that we take a vow to be silent. Rather, he wants us to be wise in our speaking. Jewish proverbs prevalent in the days of James were these: “Speak little and do much”; “It is wise for learned men to be silent, and much more for fools”; “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” (Prov. 17:28). Solomon said something similar in this proverb: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Prov. 10:19).
Careless words often accompany an angry mood. Of course, there is a place for righteous anger, but the psalmist tells us to know the limit of righteous anger: “In your anger do not sin” (Ps. 4:4; Eph. 4:26; and see Matt. 5:22). James pleads for restraint in respect to anger.
We have our excuses ready for being angry: too busy, too much pressure, a family trait, or even “I can’t help it.” James rules out excuses when he says, “Be … slow to become angry.” That is, we must be able to give an account of every word we speak. “A quick-tempered man displays folly” (Prov. 14:29) and anger is sin (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Titus 1:7). An angry man listens to the voice of the evil one and not to the voice of God.
James is direct. Says he, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Anger hinders the prayers of a believer (1 Tim. 2:8) and thus prevents him from promoting the cause of Christ. In effect, he has given “the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27). Consider Moses, who became angry with the Israelites but did not listen to the instructions God had given him. He showed disobedience and thus was not permitted to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20:10–12, 24; 27:14; Deut. 1:37; 3:26–27).
When we live the righteous life that God desires of us, we listen carefully and obediently to the Word of God. When we plan to do or say something, we ought to ask whether our actions and words promote the honor of God and advance the cause of justice and peace for our fellow man. When we permit anger to guide us, we are no longer guided by the law of God. “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins” (Prov. 29:22). Instead the believer ought to control his temper, pray for wisdom, and keep the law of God.
Willingness to Receive the Word with Submission
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (1:19–20)
This you know refers back to the truths just expressed: first, the general truth of the power of the Word in regenerating believers in the early church and making them entirely new creations; and, second, the subsidiary and marvelous truth that those believers became, in fact, “the first fruits among His creatures” (v. 18). From the apostle’s teaching as well as from their own experience, they knew what it was to be transformed by the incorruptible seed of the Word and given eternal life in the very family of God as His own child (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23–25).
At this point, James makes a clear transition in emphasis. Because we have experienced the transforming power of God and have been made new creatures, we are to continually submit to His Word, allowing it to continue its divine work in and through our lives. In James 1:18, Scripture is called “the word of truth”; in verse 21, “the word implanted”; in verse 22, simply “the word”; in verse 23, figuratively, as “a mirror”; and in verse 25, “the perfect law, the law of liberty.”
Scripture not only is given to bring men to salvation but also is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). By the continual, faithful hearing of the life-giving and life-sustaining Word, our divinely indwelt hearts are stimulated to obey the Word with willing submission to its teachings and truths. We exult with David that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:7–8). “I have inherited Your testimonies forever,” another psalmist writes, “for they are the joy of my heart” (Ps. 119:111).
By addressing his readers as my beloved brethren James clearly indicates his deep compassion and concern for them. Like every wise Christian teacher, he is not simply trying to convince their minds in a purely intellectual way but also is trying to reach their hearts. His affection for them is equally as strong as his obligation to them. Few things can make a teacher’s work more effective than a genuine love for those being taught. Love can break down barriers—intellectual as well as spiritual ones—that no amount of fact and reason may do. And no matter how well the mind may understand and acknowledge a truth, it will be of little spiritual benefit to the believer or to the kingdom if the heart is not inclined to personally embrace and submit to it.
In the second half of verse 19, James gives three important commands for the believer who is willing to receive God’s Word with submissiveness. All three are deceptively simple. First, we must be quick to hear, that is, be a careful listener, making sure that we pay attention in order to get the message right. “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise,” the writer of Proverbs observes; “when he closes his lips, he is counted prudent” (Prov. 17:28). In another place he asks rhetorically, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). In any field of knowledge we learn by listening, not by speaking (cf. Ps. 119:11; 2 Tim. 2:15).
James’s appeal is for believers to seize every opportunity to increase their exposure to Scripture, to take advantage of every privileged occasion to read God’s Word or to hear it faithfully preached or taught. The sincere, eager desire for such learning is one of the surest marks of a true child of God. When he is specially blessed, he turns to the Word to find passages of thanksgiving and praise. When he is troubled, he searches for words of comfort, encouragement, and strength. In times of confusion, he searches for words of wisdom and guidance. When he is tempted, he searches out God’s standards of purity and righteousness for power to resist. The Word is the source of deliverance from temptations and trials. It becomes the most welcome friend, not only because of what it delivers us from but also because of what it delivers us to—glorious, intimate, and loving communion with our heavenly Lord.
Periodically, every Christian should do a personal inventory regarding his hunger and thirst for God’s Word. He should ask himself with determined honesty, “Is my real delight, like the psalmist’s, truly in the law of the Lord; and do I meditate on it day and night?” (cf. Ps. 1:2); and, “If we miss reading Scripture before the day begins, do we notice a difference in the day and in ourselves?” Can we sing with Charles Wesley,
When quiet in my room I sit,
Thy book be my companion still;
My joy Thy sayings to repeat,
Talk o’er the records of Thy will,
And search the oracles divine
Till every heartfelt word is mine.
J. A. Motyer has perceptively written,
We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God. But he does not help us in this way. Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit. It is possible to be unfailingly regular in Bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the book-mark forward: this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit. The word is read but not heard. On the other hand, if we can develop an attentive spirit, this will spur us to create those conditions—a proper method in Bible-reading, a discipline of time, and so on—by which the spirit will find itself satisfied in hearing the Word of God. (J. A. Motyer, The Message of James [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985], 64–65)
The true believer will be marked by such an attentive spirit, which will find a way to be in Scripture regularly, not for the purpose of filling an allotted devotional time but to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the truth—and through and above that, to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the Lord Himself. He will be eager to attend Bible preaching and study, so that his heart and mind can again be exposed to God’s truth. He will be eager on the Lord’s Day to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship Him.
Second, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to speak. That characteristic is a companion of the first. You cannot listen carefully while you are talking, or even while you are thinking about what to say. Many discussions are fruitless for the simple reason that all parties are paying more attention to what they want to say than to what others are saying.
In this context, therefore, it seems that slow to speak includes the idea of being careful not to be thinking about one’s own thoughts and ideas while someone else is trying to express God’s. We cannot really hear God’s Word when our minds are on our own thoughts. We need to keep silent inside as well as outside.
The primary idea here, however, is that, when the appropriate time to speak does come, what is said should be carefully thought out. When we speak for the Lord, we should have the gravest concern that what we say not only is true but is spoken in a way that both edifies those who hear and honors the Lord in whose behalf we speak. We should pursue every opportunity to read the Word ourselves, to hear it preached and taught, and to discuss it with other believers who love, honor, and seek to obey it. At the same time, we should be cautious, patient, and careful when we have opportunity to preach, teach, or explain it to others. It is doubtless for that reason that James later warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
After many years of preaching and teaching the Word, I must confess that, although the exercise of preaching is the manifestation of my spiritual gift and certainly brings rich satisfaction, I cannot honestly say that I relish preaching and teaching or bask in the light of it. I do not rush into the pulpit with any sort of personal exhilaration or joy. There is always a certain reluctance in my heart, not a reluctance to fulfill my calling but a reluctance based on the great weight of responsibility to handle accurately and proclaim the truth of God (2 Tim. 2:15).
According to one of his biographers, when the great Scottish Reformer and theologian John Knox was first called to preach, “He burst forth in most abundant tears, and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behavior from that day until the day he was compelled to present himself to the public place of preaching, did sufficiently declare the trouble of his heart” (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 50).
When a famous Roman orator was asked by a young man to teach him the art of public speaking, the young man continued an incessant flow of meaningless talk that allowed the great teacher no opportunity to interject a word. When they finally reached the point of discussing a fee, the orator said, “Young man, to instruct you in oratory, I will have to charge you a double fee.” When asked why, he explained, “Because I will have to teach you two skills: the first, how to hold your tongue; the second, how to use it.”
It is tragic when new converts, especially celebrities, are immediately encouraged to begin speaking publicly, not simply to give testimony to their salvation, but to begin giving advice and counsel about other aspects of Christian doctrine and practice for which they are not biblically or experientially prepared. Not only does it tend to foster pride and false confidence in the new convert but almost inevitably offers shallow, and often erroneous and spiritually dangerous, ideas to those who hear them. Well aware of that danger, Paul warned Timothy that an overseer, or elder, should not be “a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). Later in that letter he adds, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (5:22; cf. Ezek. 3:17–18; Acts 20:26–28; Heb. 13:17).
Judging from James 1:26 and 3:1, some believers in the churches to whom James wrote were accustomed to saying and teaching whatever happened to come into their minds, without giving it careful thought or checking it against Scripture. Many of the would-be teachers were perhaps sincere but poorly taught and unprepared. Some were proud and arrogant (see 4:6) and enjoyed hearing their own voices and being considered teachers and leaders. Some, being discontent, were given to criticizing and wrangling with each other (see 3:14; 4:1–2, 11; 5:9). And, although James does not mention the problem specifically, it would seem certain that there were also unbelieving false teachers who were deceptively undermining the doctrine and faith of church members, causing great confusion and damage.
The man of God whom God has anointed to preach and teach His Word is compelled to do that with both willingness and joy. But he also is to do it with a sense of awe, always making sure—by careful and patient study, preparation, and prayer—that he says nothing in God’s name that does not accurately reflect God’s Word.
Third, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to anger. Anger is a very natural emotion that is an all but automatic response—even for believers who are not spiritually prepared—to anything or anyone that harms or displeases them. Orgē (anger) does not refer to an explosive outburst of temper but to an inner, deep resentment that seethes and smolders, often unnoticed by others. It is therefore an anger that only the Lord and the believer know about. Therefore, it is a special danger, in that it can be privately harbored.
In this context, James seems to be speaking particularly about anger at a truth in the Word that displeases, that confronts sin or conflicts with a cherished personal belief or standard of behavior. It refers to a disposition hostile to scriptural truth when it does not correspond to one’s own convictions, manifested—even if only inwardly—against those who faithfully teach the Word.
As already noted, anger also was reflected in the general discontent and dissension within some of the congregations to whom James wrote. “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” he asks. “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (4:1–2). People desired to have their own opinions confirmed, their own ways approved, their own likes and dislikes accepted by others. Self-will was supreme, personal hostility was rampant, and the spiritual damage was enormous. Instead of working together in love in each other’s behalf, they fought each other to have their own ways, regardless of the consequences to Christ’s church or to their own spiritual well-being.
But James’s emphasis here seems to be on those who hear the truth and resent its exposing their personal false ideas or ungodly lifestyles. Paul asked believers in Galatia, “So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). In the minds of some church members, the answer doubtless was “yes.” In reality, of course, Paul’s persistently telling them God’s truth, without compromise or omission, was the kindest and most helpful thing he could do for them. That is the kindest and most helpful thing anyone can do for someone else.
But throughout the history of the church—in fact, throughout the history of fallen mankind—even believers have resented God’s truth and the messenger who brought it. Sometimes a pastor must therefore be severe in challenging and rebuking that resentment. “Now some have become arrogant,” Paul told the church at Corinth, “as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:18–21).
In a similar but somewhat less specific way, James was trying to contain and defuse the personal resentment and hostility that plagued some, perhaps all, of the churches his letter would eventually reach. Many of the believers in those churches would have been under his pastoral care in Jerusalem before the church there was scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 8:1; 11:19).
There is, of course, a just anger, a holy indignation against sin, Satan, and anything that dishonors the Lord or assaults His glory. Jesus was intensely angry when He saw His Father’s house, the holy temple in Jerusalem, turned into “a place of business,” and He expressed His anger twice by driving out those responsible for the desecration (John 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 21:12–13).
But mere personal anger, bitterness, and resentment can never serve the cause of Christ, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, that is, does not accomplish what is right in God’s eyes. That is especially true when the hostility is against the truth of God’s Word, for that in reality is against God Himself.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 168). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2222–2223). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 56–57). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 68–73). Chicago: Moody Press.