Taming the Tongue
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (3:1–12)
The tongue is you in a unique way. It is a tattletale that tells on the heart and discloses the real person. Not only that, but misuse of the tongue is perhaps the easiest way to sin. There are some sins that an individual may not be able to commit simply because he does not have the opportunity. But there are no limits to what one can say, no built-in restraints or boundaries. In Scripture, the tongue is variously described as wicked, deceitful, perverse, filthy, corrupt, flattering, slanderous, gossiping, blasphemous, foolish, boasting, complaining, cursing, contentious, sensual, and vile. And that list is not exhaustive. No wonder God put the tongue in a cage behind the teeth, walled in by the mouth! Using another figure, someone has observed that because the tongue is in a wet place, it can easily slip.
The tongue is of great concern to James, being mentioned in every chapter of his letter (see 1:19, 26; 2:12; 3:5, 6 [twice], 8; 4:11; 5:12). In 3:1–12 he uses the tongue as still another test of living faith, because the genuineness of a person’s faith inevitably will be demonstrated by his speech. James personifies the tongue and the mouth as representatives of the depravity and wretchedness of the inner person. The tongue only produces what it is told to produce by the heart, where sin originates (cf. 1:14–15). “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders,” Jesus declared (Matt. 15:19).
Scientists maintain that once a sound wave is set in motion, it continues on a never-ending journey, and that, if we had sophisticated enough instruments, each wave could be captured and reproduced at any time. If that is true, every word spoken by any person who has ever lived could be retrieved! God, of course, needs no such instrument, and Jesus states plainly that “every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).
Nowhere is the relationship between faith and works more evident than in a person’s speech. What you are will inevitably be disclosed by what you say. It might be said that a person’s speech is a reliable measure of his spiritual temperature, a monitor of the inner human condition. The rabbis spoke of the tongue as an arrow rather than a dagger or sword, because it can wound and kill from a great distance. It can wreak great damage even when far from its victim.
The first sin committed after the Fall was a sin of the tongue. When God questioned Adam about his eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam slandered God by suggesting that He was indirectly responsible, saying, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). In describing man’s total depravity, Paul says, “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13–14; cf. Pss. 5:9; 140:3). As he glimpsed God’s glory and holiness, Isaiah, convicted of his own sinfulness, related it to his mouth, exclaiming, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). Scripture says much about the tongue’s evil (Pss. 34:13; 39:1; 52:4; Prov. 6:17; 17:20; 26:28; 28:23; Isa. 59:3).
On the other hand, that a righteous heart is manifested by righteous speech is nowhere more beautifully portrayed than in the Psalms. David exulted, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!” (Ps. 8:1). He declared, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (19:7); and he testified, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (19:8). Doubtless one of the reasons David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14) was his being able truthfully to say, “My tongue shall declare Your righteousness and Your praise all day long” (Psalm 35:28).
When a person receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, he becomes a new creation. His whole being is transformed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, Paul says,
If you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.… Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.… But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.… Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col. 3:1–2, 5, 8, 15–17)
A transformed nature will produce transformed behavior. And new behavior involves new speech, speech that corresponds to a saved and sanctified life and that reflects the holy nature of the One who has given the new life.
Scripture contains many inscrutable truths which, on the surface, seem to be contradictory or inconsistent and not able to be reconciled with each other by finite minds. For example, believers are chosen for salvation by the sovereign grace of God before the foundation of the world; yet they must exercise faith in order to be saved. As believers, we are kept secure in Christ by God’s sovereign decree; yet we must persevere. We can live a holy life only through the power of the Holy Spirit; yet we are commanded to obey. As James has pointed out in the first chapter of his letter, we will endure trials; yet we must endure them. We will receive the Word; yet we must receive it. We will be gracious to the needy without partiality; yet we must be gracious to them without partiality. We will produce good works; yet we must produce them. Where there is genuine living faith and spiritual transformation, those things, and many others, both will be the result and must be the result.
Here James mentions another of these incomprehensible realities: True believers will possess a sanctified tongue; yet they must maintain a sanctified tongue. In 3:1–12, he gives five compelling reasons for controlling the tongue: its potential to condemn (vv. 1–2a); its power to control (vv. 2b–5a); its propensity to corrupt (vv. 5b–6); its primitiveness to combat (vv. 7–8); and its perfidy to compromise (vv. 9–12).
Its Potential to Condemn
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. (3:1–2a)
Didaskaloi (teachers) was often used of rabbis and any who functioned in an official teaching or preaching role (cf. John 3:10), suggesting that James was speaking of the teaching office in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Above all else, rabbis were master teachers and were accorded great honor and respect by their fellow Jews. As reflected in the gospels, many rabbis relished their prestige and privilege. Jesus said of the scribes and the Pharisees, many of whom were rabbis, that they “have seated themselves in the chair of Moses.… But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:2, 5–7).
In some Jewish circles, rabbis were held in such high regard that a person’s duty to his rabbi was considered greater than that to his own parents, because his parents only brought him into the life of this world, whereas his rabbi brought him into the life of the world to come. It was written that if a man’s parents and his rabbi were captured by an enemy, the rabbi was to be ransomed first. Although rabbis were not allowed to take money for their services but were to support themselves with a trade, it was considered an especially pious act to take one into your house and support him in every way possible.
The self-seeking motives that characterized many rabbis were anathema to Jesus and have no place in the lives of His people. But obviously there were some among those to whom James wrote who had such motives and who desired to become teachers for the wrong reason.
Besides official rabbis, any respected Jewish man might be given opportunity to speak in a synagogue service. Although Jesus was not an official rabbi, He frequently read Scripture and gave an interpretation on the Sabbath, at least once in His hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:15–21, 31; Matt. 4:23; 9:35). Similarly, Paul and Barnabas, also not sanctioned rabbis, frequently spoke in synagogues when they visited a city (e.g., Acts 13:5, 14–15; 14:1). Apparently it was also common in the early church for a mature Christian man to have opportunity to speak in a service. Paul regulated the church at Corinth by writing, “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26). Throughout the history of the church, and certainly in churches today, there are many people—such as counselors, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and such—who are not called and ordained to ministry but who have a rightful contribution to make in teaching God’s Word.
By giving the caution Let not many of you become teachers, James does not, of course, mean to discourage such people from communicating their scriptural insights. Nor does he want to hinder in any way those who are genuinely called by God to be official teachers of His Word. He is saying rather that those who believe they have such a divine calling should first test their faith to be sure they are saved. He has made it clear that, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (1:26). If that principle applies to everyone in the church, how much more does it apply to teachers who presume to stand before God’s people to interpret and explain God’s Word?
It is God’s will for all of His people to articulate His truth as accurately and thoroughly as they are able. When Joshua objected to the godly prophesying of Eldad and Medad, Moses mildly rebuked him, saying, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). In the Great Commission, all Christians are called to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Paul said, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer [a preacher-teacher], it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1). Of himself he wrote, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
James’s point is that no believer should begin any form of teaching God’s Word without a deep sense of the seriousness of this responsibility. To sin with the tongue when alone or with one or two other persons is bad enough; but to sin with the tongue in public, especially while acting as a speaker for God, is immeasurably worse. Speaking for God carries with it great implications, both for good and ill.
The grave responsibility of declaring God’s Word is presented twice in the book of Ezekiel. Through that prophet, the Lord said,
Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. When I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet if you have warned the wicked and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself. (Ezek. 3:17–19)
That warning is repeated in 33:7–9. The writer of Hebrews speaks of preachers, teachers, and other church leaders who “keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17). With godly satisfaction, Paul was able to tell the Ephesian elders who met him at Miletus, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:26–27).
The teaching of erroneous, misleading, and confusing theology was a problem in the church at Ephesus while Timothy ministered there. Paul therefore told him to
instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. (1 Tim. 1:3–7)
Some were even teaching outright blasphemy and had “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (vv. 19–20).
Peter and Jude give the severest possible warnings against heretical teachers. Peter said,
False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Pet. 2:1–3)
Yet in the same way these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties.… But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed.… These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage. (Jude 8, 10, 16)
Paul’s warning to the church at Ephesus, given through Timothy, applies to teachers in every church:
If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth. (1 Tim. 6:3–5)
Not only false teachers, but also those who ignorantly and carelessly interpret the Word in order to impress others with their knowledge and understanding are a great danger to the church—and are in danger themselves from God. Many teachers in the church today are poorly grounded in Scripture and ill-equipped to teach it. Such teachers who misrepresent God’s Word can do more spiritual and moral damage to God’s people than a hundred atheists or secularists attacking from outside. That is why it is so foolish and spiritually dangerous to have newly converted celebrities, or any other new convert, as well as untrained and unaccountable preachers, speaking and teaching. Paul warned that an overseer 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). When the apostle himself was converted, the Lord trained him in the Arabian desert of Nabatea for some three years before he began his apostolic ministry (Gal. 1:17–18; see also Acts 9:19–22).
James does not intend to restrain those who are called and gifted by God to teach, those who are genuinely qualified, knowledgeable, and prepared. But he admonishes everyone who has opportunity to teach to take great pains to consider the seriousness of teaching the Word of God and to make sure that he has an accurate understanding of any truth he attempts to teach. Like Moses, he should make every effort to be sure that what he says corresponds to “what the Lord spoke” (Lev. 10:3). Even after careful study, he should pray with utmost sincerity, “Lord, let me say only what You are saying in this passage and help me make that truth clear to those who hear.”
The great Scottish Reformer John Knox was so awed and burdened by the responsibility to declare God’s Word faithfully that, before his first sermon, he wept uncontrollably and had to be escorted from the pulpit until he could compose himself. One pastor reportedly said of preaching what could also be said of teaching: “There is no special honor in preaching. There is only special pain. The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest.… To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.”
My brethren indicates that James is addressing those who name the name of Christ, including those whose faith is genuine beyond question, admonishing them to make sure that their desire to teach is truly according to the Lord’s will, not merely their own. Because right speech is such a critical mark of true faith, teachers are held to a higher standard in what they say, for the obvious reason that what they say exerts a powerful spiritual influence on others. Teachers are in special danger of misusing their tongues and thereby incurring stricter judgment by God. As James has earlier cautioned, they should be “quick to hear [and] slow to speak” (1:19). In that context, he is referring especially to hearing and speaking about God’s Word.
It is important to note that James includes himself [we] with those who are subject to that stricter judgment. Not even the apostles and writers of Scripture were exempt. Every teacher, without exception, is to be “diligent to present [himself] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. 1 Tim. 4:6–16).
The Greek noun krima (judgment) is neutral and can be either positive or negative. But in the New Testament it is most often used negatively as a warning, and that is clearly the kind of judgment James has in mind here. For unbelievers, the future tense (will incur) refers to the Great White Throne judgment spoken of by John in Revelation 20:11–15. Believers, on the other hand, will incur … judgment in the form of chastening in this life and at Christ’s bema seat for eternal reward, when “each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12), and
each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:13–15)
The teacher’s eternal reward will reflect the faithfulness of his teaching (Acts 20:26–27; Heb. 13:17).
James’s statement that we all stumble in many ways reinforces the truth that no one is exempt in regard to the dangers of the tongue and other forms of sin against God. Stumble refers to any moral lapse, a failure to do what is right. In many ways is self-explanatory. The writer of Proverbs asks rhetorically, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9), and the chronicler states emphatically that “there is no man who does not sin” (2 Chron. 6:36), anticipating Paul’s well-known and oft-quoted statement that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and John’s that “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8; cf. v. 10).
Its Power to Control
If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. (3:2b–5a)
The tongue has extraordinary power to control, even to the extent that if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man. Teleios (perfect) has two possible meanings. One carries the idea of absolute perfection, of being without any flaw or error. If that is James’s meaning here, he is obviously speaking hypothetically, since no human being but Jesus would qualify for that sort of perfect speech.
But the term can also mean complete, or mature. If that is the sense intended here, the idea is that a person who does not stumble in what he says gives evidence of a purified and mature heart, which is the source of his righteous speech. It seems probable that James has this second meaning in mind. We could never be perfect in the sense that Jesus is perfect, in speech or in any other way, but we can, in the Holy Spirit’s power, have a spiritually mature and sanctified heart that is expressed through mature, sanctified, God-honoring speaking and teaching. The idea is that only spiritually mature believers can control their tongues. To the degree that our holiness approaches that of Christ’s, to that degree we are spiritually perfect or mature. As in all else, He is our supreme and glorious example. “For you have been called for this purpose,” Peter reminds us, “since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21–23).
James then makes a remarkable claim, declaring that a Christian who can bridle his tongue is able to bridle the whole body as well. In this context, body seems to refer to the person in general, to his whole being. In other words, if we can control our tongues—which respond so readily and limitlessly to sin—then controlling everything else will follow. If the Holy Spirit has control of this most volatile and intractable part of our being, how much more susceptible to His control will the rest of our lives be? That principle also supports the second meaning of perfect (mature, complete), which, if it carried the idea of absolute perfection, would have no practical significance here. When a person’s speech is Christ-exalting, God-honoring, and edifying, one can be sure the rest of his life is spiritually healthy—and vice versa.
Warren Wiersbe tells the story of a pastor friend who told him of a woman in his congregation who was a terrible gossip. One day she said to him, “Pastor, the Lord has convicted me of my sin of gossip. My tongue is getting me and others into trouble.” When he guardedly asked, “Well, what do you plan to do about it?” she replied, “I want to put my tongue on the altar.” Because she had said the same thing so many times and yet never changed, he told her, “There isn’t an altar big enough” (The Bible Exposition Commentary [Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1989], 2:358).
There is, of course, an altar that is more than big enough, because our Lord assures us that, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But the pastor’s underlying frustration is understandable. The problem was in the woman’s unwillingness to actually lay her tongue on the altar. She knew very well what her sin was and what was required for its remission. She was simply unwilling to pay the price. She loved her gossip more than she loved righteousness. She was unwilling to determine with David, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle while the wicked are in my presence” (Ps. 39:1).
James uses two analogies to show the power of the tongue to control. First he points out that if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. This illustration is particularly appropriate, because the bit lies on top of a horse’s tongue, and when attached to the bridle and reins, it is possible for the rider using that bit to easily make the horse obey. Controlling horses’ mouths controls their heads, which, in turn, direct their entire body as well.
Even gentle horses, which have been ridden for many years, are not controllable without bits in their mouths. As long as they are expected to perform service, whether for riding or for pulling a wagon or plow, they require that control. So it is with believers. To be useful to God, we will need our tongues controlled, with everything else following in submission.
The second illustration is that of a ship. Look at the ships also, James continues, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. The largest ships of that day were small compared to the gigantic ocean liners and warships of modern times. But the ship in which Paul traveled on his voyage to Rome had a total of 276 persons on board, including the crew, soldiers, and prisoners (Acts 27:37), indicating it was a fairly large vessel. In any case, James’s point is that, compared to its overall size, a ship’s rudder is very small, yet can easily steer the vessel wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.
So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. Like the bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder of a ship, the tongue has power to control the rest of us. It is a master control for the whole body, directing virtually every aspect of behavior. Commentator J. A. Motyer writes,
If our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live: the master switch has deprived them of any power to “switch on” that side of our lives. The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it. (The Message of James [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985], 121)
James gives no specifics in saying that the tongue … boasts of great things. But he obviously has in mind man’s natural inclination to boast, to be self-centered, and—contrary to the claims of much popular psychology—to have a high self-image. Whenever and however the tongue boasts, it leaves a wake of destruction. It tears down others; it destroys churches, families, marriages, and personal relationships. It can even lead to murder and to war.
In order for the tongue to control our lives in the right way, we must resist the ever-present inclination and temptation to boast and brag. We should speak only gracious words, kind words, words that build up rather than tear down, that edify, comfort, bless, and encourage. They should be words of humility, gratitude, peace, holiness, and wisdom. Such words, of course, can only come from a heart that not only is indwelt by the Holy Spirit but is also wholly submitted to His control.
Its Propensity to Corrupt
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. (3:5b–6)
James’s next point focuses on the tongue’s tremendous potential to corrupt and destroy. Whereas the tongue’s power to control is neutral, being capable of working either for good or for evil, the emphasis here is entirely negative. No specific problem areas are mentioned, but since the tongue is able to talk about any conceivable issue, it has the power to corrupt every conceivable issue. Whatever subject it speaks of it can damage and pervert.
Although the verb eidon literally means simply to see, the imperative mood and middle voice used here (idou) almost give it the force of a command. Consequently, this form is often rendered “behold,” especially in dramatic narratives, in order to call special attention to what is about to be said or about to happen (see, e.g., Matt. 1:20, 23; 25:6; John 4:35; Rev. 1:7, 18; 22:7, 12). The idea is, “Pay close attention.”
James is here calling attention to the great destructive power of hateful, false, heretical, or simply careless words. Like commercials produced by forestry services today, he calls attention to the well-known truism that a great … forest can be set aflame by … a small fire! The smallest match or spark can grow exponentially into a conflagration that destroys thousands of acres of forest, killing countless animals and often destroying human life and property.
Fire has the amazing and virtually unique capacity to reproduce itself in an almost unlimited way as long as it has fuel to burn. Like the vast majority of things, water cannot multiply. When it is poured out, no matter where or on what, it never expands into a flood. But fire feeds on itself. If there is sufficient flammable material and enough oxygen to sustain combustion, it will burn on indefinitely.
On October 8, 1871, at about eight-thirty in the evening, a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, presumably kicked over by her cow, ignited the great Chicago fire. Before it could be contained, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, 300 people died, and 125,000 others were left homeless. In 1903, a pan of rice boiled over onto a fire, spreading coals across the room and starting a blaze that eventually consumed a square mile of a Korean city, burning some three thousand buildings to the ground.
The writer of Proverbs observed that “the heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28); that “a worthless man digs up evil, while his words are as a scorching fire” (16:27); and that, “like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife” (26:21). He also notes that “for lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer [gossiper, or slanderer], contention quiets down” (26:20).
David lamented, “My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows and their tongue a sharp sword” (Ps. 57:4). Of evil, boasting men, he wrote, “Your tongue devises destruction, like a sharp razor, O worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, falsehood more than speaking what is right. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue” (Ps. 52:2–4). Job asked Bildad, his so-called comforter, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (Job 19:2).
Some years ago, Morgan Blake, a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal, wrote the following satire:
I am more deadly than the screaming shell from the howitzer. I win without killing. I tear down homes, break hearts, and wreck lives. I travel on the wings of the wind. No innocence is strong enough to intimidate me, no purity pure enough to daunt me. I have no regard for truth, no respect for justice, no mercy for the defenseless. My victims are as numerous as the sands of the sea, and often as innocent. I never forget and seldom forgive. My name is Gossip. (Cited in George Sweeting, Faith That Works [Chicago: Moody, 1983], 76–77)
In verse 6, James gives what is doubtless the strongest statement in Scripture on the danger of the tongue: And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. Using the figure of fire, this overwhelming declaration presents four major elements of the tongue’s danger.
First, it is the very world of iniquity. Kosmos (world) does not here refer to the earth or universe but rather to a system, scheme, or arrangement. In this case, it is a system of iniquity, of evil, rebellion, lawlessness, and every other form of sin. It is the source of unrighteous, ungodly behavior within sinful man. It breeds and gives vent to every sort of sinful passion and desire. One commentator describes it as the microcosm of evil among our members. It is a vile, wretched, and wicked scheme of fleshly humanness. No other bodily part has such far-reaching potential for disaster and destruction as the tongue.
Second, an evil tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body. The system of evil spreads out and contaminates the rest of the body. To modify the metaphor somewhat, the destructiveness of the tongue is like smoke that penetrates and permanently contaminates everything that is exposed to it. Whatever fire itself cannot destroy, its smoke will permeate and ruin.
When I was in college I took advantage of a department store fire sale, buying a sport coat for just nine dollars. I was sure that a few days hanging outside in the fresh air would remove the smell of smoke. Because of a limited wardrobe, I wore the coat often, but it never lost its distinct odor, and many people probably thought I was a heavy smoker. In a similar way, evil words, symbolized by the tongue, will stain and damage what they do not entirely consume. A filthy, defiled tongue stains the whole person.
That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:20–23; cf. Jude 23)
Third, the evil tongue sets on fire the course of our life, expanding the principle still further. Like physical fire, the destructive effects of evil speech expand, not only contaminating ourselves but also everything we influence throughout the course of our life.
To a large extent, we are known by the way we talk. Over the long haul, what we say gives others a pretty good idea of who and what we really are. That principle applies to good things as well as sinful, but James’s emphasis here is entirely on the negative aspects of our speaking—such as gossip, slander, false accusations, lying, filthy language and stories, and other sins of the tongue—that can destroy individual lives, families, schools, churches, and communities.
Fourth, and most horribly, the sinful tongue is set on fire by hell. The present active form of the verb phlogizō (is set on fire) indicates a continuing state. That idea is reinforced by the term James uses for hell. Except for its use here, gehenna (hell) is not found in the New Testament outside of the synoptic gospels, where, in each case, it is used by Jesus. The word literally means “valley of Hinnom,” a deep gorge southwest of Jerusalem, where trash, garbage, and the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals were dumped and continually burned. The location had originally been used by Canaanite and even some Israelite worshipers to sacrifice their children as burnt offerings to the pagan god Molech. When that heinous practice was permanently halted by the godly King Josiah of Judah (see 2 Kings 23:10), the place was considered to be unclean and wholly unfit for any decent usage. It therefore came to be used as a garbage dump, where all the filth of the city of Jerusalem and surrounding areas was taken to be burned. Because the fire burned all the time and maggots were always present, the Lord used gehenna to represent the eternal, never-ending torment of hell, “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43–44; cf. Isa. 66:24; Matt. 5:22). Hell is Satan’s place, prepared for him and his demons (Matt. 25:41). As such, it is used here as a synonym for Satan and the demons.
That it is said to be set on fire by hell indicates that the tongue can be Satan’s tool, fulfilling hell’s purposes to pollute, corrupt, and destroy. It is unbelievably dangerous and destructive. Using another figure of death and destruction, the psalmist says of those who misuse their tongues, “His speech was smoother than butter, but his heart was war; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Ps. 55:21); “Behold, they belch forth with their mouth; swords are in their lips” (59:7); and as those “who have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow” (64:3).
Even mature believers know that in their remaining fleshly humanness, their tongues still have great power to devastate and therefore need constant guarding and control.
Its Primitiveness to Combat
For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. (3:7–8)
James’s point in these two verses is simply that the human tongue is innately uncontrollable and untamable. It is wild, undisciplined, irresponsible, irrepressible, and savage. In what might be called its primitive or intrinsic evil, it combats every effort to control and direct it.
Every species includes animals that walk and fly, beasts and birds, as well as those that crawl and swim, the reptiles and creatures of the sea. Animals from each of those categories are being tamed and have been tamed by the human race. The wildest, smartest, fastest, most powerful, and most elusive of creatures are subject to man’s taming. Even after the Fall, Noah was able to bring every kind of animal into the ark in pairs without serious incident. Although the task of Noah and his family to take care of those thousands of creatures was surely daunting in the extreme, there is no record of any of the animals attacking or harming their keepers, or each other, in any way. For centuries, the major attraction of circuses has been the wild animal acts, in which lions, tigers, and other powerful and dangerous animals do tricks at the command of a human trainer. In that regard they are less primitive and more civilized and controllable than the unregenerate, unsanctified tongues of their masters.
But no one, that is, no human being in his own power, can tame the tongue. Even in believers, the tongue can easily slip out of its sanctified cage, as it were, and do great harm. Its work can be so subtle that it sometimes escapes notice until the damage is done. Well aware of that danger, David prayed, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). Even the godly Paul confessed: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Rom 7:18). He could not trust himself to keep his tongue, or any other part of his unredeemed flesh, in check. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” he reminded believers in Galatia; “for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17).
As noted earlier in this commentary chapter, Adam’s first sin after the Fall not only was slander but slander against God, indirectly blaming his own disobedience on the Lord for having given him Eve, who tempted him to eat of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:12). By contrast, the first act of the new creations in Christ, who became the church, was to praise God with their purified tongues, “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11).
Restless translates akatastatos, the same word rendered “unstable” in 1:8. In this context, the meaning goes well beyond that of restless, suggesting the idea of a wild animal fighting fiercely against the restraints of captivity. This evil chafes at confinement, always seeking a way to escape and to spread its deadly poison. Its “venom” is more deadly than a snake’s because it can destroy morally, socially, economically, and spiritually.
David was a soldier’s soldier, a man of military renown who had fought powerful enemies. But he realized that the most dangerous enemies are those who attack with words. He therefore prayed:
Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret counsel of evildoers, from the tumult of those who do iniquity, who have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow, to shoot from concealment at the blameless; suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear. They hold fast to themselves an evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly; they say, “Who can see them?” They devise injustices, saying, “We are ready with a well-conceived plot”; for the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep. But God will shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly they will be wounded. So they will make him stumble; their own tongue is against them; all who see them will shake the head. Then all men will fear, and they will declare the work of God, and will consider what He has done. The righteous man will be glad in the Lord and will take refuge in Him; and all the upright in heart will glory. (Ps. 64:1–10)
The poisonous lies of Laban’s sons against Jacob drove him and his family out of the land and devastated Laban’s own home and family life (Gen. 31). The venomous tongue of Doeg the Edomite lying to King Saul about David and Ahimelech the priest resulted in the brutal massacre of eighty-five priests as well as the entire priestly city of Nob (1 Sam. 22:9–19). The deceitful princes of Ammon also lied about David, accusing him of hypocrisy in honoring Nahash their king and Hanun, his son and successor. Believing the lies, Hanun assembled an enormous force of his own soldiers, along with Aramean mercenaries, of which some seven hundred charioteers and forty thousand horsemen and their commander were needlessly slaughtered by David’s forces—all because of a lie! (2 Sam. 10). When Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to King Ahab, Queen Jezebel conspired to have two men falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy, which resulted in his being stoned to death (1 Kings 21:1–13). As recorded in the book of Esther, Satan attempted to use the lies of Haman to exterminate exiled Jews in Medo-Persia, but was thwarted by Esther and her cousin, Mordecai. Our Lord Himself was put to death because of lies (Matt. 26:57–60). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death because he was falsely accused of blaspheming Moses and God (Acts 6:8–7:60).
Its Perfidy to Compromise
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (3:9–12)
Finally, the tongue is characterized by what might be called its perfidy to compromise. Perfidy refers to deliberate breech of trust, or treachery, and the unbridled tongue is frequently guilty of such evil. The tongue is not just wild and raging like an animal, but clever, plotting, and subtly deceptive. It is hypocritical and duplicitous, eagerly willing to deceive in order to achieve its own advantage.
Every believer should use his tongue to bless our Lord and Father, just as God desires and expects of those who belong to Him. The Jews to whom James wrote were accustomed to pronouncing blessings on God at the end of each of the eighteen eulogies, or benedictions, they prayed three times a day, saying, “Blessed be Thou, O God.”
After collecting the generous gifts and offerings from the people for building the temple, “David blessed the Lord in the sight of all the assembly; and David said, ‘Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel our father, forever and ever’ ” (1 Chron. 29:10). At the end of the prayer he “said to all the assembly, ‘Now bless the Lord your God.’ And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed low and did homage to the Lord and to the king” (v. 20).
But with the same tongue with which we bless God, James continues, we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. That is its perfidy, its treachery. Even unredeemed mankind retains the likeness of God, which, though utterly marred by the Fall, nevertheless is indestructible. Men continue to be like God in many ways—in intelligence, self-consciousness, reasoning, moral nature, emotions, and will.
How tragically inconsistent and hypocritical, therefore, that from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. Yet every believer has been guilty of that hypocrisy to some extent. It was not only the wicked scribes and Pharisees who claimed to bless God and yet demanded the crucifixion of His Son, accusing Him of blasphemy. Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16); but while his Lord was on trial before the high priest, “he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ And immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, ‘Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” (Matt. 26:74–75). On one occasion, even the apostle Paul’s tongue slipped and he called the high priest a “whitewashed wall” (Acts 23:3). Even though he did not realize he was speaking to the high priest (v. 5), he uttered words that are not fitting in the mouth of a servant of God.
My brethren, James implores, these things ought not to be this way. Ou chrē (ought not) is a strong negative, used only here in the New Testament. The idea is that there should be no place in a Christian’s life for duplicitous speech. It is an unacceptable and intolerable compromise of righteous, holy living. When God transformed us, He gave us the capacity for new, redeemed, holy speech, and He expects us, as His children, to speak only that which is holy and right. Our “yes” and “no” should be honest (Matt. 5:37).
James explains this truth using three illustrations. First, he asks rhetorically, Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? The obvious answer is no. The same spring, or fountain, does not issue two vastly different kinds of water.
Doubtless alluding to the Lord’s words—“Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?” (Matt. 7:16)—James asks, Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Again, the obvious and expected answer is no. Such a thing is utterly contrary to nature and cannot happen. He then states emphatically, Nor can salt water produce fresh. This also is clearly impossible, and no rational person would think twice about believing anything to the contrary.
A hateful heart cannot produce loving words or works. An unrighteous heart cannot produce righteous words or works. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit,” Jesus explained, “nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.… So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:18, 20).
As mentioned above, there is an almost constant tension in the book of James between what is and what ought to be. At one point he says, “This is how it will be if you are a true believer,” and at another point he says, “That is also how it ought to be if you are a true believer.” Because we have been made righteous by Jesus Christ, we ought to live righteously and speak righteously, according to His will and by His power.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 143–161). Chicago: Moody Press.
The Tongue Compared to Bit, Rudder, and Flame (3:3–5)
James uses three analogies to illustrate the influence of the tongue. He says:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. (James 3:3–5)
The tongue, he says, is like a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, and a fire among trees.
- The tongue rests in the human mouth much as the bit is in the horse’s mouth. In both cases, a small thing moves and controls a large body.
- The tongue is like the rudder of a ship. Just as a small part of a ship turns the whole, so the tongue has great influence on the whole person.
- The tongue is like a spark of fire in the woods. Even as a small spark can start a great conflagration, so the tongue can set fire to relationships or communities.
Bits and rudders were common in antiquity, if they are not today. Were James writing today, he might use something familiar, like the steering wheel on a car. But his point would remain: the tongue is most influential. As a bit directs a horse and a rudder directs a ship, so the tongue directs human life. What we do follows what we say. Both our internal speech (our thoughts) and our spoken words direct our actions.
One writer says James’s purpose “is not to warn … against the hasty or impure or lying tongue … but to make the positive point that control of the tongue leads to a master control of ourselves.” Just as bit and rudder “really do master the violence of the horse and of the storm.… [so] the tongue is the key factor in controlled living.” Nothing, on this view, is more vital than control of the tongue. “It is not that a person strong enough to control the tongue is therefore also strong enough for every other battle. It is rather that winning this battle is in itself a winning of all battles.” Therefore we should work hard to master the tongue; it is the key for all self-mastery.
This idea is appealing, in one way, since it directs human effort to one central task. Unfortunately, this view runs against the rest of Scripture. Jesus does not say “control the tongue and you control all.” He says your heart controls your tongue and speech: “A tree is recognized by its fruit.… How can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:33–35).
At first glance, James seems to say the person who controls the unruly tongue can surely control the other, more easily tamed, members of the body. Jesus certainly agrees that control of the tongue is important when he says we will be acquitted or condemned by our words (Matt. 12:37).
But we must distinguish the first glance from the final analysis. Notice that James’s illustrations seem to have two parts: the bit and the horse, the rudder and the ship. Careful review reveals that the analogies assume a third part, an agent that exercises its will through bit, rudder, and tongue.
- For the horse, a rider uses the bit to direct his mount.
- For the rudder, the pilot expresses his will through the rudder to guide the ship.
- For the tongue, the will of a man expresses itself in speech that guides action.
So James agrees with Jesus; the heart moves the tongue. Therefore, we cannot simply decide, by a resolution of the will, to control the tongue. For the heart controls our resolutions. We will return to that thought shortly, but for now James is interested in the tongue and its reckless power. He says, to translate literally, “Behold the size of a fire that sets ablaze what size of a forest” (James 3:5). That is, a small fire can start a great fire that rages through the countryside.
Out in the woods, a little carelessness with fire can cause enormous damage. If a gust of wind blows over the embers of a dying fire and lifts a spark into dry trees or brush, an entire hillside may soon be ablaze. A moment of carelessness can cause terrible damage. The tongue is like a fire when rumors and gossip spread, as we say, like wildfire. The Bible also links gossip and fire:
A scoundrel plots evil,
and his speech is like a scorching fire.
A perverse man stirs up dissension,
and a gossip separates close friends. (Prov. 16:27–28)
Without wood a fire goes out;
without gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man’s inmost parts. (Prov. 26:20–22)
3–5a James now addresses the power of the tongue, which though small has a very large effect. This the author illustrates in parallel by pointing to the bits in horses’ mouths (v. 3) and the rudder that turns a ship (v. 4), images used widely in ancient literature as pictures of control (Dibelius, 185–90; Ropes, 231). Horses are large animals, and the point of riding a horse is to get it to go where you want it to go. The rider of a horse puts a bit in its mouth in order that the horse will obediently go in the right direction. Using the bit, the rider can move the whole body of the horse. That which is small sets the direction for something much greater in size. Specifically, references to the horse’s mouth and “body” (sōma, GK 5393) prepare for a fitting analogy to the tongue as a part of the human body in v. 5 (Moo, 153).
In the same way, ships are very large and driven along by very strong or violent winds. Travel by ship was common in the first century (e.g., Ac 13:4; 18:21; 27:1), so the imagery of v. 4 would have been quite familiar. The pilot of a ship is able to direct such a great vessel, which powerful, natural forces drive along, by using a relatively small rudder. That which is small sets the direction for something much greater in size.
Now comes the point. In the same way, the tongue is a relatively small part of the body. Yet its impact is far out of proportion to its size. Both the NIV and NASB indicate that the tongue’s effect has to do with its boasting or bragging (aucheō, GK 902) about great things. From the broader context of James, the author makes it clear he has in mind an evil boasting born of arrogance: “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil” (4:16 NASB). Thus he highlights an arrogance associated with the use of the tongue, and this may be related directly to those teachers causing strife in the community. The tongue, though small, is the member of the body that manifests our arrogant presumption that we are “big,” or more important than others in the church.
5b–6 The author adds yet another vivid word picture to describe how something so small can cause a great effect, but now the emphasis moves toward the destructive nature of that effect: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Forest fires occurred in the ancient world, as they do today, and the devastation was striking for the ancients. Again, James reiterates the principle: something relatively small has a profound impact on something much larger. Yet in v. 6 James focuses our attention on the insidious power of the tongue by using metaphorical language. “The tongue also is a fire.” When metaphor is used, we need to grasp the analogies intended, and James’s point is that just as fire is horribly destructive, so the tongue can be devastatingly destructive. The image of the tongue as a fire is found both in Jewish wisdom writings (e.g., Pr 16:27; 26:20–21), and Greek literature (see Johnson, 258–59).
James explains that the tongue is “the very world of iniquity” (NASB). The phrase rendered “world of evil” by the NIV is notoriously difficult to interpret—perhaps the most difficult in the whole book. (For a detailed discussion of the options, see Davids, 141–43; Johnson, 259.) It clearly refers to the “wicked, evil world,” according to (Dibelius 194; but he thinks part of the text is a gloss, i.e., not an original part of the book but a later addition). The author refers to the “world” as a system opposed to God at 1:27 and 4:4, and these verses have other connections with 3:6. The former verse states that part of authentic religion is “to keep oneself unstained [aspilos, GK 834] by the world” (NASB). In 3:6 the tongue is established among the members of the body as that part which “corrupts” (spiloō, GK 5071) or stains the whole body. Further, 4:4 speaks of person’s being established (kathistēmi, GK 2770) as God’s enemy, and the same term is used in 3:6 of the tongue’s being established among the members of the body. The idea is that the tongue serves as the arch representative of the evil world. All kinds of unrighteousness are imported to life via the tongue.
Further, the tongue is set among the members of the body as that which defiles, or pollutes, the whole. Though a different Greek verb is used, this point brings to mind the teaching of Jesus that what comes out of a person defiles the person (Mk 7:20). James’s statement drives home one of the striking difficulties of dealing with the tongue—this world of unrighteousness, as a member of the body, is part of us, and the consequences of its presence are great! When uncontrolled, the tongue is an agent of spiritual and moral pollution that corrupts the entire body.
He now returns to the tongue as a flame of fire. It sets on fire “the wheel of existence,” a phrase found in common use in extrabiblical literature and appropriately translated by the NIV as referring to the course of a person’s life. The consequences of misusing the tongue can have far-reaching and devastating effects in a life. The reason for this is that the fire of the tongue, its destructive nature, originates in “hell.” The term for hell here is Gehenna. Gê Hinnōm was a ravine south of Jerusalem, and its association with burning was twofold. First, it had been a site of pagan sacrifices by fire in the OT era (2 Ki 23:10; Jer 7:31), and second, it came to be the garbage dump of Jerusalem, a place of perpetual burning. By the NT era Gehenna was used of the place of eternal, fiery punishment and corruption (Laws, 151–52). Thus the out-of-control tongue, as a “fire,” receives its impetus from hell. It stands in direct contrast to righteous living, which has its origin in God (3:17–18).
3:5 / Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts: The tongue is indeed small, but what great events for good or evil it can claim credit for! And how frequently the events are evil and the boasting proud; the very use of the term boasts reminds the reader of Paul’s frequent condemnation of any boasting other than boasting in Christ (Rom. 1:30; 3:27; 11:18; 2 Cor. 10:13–16; Eph. 2:9). The tongue is like a small spark, which can set a great forest on fire, whether the forest is Palestinian scrub, dried to explosive tinder by the long dry season, or a California mountainside. A fire is left unguarded or a match is dropped; the action can never be taken back, for with a whoosh and roar it is soon eating up acres at a galloping pace.
The key to holy living (3:2–5a)
As we shall see, James is going to answer our question along six lines. This is what he puts first (2–5a): the tongue holds a key place in holy living. Verse 2 explains verse 1. The more searching judgment to which teachers expose themselves arises this way: they belong to a talking profession, and while we all sin in many ways, it would take a truly perfect person to keep free of sins of speech. By perfect he means (as in 1:4) the completeness and maturity that will mark us when God has fully wrought in us all that he intends for us in Christ—in a word, the holiness of those who see him and are like him (1 Jn. 3:2).
But there is more to it than that. As Christians, We all make many mistakes (2). Sin remains our universal experience and it takes all sorts of forms. Among them, as every self-aware believer will admit, sins of speech are prominent—the hasty word, the untruthful statement, the sly suggestion, harmful gossip, innuendo, impurity. Indeed, not to sin in speech would demand perfection, and we would be unrealistic not to see James’ thoughts going back as he voices this thought to a thirty-year experience, within his own home, of one who ‘committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips’ (1 Pet. 2:22). Yet James’ purpose in this section of his letter is not to warn us to be on our guard against the hasty or impure or lying tongue—or whatever our weakness may be—but to make the positive point that control of the tongue leads to a master-control of ourselves and our lives.
His two illustrations (vv. 3 and 4) show this. As to the horse (3), a comparatively tiny thing, a bit, controls and directs all its powerful and potentially unruly, even menacing, forces. As to the ship (4), the essential point is the same, that a comparatively small factor, a rudder, is the key to control and direction, but the forces now are not internal but external, the strong winds that would blow the ship off course and on to the rocks. James sees the tongue in the light of these illustrations, for he adds, so (i.e. in the same way) the tongue is a little member (as comparatively small in its setting as bit and rudder are in theirs) and boasts of great things (5a). The ‘boasts’ of the bit and rudder are not idle or hollow: they really do master the violence of the horse and of the storm. So too the tongue: ‘It can make huge claims’ (neb)—and substantiate them, too! The tongue is the key-factor in controlled living. We ask ourselves how we are to control the powerful forces within us that drive us into sin, and James replies by talking about something we never considered—do we control our tongues? Are we the masters of the master-key? The tongue is the key-factor in consistent living. Circumstances vary. There are the pressures of adversity and the (often greater) pressures of prosperity; there are sudden and unexpected shocks—the blows which life administers to us. Can we hold our course? James’ marine illustration is not at all wide of the mark as a description of life with its tides, currents and storms. Once again, there is a rudder to hold the ship on course, and the tongue is that rudder.
This teaching strikes us as so unexpected that we had better survey it a little longer to make sure we are grasping exactly what the Bible says. It is not that a person strong enough to control the tongue is therefore also strong enough for every other battle. It is much deeper and more important even than that: it is rather that winning this battle is in itself a winning of all battles. Think of a switchboard in a church or other large building. Each switch controls the lights in its own section of the church and the person who controls the switch controls those lights. But on the board there is also a master-switch. It does not need any special strength to operate it. There is no way in which anyone could say, ‘If you are strong enough to operate that switch then you are strong enough to operate any of them.’ The simple fact is that, if you control the master-switch, you control all the lights; you are lord of the switchboard. It is in this sense that the person who controls the tongue is able to bridle the whole body also (2). This is the great (and not unreal) boast the tongue can make (5a).
But should this surprise us quite so much? The tongue is so much more than what we actually say out loud. In fact actual speech is probably only a small percentage of the use of the tongue. We cannot think without formulating thoughts in words; we cannot plan without describing to ourselves step by step what we intend to do; we cannot imagine without painting a word-picture before our inward eyes; we cannot write a letter or a book without ‘talking it through’ our minds on to the paper; we cannot resent without fuelling the fires of resentment in words addressed to ourselves; we cannot feel sorry for ourselves without listening to the self-pitying voice which tells us how hard done by we are. But if our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live: the master-switch has deprived them of any power to ‘switch on’ that side of our lives. It is in this way that if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man (2). The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it.
Secondly, the tongue has enormous power for actual harm (5b–6). There is another little matter, as small in its sphere as bit and rudder in theirs. But whereas they are passive, waiting to be used, this is active, a force in its own right: fire. Tiny as the spark is, once it is fanned into flame and the flame takes hold, then it will keep on spreading till all is ablaze. So the tongue is an actual power for evil.
James covers four aspects of the fiery potency of the tongue (6), starting with its character. The tongue (lit.) ‘appoints itself as the world of unrighteousness among our members’. The world (kosmos) is this present state of affairs or scheme of things organized on the basis of man’s sinfulness, hostile to God, rejecting Christ. ‘The world of unrighteousness’ means ‘the unrighteousness world’, the world characterized by all that falls short of being right with God, the world in all its unrighteousness. The tongue makes itself available as the focal point of all that unrighteousness, actually within us, ‘the enemy agent within God’s rightful kingdom, a ready tool at the disposal of God’s enemy’. Our members7 are literally our ‘limbs’, but in its use the word regularly looks beyond the actual physical limb—such as the hand, foot or eye—to the capacities of our nature which are expressed through that limb. In this sense, then, the tongue is inflammatory of all our capacities, doing its utmost to make them the organs of a whole cosmos that is hostile to God.
James next speaks of the tongue’s influence: staining the whole body (6). This is the other side of the positive mastery over the body which can be achieved by a controlled tongue, the power illustrated above as that of the master-switch. Left to itself, since the tongue is involved so fundamentally in all the thoughts, imaginings, longings and plans which lie behind the whole of our earthly life, it leaves the mark of its own defilement everywhere. Body is here used in the same sense as members just above. In the Bible it is equally valid to define a person (so to speak) from the inside by speaking of the soul and spirit, or from the outside by speaking of the body, for the person is the unity, the ensouled-body or the embodied-soul. Thus the members are identified with the capacities (for good or ill) which find expression through them, and the body is the total vehicle for expressing individual life. Everywhere the tongue makes its presence felt and leaves its stain. There is some profit in supposing that James began by describing the Godward aspect of the tongue—its affiliation with ‘the world’ in opposition to and rejection of God—and that now he goes on to the self-ward aspect—the defilement which the tongue spreads through the person. But it would not do to press this, for the idea of sin as leaving a mark which God can see is thoroughly biblical and, indeed, expresses the most serious side of the sinner’s problem. I may regret that sin holds me back from a fully satisfying, fulfilled life, but this is as nothing compared with the fact that sin makes me offensive to the Holy One. Even so, the defiling mark is left on the person; the personality has been stained. It is not what it ought to be; life itself is diminished in the sinner and the tongue is the culprit.
For the third aspect of his analysis of the evil force of the tongue, James uses the unusual expression, setting on fire the cycle of nature (6). C. L. Mitton sensibly offers the opinion that James is referring to ‘the whole range of human life’. We are accustomed to the poetic ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream’ and ‘through all the changing scenes of life’. ‘Time rolls on’ we say—and James takes this into account in relation to the tongue. ‘Other vices are corrected by age or by process of time. They drop off from our lives’ (Calvin), but from earliest to latest days the baneful influence of the tongue remains. This is its continuance.
In the fourth place, James notes the tongue’s affiliation: and set on fire by hell (6). The first feature of the tongue was that it is anti-god (the world); the final feature is that it is pro-Satan. Hell (Gehenna) is the place of fire and James sees the fires of Gehenna reaching up to that part of our sinful, fallen nature where they will most easily find their touch-paper. The tongue becomes the instrument of Satan himself. This is by no means to be thought of as something confined to what we would recognize as improper or questionable uses of the tongue. One day Peter took the Lord aside to give him the best advice he was capable of and to do so with the most loving and concerned intentions. But the Lord Jesus replied, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God …’11 James’ warning, then, is timely.
The Power of the Tongue (vv. 3–6)
SUPPORTING IDEA: The tongue is a small organ, but it can control and influence major events in life.
This section uses three illustrations to show the power of the tongue. The first two illustrations picture the ability of a small object to control or influence a much larger object (vv. 3–4). The final illustration (v. 5b) illustrates the ability of a small item to destroy a much larger object.
3:3–5a. The rider of a horse can use a bit to control and govern a wild, unmanageable horse. Though the bit is small, its use gives riders the potential for turning the animal wherever they want.
In gales and violent winds, pilots use the rudder to guide the ship to safety or point it in the direction of intended travel. Compared to the size of a ship, the rudder was very small, but its importance in controlling the ship demanded careful attention in its use.
Verse 5a summarizes the point of these illustrations. Like the bit for the horse and the rudder for the ship, the tongue is small in relation to the body and yet has powerful potential to achieve great results, both good and bad. It can stir up violence or promote peace. It can crush the spirit or soothe the discouraged. If the tongue could personally express itself, it could legitimately boast of its great exploits.
3:5b–6. Verse 5b shows that an uncontrolled tongue is a source of great destruction. Just as a little flame can destroy a huge forest, a small misuse of the tongue can cause pain and agony to many.
The tongue can produce ruin and may represent the presence of a vast system of iniquity within our body. Within this body the tongue can produce three results. First, it can corrupt the whole person. It is a source of pollution and defilement for the entire personality. Second, it sets the whole course of his life on fire. Course may also mean “wheel.” Life may refer to “birth,” “origin,” or “existence.” A misused tongue may affect the cycle of life from birth onward! Third, the tongue is itself set on fire by hell. This describes Satan’s influence on the tongue.
James 3:1–6 describes the tongue as it is by nature. By nature the tongue could serve as a divisive instrument of evil. By grace the tongue can become an instrument of positive blessing (Col. 4:6). We must not conclude that our tongue is doomed to be an instrument of discord and strife. God can mold an abusive tongue into a force for good and righteousness.
The Power of the Tongue (3:2–5)
Since speaking plays so large a part in the work of a teacher, James moves quite easily from the warning of verse 1 to a discussion of the power of the tongue, both for evil and for good (verses 2–5). The reference, however, is broadened so as to include others besides teachers: “For in many things we all stumble” (verse 2a, asv). All, by its position in Greek, is emphatic. James did not even exempt himself. “Stumble”—offend in the kjv—in this context means to commit sin. The tense of the verb expresses repeated action. Thus the thought is, “We commit sin again and again—all of us.”
We do this in many things, but at no point are we more likely to sin than in the realm of speech. James therefore adds, “If any man stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man” (verse 2b, asv). He had in mind not simply the “word” of teaching and exhortation, but of speech in general. A perfect man is a man of maturity (cf. 1:3). In ancient Greek literature the word was used of a full-grown man as compared with a child.
James explains that the mature man, the man who gains mastery over his tongue, is able also to bridle the whole body. That is to say, since the tongue is the most difficult member of our bodies to control, one’s ability to control his tongue implies control over the whole body. “The tongue is the hinge on which everything in the personality turns” (Baird, p. 27). On not sinning with the tongue, Manton comments: “He that can do that, can do anything in Christianity” (p. 275).
In verses 3–5 James illustrates the power of the tongue by means of three vivid figures: the bit in a horse’s mouth (verse 3); the rudder of a ship (verse 4); and a spark of fire (verse 5). Nowhere does James write more powerfully than here!
The first illustration: Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body (verse 3). The asv is closer to the Greek: “Now if we put the horses’ bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also.” The figure apparently was suggested by what James said in the preceding verse about “bridling” the whole body. The horse, naturally wild and ungovernable, may have its fiery temper subdued and its movements regulated to the wishes of its rider. All this is accomplished by means of the relatively small bit put into the horse’s mouth. The rider has but to pull and he manages and controls the whole body. The application is obvious. The tongue is a relatively small member of our bodies, but by controlling the tongue we can control all the passions of our nature.
The second illustration: Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth (verse 4). James, of course, knew nothing of great ocean-going vessels such as we have today, but even in his day there were ships which plied the seas and which could appropriately be spoken of as “so great.” The description points up not only the great size of the ships, making them unwieldy in themselves, but also their exposure to fierce gales and violent storms. How are the movements of these vessels controlled and directed under conditions such as these? Answer: by the “very small helm” (rudder) of the ship. The Greek word for “helm” literally denoted the handle of the rudder, but it was often used for the whole instrument. “Whithersoever the governor listeth” is much more clearly rendered “wherever the will of the pilot directs” (rsv).
The point of both illustrations (bit and rudder) is clearly stated in the first part of verse 5: Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. That is to say, like the bit for the horse and the rudder for the ship, the tongue is little in relation to the body and in relation to some other organs and members of the body. But in spite of its smallness, the tongue achieves great results. This seems to be the import of “boasteth great things.” Moffatt brings this out: “So the tongue is a small member of the body, but it can boast of great exploits.” And it is not an empty boast. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the deeds of the tongue. It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions. It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying. Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.
The third illustration: Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! (verse 5b). A more literal rendering is given by the asv: “Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire!” There is obviously a contrast between the smallness of the spark and the greatness of the conflagration caused by it. The tcnt is quite expressive: “Think how tiny a spark may set the largest forest ablaze!” With vivid imagery the illustration points up the vast and deadly power of the tongue unless it is kept under rigid control. Like fire when it is controlled, the tongue held in check is a power for great good. But out of control what havoc both can cause!
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 143–161). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 107–110). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 245–247). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (p. 82). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Motyer, J. A. (1985). The message of James: the tests of faith (pp. 119–123). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 303–304). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Vaughan, C. (2003). James (pp. 67–69). Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press.