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.
The Inconsistency of the Tongue and the Consistency of God (3:9–12)
The tongue is hopelessly inconsistent. It blesses God one minute and curses mankind the next, as James 3:9–12 says:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
One minute we use the tongue to bless the Lord, the next we use it to curse our fellow man, even though God fashioned mankind in his likeness. Such behavior is absurd, as absurd as a spring that pours out both fresh and salty water, as absurd as a single tree that bears both olives and figs (3:11–12).
Springs are consistent. They pour out the same clear water, often at nearly the same temperature, all year. Olive trees keep putting out olives. Yet the tongue is like a spring that vacillates between salty and clear water, or like a tree that bears peaches one day and papayas the next. James says simply, “My brothers, this should not be” (3:10).
Notice that James chides our inconsistency, even though he knows no one can consistently control the tongue. He rebukes us because the duty of watching our words remains. Since a small statement can cause great harm, we must guard our speech. We must strive to bless God and mankind with our tongues.
We must, yet we cannot. No human can tame the tongue. We must admit that James does not solve this riddle in this passage. For the moment, he leaves us in tension, which he relieves some time later, in 4:6–10. In this, James follows the pattern of Jesus, who was also willing to let his teaching dangle without the kind of resolution we like. For example, the Sermon on the Mount ends with this threat: those who build on a foundation other than Christ will see their house fall “with a great crash” (Matt. 7:26–27). In 4:10, James resolves his riddle when he promises that God will exalt all who humble themselves before him. That is, if we humbly admit our inability, he will graciously forgive us.
Even before we reach that moment, other Scriptures teach us this about our inability: We cannot control the tongue, but God can. Even with the Spirit’s help, the taming is only partial. Yet it is real and more potent than our efforts at self-mastery.
Once we realize that God can control what we cannot, we can properly face the failures of speech that reflect the failures of the heart. For example, the proud use the tongue to deny sin and a need for God’s redemption.
- We deny our sins. Our spouse says, “You’re so grouchy today. What’s the matter?” and we reply, “I’m only grouchy when you hector me with your petty criticisms.”
- We claim we are no worse than anyone else. We say, “I admit I’m grouchy occasionally, but I’m Mr. Congeniality compared to some.”
- We claim our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds. We say, “Yes, I get grumpy when I’m exhausted, but I’m usually very agreeable.”
- We offer no self-defense, but rather condemn ourselves and give in to despair.
There is a better way. First, let heart and tongue admit that God is holy and that we should aspire to his holiness. Second, since God is not satisfied by mere aspirations, we should ask God to forgive our failings and meager achievements. Third, let us believe in him and receive the loving mercy of God. He loves us as a father loves his children, flaws and all.
Or, to change the metaphor, God loves us as a husband loves his wife, flaws and all. A good husband loves his wife even as the beauty of youth fades. His wife may lament that her skin is getting loose and blotchy, but the good husband says, “I don’t love your skin; I love you.” Physical beauty is attractive, but a beloved wife does not fear the fading of beauty because she knows her beauty is not the final cause of her husband’s love. Since God’s love is purer than that of any husband, we should hope in him. His love also gives us direction for our relationships. Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:35).
Good works and holiness please God, even as the traits of an excellent wife please her husband. But God, as a faithful husband, loves his bride, flaws and all. In this supremely important way, our moral achievements count for nothing. They neither earn God’s love nor guarantee it. There is no deed, no accomplishment, that makes God suddenly notice us or favor us. He loves us for his own reasons, not for our own merits. Yet, if we love the Lord, we do aspire to holiness. As Moses prepared Israel to enter Canaan, he said it this way:
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery.… Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.… Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today. (Deut. 7:7–11)
We all stumble and utter words we quickly rue (James 3:1). Yet we strive to please God, whom we love. We do this even if our failures do not jeopardize that love. When we fail, we petition God for grace to renew and purify us, as we appropriate his grace. We live without fear, knowing God will not disown his children for their lapses. Even in failure we remain confident that if we believe in God, he has given us life by the gospel (1:18). The gospel word, implanted in us, saves us (1:21). Our tongue may be inconsistent, but our status is not. Our “performance” does not affect God’s love for us.
By faith, God delivered us, in principle, from bondage to a misguided tongue. Our speech only fitfully adorns our profession of faith. We are not totally new, but we are genuinely new. By God’s grace, let us use our tongues to bless the Lord and to bless mankind, whom he made in his image.
11 “Palestinians are very good water-tasters,” says E. F. F. Bishop. Here bitter may mean “brackish,” “sulphurous,” or more probably denotes a case where above the outlet good water has suffered contamination from a salty source. Of a river flowing into the Dead Sea T. K. Cheyne wrote: “The salt water and the fresh intermingle some way above the mouth of the river, and fish that are carried down are thrown up dead on the beach.” We observe the use of the article with fountain, as twice in John 4:6, and once in v. 14, while another word is used in v. 11, except that in v. 11—as in Rev. 9:2f., where it means “pit” from which comes smoke as of a fiery furnace—the “picture” is of a deep cavity containing water, not springing water. It is of springing water that James is here thinking and writing, and we suggest it is relevant to remember that among country folk “the spring” or “the well” has a prominent individuality (see the latter half of Eccl. 12:6). Here James is speaking of springing water, and of its being drunk or unfit to drink: “Does a spring from the same fountainhead gush with both salt and fresh?” Outlet is, as often, a hole in the ground, or, it may be, in the rock.42
3:11 The first question, “does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” begins with mēti, a word that invites a negative response. In fact, the term is a little more emphatic than mē (2:14; 3:12), and the question could be rendered, “Surely, no spring produces both fresh and brackish water, does it?” James assumes that the teachers will answer his questions accurately, and if they do they will connect the images to the incongruity of being a God-blesser and a human-curser.
The concrete language of a spring or a crack in a rock where water bubbles forth, which was often enough to establish a village, and both fresh and brackish water finds its focal point in “the same opening.”131 Davids is confident that James is referring to a natural phenomenon in the Jordan valley and observes that the sometimes absence of fresh water is a “sad fact of life in Palestine.” Similarity of language leads us back to 3:10: “from the same mouth.” Here the focus is on the source or perhaps on the connection of source and what is produced. Again, the analogy is to the tongue of a teacher whose responsibility it is to love others and speak in a way that emerges from that love. That sort of source should produce God-blessing language but not human-cursing language.
The remarkably inconsistent nature of the tongue (vv. 9–12)
The tongue is the little hypocrite in our mouths that can make big hypocrites out of us.
Here is the hypocrisy of the tongue: one minute it is blessing God, and the very next minute it is cursing men who have been made in the image of God (v. 9).
James considered this to be quite remarkable. A spring of water cannot produce both fresh and bitter water (v. 11). And a fig tree cannot produce both figs and olives. A grapevine cannot produce both grapes and figs (v. 12). But the tongue can produce both blessing and cursing! And, faced with this grand inconsistency, James can only say, ‘My brethren, these things ought not to be so’ (v. 10).
And we know James is right! We know that our irresponsible and inconsistent talking is not right. And yet we go on and on and on because of the unruly, untameable nature of the tongue.
Left to ourselves, we cannot tame the tongue, but, thank God, we who know the Lord are not left to ourselves. The Lord has given us his Word to guide us and his Spirit to indwell us. And what do the guiding Word and indwelling Spirit tell us to do about our tongues?
First, they tell us to repent of all our wrong talking. We all have much of which to repent, for, as James says, ‘we all stumble in many things’ (v. 2).
But let us know that, while sinful talking is serious, repentance brings God’s forgiveness and removes our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.
Count the cost
We must also make it our daily business to think long and hard on the terrible cost attached to sinful talking and determine that we shall set a seal on our lips (Ps. 39:1) so that nothing that is unwholesome will pass through. And we must ask the Lord to help us keep that resolve, knowing that we will certainly never be able to keep it apart from him.
We must also make it our business to fill our mouths with good things. The more our mouths are filled with praise to God and good, kind and encouraging words regarding others, the less space there will be for fiery, poisonous talk.
Look to the Lord
Finally, we must continually look to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our example in all things. We know how very hard it is to control our tongues. What a marvel it is that the Lord Jesus perfectly controlled his, never speaking a wrong word! Because of his perfect obedience to the Lord God, we who have no righteousness of our own can be clothed in his. How very thankful we should be for this!
May the mind of Christ my Saviour
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and pow’r controlling
All I do and say.
(Kate B. Wilkinson)
3:11–12 / James concludes his argument with more analogies from nature: Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?. This was an unfortunate truth all around the Mediterranean, whether in the Lycus valley (Rev. 3:15–16 refers to the water supply of the area), Marah in Sinai (Exod. 15:23–25), or the Jordan rift valley, where the water cascading down a cliff would be such a welcome sight until a traveler discovered it was bitter. Why should humans try to do what springs do not? The analogy between the mouth of a spring and the human mouth fits very well.
Second, My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Again the analogy fits. No tree bears two species of fruit. Each produces according to its nature. It is unnatural for a human to try to do what nature does not. Yet perhaps James means something more, for Jesus used a similar illustration (Matt. 7:16–20; Luke 6:43–45; Matt. 12:33–35), but this one dealt with good and bad fruit and judging a plant by its fruit. Is James suggesting that the bad fruit (the cursing) reveals the nature of the person?
The third analogy confirms the suspicion: Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. James has shifted his analogy. Now the spring is clearly bad, salty, but still is trying to produce sweet water. That is impossible. The evil within the person produces an “inspiration,” which is frequently well hidden, but the “curses” (criticism, slander, negative remarks) mixed with the pious language show the real source of inspiration. The teacher or the Christian claims God’s Spirit or God’s wisdom, but is that true? It is not true if the person’s language reveals that he or she is really a salty spring trying to be sweet.
Having argued above for the danger inherent in the tongue and the need for purity in speech, James now moves behind speech to the motives inspiring it. This section looks two ways. On the one hand, it looks back to the teachers of 3:1 and the real problems underlying impure speech in general. On the other hand, it is a bridge between the theoretical discussion of 3:1–13 and the denunciation of the problems in the community of 4:1–12. Just as there were two births, two inspirations, in 1:12–18, so there are two “wisdoms,” two Spirits, here.
Blessing and Cursing
With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse the men who have been made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth there emerge blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers. Surely the one stream from the same cleft in the rock does not gush forth fresh and salt water? Surely, brothers, a fig tree cannot produce olives, nor a vine figs, nor can salt water produce fresh water?
We know only too well from experience that there is a split in human nature. In human beings there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner. It is James’ conviction that nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the tongue.
With it, he says, we bless God. This was especially relevant to a Jew. Whenever the name of God was mentioned, a Jew had to respond: ‘Blessed be he!’ Three times a day, devout Jews had to repeat the Shemoneh Esreh, the famous eighteen prayers called Eulogies, every one of which begins: ‘Blessed be thou, O God.’ God was indeed eulogētos, the Blessed One, the one who was continually blessed. And yet the very mouths and tongues which had frequently and piously blessed God were the very same mouths and tongues which cursed their neighbours. To James, there was something unnatural about this; it was as unnatural as for a stream to gush out both fresh and salt water or a bush to bear different kinds of fruit. Unnatural and wrong such things might be, but they were tragically common.
Peter could say: ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you’ (Matthew 26:35)—and that very same tongue of his denied Jesus with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:69–75). The John who said: ‘Little children, love one another’ was the same who had once wanted to call down fire from heaven in order to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51–6). Even the tongues of the apostles could say very different things.
John Bunyan tells us of Talkative: ‘He was a saint abroad and a devil at home.’ Many people speak with perfect courtesy to strangers and may even preach love and gentleness, and yet snap with impatient irritability at their own families. It has not been unknown for someone to speak with piety on Sunday and to curse a team of workers on Monday. It has not been unknown for someone to utter the most pious sentiments one day and to repeat the most questionable stories the next. It has not been unknown for someone to speak with sweet graciousness at a religious meeting and then to go outside to destroy another person’s reputation with a malicious tongue.
These things, said James, should not be. Some drugs are both poisons and cures; they are benefits to a patient when wisely controlled by a doctor, but harmful when used unwisely. The tongue can bless or curse; it can wound or soothe; it can speak the fairest or the foulest things. It is one of life’s hardest and plainest duties to see that the tongue does not contradict itself but speaks only such words as we would want God to hear.
11. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?12. My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
In his letter James shows an interest in God’s creation. With examples drawn from nature he seeks to illustrate his point. First he calls attention to a spring of water. “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” It is impossible to expect drinkable water and water that is not drinkable from the same source. Second, James approaches his readers with two familiar examples. Generally, a Jew had his own fig tree and his own grapevine (1 Kings 4:25); olive trees were common. “Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?”
The readers know that each species of fruitbearing trees produces its own kind of fruit. Fig trees bear figs, olive trees olives, and grapevines grapes. The example is reminiscent of the question Jesus asked in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matt. 7:16). To ask the question is to answer it.
James answers by repeating some of the words of his first question. “Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” If, then, nature is unable to go against its created functions, ought not man’s tongue praise the name of man’s creator and redeemer?
3:11–12. These verses show the consistency of nature. Both verses ask questions to which the expected answer is “no.” The illustrations from nature would have been familiar to inhabitants of Palestine. Areas around the Dead Sea contained many salty springs. Farther north of the Dead Sea travelers could find springs emitting fresh water. One spring could produce only one type of water.
The farmers of Palestine produced figs, olives, and grapes in abundance. James emphasized that a tree produced its own kind of fruit. We don’t go to grapevines to find figs. We do not pluck olives from fig trees. Nature is consistent, but our tongues have never provided models of consistency.
The applications are so pointed they do not need to be made explicit. Colossians 4:6 provides a fitting conclusion: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (nkjv).
In January 1917, the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a secret telegram to his country’s ambassador in Mexico. The message announced the intention of the German government to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against all nations on February 1. It also urged the German ambassador to encourage both Mexico and Japan to support the German plans in order to keep America neutral and out of the war efforts.
British intelligence intercepted the message and saw that President Woodrow Wilson read the dispatch. Wilson released the telegram to the press. America had been a neutral nation in the First World War until this time. The disclosure of German intentions in the telegram led Wilson to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. The deceitful words of the German foreign secretary goaded America into war.
In the same way that printed words can inflame passions and tempers, the spoken word can arouse people to action, either good or bad. Paul called us to use our tongues positively: “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16, nkjv). In seeking to control our tongues we must admit to God our weakness, seek his help, and place relentless guard on our tongues. God’s grace can enable us to use our tongues and our words for blessing and encouraging others.
The Inconsistency of the Tongue (3:9–12)
These verses show the good use of the tongue (blessing God), the bad use of the tongue (cursing men), and the absurdity of doing both with the same tongue. But the tongue is notoriously inconsistent, a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With it bless we God, and with it curse we men who are made after the likeness of God (verse 9). There may be an allusion to the custom among Jews to say “Blessed be he” whenever the name of God was mentioned.
“Bless” in reference to God means to praise Him with love and gratitude. It is the highest function of human speech, the great end for which the human tongue exists. To “curse” man is to pronounce damnation on him, to invoke evil on him. James may have used the word so as to include any utterance expressing an unkind feeling toward others. Calvin comments that he “who truly worships and honors God, will be afraid to speak slanderously of man” (p. 323).
Indeed, one who curses men in effect curses God himself, for men are made in “the likeness of God” (asv). The image of God within man has been sadly marred by his sin, but the language employed by James indicates·that man still bears the likeness of God. That is to say, man’s likeness to God has not been completely obliterated. Traces of it, however few and faint, still remain. “It has,” writes Calvin, “been miserably deformed, but in such a way that some of its lineaments still appear” (p. 323).
The first part of verse 10 tersely sums up the outrageous inconsistency of the tongue when it is used both to bless and to curse: Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. James appeals to his readers to put an end to such: My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Literally, “Not right, my brothers, these things so to be.” The word for “ought,” found only here in the Greek New Testament, denotes fitness or congruity. The thought then is this: It is abnormal for a man to bless God in prayer and praise and yet speak evil of members of God’s family. It is contrary to grace; it is contrary to nature.
A little girl sat with her arms wrapped around her father’s neck. But her mother observed that over her father’s shoulder she was sticking out her tongue at her little brother. The mother responded by saying, “Take your arms from around your father’s neck. You cannot love your father and at the same time stick out your tongue at his son.” To profess love for God while reviling men made in His image is a brazen offense against God.
In verses 11, 12 James illustrates this inconsistency by two figures drawn from nature. The first is the figure of a fountain of water: “Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?” (verse 11, asv). That is, is it possible for a fountain to pour forth from the same crevice both fresh water and brackish water? The construction in Greek is such as to indicate that the expected answer is a negative one.
The second figure concerns fruit: “Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs?” (verse 12, asv). It is a law of nature that like produces like. Thus, fig trees do not yield olives and grape vines do not produce figs.
James’ conclusion to this part of his discussion is concise yet powerful: “No, nor can a brackish well give good water” (tcnt). (It should be observed that this translation is based upon a Greek text which differs from the text translated by the kjv.) The truth implied is that if cursing comes from the tongue, there cannot issue from it blessing as well. What appears to be good is in reality not good. It may have a saintly sound about it, but it is sound only.
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