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.
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).
5–6 With the Peshitta reading, which parallels the immediately preceding Greek sentence, we translate: “The tongue also is fire, the world of unrighteousness is a wood: so stands the tongue among our members, a thing which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the wheel of birth,” i.e., the wheel (of a man’s varying fortunes), which (wheel) each man’s birth sets turning for him. This passage may be disagreeably sophistic in expression, though there is no question but that it is perfectly sincere. See Ropes, p. 235: “As a spark … the exaggeration is pardonable.” It is Ropes who exaggerates here; James, we believe, does not carry the tongue’s damage beyond human life—the whole body and, in effect, all the vicissitudes of every man’s life from the cradle to the grave.
To be sure, the fire destroys the wood, the tongue does not destroy sin: that need not bother anyone. Analogies need not be complete. When a man calls his wife a jewel, he need not mean that she is hard. We constantly speak of things that inflame the passions, meaning the evil passions. In that sense, words often inflame to sin; they rouse the quiescent innate passions latent in every man (the world of sin, i.e., all the potential evil present in us and the rest of the human race) and inflame them into ardor and activity, and the man into sin; so even James had hinted in 1:14, 15: there lust “conceives”; here it is fired into flame.
So stands the tongue: i.e., the tongue in our body, with its (the body’s) base instincts, is like a fire (e.g., an unguarded campfire) in a forest; any minute, there will be a conflagration (see Excursus G, pp. 158ff.).
3:5 Before James trots out his third analogy (3:5b), he breaks in to make the analogies clear: “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”58 The focus, once again, is small versus large, and his intent is to press home to the teachers that their tongue is a small instrument with potentially devastating effects. James’s wording is alliterative and mnemonic: hē glōssa mikron melos estin kai megala auchei. Perhaps surprising is James’s choice of the word “boasts” (auchei). Johnson says “James does not denounce such boasting” because, in fact, what the tongue boasts about is in fact correct—that is, it says true things.60 Another way of putting this is to say that James means nothing more than that this small tongue does great things. True enough, but I doubt that James would give so much away at his crucial point in his argument. Instead of thinking that James here says the tongue actually says right things, the context suggests that he is more concerned with the vaunting pride and vituperative rhetoric characteristic of teachers who are destructive in the community. His use of “tongue” here is negative. Not only do the analogies suggest that James sees a dramatically negative impact on the community, but the rest of this section (3:13–4:12) trades in similar ideas, even if it does not use the word “boast.” Thus, we should look to 3:14–16 and 4:1–6, 11–12, and 16–17. The boasting of which James speaks in 3:5, then, is most likely the arrogant and divisive warmongering on the part of some of the teachers and leaders in the messianic community.
James then resumes by moving briefly to a third analogy, to fire, and this analogy will lead to a more complete exposition in vv. 6–12. James wants the teachers to realize that their tongues are like a spark setting on fire a forest: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”63 Anyone familiar with the American West these days knows that even a spark at the wrong time can threaten the lives and homes of thousands. It might also be observed that forests are uncommon in the Land of Israel, and this leads some to suggest that hylē, “forest,” might have its more common meaning “wood,” suggesting brush fires instead of the conflagration of a forest (cf. Isa 10:17). The best commentary is perhaps Philo, with whom James shares so many similarities in this passage. In speaking of desire (epithymia), Philo says that from desire “flow the most iniquitous actions, public and private, small and great, dealing with things sacred or things profane, affecting bodies and souls and what are called external things. For nothing escapes desire, and as I have said before, like a flame in the forest, it spreads abroad and consumes and destroys everything.”
The emphases of James’s three analogies varies: the bit and horse emphasized small size and great impact, the rudder and ship emphasized not only small and great but also guidance, while the spark and forest now emphasizes small and great along with destructiveness.
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)
3:5 / 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.
5a. The first part of this verse concludes the opening section of James’ discourse on the tongue by explicitly applying the illustrations of verses 3–4. The importance of the bit and the rudder, small though they may be, is comparable to the importance of the little member, the tongue: it boasts of great things. ‘Boasting’ is often in the New Testament a sinful activity, and manifests an arrogant presumptuousness before God. Here, however, ‘boasting’ is used without these negative connotations—the tongue does have considerable importance and it can legitimately boast about its power to determine a person’s destiny. Phillips paraphrases, ‘the human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of!’
5b. This half-verse effects a transition from verses 3–5a, which focus on the disproportionate power of the tongue, to verse 6, which highlights the tongue’s destructive potential. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! A peculiarity of this translation is that the same Greek word (hēlikos) is given different, indeed opposite, meanings in its two occurrences: it is rendered both how great and small. The explanation is that the word ‘expresses magnitude in either direction’ (Hort)—immensity or minuteness. Used in the same sentence in this way, a certain antithetical symmetry is achieved. As an image, the rapid destructive spread of fire was frequently used to convey a warning about the effect of unrestrained passions. The Old Testament compares the speech of a fool to ‘a scorching fire’ (Prov. 16:27) and Sirach says that the tongue ‘will not be master over the godly, and they will not be burned in its flame’ (Ecclus. 28:22). The word translated forest in rsv (hylē) could refer to the brush which covered so many Palestinian hills, and which, in that dry Mediterranean climate, could so easily and disastrously burst into flame.
Vers. 5, 6. The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.—
The power of the tongue:—
- Words are the expressions of thoughts. Says Max Müller, with concise truth, “The word is the thought incarnate.” The Greek word translated “brotherly love” was unknown until Christianity coined it to declare a new relation revealed to men. It depended upon the Christian Church to exemplify the virtue expressed in the word “humility.” Every word we speak has its history, and in its appointed time each has been added to the library of the world’s thought. “Words are things,” said Mirabeau, and he was right.
- Words, as incarnate thoughts, are revelations of character. The morality both of nations and men is stamped in their words. “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” The speech of every Peter betrays the man. Just as the despatches of Napoleon were of “glory,” while those of the Iron Duke centred in “duty,” so may their respective characters be known. He whose thoughts are on noble things will never grovel in speech. The “Incarnate Word” was compelled to reach men through their own vernacular, yet the purity of His teaching is as matchless as His own Divine nature. Humanly speaking, the voice of Jacob will always be Jacob’s, though he dissemble Esau. Conversation touching impurity photographs for the world an impure heart. Ecstatic language, like purling brooks, denotes shallowness of thought. Repeated quotations of others’ opinions are proofs of having no substantial opinions of our own. Willingness to speak freely about others’ business is proof positive that we are not attending to our own affairs.
III. This power of language declares the solemnity of its use. The spoken word, like an arrow from the quiver, has its mark. Said Hawthorne, “Nothing is more unaccountable than the spell that often lurks in a spoken word.” A kind word has given courage to more than one despondent heart; and, struck by a cruel word, more than one gentle spirit has sobbed itself into the grave. Each word has a meaning, and the word is that meaning sent home to another—a word alive with fear, or joy, or love, or hate. It matters not as to their derivation, the words we speak mean ourselves back of them.
- This power of speech emphasises the necessity of self-control. Man is at the same time a king to rule his tongue and a slave to suffer from its abuse. The school of life deals with a double danger—the arrogant assumptions of self and the oppositions experienced from without. The first is illustrated in the control of the nervous horse held in with bit and bridle; the other means the steadfastness of the ship that no tempest can turn from its course. The helmsman’s duty on the tongue is no easy calling. It requires strength to hold the bits. The small rudder firmly held gives the promise of safety to the ship.
- Our words shall confront us at the judgment. We often unwittingly send them on before us, as though they were sand to be blown into the eyes of others, forgetting that they shall blind or bless ourselves. It is serious business to write a book like the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” or its opposite, “The Age of Reason.” It is serious business to declare in speech even the gospel of Christ. It is no meaningless service to expound the Bible in the Sabbath school. It is no less serious when every word of father and mother makes its impression upon the children’s lives, to see that such words are rightly spoken. (Monday Club Sermons.)
The lawless tongue:—He speaks of the tongue. He compares the tongue to the helm of a ship. The helm is a little thing in itself, and still more insignificant when compared with the mighty fabric which it controls, and yet it holds the ship to her course. Let the rudder be swept away, or let any part of its gearing break, and the ship is at the mercy of the winds and the waves. Such is the power of the human tongue. Under the control of a sanctified will it keeps the man to his course, headed, as he should be, for the harbour of eternal repose. But the power of the tongue is much more apparent when we consider the widespread mischief which it may cause. A spark will be enough, and if the fire be once started who shall stay its progress? There is hardly a more hideous sight in the world than one of the burnt districts in our Adirondack Mountains; and the saddest thought of all is, that this fated district can never regain what it has lost, can never be what it was. And perhaps a lighted match carelessly thrown among the dry leaves was the cause of it all. “Behold how great a forest a little fire kindleth!” Many families have been broken up, many churches have been disbanded, many communities have been set by the ears—sometimes a whole land has been laid under reproach—by a word maliciously or heedlessly spoken. Then the injuries which the lawless tongue inflicts are for the most part irreparable. There is nothing so hard to heal as a wounded reputation—the scar will always be there—and at the same time there is nothing so sensitive. Scarcely anything cuts so deep as an unkind word. How many hopes the slanderous tongue has blighted! how many hearts it has broken! how many graves it has dug! And they are irreparable wrongs. We may bitterly repent of the sin committed against our brother, we may put forth our utmost endeavours to undo the evil which we have done, but unless we can bring back the dead we cannot repair the injury. And this evil tongue, which gives our brother a wound which can never be healed, is no respecter of persons. It spares neither age nor sex. Genuine goodness, exalted worth, a life devoted to charity, are no protection. Nay, the purest, the sweetest, the holiest, the highest, the most revered and the most beloved, are the surest to be assailed. There is no such joy for an envious man as to drag some great name through the dust. We may, then, well believe what St. James tells us, that the evil tongue is under a diabolic inspiration. The tongue of the liar or the slanderer or the profane swearer is touched by a coal brought from the pit. The man speaks as he is moved by that fallen spirit who wanted to be something more than an archangel, who wanted to be something higher than the Highest. He inspires the talebearer, the gossip, the heedless talker, the obscene jester, and, above all, the malicious libeller. And if this heedless talker, this man so regardless of the feelings of his fellow-men—if this man is a follower of Christ, then his evil-speaking is the profanation of a holy thing. To use this consecrated tongue for any evil purpose is like taking a lamp from the sanctuary to hang up in some den of infamy; it is a desecration, a profanation, a sacrilege in fullest meaning of that awful word. The tongue is spoken of in Scripture as the glory of our frame. It is the tongue which lifts us so far above the inferior orders of creation. They can plan and build, they can love and hate, they can sing and moan; but they cannot speak. They have their cities and governments and granaries; they have their armies and wars and conquests; but they have no words. The tongue arouses a righteous indignation, it awakens a holy enthusiasm, it inflames a people with heroic resolves, and it has won multitudes and multitudes more to the obedience of the faith. The tongue, as if on eagles’ wings, bears our thoughts and thanks and aspirations to the ear of our Father. And shall we let Satan take possession of this glory of our frame? Shall we let him use it to bring his nefarious purposes to pass—this tongue with which we bless man, this tongue with which we praise God? Shall Satan use it to hurt my brother or insult my Father? If the fallen archangel would spread a scandal, if he would wound some good man to the death, if he would send some saintly woman to a premature grave, if he would publish some deadly heresy or cover the slandered daughter of Zion with a cloud, he must have a human tongue to do it; and, to our shame be it said, he has never been hindered by the want of a tongue. I am sure that no man can better begin the day than with this petition: “Set a watch before my mouth.” Nay, even that may not be enough: “Keep Thou the door of my lips.” Let no word this day go forth from my mouth that can hurt my brother or harm the cause or grieve my God. The man who has brought his tongue under complete control has solved the great problem of the Christian life; nothing after that can hold out against him. (J. B. Shaw, D.D.)
- The license of the tongue. 1. The first license given to the tongue is slander. I am not of, course, speaking now of that species of slander against which the law of libel provides a remedy, but of that of which the gospel alone takes cognisance; for the worst injuries which man can do to man are precisely those which are too delicate for law to deal with. Now observe, this slander is compared in the text to poison. The deadliest poisons are those for which no test is known: there are poisons so destructive that a single drop insinuated into the veins produces death in three seconds, and yet no chemical science can separate that virus from the contaminated blood, and show the metallic particles of poison glittering palpably, and say, “Behold, it is there!” In the drop of venom which distils from the sting of the smallest insect, or the spikes of the nettle-leaf, there is concentrated the quintessence of a poison so subtle that the microscope cannot distinguish it, and yet so virulent that it can inflame the blood, irritate the whole constitution, and convert day and night into restless misery. In St. James’s day, as now, it would appear that there were idle men and idle women, who went about from house to house, dropping slander as they went, and yet you could not take up that slander and detect the falsehood there. You could not evaporate the truth in the slow process of the crucible, and then show the residuum of falsehood glittering and visible. You could not fasten upon any word or sentence, and say that it was calumny; for in order to constitute slander it is not necessary that the word spoken should be false—half truths are often more calumnious than whole falsehoods. It is not even necessary that the word should be distinctly uttered; a dropped lip, an arched eyebrow, a shrugged shoulder, a significant look, an incredulous expression of countenance, nay, even an emphatic silence, may do the work: and when the light and trifling thing which has done the mischief has fluttered off, the venom is left behind, to work and rankle, to inflame hearts, to fever human existence, and to poison human society at the fountain springs of life. 2. The second license given to the tongue is in the way of persecution: “therewith curse we men which are made after the similitude of God.” “We!”—men who bear the name of Christ—curse our brethren! Christians persecuted Christians. Thus even in St. James’s age that spirit had begun, the monstrous fact of Christian persecution; from that day it has continued, through long centuries, up to the present time. We congratulate ourselves that the days of persecution are gone by; but persecution is that which affixes penalties upon views held, instead of upon life led. Is persecution only fire and sword? But suppose a man of sensitive feeling says, The sword is less sharp to me than the slander: fire is less intolerable than the refusal of sympathy!
- The guilt of this license. 1. The first evil consequence is the harm that a man does himself: “so is the tongue among the members, that it defiles the whole body.” I will take the simplest form in which this injury is done, it effects a dissipation of spiritual energy. There are two ways in which the steam of machinery may find an outlet for its force: it may work, and if so it works silently; or it may escape, and that takes place loudly, in air and noise. There are two ways in which the spiritual energy of a man’s soul may find its vent: it may express itself in action, silently; or in words noisily: but just so much of force as is thrown into the one mode of expression, is taken from the other. Few men suspect how much mere talk fritters away spiritual energy,—that which should be spent in action, spends itself in words. In these days of loud profession, and bitter, fluent condemnation, it is well for us to learn the Divine force of silence. Remember Christ in the Judgment Hall, the very symbol and incarnation of spiritual strength; and yet when revilings were loud around Him and charges multiplied, “He held His peace.” 2. The next feature in the guilt of calumny is its uncontrollable character: “the tongue can no man tame.” You cannot arrest a calumnious tongue, you cannot arrest the calumny itself; you may refute a slanderer, you may trace home a slander to its source, you may expose the author of it, you may by that exposure give a lesson so severe as to make the repetition of the offence appear impossible; but the fatal habit is incorrigible: to-morrow the tongue is at work again. Neither can you stop the consequences of a slander; you may publicly prove its falsehood, you may sift every atom, explain and annihilate it, and yet, years after you had thought that all had been disposed of for ever, the mention of a name wakes up associations in the mind of some one who heard the calumny, but never heard or never attended to the refutation, or who has only a vague and confused recollection of the whole, and he asks the question doubtfully, “But were there not some suspicious circumstances connected with him?” It is like the Greek fire used in ancient warfare, which burned unquenched beneath the water, or like the weeds which when you have extirpated them in one place are sprouting forth vigorously in another spot, at the distance of many hundred yards; or, it is like the wheel which catches fire as it goes, and burns with a fiercer conflagration as its own speed increases. You may tame the wild beast, the conflagration of the American forest will cease when all the timber and the dry underwood is consumed; but you cannot arrest the progress of that cruel word which you uttered carelessly yesterday; that will go on slaying, poisoning, burning beyond your own control, now and for ever. 3. The third element of guilt lies in the unnaturalness of calumny. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be”; ought not—that is, they are unnatural. That this is St. James’s meaning is evident from the second illustration which follows: “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” “Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive berries, or a vine, figs?” The truest definition of evil is that which represents it as something contrary to nature: evil is evil, because it is unnatural; a vine which should bear olive berries, an eye to which blue seems yellow, would be diseased: an unnatural mother, an unnatural son, an unnatural act, are the strongest terms of condemnation. It is this view which Christianity gives of moral evil: the teaching of Christ was the recall of man to nature, not an infusion of something new into humanity. Now the nature of man is to adore God and to love what is god-like in man. The office of the tongue is to bless. Slander is guilty because it contradicts this; yet even in slander itself, perversion as it is, the interest of man in man is still distinguishable. What is it but perverted interest which makes the acts, and words, and thoughts of his brethren, even in their evil, a matter of such strange delight? Remember therefore, this contradicts your nature and your destiny; to speak ill of others makes you a monster in God’s world: get the habit of slander, and then there is not a stream which bubbles fresh from the heart of nature,—there is not a tree that silently brings forth its genial fruit in its appointed season,—which does not rebuke and proclaim you to be a monstrous anomaly in God’s world. 4. The fourth point of guilt is the diabolical character of slander; the tongue “is set on fire of hell.” Now, this is no mere strong expression—no mere indignant vituperation—it contains deep and emphatic meaning. The apostle means literally what he says, slander is diabolical. The first illustration we give of this is contained in the very meaning of the word devil. “Devil,” in the original, means traducer or slanderer. The first introduction of a demon spirit is found connected with a slanderous insinuation against the Almighty, implying that His command had been given in envy of His creature: “for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” There is another mode in which the fearful accuracy of St. James’s charge may be demonstrated. There is one state only from which there is said to be no recovery—there is but one sin that is called unpardonable. To call evil, good, and good, evil—to see the Divinest good, and call it Satanic evil—below this lowest deep there is not a lower still. There is no cure for mortification of the flesh—there is no remedy for ossification of the heart. Oh! that miserable state, when to the jaundiced eye all good transforms itself into evil, and the very instruments of health become the poison of disease. Beware of every approach of this! Beware of that spirit which controversy fosters, of watching only for the evil in the character of an antagonist! Beware of that habit which becomes the slanderer’s life, of magnifying every speck of evil and closing the eye to goodness!—till at last men arrive at the state in which generous, universal love (which is heaven) becomes impossible, and a suspicious, universal hate takes possession of the heart, and that is hell! Before we conclude, let us get at the root of the matter. “Man,” says the Apostle James, “was made in the image of God”; to slander man is to slander God: to love what is good in man is to love it in God. Love is the only remedy for slander: no set of rules or restrictions can stop it; we may denounce, but we shall denounce in vain. The radical cure of it is Charity—“out of a pure heart and faith unfeigned,” to feel what is great in the human character; to recognise with delight all high, and generous, and beautiful actions; to find a joy even in seeing the good qualities of your bitterest opponents, and to admire those qualities even in those with whom you have least sympathy—this is the only spirit which can heal the love of slander and of calumny. If we would bless God, we must first learn to bless man, who is made in the image of God. (F. W. Robertson, M.A.)
Boastful speech:—1. A usual sin of the tongue is boasting. Sometimes the pride of the heart shooteth out by the eyes (Prov. 6:17); but usually it is displayed in our speech. The tongue trumpeteth it out—(1) In bold vaunts (1 Sam. 2:3; Isa. 14:13). (2) In a proud ostentation of our own worth and excellency. It is against reason that a man should be judge in his own cause. In the Olympic Games the wrestlers did not put the crowns upon their own heads; that which is lawful praise in another’s lips, in our own it is but boasting. (3) In contemptuous challenges of God and man. (4) Bragging promises, as if they could achieve and accomplish great matters above the reach of their gifts and strength: “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil,” &c. (Exod. 15). 2. Small things are to be regarded; and we must not consider matters in their beginning only, but progress, and ultimate issue. A little sin doth a great deal of mischief, and a little grace is of great efficacy (Eccles. 10:13). (T. Manton.)
The use of the tongue:—Talk, chat, confer, converse. But don’t gossip, and don’t slander. It is not often that the tongue is accused of laziness. It is generally thought to be quite too busy. It is called “the unruly member,” and so it is, not because it will wag, but because it will not wag in the right direction. What volumes have been written upon restraining this most important article of speech! Quaint old Quarles says: “Give not thy tongue too great liberty lest it take thee prisoner.” “Evil speaking,” said the great Brighton divine—and he knew too well what he said—“is like a freezing wind, that seals up the sparkling waters and tender juices of flowers, and binds up the hearts of men in uncharitableness and bitterness of spirit, as the earth is bound up in the grip of winter.” Half the lawsuits and half the wars, it may be safely asserted, have been brought about by the tongue. Husband and wife have separated for ever, children have forsaken their homes, bosom friends have become bitter foes—all on account of fiery arrows shot by this little member. And yet, rightly used, the tongue is a most valuable factor of society. “The music of the tongue” has passed into a proverb, along with its kind and timely words, earnest words, sincere words, good words, cheery words, hopeful, helpful words. What a blessing it has been and is! God be thanked for speech, the head and heart utterances which have been the hope, the joy, the comfort, the warning, the help of all people, all races, through all the ages! Next to proclaiming the everlasting truths of a free gospel, and the raising of the voice in prayer and praise, one of the best uses to which the tongue can be put is conversation. There is altogether too little of it. People talk, and we know some who can listen; but conversely the generality of people do not. Yet no other form of speech is so interesting or so edifying. How Socrates discoursed—not talked only, but could listen, compare opinions, and discuss them! And Plato: is it any wonder that when he discoursed the Greeks thought that Jupiter had visited the earth? All truth is two-sided; and he who sees but one side when he might have both, is like the knights, each of whom saw but one side of the shield, and that the one hidden from the other; and happy for him if the issue be not so serious. The truth is, in the hurry and worry of our life of to-day—more hurried than ever before—the race of conversationists is fast dying out, and bids to disappear with the moose and the elk, which naturalists tell us will not survive the century; and scarcely anything is a subject for more profound regret. Conversation ought to be cultivated, and especially should homely people qualify themselves for conversation, and they would not be thought homely then, just as the brilliancy of Madame de Staël’s conversation triumphed so far over the plainness of her features that Curran said that she had the power of talking herself into a beauty.
The great effects of the tongue:—“Boasteth great things”—does not mean vaingloriously boastful—magnifying its own powers and its own doings. It rather means, it has great things to boast of—to boast of with truth. The object being to show the wonderful power and efficacy of so “little a member,” this is the only sense of the words that is at all to the apostle’s purpose. How prodigious have been the effects of the tongue! How marvellously has it both stirred and stilled the passions of men! How often has it, by a very whisper, infuriated millions, and roused a desolating tempest of popular commotion! and how often by the charms of its eloquence, laid the conflicting elements of such a storm to rest! The great things which it has done have many a time, alas! been bad things: and then, when it boasts, it “glories in its shame.” But not the less may they be manifestations of power. It has a power for evil, as well as for good: and more frequent have been the proofs, alas! of the former than of the latter; as, indeed, the corruption of our nature might have led us to anticipate. (R. Wardlaw, D.D.)
The injury which may be wrought by an insignificant thing:—In the Fisheries Exhibition there was exhibited a “cable-worm” that had pierced through the Atlantic Cable and stopped the communication between two continents. It was a very insignificant little creature, but its power for mischief was unlimited. (H. O. Mackey.) How great a matter a little fire kindleth.—
The gradual progress of evil:—It is a great point of wisdom to know how to estimate little things. Of those which are evidently great every one can see the importance; but true wisdom looks at these great objects before they have arrived at their full size. She considers that it is principally in this earlier state that they come under the power of man, and can be arranged, modified, increased, or extinguished at his pleasure; whereas, in a more advanced stage, they set at defiance all his efforts. Behold a conflagration! With what dreadful fury it rages! The largest houses are devoured by it in a moment! Yet this fire, which now resists the united wisdom and power of man, originated from a small spark, and might at first have been extinguished by a child. Look also at yon tree, which is now so firmly rooted in the earth, which rears its lofty head so high, and bears its flourishing honours so thick upon it! It was once only a small seed; it was then a tender plant, so slender and so weak that the foot of accident might have crushed it, or the hand of negligence or wantonness have torn it up. Thus does Nature point out to us the growth of the strongest things from weak and almost imperceptible beginnings. And if we look into the moral world we shall find that they are not there to be considered as of less importance. Behold an abandoned and hardened murderer, who is about to receive from the hands of public justice the ignominious punishment due to his crimes! Would you know by what means he arrived at such a dreadful pitch of sin? It was one little step taken after another which brought him to it! Contemplate also the unhappy woman whose licentious conduct has banished her from the society of her own sex, and whose shameless impudence makes her shunned by all but the most worthless. To what shall we attribute this dreadful accumulation of crime? Perhaps it may have been one, the evil of which is little suspected. It is, indeed, a small spark which kindleth such a fire. It may have been only the love of admiration. 1. Let me remark, then, that evil passions in their early stage do not wear the disgusting appearance which they afterwards do when they are carried to excess. The buds even of the most noxious weeds appear pretty. The most savage animals, while yet young, only amuse us with their gambols as they lie in ambush for their prey or spring upon it. But however harmless their mirth may then be, it is easy to perceive in it the spirit which by and by will tear to pieces with fury the quivering victim. 2. I observe, further, that the foundation of all great vices is laid in those little things which often are scarcely noticed, or scarcely appear to need correction. It is by little things that habits are formed and principles become established. They resemble the spots or eruptions which sometimes appear in the human body, which are of no material importance in themselves, but are of great consequence when they are considered as indicating a general unsoundness of constitution. It should be remembered that principle is as truly sacrificed by little offences as by great ones. 3. I remark, also, that little sins are the steps by which we travel on to greater acts of transgression. Temptation has, in general, but little force, except when it solicits to those sins which have often before been committed, or which are but a single degree beyond what we have been accustomed to commit. Thus persons are brought imperceptibly to practices and principles which would once have shocked them. 4. It follows, therefore, that little sins are what, most of all, ought to be attended to and resisted. Watch against the beginnings. The spark may soon be extinguished, but the conflagration rages with irresistible fury. The first channel by which confined waters run over their banks may soon be stopped; but by and by it becomes a torrent which tears down the mounds and spreads itself with desolating fury. Here, therefore, religion will most successfully operate in restraining at first the evil disposition as soon as it arises; in watching against those little sins by which corrupt principles and corrupt dispositions are chiefly gratified and nourished. 5. This subject presents useful lessons of instruction to parents. They form the minds of their children. And it is too much to be feared that many of those unhappy persons who have been brought to ruin have been brought to it chiefly by the operation of those very principles which their parents instilled into them and encouraged. 6. The consideration of the subject of my discourse should lead us also to deep humiliation on account of our great corruption, and to earnest prayers for the grace of Christ to pardon and to cleanse us. 7. And as we see evil arrive at its perfection by small gradations, so let us remember that good advances in the same manner. We should not despise little things, either in what is good or bad; for “he that despiseth little things shall fall by little and little.” The character is formed very much from the repetition of little acts; and a progress in religion is made by small successive steps, none of which ought to be despised. Try to do a little, and that little will prepare you for more. Take the first step, and that will prepare the way for a second. (J. Venn, M.A.)
Small in origin, widespread in issue:—A circumstance, probably without a parallel even in the history of the United States, is reported in advices received from Ashland, Wisconsin territory (1888), viz., the destruction of the town of Wakefield by fire through the mischievousness of a monkey. The monkey was located in the Vaudeville Theatre, and had the freedom of the place. During the evening of the 25th ult. he got to some kerosene and covered himself with the oil. He then set fire to himself with a lamp which was burning in the room, and then appeared at the window of the theatre amusing the people. Presently the building was in flames, and the monkey running about in its frenzy set fire to other places. The buildings in the town were of wood, and the conflagration spread from place to place, until the whole of the town was burnt down. Gangs of roughs during the progress of the fire commenced looting the stores, and in most instances the flames had scarcely reached the respective places before the robbers commenced sacking the premises. The owners tried to protect their stores, and in the encounters many pistol shots were exchanged. The proprietor of the theatre was a man named O’Brien, and between him and a storekeeper named Lewis, whose premises were destroyed, an altercation took place, Lewis blaming O’Brien for allowing the monkey to be in the theatre. O’Brien became enraged, and shot Lewis twice with a revolver, wounding him mortally. (J. F. B. Tinling, B. A.)
Importance of little things:—He that despiseth little things, shall perish by little and little. (Son of Sirach.)
From little to great:—A fire at first no bigger than the flame of a taper may consume a mansion or a palace. One Roman soldier’s torch flung into the holiest of all, burned down to the ground the temple of the Lord, in the days of Titus.
From little to great:—As the smallest spark will, if duly fanned, kindle a vast pyre, so is the least element of virtue capable of growth till the whole nature of the man glows with a new warmth and brightness. (Philo.)
Act and habit:—I knew a lad once, a pleasant, open-hearted, merry boy as you ever saw. He was grown old enough to leave school and go to work. “Come,” said a companion one day, “come into the publichouse and have a glass.” He held back for a minute; he had never done it before, and he felt it was wrong. “Oh, come on!” cried his friend, laughing, and taking his arm. “You must not be too particular, you know.” “Well,” thought the lad to himself, “it’s only once and only just a little.” It was the same thing over again the next day. Then two or three times a day, and still it was only just once and only just a little. Down this wretched alley, with its miserable houses and its miserable people and its miserable children, see what looks like a heap of rags. And now he lifts the foul face of a drunkard, a face so bleared and blotted that you shrink back from it frightened. “Only just once, and only just a little”—this is what it has turned him into. (M. G. Pearse.)
Influence of little things:—A little wheel in a vast machine may, if neglected, throw the results of that machine into destructive confusion. A little miscalculation in some process of high mathematical thought may issue in an enormous and damaging mistake. A little spark may fire a prairie; a little leak may sink a ship; a little seed may hold a future forest growth of good or evil. A dislodged stone in your pathway may seem to you to be a thing too trivial for notice, yet it may draw down the notice of an angel. That stone may cause a fall, the fall a fracture, and the fracture death; therefore it is written, “He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Some slight unchronicled incident in your experience may colour your life for eternity. Some noteless action may be the germ of a power that shall spread through all the earth, and fill all hell with heightened sorrow, or all heaven with praise. (C. Stanford, D.D.)
The tiny mother of mischief:—The mother of mischief may be no bigger than a gnat’s wing.
Fire a dangerous plaything:—A child playing with a box of matches caused the destruction of two hundred and thirty-two houses in the Hungarian village of Nemedi, reducing the whole population to bankruptcy. The tongue is a fire.—
Sins of the tongue:—St. James goes on to say that the tongue “setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” The word “course” is, in the original, wheel or circle of nature, and may mean the generations of men succeeding each other with the rapidity of the revolutions of a wheel; or the course of a man’s life; or the circle of human affairs. Each of these ideas might have been in the mind of the apostle, because the tongue does set on fire a whole generation of men; does ignite the whole course of a man’s life; and does make the circle of social life to blaze under its fiery appliances. But St. James goes on to say of this tongue, which is itself a fire, that “it is set on fire of hell.” The idea is that the tongue derives all its power to do harm from the evil influences which have their origin in hell. St. James illustrates still further the power of the tongue by comparing it with ferocious beasts and other animals, and pronouncing it more ferocious and untamable than anything on earth. You can sooner make the condor of the Andes perch upon your wrist; you can sooner make leviathan sport with you in the cresting surf; you can sooner make the boa-constrictor coil harmlessly around your neck; you can sooner make the lion so gentle that a little child can lead him, than tame the tongue; for “the tongue,” he says, “can no man tame.” What a strong declaration this is concerning the power of the tongue! Well may he say “it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” If we look into other portions of the Bible we shall find further metaphors to indicate the power of the tongue. Job calls it “a scourge or a whip” whose every blow inflicts severe wounds on the character and leaves its purple welts on the lacerated peace and reputation. Daniel styles the tongue “a sharp sword,” a murderous weapon, which hews down those upon whom it falls, and drips with the gore of slaughtered innocence or virtue. Jeremiah says of the tongue, it “is an arrow, shot out.” A pointed arrow shot by wicked archers, against those whom they wish to pierce through with anguish, and yet themselves keep at a distance from the one whose good name they aim to destroy. St. Paul, speaking of the lips through which the tongue speaks, says “the poison of asps is under their lips”; and St. James says it is full of deadly poison. Such being the general outlines of the character of an evil tongue, let us now descend to some particular sins of the tongue, because only as we expose those sins can their vileness and influence be made apparent. 1. The first tongue-sin which I will name is that of tattling; by this I mean a thoughtless, trifling, heedless talking. There is a process in chemistry by which you can arrest the invisible gas, and weigh it, and separate it into its constituent elements; and were there moral re-agents by which we could arrest the gaseous tattle of these busybodies, and resolve it into its elements, its constituent parts would be folly, slander, falsehood, flattery, and boastfulness. 2. The second tongue-sin is slander. Under this head I enumerate backbiting, or speaking evil of one behind his back; defaming one’s good name by absolute or implied censure; detraction, envious jealousies, secret whisperings, and innuendoes, and all other ways by which the tongue wounds and injures the name and reputation of another. The devil, then, is, as Christ says, “the father of lies”; and every one who gives his tongue to slander, and maligns his neighbours, or utters words of falsehood or detraction, comes into the class of those false accusers, those Diaboloi of which Jesus truly said, “Ye are of your father the devil.” The grossest kind of slander is bearing false witness: that is, saying a person did things which he did not do. This false witness is sometimes spoken openly, sometimes in secret, but always with malicious intent; and in every instance the tongue which utters it, not only setteth on fire the course of nature, but is set on fire of hell. Another way of slandering is to impute false motives to good actions. When we say of a liberal man that he is vainglorious; of an active man in Church affairs, that he is a Diotrephes; of a prudent man, that he is miserly; of a devout man, that he is hypocritical. Another way is to distort views, words, and actions; giving them a false construction; suppressing what might appear good; magnifying what might seem to be evil. This is taking a man’s words and deeds, and, like Romish inquisitors, stretching them upon the rack until they become disjointed, and the once symmetrical form is all distorted and awry by reason of the unjust treatment to which slander subjects it. Another way is by insinuations, sly suggestions, expressions of doubt, intimations as to something concealed, a qualifying of the praise of others by some question implying distrust, or lack of confidence. 3. The third tongue-sin which St. James mentions is the fretful, scolding tongue. There are those who are always complaining. Even if blessings come, they murmur because they are no greater, and are ready to find fault, not only with all the dealings of their fellow-men, but with all the providences of God. 4. Falsehood is another grievous tongue-sin; and in this I would include all kinds of lying. The lie positive, and the lie negative; the lie direct, and the lie by implication; the lie malignant, and the lie sportive; every designed departure from truth is falsehood; and every falsehood is a sin against one’s own soul, a sin against your fellow-men, and a sin against God, which He will punish with fearful severity. 5. The tongue commits a great sin when it is used in filthy talking and indecent speech. It is greatly to be lamented that even in polite, and what would pass for modest, society there is too much of tampering with this sin. 6. Another tongue-sin is boasting. “The tongue is a little member, but boasteth great things.” Boasting results from an overestimate of ourselves, and an underestimate of others. It is selfishness manifesting itself in words. It is the inflated mind, venting itself in windy words. It betrays weakness, littleness, ignorance, vanity, self-conceit, arrogance, presumption. 7. Another sin of the tongue is flattery, or the giving of undue and undeserved praise. The desire to say something that will please the person we are speaking to, or that will secure his favour, or elevate us in his regard; or the desire, perhaps, to have him reciprocate the compliment, and flatter us, is the usual motive for this sin of the tongue. 8. Lastly, there is the sin of profanity, the taking of God’s name in vain. With what caution use an instrument of speech which has under it “the poison of asps”! With what assiduity should we seek to tame that most untamable of things, that it rends us not by its fierceness, and ravin not upon society by its brute-like goadings! Yet we cannot do this in our own strength or wisdom, and our prayer must be that of the Psalmist, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth. Keep the door of my lips.” We must seek for Divine grace to aid us in subduing and controlling the tongue. We must seek to have hearts created anew in Christ Jesus; for if our hearts are right with God our speech will be also. (Bp. Stevens.)
The government of the tongue:—The keeping of the tongue is one of those duties that entitles a man to safety from evil times, and therefore must now be urged as a seasonable duty. The wisest monarch could hardly govern a great part of the world; how difficult then must it be to govern a world, and that a world of iniquity. The tongue is a world of iniquity, a heap of evils; as in the world many things are contained, so in the tongue. This world of iniquity is divided into two parts, undue silence, and sinful speaking. These are the higher and lower parts of this world, yet quickly may men travel from the one to the other.
- Undue silence, when the tongue rests idle, when God calls it to work. Our tongues are our glory, and should not be involved in a dark cloud of silence when God calls them to shine forth. 1. Silence is unseasonable when sin rageth and roareth. Our tongues testify that we are men, and they should show we are Christians and in a covenant with God, offensive and defensive. By this undue silence we are injurious to God, in that we do not vindicate His glory, bespattered with the sins of others. His glory, I say, Who hath given us a tongue as a banner to be displayed because of truth. This undue silence is also injurious to our neighbour. We see him pulling down the house about his ears, and yet we will not help him; selling his soul for a trifle, and yet we do not bid him rue his bargain. It is injurious likewise to ourselves, for thereby we adopt the devil’s children brought forth by others, and set down their debts to our own account (Eph. 5:7–11). This silence also leaves a sting in our conscience, which remains inactive in the hearts of some for a while; but when the opportunity of bearing testimony against sin is gone, it bites dreadfully the hearts of those whose consciences are not seared. 2. When an opportunity of edifying others inviteth us to speak. Oh, what iniquity is contracted by the neglect of heavenly discourse among professors! A dumb Christian is a very unprofitable servant. A philosopher, seeing a man with a fair face and a silent tongue, bade him speak that he might see him. When scholars or merchants meet, we know what they are by their discourse; and why should not Christians also discover themselves? (1) Dumb Christians are very unlike Christ, whose ordinary way it was to spiritualise all things, and turn the current of the discourse toward heaven. (2) Either there is no religion at all, or but very little, in that heart. Nearest the heart, nearest the mouth. If fire be upon the hearth, the smoke will come out at the chimney. (3) They are very useless sort of people; like the vine that is fruitless. 3. Silence is unseasonable when our wants are crying. These should make us cry to God, like that woman who cried to the king of Israel, saying, “Help, my Lord, O King.”
- Sinful speaking: when the tongue is exercised, but ill exercised; and this is a strong piece of this world of iniquity. I may divide it again into two parts—one against our duty to God, the other against our duty to man. 1. Against our duty to God. (1) Rash swearing by the name of God. (2) A light, irreverent, and profane using of the name of God in common talk. (3) Cursing; whereby we wish some horrid ill to ourselves or neighbours; but, because it is a kind of profane prayer, I speak of it under this head. (4) Profaning of Scripture phrases, by jesting or scoffing on the Scriptures; or using them to express the conceptions of men’s wanton wits, alluding to them in common talk, and the like. (5) Mocking of religion and seriousness. (6) Reasoning against religion, and defending sinful opinions and practices. (7) Murmuring and complaining. Proud hearts make us fret at the dispensations of providence (Jude 14–16). 2. Against our duty to man. (1) Idle speaking—that is, words spoken to no good purpose, tending neither to the glory of God, nor the good of ourselves or others, either in spiritual or temporal things. A gracious soul will beware of idle words, as of vain thoughts. (2) A trade of jesting. It is not unlawful to pass an innocent jest, to produce a moderate recreation. But if a jest be allowed to be sauce to our conversation, yet it is impious to make it the meat. (3) Lying. Pernicious; officious; the sporting lie; the rash lie, when men through inadvertency and customary looseness tell an untruth. This is so common that we may say truth hath fallen in the streets. Few so tender as to avoid making a lie. Consider God is a God of truth, and therefore it is most contrary to His nature, and the devil is the father of lies. It is a badge of the old man. (4) Uncharitable speaking of truth, to the wounding of the reputation of others. It is not enough that what ill we speak of others be true, but the speaking of it must bring a greater than the disadvantage the party gets by it. (5) Slandering or backbiting. Of this three sorts of persons are guilty. (a) He that raiseth a false report of his neighbour (Exod. 23:1). Here is a true son of the devil, with malice and lying in conjunction. (b) He who readily reports it, though he knows it to be false, as readily receives, though he is not sure it is true. (c) He that spreads it. (T. Boston, D.D.)
Sins of the tongue:—1. The evil tongue is the silent tongue; it is wholly mute in matters of religion; it never speaks of God or of heaven, as if it cleaved to the roof of the mouth. 2. The evil tongue is the earthly tongue. Men talk of nothing but the world, as if all their hopes were here, and they looked for an earthly eternity. 3. The evil tongue is the hasty or angry tongue; they have no command of passions, but are carried away with them as a chariot with wild horses. 4. The evil tongue is the vain tongue, that vents itself in idle words: “under his tongue is vanity.” A vain tongue shows a light heart; a good man’s words are weighty and prudent: “the tongue of the just is as choice silver,” but “the mouth of fools pours out foolishness.” 5. The evil tongue is the censorious tongue: “who art thou that judgest another?” Were men’s hearts more humble, their tongues would be more charitable. 6. The evil tongue is the slanderous tongue. A slanderer wounds another’s fame, and no physician can heal these wounds. The sword doth not make so deep a wound as the tongue. 7. The evil tongue is the unclean tongue that vents itself in filthy and scurrilous words: “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” 8. The evil tongue is the lying tongue: “lie not one to another.” Nothing is more contrary to God than a lie; it shows much irreligion; lying is a sin that doth not go alone, it ushers in other sins. Absalom told his father a lie, that he was going to pay his vow at Hebron, and this lie was a preface to his treason. 9. The evil tongue is the flattering tongue, that will speak fair to one’s face but will defame: “he that hateth, dissembleth with his lips.” When he speaketh fair believe him not; dissembled love is worse than hatred. 10. The evil tongue is the tongue given to boasting: “the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.” There is a holy boasting: “In God we boast all the day,” when we triumph in His power and mercy: but it is a sinful boasting when men display their trophies, boast of their own worth and eminency, that others may admire and cry them up; a man’s self is his idol, and he loves to have this idol worshipped: “there arose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody.” 11. The evil tongue is the swearing tongue. Some think it the grace of their speech; but if God will reckon with men for idle words, what will He do for sinful oaths? 12. The railing tongue is an evil tongue; this is a plague-sore breaking out at the tongue when we give opprobrious language. 13. The seducing tongue is an evil tongue. The tongue that by fine rhetoric decoys men to error: “by fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple.” A fair tongue can put off bad wares; error is bad ware, which a seducing tongue can put off. 14. The evil tongue is the cruel tongue, that speaks to the wounding the hearts of others. Healing words are fittest for a broken heart: but that is a cruel, unmerciful tongue which speaks such words to the afflicted as to cut them to the heart: “they talk to the grief of those whom Thou hast wounded.” 15. The evil tongue is the murmuring tongue: “these are murmurers.” Murmuring is discontent breaking out at the lips; men quarrel with God, and tax His providence as if He had not dealt well with them. Why should any murmur or be discontented at their condition? Doth God owe them anything? Or can they deserve anything at His hands? Oh, how uncomely is it to murmur at Providence! 16. The evil tongue is the scoffing tongue. 17. The evil tongue is the unjust tongue: that will for a piece of money open its mouth in a bad cause. (T. Watson.)
The tongue a fire:—1. There is a resemblance between an evil tongue and fire. (1) For the heat of it. It is the instrument of wrath and contention, which is the heat of a man—a boiling of the blood about the heart (Prov. 17:27). (2) For the danger of it. It kindleth a great burning. The tongue is a powerful means to kindle divisions and strifes. You know we had need look to fire. Where it prevaileth it soon turneth houses into a wilderness: and you have as much need to watch the tongue (Prov. 26:18). (3) For the scorching. Reproaches penetrate like fire. (4) It is kindled from hell. When you feel this heat upon your spirit, remember from what hearth these coals were gathered. 2. There is a world of sin in the tongue. Some sins are formal and proper to this member, others flow from it. It acteth in some sins, as lying, railing, swearing, &c. It concurreth to others, by commanding, counselling, persuading, seducing, &c. It is made the pander to lust and sin. Oh! how vile are we if there be a world of sin in the tongue—in one member! 3. Sin is a defilement and a blot. 4. Tongue sins do much defile. They defile others. We communicate evil to others, either by carnal suggestions, or provoke them to evil by our passion. They defile ourselves. By speaking evil of them we contract guilt upon ourselves. 5. An evil tongue hath a great influence upon other members. When a man speaketh evil, he will commit it. When the tongue hath the boldness to talk of sin, the rest of the members have the boldness to act it (1 Cor. 15:33). 6. The evils of the tongue are of a large and universal influence, diffuse themselves into all conditions and states of life. There is no faculty which the tongue doth not poison, from the understanding to the locomotive; it violently stirreth up the will and affections, maketh the hands and the feet “swift to shed blood” (Rom. 3:14, 15). There is no action which it doth not reach; not only those of ordinary conversation, by lying, swearing, censuring, &c., but holy duties, as prayer, and those direct and higher addresses to God, by foolish babbling and carnal requests; we would have God revenge our private quarrel. There is no age exempted; it is not only found in young men that are of eager and fervorous spirits, but in those whom age and experience hath more matured and ripened. Other sins decay with age, this many times increaseth; and we grow more forward and pettish as natural strength decayeth, and “the days come on in which is no pleasure.” 7. A wicked tongue is of an infernal origin. Calumnies and reproaches are a fire blown up by the breath of hell. The devil hath been “a liar from the beginning” (John 8:44), and an accuser of the brethren, and he loveth to make others like himself. Learn, then, to abhor revilings, contentions, and reproaches, as you would hell flames; these are but the eruptions of an infernal fire; slanderers are the devil’s slaves and instruments. Again, if blasted with contumely, learn to slight it; who would care for the suggestions of the father of lies? The murderer is a liar. In short, that which cometh from hell will go thither again (Matt. 5:22). (T. Manton.)
Misuse of the tongue:—Some time ago I saw a terrible fire, or rather the reflection of it in the sky; the heavens were crimsoned with it. It burned a large manufactory to the ground, and the firemen had hard work to save the buildings which surrounded it. They poured streams of water on it from fifteen engines, but it licked it up, and would have its course till the walls gave way. That terrible fire was kindled by farthing rushlight! Some years ago I saw the black ashes of what the night before was a cheerful farmyard, with its hay-ricks, corn-stacks, stables, and cow-sheds; and lying about upon them were the carcases of a number of miserable horses and bullocks which had perished in the flames. All that was done by a lucifer-match! In America the Indians strike a spark from a flint and steel, and set fire to the dry grass, and the flames spread and spread until they sweep like a roaring torrent over prairies as large as England, and men and cattle have to flee for their lives. “And the tongue is a fire.” A few rash words will set a family, a neighbourhood, a nation, by the ears; they have often done so. Half the law-suits and half the wars have been brought about by the tongue. (James Bolton.)
Mischief of the tongue:—Give not thy tongue too great a liberty, lest it take thee prisoner. A word unspoken is, like the sword in the scabbard, thine; if vented, thy sword is in another’s hand. If thou desire to be held wise, be so wise as to hold thy tongue. (Quarles.) A world of iniquity.—
The tongue a world of wickedness:—It is a world of wickedness, because most mischiefs and greatest sins among men by unbridled and wicked tongues are attempted and performed. By the tongue thieves confer together and determine of robberies; murderers by their tongues raise up brawlings, the causes of cruel murder. By their tongues adulterous and treacherous persons first tempt the chastity of others, and with their words agree upon the wickedness. By the tongue lying, dissembling, flattery, and counterfeiting is committed. By the tongue slander, backbiting, swearing, blasphemy, and perjury is uttered. By the tongue false sentence is pronounced, either to the condemning of the righteous or absolving of the wicked, both which are abominable before the Lord. By the tongue men are led into error through false doctrine, drawn to wickedness by lewd counsel. Through the tongue, by false reports, private men and princes, kingdoms and countries, towns and cities, societies and families, are set at variance. By the tongue familiars and friends have been set at daggers drawn, and their quarrels thereby have ended in blood. By the tongue quarrels are picked, contentions caused, brawlings grow, to the great hurt of private estates, and the marvellous hurt and disturbance of public weals; with filthiness of speech it corrupteth, with dissembling and flattery it deceiveth, with lying and cogging it beguileth, with false reports it slayeth, with slanders it defameth, with vain swearing it blasphemeth, with enticing it inveigleth, with smoothness of talk it enforceth, yea, almost every wickedness among the children of men is either determined, attempted, executed, or finished by the tongue. Insomuch that Sirach, having great experience thereof, falleth into a large discourse of those evils which come of the wicked tongue, as that it hath destroyed many which were at peace, that it hath disquieted many and driven them from nation to nation, that it hath broken down strong cities and overthrown the houses of great men, abated the strength of the people, and been the decay of mighty nations; that it hath cast down many virtuous women and robbed them of their labours, that it causeth that such as hearken unto it shall never rest and live quietly, that it striketh deeper than any rod, and devoureth more than the sword of the enemy, and such like. (R. Turnbull.)
A world of iniquity:—A new-found world. Not a city or country only, but “a world of iniquity”; a sink, a sea of sin, wherein there is not only that leviathan, but creeping things innumerable (Psa. 104:26). (J. Trapp.)
The tongue defiles:—Leaving a stain upon the speaker, and setting a stain upon the hearer, even the guilt and filth of sin. (Ibid.)
The evil tongue destructive:—The tongue is a centre from which mischief radiates; that is the main thought. A wheel that has caught fire at the axle is at last wholly consumed as the fire spreads through the spokes to the circumference. So also in society. Passions kindled by unscrupulous language spread through various channels and classes, till the whole cycle of human life is in flames. Reckless language first of all “defiles the whole” nature of the man who employs it, and then works destruction far and wide through the vast machinery of society. And to this there are no limits; so long as there is material the fire will continue to burn. (A. Plummer, D.D.) Set on fire of hell.—
The tongue hell ignited:—The tongue is a fire, but how is it ignited? Whence come the sparks which make it blaze so fiercely and fatally? The answer is here plainly given. It is hell-lighted. The devil perverted man’s powers at first; and he still inflames the corruption which he was the means of introducing into our nature. He applies the torch to the combustible materials which are stored up in every part of our mental and physical constitution. He is still the great tempter and destroyer. He is an actual and an active being. His prison-house, the pit of hell, is a terrible reality. Men may doubt or deny its existence—they may regard it as a mere bugbear, but that only proves how effectually Satan can yet blindfold, mislead, hoodwink, as he did at the beginning—“Thou shalt not surely die.” It is the region of devouring flames, of unquenchable fire; and to it we are ultimately to trace those baleful conflagrations which the tongue is the instrument of kindling. It is here identified with the devil and his angels, for whom it has been provided, and who send forth from it all evil and destructive influences. (John Adam.)
Talk the devil’s ammunition:—The devil keeps an arsenal in every man’s breast, which he fills with supplies in advance of a siege, just in the same way that a great general places his stores in a country he means to invade before he marches into it his entire army. Satan is more artful, as well as more potent, for he gets inside of a citadel that he means to besiege, and lays there a train which in the moment of assault he hopes to ignite. The powder which he thus trusts to touch is passion, for he knows that if that once explodes, the whole edifice must go. Take the temptation of anger. Suppose an irritating circumstance occurs: it is silence alone that can preserve the heart from an explosion. If a single word is uttered, it is apt, like the making of a pinhole in a steam boiler, to cause the whole fabric to burst. Talk, to use the word in its popular sense, is extremely impolitic in temptation. There is a majestic power in silence, particularly when it is silence of that kind which stands as a suppliant before the throne of grace.
A fiery tongue:—Of Dr. Annesley it is recorded that, taking coffee one evening at an hotel, he heard one of two gentlemen in the next compartment swearing violently in conversation with the other, upon which he rang for the waiter and ordered a glass of water. When brought to him he said, “Take it to the gentleman in the next box.” The gentleman was surprised, and said he had ordered no such thing. “I thought,” said the venerable doctor, gravely, “to cool your tongue after the fiery language you have been uttering.” (Baxendale’s Anecdotes.)
The tongue a fire:—Just before crossing the Hackensack River, on the New York and Erie Railroad, I noticed by the roadside a large sign bearing, in very boldly painted letters, the words, “Shut your ash-pan.” I wondered what the singular and impertinent counsel meant, when in a moment I found the train on a long low wooden bridge. I at once saw the force and propriety of the signboard suggestion. Burning coals dropping from the open ash-pan of the locomotive might destroy the bridge, interrupt travel, imperil life, and cause numberless embarrassments in a financial way. So it is very important that the faithful engineer heed the signboard, “Shut your ash-pan.” I saw in the admonition a reminder of the words of James, “The tongue is a fire.”
Setting on fire the wheel of life:—The functions of a wheel, set on fire by the internal friction of its own axis, are deranged; and so the organisation of human society is disturbed and destroyed by the intestine fire of the human tongue—a fire which diffuses itself from the centre, and radiates forth to the circumference by all the spokes of slander and detraction, and involves the social framework in combustion and conflagration. (J. T. Mombert, D.D.)
The tongue captured, all else may follow:—Let him who has one member belonging to hell take care lest he do not altogether belong to it. He is like a bird whose foot the fowler has bound with a thread: he can fly about apparently free, but still he is in the fowler’s power; and if he does not break the thread while it is yet time, the fowler draws him to himself by means of it, and at the fitting moment catches him and kills him. (J. H. A. Ebrard, D.D.)
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!