Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
This entire chapter is a "self-contained section dealing with the bridling of the tongue," and fitting exactly into James' overall theme of "perfection" (see introduction). By such a vigorous address to this area of human behavior, in which the totality of all mankind is revealed as transgressors, either in small or in great degree, it must not be thought that James was requiring sinless perfection of Christians, his object being rather that of turning all men to Jesus Christ our Lord who alone is perfect, and in whom alone perfection is available for any mortal (see Matthew 5:48 and Colossians 1:28,29). In this chapter, as throughout the epistle, the remarkable consonance with the teachings of Christ should be noted. Had not Christ himself said, "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned?" (Matthew 12:37); and did he not also caution his followers against seeking the adulation accorded teachers, saying, "Be not ye called Rabbi (teacher)," etc. (Matthew 23:1-12)?
 W. E. Oesterley, Expositor's Greek New Testament, Vol. IV (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 449.
Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that ye shall receive heavier judgment. (James 3:1)
Be not many of you teachers ... The word "teachers" in this place replaces "masters" in the KJV, a very valid and instructive change. However, it is deplorable that here, as in so many similar places, scholars go out of their way to condemn the inaccuracy of the King James Version; and this is as good a place as any to put such "errors" of the KJV in the proper perspective.
REGARDING THE KJV AND SUBSEQUENT VERSIONS
Not for a moment should it be considered that the translators of the KJV were, in any sense, lacking in zeal, dedication, scholarship or intelligence, being in every such category fully on a parity with the scholarship of our own or of any other generation. The need for a new version did not arise from any superiority of "modern" translators over those of the seventeenth century. Indeed, there may be some question of the scholarship of our own age even equaling that of theirs.
On the other hand, the need for a new version did become recognized because: (1) There were linguistic changes in the English language itself. For example, this verse, using "masters" instead of teachers, derived from the exact meaning of "masters" in the year 1611, at which time it was understood throughout the English-speaking world as a short-form of "schoolmasters." It was the change in that usage which made "masters" archaic in the present era. (2) Three of the great uncial manuscripts, the Vatican, the Alexandrinus and the Sinaitic, were not available to the KJV translators; and in a few instances, their work needed correction in the light of the manuscript authority of those uncials. (3) Archeological discoveries, in a very few instances, have shed further light on the science of translation, which was not available to KJV translators.
However, modern translators are all too frequently carried away from the truth by wild, speculative, subjective assumptions, which generally did not characterize the work of the KJV translators. Therefore, because of these considerations and many others, the KJV today should be carefully studied by anyone with a desire to know the truth; especially in light of the fact of its value in general as authoritative presentation of the sacred text, and in not a few instances for its fidelity in giving the only true rendition of the Greek New Testament. For an example of this, see extensive comment in my Commentary on Romans, pp. 118ff and my Commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians 43ff. Another example of notorious mistranslation by the English Revised Version (1885) is Romans 10:16, which ought to read, "They have not all obeyed the gospel." There are many other such errors which flaw the work of "modern" translators. This comment is not intended to demean the great scholars through whose labors we are able to understand the New Testament, but rather to suggest that appreciation for those of other generations who labored in the same field is also appropriate.
NOT MANY TEACHERS
In saying, "Be not many teachers," James did not seek to discourage any who might have been qualified for such work. As Harper suggested, "His words were meant to remind us of our responsibilities, rather than to deter us from our duties."  The need for such a caution grew out of a number of circumstances: (1) The Christian meetings were open, unstructured and informal; and anyone wishing to be heard could rise and speak (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40). The great honor attached to the work of teaching, as indicated in 1 Corinthians 12:28, where teachers were ranked second only to apostles and prophets, naturally led self-seekers to attempt to teach, whether or not they were qualified. (3) Some of James' readers, perhaps many of them, had come out of Judaism; and the characteristic of many of those was described by Paul in Romans 2:17-24, to the effect that their total lack of any true qualification did not deter their conceited and arrogant assumption of the office of "teacher" for all mankind! (4) The Judaizers who attempted to graft the forms and ceremonies of Mosaic law upon the church were a particularly troublesome element of the church which sorely needed the caution here expressed by James. As Macknight said: "These teachers of the Law in the Christian church were the great corrupters of Christianity." Paul likewise addressed stern words to this group, thus, "Some ... have turned aside unto vain talking, desiring to be teachers of the law, though they understand neither what they say, nor whereof they confidently affirm" (1 Timothy 1:7).
Greater judgment ... (as in the ASV margin) is reminiscent of Jesus' declaration that hypocrites making long prayers for show, and at the same time devouring widows' houses, would also receive "the greater condemnation" (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). It is not necessary to soften this to "judgment"; because such false teachers, because of their being unqualified, must be reckoned among the most vicious and destructive influences in the whole history of Christianity. As Lenski said:
The damage that wrong teaching may cause is indicated by what James later says of the tongue. Untold damage may result. We see it everywhere to this day. This text about the judgment that teachers shall receive cannot be impressed too deeply upon all who teach today, whether professionally or as volunteersSIZE>
For in many things we all stumble. If any stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.
In many things we all stumble ... We cannot agree with Lenski who labeled this "James' great confession of sin." The "we" in this place is accommodative, through considerations of tact, and is used in exactly the same manner as Paul's frequent use of it in such passages as Hebrews 2:3; 6:3, etc. (where it is likewise misunderstood by many). James was not here making some great confession of his own sins, but rather pointing out the universality of sin and error in all men, not excluding himself of course, nor meaning it as his "confession." In Hebrews 6:3, where the writer said, "we" will stop lingering upon first principles and go on to perfection, he did not, in any sense, mean it as a confession that he himself had been merely a "first principles" Christian.
If any stumbleth not in word ... Macknight pointed out that, "In Scripture, walking denotes the course of a man's conduct; stumbling denotes a lesser failing than falling (Romans 11:11)." Macknight also indicated that it is in this lesser degree of error that James, "in order to mitigate the harshness of his reproof, here ranked himself among the persons to whom he wrote."
The same is a perfect man ... Most present-day commentators change the meaning of "perfect" to that of "innocence," "perfect in comparison with others," "mature, full-grown, or complete," etc. However, as pointed out by Vine, the word here is that of Matthew 5:48; James 1:4 (2part) and James 3:2, meaning complete goodness, without necessary reference to maturity. It is exactly the same word and usage as in Jesus' reference to God as "perfect" (Matthew 5:48); and for this reason, James' words here should be referred to the New Testament theology of "perfection," unattainable by men, but receivable by them "in Christ," whose absolute and total perfection is available through sinners' believing and obeying the gospel, thus being united with Christ, in Christ, and "as Christ," therefore accounted perfect (Colossians 1:28,29). His purpose here, therefore, was not that of explaining how men could achieve perfection through bridling the tongue, but rather that of demonstrating the absolute inability of any mortal to attain perfection apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. See my Commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians pp. 130-133. A great deal of the teachings of Christ himself, for example the parable of the good Samaritan, had exactly the same purpose as that in view here. See exegesis of that in my Commentary on Luke, pp. 224-231.
Able to bridle the whole body also ... The thought is that if one attains mastery over the tongue, which is the most unruly and rebellious member of the body, he should also be able to control all of the others as well. Apparently, James' use of "bridle" at this point prompted the employment of the horse metaphor in the next verse.
 James Macknight, op. cit., p. 373.
 Ibid., p. 374.
 R. V. G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 73.
 J. W. Roberts, The Letter of James (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1977), p. 103.
 W. E. Vine, Expository Greek Dictionary, Vol. III (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1940), p. 174.
Now if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also.
Now if ... Punchard criticized this rendition of this introductory remark thus:
This is a more clumsy reading than "Behold." The supporters of such curious corrections (?) argue that the least likely is the most so; and thus every slip of a copyist, either in grammar or spelling, becomes more sacred in their eyes than the Received Text in believers of verbal inspiration.SIZE>
Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and driven by rough winds, are yet turned about by a very small rudder, whither the impulse of the steersman willeth.
Just as the tongue is a very small member, the rudder of a great ship is likewise a very small instrument in comparison with the whole ship; but the guidance of the entire vessel is accomplished by means of that tiny rudder. The Venerable Bede, the earliest of English translators, "understood the ships here as an image of ourselves, and the winds as impulses of our own minds, by which we are driven hither and thither."
The steersman willeth ... The RSV "corrected" this to read "wherever the will of the pilot directs"; but again, this can be no better than in the ASV. Roberts pointed out that:
The word "pilot" is a substantive participle, "the one guiding straight," and not the technical word for a "pilot" or "governor" of a ship. The one who holds the rudder (the steersman) can turn the ship about and thus control it.SIZE>
So the tongue also is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire!
The first sentence in this verse is the application of the two illustrations of the bit and the rudder, its power being out of all proportion to its size. "The magic of words has played an incalculable part in the long story of human endeavor and human suffering."  It is evident, then, that James here referred to the nearly incredible power of human speech to move men to either noble or destructive purposes. Think of the example of Adolph Hitler in the latter case, or of Henry Clay in the other. There is also another application of the words as a reference to the untruthfulness and boastfulness of the tongue. Oesterley, however, agreed with Mayor that: "There is no idea of vain boasting; the whole argument turns upon the reality of the power which the tongue possesses."
Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire ... In this illustration, James will show how fantastically overwhelming is the evil that can ensue upon a Christian's (or anyone's) failure to control his tongue. The essential difference in this third illustration is seen in the fact of the horse and the ship being under control; where here, the tiny fire that kindles a whole forest is out of control.
 R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 75.
 W. E. Oesterley, op. cit., p. 451.
And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell.
The world of iniquity ... As Roberts noted, the literal meaning of this is "a world of unrighteousness," as Ward indicated, being the same as the state of "the steward of unrighteousness" (Luke 16:8), and "the judge of unrighteousness" (Luke 18:6). Here is the key to understanding what was said a little later. An uncontrolled tongue is closely allied with the inherent wickedness of unregenerated human carnality. Every conceivable form of lust, greed, deception, hatred, malignity and every evil, is aided, encouraged and propagated by means of the tongue.
Which defileth the whole body ... Jesus himself mentioned "railing," one of the sins of the tongue, as being among those things which proceed from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:23), and thus James is still inspired, as throughout the epistle, by the exact teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Significantly, the thought here is not that of the damage which the tongue does to the body of Christ, or to the whole world of the social order, but the staining and defiling effect upon the uncontrolled tongue's possessor. As Carson pointed out, "James emphasizes the effect of the tongue upon the person himself." This indicates that the setting on fire of the "wheel of nature," mentioned in this connection, refers to the inflammation of the carnal passions within man himself.
And setteth on fire the wheel of nature ... This disputed text is made the basis for all kinds of wild claims. Barclay, for example, thought James was influenced by the ancient Orphic religion with its false notions of reincarnation, seeing a possible reference here to "the weary treadmill of constant reincarnation." There is absolutely no justification for such an interpretation. The literal Greek in this passage means "the wheel of existence," or "the whole round of human life and activity," and has the obvious implication of being man's whole animalistic nature, which can be, and often is, inflamed and kindled into the most outrageous wickedness by the tongue. Bruce illustrated the meaning thus:
"The whole wheel of human nature" is a figure for the whole course of human life. Just as excessive friction in the axle of a wheel can make the axle red hot, so that the fire spreads outward along the spokes and sets the whole wheel afire; so the mischief engendered by an irresponsible tongue can inflame human relationships and cause irreparable destruction to the whole round of life.SIZE>
For every kind of beasts and birds, of creeping things, and things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed by mankind:
Tamed ... Vine gives "subdued" as the first meaning of this word, and it would be better understood thus in this place, making it unnecessary to see the passage as hyperbolic. It is a literal fact that mankind, in response to the original directive of the Creator for man "to subdue" the earth and the sea and everything in them (Genesis 1:28), has indeed done that very thing. How strange it is, and how tragic, that he has had no success in the matter of "subduing" his tongue!
but the tongue can no man tame; it is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison.
Carson's observation that "Fortunately James did not say that God cannot control the tongue (or tame it)," while true enough, fails to touch the problem, namely, that the tongue is indeed out of control because of man's failure to exercise the dominion over it that God commanded. It was true in James' day, as it is in this, that:
It is a restless evil ... It is like a caged beast, even under the best of circumstances, ever seeking an opportunity to break forth and set the whole world on fire. James does not mean here that a Christian cannot tame his tongue. "If he could not, he would hardly be responsible for its vagaries; but in James 3:10, he said, `My brethren, these things ought not to be so.'"
It is full of deadly poison ... This is similar to "full of adultery" (2 Peter 2:14), and "full of envy" (Romans 1:29). Paul also made use of the same metaphor: "The venom of asps is under their lips" (Romans 3:13).
 T. Carson, op. cit., p. 577.
 E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 370.
Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God:
Bless we ... curse we ... Note the use of "we" as in James 3:2; here again the use of it does not indicate any guilt on the part of James in this particular. As Ward said, "The we of pastoral tact shows how far James could go in his desire to win rather than repel."
Bless we the Lord ... "The Jewish custom, whenever they named God, of adding, `Blessed be he,'" very likely lies behind this.
The Lord and Father ... Scholars have busied themselves to find out where James got this expression, but as Lenski said, "He coined it!" The two titles have only one article, showing that James intended for us to read both titles as pertaining to Jesus Christ our Saviour, attesting his divinity and Godhead.
Made after the likeness of God ... is a reference to Genesis 1:26, the sin and inconsistency of the same tongue blessing God and cursing men lying in the fact of man's likeness to God, any curse of men, therefore, being actually a curse against God in the likeness of men, therefore being actually a curse against God in the likeness of his creation.
 Ronald A. Ward, op. cit., p. 1230.
 R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 611.
out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
In the admonition here and in the preceding verse (James 3:9) Macknight thought that James might have had reference to a widespread custom of early Christian times, in which Christians were "cursed bitterly in Jewish synagogues." It would appear, however, that it is not particularly the sins of Jews in cursing Christians that James dealt with, but the habit of some "brethren" engaged in the awful business of cursing men! All such unchristian conduct is vigorously denounced.
 James Macknight, op. cit., p. 378.
Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?
The use of the interrogative here is from a Hebrew idiom which carries the meaning of "you do not suppose, do you, that the same fountain, etc." It was used to convey a very strong negative. It is said that along the Dead Sea there were both salt-water and fresh-water fountains; so James made his meaning clear by adding "from the same opening." The illustration shows that man's behavior in blessing God and cursing men with the same tongue was a monstrous perversion of nature, in fact an altogether impossibility in nature.
can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs? neither can salt water yield sweet.
Once more, James used illustrations drawn from the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 12:34,35).
Neither can salt water yield sweet ... Here the tremendous thrust of James' teaching is made. Just as, in nature, it is impossible for a fountain to be both salt and sweet, so it is with men. The "cursing" shows the real character of them that do it. Even their "blessing" is in no sense to be construed as "sweet." Their character denies any goodness that might otherwise have appeared in their pious talk.
Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.
The application this has for teachers was thus presented by Tasker:
Any contentiousness or arrogance, any tendency to self-assertion, any desire to glory over others, is an infallible sign that the essential qualifications are in fact lacking.SIZE>
But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not and lie not against the truth.
A pretended wisdom in one whose life and character are out of harmony with the Lord can never be the truth, even in areas where it might seem to coincide with it, the sum total of such a person's life being a lie against the truth.
Bitter jealousy and strife ... Oesterley and many others deduce from this that "The personal abuse heaped upon one another by partisans of rival schools of thought" represents the type of sins condemned in this passage. Of course, such are included, but it is doubtful if the meaning may be thus restricted. The "truth" against which such evil strivings "lie" is the "truth of the gospel." However, more is meant than merely contradicting the content of that which must be allowed as truthful. As Punchard observed:
Falsehood is not merely the hurt of some abstract virtue, or bare rule of right and wrong, but a direct blow at
This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.
No better comment on this verse was found than that of Macknight who paraphrased the verse thus:
This outrageous method of spreading religion is not the wisdom that comes from God, but is earthly policy, suggested by your animal passions, and belongs to demons who inspire you with it.SIZE>
For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed.
In the preceding verse, James described much so-called "wisdom" in an advancing series as:
Pertaining to earth, not to the world above; to mere nature, not to the spirit; and to the hostile spirits of evil, and not to the living God. 16 follows as proof of what has just been said.SIZE>
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy.
This sevenfold description (taking mercy and good fruits as one quality) of the wisdom that is from above is most instructive.
The wisdom that is from above ... This does not mean that mortals are directly inspired by such wisdom, but that God is the ultimate source from which their wisdom is actually received; and the means of their receiving it, while not in view in this text, must surely be allowed as the gospels and apostolic writings themselves, there being no other possible source of it. As Dummelow observed, "The wisdom described here is moral rather than intellectual."
Pure ... The word of God is not to be alloyed with human speculations, philosophy and opinions, the word itself taking precedence over everything else.
Peaceable ... The tendency of the true wisdom is not that of producing faction and strife, but that of healing divisions, and pouring oil upon the troubled waters of human relationships. These qualities, including that of purity just mentioned, are exactly those extolled by the Master in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount; thus James continues his fidelity to the teaching of the Lord.
Gentle ... Paul stressed this, notably in 2 Timothy 2:24. Gibson says this means "forbearance, even under provocation." All who teach others should ever be conscious of the fact that a rude or thoughtless word may wound to death an immortal soul.
Easy to be entreated ... has the meaning of being easily "persuaded to forgiveness." This is the very opposite of the cold, haughty and unyielding hardness of some religious teachers.
Full of mercy and good fruits ... Again, the Saviour's own requirement that those who would be forgiven must themselves be willing to forgive others inspires James' comment in his epistle (see Matthew 7,9 and Matthew 6:14,15).
Without variance ... Gibson tells us that scholars are not altogether sure of the meaning of the word thus rendered, "without variance, without doubtfulness or without partiality," all being possible denotations of it. "Variance," the rendition here, means without inconsistency, vacillation or erratic changes.
Without hypocrisy ... We are on firm ground for the meaning of this. Hypocrisy was a vice which Jesus exposed and denounced with all the vehemency of his being, the entire 23chapter of Matthew being given over to such a purpose, the conduct of those ancient Pharisees being the perfect example of what Christian teachers today ought not to be and ought not to do.
 J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1036.
 E. C. S. Gibson, Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 21, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 45.
 James Macknight, op. cit., p. 381.
 E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 45.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God" (Matthew 5:9) is the beatitude James certainly had in mind here. As Dummelow expressed the thought, "The wise man is the peacemaker who sows good seed that in God's time will bear precious fruit." The behavior in view here "is the result of true wisdom," to which this paragraph is entirely related. Barclay's discussion of that "wisdom" is very appropriate in this connection:
"True wisdom" is from [@epiekes], of all Greek words in the New Testament, the most untranslatable. Aristotle defined it as that "which is just beyond the law." It means "justice and better than justice." It is that which steps in to correct things when the law itself becomes unjust. It is impossible to find an English word to translate this quality ... (it is) the sweet reasonableness we would wish to receive ourselves.SIZE>
Visit Our Sponsors
Find Us on Facebook
Search This Commentary
Exodus: New American Commentary [NAC]
Ephesians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [BECNT]
Henry VI: Parts 1, 2, & 3
Ezekiel 20-48: Word Biblical Commentary [WBC]
Psalms, Volume 2: A Mentor Commentary - Psalms 73-150