David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
James 3:1-18 - TAMING THE WILD TONGUE
A. The demonstration of a living faith in controlling what we say.
1. (James 3:1-2) Opening observations: the greater accountability of teachers and the difficulty of not stumbling.
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
a. Let not many of you become teachers: James has a sober admonition for those who would become teachers in the church. They must take the responsibility seriously, because their accountability is greater, and they shall receive a stricter judgment.
i. It is easy to take the position of teacher lightly in the church, without considering its cost in terms of accountability. Jesus warned to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much have been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:48)
ii. “The comparative adjective greater implies degrees of treatment at the judgment seat.” (Hiebert)
c. For we all stumble in many things: The greater accountability of teachers is especially sobering in light of our common weaknesses. After all, we all stumble in many things. The ancient Greek word translated stumble does not imply a fatal fall, but something that trips us up and hinders our progress with the Lord.
i. We all stumble: James includes himself among those who stumble. But he does not excuse his or our stumbling. We know that well all stumble, but we should all press on to a better walk with the Lord, marked by less stumbling.
d. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man: By this, James provides a measure of spiritual maturity for teachers and for all Christians. To not stumble in word shows true spiritual maturity. This is especially relevant to teachers, who have so much more opportunity to sin with their tongue.
2. (James 3:3-6) The power of the tongue.
Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
a. We put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us: A strong horse can be controlled by it bit in its mouth. A large ship can be turned by a small rudder. Even so, if we have control over our tongue, it is an indication that we have control over our self. Whoever can control the tongue can bridle the whole body (James 3:2).
i. The bit and the rudder are small, but extremely important. If they are not controlled, the entire horse is out of control, and the entire ship is out of control. Something as small as the tongue can have tremendous power, for either good or evil.
ii. You don’t solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping in the barn, or the problem of a hard to steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. In the same way, even a vow of silence is not the ultimate answer for the misuse of our tongue.
b. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: The fire of the tongue has been used to burn many. Children are told sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. But that child’s rhyme isn’t really true. The bitter pain of a word spoken against us can hurt us for a lifetime, long after a broken bone has healed.
i. What others say to us and what we say to others can last a long time, for good or for evil. The casual sarcastic or critical remark can inflict a lasting injury on another person. The well-timed encouragement or compliment can inspire someone for the rest of their life.
ii. Proverbs speaks of the person who doesn’t consider the destructive power of his words. Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, “I was only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19)
c. James echoes the testimony of Proverbs regarding the tongue.
In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is worth little. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of wisdom. (Proverbs 10:19-21)
Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad. (Proverbs 12:25)
Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24)
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)
3. (James 3:7-8) The difficulty of taming the tongue.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
a. Every kind of beast and bird . . . has been tamed by mankind: A wild animal can be more easily tamed than the tongue. In fact, James tells us that no man can tame the tongue.
i. The human spirit has incredible capacity for sacrifice and self-control. Sometimes we hear a desperate survival story of someone who cuts off their own leg to get free from a tree that has fallen on them, then they drive to a hospital for medical treatment. Yet that same man can’t tame the tongue perfectly.
b. No man can tame the tongue: Yet it can be brought under the power and the control of the Holy Spirit. We might say that only God Himself is mightier than the human tongue!
c. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison: The untamable tongue is even more dangerous when we consider the deadly poison it can deliver.
i. A woman came to John Wesley and said she knew what here talent was. “I think my talent from God is to speak my mind.” Wesley replied, “I don’t think God would mind if you buried that talent.” Speaking forth everything that comes to mind is unwise, poisonous speech.
4. (James 3:9-12) The contradictory character of the tongue.
With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
a. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men: The tongue can be used for the highest calling (to bless our God) and it can be used for the lowest evil (to curse men). But in those who are born again, it shouldn’t be said that out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.
b. These things ought not to be so: Our speech should be consistently glorifying to God. We shouldn’t use one vocabulary or one tone of speaking at church, and a different one at home or on the job. Like a spring of water, our mouths shouldn’t send forth fresh . . . and bitter from the same opening.
c. Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh: James points to the ultimate impossibility of such a contradiction. If bad fruit and bitter water continue to come forth, it means that there is no contradiction. The tree is bad and the spring is bad.
i. Jesus taught in Matthew 12:34-37 that a man’s words are a reliable revelation of his inner character. What we say can indicate what we are.
B. The demonstration of a living faith in the presence of wisdom.
1. (James 3:13) Wisdom shows us how to do good works
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.
a. Who is wise . . . Let him show by good conduct: Wisdom is not mere head knowledge. Real wisdom and understanding will show in our lives, by our good conduct.
b. His works are done in the meekness of wisdom: True wisdom is also evident by its meek manner. Those who do their good works in a way designed to bring attention to themselves show they lack true wisdom.
2. (James 3:14-16) The character of earthly wisdom.
But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
a. Bitter envy and self-seeking: These are the opposite of the meekness of wisdom mentioned in James 3:13.
b. Do not boast and lie against the truth: Anyone who shows bitter envy and self-seeking should not deceive anyone - especially themselves - about how “wise” they are. They show a wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and demonic. Their “wisdom” is more characteristic of the world, the flesh, and the devil than of God.
c. The fruit of this “wisdom” is plain: confusion and every evil thing. The wisdom of the world, the flesh, and the devil may be able to accomplish things, but always with the ultimate fruit of confusion and every evil thing.
3. (James 3:17-18) The character of heavenly wisdom.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
a. But the wisdom that is from above: God’s wisdom also has fruit. James here is defining exactly what he meant by the meekness of wisdom in James 3:13.
b. First pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy: The character of this wisdom is wonderful. It is full of love and a giving heart, consistent with the holiness of God.
c. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace: This fruit is like a seed that will bear fruit as it is sown by those who make peace.
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