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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
James 3



Verse 4


‘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 belm, whithersoever the governor listeth.’

James 3:4

We have no capacity, under the natural laws of the soul, as a self-governing creature, to govern successfully anything, except indirectly—that is, by a process of steering.

I. The process of steering.—We cannot govern a bad passion or grudge by choking it down, or master a wild ambition by willing it away, or stop the trains of bad thoughts by a direct fight with them, which fight would only keep them still in mind as before—all that we can do in such matters, in the way of self-regulation, is to steer simply the mind off from its grudges, ambitions, bad thoughts, by getting it occupied with good and pure objects that work a diversion.

II. All human doings as regards the soul’s regeneration, or the beginning of a new life, amount to nothing more than the right use of a power that steers it into the sphere of God’s operation. And the reason why so many fail is that they undertake to do the work themselves, wearing away spasmodically to lift themselves over the unknown crises by main strength—as if seizing the ship by its mast, or the main hulk of its body, they were going to push it on through the voyage themselves.



Real success in self-government is not the waiting for some special occasion to exert ourselves, but doing the best that can be done in the circumstances of everyday life.

I. No day will pass without opportunities for this.—There are sarcastic remarks to be left unsaid, censorious judgments to be left unpronounced, bad thoughts to be suppressed, and good suggestions to be carried out in practice. We shall never be without opportunities to say the right thing, and to season our converse with salt; never without opportunities for little industries and self-denials. There will always be something to do or to forbear, some struggle to be carried on with self, little opportunities, and little victories won in them, and these day by day are the battle-fields for us. ‘I will not drive them out from before thee in one year.… By little and little I will drive them out before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land’ (Exodus 23:29-30). And do we not say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’? and again, ‘Vouchsafe to keep us this day without sin’?

II. As the Isthmian wrestler gained strength by his struggles, so does the servant of God by his.—By attending to our little faults and making little efforts to correct them, we gradually overcome them; by not attending to them, they gradually overcome us. The poet complains of us, ‘Man never is, but always to be blessed.’ So we might say of many, they never are, but always going to be improved; they wait for a great occasion and a future opportunity. But when the young Hebrews were chosen out to be trained in the court of Babylon, and were allowed a sumptuous portion from the royal bounty, Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, and he gained leave for himself and his three companions to carry out this purpose, living by preference on very hard fare. It might be said this conscientious scruple was a little effervescence of youthful enthusiasm; but it had this good in it—it showed a spirit of self-discipline, and a desire to honour and obey God, even at some inconvenience to self. When we begin we may expect to go further, and you find by and by that when the most extraordinary trial of faith came to Daniel’s three companions, and it was a choice between giving up promotion and life itself on one hand, or giving up God’s honour and God’s service on the other, then the life, trained by self-government in lesser things, was prepared for the conflict, and was able to make this instructive and memorable decision.

III. Not a few lives which once began full of promise have gradually fallen away from their former grace, tire down into formal routine, and some of them decline into failing faith and prevailing sin. ‘Ye did run well. What did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?’ (Galatians 5:7). I can tell what I think is the answer. They slackened; the enemy did not. They let themselves fail in little failings, they excused themselves when little duties came; and so little failings warped them into great defects, and in the hour of serious calls on them they were found wanting.

Rev. Canon T. F. Crosse.

Verse 5


‘Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth.’

James 3:5

St. James is nothing if not practical, and in this chapter (James 3:5-10) he warns us of the evil of an unguarded tongue. The tongue is but a small member, yet it is a potent force for good or evil. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that we should guard our words.

I. Avoid mere gossip.—The happiness of many a life has been marred by thoughtless, to say nothing of ill-natured, gossip. The ‘parish gossip’ can do a great deal of harm, and seldom does any good, and as often as not this objectionable person is a male.

II. Abstain from evil speaking.—It is unnecessary, I hope, to warn a Christian congregation against the use of blasphemous language, but there is too much loose talk permitted amongst us.

(a) The small swear words in which men indulge, to relieve their feelings as they say, are blinked at, whereas they are most reprehensible.

(b) Foolish jesting, also, is to be avoided. Not that we are never to have a real good laugh, but the habit of jesting is apt to destroy all serious views of life, and after all ‘life is real, and life is earnest.’ Moreover, the recollection of some foolish jest will often obtrude itself upon us at times of prayer, and will thus destroy the devotional spirit.

(c) The border-line conversation which, alas, is more common than we like to believe, should not be indulged in or encouraged or even listened to.

III. Christian conversation should be blameless.—Do we need encouragement and help? Then—

(a) Remember the high calling of the children of God.

(b) Remember, also, the account which every one of us must give of our words at the judgment day.

A word once spoken can never be recalled. It goes out upon its way like the stone thrown in the pool, with an ever-widening influence.


‘A lady who confessed to being a slanderer was given a penance. She was to buy a fowl in the market-place, and then to return to the priest, plucking it as she went along. She did so. “Now,” said her confessor, “retrace your steps, pass through all the places you have traversed, and gather up one by one all the feathers that you have scattered.” “But,” exclaimed the woman, “I cast the feathers carelessly on every side; the wind carried them in every direction. How can I recover them?” “Well, my child,” replied he, “so it is with your words of slander: like the feathers which the wind has scattered, they have been wafted in many directions; call them back now if you can.”’

Verse 6


‘The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.’

James 3:6

Solemn is the witness here borne. As every member of the body is abused by the ungodly man, so especially the tongue.

I. What it is:—

(a) A fire (James 3:6).

(b) Poison (Romans 3:13).

(c) A sword (Psalms 57:4; Psalms 64:3).

(d) Untamable (James 3:7-8).

(e) A world of iniquity (James 3:6).

II. What it does:—

(a) The idle tongue. Idle for good, though not idle for evil (1 Timothy 5:13).

(b) Lying lips. Speaking lies is one mark of the generation of the ungodly (Psalms 58:3).

(c) The spiteful tongue. In contrast with the love that covers the multitude of sins, this layeth open to view even the infirmities, the faults of others.

(d) The blaspheme’s tongue, too, heaps up wrath. ‘Because of swearing the land mourneth.’ The oaths of the ungodly are bringing down judgments from the Lord.

Such are the works of the ungodly tongue. Such are the doings of one of those members which God has given us wherewith to glorify His name.

III. What shall be done to it?—The question is asked in the 120th Psalm. ‘What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?’ And the answer returned is, ‘Sharp arrows of the mighty with coals of juniper.’ Yes, lying lips are but for a moment, the end cometh when men shall reap that which they have sown. What shall be done to it?

(a) It shall be exposed. Each word shall find its echo.

(b) It shall be silenced. ‘The wicked shall be silent in darkness.’

(c) It shall be condemned. Yes, ‘by thy words shalt thou be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned’ (St. Matthew 12:37). Sinners will at length find that ‘a fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips the snare of his soul’ (Proverbs 18:7).

IV. If conscience testifies that you are ‘verily guilty in this matter,’ repent of this thy wickedness. Look up by faith to Him ‘Who is exalted to give repentance and remission of sins.’ Pray that a live coal from the altar may touch thy lips, ‘thine iniquity be taken away, thy sin purged,’ that henceforth thou mayst be clean through that ‘blood of sprinkling’ that ‘cleanseth from all sin.’ Let prayer and praise be the employment of thy lips here on earth, and the new song of eternal thanksgiving thy delight in heaven. It is well worth while to watch, and strive, and pray that ‘holiness to the Lord’ may be written on heart and lips, body and soul, that we may be ‘the Lord’s,’ and join at length that blessed company of whom it is written ‘and they sung as it were a new song before the throne.’ Then shall that tongue, which now you curb lest it should offend, ‘be loosed,’ Christ Himself say, ‘Epphatha’ (be opened), and the praises of thy God be thine everlasting theme.

—Rev. Francis Storr.

Verse 17


‘But 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.’

James 3:17

This text is often misapplied. It is used to promote rather than restrain religious controversy, whereas the whole context of the passage shows that its application is designed to foster the Christian graces.

I. Marks of true wisdom.

(a) Pure. This may be applied to doctrine, practice, and life.

(b) Peaceable. There is no room for the controversial spirit in the heart that is filled with wisdom ‘from above.’

(c) Gentle. There is no truer mark of a real Christian than a quiet and gentle spirit. It was possessed by Him Who is made unto us Wisdom, for when He was reviled He reviled not again. To be like Christ we must be ‘meek and gentle.’

(d) Easy to be intreated. We all know of men and women who in their dealings with their fellow-men are as ‘hard as nails.’ They resist every appeal made to them; they have no compassion.

(e) Full of mercy and good fruits. How can the man filled with Divine wisdom be otherwise? He has obtained mercy, and he seeks therefore to be merciful. The unmerciful servant lacked wisdom, and he met with his reward.

(f) Without partiality. Divine wisdom makes men and women large-hearted. It is because so many of us lack this wisdom that the lines

The ways of men are narrow,

But the gates of heaven are wide

have passed into a proverb of reproach against Christian people. We who believe in the Fatherhood of God must accept the corollary of the Brotherhood of man.

(g) Without hypocrisy. Sincerity is one of the chiefest of Christian virtues. The world cannot tolerate a hypocrite. Let transparent honesty rule our life.

II. Have we this wisdom?—It may be ours; it should be ours, for God has made abundant provision. ‘If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God, Who giveth to all men liberally.’ ‘Ask, and ye shall receive,’ and like the Lord Himself you shall increase in wisdom day by day.


‘It is a principle of the Gospel that he who gets mercy shows mercy. When a man is full of mercy in this sinning, suffering world, a stream of benevolence will be found flowing in his track all through the wilderness. If the reservoir within his heart be kept constantly charged by union with the upper spring, there need be neither ebbing nor intermission of the current.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on James 3:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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