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The evil which the apostle seems to have referred to in this chapter, was a desire, which appears to have prevailed among those to whom he wrote, to be public teachers (διδάσκαλοι didaskaloi) James 3:1), and to be such even where there was no proper qualification. It is not easy to see any connection between what is said in this chapter, and what is found in other parts of the Epistle; and indeed the plan of the Epistle seems to have been to notice such things as the apostle supposed claimed their attention, without particular regard to a logical connection. Some of the errors and improprieties which existed among them had been noticed in the previous chapters, and others are referred to in James 4:0; James 5:0. Those which are noticed in this chapter grew out of the desire of being public teachers of religion. It seems probable that he had this subject in his eye in the whole of this chapter, and this will give a clue to the course of thought which he pursues. Let it be supposed that there was a prevailing desire among those to whom he wrote to become public teachers, without much regard for the proper qualifications for that office, and the interpretation of the chapter will become easy. Its design and drift then may be thus expressed:
I. The general subject of the chapter, a caution against the desire prevailing among many to be ranked among public teachers, James 3:1, first clause.
II. Considerations to check and modify that desire, James 3:1 (last clause), James 3:18. These considerations are the following:
(1) The fact that public teachers must give a more solemn account than other men, and that they expose themselves to the danger of a deeper condemnation, James 3:1, last clause.
(2) The evils which grow out of an improper use of the tongue; evils to which those are particularly liable whose business is speaking, James 3:2-12. This leads the apostle into a general statement of the importance of the tongue as a member of the human body; of the fact that we are peculiarly liable to offend in that James 3:2; of the fact that if that is regulated aright, the whole man is - as a horse is managed by the bit, and a ship is steered by the rudder James 3:2-4; of the fact that the tongue, though a little member, is capable of accomplishing great things, and is peculiarly liable, when not under proper regulations, to do mischief, James 3:5-6; of the fact that, while everything else has been tamed, it has been found impossible to bring the tongue under proper restraints, and that it performs the most discordant and opposite functions, James 3:7-9; and of the impropriety and absurdity of this, as if the same fountain should bring forth sweet water and bitter, James 3:10-12. By these considerations, the apostle seems to have designed to repress the prevailing desire of leaving other employments, and of becoming public instructors without suitable qualifications.
(3) The apostle adverts to the importance of wisdom, with reference to the same end; that is, of suitable qualifications to give public instruction, James 3:13-18. He shows James 3:13 that if there was a truly wise man among them, he should show this by his works, with “meekness,” and not by obtruding himself upon the attention of others; that if there was a want of it evinced in a spirit of rivalry and contention, there would be confusion and every evil work, James 3:14-16; and that where there was true wisdom, it was unambitious and unostentatious; it was modest, retiring, and pure. It would lead to a peaceful life of virtue, and its existence would be seen in the “fruits of righteousness sown in peace,” James 3:17-18. It might be inferred that they who had this spirit would not be ambitious of becoming public teachers; they would not place themselves at the head of parties; they would show the true spirit of religion in an unobtrusive and humble life. We are not to suppose, in the interpretation of this chapter, that the apostle argued against a desire to enter the ministry, in itself considered, and where there are proper qualifications; but he endeavored to suppress a spirit which has not been uncommon in the world, to become public teachers as a means of more influence and power, and without any suitable regard to the proper endowments for such an office.
My brethren, be not many masters - “Be not many of you teachers.” The evil referred to is that where many desired to be teachers, though but few could be qualified for the office, and though, in fact, comparatively few were required. A small number, well qualified, would better discharge the duties of the office, and do more good, than many would; and there would be great evil in having many crowding themselves unqualified into the office. The word here rendered “masters” (διδάσκαλοι didaskaloi) should have been rendered “teachers.” It is so rendered in John 3:2; Acts 13:1; Romans 2:20; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:11; 1 Timothy 4:3; Hebrews 5:12; though it is elsewhere frequently rendered master. It has, however, in it primarily the notion of “teaching” (διδάσκω didaskō), even when rendered “master;” and the word “master” is often used in the New Testament, as it is with us, to denote an instructor - as the “school-master.”
Compare Matthew 10:24-25; Matthew 22:16; Mark 10:17; Mark 12:19, et al. The word is not properly used in the sense of master, as distinguished from a servant, but as distinguished from a disciple or learner. Such a position, indeed, implies authority, but it is authority based not on power, but on superior qualifications. The connection implies that the word is used in that sense in this place; and the evil reprehended is that of seeking the office of public instructor, especially the sacred office. It would seem that this was a prevailing fault among those to whom the apostle wrote. This desire was common among the Jewish people, who coveted the name and the office of “Rabbi,” equivalent to that here used, (compare Matthew 23:7), and who were ambitious to be doctors and teachers. See Romans 2:19; 1 Timothy 1:7. This fondness for the office of teachers they naturally carried with them into the Christian church when they were converted, and it is this which the apostle here rebukes. The same spirit the passage before us would rebuke now and for the same reasons; for although a man should be willing to become a public instructor in religion when called to it by the Spirit and Providence of God, and should esteem it a privilege when so called, yet there would be scarcely anything more injurious to the cause of true religion, or that would tend more to produce disorder and confusion, than a prevailing desire of the prominence and importance which a man has in virtue of being a public instructor. If there is anything which ought to be managed with extreme prudence and caution, it is that of introducing men into the Christian ministry. Compare 1 Timothy 5:22; Acts 1:15-26; Acts 13:2-3.
Knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation - (μεῖζον κρὶμα meizon krima. Or rather, “a severer judgment;” that is, we shall have a severer trial, and give a stricter account. The word here used does not necessarily mean “condemnation,” but “judgment, trial, account;” and the consideration which the apostle suggests is not that those who were public teacher would be condemned, but that there would be a much more solemn account to be rendered by them than by other men, and that they ought duly to reflect on this in seeking the office of the ministry. He would carry them in anticipation before the judgment-seat, and have them determine the question of entering the ministry there. No better “stand-point” can be taken in making up the mind in regard to this work; and if that had been the position assumed in order to estimate the work, and to make up the mind in regard to the choice of this profession, many a one who has sought the office would have been deterred from it; and it may be added, also, that many a pious and educated youth would have sought the office, who has devoted his life to other pursuits. A young man, when about to make choice of a calling in life, should place himself by anticipation at the judgment-bar of Christ, and ask himself how human pursuits and plans will appear there. If that were the point of view taken, how many would have been deterred from the ministry who have sought it with a view to honor or emolument! How many, too, who have devoted themselves to the profession of the law, to the army or navy, or to the pursuits of elegant literature, would have felt that it was their duty to serve God in the ministry of reconciliation? How many at the close of life, in the ministry and out of it, feel, when too late to make a change, that they have wholly mistaken the purpose for which they should have lived!
For in many things we offend all - We all offend. The word here rendered offend, means to stumble, to fall; then to err, to fail in duty; and the meaning here is, that all were liable to commit error, and that this consideration should induce men to be cautious in seeking an office where an error would be likely to do so much injury. The particular thing, doubtless, which the apostle had in his eye, was the peculiar liability to commit error, or to do wrong with the tongue. Of course, this liability is very great in an office where the very business is public speaking. If anywhere the improper use of the tongue will do mischief, it is in the office of a religious teacher; and to show the danger of this, and the importance of caution in seeking that office, the apostle proceeds to show what mischief the tongue is capable of effecting.
If any man offend not in word - In his speech; in the use of his tongue.
The same is a perfect man - Perfect in the sense in which the apostle immediately explains himself; that he is able to keep every other member of his body in subjection. His object is not to represent the man as absolutely spotless in every sense, and as wholly free from sin, for he had himself just said that “all offend in many things;” but the design is to show that if a man can control his tongue, he has complete dominion over himself, as much as a man has over a horse by the bit, or as a steersman has over a ship if he has hold of the rudder. He is perfect in that sense, that he has complete control over himself, and will not be liable to error in anything. The design is to show the important position which the tongue occupies, as governing the whole man. On the meaning of the word perfect, see the notes at Job 1:1.
And able also to bridle the whole body - To control his whole body, that is, every other part of himself, as a man does a horse by the bridle. The word rendered “to bridle,” means to lead or guide with a bit; then to rein in, to check, to moderate, to restrain. A man always has complete government over himself if he has the entire control of his tongue. It is that by which he gives expression to his thoughts and passions; and if that is kept under proper restraint, all the rest of his members are as easily controlled as the horse is by having the control of the bit.
Behold, we put bits in the horses” mouths ... - The meaning of this simple illustration is, that as we control a horse by the bit - though the bit is a small thing - so the body is controlled by the tongue. He who has a proper control over his tongue can govern his whole body, as he who holds a bridle governs and turns about the horse.
Behold also the ships - This illustration is equally striking and obvious. A ship is a large object. It seems to be unmanageable by its vastness, and it is also impelled by driving storms. Yet it is easily managed by a small rudder; and he that has control of that, has control of the ship itself. So with the tongue. It is a small member as compared with the body; in its size not unlike the rudder as compared with the ship. Yet the proper control of the tongue in respect to its influence on the whole man, is not unlike the control of the rudder in its power over the ship.
Which though they be so great - So great in themselves, and in comparison with the rudder. Even such bulky and unwieldy objects are controlled by a very small thing.
And are driven of fierce winds - By winds that would seem to leave the ship beyond control. It is probable that by the “fierce winds” here as impelling the ship, the apostle meant to illustrate the power of the passions in impelling man. Even a man under impetuous passion would be restrained, if the tongue is properly controlled, as the ship driven by the winds is by the helm.
Yet are they turned about with a very small helm - The ancient rudder or helm was made in the shape of an oar. This was very small when compared with the size of the vessel - about as small as the tongue is as compared with the body.
Whithersoever the governor listeth - As the helmsman pleases. It is entirely under his control.
Even so the tongue is a little member - Little compared with the body, as the bit or the rudder is, compared with the horse or the ship.
And boasteth great things - The design of the apostle is to illustrate the power and influence of the tongue. This may be done in a great many respects: and the apostle does it by referring to its boasting; to the effects which it produces, resembling that of fire, James 3:6; to its untameableness, James 3:8-9; and to its giving utterance to the most inconsistent and incongruous thoughts, James 3:9-10. The particular idea here is, that the tongue seems to be conscious of its influence and power, and boasts largely of what it can do. The apostle means doubtless to convey the idea that it boasts not unjustly of its importance. It has all the influence in the world, for good or for evil, which it claims.
Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! - Margin, “wood.” The Greek word ὕλην hulēn, means a wood, forest, grove; and then fire-wood, fuel. This is the meaning here. The sense is, that a very little fire is sufficient to ignite a large quantity of combustible materials, and that the tongue produces effects similar to that. A spark will kindle a lofty pile; and a word spoken by the tongue may set a neighborhood or a village “in a flame.”
And the tongue is a fire - In this sense, that it produces a “blaze,” or a great conflagration. It produces a disturbance and an agitation that may be compared with the conflagration often produced by a spark.
A world of iniquity - A little world of evil in itself. This is a very expressive phrase, and is similar to one which we often employ, as when we speak of a town as being a world in miniature. We mean by it that it is an epitome of the world; that all that there is in the world is represented there on a small scale. So when the tongue is spoken of as being “a world of iniquity,” it is meant that all kinds of evil that are in the world are exhibited there in miniature; it seems to concentrate all sorts of iniquity that exist on the earth. And what evil is there which may not be originated or fomented by the tongue? What else is there that might, with so much propriety, be represented as a little world of iniquity? With all the good which it does, who can estimate the amount of evil which it causes? Who can measure the evils which arise from scandal, and slander, and profaneness, and perjury, and falsehood, and blasphemy, and obscenity, and the inculcation of error, by the tongue? Who can gauge the amount of broils, and contentions, and strifes, and wars, and suspicions, and enmities, and alienations among friends and neighbors, which it produces? Who can number the evils produced by the “honeyed” words of the seducer; or by the tongue of the eloquent in the maintenance of error, and the defense of wrong? If all men were dumb, what a portion of the crimes of the world would soon cease! If all men would speak only that which ought to be spoken, what a change would come over the face of human affairs!
So is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body - It stains or pollutes the whole body. It occupies a position and relation so important in respect to every part of our moral frame, that there is no portion which is not affected by it. Of the truth of this, no one can have any doubt. There is nothing else pertaining to us as moral and intellectual beings, which exerts such an influence over ourselves as the tongue. A man of pure conversation is understood and felt to be pure in every respect; but who has any confidence in the virtue of the blasphemer, or the man of obscene lips, or the calumniator and slanderer? We always regard such a man as corrupt to the core.
And setteth on fire the course of nature - The margin is “the wheel of nature.” The Greek word also (τροχός trochos) means “a wheel,” or any thing made for revolving and running. Then it means the course run by a wheel; a circular course or circuit. The word rendered “nature” (γένεσις genesis), means “procreation, birth, nativity;” and therefore the phrase means, literally, the wheel of birth - that is, the wheel which is set in motion at birth, and which runs on through life. - Rob. Lex. sub voce γένεσεως geneseōs. It may be a matter of doubt whether this refers to successive generations, or to the course of individual life. The more literal sense would be that which refers to an individual; but perhaps the apostle meant to speak in a popular sense, and thought of the affairs of the world as they roll on from age to age, as all enkindled by the tongue, keeping the world in a constant blaze of excitement. Whether applied to an individual life, or to the world at large, every one can see the justice of the comparison. One naturally thinks, when this expression is used, of a chariot driven on with so much speed that its wheels by their rapid motion become self-ignited, and the chariot moves on amidst flames.
And it is set on fire of hell - Hell, or Gehenna, is represented as a place where the fires continually burn. See the notes at Matthew 5:22. The idea here is, that that which causes the tongue to do so much evil derives its origin from hell. Nothing could better characterize much of that which the tongues does, than to say that it has its origin in hell, and has the spirit which reigns there. The very spirit of that world of fire and wickedness - a spirit of falsehood, and slander, and blasphemy, and pollution - seems to inspire the tongue. The image which seems to have been before the mind of the apostle was that of a torch which enkindles and burns everything as it goes along - a torch itself lighted at the fires of hell. One of the most striking descriptions of the woes and curses which there may be in hell, would be to portray the sorrows caused on the earth by the tongue.
For every kind of beasts - The apostle proceeds to state another thing showing the power of the tongue, the fact that it is ungovernable, and that there is no power of man to keep it under control. Everything else but this has been tamed. It is unnecessary to refine on the expressions used here, by attempting to prove that it is literally true that every species of beasts, and birds, and fishes has been tamed. The apostle is to be understood as speaking in a general and popular sense, showing the remarkable power of man over those things which are by nature savage and wild. The power of man in taming wild beasts is wonderful. Indeed, it is to be remembered that nearly all those beasts which we now speak of as “domestic” animals, and which we are accustomed to see only when they are tame, were once fierce and savage races. This is the case with the horse, the ox, the ass, (see the notes at Job 11:12; Job 39:5), the swine, the dog, the cat, etc. The editor of the Pictorial Bible well remarks, “There is perhaps no kind of creature, to which man has access, which might not be tamed by him with proper perseverance. The ancients seem to have made more exertions to this end, and with much better success, than ourselves. The examples given by Pliny, of creatures tamed by men, relate to elephants, lions, and tigers, among beasts; to the eagle, among birds; to asps, and other serpents; and to crocodiles, and various fishes, among the inhabitants of the water. Natural History viii. 9, 16, 17; x. 5, 44. The lion was very commonly tamed by the ancient Egyptians, and trained to assist both in hunting and in war.” Notes in loc. The only animal which it has been supposed has defied the power of man to tame it, is the hyena, and even this, it is said, has been subdued, in modern times. There is a passage in Euripides which has a strong resemblance to this of James:
Δαμᾷ φῦλα πόντου,
Χθονίων τ ̓ ἀερίων τε παιδεύματα.
Brachu toi sthenos aneros
Alla poikiliais prapidōn
Dama phula pontou,
Chthoniōn t' aeriōn te paideumata.
“Small is the power which nature has given to man; but, by various acts of his superior understanding, he has subdued the tribes of the sea, the earth, and the air.” Compare on this subject, the passages quoted by Pricaeus in the Critici Sacri, in loc.
And of birds - It is a common thing to tame birds, and even the most wild are susceptible of being tamed. A portion of the leathered race, as the hen, the goose, the duck, is thoroughly domesticated. The pigeon, the martin, the hawk, the eagle, may be; and perhaps there are none of that race which might not be made subject to the will of man.
And of serpents - The ancients showed great skill in this art, in reference to asps and other venomous serpents, and it is common now in India. In many instances, indeed, it is known that the fangs of the serpents are extracted; but even when this is not done, they who practice the art learn to handle them with impunity.
And of things in the sea - As the crocodile mentioned by Pliny. It may be affirmed with confidence that there is no animal which might not, by proper skill and perseverance, be rendered tame, or made obedient to the will of man. It is not necessary, however, to understand the apostle as affirming that literally every animal has been tamed, or ever can be. He evidently speaks in a popular sense of the great power which man undeniably has over all kinds of wild animals - over the creation beneath him.
But the tongue can no man tame - This does not mean that it is never brought under control, but that it is impossible effectually and certainly to subdue it. It would be possible to subdue and domesticate any kind of beasts, but this could not be done with the tongue.
It is an unruly evil - An evil without restraint, to which no certain and effectual check can be applied. Of the truth of this no one can have any doubt, who looks at the condition of the world.
Full of deadly poison - That is, it acts on the happiness of man, and on the peace of society, as poison does on the human frame. The allusion here seems to be to the bite of a venomous reptile. Compare Psalms 140:3, “They have sharpened their tongues like serpent; adders” poison is under their lips.” Romans 3:13, “with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips.” Nothing would better describe the mischief that may be done by the tongue. There is no sting of a serpent that does so much evil in the world; there is no poison more deadly to the frame than the poison of the tongue is to the happiness of man. Who, for example, can stand before the power of the slanderer? What mischief can be done in society that can be compared with that which he may do?
- ’Tis slander;
Whose edge is sharper than the sword; whose tongue
Outvenoms all the worms of Nile; whose breath
Rides on the posting winds, and doth belie
All corners of the world: kings, queens, and states,
Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave
This viperous slander enters.
Shakespeare in Cymbellna.
Therewith bless we God - We men do this; that is, all this is done by the tongue. The apostle does not mean that the same man does this, but that all this is done by the same organ - the tongue.
Even the Father - Who sustains to us the relation of a father. The point in the remark of the apostle is, the absurdity of employing the tongue in such contradictory uses as to bless one who has to us the relation of a father, and to curse any being, especially those who are made in his image. The word bless here is used in the sense of praise, thank, worship.
And therewith curse we men - That is, it is done by the same organ by which God is praised and honored.
Which are made after the similitude of God - After his image, Genesis 1:26-27. As we bless God, we ought with the same organ to bless those who are like him. There is an absurdity in cursing men who are thus made, like what there would be in both blessing and cursing the Creator himself.
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing - The meaning here may be, either that out of the mouth of man two such opposite things proceed, not referring to the same individual, but to different persons; or, out of the mouth of the same individual. Both of these are true; and both are equally incongruous and wrong. No organ should be devoted to uses so unlike, and the mouth should be employed in giving utterance only to that which is just, benevolent, and good. It is true, however, that the mouth is devoted to these opposite employments; and that while one part of the race employ it for purposes of praise, the other employ it in uttering maledictions. It is also true of many individuals that at one time they praise their Maker, and then, with the same organ, calumniate, and slander, and revile their fellow-men. After an act of solemn devotion in the house of God, the professed worshipper goes forth with the feelings of malice in his heart, and the language of slander, detraction, or even blasphemy on his lips.
My brethren, these things ought not so to be - They are as incongruous as it would be for the same fountain to send forth both salt water and fresh; or for the same tree to bear different kinds of fruit.
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place - Margin, “hole.” The Greek word means “opening, fissure,” such as there is in the earth, or in rocks from which a fountain gushes.
Sweet water and bitter - Fresh water and salt, James 3:12. Such things do not occur in the works of nature, and they should not be found in man.
Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive-berries? - Such a thing is impossible in nature, and equally absurd in morals. A fig-tree bears only figs; and so the tongue ought to give utterance only to one class of sentiments and emotions. These illustrations are very striking, and show the absurdity of that which the apostle reproves. At the same time, they accomplish the main purpose which he had in view, to repress the desire of becoming public teachers without suitable qualifications. They show the power of the tongue; they show what a dangerous power it is for a man to wield who has not the proper qualifications; they show that no one should put himself in the position where he may wield this power without such a degree of tried prudence, wisdom, discretion, and piety, that there shall be a moral certainty that he will use it aright.
Who is a wise man, and endued with knowledge among you? - This is spoken with reference to the work of public teaching; and the meaning of the apostle is, that if there were such persons among them, they should be selected for that office. The characteristics here stated as necessary qualifications, are wisdom and knowledge. Those, it would seem, on which reliance had been placed, were chiefly those which were connected with a ready elocution, or the mere faculty of speaking. The apostle had stated the dangers which would follow if reliance were placed on that alone, and he now says that something more is necessary, that the main qualifications for the office are wisdom and knowledge. No mere power of speaking, however eloquent it might be, was a sufficient qualification. The primary things to be sought in reference to that office were wisdom and knowledge, and they who were endowed with these things should be selected for public instructors.
Let him show out of a good conversation - From a correct and consistent life and deportment. On the meaning of the word “conversation,” see the notes at Philippians 1:27. The meaning here is, that there should be an upright life, and that this should be the basis in forming the judgment in appointing persons to fill stations of importance, and especially in the office of teaching in the church.
His works - His acts of uprightness and piety. He should be a man of a holy life.
With meekness of wisdom - With a wise and prudent gentleness of life; not in a noisy, arrogant, and boastful manner. True wisdom is always meek, mild, gentle; and that is the wisdom which is needful, if men would become public teachers. It is remarkable that the truly wise man is always characterized by a calm spirit, a mild and placid demeanor, and by a gentle, though firm, enunciation of his sentiments. A noisy, boisterous, and stormy declaimer we never select as a safe counsellor. He may accomplish much in his way by his bold eloquence of manner, but we do not put him in places where we need far-reaching thought, or where we expect the exercise of profound philosophical views. In an eminent degree, the ministry of the gospel should be characterized by a calm, gentle, and thoughtful wisdom - a wisdom which shines in all the actions of the life.
But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts - If that is your characteristic. There is reference here to a fierce and unholy zeal against each other; a spirit of ambition and contention.
Glory not - Do not boast, in such a case, of your qualifications to be public teachers. Nothing would render you more unfit for such an office than such a spirit.
And lie not against the truth - You would lie against what is true by setting up a claim to the requisite qualifications for such an office, if this is your spirit. Men should seek no office or station which they could not properly seek if the whole truth about them were known.
This wisdom descendeth not from above - Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 3:3. The wisdom here referred to is that carnal or worldly wisdom which produces strife and contention; that kind of knowledge which leads to self-conceit, and which prompts a man to defend his opinions with over-heated zeal. In the contentions which are in the world, in church and state, in neighborhoods and families, at the bar, in political life, and in theological disputes, even where there is the manifestation of enraged and irascible feeling, there is often much of a certain kind of wisdom. There is learning, shrewdness, tact, logical skill, subtle and skilful argumentation - “making the worse appear the better reason;” but all this is often connected with a spirit so narrow, bigoted, and contentious, as to show clearly that it has not its origin in heaven. The spirit which is originated there is always connected with gentleness, calmness, and a love of truth.
But is earthly - Has its origin in this world, and partakes of its spirit. It is such as men exhibit who are governed only by worldly maxims and principles.
Sensual - Margin, “natural.” The meaning is, that it has its origin in our sensual rather than in our intellectual and moral nature. It is that which takes counsel of our natural appetites and propensities, and not of high and spiritual influences.
devilish - Demoniacal (δαιμονιώδης daimoniōdēs). Such as the demons exhibit. See the notes at James 2:19. There may be indeed talent in it, but there is the intermingling of malignant passions, and it leads to contentions, strifes, divisions, and “every evil work.”
For where envying and strife is, there is confusion - Margin, tumult or unquietness. Everything is unsettled and agitated. There is no mutual confidence; there is no union of plan and effort; there is no co-operation in promoting a common object; there is no stability in any plan; for a purpose, though for good, formed by one portion, is defeated by another.
And every evil work - Of the truth of this no one can have any doubt who has observed the effects in a family or neighborhood where a spirit of strife prevails. All love and harmony of course are banished; all happiness disappears; all prosperity is at an end. In place of the peaceful virtues which ought to prevail, there springs up every evil passion that tends to mar the peace of a community. Where this spirit prevails in a church, it is of course impossible to expect any progress in divine things; and in such a church any effort to do good is vain.
“The Spirit, like a peaceful dove,
Flies from the realms of noise and strife.”
But the wisdom that is from above - Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 2:6-7. The wisdom which has a heavenly origin, or which is from God. The man who is characterised by that wisdom will be pure, peaceable, etc. This does not refer to the doctrines of religion, but to its spirit.
Is first pure - That is, the first effect of it on the mind is to make it pure. The influence on the man is to make him upright, sincere, candid, holy. The word here used (ἁγνη hagnē) is that which would be applied to one who is innocent, or flee from crime or blame. Compare Phi 4:8; 1 Timothy 5:22; 1 John 3:3; where the word is rendered, as here, “pure”; 2 Corinthians 7:11; where it is rendered clear, (in this matter); 2 Corinthians 11:2; Tit 2:5; 1 Peter 3:2, where it is rendered chaste. The meaning here is, that the first and immediate effect of religion is not on the intellect, to make it more enlightened; or on the imagination, to make it more discursive and brilliant; or on the memory and judgment, to make them clearer and stronger; but it is to purify the heart, to make the man upright, inoffensive, and good. This passage should not be applied, as it often is, to the doctrines of religion, as if it were the first duty of a church to keep itself free from errors in doctrine, and that this ought to be sought even in preference to the maintenance of peace - as if it meant that in doctrine a church should be “first pure, then peaceable;” but it should be applied to the individual consciences of men, as showing the effect of religion on the heart and life.
The first thing which it produces is to make the man himself pure and good; then follows the train of blessings which the apostle enumerates as flowing from that. It is true that a church should be pure in doctrinal belief, but that is not the truth taught here. It is not true that the scripture teaches, here or elsewhere, that purity of doctrine is to be preferred to a peaceful spirit; or that it always leads to a peaceful spirit; or that it is proper for professed Christians and Christian ministers to sacrifice, as is often done, a peaceful spirit, in an attempt to preserve purity of doctrine. Most of the persecutions in the church have grown out of this maxim. This led to the establishment of the Inquisition; this kindled the fires of Smithfield; this inspirited Laud and his friends; this has been the origin of no small part of the schisms in the church. A pure spirit is the best promoter of peace, and will do more than anything else to secure the prevalence of truth.
(It is but too true that much unseemly strife has had the aegis of this text thrown over it. The “wrath of man” accounts itself zeal for God, and strange fire usurps the place of the true fire of the sanctuary. Yet the author’s statement here seems somewhat overcharged; possibly his own personal history may have contributed a little to this result. Although the Greek word ἁγνη hagnē, here qualifying the σοφια sophia, or wisdom, refers to purity of heart, still it remains true that a pure heart will never relinquish its hold on God’s truth for the sake of a peace that at such a price would be too dearly purchased. A pure heart cannot but be faithful to the truth; it could not otherwise be pure, provided conscientiousness and love of truth form any part of moral purity. Surely, then, an individual solicited to yield up what he believed to be truth, or what were cherished convictions, might properly assign this text as a reason why he could not, and ought not; and if an individual might, why not any number associated into a church?
It is true the Scriptures do not teach that “doctrinal purity” is to be preferred to a “peaceful spirit.” However pure a man’s doctrine may be, if he has not the peaceful spirit he is none of Christ’s. But the common view of this passage is not chargeable with any such absurdity. It supposes only that there may be circumstances in which the spirit of peace, though possessed, cannot be exercised, except in meek submission to wrong for conscience sake; never can it turn traitor to truth, or make any compromise with error. The “first” of the apostle does not indicate even preference of the pure spirit to the peaceful spirit, but only the order in which they are to be exercised. There must be no attempts to reach peace by overleaping purity. The maxim that a pure heart ought not to sacrifice truth on any consideration whatever, never gave rise to persecution: it has made many martyrs, but never one persecutor; it has pined in the dungeon, but never immured any there; it has burned amid the flames, but never lighted the faggot; it has ascended scaffolds, but never erected them; it has preserved and bequeathed civil and religious liberty, but never assaulted them; it is a divine principle - the principle by which Christianity became strong, and will ultimately command the homage of the world. There is another principle, with which this has no brotherhood, that denies the right of private judgment, and enforces uniformity by the sword: its progeny are inquisitors, and Lauds and Sharpes; and let it have the credit of its own offspring.)
Then peaceable - The effect of true religion - the wisdom which is from above - will be to dispose a man to live in peace with all others. See the Romans 14:19 note; Hebrews 12:14.
Gentle - Mild, inoffensive, clement. The word here used (ἐπιεικὴς epieikēs) is rendered “moderation” in Philippians 4:5; patient in 1 Timothy 3:3; and gentle in Titus 3:2; James 3:17, and 1 Peter 2:18. It does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament. Every one has a clear idea of the virtue of gentleness - gentleness of spirit, of deportment, and of manners; and every one can see that that is the appropriate spirit of religion. Compare the notes at 2 Corinthians 10:1. It is from this word that we have derived the word “gentleman”; and the effect of true religion is to make everyone, in the proper and best sense of the term, a gentleman. How can a man have evidence that he is a true Christian, who is not such? The highest title which can be given to a man is, that he is a Christian gentleman.
And easy to be entreated - The word here used does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. It means easily persuaded, compliant. Of course, this refers only to cases where it is right and proper to be easily persuaded and complying. It cannot refer to things which are in themselves wrong. The sense is, that he who is under the influence of the wisdom which is from above, is not a stiff, stern, obstinate, unyielding man. He does not take a position, and then hold it whether right or wrong; he is not a man on whom no arguments or persuasions can have any influence. He is not one who cannot be affected by any appeals which may be made to him on the grounds of patriotism, justice, or benevolence; but is one who is ready to yield when truth requires him to do it, and who is willing to sacrifice his own convenience for the good of others. See this illustrated in the case of the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22. Compare the notes at that passage.
Full of mercy - Merciful; disposed to show compassion to others. This is one of the results of the wisdom that is from above, for it makes us like God, the “Father of mercies.” See the notes at Matthew 5:7.
And good fruits - The fruits of good living; just, benevolent, and kind actions. Philippians 1:11 note; 2 Corinthians 9:10 note. Compare James 2:14-26.
Without partiality - Margin, “or wrangling.” The word here used (ἀδιάκριτος adiakritos) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, properly, “not to be distinguished.” Here it may mean either of the following things:
(a)Not open to distinction or doubt; that is, unambiguous, so that there shall be no doubt about its origin or nature;
(b)Making no distinction, that is, in the treatment of others, or impartial towards them; or,
(c)Without strife, from διακρίνω diakrinō, to contend.
The second meaning here suggested seems best to accord with the sense of the passage; and according to this the idea is, that the wisdom which is from above, or true religion, makes us impartial in our treatment of others: that is, we are not influenced by a regard to dress, rank, or station, but we are disposed to do equal justice to all, according to their moral worth, and to show kindness to all, according to their wants. See James 2:1-4.
And without hypocrisy - What it professes to be; sincere. There is no disguise or mask assumed. What the man pretends to be, he is. This is everywhere the nature of true religion. It has nothing of its own of which to be ashamed, and which needs to be concealed; its office is not to hide or conceal anything that is wrong. It neither is a mask, nor does it need a mask. If such is the nature of the “wisdom which is from above,” who is there that should be ashamed of it? Who is there that should not desire that its blessed influence should spread around the world?
And the fruit of righteousness - That which the righteousness here referred to produces, or that which is the effect of true religion. The meaning is, that righteousness or true religion produces certain results on the life like the effects of seed sown in good ground. Righteousness or true religion as certainly produces such effects, as seed that is sown produces a harvest.
Is sown in peace - Is scattered over the world in a peaceful manner. That is, it is not done amidst contentions, and brawls, and strifes. The farmer sows his seed in peace. The fields are not sown amidst the tumults of a mob, or the excitements of a battle or a camp. Nothing is more calm, peaceful, quiet, and composed, than the farmer, as he walks with measured tread over his fields, scattering his seed. So it is in sowing the “seed of the kingdom,” in preparing for the great harvest of righteousness in the world. It is done by men of peace; it is done in peaceful scenes, and with a peaceful spirit; it is not in the tumult of war, or amidst the hoarse brawling of a mob. In a pure and holy life; in the peaceful scenes of the sanctuary and the Sabbath; by noiseless and unobtrusive laborers, the seed is scattered over the world, and the result is seen in an abundant harvest in producing peace and order.
Of them that make peace - By those who desire to produce peace, or who are of a peaceful temper and disposition. They are engaged everywhere in scattering these blessed seeds of peace, contentment, and order; and the result shall be a glorious harvest for themselves and for mankind - a harvest rich and abundant on earth and in heaven. The whole effect, therefore, of religion, is to produce peace. It is all peace - peace in its origin and in its results; in the heart of the individual, and in society; on earth, and in heaven. The idea with which the apostle commenced this chapter seems to have been that such persons only should be admitted to the office of public teachers. From that, the mind naturally turned to the effect of religion in general; and he states that in the ministry and out of it; in the heart of the individual and on society at large; here and hereafter, the effect of religion is to produce peace. Its nature is peaceful as it exists in the heart, and as it is developed in the world: and wherever and however it is manifested, it is like seed sown, not amid the storms of war and the contentions of battle, but in the fields of quiet husbandry, producing in rich abundance a harvest of peace. In its origin, and in all its results, it is productive only of contentment, sincerity, goodness, and peace. Happy he who has this religion in his heart; happy he who with liberal hand scatters its blessings broadcast over the world!
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on James 3". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29