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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

James 3

Verses 1-99

Ch. 3:1 12. Sins of Speech, and their condemnation

1 . be not many masters ] Better, “ do not become , or do not get into the way of being many teachers .” The English word “master,” though perhaps conveying the idea of a “schoolmaster” in the sixteenth century, and therefore used in all the versions from Wycliffe and Tyndale onward, is now far too general in its meaning. What St James warns his “brethren” against is each man’s setting himself up to be a teacher , and in this he echoes our Lord’s command, (Matthew 23:8-10 ). In the Christian Church, as in the Jewish, there was the peril of a self-appointed Rabbi-ship. The sages of Israel had given the same caution, as in the maxim, Love the work, but strive not after the honour, of a Teacher, ( Pirke Aboth , 1. 10).

knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation ] The change from the second person to the first is characteristic of the writer’s profound humility. He will not give others a warning without at the same time applying it to himself. The Greek word for “condemnation”, though literally meaning “judgment” only, is yet almost always used in the New Testament for an adverse judgment, (e. g. Matt, 23:14; Romans 2:2 , Romans 2:13 :2; 1 Corinthians 11:29 , 1 Corinthians 11:34 ). The very form of St James’s phrase is as an echo of our Lord’s words in the first of the passages referred to.

2 . we offend all ] The word is the same as that in ch. 2:10. See note there.

a perfect man … ] One who has attained the fulness of moral growth, as in 1 Corinthians 14:20 , Hebrews 5:14 , the same word denotes that of physical growth. Control of speech is named, not as in itself constituting perfection, but as a crucial test indicating whether the man has or has not attained unto it.

able also to bridle the whole body ] St James returns to the besetting sin of those to whom he writes, uses the same phrase as in ch. 1:26, and then proceeds to develope the metaphor which it suggests. The “whole body” is used to sum up the aggregate of all the temptations which come to us through the avenues of sense.

3 . Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths ] The thought of man’s power over brute creatures and natural forces, and of his impotence in the greater work of self-government, present a singular parallelism to that of the well-known chorus in the Antigone of Sophocles. (332 350):

Many the forms of life

Full marvellous in might,

But man supreme stands out

Most marvellous of all.

He with the wintry gales,

O’er the foam-crested sea,

Mid wild waves surging round,

Tracketh his way across.

He fastens firm the yoke

On horse with shaggy mane,

Or bull that walks untamed upon the hills.

So in another passage of the same drama:

“And I have known the steeds of fiery mood

With a small curb subdued.” ( Antig. 475.)

4 . Behold also the ships …] General as the thought is, we may perhaps connect it, as we have done ch. 1:6, with personal recollections of storms on the Galilean lake. It will be seen that this also has its counterpart in Sophocles. The two images are brought together by a writer more within St James’s reach than the Greek tragedian. With Philo, Reason in man, the Divine Word in Creation, are compared both with the charioteer and the pilot. ( De Conf. ling. p. 336. De Abr. p. 360). In the latter the very word which St James uses for “governor” is employed also by Philo. The same thoughts appear in the beautiful hymn of Clement of Alexandria as describing the work of Christ as the true Teacher. ( Paedag. ad fin. ):

“Curb for the stubborn steed

Making its will give heed.

Helm of the ships that keep

Their pathway o’er the deep.

whithersoever the governor listeth ] Better, the pilot or steersman . This, which, the reader will hardly need to be reminded, is the primary meaning of “governor”, has, in the modern use of the word, all but dropped out of sight. Literally the sentence runs, whithersoever the impulse of the steersman may wish .

5 . and boasteth great things ] The Greek verb is a compound word, which does not occur elsewhere, but is used not unfrequently by Philo. The fact is not without interest, as indicating, together with the parallelisms just referred to, St James’s probable acquaintance with that writer.

how great a matter a little fire kindleth ] The form of the Greek is somewhat more emphatic. A little fire kindles how great a mass of timber . The word translated “matter” means primarily “a forest wood in growth;” and with this meaning, which is adopted in the Vulgate “ silvam ”, the illustration would stand parallel to Homer’s simile:

“As when a spark scarce seen will set ablaze

The illimitable forest.”

Iliad ii. 455.

So in Virgil, Georg . ii. 303, we have a fuller description of the spark which, dropped at hazard, kindles the bark, and the branches, and the foliage:

“And as in triumph seizes on the boughs,

And reigns upon the throne of pine-tree tops,

And wraps the forest in a robe of flame.”

The word, however, had gradually passed into the hands of the metaphysicians, and like the Latin materia , which originally meant “timber” (a meaning still traceable in the name of Madeira, “the well-timbered island”), had come to mean matter as distinct from form, and then passing back, with its modified meaning, into common use, had been used for a pile, or heap of stuff, or materials of any kind. On the whole then, while admitting the greater vividness of the Homeric similitude, St James is likely to have meant a mass of materials rather than a forest. Comp. Proverbs 16:27 , and Ecclus. 28:10, where we have exactly the same comparison. The Authorised Version may be accordingly received as not far wrong. Here again it may be noted that Philo employs the same similitude to illustrate the growth of goodness in the soul: “As the smallest spark will, if duly fanned, kindle a vast pyre, so is the least element of virtue capable of growth till the whole nature of the man glows with a new warmth and brightness,” (Philo, de Migr. Abr. p. 407). But he also frequently uses the comparison in reference to the rapid extension of evil.

6 . And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity ] The last words are in apposition with the subject, not the predicate, of the sentence. The tongue is described as emphatically that world we should perhaps say, that microcosm of unrighteousness . As uttering all evil thoughts and desires, no element of unrighteousness was absent from it, and that which includes all the elements of anything well deserves the name of being its Cosmos .

so is the tongue among our members ] The particle of comparison is not found in the best MSS., but is clearly implied, and is therefore legitimately inserted in the translation, as it is in some later MSS. The sentence strictly runs, The tongue is set in our members , referring of course not to a Divine appointment, but to its actual position. It is, as a fact, that which “defiles”, better perhaps spots or stains , the whole body. Every evil word is thought of as leaving its impress, it may be an indelible impress, as a blot upon the whole character.

and setteth on fire the course of nature ] The last words have no parallel in any Greek author, and are therefore naturally somewhat difficult. Literally, we might render, the wheel of nature or of birth , just as in ch. 1:23 we found “the face of nature,” for the “natural face,” that with which we are born. The best interpretation seems to be that which sees in the phrase a figure for “the whole of life from birth;” the wheel which then begins to roll on its course, and continues rolling until death. The comparison of life to a race, or course of some kind, has been familiar to the poetry of all ages, and in a Latin poet, Silius Italicus (vi. 120), we have a phrase almost identical with St James’s,

“Talis lege Deûm clivoso tramite vitæ

Per varios præceps casus rota volvitur ævi .”

“So by the law of God, through chance and change,

The wheel of life rolls down the steep descent.”

What is meant, if we adopt this view, is that from the beginning of life to its close, the tongue is an ever-present inflammatory element of evil.

As an alternative explanation it is possible that there may be a reference to the potter’s wheel, as in Jeremiah 18:3 , and Ecclus. 38:29, in the latter of which the same word for “wheel” is used. On this view the tongue would be represented as the flame that by its untempered heat mars the vessel in the hands of the potter. The frequent parallelisms between St James and the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, are, as far as they go, in favour of this view, but the former seems to me, on the whole, preferable. A third view, that the words have the same kind of meaning as orbis terrarum , and mean, as in the English Version, the whole order or course of nature, i.e. of human history in the world at large, has, it is believed, less to recommend it.

and it is set on fire of hell ] The Greek participle is in the present. The tongue that speaks evil is ever being set on fire of Gehenna . St James does not shrink from tracing sins of speech to their source. The fire of man’s wrath is kindled from beneath, as the fire that cleanses is kindled from above. Bearing in our minds the wonder of the day of Pentecost, it is hardly too bold to say that we have to choose whether our tongue shall be purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit or defiled by that of Gehenna. The latter word is that employed in the Gospels, as here, for “Hell”, wherever that word means, not simply the place of the dead, which is expressed in the Greek by Hades, the unseen world, but the place of torment. Primarily, the word is a Hebrew one, signifying the Valley of Hinnom. As that valley had been in the days of the idolatries of Judah the scene of the fires of Moloch worship (2 Kings 23:10 ; Jeremiah 7:31 , Jeremiah 7:19 :5, Jeremiah 7:6 ), and had in later times become the cloaca where the filth and offal of the city were consumed in fires kept continually burning (so it is commonly said, but the fact is not quite certain), it came to be among the later Rabbis what Tartarus was to the Greeks, the symbol of the dread penalties of evil. Comp. Matthew 5:22 , Mark 9:43 .

7 . every kind of beasts ] Better, Every nature . This was, probably, intended by the translators, as being the old meaning of the word “kind,” as in the “kindly fruits” (= “natural products”) of the Litany. So Chaucer, “A beautie that cometh not of kinde ,” Rom. of Rose , 2288, i. e. that is not natural. It may be noted that the Authorised Version in this instance returns to Wycliffe, who used the word in its old sense, and that all the intermediate versions give “nature.” The fourfold classification is obviously intended to be exhaustive and “beasts” must therefore be taken in its common familiar meaning of “quadruped.”

serpents ] is too specific for the third word, and it would be better to give the rendering which it commonly has elsewhere, of “creeping things.”

is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind ] Better, the word being the same as in the first clause, “ by the nature of man .” The tense of the first verb implies “is continually being tamed .” The assertion may seem at first somewhat hyperbolical, but the well-known cases of tame rats and tame wasps, the lion of Androcles and the white fawn of Sertorius, furnish what may well be termed “crucial instances” in support of it. The story related by Cassian ( Coll . xxiv. 2), that St John in his old age kept a tame partridge, makes it probable that St James may have seen, among his fellow-teachers, such an instance of the power of man to tame the varied forms of animal life around him.

8 . but the tongue can no man tame ] There is a special force in the Greek tense for “tame”, which expresses not habitual, but momentary action. St James had learnt, by what he saw around him, and yet more, it may be, by personal experience, that no powers of the “nature of man” were adequate for this purpose. He had learnt also, we must believe, that the things which are impossible with man are possible with God.

an unruly evil ] Literally, uncontrollable . Many of the better MSS., however, give the adjective which is rendered “unstable” in ch. 1:8, and which carries with it, together with that meaning, the idea of restlessness and turbulence. So in the Shepherd of Hermas (11.2) calumny is described as a “ restless demon .”

full of deadly poison ] Literally, death-bringing . For the idea comp. “the poison of asps is under their lips,” Psalms 140:3 . The adjective is found in the LXX. version of Job 33:23 , for “angels or messengers of death.”

9 . Therewith bless we God, even the Father … ] Many of the better MSS. give “the Lord” instead of “God”. The fact dwelt on comes in to illustrate the strange inconsistency, even of men who professed faith in God, in their use of speech. General as the words are, they pointed, we may believe, especially to the feelings of Jews towards Christians, or of the more bigoted section of Jewish Christians towards the Gentiles. Such men were loud in their benedictions of the Eternal, the Blessed One, yet they had not learnt to reverence humanity as such, as made after the likeness of God. They cursed those who worshipped or believed after a different manner from their own. The annals of Christendom shew that the necessity for the warning has not passed away. Councils formulating the faith, and uttering their curses on heretics; Te Deums chanted at an Auto da Fè , or after a Massacre of St Bartholomew, the railings of religious parties who are restrained from other modes of warfare, present the same melancholy inconsistency.

10 . these things ought not so to be ] The verb, strictly. speaking, denotes not so much a state, as the coming into a state: these things ought not to occur in this way .

11 . Doth a fountain ] The Greek gives the article, the fountain , as more emphatically generalising the question.

send forth at the same place …] Both verb and noun in the Greek are more vivid. Our word spurt or gush , if it could be used transitively, would answer to the former; our mouth , or “source”, or “orifice”, to the latter. The comparison was a natural one in a country like Palestine, where springs more or less salt or sulphureous are not uncommon. Most of those on the eastern slope of the hill-country of Judah and Benjamin are indeed brackish. Comp. the sweetening of the spring which supplied the college of the Sons of the Prophets in 2 Kings, 2:19, and the symbolic healing of the waters in Ezekiel 47:9 .

12 . Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? …] The comparison here also has an eminently local character. The court-yard of well-nigh every house had its vine and fig-tree (2 Kings 18:31 ). The Mount of Olives supplied the other feature. The idea, as a whole, is parallel to that of Matthew 7:16 , Matthew 7:17 , and may well have been suggested by it.

so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh ] The better MSS. give a somewhat briefer form, Neither can a salt (spring) yield sweet (the same adjective as in the preceding verse) water . The comparison seems at first to break down, as the fact which it was meant to illustrate was that “blessing and cursing” did issue from the same mouth. What is meant, however, is that in such a case, the “blessing” loses its character, and is tainted with the bitterness of the cursing. The prayers and praises of the hypocrite who cherishes hatred in his heart, are worse than worthless.

13 18. The false Wisdom and the true

13 . Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? ] The adjective corresponding to “endued with knowledge” (literally knowing or understanding ) is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but occurs in the LXX. of Deuteronomy 1:13 , Deuteronomy 1:15 ; Deuteronomy 4:6 ; Isaiah 5:21 . So far as a distinction is intended, it expresses the intellectual, as “wise” does the moral, aspect of wisdom. Both qualities were required in one who claimed to be, as in verse 1, a “Master” or “Teacher,” and St James, in strict sequence of thought, proceeds to point out how the conditions may be fulfilled.

out of a good conversation ] The tendency of modern usage to restrict the meaning of the substantive to “talk” is in this instance, where the immediate context suggests some such meaning, specially unfortunate, as lowering the range of the precept. Better by , or out of , his good (the word expresses the nobler form of goodness) conduct . Comp. the use of the word in Galatians 1:13 ; 1 Peter 1:15 , 1 Peter 1:18 , and elsewhere.

with meekness of wisdom ] Better, in meekness , as expressing not something super-added, but the very form and manner in which the noble conduct was to be shewn. The “meekness” thus defined is thought of as belonging to “wisdom” as its characteristic attribute. St James is hence led back to the thought with which the Epistle opened, that wisdom is the crown and consummation of the character of a true believer; and lest a counterfeit wisdom should be taken for the true, he proceeds to give the notes of difference between them.

14 . But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts ] Better, envy and rivalry . The latter substantive, formed from a word which means a “day-labourer”, expresses primarily the temper of competition that characterised the class, and then more generally, faction and party-spirit of any kind. It is significant that the word for “envy” is used by St Luke as specially characterising the temper of the Jews towards the Gentile converts (Acts 13:45 ), and this, together with what we have seen of the true bearing of ch. 2:14 26, leads to the conclusion that St James’s warning is specially addressed to those of the Circumcision who displayed that feeling. He is shewing himself not the antagonist, but the supporter of St Paul’s work, condemning the factious spirit which was then, as afterwards at Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:20 ), in Galatia (Galatians 5:20 ), and at Rome (Philippians 1:15 ), his chief hindrance. The word “bitter” is perhaps added to “envy” because the Greek word “zeal” was neutral, and admitted of a good meaning.

glory not ] The word expresses a relative, not an absolute glorying, a glorying over some one, on the ground of superior privileges. This was, it is obvious, likely to be the besetting sin of the party of the Circumcision in relation to the Gentiles, and was therefore checked by St James, just as afterwards, when the prospect of the rejection of Israel was becoming a certainty, it became, in its turn, the sin of the Gentile converts, and was then checked by St Paul (Romans 11:18 ).

lie not against the truth ] It is clear that if the word “truth” were only subjective in its meaning, as meaning “truthfulness,” the precept would be open to the charge of tautology. We must therefore assume that it is used with an objective force, as the truth of God revealed in Christ. We ask what special truth thus revealed those to whom St James wrote were most in danger of denying, and the answer lies on the surface. They were claiming God as the God of the Jews only (Romans 3:29 ), denying the brotherhood of mankind in Christ, “lying against” the very truth of which they fancied that they were the exclusive possessors.

15 . This wisdom descendeth not from above ] St James returns to the thought of chap. 1:5, that true wisdom was the gift of God, coming, like every other good and perfect gift, from above (ch. 1:17). But this was not “the wisdom” of which the “many teachers” of the party of the Circumcision were boasting. It was, however, that of the Proverbs of Solomon, and of the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, on which so much of St James’s teaching was modelled. (Comp. Ecclus. 1:1 10.) It was that which had been manifested to mankind in all its fulness in Christ.

earthly, sensual, devilish ] Each word is full of meaning. (1) The counterfeit wisdom is “earthly” in its nature and origin as contrasted with that which cometh from above. (Comp. St Paul’s “who mind earthly things,” Philippians 3:19 ). (2) It is “sensual.” The word is used by classical writers for that which belongs to the “soul” as contrasted with the “body.” This rested on the twofold division of man’s nature. The psychology of the New Testament, however, assumes generally the threefold division of body, soul, and spirit, the second element answering to the animal, emotional life, and the third being that which includes reason and will, the capacity for immortality and for knowing God. Hence the adjective formed from “soul” acquired a lower meaning, almost the very opposite of that which it once had, and expresses man’s state as left to lower impulses without the control of the spirit. So St Paul contrasts the natural man with the spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:14 ), the natural and the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44 , 1 Corinthians 15:46 ). So St Jude describes the false teachers, whom he condemns as “ sensual , having not the Spirit.” What St James says then of the false wisdom is that it belongs to the lower, not the higher, element in man’s nature. It does not come from the Spirit of God, and therefore is not spiritual. (3) In “devilish” we have yet a darker condemnation. Our English use of the same word, “devil,” for the two Greek words diabolos and dœmonion , tends, however, to obscure St James’s meaning. The epithet does not state that the false wisdom which he condemns came from the devil, or was like his nature, but that it was demon-like , as partaking of the nature of the “demons” or “unclean spirits,” who, as in the Gospels, are represented as possessing the souls of men, and reducing them to the level of madness. Such, St James says, is the character of the spurious wisdom of the “many masters” of verse 1. Met together in debate, wrangling, cursing, swearing, one would take them for an assembly of demoniacs. Their disputes were marked by the ferocity, the egotism, the boasting, the malignant cunning of the insane. St Paul’s account of the “doctrines of devils,” i. e. proceeding from demons (1 Timothy 4:1 ), not from the Spirit of God, presents a striking parallel. St James’s previous allusion to “demons” (see note on ch. 2:19) confirms the interpretation thus given, as shewing how much his thoughts had been directed to the phænomena of possession.

16 . envying and strife ] Better, as before, envy and rivalry . See note on verse 14.

there is confusion and every evil work ] On the first word see note on verse 8. It describes here the chaotic turbulence of such an assembly as that indicated in the preceding verse. Comp. Proverbs 26:28 , where the Greek word in the LXX. answers to the “ruin” of the English version. The word for “evil” is not the common one, and expresses contempt as well as condemnation. Better, every vile deed . It is the word used in John 3:20 , John 5:29 .

17 . But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable ] The sequence is that of thought, not of time. It is not meant, i. e. that purity is an earlier stage of moral growth in wisdom than peace, but that it is its foremost attribute. The “purity” indicated is especially that of chastity of flesh and spirit (comp. 2 Corinthians 7:2 , 2 Corinthians 7:11 :2; Titus 2:5 ), and as such is contrasted with the “sensual” character of the false wisdom. Here again we have the tone of one who has learnt from the Masters of those who know, among the teachers of his own people, that wisdom will not “dwell in the body that is subject unto sin” (Wisd. 1:4). The sequence which places “peaceful” after “pure” has its counterpart in the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:8 , Matthew 5:9 ).

gentle, and easy to be intreated ] The word for “gentle” means literally, forbearing . It describes, as in Aristotle ( Eth. 10:6), the temper that does not press its rights, that is content to suffer wrong (comp. Philippians 4:5 ; 1 Timothy 3:3 ). The second adjective is used by classical writers, both in a passive sense as here, and active, (1) as meaning “persuasive,” “winning its way by gentleness,” or (2) as “obedient.” Our choice between the three meanings must depend on our view of what is most likely to have been the sequence of St James’s thoughts. On the whole, the second seems to me to have the most to commend it. True wisdom shews itself, St James seems to say, in that subtle yet gentle power to persuade and win, which we all feel when we come in contact with one who is clearly not fighting for his own rights, but for the cause of Truth.

full of mercy and good fruits ] The train of thought is carried on. Wisdom is suasive because she is compassionate. In dealing with the froward she is stirred, not by anger, but by pity, and she overflows, not with “every vile deed,” but with the good fruits of kindly acts.

without partiality ] Here again we have a Greek word which admits of more than one sense. The English version gives it an active sense, as describing the temper which does not distinguish wrongly, which is no respecter of persons. The sense in which the verb, from which the adjective is formed, is used in ch. 1:6, 2:4, is, however, that of “doubting,” or “wavering;” and it seems, therefore, probable that St James means to describe true wisdom as free from the tendency which he thus condemns. That freedom goes naturally with the freedom from unreality which the next word expresses. Without vacillation is the condition of “ without hypocrisy .” Where the purpose is single there is no risk of a simulated piety.

18 . And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace …] It is commonly said that “the fruit of righteousness” means “the fruit which is righteousness.” The analogy of a like structure, however, in Luke 3:8 (“worthy fruits of repentance”), Ephesians 5:9 (“the fruit of the Spirit”), and other passages, is in favour of taking it as the fruit which righteousness produces. Every good deed is a fruit produced by the good seed sown in the good soil, and not choked by thorns. And every such deed is, in its turn, as the seed of a future fruit like in kind. It is “sown in peace” (we must remember all the fulness of meaning which the Hebrew mind attached to peace as the highest form of blessedness) either “by” or “for” (the former is, perhaps, meant, but the phrase may have been used to include both) those that make peace. We cannot fail to connect these words with the beatitude on the peace-makers in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9 ). We can as little fail to note the resemblance between this portraiture of the true wisdom and the picture which St Paul draws in 1 Corinthians 13:0 of the excellence of Charity or Love. Differing, as the two teachers did, in many ways, in their modes of thought and language, one fastening on the more practical, the other on the more spiritual, aspects of the Truth, there was an essential agreement in their standard of the highest form of the Christian character. A comparison of the two helps us to understand how the one teacher held out the right hand of fellowship to the other (Galatians 2:9 ), and to hope for a like accord now among men who seem to differ in their conception of Christian Truth, if only they agree in their ultimate aim and standard, and feel, in the depth of their being, that Love is Wisdom, and that Wisdom is Love.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on James 3". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/james-3.html. 1896.