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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

James 3

Verses 1-18

Chapter 3


3:1 My brothers, it is a mistake for many of you to become teachers, for you must be well aware that those of us who teach will receive a greater condemnation.

In the early church the teachers were of first rate importance Wherever they are mentioned, they are mentioned with honour. In the Church at Antioch they are ranked with the prophets who sent out Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey ( Acts 13:1). In Paul's list of those who hold great gifts within the Church they come second only to the apostles and to the prophets ( 1 Corinthians 12:28; compare Ephesians 4:11). The apostles and the prophets were for ever on the move. Their field was the whole Church; and they did not stay long in any one congregation. But the teachers worked within a congregation, and their supreme importance was that it must have been to them that the converts were handed over for instruction in the facts of the Christian gospel and for edification in the Christian faith. It was the teacher's awe-inspiring responsibility that he could put the stamp of his own faith and knowledge on those who were entering the Church for the first time.

In the New Testament itself we get glimpses of teachers who failed in their responsibility and became false teachers. There were teachers who tried to turn Christianity into another kind of Judaism and tried to introduce circumcision and the keeping of the law ( Acts 15:24). There were teachers who lived out nothing of the truth which they taught, whose life was a contradiction of their instruction and who did nothing but bring dishonour on the faith they represented ( Romans 2:17-29). There were some who tried to teach before they themselves knew anything ( 1 Timothy 1:6-7); and others who pandered to the false desires of the crowd ( 2 Timothy 4:3).

But, apart altogether from the false teachers, it is James' conviction that teaching is a dangerous occupation for any man. His instrument is speech and his agent the tongue. As Ropes puts it, James is concerned to point out "the responsibility of teachers and the dangerous character of the instrument they have to use."

The Christian teacher entered into a perilous heritage. In the Church he took the place of the Rabbi in Judaism. There were many great and saintly Rabbis, but the Rabbi was treated in a way that was liable to ruin the character of any man. His very name means, "My great one." Everywhere he went he was treated with the utmost respect. It was actually held that a man's duty to his Rabbi exceeded his duty to his parents, because his parents only brought him into the life of this world but his teacher brought him into the life of the world to come. It was actually said that if a man's parents and a man's teacher were captured by an enemy, the Rabbi must be ransomed first. It was true that a Rabbi was not allowed to take money for teaching and that he was supposed to support his bodily needs by working at a trade; but it was also held that it was a specially pious and meritorious work to take a Rabbi into the household and to support him with every care. It was desperately easy for a Rabbi to become the kind of person whom Jesus depicted, a spiritual tyrant, an ostentatious ornament of piety, a lover of the highest place at any function, a person who gloried in the almost subservient respect showed to him in public ( Matthew 23:4-7). Every teacher runs the risk of becoming "Sir Oracle." No profession is more liable to beget spiritual and intellectual pride.

There are two dangers which every teacher must avoid. In virtue of his office he will either be teaching those who are young in years or those who are children in the faith. He must, therefore, all his life struggle to avoid two things. He must have every care that he is teaching the truth, and not his own opinions or even his own prejudices. It is fatally easy for a teacher to distort the truth and to teach, not God's version, but his own. He must have every care that he does not contradict his teaching by his life, continually, as it were, not, "Do as I do," but, "Do as I say." He must never get into the position when his scholars and students cannot hear what he says for listening to what he is. As the Jewish Rabbis themselves said, "Not learning but doing is the foundation, and he who multiplies words multiplies sin" (Sayings of the Fathers 1: 18).

It is James' warning that the teacher has of his own choice entered into a special office; and is, therefore, under the greater condemnation, if he fails in it. The people to whom James was writing coveted the prestige of the teacher; James demanded that they should never forget the responsibility.


3:2 There are many things in which we all slip up; but if a man never slips up in his speech, he is a perfect man, able to keep the whole body also on the rein.

James sets down two ideas which were woven into Jewish thought and literature.

(i) There is no man in this world who does not sin in something. The word James uses means to slip up. "Life," said Lord Fisher, the great sailor, "is strewn with orange peel." Sin is so often not deliberate but the result of a slip up when we are off our guard. This universality of sin runs all through the Bible. "None is righteous, no not one," quotes Paul. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" ( Romans 3:10; Romans 3:23). "If we say we have no sin," says John, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" ( 1 John 1:8). "There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins," said the preacher ( Ecclesiastes 7:20). "There is no man," says the Jewish sage, "among them that be born, but he hath dealt wickedly; and among the faithful there is none who hath not done amiss" ( 2Esther 8:35). There is no room for pride in human life, for there is not a man upon earth who has not some blot of which to be ashamed. Even the pagan writers have the same conviction of sin. "It is the nature of man to sin both in private and in public life," said Thucydides (3: 45). "We all sin," said Seneca, "some more grievously, some more lightly" (On Clemency 1: 6).

(ii) There is no sin into which it is easier to fall and none which has graver consequences than the sin of the tongue. Again this idea is woven into Jewish thought. Jesus warned men that they would give account for every word they spoke. "By your words you will be justified; and by your words you will be condemned" ( Matthew 12:36-37). "A soft answer turns away wrath; but a harsh word stirs up anger.... A gentle tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness in it breaks the spirit" ( Proverbs 15:1-4).

Of all Jewish writers, Jesus ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus, was most impressed with the terrifying potentialities of the tongue. "Honour and shame is in talk; and the tongue of man is his fall. Be not called a whisperer, and lie not in wait with the tongue; for a foul shame is upon the thief, and an evil condemnation upon the double tongue.... Instead of a friend become not an enemy; for thereby thou shalt inherit an ill name, shame and reproach; even so shall a sinner that hath a double tongue" ( Sir_5:13 through Sir_6:1 ). "Blessed is the man who has not slipped with his mouth" ( Sir_14:1 ). "Who is he that hath not offended with his tongue?" ( Sir_19:15 ). "Who shall set a watch before my mouth and a sea, of wisdom upon my lips, that I shall not suddenly fall by them and my tongue destroy me not?" ( Sir_22:27 ).

He has a lengthy passage which is so nobly and passionately put that it is worth quoting in full:

Curst the whisperer and the double-tongued; for such have

destroyed many that were at peace. A backbiting tongue hath

disquieted many and driven them from nation to nation; strong

cities hath it pulled down and overthrown the houses of great men.

It hath cut in pieces the forces of people and undone strong

nations. A backbiting tongue hath cast out virtuous women and

deprived them of their labours. Whoso hearkeneth unto it shall

never find rest and never dwell quietly, neither shall he have a

friend in whom he may repose. The stroke of the whip maketh marks

in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.

Many have fallen by the edge of the sword; but not so many as

have fallen by the tongue. Well is he that is defended from it

and has not passed through the venom thereof; who hath not drawn

the yoke thereof, nor hath been bound in her bands. For the yoke

thereof is a yoke of iron and the bands thereof are bands of

brass. The death thereof is an evil death, the grave were better

than it.... Look that thou hedge thy possession about with

thorns and bind up thy silver and gold and weigh thy words in a

balance and make a bridle for thy lips and make a door and bar for

thy mouth. Beware thou slide not by it, lest thou fall before him

that lieth in wait and thy fall be incurable unto death

( Sir_28:13-26 ).


3:3-5 If we put bits into horses' mouths to make them obedient to us, we can control the direction of their whole body as well. Look at ships, too. See how large they are and how they are driven by rough winds, and see how their course is altered by a very small rudder, wherever the pressure of the steersman desires. So, too, the tongue is a little member of the body, but it makes arrogant claims for itself.

It might be argued against James' terror of the tongue that it is a very small part of the body to make such a fuss about and to which to attach so much importance. To combat that argument James uses two pictures.

(i) We put a bit into the mouth of a horse, knowing that if we can control its mouth, we can control its whole body. So James says that if we can control the tongue, we can control the whole body; but if the tongue is uncontrolled, the whole life is set on the wrong way.

(ii) A rudder is very small in comparison with the size of a ship; and yet, by exerting pressure on that little rudder, the steersman can alter the course of the ship and direct it to safety. Long before, Aristotle had used this same picture when he was talking about the science of mechanics: "A rudder is small and it is attached to the very end of the ship, but it has such power that by this little rudder, and by the power of one man--and that a power gently exerted--the great bulk of ships can be moved." The tongue also is small, yet it can direct the whole course of a man's life.

Philo called the mind the charioteer and steersman of man's life; it is when the mind controls every word and it itself is controlled by Christ that life is safe.

James is not for a moment saying that silence is better than speech. He is not pleading for a Trappist life where speech is forbidden. He is pleading for the control of the tongue. Aristippus the Greek had a wise saying, "The conqueror of pleasure is not the man who never uses it. He is the man who uses pleasure as a rider guides a horse or a steersman directs a ship, and so directs them wherever he wishes." Abstention from anything is never a complete substitute for control in its use. James is not pleading for a cowardly silence but for a wise use of speech.

A DESTRUCTIVE FIRE ( James 3:5 b-6)

3:5b-6 See how great a forest how little a fire can set alight. And the tongue is a fire; in the midst of our members the tongue stands for the whole wicked world, for it defiles the whole body and sets on fire the ever-recurring cycle of creation, and is itself set on fire by hell.

The damage the tongue can cause is like that caused by a forest fire. The picture of the forest fire is common in the Bible. It is the prayer of the Psalmist that God may make the wicked like chaff before the wind; and that his tempest may destroy them as fire consumes the forest and the flame sets the mountains ablaze ( Psalms 83:13-14). Isaiah says "wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest" ( Isaiah 9:18). Zechariah speaks of "a blazing pot in the midst of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves" ( Zechariah 12:6). The picture was one the Jews of Palestine knew well. In the dry season the scanty grass and low-growing thorn bushes and scrub were as dry as tinder. If they were set on fire, the flames spread like a wave which there was no stopping.

The picture of the tongue as a fire is also a common Jewish picture. "A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire," says the writer of the Proverbs ( Proverbs 16:27). "As pitch and tow, so a hasty contention kindleth fire" ( Sir_28:11 ). There are two reasons why the damage which the tongue can do is like a fire.

(i) It is wide-ranging. The tongue can damage at a distance. A chance word dropped at one end of the country or the town can finish up by bringing grief and hurt at the other. The Jewish Rabbis had this picture: "Life and death are in the hand of the tongue. Has the tongue a hand? No, but as the hand kills, so the tongue. The hand kills only at close quarters; the tongue is called an arrow because it kills at a distance. An arrow kills at forty or fifty paces, but of the tongue it is said ( Psalms 73:9), 'They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.' It ranges over the whole earth and reaches to heaven." That, indeed, is the peril of the tongue. A man can ward off a blow with the hand, for the striker must be in his presence. But a man can drop a malicious word, or repeat a scandalous and untrue story, about someone whom he does not even know or about someone who stays hundreds of miles away, and cause infinite harm.

(ii) It is uncontrollable. In the tinder-dry conditions of Palestine a forest fire was almost immediately out of control; and no man can control the damage of the tongue. "Three things come not back--the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity." There is nothing so impossible to kill as a rumour; there is nothing so impossible to obliterate as an idle and malignant story. Let a man, before he speaks, remember that once a word is spoken it is gone from his control; and let him think before he speaks because, although he cannot get it back, he will most certainly answer for it.

THE CORRUPTION WITHIN ( James 3:5 b-6 continued)

We must spend a little longer on this passage, because in it there are two specially difficult phrases.

(i) The tongue, says the Revised Standard Version is an unrighteous world. That ought to be the unrighteous world. In our bodies, that is to say, the tongue stands for the whole wicked world. In Greek the phrase is ho ( G3588) kosmos ( G2899) tes ( G3588) adikias ( G93) , and we shall best get at its meaning by remembering that kosmos ( G2889) can have two meanings.

(a) It can mean adornment, although this is less usual. The phrase, therefore, could mean that the tongue is the adornment of evil. That would mean that it is the organ which can make evil attractive. By the tongue men can make the worse appear the better reason; by the tongue men can excuse and Justify their wicked ways; by the tongue men can persuade others into sin. There is no doubt that this gives excellent sense; but it is doubtful if the phrase really can mean that.

(b) Kosmos ( G2889) can mean world. In almost every part of the New Testament kosmos ( G2889) means the world with more than a suggestion of the evil world. The world cannot receive the Spirit ( John 14:17). Jesus manifests himself to the disciples but not to the world ( John 14:22). The world hates him and therefore hates his disciples ( John 15:18-19). Jesus' kingdom is not of this world ( John 18:36). Paul condemns the wisdom of this world ( 1 Corinthians 1:20). The Christian must not be conformed to this world ( Romans 12:2). When kosmos ( G2889) is used in this sense it means the world without God, the world in its ignorance of, and often its hostility to, God. Therefore, if we call the tongue the evil kosmos ( G2889) , it means that it is that part of the body which is without God. An uncontrolled tongue is like a world hostile to God. It is the part of us which disobeys him.

(ii) The second difficult phrase is what the Revised Standard Version translates the cycle of nature (trochos ( G5164) geneseos, G1083) . It literally means the wheel of being.

The ancients used the picture of the wheel to describe life in four different ways.

(i) The wheel is a circle, a rounded and complete whole, and, therefore, the wheel of life can mean the totality of life.

(ii) Any particular point in the wheel is always moving up or down. Therefore, the wheel of life can stand for the ups and downs of life. In this sense the phrase very nearly means the wheel of fortune, always changing and always variable.

(iii) The wheel is circular; it is always turning back upon itself in exactly the same circle; therefore, the wheel came to stand for the cyclical repetition of life, the weary round of an existence which is ever repeating itself without advancing.

(iv) The phrase had one particular technical use. The Orphic religion believed that the human soul was continually undergoing a process of birth and death and rebirth; and the aim of life was to escape from this treadmill into infinite being. So the Orphic devotee who had achieved could say, "I have flown out of the sorrowful, weary wheel." In this sense the wheel of life can stand for the weary treadmill of constant reincarnation.

It is unlikely that James knew anything about Orphic reincarnation. It is not at all likely that any Christian would think in terms of a cyclical life which was not going anywhere. It is not likely that a Christian would be afraid of the chances and changes of life. Therefore, the phrase most probably means the whole of life and living. What James is saying is that the tongue can kindle a destructive fire which can destroy all life; and the tongue itself is kindled with. the very fire of hell. Here indeed is its terror.

BEYOND ALL TAMING ( James 3:7-8 )

3:7-8 Every kind of beast and bird, and reptile and fish, is and has been tamed for the service of mankind; but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The idea of the taming of the animal creation in the service of mankind is one which often occurs in Jewish literature. We get it in the creation story. God said of man, "Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" ( Genesis 1:28). It is, in fact, to that verse that James is very likely looking back. The same promise is repeated to Noah: "And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered ( Genesis 9:2). The writer of Ecclesiasticus repeats the same idea: "God put the fear of man upon all flesh, and gave him dominion over beasts and fowls" ( Sir_17:4 ). The Psalmist thought on the same lines: "Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet; all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field; the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea" ( Psalms 8:6-8). The Roman world knew of tame fish in the fish-ponds which were in the open central hall or atrium of a Roman house. The serpent was the emblem of Aesculapius, and in his temples tame serpents glided about and were supposed to be incarnations of the god. People who were ill slept in the temples of Aesculapius at night, and if one of these tame serpents glided over them, that was supposed to be the healing touch of the god.

Man's ingenuity has tamed every wild creature in the sense of controlling and making useful; that, says James, is what no man by his own unaided efforts has ever been able to do with the tongue.


3:9-12 With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse the men who have been made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth there emerge blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers. Surely the one stream from the same cleft in the rock does not gush forth fresh and salt water? Surely, brothers, a fig-tree cannot produce olives, nor a vine figs, nor can salt water produce fresh water?

We know only too well from experience that there is a cleavage in human nature. In man there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner. It is James' conviction that nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the tongue.

With it, he says, we bless God. This was specially relevant to a Jew. Whenever the name of God was mentioned, a Jew must respond: "Blessed be he!" Three times a day the devout Jew had to repeat the Shemoneh Esreh, the famous eighteen prayers called Eulogies, every one of which begins, "Blessed be thou, O God." God was indeed eulogetos ( G2128) , The Blessed One, the One who was continually blessed. And yet the very mouths and tongues which had frequently and piously blessed God, were the very same mouths and tongues which cursed fellowmen. To James there was something unnatural about this; it was as unnatural as for a stream to gush out both fresh and salt water or a bush to bear opposite kinds of fruit. Unnatural and wrong such things might be, but they were tragically common.

Peter could say, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you" ( Matthew 26:35), and that very same tongue of his denied Jesus with oaths and curses ( Matthew 26:69-75). The John who said, "Little children, love one another," was the same who had once wished to call down fire from heaven in order to blast a Samaritan village out of existence ( Luke 9:51-56). Even the tongues of the apostles could say very different things.

John Bunyan tells us of Talkative: "He was a saint abroad and a devil at home." Many a man speaks with perfect courtesy to strangers and even preaches love and gentleness, and yet snaps with impatient irritability at his own family. It has not been unknown for a man to speak with piety on Sunday and to curse a squad of workmen on Monday. It has not been unknown for a man to utter the most pious sentiments one day and to repeat the most questionable stories the next. It has not been unknown for a woman to speak with sweet graciousness at a religious meeting and then to go outside to murder someone's reputation with a malicious tongue.

These things, said James, should not be. Some drugs are at once poisons and cures; they are benefits to a man when wisely controlled by his doctor but harmful when used unwisely. The tongue can bless or curse; it can wound or soothe; it can speak the fairest or the foulest things. It is one of life's hardest and plainest duties to see that the tongue does not contradict itself but speaks only such words as we would wish God to hear.


3:13-14 Who among you is a man of wisdom and of understanding? Let him show by the loveliness of his behaviour that all he does is done with gentleness. If in your hearts you have a zeal that is bitter, and selfish ambition, do not be arrogantly boastful about your attainments, for you are false to the truth.

James goes back, as it were, to the beginning of the chapter. His argument runs like this: "Is there any of you who wishes to be a real sage and a real teacher? Then let him live a life of such beautiful graciousness that he will prove to all that gentleness is enthroned as the controlling power within his heart. For, if he has a fanatical bitterness and is obviously controlled by selfish and personal ambition, then, whatever claims he makes in his arrogance, all he does is to be false to the truth which he professes to teach."

James uses two interesting words. His word for zeal is zelos ( G2205) . Zelos ( G2205) need not be a bad word. It could mean the noble emulation which a man felt when confronted with some picture of greatness and goodness. But there is a very narrow dividing line between noble emulation and ignoble envy. The word he uses for selfish ambition is eritheia ( G2052) which was also a word with no necessarily bad meaning. It originally meant spinning for hire and was used of serving women. Then it came to mean any work done for pay. Then it came to mean the kind of work done solely for what could be got out of it. Then it entered politics and came to mean that selfish ambition which was out for self and for nothing else and was ready to use any means to gain its ends.

A scholar and a teacher is always under a double temptation.

(i) He is under the temptation to arrogance. Arrogance was the besetting sin of the Rabbis. The greatest of the Jewish teachers were well aware of that. In The Sayings of the Fathers we read, "He that is arrogant in decision is foolish, wicked, puffed up in spirit." It was the advice of one of the wise men: "It rests with thy colleagues to choose whether they will adopt thy opinion: it is not for thee to force it upon them." Few are in such constant spiritual peril as teachers and preachers. They are used to being listened to and to having their words accepted. All unconsciously they tend, as Shakespeare had it, to say,

"I am Sir Oracle,

And when I open my lips let no dog bark!"

It is very difficult to be a teacher or a preacher and to remain humble; but it is absolutely necessary.

(ii) He is under the temptation to bitterness. We know how easily "learned discussion can produce passion." The odium theologicum is notorious. Sir Thomas Browne has a passage on the savagery of scholars to each other: "Scholars are men of peace, they bear no arms, but their tongues are sharper than Actius' razor; their pens carry farther, and give a louder report than thunder: I had rather stand the shock of a basilisco, than the fury of a merciless pen." Philip Lilley reminds us that Dr. H. F. Stewart said that the arguments of Pascal with the Jesuits reminded him of Alan Breck's fight with the crew of the Covenant in Stevenson's Kidnapped: "The sword in his hand flashed like quicksilver into the middle of our flying enemies, and at every flash came the scream of a man hurt." One of the most difficult things in the world is to argue without passion and to meet arguments without wounding. To be utterly convinced of one's own beliefs without at the same time being bitter to those of others is no easy thing; and yet it is a first necessity for the Christian teacher and scholar.

We may find in this passage four characteristics of the wrong kind of teaching.

(i) It is fanatical. The truth it holds is held with unbalanced violence rather than with reasoned conviction.

(ii) It is bitter. It regards its opponents as enemies to be annihilated rather than as friends to be persuaded.

(iii) It is selfishly ambitious. It is, in the end, more eager to display itself than to display the truth; and it is interested more in the victory of its own opinions than in the victory of the truth.

(iv) It is arrogant. Its attitude is pride in its knowledge rather than humility in its ignorance. The real scholar will be far more aware of what he does not know than of what he knows.

THE WRONG KIND OF WISDOM ( James 3:15-16 )

3:15-16 Such wisdom is not the wisdom which comes down from above, but is earthly, characteristic of the natural man, inspired by the devil. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and every evil thing.

This bitter and arrogant wisdom, so-called, is very different from real wisdom. James first of all describes it in itself, and then in its effects. In itself it is three things.

(i) It is earthly. Its standards and sources are earthly. It measures success in worldly terms; and its aims are worldly aims.

(ii) It is characteristic of the natural man. The word James uses is difficult to translate. It is psuchikos ( G5591) , which comes from psuche ( G5590) . The ancients divided man into three parts--body, soul and spirit. The body (soma, G4983) is our physical flesh and blood; the soul (psuche, G5590) is the physical life which we share with the beasts; the spirit (pneuma, G4151) is that which man alone possesses, which differentiates him from the beasts, which makes him a rational creature and kin to God. This is a little confusing for us, because we are in the habit of using soul in the same sense as the ancient people used spirit. James is saying that this wrong kind of wisdom is no more than an animal kind of thing; it is the kind of wisdom which makes an animal snap and snarl with no other thought than that of prey or personal survival.

(iii) It is devilish. Its source is not God, but the devil. It produces the kind of situation which the devil delights in, not God.

James then describes this arrogant and bitter wisdom in its effects. The most notable thing about it is that it issues in disorder. That is to say, instead of bringing people together, it drives them apart. Instead of producing peace, it produces strife. There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with acute brain and skilful tongue; but his effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group, is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It is a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom he possesses is devilish rather than divine.

THE TRUE WISDOM (1) ( James 3:17-18 )

3:17-18 The wisdom which comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, considerate, willing to yield, full of mercy and of good fruits, undivided in mind, without hypocrisy. For the seed which one day produces the reward which righteousness brings can only be sown when personal relationships are right and by those whose conduct produces such relationships.

The Jewish sages were always agreed that the true wisdom came from above. It was not the attainment. of man but the gift of God. Wisdom describes this wisdom as "the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty" ( Wis_7:25 ). The same book prays, "Give me the wisdom that sitteth by thy throne" ( Wis_9:4 ); and again, "O send her from Thy holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory" ( Wis_9:8 ). Ben Sirach began his book with the sentence, "All wisdom cometh from the Lord, and is with him for ever" ( Sir_1:1 ); and he makes Wisdom say, "I came out of the mouth of the Most High" ( Sir_24:3 ). With one voice the Jewish sages agreed that wisdom came to men from God.

James uses eight words to describe this wisdom, and every one has a great picture in it.

(i) The true wisdom is pure. The Greek is hagnos ( G53) and its root meaning is pure enough to approach the gods. At first it had only a ceremonial meaning and meant nothing more than that a man had gone through the right ritual cleansings. So, for instance, Euripides can make one of his characters say, "My hands are pure, but my heart is not." At this stage hagnos ( G53) describes ritual, but not necessarily moral, purity. But as time went on the word came to describe the moral purity which alone can approach the gods. On the Temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus there was the inscription at the entrance: "He who would enter the divine temple must be pure (hagnos, G53) ; and purity is to have a mind which thinks holy thoughts." The true wisdom is so cleansed of all ulterior motives and of self that it has become pure enough to see God. Worldly wisdom might well wish to escape God's sight; the true wisdom is able to bear his very scrutiny.

(ii) The true wisdom is eirenikos ( G1516) . We have translated this peaceable but it has a very special meaning. Eirene ( G1515) means peace, and when it is used of men its basic meaning is right relationships between man and man, and between man and God The true wisdom produces right relationships. There is a kind of clever and arrogant wisdom which separates man from man, and which makes a man look with superior contempt on his fellows. There is a kind of cruel wisdom which takes a delight in hurting others with clever, but cutting, words. There is a kind of depraved wisdom which seduces men away from their loyalty to God. But the true wisdom at all times brings men closer to one another and to God.

(iii) The true wisdom is epieikes ( G1933) . Of all Greek words in the New Testament this is the most untranslatable. Aristotle defined it as that "which is just beyond the written law" and as "justice and better than justice" and as that "which steps in to correct things when the law itself becomes unjust." The man who is epieikes ( G1933) is the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a Perfect right to condemn. He knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations. It is impossible to find an English word to translate this quality. Matthew Arnold called it "sweet reasonableness" and it is the ability to extend to others the kindly consideration we would wish to receive ourselves.

THE TRUE WISDOM (2) ( James 3:17-18 continued)

(iv) The true wisdom is eupeithes ( G2138) . Here we must make a choice between two meanings. (a) Eupeithes ( G2138) can mean ever ready to obey. The first of William Law's rules for life was, "To fix it deep in my mind that I have but one business upon my hands, to seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God." If we take the word in this sense, it means that the truly wise man is for ever ready to obey whenever God's voice comes to him. (b) Eupeithes ( G2138) can mean easy to persuade, not in the sense of being pliable and weak, but in the sense of not being stubborn and of being willing to listen to reason and to appeal. Coming as it does after epieikes ( G1933) , it probably bears this second meaning here. The true wisdom is not rigid but is willing to listen and skilled in knowing when wisely to yield.

(v) We take the next two terms together. The true wisdom is full of mercy (eleos, G1656) and good fruits. Eleos ( G1656) is a word which acquired a new meaning in Christian thought. The Greeks defined it as pity for the man who is suffering unjustly; but Christianity means far more than that by eleos ( G1656) . (a) In Christian thought eleos ( G1656) means mercy for the man who is in trouble, even if the trouble is his own fault. Christian pity is the reflection of God's pity; and that went out to men, not only when they were suffering unjustly, but when they were suffering through their own fault. We are so apt to say of someone in trouble, "It is his own fault; he brought it on himself," and, therefore, to feel no responsibility for him. Christian mercy is mercy for any man who is in trouble, even if he has brought that trouble on himself. (b) In Christian thought eleos ( G1656) means mercy which issues in good fruits, that is, which issues in practical help. Christian pity is not merely an emotion; it is action. We can never say that we have truly pitied anyone until we have helped him.

(vi) The true wisdom is adiakritos ( G87) , undivided. This means that it is not wavering and vacillating; it knows its own mind, chooses its course and abides by it. There are those who think that it is clever never to make one's mind up about anything. They speak about having an open mind and about suspending judgment. But the Christian wisdom is based on the Christian certainties which come to us from God through Jesus Christ.

(vii) The true wisdom is anupokritos ( G505) , without hypocrisy. That is to say, it is not a pose and does not deal in deception. It is honest; it never pretends to be what it is not; and it never acts a part to gain its own ends.

Finally, James says something which every Christian Church and every Christian group should have written on its heart. The Revised Standard Version correctly translates the Greek literally: "The harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." This is a highly compressed sentence. Let us remember that peace, eirene ( G1515) , means right relationships between man and man. So, then, what James is saying is this, "We are all trying to reap the harvest which a good life brings. But the seeds which bring the rich harvest can never flourish in any atmosphere other than one of right relationships between man and man. And the only people who can sow these seeds and reap the reward are those whose life work it has been to produce such right relationships."

That is to say, nothing good can ever grow in an atmosphere where men are at variance with one another. A group where there is bitterness and strife is a barren soil in which the seeds of righteousness can never grow and out of which no reward can ever come, The man who disturbs personal relationships and is responsible for strife and bitterness has cut himself off from the reward which God gives to those who live his life.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on James 3". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.