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Bible Commentaries

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

James 3



James 3:1 We must not rashly take upon ourselves to reprove others.

James 3:2-59.3.12 The importance, difficulty, and duty of governing the tongue.

James 3:13-59.3.18 True wisdom will show itself in meekness, peaceableness, and charity, in opposition to strife and envying.

Verse 1

Be not many masters; let not every man make himself a master of other men’s faith and manners, a censor, or supercilious reprover of their failings and infirmities, Matthew 7:1. All reproof is not here forbidden, neither authoritative by church officers, nor charitative by private brethren; but that which is irregular, either in the ground of it, when that is false; or the manner of it, when it is masterly and imperious, or preposterous, as when we reprehend others and are no less reprehensible ourselves, Romans 2:21; or in the end of it, when we seek to advance our own reputation by observing or aggravating others’ faults, &c.

Knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation; by how much the more severe and rigid we are in judging others, the greater will be our judgment, not only from men, who will be apt to retaliate, but from God himself, Matthew 7:1-40.7.3; Luke 6:38; Revelation 2:2,Revelation 2:3. See the like expression, Matthew 23:8,Matthew 23:14.

Verse 2

For in many things we offend all: there is no man absolutely free from sin, 1 Kings 8:46; Job 14:4; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; 1 John 1:8,1 John 1:10; and therefore we must not be too critical in other men’s actions, having so many failings ourselves, Galatians 6:1.

If any man offend not in word; know how to govern his tongue aright, speak what, and when; as he ought.

The same is a perfect man; either sincere, in opposition to the hypocrisy of those that pretend so great zeal in correcting others, when they are alike or more guilty themselves: or rather, we may understand it comparatively, and with respect to others, of one that hath made good proficiency in religion, and is of greater attainments than others: see 1 Corinthians 2:6.

And able also to bridle the whole body; to govern all the other parts, (eyes, ears, hands, &c.,) as to those actions which are performed by them. No member of the body being more ready to offend than the tongue, he that can rule that, may rule all else.

Verse 3

He illustrates the former proposition, that he that can rule his tongue may rule his whole body, by two similitudes: the first, of an unruly horse, which yet, as wanton as he is, being curbed in with a bit, may be easily managed; intimating, that even so, if a man’s tongue be well governed, the rest of the man will be under command.

Verse 4

The other similitude, in which a man is compared to a ship, the tongue to the rudder, the governing the whole body to the turning about the ship. As the rudder is but a small thing, in comparison of the much greater bulk of a ship, and yet, being itself turned, turns the whole ship (though so great, and driven of so fierce winds) which way soever the steersman pleaseth: so likewise the tongue, though little to the whole man, (which may withal be driven, and acted by storms of furious passions), yet if it be itself under government, the rest of the man will be so too.

Verse 5

The accommodation of the former similitudes.

The tongue is a little member, i.e. one of the lesser, in comparison of the body.

And boasteth great things; the Greek word signifies, according to its derivation, the lifting up of the neck (as horses, mentioned James 3:3, are wont to do in their pride) in a way of bravery and triumph; and hence it is used to express boasting and glorying, but here seems to imply something more, viz. not only the uttering big words, but doing great things, whether good and useful, as in the former similitudes, or evil, as in what follows; or its boasting how great things it can do: q.d. The tongue, though little, is of great force and efficacy, and it will tell you so itself; it not only boasts what its fellow members can do, but especially what itself can.

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! Another similitude, in which he sets forth the evil the tongue, as little as it is, doth, where it is not well governed, as in the former he had shown the good it may do, when kept under rule.

A matter; the word signifies either any combustible stuff, or, as in the margin, wood, that being the ordinary fuel then in use.

A little fire kindleth; even a spark, the smallest quantity or particle, which may do great mischief, when lighting in suitable matter.

Verse 6

The application of the similitude in the foregoing words.

The tongue is a fire, i.e. hath the force of fire, and resembles it in the mischief it doth.

A world of iniquity; a heap or aggregation of evils, (as the natural world is an aggregation of many several beings), as we say, an ocean, or a world, of troubles, meaning, a great multitude of them. And the words may be understood, earlier with an ellipsis of the word matter, expressed just before, and supplied here; and the pointing a little altered, they may be thus read, And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity (or an unrighteous world, viz. which lies in wickedness, 1 John 5:19) is the matter, namely, which it inflames. A wicked world is fit fuel for a wicked tongue, and soon catcheth the fire which it kindles. Or rather, as they stand plainly, without any such defect: The tongue is a world of iniquity, i.e. a heap or mass of various sorts of sins; though it be but a little piece of flesh, yet it contains a whole world of wickedness in it, or is as full of evils as the world is of bodies.

It defileth the whole body; infecteth the whole man with sin, Ecclesiastes 5:6, as being the cause of sin committed by all the members of the body; for though sin begin in the soul, yet it is executed by the body, which therefore seems here put {as James 3:2} for the man.

And setteth on fire the course of nature; or, setteth on fire the wheel of geniture, or nativity, (in allusion to a wheel set on fire by a violent, rapid motion), meaning the course of nativity, i.e. the natural course of life, as the face of nativity or geniture, James 1:23, for the natural face: the sense is, it inflames with various lusts, wrath, malice, wantonness, pride, &c., the whole course of man’s life, so that there is no state nor age free from the evils of it. Whereas other vices either do not extend to the whole man, or are abated with age, or worn away with length of time; the vices of the tongue reach the whole man, and the whole time of his life.

And it is set on fire of hell; i.e. by the devil, the father of lies and slanders, and other tongue sins, Job 1:10; John 8:44; Revelation 12:10; the tongue being the fire, the devil, by the bellows of temptations, inflames it yet more, and thereby kindles the fire of all mischiefs in the world.

Verse 7

Every kind; some of every kind.

Of beasts; wild beasts, such as are most fierce and untractable.

And of birds; though so movable and wandering, the very vagabonds of nature.

And of serpents; which are such enemies to mankind.

And of things in the sea; the inhabitants, as it were, of another world, really of another element.

Is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind; either made gentle, or at least, brought into subjection to man by one means or other. He useth both tenses, the present and the past perfect, to note that such things not only have been, but still are; and that not as the effects of some miraculous providence, as in the case of Daniel, Daniel 6:1-27.6.28, and Paul, Acts 28:1-44.28.31, but as that which is usually experienced, and in man’s power still to do.

Verse 8

But the tongue; not only other men’s tonges, but his own.

Can no man tame; no man of himself, and without the assistance of Divine grace, can bring his tongue into subjection, and keep it in order; nor can any man, by the assistance of any grace promised in this life, so keep it, as that it shall never at all offend.

It is an unruly evil; or, which cannot be restrained, and kept within bounds: wild beasts are kept in by grates and bars, but this by no restraint.

Full of dead poison; the wickedness of the tongue is compared to poison, in respect of the mischief it doth to others. It seems to allude to those kinds of serpents which have poison under their tongues, Psalms 140:3, with which they kill those they bite. The poison of the tongue is no less deadly, it murders men’s reputations by the slanders it utters, their souls by the lusts and passions it stirs up in them, and many times their bodies too by the contentions and quarrels it raiseth against men.

Verse 9

Therewith bless we God; pray, and speak well of God.

Even the Father; of Christ, and in him of all true believers.

And therewith curse we men; rail on, revile, speak evil of, as well as wish evil to.

Which are made after the similitude of God; either:

1. Saints in whom God’s image is anew restored; or rather:

2. Men more generally, who, though they have lost that spiritual knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness in which that image of God, after which man was created, principally consists; yet still have some relics of his image continuing in them.

This is added to aggravate the sin; speaking evil of men made after God’s image, is speaking evil of God obliquely, and by reflection.

Verse 10

He repeats here, by way of exaggeration, what he had said James 3:9, to show how exceedingly absurd it is that two such contrary actions should proceed from the same agent.

These things ought not so to be; there is a meiosis in the words; he means, things should be quite contrary. See the like expression, 1 Timothy 5:13; Titus 1:11.

Verse 11

Ordinarily and naturally; if any such be, it is looked upon as uncouth and prodigious.

Verse 12

Can the tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? The same tree cannot ordinarily bring forth fruit of different kinds, (on the same branch, whatever it may on different, by ingrafting), much less contrary natures: see Matthew 7:16-40.7.18.

So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh; or, neither can a salt fountain yield fresh water; but the scope is still the same as in our reading. The apostle argues from what is impossible, or monstrous, in naturals, to what is absurd in manners: q.d. It is as absurd in religion, for the tongue of a regenerate man, which is used to bless God, to take a liberty at other times to curse man, as it would be strange in nature for the same tree, on the same branch, to bear fruits of different kinds; or the same fountain at the same place to send forth bitter water and sweet.

Verse 13

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? i.e. if there be a wise man, &c. See Psalms 25:12, and 1 Peter 3:10, where what David speaks by way of interrogation, Peter explains by way of assertion. The apostle having shown the disease of the tongue, comes now to remove the cause, viz. men’s opinion of their own wisdom; (they censure others, because they take themselves to be wiser than others); and to point out the remedy, godly meekness, which is the truest wisdom. By wisdom and knoledge the same thing may be meant; or if they be taken for several things, (as sometimes there may be great knoledge where there is but little wisdom), yet these masterly censors he speaks of pretended to both, and were so rigid toward others because so well conceited of themselves: the sense is: You pretend to be wise and knowing, but if you would approve yourselves as such indeed,

show out of a good conversation, & c.

His works; let him show as the testimony of his wisdom, not his words in hard censures, but his works, viz. good ones, and those not done now and then, or on the by, but in the constant course and tenor of his life; or show his works to be good, by their being not casual, but constant, and his ordinary practice in his whole conversation.

With meekness of wisdom; i.e. meek and gentle wisdom, which can bear, and answer, and teach, and admonish, and rebuke mildly and sweetly, with long-suffering, as well as doctrine, 2 Timothy 4:2; and then it notes the quality of this wisdom, or such meekness as proceeds from wisdom, or is joined with it, there being some which is foolish, affected, carnal, viz. that which is opposed to zeal; whereas true meekness is only opposed to fierceness and rashness: and thus it notes the cause of meekness.

Verse 14

Bitter envying; Greek, zeal, which he calls bitter, partly to distinguish it from that zeal which is good, whereas this he speaks of is evil, and though it pretends to be zeal, yet is really no other than envy; and partly because it commonly proceeds from an imbittered spirit. and tends to the imbittering it more.

Strife; the usual effect of bitter zeal, or envy.

In your hearts; the fountain whence it proceeds; or strife in the heart implies a heart propense and inclined to strife.

Glory not; glory not of your zeal, or rather of your wisdom, as if you were so well able to reprehend others, but rather be humbled; what you make the matter of your glorying, being really just cause of shame.

And lie not against the truth; viz. by professing yourselves wise, or zealous, when ye are really neither.

Verse 15

This wisdom, which they pretended so much to, who so criticized on other men’s actions, and inveighed against them, and which was accompanied with strife and envy.

Descendeth not from above; i.e. from God the author of wisdom, from whom, though every good and perfect gift descends, James 1:17, and even knowledge and skill in natural things, Isaiah 28:26,Isaiah 28:29; yet this wisdom, being sinful, is not from him, because it

is earthly, of the earth, of no higher original than from the first Adam, who was of the earth, and earthly, 1 Corinthians 15:47; and likewise because it is employed, and fixeth men’s minds, on earthly things.

Sensual; this may be understood either:

1. According to the reading in the text, the word here used being so rendered, Jude 1:19, agreeable to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where soul, from whence the word is derived, is opposed to spirit, and taken for the sensitive powers, which men have in common with brutes, in distinction from the intellectual, which go under the name of spirit, and are proper to men: mere reason, without the Divine grace, being apt to degenerate into brutishness, and easily brought to serve the ends of sensual appetite, this wisdom may well be called sensual. Or:

2. According to Jude 1:19, natural, in opposition to spiritual. The natural man {1 Corinthians 2:14, where the same word, in the Greek, is used as here} is one that lives under the conduct of his own carnal reason, not enlightened, nor regenerated by the Spirit of God; a man of soul, (as the word imports), or that hath no better, no higher principle in him than his own soul. Accordingly, this wisdom here mentioned, is such as proceeds merely from a man’s own soul, in its natural state, destitute of the light and grace of God’s Spirit, and therefore may be termed natural.

Devilish; because it is of the devil, or such as is in him, and makes men like him, who is a proud spirit, and envious, a liar and slanderer, John 8:44, and who observes men’s faults, not to amend them, but accuse them for them.

Verse 16

For where envying and strife is; the usual companions of this devilish wisdom.

There is confusion; or, inconsistency, viz. both with man’s self and others; envy makes him unqniet in himself, and troublesome to others, by causing contentions and seditions among them, and breaking their peace, as well as his own.

And every evil work; all manner of wickedness is ushered in by this confusion and sedition.

Verse 17

But the wisdom that is from above; true wisdom, which is of God, opposed to that which descendeth not from above, James 3:15.

Is first pure; either excluding mixture, and then it is opposed to hypocritical; or rather excluding filthiness, and then it is opposed to sensual, James 3:15, and implies freedom from the defilement of sin and error, it being the property of true wisdom to make men adhere both to truth and holiness.

Then peaceable; disposeth men to peace, both as to the making and keeping it, in opposition to strife and contention, which is the fruit of the earthly wisdom. Peaceableness, which relates to man, is set after purity, which respects God in the first place, to intimate, that purity must have the preference to peace. Our peace with men must always be with a salvo to our respects to God and holiness.

Gentle; or equal, or moderate, Philippians 4:5; 1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2. It implies that gentleness (as we translate it) whereby we bear with others’ infirmities, forgive injuries, interpret all things for the best, recede from our own right for peace sake; and is opposed to that austerity and rigidness in our practices and censures, which will bear with nothing in weak, dissenting, or offending brethren.

Easy to be entreated; easily persuadable. True wisdom makes men yield to good admonitions, good counsel, good reason. This is opposed to implacableness, Romans 1:31; pride, and obstinacy in evil, Proverbs 12:1; Proverbs 13:1.

Full of mercy; a grace whereby we pity others that are afflicted, or that offend, and is opposed to inhumanity and inexorableness.

And good fruits; beneficence, liberality, and all other offices of humanity, which proceed from mercy.

Without partiality; or, without judging, i.e. either a curious inquiring into the faults of others, to find matter for censures, which many times infers wrangling, as our margin renders it; or a discerning between person and person, upon carnal accounts, which is partiality, as it is here translated, and James 2:4.

And without hypocrisy; or, counterfeiting, as they do that judge others, being guilty of the same things, or as bad, themselves: or hypocrisy may be here added, to show that sincerity is the perfection of all the rest before named; purity, peace, and gentleness, &c., may be counterfeit; hypocrisy spoils all; and therefore the wisdom that is from above is sincere, and without hypocrisy.

Verse 18

And the fruit of righteousness; either the fruit we bring forth, which is righteousness itself, Luke 3:8,Luke 3:9; Romans 6:22; Philippians 1:11; or the fruit we reap, which is the reward of righteousness, viz. eternal life.

Righteousness; metonymically here put for the heavenly wisdom before described, whereof it is the inseparable companion, or the effect, Job 28:28.

Is sown; either righteousness, as the good fruit, is wrought or exercised, Hosea 10:12, (as wickedness is said to be sown when it is acted, Job 4:8), or it relates to the reward, which is the fruit, of which righteousness is the seed, Psalms 97:11; and then it implies, either the sureness of that reward, that it is as certain as harvest after seed-time: or the non-enjoyment of it for the present, as they that sow their seed receive not the crop till long after.

In peace; either in a mild, peaceable, amicable way; or in peace is as much as with peace, viz. spiritual peace and comfort of conscience.

Of them that make peace; that follow after and are studious of peace; and so the words may have a two-fold sense: either the meaning is:

1. That they that exercise righteousnes must do it in a sweet and peaceable way: in particular, men may reprehend others, so they do it with moderation and gentleness, not as executioners, to torment them, but as physicians, to heal them; as, on the other side, they that are most peaceably disposed, yet must not make peace without sowing righteousness with it, which includes just reprehension, whereby righteousness is promoted. Or:

2. That they who sow righteousness in peace, i.e. join righteousness with their endeavours after peace, shall reap the reward, not only in comfort here, but in glory hereafter.

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Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on James 3". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. 1685.