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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

James 3


A.M. 4064. A.D. 60.

In this chapter,

(1,) The apostle cautions them against being too forward in assuming the office and character of teachers, and recommends a strict government of the tongue, as a matter, though of great difficulty, yet of the highest importance, James 3:1-59.3.12 .

(2,) He shows the excellence of heavenly wisdom, which discovers itself in purity, meekness, and peace, in opposition to that which is litigious, carnal, and worldly, James 3:13-59.3.18 .

Verses 1-2

James 3:1-59.3.2. Be not many masters Διδασκαλοι , teachers. Let none of you rashly, and without proper qualifications, undertake the office of teachers of others; an office into which many are ready to intrude themselves, without being called of God to it. “The great desire which the Jewish Christians, to whom this letter was written, had to become teachers in the church after their conversion, and to inculcate the obligation of the law of Moses, is noticed by St. Paul, 1 Timothy 1:7. Desiring to be teachers of the law, &c. These teachers of the law in the Christian Church were the great corrupters of the gospel.” Knowing that If we err, we shall receive the greater condemnation On account of our taking upon us an office for which we are not qualified, and in the exercise of which more is required of us, in many respects, than of others in a more private station of life. St. James here, as in several of the following verses, by a common figure of speech, joins himself with the persons to whom he wrote, to mitigate the harshness of his reproof: we shall receive we offend we put bits we curse, none of which particulars, as common sense shows, are to be interpreted either of him or of the other apostles. For in many things we offend all Through natural infirmity and strong temptation, we are all liable to fall. The original expression, πταιομεν απαντες , is literally, we all stumble. “It is a metaphor taken from persons who, walking on slippery or rough ground, slide or stumble without falling; as appears from Romans 11:11, μη επταισαν ινα πεσωσι , have they stumbled so as to fall? Therefore, as in Scripture, walking denotes the course of a man’s conduct, stumbling, in this passage, signifies those lesser failings in duty, to which common Christians are liable.” If any man offend Stumble; not in word Keep his tongue under constant government, so that no corrupt discourse proceeds out of his mouth, at any time or on any occasion, but only that which is either about necessary business as far as is necessary, or good to the use of edifying, (see note on Ephesians 4:29,) the same is a perfect man Eminently good; one who has attained to a high degree of wisdom and grace, and able also to bridle the whole body To keep all his senses, appetites, and passions under due regulation. The tongue is an index of the heart, and he who does not transgress the law of truth, or love, or purity, or humility, or meekness, or patience, or seriousness, with his tongue, will, with the same grace, so rule all his dispositions and actions, as to manifest that he has in him the mind that was in Christ, and walks as Christ walked.

Verses 3-5

James 3:3-59.3.5. Behold, &c. As if the apostle had said, Think not the tongue a weak member because it is small; we put bits in the horses’ mouths that they may obey us May go as we direct them; and, strong, and sometimes furious as they are; we turn about their whole body Influence as we please all their motions. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great So large and heavy, and are driven frequently by fierce winds which seem to be irresistible, yet are they turned about To the right or left; with a very small helm Which, to a person unacquainted with nautical affairs, would appear to be weak and insignificant; whithersoever the governor Η ορμη του ευθυνοντος , the force of the director, or steersman; willeth That is, according to the will of the person who sits at the helm; who was not necessarily either the ship- master or the pilot, but a person appointed to that office. So the tongue is a little, and apparently insignificant member, and yet boasteth great things Hath great influence: also, to show by another comparison the operation of the tongue, behold how great a matter How great a quantity of wood and other materials; a little fire kindleth Into a terrible flame.

Verse 6

James 3:6. The tongue is a fire Which often produces a great conflagration; a world of iniquity This is a metaphor of the same kind with a sea of troubles, a deluge of wickedness. The meaning is, that a great collection of iniquity proceeds from the tongue. Indeed “there is no iniquity which an unbridled tongue is not capable of producing; either by itself, when it curses, rails, teaches false doctrine, and speaks evil of God and man; or by means of others, whom it entices, commands, terrifies, and persuades, to commit murders, adulteries, and every evil work.” So is the tongue Such is the rank and place it holds among our members, that it defileth the whole body The whole man, all our members, senses, and faculties. In this, and in what follows, the similitude of the fire and wood is carried on. For as the fire, put among the wood, first spotteth or blackeneth it with its smoke, and then setteth it on fire, so the tongue spotteth or blackeneth, and then setteth on fire the natural frame, termed here the course, τροχον , the wheel, of nature “The wonderful mechanism of the human body, and its power of affecting and of being affected by the soul, is in this passage aptly represented by the wheels of a machine which act on each other. The pernicious influence of the tongue, in first spotting, and then destroying, both the bodies and the souls of men, arises from the language which it frames, whereby it inflames men’s passions to such a degree, that, being no longer under the direction of their reason, those passions push them on to such actions as are destructive both of their bodies and souls.” Some writers, by the natural wheel, or course of nature, understand the successive generations of men, one generation going, and another coming, without intermission; according to which interpretation the apostle’s meaning is, that the tongue hath set on fire our forefathers, it inflameth us, and will have the same influence on those who come after us. And it is set on fire of hell Put here for the devil; as, by a like metonymy, heaven is put for God. Satan influences the heart, and its wickedness overflows by the tongue, and tends, by its fatal consequences, to produce a very hell upon earth. “The use we ought to make of the doctrine taught in this highly figurative passage is obvious. Being surrounded with such a mass of combustible matter, we should take great care not to send from our tongues the least spark by which it may be kindled, lest we ourselves, with those whom we set on fire, be consumed in the flames which we raise.” Macknight.

Verses 7-8

James 3:7-59.3.8. For every kind of beasts Πασα φυσις θηριων , every nature of wild beasts. The phrase signifies the strength and fierceness of wild beasts, the swiftness of birds, the poison of serpents, the exceeding great force of sea-monsters; is tamed Δαμαζεται , is subdued, or is capable of being subdued; by mankind Τη φυσει τη ανθρωπινη , by the human nature; every sort of these has been overcome by the art and ingenuity of man; so that they have been made subservient to his use and pleasure. The apostle cannot mean that such creatures as sharks and whales have been tamed, according to the general import of that term, or made harmless and familiar with man, as some beasts, naturally savage, have been; but of which large fishes are in their nature incapable. But even they have been conquered, and brought entirely under the power of man, so that he could use them as he would. But the tongue can no man tame Namely, the tongue of another; no, nor his own, without peculiar help from God. Macknight reads, The tongue of men no one can subdue; observing, that this transaction arises from the right construction of the original, and that it gives a more just sense than the common translation. Some read the clause interrogatively, thus, And can no man subdue the tongue? It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison Mischievous wickedness.

Verses 9-10

James 3:9-59.3.10. Therewith bless we God That is, therewith mankind bless God; for the apostle, as appears from the next clause, did not speak of himself particularly, or of his fellow-apostles, or even of true private Christians, who certainly do not curse men. Perhaps in this last clause he glanced at the unconverted Jews, who often cursed the Christians bitterly in their synagogues. Made after the similitude of God Which we have indeed now lost, but yet there remains from thence an indelible nobleness, which we ought to reverence, both in ourselves and others. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing And the same tongue is often the instrument of expressing both; and “too frequently,” says Doddridge, “when the act of devotion is over, the act of slander, or outrage and insult, commences.” My brethren, these things ought not so to be At least among those who profess Christianity; it is a shame that any such thing should be found in human nature; and it is a still greater shame that any thing of the kind should be practised by any that profess to be the disciples of Him who was manifested to destroy the works of the devil.

Verses 11-12

James 3:11-59.3.12. Doth a fountain send forth at the same opening, alternately, and at different times, sweet water and bitter As if he had said, No such inconsistency is found in the natural world, and nothing of the kind ought to be known in the moral world. Estius observes, “that the apostle’s design was to confirm his doctrine by four similitudes; the first taken from fountains, the second and third from fruit-trees, and the fourth from the sea, which being in its nature salt, does not produce fresh water.” He therefore approves of the reading of the Alexandrian MS., which is, So neither can salt water produce sweet. The Syriac version reads, Salt waters cannot be made sweet; and the Vulgate, So neither can salt water make fresh water. In like manner, we ought to maintain a consistency in our words or discourses; and if we profess religion and devotion, we should speak at all times as persons who are endeavouring to employ our tongues to the noble purposes for which the use of speech was granted to man.

Verses 13-16

James 3:13-59.3.16. Who is a wise man, &c. People are naturally desirous of the reputation of possessing an understanding superior to that of others. Now, let us consider in what way the sense we have may be best manifested; let him who would be thought wise show his wisdom, as well as his faith, by his works; let him show out of a good That is, a holy and useful conversation, his commendable and beneficent works, with meekness of wisdom “This beautiful expression,” says Macknight, “intimates, that true wisdom is always accompanied with meekness, or the government of the passions.” But if ye have bitter envying Ζηλον , zeal, as the word properly signifies, or zeal accompanied with a bitter spirit, or an unkind disposition toward others. True Christian zeal is only the flame of love; but bitter, unhallowed zeal is evil, even if it be only found in the heart, and go no further. If that kind of zeal be in you, glory not Or boast not of your improvement in Christianity; and lie not against the truth By pretending that such zeal may consist with heavenly wisdom. This wisdom That which is attended with such zeal; descendeth not from above Does not come from God; but is earthly Not heavenly in its origin, or end; sensual Ψυχικη , animal; not spiritual, not from the Spirit of God; devilish Not the gift of Christ, but such as Satan breathes into the souls of men. For where this bitter zeal and strife Or contention; is, there is confusion Ακαταστασια , tumult, or unquietness; and every evil work Many other mischiefs attending it. It may be proper to observe, that about this time the Jews, from their intemperate zeal for the law of Moses, raised seditions in Judea and elsewhere, which were the occasion of many crimes and of much bloodshed. And as the apostle expected that this epistle would fall into the hands of some of the unconverted Jews, and indeed, perhaps, partly addressed them in it, he probably might refer to these tumults and disorders in this verse.

Verse 17

James 3:17. But the wisdom that is from above Of celestial origin; which comes from God; is first pure From all unholy and corrupt mixtures, whether of error or sin. It is agreeable to the tenor of divine and evangelical truth, and conscientious in the discharge of every duty to God and man; it is therefore purified from all that is earthly, sensual, and devilish; then peaceable Desirous of making and maintaining peace; and willing, in order thereto, to sacrifice any thing, except important truth and manifest duty; gentle Soft, mild, yielding, not rigid; easy to be entreated Persuaded and reconciled where any matters of disgust may have arisen; not stubborn, sour, morose; full of mercy Of pity and compassion toward persons in a state of ignorance, guilt, and depravity; ready to relieve the miseries and pardon the faults of others; and good fruits Both in the heart and in the life; two of which are immediately specified; without partiality To those of our own sentiments or denomination, to the injury of others; loving all without respect of persons; embracing all good things, rejecting all evil. The original word, αδιακριτος , is, literally, without making a difference. This character of true religion was very properly mentioned to those whom the apostle had rebuked for their respect of persons, James 2:1-59.2.9. Without hypocrisy Intending all the kindness it expresses, and glad to extend its good offices as universally as possible; or without dissimulation, as ανυποκριτος may be rendered; that is, frank and open. Thus, “in this beautiful passage, St. James describes the excellent nature of that temper which is recommended by the Christian religion, and the happy effects which it produces. It is the highest wisdom; it comes from God, and makes those who receive it holy and happy. All the apostles, except Paul, were illiterate men; but, according to their Master’s promise, they had, by the inspiration of the Spirit, a wisdom and eloquence given them, far exceeding what they could have acquired by the deepest erudition. Of the fulfilment of Christ’s promise, the epistle of James is a striking proof. Search all heathen antiquity, and see whether it can produce any sentiments more noble, or more simply and beautifully expressed, than those contained in this chapter, and indeed throughout the whole epistle.” Macknight.

Verse 18

James 3:18. And the fruit of righteousness, &c. The principle productive of this righteousness, is sown, like good seed, in the peace of a believer’s mind, and brings forth a plentiful harvest of happiness, (which is the proper fruit of righteousness,) for them that make peace That labour to promote this pure and holy peace among all men. Or, the meaning may be, they that endeavour to make peace among men, (which is a fruit or work of righteousness,) do thereby sow to themselves in peace; that is, they take that course which will produce to them happiness in the end.

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on James 3". Benson's Commentary. 1857.