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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

James 3


In this chapter, St. James cautions his readers not to be too forward in assuming the office of teachers, but to exercise a wise restraint upon their zeal, knowing that such an office would confer on them a heavy responsibility. This caution leads him to advert to the importance of the government of the tongue. He who can command his tongue, commands himself. This observation he explains by two obvious illustrations, that of the bit which curbs the horse, and that of the helm which guides the ship. The tongue, he observes, though a little member, is a powerful instrument for good or evil. Its abuse gives rise to the greatest mischiefs, and influences for evil the whole circle of human life. It is more untameable than the wildest animals. By it we are guilty of the greatest inconsistency blessing God, and cursing His image in man; an inconsistency which never occurs in nature, as no fountain sends forth both salt and fresh water, and no tree produces different kinds of fruit. St. James therefore urges his readers to a candid and benevolent spirit, and to exhibit wisdom and meekness in their conduct. He then distinguishes between earthly and heavenly wisdom; the former is the cause of envy and contention, of confusion and all kinds of wickedness; the latter leads to righteousness and peace.

Verse 1

James 3:1. My brethren, be not many masters. Either ‘be not many of you masters;’ or rather, ‘be not a multitude of masters’ each one striving to be a master. ‘Masters’ here used not in the sense of rulers, but of teachers. Hence the sense is: Do not rashly enter upon the office of a teacher. The meaning is not to be limited, as is done by Calvin, to the office of a reprover ‘masters of morals;’ but is to be understood generally. Such an assumption of the office and authority of teachers was very prevalent among the Jews. The Pharisees loved to be called of all men ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ (Matthew 23:7). St. Paul, adverting to the Jews, says that they were confident of their ability to be guides to the blind, and teachers of the foolish (Romans 2:19-20); and he finds fault with them for desiring to be teachers of the law, whilst at the same time they understood neither what they said, nor whereof they affirmed (1 Timothy 1:7). And this craving to be teachers would be naturally carried by the converted Jews into the Christian church. The opportunity of exercising the office of teachers was greater in these days of early Christianity than in ours, as it would seem that teaching was not then restricted to a particular class, but was exercised by believers generally. The exhortation is not without its use in the present day. Many, especially in a season of religious excitement, assume the office of teacher, without any qualification of knowledge or experience, and thus expose themselves to the reproof of St. James.

knowing, as ye well do, being well aware.

that we we who are the teachers. St. James includes himself out of humility, and in order the better to propitiate his readers.

shall receive the greater condemnation. The meaning being that as the responsibility of teachers is great, they shall be the more strictly dealt with by God. Knowing that we shall undergo a stricter judgment than others in a private station.

Verse 2

James 3:2. For: the reason assigned for the second clause of the last verse.

in many things: to be taken generally ‘in many particulars:’ not to be restricted to the offences of the tongue; the restriction follows in the latter part of the verse.

we offend: literally, ‘we trip or stumble.’ Human life is represented as a way, and particular actions as steps in that way; and hence acting amiss is represented as stumbling. Believers, though they may not actually fall, often stumble.

all: a strong expression in the Greek; ‘we, all without exception.’

If any offend not in word stumble not in his speech, the same is a perfect man. By ‘a perfect man,’ here and elsewhere in Scripture, is not meant a man who is absolutely free from sin, but one who is comparatively perfect. Thus Noah, Abraham, and Job were called perfect in their generations; and of Zacharias and Elizabeth it is said that ‘they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless’ (Luke 1:6). Hence, then, a perfect man is a man who has attained to a high degree of holiness. And certainly a man, whose words are inoffensive, may have his imperfections, but, compared with those who have little command over their tongues, who give an unbridled licence to their speech, he is a perfect man. ‘He that can rule his tongue shall life without strife’ ( Sir 19:6 ).

and able also to bridle his whole body: qualified to keep the body under subjection; that is, has obtained the mastery over himself, inasmuch as it is more difficult to bridle the tongue than to control the actions of the life. A man’s character is known by his words: ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh’ (Matthew 12:34): even as the nature of a fountain is known by the quality of the stream which issues from it. Hence the wise saying of Socrates, ‘Speak, that I may know thee.’ Offences of the tongue are the most common of all offences. ‘There is one that slippeth in his speech, but not from his heart; and who is he that hath not offended with his tongue?’ ( Sir 19:16 ). Even the meekness of Moses was violated by a rash word: ‘he spake unadvisedly with his lips’ (Psalms 106:33).

Verse 3

James 3:3. St. James introduces two illustrations to prove the truth of his remark, that if a man is able to command his tongue, he is able also to command his whole conduct. The first illustration, that of the bit in the horses’ mouths, was naturally suggested by what he had just said about bridling the whole body.

Behold. The best manuscripts read, ‘But if:’ as if St. James had said, ‘But if you doubt the truth of my assertion, consider how the horse is bridled.’

we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. As the horses are governed by bits in their mouths, so axe we governed by the tongue in our mouths. The chief point of comparison here is that of governing.

Verse 4

James 3:4. Behold also the ships, which, though they be so great. The ships of the ancients were often very large, as may be seen in the case of the ship which conveyed Paul to Malta, which contained two hundred and seventy-six persons (Acts 27:37); but the comparison is even more forcible in our days, as our ships are still larger.

and are driven of fierce winds. These fierce winds may denote human passions, which the government of the tongue controls.

yet they are turned about by a very small helm whithersoever the governor listeth: literally, ‘whithersoever the inclination or impulse of the steersman willeth.’ The little helm controlleth the fury of the winds and waves. Here there is an additional point of comparison, namely, the smallness of the instrument employed in governing.

Verse 5

James 3:5. Even so. Now follows the application of the two illustrations. If we rule our tongues, we govern the whole man; for the tongue is to the man what the bit is to the horse, or the helm to the ship.

the tongue is a little member: the reference being to the smallness of the helm. The tongue is small in proportion to the whole body, and to many of its members.

and boasteth great things: boasteth, instead of worketh or doeth, because boasting is specially applicable to the tongue. The word is not here, however, employed to denote a vain ostentation; for, as is evident from the context, the tongue not only boasteth great things, but makes good its boasts. Hence the meaning is, ‘exerts immense influence.’

Behold how great a matter: or ‘forest,’ as it is in the Greek, suited to the lively and figurative style of St. James.

a little fire kindleth. A single spark may set a whole forest on fire, as is often the case with the forests of America. The reading of manuscripts is here different. Some MSS. read, ‘How great a fire kindleth a great forest;’ the allusion being to the greatness of the conflagration, whilst the smallness of the spark is left out of consideration. Some critics translate the words without any reference to size: ‘What a fire kindles what a forest’ The reading in our version is to be preferred, as being best adapted to the apostle’s train of thought, bringing prominently forward the smallness of the fire(comp. Psalms 83:14; Isaiah 9:18). We are here taught, most emphatically, the power of the tongue. Speech is that which distinguishes man from the inferior animals. It is a powerful instrument for good or evil. On the side of good it preaches the Gospel, pleads the cause of the innocent and oppressed, stirs up to the performance of noble deer’s, diffuses the light of truth, procures liberty to the captive, comforts the sad and sorrowful, and supports the dying in their last moments. Sweet waters flow from this fountain of humanity. But bitter waters also flow. On the side of evil the tongue sows the seeds of moral pestilence and death, corrupts men’s morals, spreads the leaven of wickedness, persuades to vice and all manner of sin, diffuses the poison of infidelity and ungodliness, gives rise to bitter contentions, dissolves friendships, disturbs the peace of a whole neighbourhood, and is not less powerful for evil than for good. ‘Many have fallen by the edge of the sword; but not so many as have fallen by the tongue’ ( Sir 28:18 ).

Verse 6

James 3:6. And the tongue is a fire possesses the destructive power of fire. a world of iniquity. These words have been differently translated. Some render them as follows: ‘The tongue is a fire, the world of iniquity the forest;’ but this is an unwarrantable insertion of the words ‘the forest.’ Others connect the words with what follows: ‘The tongue is a fire. As a world of unrighteousness the tongue is among our members: ‘but it is best to consider ‘the world of iniquity’ in apposition with the tongue, as is done in our version. Hence the meaning is: the tongue is a combination of all that is evil. The expression is of similar import to that of St. Paul, when he calls the love of money ‘the root of all evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10).

So is, or rather ‘so makes itself,’ or ‘so steps forward:’ so is constituted the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, is the cause of universal pollution, and setteth on fire, inflameth, the course of nature. This phrase has been very differently translated, and indeed is in our version hardly intelligible. The word rendered ‘course’ denotes something that revolves, and is generally used of a wheel; and the words ‘of nature’ are in the Greek ‘of birth,’ or metaphorically ‘of creation.’ Hence the literal translation is ‘the wheel of life’ or ‘of creation.’ Some accordingly understand it of the whole creation ‘the orb of creation;’ [1] the meaning being that the tongue sets the universe in flames; but it is extremely improbable that St. James would use such a strong hyperbole. Others consider it as a figurative expression for the body; [2] but such an explanation is forced, and it is improbable that St. James would express that figuratively which he had immediately before expressed in plain terms. Others suppose that by it the successive generations of men are meant ‘the circle of human existence:’ [3] the meaning being that, as the tongue set our forefathers on fire, so it has the same pernicious effect on us and on all succeeding generations; but this is a meaning which is too vague and indirect. It is best to understand by the phrase the circle of the individual’s own life, and which commences its revolutions at his birth; hence it is to be translated ‘the circle or wheel of life.’ [4] ‘The present life of man,’ says Benson, ‘is here compared to a wheel which is put in motion at our birth, and runs swiftly until death stops it. The tongue often sets this wheel on a flame, which sometimes sets on fire the whole machine.’

[1] So Alford, Basset.

[2] Wiesinger.

[3] Staudlin.

[4] So Erdmann Brückner, Plumptre

And it is set on fire, inflamed or inspired, of, or by, hell: Gehenna, the place of future torment, different from Sheol or Hades the place of disembodied spirits. Except in the synoptical Gospels, the word Gehenna is only found here in the New Testament. It denotes ‘the valley of Hinnom,’ and was used by the Jews to signify the place of future punishment, because it was in that valley that the rites of human sacrifice were practised, and a perpetual burning was kept up for its cleansing. The reference here is not to the future punishment of the tongue, but to the source from which it derived its destructive properties, namely, from hell that is, from the devil. ‘A bad tongue,’ as Estius says, ‘is the organ of the devil.’ At Pentecost the outpouring of the Spirit was manifested by tongues of fire which lighted upon the disciples, and enabled them to speak with new tongues; the tongue was then set on fire of heaven; but that tongue which we have by nature, unpurified by grace, is often kindled from hell.

Verse 7

James 3:7. For every kind: literally, every nature or disposition.

of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea: the inferior creation arranged under its usual fourfold classification beasts of the earth, fowls of heaven, creeping things, and fish of the sea.

is tamed better, ‘is subdued,’ as we can hardly say that all the inferior animals are tamed, many of them being incapable of being so; but they may all be subdued.

and hath been tamed, subdued.

of mankind: literally, ‘by the nature of men,’ answering to the nature of the inferior animals mentioned above; hence ‘by human nature.’

Verse 8

James 3:8. But, expressive of contrast, the tongue, generally considered whether our own tongue or the tongue of others

can no man tame or subdue. The tongue is more unconquerable than the wildest animal. No man can master his own tongue, or subdue that of the slanderer or the liar; we require the grace of God for this.

it is an unruly evil incapable of being curbed, full of disturbance. The best manuscripts read, ‘it is a restless evil’ incapable of being quieted.

full of deadly poison: the reference being to the poison of serpents which was supposed to be connected with their tongues. Compare the words of the Psalmist, referred to by St. Paul (Romans 3:13): ‘They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips’ (Psalms 140:3). Hence the importance and difficulty of the government of the tongue. We must pray for the grace of God ‘to keep our mouths as with a bridle.’ We must steer this little helm aright, lest we should make shipwreck of our immortal hopes. We must be cautious of every little spark, lest the infernal flames should burst forth, and spread devastation over the whole circle of our lives.

Verse 9

James 3:9. Therewith: literally, ‘in it,’ ‘acting in the sphere of the tongue;’ hence, instrumentally, ‘by it.’

bless we God, even the Father. The best manuscripts read, ‘bless we the Lord and Father,’ an unusual combination; both terms apply to God the Father. To praise God is the proper use of the tongue.

and therewith, by it, curse we men the improper and opposite use of the tongue.

which are made after the similitude, or likeness, of God. Man was originally created after the Divine image (Genesis 1:26); and this image, although marred and obscured, is not, as some rashly affirm, obliterated by sin. Thus murder was declared to be punishable by death, because man was made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). Man in his understanding and affections, and especially in his conscience, still bears the traces of the moral image of his Creator; indeed, it is by reason of this resemblance that we can attain to a knowledge of the perfections of God, and are rendered capable of religion. And this Divine image obscured by sin is restored by Christ (Colossians 3:10). This Divine similitude, then, we ought to respect both in ourselves and in others. He who curses man curses the image of God, and consequently God Himself in His image. It is evident that the reference is not to the original condition of man prior to the fall, but to his present state; for thus only can there be any force in the apostle’s remark.

Verse 10

James 3:10. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. There is here a moral incongruity. ‘The annals of Christendom,’ observes Dean Plumptre, ‘show 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 Fe, 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.’

Verse 11

James 3:11. Now follow, after the apostle’s method, two illustrations of this incongruity, taken from the natural world. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place: literally, ‘at the same hole or fissure’ from the same spring.

sweet water and bitter: literally, ‘the sweet and the bitter.’

Verse 12

James 3:12. Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? that is, no tree can bring forth fruits inconsistent with its nature. The illustration here is not, that we must not expect bad fruits from a good tree, or conversely, good fruits from a bad tree, according to our Lord’s illustration: ‘Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?’(Matthew 7:16); but only that we must not expect different fruits from the same tree figs and olives from the fig tree, or figs and grapes from the vine.

so can no fountain yield salt water and fresh; or, as other manuscripts have it, ‘so neither can salt water bring forth sweet;’ the salt water referring to the cursing, and the sweet or fresh water to the blessing. That cursing and blessing should proceed from the same mouth is as great an incongruity as that salt and fresh water should flow from the same spring. In the natural world no such incongruity exists, as does in the moral world. Man is a self-contradiction, acting continually inconsistently with his nature.

Verse 13

James 3:13. With this verse a new section of the Epistle apparently begins, and yet in strict connection with what precedes. The connection appears to be as follows: The want of command over our tongues argues a defect in wisdom and knowledge; so that if you do not govern your tongues, your boast of these qualities is a mere pretence.

Who is a wise man? that is, Who among you professes to be such? The Jews were great pretenders to wisdom, and they as well as the Greek sophists gloried in the title of wise men; and indeed an assertion of wisdom is a general feature of the human race; humility is the rarest of virtues.

and endued with knowledge among you? There is not much difference between these two epithets, ‘wise’ and ‘endued with knowledge.’ Some understand wisdom as intelligence generally, and knowledge as a practical insight which judges correctly in particular cases. But, if we were to distinguish them, we would rather say that wisdom denotes the adaptation of means to ends, and knowledge the acquisition of particular facts; the knowledge of facts constitutes the materials with which wisdom works.

let him show: let him make good his profession, let him prove his possession of wisdom and knowledge. out of, or rather ‘by,’ a good conversation, ‘by a holy conduct’ The word ‘conversation’ has altered its meaning since our translation was made; then it signified conduct, but now it is almost entirely restricted to speech.

his works with meekness of wisdom: not to be rendered ‘in a meek wisdom,’ or ‘in a wise meekness;’ but the genitive of possession, ‘in wisdom’s meekness,’ that is, in that meekness which is the proper attribute of true wisdom; the meekness which belongs to wisdom and proceeds from it. Compare the somewhat similar sentiment of the psalmist: ‘What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile’ (Psalms 34:12-13); for the meekness of wisdom is seen in the government of the tongue.

Verse 14

James 3:14. But if ye have bitter envying zeal or emulation in a bad sense, as is evident from the epithet ‘bitter,’

and strife, or rather factiousness, contention, party-strife; the reference being specially to religious controversies.

in your hearts, glory not, boast not, and lie not, by a false pretence to wisdom and knowledge, against the truth: not subjective, ‘against veracity,’ being destitute of the truth, which would render the passage tautological; but objective, ‘against the truth of God,’ namely the Gospel.

Verse 15

James 3:15. This wisdom, that which gives rise to this false zeal and party-strife, descendeth not from above, but is earthly, in contrast to ‘descendeth from above’ belongs to the earth. There are no heavenly aspirations about it; it overlooks or forgets the unseen world; it is limited to the affairs of the present life,

sensual. Hardly a correct rendering; literally, ‘belongs to the soul,’ not to the spirit. The contrast is well brought out in Jude 1:19: ‘sensual, not having the spirit.’ Elsewhere the word is translated ‘natural.’ ‘There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body’ (1 Corinthians 15:44). ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). There is a distinction drawn in Scripture between the soul and the spirit; the soul is the intellectual nature of man, that which qualifies him for this world; the spirit is his religious nature, that which renders him capable of religion, and assimilates him to God. Hence, then, the word is to be translated ‘natural,’ as upon the whole the best equivalent. This wisdom appertains to our natural mental powers, but takes no cognizance of our spiritual powers; it regards man as an intellectual being capable of knowledge, rather than as a spiritual being capable of holiness. These two epithets, earthly and natural, are perhaps negative qualities; the third quality is positively sinful.

devilish, devil-like, partaking of the nature of devils, similar to that wisdom which is possessed by evil spirits, like the tongue inspired by hell. This wisdom is often the cause of pride and ambition, of selfishness and malignity, and of all those vices which actuate the spirits of evil. Some suppose that the three great temptations of the world avarice, a love of pleasure, and ambition are here referred to; the first of which is earthly, the second sensual, and the third devilish, being the sin by which the devil fell; but this is refining too much. These three qualities earthly, sensual, devilish have their contrast in the qualities heavenly, spiritual, and divine.

Verse 16

James 3:16. For, the reason assigned for the above description of earthly wisdom, where envying and strife is; where zeal (in a bad sense) and party-strife are, there is confusion and every evil work all kinds of wickedness. Certainly the reference is primarily to religious controversy; but the supposition that the controversy between the Jewish and Gentile Christians is here referred to is without foundation.

Verse 17

James 3:17. But. Now follows a description of the heavenly wisdom in contrast to the earthly. The heavenly wisdom is described by seven qualities which, as has been well said, are ‘nothing but the seven colours of the one ray of light of heavenly truth which has appeared and been revealed in Christ Himself the Wisdom of God.’

the wisdom which is from above is first, in the first place. Purity is its primary quality; all other qualities of heavenly wisdom are subservient to this. We must, however, beware of perverting this remark in the interests of intolerance and party-strife; these are the bitter fruits, not of heavenly, but of earthly wisdom.

pure, free from all impure and corrupt mixtures; separated from everything that offends; no stain of sin must pollute it; everything that is morally evil is abhorrent to its nature. The word is to be taken in its widest sense, as all sin is impurity.

then peaceable, opposed to envy and party-strife; desirous to make and maintain peace. The spirit of love will cause us, as much as possible, to live peaceably with all men; instead of strife there will be a readiness to be reconciled.

gentle, kind, forbearing, considerate, making every allowance for the ignorance and frailties of others, imitating the character of Him who is meek and lowly ‘the gentle Jesus.’

easy to be intreated, or rather, easy to be persuaded, willing to be reconciled when differences arise, and always ready to meet its opponents half way. full of mercy and good fruits, benevolent, compassionate to the afflicted, charitable to the poor, ready to extend relief and assistance to the destitute.

without partiality. This has been variously rendered. Some, ‘without contending,’ not entering into controversy; others, ‘without judging,’ not finding fault with others; others, ‘not making a difference,’ that is, impartial. Perhaps the most correct meaning, and most in accordance with the doctrine of St. James, is, ‘without wavering or doubting;’ not feeble or changeable, ‘without vacillation(see Note on James 2:4).

and without hypocrisy, without pretence, showing a naturalness in behaviour, meaning all the kindness it expresses, without affectation, its actions being in accordance with its words.

Verse 18

James 3:18. And the fruit of righteousness. This does not mean ‘the reward of righteousness,’ nor ‘the fruit which springs from righteousness,’ but ‘the fruit which consists in righteousness.’ So in the Epistle to the Hebrews we read, that chastisement yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). As bitter emulation and party-strife are the fruits of earthly wisdom, so righteousness is the fruit of heavenly wisdom. And by righteousness here is not meant the imputed righteousness of Christ, but moral goodness righteousness in ourselves and in others, in habit and in practice.

is sown; the fruit being supposed to be contained in the seed. The sower is not God; but, as is evident from the context, the peacemakers.

in peace. Some render the words ‘into peace,’ meaning that they who are of a peaceful disposition will reap a harvest of peace both in this world and in the next; but this is giving a wrong meaning to the preposition. ‘In peace’ denotes the spirit with which the seed or fruit is sown.

of them that make peace. Some render this ‘on behalf of them,’ or, ‘for the good of them that make peace.’ But it gives a better meaning to regard the peacemakers as the sowers of righteousness, hence ‘by them that make peace.’ The meaning of the whole verse is: The seed of righteousness is sown by the peacemakers in a spirit of peace. Only those who are actuated by the spirit of peace are the true sowers of righteousness; whereas ‘the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.’

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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on James 3". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.