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For the clearer understanding of these words, let us consider, 1. What the apostle does not forbid, namely, private and brotherly admonition, which proceeds from Christian love one towards another, much less does he condemn public and authorized reproof: God has made it the duty of all to admonish and reprove each other charitably; he has made it the duty of others to admonish and censure evil-doers, authoritatively; this, therefore, is not forbidden.
Observe, 2. What it is that is here forbidden, namely, such a reproving of others as is supercilious and masterly, managed with sharpness and severity, rashly and rigidly. As if the apostle had said, "Be not magisterial and censorious towards your brethren, as if every one of you had many masters in them." Censuring of others is an arrogation of mastership over others, and the assuming of a power over them which God never gave us, it is a bold usurpation of God's authority; we may admonish, reprove, and warn; but it must not be in a lordly manner, in a masterly way, which is reviling rather than reproving; we must be covered with a cloak of love, there may be, and oft-times is, a great deal of malice in reporting truth.
Observe next, the remedy prescribed against censuring others, namely, the considering ourselves that we shall thereby receive the greater damnation; sharp reprovers in judging others, pronounce a doom upon themselves; such as reprove either out of office, or out of charity, ought to look to themselves, lest in reproving others they condemn themselves.
As if the apostle had said, "We had need be very candid in censuring others, for we all of us offend in many things ourselves, especially with and by our tongue, which is an engine of more mischief, both to ourselves and others, than any other member of the body;" and accordingly he is called here, not a gracious man, but a perfect man, one that has attained to the fullest measures, and highest degrees of grace, that can bridle his tongue: to be able to bridle the tongue is an argument of considerable growth, and happy progress in grace; he that can bridle his tongue, can bridle his whole body, that is, govern all the other actions of his life; he is a very extraordinary Christian.
As we rule the whole body of a horse by a bridle in its mouth, so by bridling our tongues, we shall rule and govern all the actions of our lives.
Note, that as hot and hard mouthed horses, so the tongue of man is apt to run out, unless well bridled; nor is any bridle strong enough to hold it in, but the bridle of grace; nay, not that at all times. The grace of God is both spur and bridle to the tongue of man: Grace, like a spur, provokes to speak for God, and for the good of others; and grace, like a bridle, stops us from speaking what may grieve the Spirit of God, and justly offends others. None rule their tongues well without grace, and every one that has grace doth not rule them well; it is a great part of perfection not to offend in word.
The design of our apostle, by this and the former similitude, is to shew, that little things well governed can govern great bodies; as the rider by a small bit can govern the horse at pleasure, and the pilot, by a small rudder, can manage the ship with ease; so the government of that little member the tongue, is a special mean for governing the whole man.
Next he compares the tongue to fire, in regard to the danger that attends it: Will a spark of fire set a house, a town, a city in a flame, and lay it in ashes? In like manner will a fiery tongue inflame a family, a society, a church, a kingdom: Yea, the whole world, by strife and contention, putting all into combustion; such a tongue being set on work by the devil, and kindled by that fire which came from hell; but verily, a tongue set on fire from hell, shall, without repentance, be set on fire in hell.
Learn hence, that a wicked tongue is of a hellish original, the fire of such a tongue is blown up by the breath of hell; let us abhor contentions, revilings, and reproaches, as we would hell itself.
Our apostle here goes on in shewing how difficult it is to govern the tongue; it is wilder than the wildest beasts, they are more tractable, and may be sooner tamed than a tongue be governed: it is an unruly evil, that will not be held in.
Nature has set a double guard about the tongue, namely, the teeth and the lips, and grace has laid many restraints upon it, and yet it breaks out full of deadly poison, intimating, that the tongue is as deadly as a venomous beast.
In the wild desert there are lions, bears, and tigers, but they assault us but now and then, and can only rend the skin, but a contentious tongue is always troublesome to the soul and spirit: man tameth the beast, and God tameth man: and the apostle's calling the tongue an unruly evil, full of deadly poison, plainly imports, that a wicked tongue is venomous and hurtful; a slanderous tongue is a deadly poison, nothing can secure against it but innocency and a good conscience; if we fall by it, let this comfort us, that there will be a resurrection of our names, as well as of our persons, let us always then keep in the way of our duty, and commit our good name to God's care and keeping.
Observe here, 1. Our apostle informs us what is the proper use of the tongue: namely, to bless and praise God; speech being the most excellent faculty, is to be consecrated to divine uses: it is both a good man's work and his recreation to bless and praise God.
Observe, 2. The sinful use which some men put the tongue unto, and that is, to curse with it, to curse men that have the natural image of God upon them, yea, holy and good men, that have the divine image of God instamped upon them; this is the abuse of some men's tongues, their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
Observe, 3. The same tongue cannot, should not bless God and curse men; to pray and brawl with the same tongue, is shameful hypocrisy; to go from worshipping to railing and reviling, to speak to the God of heaven with a tongue set on fire of hell, is a monstrous impiety.
Observe, 4. How the apostle discovers the mighty absurdity of blessing and cursing with one and the same tongue, and of putting the best member to the worst use; the good aggravates the evil, and the evil disparageth, yea, disproveth the good; to suppose that the same tongue should acceptably bless God, and at the same time sinfully curse men, is as irrational and absurd as to imagine that the same fountain should send forth salt water and fresh, sweet water and bitter; and, as if a fig tree should bring forth olives, or a vine bear figs: our apostle argues and reasons from what is impossible in nature, to what is absurd in manners; contrary effects from the same cause is against the order of nature; in like manner grace is uniform, and always acts like itself; to bless and curse, to pray and revile, is wholly inconsistent with grace: nature abhors contradictions, and so does the grace of God: though a Christian has a double principle in him, the flesh and the spirit, yet he has not a double heart; his spirit is single and sincere in what he does, in all he does both for God and man.
As if our apostle had said, "If any among you desire to approve yourselves more knowing than others, wiser and better than others, as you would be thought when you censure and despise others, shew it to the world by a better conversation, by your abounding fruitfulness in good works, and by such meekness of spirit as will be an evidence of true wisdom."
Hence we learn, that the wise man is a meek and patient man; as pride and folly, so wisdom and meekness, are companions; the more wisdom a man has, the more he can check himself, and curb his passion: Moses is renowned in Scripture for his wisdom, and for meekness; we all affect the reputation of wisdom, let us discover it by humility, in being lowly within ourselves: and by our meekness in bearing with and forbearing one another; yet must our meekness be a wise meekness, it must be opposite to fierceness, but not to zeal; Moses was very meek in his own cause, but as hot as fire in the cause of God; meekness and zeal are consistent, let us then shew out of a good conversation our works with meekness of wisdom.
Observe here, 1. How the apostle points at the root of all tongue evils; we pretend zeal and justice, zeal for God, and doing right to ourselves; but the true cause is envy, called bitter envying, as being bitter in its root, bitter in its fruit, bitter to others, bitter to ourselves; this is a painful evil, an unprofitable evil, a foolish, sinful evil; it makes another's good our grief.
But why so?
The good of another is no hurt to us; we have not the less because another has more; Leah's fruitfulness was no cause of Rachel's barrenness; why then should it be the occasion of Rachel's envy? Thy portion is not impaired because thy brother's is increased.
Observe, 2. How envy and strife are here joined together; if you have envying and strife in your hearts; when envy is found in the heart, strife will soon be found in the tongue, for envy is the mother of strife; natural corruption doth most of all betray itself by envy; it has an early spring, and a late autumn: we have it as soon as we come into the world, and it is a hard matter to leave it before we go out of it again: children suck it in with their milk, and the old man buries it in his coffin.
Observe, 3. What are the bitter effects and fruits of envy and strife, namely, confusion, and every evil work; an envious spirit is an unquiet and wicked spirit; the devil worketh by no instruments more than by envious, discontented, and malicious persons; pride and envy were the two first sins that crept into the world; the first man was ruined by pride, the second destroyed by envy, the whole world could not hold two brothers when the one was envied by the other: Cain's envy tasted blood, and verily the sinner's envy thirsts after it; well therefore may the apostle say, Where envying and strife is, there is confusion, and every evil work; this wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.
Our apostle here enters upon a comparison between earthly wisdom, and spiritual heavenly wisdom; between wisdom that is not, and wisdom that is from above.
Observe, 1. That wisdom which is not from above characterized and described. 1. It is earthly, it is suited to earthly minds, and it is employed about earthly things: earthly wisdom is mere folly; it is said to be wise only for this world, and to have such an unsavory spirit as will relish nothing but what is earthly. 2. Sensual; such wisdom as tendeth only to gratify the senses, and is conversant about outward pleasures, which are the pleasures of the beast, and not of the man: such sensual satisfactions do only please the sensitive appetite, which it is the highest rational pleasure to mortify an subdue. 3. Devilish; because it is such wisdom as is found in the devil; he is only wise to do mischief. As a man has a fleshly part in common with the beast, so there are some sins which the Scripture calls fleshly and beastly lusts, as uncleanness, riot, excess, and the like; but as man has somewhat in common with the angels, namely, his spirit and soul, so there are some sins which are called Satan's lusts, His lusts he will do John 8:44.
Thus envy, pride, wrath, revenge, malice, slander, these sins make a man devilish, like unto Satan; hence is St. Paul's exhortation, To cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit. 2 Corinthians 7:1
Lord, pity the deplorable ruins of mankind, compassionate fallen man, who hath not only somewhat of the beast, but also somewhat of the devil, in him by nature! O deplorable degradation! And should he sacrifice himself, he could not save himself without a sanctifier: he must be restored to the divine likeness here, or never enjoy his Maker hereafter.
Observe, 2. He next describes spiritual wisdom to us, and that, first by its original, it is from above. All wisdom is known by its descent; carnal wisdom is of the earth earthly; spiritual wisdom is from above, and has a heavenly Author, and its original and descent is heavenly: The wisdom that is from above.
Secondly, he describes spiritual wisdom by its effects and fruits, by its properties and qualities, and reckons up eight of them.
1. True wisdom is pure and holy wisdom, and sinless craftiness: the heart of such a person is clean, though not wholly free from sin, and his way is undefiled: this pure wisdom will not brook the filthiness either of error in judgment, or sin in practice: error is a blot as well as sin, and is as damnable as sin; the one is an open road, the other a secret path to hell and destruction; he that is wise, and has a due care of his soul's salvation, will be as much afraid of erroneous principles, as he is of debauched practices. 2. Peaceable: true wisdom teaches to avoid all strife and contention: there is a sweet connection between wisdom and peace; the wisest are the meekest men; they are peaceable and peace-makers; not ready to provoke others, nor easily provoked themselves: such as see most need of pardon from God, are most ready to pardon others, to live peaceable with all: yet note, though wisdom be pure and peaceable, yet it is first pure, then peaceable; as God is the first and best of Beings, so purity is the first and best of blessings; the chief care then must be for purity and truth; but next to purity we must regard peace: truth must be preferred, but peace must not be neglected; we must treat with God by prayer, and treat with man by condescension, as far as a good conscience will suffer, for obtaining and preserving peace: The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable. 3. True wisdom is gentle, in opposition to strife and contention; the word also signifies moderate and patient, Php_4:5 1 Timothy 3:3. Such a Christian is moderate in doubtful opinions, moderate in his judging of others, moderate and patient in his whole conversation, receding sometimes from his own right for peace sake. 4. Easy to be entreated; not inflexible, but persuadable: he that has an inflexible will, had need have an infallible judgment. Indeed there may be a flexibility and easiness to a fault; some good natures (as they are called) are easily drawn away to sin by evil company, and wicked counsel; in such a case, to turn a deaf ear to all entreaties is not obstinacy, but religious resolution. 5. Full of mercy; this has a double object, such as want, and such as offend: and so there is mercy in giving and in forgiving: it is the glory of a man to pass by a transgression, and the honour of a Christian to put on bowels of mercy: without this garment we shall appear naked at the bar of God. 6. Full of good works. Religion is not a dry rod, but it blossoms and brings forth fruit; fruits of humanity and civil courtesy, as well as fruits of piety and pious charity: when we begin to be religious, we must not leave off to be kind and courteous: Be pitiful, be couteous, 1 Peter 3:8. 7. Without partiality; that is, without making any difference between person and person, because of outward respects, which is a high point of wisdom; folly discovers itself in nothing more than by doting upon outward splendor. Fools, like children, account nothing good but what is gay; but wisdom teaches us to value and put an estimate upon persons and things, according to their intrinsic worth, and doth nothing by partiality. 8. Without hyposcrisy: in true wisdom there is no prevailing guile, but a true simplicity, and godly sincerity found with it, and this is the highest piece of wisdom; the hypocrite is the greatest fool; the sincere Christian is the truly wise, and the only wise man. The wisdom from above is pure and peaceable, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
Our apostle here concludes his discourse, by shewing the happiness of those who are possessed of that wisdom from above, which is pure and peaceable, &c. They sow a seed which will yield them present fruit, and bring sheaves of joy and comfort into their bosoms, and also entitle them to an everlasting reward in that kingdom wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Learn hence, 1. That all the actions of this life are as seed sown for the life to come; and every one's harvest hereafter will be according to his seed-time here; our rewards shall be according to our works.
Learn, 2. That the rewards of righteousness and peaceableness are reaped and received here initially, and shall be ere long enjoyed perfectly: The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that love peace.
Learn, 3. That true lovers of righteousness ought to be lovers of peace, and peaceable persons lovers of righteousness; mercy and truth must meet together, righteousness and peace must kiss each other. Peace without righteousness is but a sordid compliance; righteousness without peace is but a rough austerity; our duty is to couple a sweet goodness with a severe righteousness.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on James 3". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29