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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
James 3

 

 

Verses 1-18

EXPOSITION

James 3:1-12

WARNING AGAINST OVER-READINESS TO TEACH, LEADING TO A DISCOURSE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF GOVERNMENT OF THE TONGUE.

James 3:1

(1) Warning. Be not many teachers. The warning is parallel to that of our Lord in Matthew 23:8, seq., "Be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Teacher [ διδάσκαλος, and not, as Textus Receptus, καθηγητής], and all ye are brethren." Comp. also 'Pirqe Aboth,' 1.11, "Shemaiah said, Love work and hate lordship ( תונברה)." The readiness of the Jews to take upon them the office of teachers and to set up as "guides of the blind, teachers of babes," etc., is alluded to by St. Paul in Romans 2:17, seq., and such a passage as 1 Corinthians 14:26, seq., denotes not merely the presence of a similar tendency among Christians, but also the opportunity given for its exercise in the Church.

James 3:2

γὰρ gives the reason for this κρίμα. We shall be judged because in many things we all stumble, and it is implied that teachers are in danger of greater condemnation, because it is almost impossible to govern the tongue completely. With the thought comp. Ecclesiastes 7:20, "There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not." πολλά is adverbial, as in Matthew 9:14, and may be either

"No se ipsos quidem excipiunt apostoli" (Bengel). If any stumbleth not in word (R.V). "Control of speech is named, not as in itself constituting perfection, but as a crucial test indicating whether the man has or has not attained unto it" (Plumptre). τέλειος (see James 1:4). χαλιναγωγεῖν (cf. James 1:26). It is only found in these two passages; never in the LXX.

James 3:3

Illustration of the last statement of James 3:2. The bit in the horse's mouth enables us to turn about the whole body. So the man who can govern his tongue has the mastery over the whole body. A remarkable parallel is afforded by Sophocles, 'Antigone,' 1. 470, σμικρῷ χαλινῷ δ οἷδα τοὺς θυμουμένους ἵππους καταρτυθέιτας. So also Philo, 'De Op. Mundi,' p. 19, τὸ θυμικώτατον ζῶον ἵππος ῥᾳδίως ἄγεται χαλινωθείς. The manuscript; authority is overwhelming in favor of εἰ δὲ (A, B, K, L א, εἰδε γάρ, etc.; and Vulgate, si autem) instead of ἰδού of the Received Text (C has ἴδε, and the Syriac ecce): thus the apodosis is contained in the words, καὶ ὅλον κ. τ. λ. Translate, with R.V., now if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also. (For a similar correction of ἰδέ to εἰ δέ, see Romans 2:17)

James 3:4

Second illustration, showing the importance of the tongue and its government. The rudder is a very small thing, but it enables the steersman to guide the ship wherever he will, in spite of the storm. Whithersoever the governor listeth ( ὅπου ἡ ὀρμὴ τοῦ εὐθυνοντος βούλεται, א, B); whither the impulse of the steersman willeth (R.V); Vulgate, impetus dirigentis.

James 3:5

(1) Application, of illustration. The tongue is only a little member, but it boasts great things. The true reading appears to be μεγάλα αὐχεῖ (A, B, C). The compound verb of the Textus Receptus, μεγαλαυχεῖν, is found in the LXX. (Ezekiel 16:50; Zephaniah 3:11; 2 Macc. 15:32; Ecclesiasticus 48:18).

James 3:6

Application of illustration The translation is doubtful, οὕτως of the Received Text must certainly be deleted. It is wanting in א, A, B, C, K, Latt., Syriac. Three renderings are then possible.

James 3:7

Fourth illustration, involving a proof of the terrible power of the tongue for evil. All kinds of wild animals, etc., can be tamed and have been tamed: the tongue cannot be. What a deadly power for evil must it therefore be! The famous chorus in Sophocles, 'Antigone,' 1. 332, seq., πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθώπου δεινότερον πέλει, is quoted by nearly all commentators, and affords a remarkable parallel to this passage. Every kind of beasts, etc.; literally, every nature ( φύσις) of beasts hath been tamed by man's nature ( τῇ φύσει τῇ ἀνθρωπίνῃ); Vulgate, omnis enim natura bestiarum domita sunt a natura humana. With this fourfold enumeration of the brute creation ("beasts .. birds.., serpents … things in the sea"), cf. Genesis 9:2, "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts ( θήρια) of the earth, upon all the fowls ( πέτεινα) of the heavens, and upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea." Serpents ( ἐρπετά) would be better rendered, as B.V., creeping things.

James 3:8

It is an unruly evil; rather restless, reading ἀκατάστατον ( א, A, B) for ἀκατάσχετον of Textus Receptus (C, K, L); Vulgate, inquietum malum (cf. James 1:8). The nominatives in this verse should be noticed: "The last words are to be regarded as a kind of exclamation, and are therefore appended in an independent construction". A restless evil! Full of deadly poison! Compare the abrupt nominative in Philippians 3:19 with Bishop Light-feet's note. Deadly ( θανατηφόρος); here only in the New Testament. In the LXX. it is found in Numbers 18:22; Job 33:23; 4 Macc. 8:17, 24; 15:23. For the figure, cf. Psalms 140:3, "They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips."

James 3:9, James 3:10

Examples of the restless character of the tongue: "With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it too we curse men who are made in his image." In the first clause we should read κύριον ( א, A, B, C, Coptic, Syriac, ff, and some manuscripts of the Vulgate) for θεόν (Receptus, with K, L, and Vulgate). Made after the similitude of God; better, likeness ( ὁμοίωσις). The words, which are taken from Genesis 1:26 ( καὶ εἷπεν ὁ θεὸς ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ ὁμοιώσιν) are added to show the greatness of the sin. Theologically they are important, as showing that the "likeness of God" in man was not entirely obliterated by the Fall. St. James's words would be meaningless if only Adam had been created in the image and likeness of God. So St. Paul speaks of fallen man as still "the image ( εἰκών) and glory of God" (1 Corinthians 11:7; and cf. Genesis 9:6).

James 3:11, James 3:12

Illustrations showing the absurdity of the conduct reprobated. From one principle opposite things cannot be produced. Nothing can bring forth that which is not corresponding to its nature.

How, then, can the tongue yield both blessing and cursing? It will be seen that the thought in (2) is different from that in Matthew 7:16, to which it bears a superficial resemblance. There the thought is that a good tree cannot yield bad fruit. Here it is that a tree must yield that which corresponds to its nature; a fig tree must yield figs and not olives, etc. So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. The Received Text, which the A.V. follows, is wrong here. Read, οὔτε ἀλυκόν γλυκὺ ποιῆσαι ὕδωρ (A, B, C, and א, except that it reads οὐδέ), and translate, neither can salt water yield sweet; Vulgate, sic neque salsa dulcem potest facere aquam; Syriac, "Thus also salt waters cannot be made sweet." The construction, it will be seen, is suddenly changed in the middle of the verse, and St. James ends as if the previous clause had been οὔτε δύναται συκῆ ἐλαίας, κ. τ. λ..

James 3:13-18

WARNING AGAINST JEALOUSY AND FACTION. James 3:13 contains the positive exhortation to meekness; James 3:14 the negative warning against jealousy and party spirit; and then the following verses place side by side the portraits of the earthly and the heavenly wisdom.

James 3:13

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? ( τίς σοφός καὶ ἐπιστήμων ἐν ὑμῖν;); better, who is wise and understanding among you? ' επιστήμων is found here only in the New Testament. In the LXX. it is joined with σοφὸς (as here) in Deuteronomy 1:13; Deuteronomy 4:6. "The ἐπιστήμων is one who understands and knows: the σοφὸς is one who carries out his knowledge into his life" (Dr. Farrar, who aptly quotes Tennyson's line, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers"). Out of a good conversation ( ἐκ τῆς καλῆς ἀναστροφῆς); better, as R.V., by his good life. "Conversation" is unfortunate, because of its modern meaning. Meekness ( πραύτης); cf. James 1:21.

James 3:14

Bitter envying, ζῆλος in itself may be either good or bad, and therefore πικρόν is added to characterize it. Bishop Lightfoot (on Galatians 5:20) points out that "as it is the tendency of Christian teaching to exalt the gentler qualities and to depress their opposites, ζῆλος falls in the scale of Christian ethics (see Clem. Romans, §§ 4-6), while ταπεινότης, for instance, rises." It may, perhaps, be an incidental mark of early date that St. James finds it necessary to characterize ζῆλος as πικρόν. Where St. Paul joins it with ἐριθείαι and ἔρις there is no qualifying adjective (Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20). (On the distinction between ζῆλος and φθόνος, both of which are used by St. James, see Archbishop Trench on 'Synonyms,' § 26). Strife ( ἐριθείαν); better, party spirit, or faction (cf. Romans 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:17; Philippians 2:3). The A.V. "strife" comes from a wrong derivation, as if ἐριθεία were connected with ἔρις, whereas it really comes from ἔριθος, a hired laborer, and so signifies

Glory not; i.e. glory not of your wisdom, a boast to which your whole conduct thus gives the lie.

James 3:15-18

Contrast between the earthly and the heavenly wisdom:

(1) the earthly (James 3:15, James 3:16);

(2) the heavenly (James 3:17, James 3:18).

James 3:15

" This wisdom [of which you boast] is not a wisdom which cometh down from above." Vulgate, non est enim ista sctpientia desursum descendens. But is earthly, sensual, devilish. Dr. Farrar well says that this wisdom is "earthly because it avariciously cares for the goods of earth (Philippians 3:19); animal, because it is under the sway of animal lusts (1 Corinthians 2:14); demon-like, because full of pride, egotism, malignity, and ambition, which are the works of the devil (1 Timothy 4:1)." Sensual ( ψυχική), Vulgate, animalis; R.V. margin, natural or animal. The position of the word is remarkable, occurring between ἐπίγειος and δαιμονιώδης. it is never found in the LXX., nor (apparently) in the apostolic Fathers. In the New Testament it occurs six times—three times of the "natural" body, which is contrasted with the σῶμα πνευματικόν (1 Corinthians 15:44 (twice), 46); and three times with a moral emphasis resting upon it, "and in every instance a most depreciatory" (see 1 Corinthians 2:14), "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God," and Jud 1 Corinthians 1:19, ψυχικοὶ, πνεῦμα μὴ ἔχοντες. The ψυχή in general in the New Testament is that which is common to man with the brute creation, including the passions, appetites, etc.; and therefore, by the use of this word ψυχικός to describe the wisdom which cometh not from above, but is "earthly, sensual [or, 'animal'], devilish," we are reminded of the contrast between the spirit of man which goeth upward and the spirit of a beast which goeth downward (Ecclesiastes 3:21). The "animal" man, then, is one who is ruled entirely by the ψυχή in the lower sense of the word; and by the depreciatory sense given to the adjective we are strongly reminded that "nature" is nothing without the aid of grace. See further Archbishop Trench's 'Synonyms of the N. T.,' § 71., and for the later history of the word (it was applied by the Montanists to the orthodox), Suicer's 'Thesaurus,' vol. it. p. 1589.

James 3:16

substantiates the assertion just made in James 3:15. Render, as in James 3:14, jealousy and faction. ἀκαταστασία: confusion, of which God is not the author (1 Corinthians 14:33).

James 3:17

The wisdom which is from above; ἡ ἄνωθεν σοφία, equivalent to הגוילע המכח—an expression not unknown among rabbinical writers. First pure, then peaceable. "The sequence is that of thought, not of time" (Plumptre). Purity must be secured, even at the expense of peace. Gentle, and easy to be entreated ( ἐπιεκὴς εὐπειθής). The former of these two terms signifies "forbearing under provocation" (cf. 1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2; 1 Peter 2:18); the latter is found only here. Vulgate, snadibilis; Syriac, "obedient;" R.V. as A.V., "easy to be entreated," i.e. ready to forgive. Thus the conjunction of the two terms ἐπιεικής and εὐπειθής reminds us of the Jewish saying in 'Pirqe Aboth,' 5.17, describing four characters in dispositions, in which the man who is "hard to provoke and easily pacified" is set down as pious. Without partiality ( ἀδιάκριτος); here only in the New Testament. The word is used in the LXX. in Proverbs 25:1; and by Ignatius (Ephesians 3:1-21; Magn. 15; Trall. 1), but none of these passages throw light on its meaning. It may be either

probably (1) as R.V. text.

Without hypocrisy; ἀνυπόκριτος applied to πιστίς in 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:5; to ἀγαπή in Romans 12:9; 2 Corinthians 6:6; and to φιλαδελφία in 1 Peter 1:22.

James 3:18

The fruit of righteousness; an expression taken from the Old Testament; e.g. Proverbs 11:30; Amos 6:12; and occurring also in Philippians 1:1]. Of them that make peace. τοῖς ποιοῦσιν εἰρηνήν may be either

This verse gives us St. James's version of the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers ( μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηοποιοί)" (Matthew 5:9).

HOMILETICS

James 3:1-12

Speech

I. THE GREAT RESPONSIBILITY OF TEACHERS. This is forcibly shown by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:15, etc. Even of those who have built upon the right foundation the work is to be tested by fire, and "if any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." What, then, must be the "greater condemnation "in store for others whose very foundation was faulty? In a commentary especially designed for teachers of others, a strong recommendation may be permitted of Bishop Bull's noble sermon on the text, "Be not many masters:" 'Concerning the Great Difficulty and Danger of the Priestly Office' (Bull's 'Works,' vol. 1. sermon 6).

II. IMPORTANCE OF MASTERY OF THE TONGUE. Without a bit in the horse's mouth it is impossible for the rider to have command over his steed. So, without a bridle on the tongue, no man can govern himself aright. David felt this, and said, "I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me" (Psalms 39:1). Even Moses, the meekest of men, was shut out of the land of promise because he "spake unadvisedly with his lips." And with regard to the one sin, of which we read that it "hath never forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come," it is clear that it is a sin of the tongue, for it is always spoken of as "blasphemy," and never in general terms as" sin against the Holy Ghost." "We rule irrational animals with a bit; how much more ought we to be able to govern ourselves!" (Wordsworth).

III. THE VARIED CHARACTER OF SINS OF SPEECH.

1. Sins directly against God; e.g. blasphemy, the mockery of holy things, swearing.

2. Sins against our neighbor; e.g. evil-speaking, lying, and slandering.

3. Sins against ourselves, infringing sobriety, discretion, or modesty. (See Barrow's' Sermons,' vol. 1. sermon 13)

IV. IMPORTANCE OF LITTLE THINGS. The bridle is a very little thing, but the rider cannot do without it. The rudder is very small, but it enables the steersman to guide a very large vessel. A tiny spark may set on fire a huge forest. So the size of a battle-field is quite disproportionate to the extent of country won and lost upon it. The tongue is a very little member, but a victory over it will save the whole man; on the contrary, a failure to rule the tongue involves far more than the sin of the moment; for, small as it is, the tongue "boasts great things, and defiles the whole body," and so leads to the ruin of the whole man.

V. THE TONGUE IS A FINE. The apostle is speaking of the tongue as an instrument of ruin, destruction, and devastation. As such it is kindled from beneath—"set on fire of hell" (1 Corinthians 3:6). But there is another sense in which the tongue is a fire, kindled from above, cheering and warming and gladdening men's hearts, and if its power for evil is great, so also is its power for good. "The fire of man's wrath is kindled from beneath, as the fire that cleanses is kindled from above. Bearing in our minds the wonder of the day of Pentecost, it is hardly too bold to say that we have to choose whether our tongue shall be purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit or defiled by that of Gehenna" (Plumptre).

VI. THE GUILT OF SLANDER.

1. The slanderer injures himself. "The tongue... defiles the whole body."

2. Slander is uncontrollable. "The tongue can no man tame." It "sets on fire the wheel of birth;" that wheel "which catches fire as it goes, and burns with a fiercer conflagration as its own speed increases ... You may tame the wild beast; the conflagration of the American forest will cease when all the timber and the dry under-wood is consumed; but you cannot arrest the progress of that cruel word which you uttered carelessly;… that will go on slaying, poisoning, burning, beyond your own control, now and forever."

3. Slander is unnatural. "These things ought not so to be." It is a contradiction to nature, as much as for a fig tree to bear olives, or for a fountain to produce both fresh and salt water.

4. Slander is diabolical in character. "The tongue … is set on fire of hell." The very name of Satan is "the slanderer." (See Robertson's 'Sermons,' vol. 3. sermon 1)

James 3:13-18

Wisdom.

I. WISDOM SHOWS BY ITS FRUITS IN HEART AND LIFE. The following are some of the fruits of the heavenly wisdom:

"By their fruits ye shall know them;" and therefore the presence or absence of such qualities as these form tests by which every one may recognize the presence or absence in his own heart of the wisdom which is from above.

II. THE SINFULNESS OF PARTY SPIRIT. A sin which is not always recognized, especially in religious circles, as being a sin. Its true character, however, may be seen by a consideration of

III. THE CHARACTER OF THE NATURAL MAN. The meaning of "animal" or "natural" ( ψυχικός) in Scripture requires careful consideration. The fact that wherever a moral emphasis rests upon this word it is always depreciatory, and that here (James 3:15) it stands between "earthly" and "devilish," forms one of the clearest indications of the absolute need of grace. Scripture has nothing but condemnation for the man who is ruled by the ψυχή. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." Mere good nature will never save a man. It is not enough to be "well disposed." Esau was all this. He stands out in Holy Scripture as the type of the natural man, ruled only by the ψυχή—good-natured, generous, brave, and kindly, but" not having the Spirit;" no grace, and therefore, by the verdict of an inspired writer, his character is stamped as that of "a profane person" (Hebrews 12:16).

HOMILIES BY C. JERDAN

James 3:1, James 3:2

A dissuasive from ambition to teach.

Throughout this chapter the apostle sounds a loud note of warning against sins of the tongue. The opening exhortation directs our thoughts to the responsibilities and dangers of the religious teacher. No one is under more constant temptation to sin with his lips; for it is the daily work of his life to speak regarding the most solemn themes.

I. THE CAUTION. "Be not many teachers, my brethren" (James 3:1). It would appear that the Pharisaic Jews of the time of the apostles vied with one another for distinction as teachers. At Church meetings it often happened that the time for free conference was consumed by those who had least to say which was likely to be profitable. So James counsels the members of the Church to be "swift to hear" and "slow to speak" in the religious assembly. While the office of the spiritual teacher is highly honorable, it is difficult to sustain it with honor. To do so demands superior intellectual power, keen spiritual insight, intimate acquaintance with Scripture, accurate knowledge of human nature, and a variety of other aptitudes which few possess. This dissuasive is needed by the modern Church little less than by the congregations of "the Dispersion." Our young men who aspire to the pulpit should consider well whether they have received a heavenly call thither. They should ponder the wise advice of an experienced pastor to a young student: "Do not enter the ministry if you can help it;" i.e. unless you have a burning desire to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as a preacher. This dissuasive reminds us also of Paul's rule: "Not a novice" (1 Timothy 3:6). How often is the young convert, especially in times of feverish revivalism, encouraged to narrate his "experience," and to address large religious meetings, greatly to his own spiritual detriment, and to the damage of the cause of Christ! James's counsel has a relation also to the pew. In its spirit it enjoins those who "hear the Word" to cultivate a docile and teachable frame of mind. Nothing hinders edification more than habits of pert and paltry criticism of the accidents of preaching.

II. ITS GROUND. (Verses 1, 2) How weighty is the responsibility of the religious teacher! He undertakes to perform the most important of all kinds of work, and by the use of means which involve the most difficult of all attainments, even to a godly man. The minister of the gospel is especially tried as regards the government of the tongue; and, alas! the most experienced pastors, even James and his fellow-apostles,—often "stumble in word." Teachers who are habitually unfaithful are guilty of peculiarly heinous sin; they shall be indicted at the bar of God for blood-guiltiness. Since the pastor is like a city set on a hill, his errors work more mischief in society than those of an ordinary member of the Church. The lowest deep of perdition shall be occupied by unconverted preachers of the gospel.

LESSONS.

1. To Christian teachers. Let us labor and pray, with heart and mind, and with books and pen, so that our pulpit utterances shall not be hasty or unguarded, and that we may be "pure from the blood of all men."

2. To the members of the Church. Give your minister your loving sympathy, and do not continually advertise and bewail his infirmities. Seeing that his work is so arduous, maintain the habit of constantly "helping" him with your prayers.—C.J.

James 3:2-6

The Tower of the tongue.

Passing from the peculiar responsibility which attaches to teachers of religion, James proceeds to speak generally of the enormous influence of the faculty of speech, especially upon the speaker himself, and of the abuse to which it is liable.

I. A DIRECT STATEMENT OF THIS POWER. "If any stumbleth not in word, the same," etc. (verse 2). In most cases, the capacity to control one's utterances indicates the measure of one's attainment as regards the keeping of his heart. Sins of the tongue form so large a portion of our multitudinous "stumblings"—they so frequently help to seduce us into other sins—and they afford such a searching test of character, that any one who has learned to avoid riffling into them may without exaggeration be described as "a perfect man." Of course, no person lives in this world of whom it can be affirmed that he never errs in word. James has just remarked that "in many things we all stumble." But he is now suggesting an ideal case—that of a man who is perfectly free from lip-sins; and he asserts that such a person would be found to be both blameless and morally strong over the whole area of his character. The power which can bridle the tongue can control the entire nature. So great is the influence of human speech!

II. SOME ILLUSTRATIONS OF THIS POWER. (Verses 3-6) The apostle here compares the tongue first to two familiar mechanical appliances, and then to one of the mighty forces of nature. In all the three selected cases very insignificant-looking means suffice to accomplish great results. The illustrations are extremely graphic; each is more telling than the preceding. They together show that James, the apostle of practical Christianity, possessed the perceptions and the instincts of a poet.

1. The horse-bridle. (Verse 3) The first illustration only emphasizes the thought which underlies the word "bridle" in verse 2, and in James 1:26. The wild horses that roam at will over the American prairies seem quite unsubduable. Yet how complete is the control which man acquires over the tame horse! By means of the bit—the part of the bridle, which the animal bites—he is kept completely under command. The horse is controlled literally by the tongue. Now, in like manner, a man may "turn about his whole body" by subjecting his speech to firm self-government. The spirited steed of this verse may be regarded as a symbol of the flesh, with its lusts and passions. But the man who uses his tongue aright will find its influence very powerful in helping him to subdue his depraved carnal nature.

2. The shifts rudder. (James 1:4) Both romance and poetry gather round the idea of a ship. Even the old "galley with oars" was a "gallant" spectacle; and in our time there is no sight more picturesque than that of a sailing-vessel.

"Behold! upon the murmuring waves

A glorious shape appearing!

A broad-winged vessel, through the shower

Of glimmering luster steering!

"She seems to hold her home in view,

And sails as if the path she knew;

So calm and stately in her motion

Across the unfathomed, trackless ocean."

(John Wilson)

The merchantmen of the ancients were of considerable size (Acts 27:1-44., 28); but in our day naval architecture works on a colossal scale of which the ancients never dreamed. And what is it that directs the largest vessel so steadily on its course, and enables it to persevere even in spite of furious storms? It is simply that little tongue, or rudder, at the stern. The steering apparatus is "very small" in proportion to the bulk of the ship; but how wonderfully great its influence! It not only "turns about" the body of the vessel itself; its action is also powerful enough to counteract the driving force of "rough winds." Now, the faculty of speech is the rudder of human nature. The tongue "boasteth great things;" and well it may, for "death and life are in its power" (Proverbs 18:21). If the spirited horse is a symbol of the flesh, the "rough winds" which beat upon the ship are suggestive of the world. The rudder of speech, rightly directed, will help us to continue straight on our heavenward course, despite the fierce gusts and gales of external temptation.

3. The little fire. (James 1:5, James 1:6) What a terrific power there is in fire! One tiny neglected spark may kindle a conflagration that will consume a city. The great fire of 1666 in London, which began in a little wooden shop near London Bridge, burned down every building between the Tower and the Temple. And how terrible are the seas of fire, kindled often by some casual spark, which roll along the prairies of North America! The power of a little tongue of flame is simply stupendous; and thus it is a most apposite illustration of the destructive energy of human speech. For "the tongue is a fire." Sometimes this tremendous power is exerted for good; indeed, the "tongue of fire" is the appropriate emblem of Christianity as the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3). More usually, however, fire is contemplated as an instrument of evil. So "the tongue is a fire" as regards its intense energy. Unsanctified speech scorches and consumes. The liar scatters firebrands; the slanderer kindles lambent flames; the profane swearer spits the fire of hell into the face of God. "The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue;" i.e. a whole microcosm of evil resides within the sphere of its operation. It "defileth the whole body;" just as fire soils with its smoke, the tongue stirs up the heart's corruption, and uses it to stain one's own life and character. It "setteth on fire the wheel of nature;"—for the whole circle of an unsanctified life, from birth onwards, is kept burning by the evil tongue. And it "is set on fire by hell;" for the ultimate inspiration of this destructive agency is of internal origin. This fire is devil-lighted, hell-kindled. Satan loaded the human tongue at the Fall with dynamite; and every day he ignites the treacherous magazine from the unquenchable fire. Thus, as the spirited horse represents the flesh, and the fierce winds the world, the raging fire leads us to think of the devil—the power of "the evil one."

CONCLUSION. Let us earnestly seek the grace of God, to deliver our tongue from the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Let us guard the portals of our lips, so that no uncharitable or slanderous words may issue from them. Let us welcome the Pentecostal "tongue of fire," that it may purify us from the evil tongue which is "set on fire by hell."—C.J.

James 3:7-12

The tongue ungovernable and inconsistent.

At first the apostle had reminded his readers that speech may be made a great power for good (James 3:2-4). Then he went on to say that in actual fact it is employed by most men as an engine of evil (James 3:5, James 3:6). He proceeds now to justify his strong language on this point.

I. THE UNTAMABLENESS OF THE TONGUE. (James 3:7, James 3:8) We have here a fourfold classification of the inferior creatures. God gave man dominion over them at the creation, and intimated his supremacy anew after the Flood. There is no variety of brute nature that has not yielded in the past, and that does not continue to yield, to the lordship of human nature. The horse, the dog, the elephant, the lion, the leopard, the tiger, the hyena; the partridge, the falcon, the eagle; the asp, the cobra; the crocodile;—these names suggest ample evidence of man's power to tame the most diverse species of wild animals. But, says James, there is one little creature which human nature, in its own strength, finds it impossible to domesticate. The tongue of man is fiercer than the most ferocious beast, The rebellion of our race against good is far more inveterate than any insubordination of the brutes. Indeed, the revolt of the lower creatures against the authority of man is only the shadow and symbol of man's revolt against the authority of God. Year by year man is subduing the earth and extending his dominion over it; but his natural power to govern the tongue remains as feeble as it was in the days of Cain. This "little member" reveals the appalling depths of human corruption. "It is a restless evil;" unstable, fickle, versatile; ever stirring about from one form of unrighteousness to another; assuming Protean shapes and chameleon hues; its words sometimes filthy, sometimes slanderous, sometimes profane, sometimes angry, sometimes idle. And the untamed tongue "is full of deadly poison." It is a worse poison-bag than that of the most hurtful serpent. The words of a false tongue are fangs of moral venom, for which no human skill can supply an antidote. Is not calumny just a foul virus injected into the social body, which kills character, happiness, and sometimes even life? Its venom spreads far and wide, and man is powerless to destroy it.

II. THE INCONSISTENCY OF THE TONGUE. (Verses 9-12) The same person may just now put the faculty of speech to its highest use; and, almost immediately afterwards, wickedly abuse it. The tongue has been given us that therewith we may "bless the Lord and Father;" and to utter the Divine praise is the most ennobling exercise of human speech. The Christian calls him "Lord," and adores him for his eternal Godhead; he also calls him "Father," and blesses him for his adopting grace. Then, with melancholy inconsistency, the same mouth which has been praising God may be heard invoking evil upon men. How often do those who profess godliness speak passionate and spiteful words! Do not Christians who belong to the same congregation sometimes backbite one another? Do not believers of different communions often, out of mere sectarian rivalry, denounce one another's Churches? Even godly men sometimes cherish the spirit which would "forbid" others to work the work of the Lord, simply because these are not of their company. Now, such inconsistency is seen in all its aggravation when we consider the fact that truly to bless God forbids the cursing of any man. "The Lord" is the "Father" of all men, for men "are made after the likeness of God." In his princely intellect, and his hungering heart, and even in his uneasy conscience, man reflects the image of his Maker. God and he are so close of kin to each other—by nature, and through Christ's incarnation—that real reverence for God requires that we "honor all men." How inconsistent, then, for the same mouth to bless the Father and to curse the children! The inconsistency appears on the very face of the English word "curse." To curse means primarily "to invoke evil upon one, by the sign of the cross." The cross is the symbol of the highest blessing to the world; and yet those who enjoy the blessedness which it brings have used it as an instrument of cursing. We bless God for the cross; and then we curse men in the name of the cross. Such inconsistency, the apostle adds, is flagrantly unnatural (verses 11, 12). None such is to be met with in the physical world. A spring of water cannot transgress the law of its nature. A fruit tree can only bear fruit according to its kind. How unnatural, then, that in the moral world the same fountain of speech should emit just now a rill of clear sweet praise, and soon afterwards a torrent of bitter slander, or a stream of brackish minced oaths! Where a true believer falls into this sinful inconsistency, it is because the fountain of the old nature within his heart has not yet been closed up. He needs to have the accursed tree on which Jesus died cast into the bitter stream within him, to sweeten it, and to make it a river of living water. In the case of a soul that has experienced the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, this unnatural inconsistency of speech not only "ought not so to be," but does not need to be.—C.J.

James 3:13-16

False wisdom.

The apostle suggests here that those who aspired too hastily to become Christian teachers (James 3:1) showed themselves to be sadly deficient in wisdom. They were unwise at once in their estimate of their own powers, and in their judgment as to the kind of public discussions, which would be profitable for the Church. The cause of gospel truth could never be advanced by dogmatic disputations or bitter personal wrangling. Attend, therefore, says James in verse 13, to a description first of false wisdom, and then of true (verses 17, 18). Many members of the Churches of "the Dispersion" desired to appear "wise" (verse 13), but only some were really so. Many might even be "knowing," or "endued with knowledge," who were not wise.

"Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,

Have ofttimes no connection."

(Cowper)

Knowledge is only a hewer of wood, while wisdom is the architect and builder. A man may possess a large library, or even amass vast stores of knowledge, and yet be "a motley fool." Indeed, no fool is so great as a knowing fool. The wise man is he who can use his knowledge for the largest moral and spiritual good. And the true wisdom is bound up with the life of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Job 28:28; 2 Timothy 3:15). It makes the will of God its rule, and his glory its end. So the man who lives without God should be thought of as the impersonation of stupidity, and Satan as the supreme fool of the universe. But, if a man be "wise unto salvation," how will his wisdom appear?

1. By "his good life." (Verse 13) The quiet even flow of one's daily occupation will furnish an ample sphere for it. Even the heathen philosopher, Seneca, has said, "Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in a firmness of mind and a mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do, as well as to talk; and to make our words and actions all of a color." The weighty 'Essays' of Lord Bacon "come home to men's business and bosoms;" yet their author cannot justly be called "the wisest," if he was in his own life "the meanest of mankind."

2. By "his works in meekness of wisdom." Character is perceived not only by its subtle aroma, but in connection with individual actions. Wisdom shows itself in acts of holiness. And these acts are done "in meekness," which is one of wisdom's inseparable attributes. True wisdom is mild and calm, patient and self-restraining. And yet a meek spirit is not a mean spirit. The "poor in spirit" are not the poor-spirited. The "meekness of wisdom" consists with the greatest courage and the most ardent zeal. An old commentator says, "Moses was very meek in his own cause, but as hot as fire in the cause of God." And the Man Christ Jesus was mild, just because he was strong and brave. There was no fierceness, no fanaticism, no sourness, about him. He is our perfect Pattern of the "meekness of wisdom" (1 Peter 2:22, 1 Peter 2:23; Matthew 27:12-14). The spirit of strife and wrangling is not the spirit of Christ. James now proceeds to a statement of principles regarding false or earthly wisdom.

I. ITS NATURE. (Verse 14) The spurious wisdom of the "many teachers' carried in it not so much burning zeal as "bitter zeal." Its spirit was factious, arrogant, bigoted, Its roots lay in the angry passions of the heart. Its aim was personal victory rather than the triumph of the truth. While it may be sometimes dutiful to contend earnestly in defense of the gospel, the love of controversy for its own sake, and the cherishing of a contentious spirit towards brethren, is always sinful, much less a ground for "glorying." A professing Christian who lives to foster either doctrinal wranglings or social quarrels presents to the world a caricature of Christianity, and is himself a living lie "against the truth."

II. ITS ORIGIN. (Verse 15)

1. "Earthly." Every good gift is from above; but this so-called wisdom is of earthly origin, and busies itself about earthly things. Those cultivate it whose souls are wholly immersed in worldly pursuits.

2. "Sensual;" i.e. psychical or natural, as opposed to spiritual. It originates in the lower sphere of man's intellectual nature; it is the wisdom of his unspiritual mind and his unsanctified heart. Until the human spirit becomes possessed by the Spirit of God, its works will be "the works of the flesh."

3. "Devilish." The false wisdom is demoniacal in source, as it is in character. The envious heart, like the evil tongue, "is set on fire by hell" (verse 6). Implicitly followed, this wisdom will tend to make a man "half-beast, half-devil." These three adjectives correspond to our three great spiritual enemies. Earthly wisdom has its origin in the world; natural wisdom, in the flesh; demoniacal wisdom, in the devil. And, recognizing this, our prayer should be, "From all such deceits, good Lord, deliver us."

III. ITS RESULTS. (Verse 16) Where there are "bitter zeal and faction" in the heart, these may be expected to produce commotion and wretchedness in society. What misery has not the spirit of strife and self-seeking wrought in the midst of families, and in the bosom of Churches! It is a fruitful source of heart-burnings and of lifelong alienations. It sows tares among the wheat. And the harvest of "this wisdom" shall be "a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow."

LESSONS.

1. Loathe the vile spirit of strife.

2. Covet earnestly the gift of holy wisdom.

3. Remember that the climax of the true wisdom consists in meekness.—C.J.

James 3:17, James 3:18

True wisdom.

These two verses exhibit, with much terseness and beauty, the features of the true or heavenly wisdom, i.e. the characteristic qualities of the state of mind, which is produced by a sincere reception of saving truth. The picture here presented forms a direct contrast to the description of false or earthly wisdom given in James 3:14-16.

I. THE NATURE OF TRUE WISDOM. (James 3:17) In origin it is "from above." It is not the product of self-culture, but altogether supernatural and gracious. And, being a gift of God, it is "good" and "perfect" in all its characteristics (James 1:5, James 1:17). James here represents the heavenly wisdom as possessed of seven great excellences. Seven was the perfect number among the Jews; and there are, so to speak, seven notes in the harmony of Christian character; or seven colors in the rainbow of the Christian life, which, when blended, form its pure white sunlight. Of these seven, the first is marked off from the others, because it refers to what a man is within his own heart; while the other six deal with the qualities shown by true wisdom in connection with one's deportment towards his fellow-men.

1. In respect of a man himself. Here true wisdom is "pure." This word means chaste, unsullied, holy. Purity is the fundamental characteristic of everything that is "from above." Righteousness lies at the foundation of all that is beautiful in character. Christian wisdom leads a man "to keep himself unspotted from the world," and to "cleanse himself from all defilement of flesh and spirit." Every person, therefore, who lives a sensual, selfish, or openly sinful life, shows himself to be destitute of the heavenly wisdom. For its chief element is holiness—that purity which is obtained through the blood of Christ and by the indwelling of his Spirit.

2. In respect of his demeanor towards his fellow-men. The expressions, "first," and "then," do not imply that the wise man must be perfectly "pure" before he begins to be "peaceable." They indicate the logical order, and not merely the order of time. The phrase, "first pure, then peaceable," has often been sadly abused in the interests of the "bitter jealousy and faction" which belong to false wisdom. But surely, even in doctrinal matters, we are to be peaceable with a view to purity, as well as pure for the sake of peace. "Peaceable;" indisposed to conflict or dissension. "Jealousy and faction" are characteristics of earthly wisdom. The heavenly wisdom deprecates disputatious debate, and labors to quench animosities. "Gentle;" forbearing, courteous, considerate. Gentleness is just the outward aspect of the grace of peaceableness, the vesture in which the peaceable spirit should be clothed. "Easy to be entreated;" accessible, compliant, open to conviction, and willing to listen to remonstrance. The wise man thinks more about his duties than his rights. "Full of mercy and good fruits;" overflowing with feelings of kindness and compassion, and finding a healthy outlet for these in acts of practical beneficence. "Without variance;" steady, persistent, unmistakable, never "divided in its own mind" (James 2:4; James 1:6), and therefore never halting in the fulfillment of its mission. "Without hypocrisy;" perfectly sincere always really being what it seems and professes. Wisdom's ways are not tortuous. It knows that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

II. THE RESULTS OF TRUE WISDOM. (Verse 18) The fruit of the earthly wisdom is "confusion and every vile deed" (verse 16), but the fruit of the heavenly wisdom consists in "righteousness." "Peace" is the congenial soil in which this wisdom takes root and grows; the seed "sown" is the precious Word of God; they "that make peace" are the spiritual farmers who scatter it in hope; and "righteousness" is the blessed harvest which shall reward their toil. The eternal recompense of the righteous shall be their righteousness itself. The heavenly wisdom shall be its own reward in heaven.

LESSONS.

1. The harmony between this doctrine and the teaching of our Lord in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), as well as that of Paul in his portraiture of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).

2. The excellency and attractiveness of the true wisdom.

3. The rarity of its acquisition, especially as regards its choicest features, even on the part of professing Christians.

4. The necessity of asking this wisdom from God himself.

5. The character of Jesus Christ our Model in our endeavors after it.—C.J.

HOMILIES BY T.F. LOCKYER

James 3:1-12

The ethics of speech.

In these verses is dealt a rebuke against the craving for authority, which, as he reminds them, involves "heavier judgment." How? Partly as coming under judgment itself (see Matthew 23:8-10); partly as involving increased responsibility. And responsibility and judgment are very near akin. More especially, in these words of warning, he has in view that confused assembly of theirs, in which all vied together in attempts to speak. How great the danger of "stumbling" in such speech! A stirring up of impatience, rancor, strife. This leads to thoughts on the power of the tongue, for good and for harm; with practical conclusions as to the inconsistency of unbridled speech.

I. THE POWER OF THE TONGUE.

1. For good. (James 3:2-5) Speech? It is the quick, instinctive, volatile expression of the man. A subtle effluence, showing the inner life. And as the inner life is agitated and stirred, tossing first this way, then that, how readily may the words also be committed to the impulses of the heart! And as those impulses may so easily be, for the moment, wrong impulses, how easily may wrong words be spoken! And so the transient feeling has fixed itself in a word that bites, and is not forgotten. And the feeling itself is fixed by the word that has uttered it; the man is committed to what otherwise he might have been glad to forget. James's first meaning, then, in the statement that the man who stumbles not in words is "a perfect man," is perhaps this: that one who has attained to mastery over so subtle and delicate an activity of the nature as speech, is perforce a man who has mastered all the more tangible and more controllable activities. The "whole body," all conduct, is brought into subjection, if this element of life is rightly swayed. Is it not so? Your experience will tell you that this is the last, the most intractable of the activities which you are called on to subdue. But there is another meaning in the words than this. The man who schools himself to such restraint as absolute mastery over speech implies, has not merely learned perfection of self-control in the matter of other and more tangible activities, but is learning a better perfection than that—even the self-restraint of his whole interior nature. To restrain conduct is much; but to restrain thought, purpose, passion! to lay a firm, a mastering control on all the complex desires and impulses of our nature! Oh, surely that is a perfection of self-restraint indeed! And the bridling of the tongue means thus the bridling of the unruly passions of the heart. The restraint of expression is the restraint of the impulse that seeks to express itself (see for converse of this law the former exposition, where we have noticed how the exercise of a faculty perfects the faculty that is exercised: James 2:22). Do you not know this also from your experience? Let loose the word, and you have let loose the feeling; conquer the word, and you have conquered the feeling. So, then, the illustrations: the bridle, the helm. And the tongue, a little member, boasteth great things.

2. For harm. (Verses 5-8) The remarks under this head have been partly anticipated above. Let loose the word, and you have let loose the passions. An unbridled tongue is an unbridled nature. Unchecked speech is unchecked wickedness. Yes; the activities of the man and the interior impulses are alike let loose for harm if the tongue be uncontrolled. Illustrations: fire among wood. So the "world of iniquity," defiling the body, setting on fire the wheel of nature, and itself set on fire of hell! And then? Tame the tongue, and tame the nature, who may! Even ravenous and noxious creatures are not untamable as that is; a restless evil; full of deadly poison. So the psalmist (140:3). And your experience? A subtle, insinuating poison, which works its way into your whole nature, and infects all social joy.

II. THE INCONSISTENCY OF UNBRIDLED SPEECH. Picture their quarrelsome assemblies again: their invectives against one another, their common virulence towards the Gentile Christian Churches. And withal hymns to God! That is, hate and love in the same heart together, and all essentially towards God himself (verse 9)! The inconsistency (verse 10). So illustrations: fountain, tree (verses 11, 12). These contrarieties, impossible in nature, can exist in us! And yet in truth they cannot. For ours is one nature. Can salt water yield fresh (verse 12)? Neither can a cursing nature bless, or a hating nature love. And so our very praise is vitiated, and our worship becomes blasphemy. Oh, what are our dangers daily in this matter of speech! And perhaps, to shun them, we say we will hold our peace, even from good (Psalms 39:1-13). Nay, but we must rather learn of him who was meek and lowly in heart. And so our speech shall be pure as his was, and our turbulent nature shall find rest.—T.F.L.

James 3:13-18

Wisdom, true and false.

The temptation to be "teachers" (James 3:1) arose from the notion that they possessed wisdom. How shall they show this wisdom, how shall they even use it, if they may not teach? The life is to be at once the practice and the manifestation of a wisdom that is true (James 3:13). James here reverts to his earlier theme (James 1:5); and we have for our consideration—The false wisdom and the true, in their origin, nature, and fruits.

I. THE FALSE WISDOM.

1. What was the nature of the false wisdom which prompted them to much speaking? It was nothing other than the spirit of faction and jealousy—competing with one another for precedence; envying one another. And this was a lying against the truth! What truth? Their brotherhood in Christ, and the love which such brotherhood required. Such false wisdom was:

2. What were the fruits of such wisdom as this? "Confusion." Think of their assemblies, with the wrangling, cursing, and swearing! so also confusion in all the relations of social life. "And every vile deed;" for what would not men descend to, to further their base, party aims?

3. What was the origin of such wisdom? "Not from above:" no, indeed, but rather "set on fire of hell"!

II. THE TRUE WISDOM.

1. Its nature. "First pure:" for at any cost, even at the cost of peaceableness, a Christian must be true. So Christ, even though it involved the "woes" of Matthew 23:1-39.; even though it involved the cross! And his followers likewise (Matthew 10:34). "Then peaceable," as against the jarrings and discords of the false wisdom; "gentle," as against faction and jealousy; "easy to be entreated," as against the sullen resentments shown by those who imagine themselves to be offended; "without variance," i.e. fickleness of purpose; and "without hypocrisy," to which double-mindedness so easily leads.

2. Its fruits. Peace, as opposed to confusion; and the good fruits of mercy, as opposed to vile deeds.

3. Its origin. "From above:" yes, from the Father of lights (James 1:17). So the tongues of fire (Acts 2:3).

Who is a wise man? Alas, who! But let us ask of God, who giveth liberally; remembering that "he that winneth souls is wise," and that "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and … as the stars forever and ever" (Proverbs 11:30; Daniel 12:3).—T.F.L.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on James 3:4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/james-3.html. 1897.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, October 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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