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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
James 3

 

 

Verse 1

7. Christian synagogue, also, rejects many teachers with untamable and self-contradictory tongues, James 3:1-12.

1. My brethren—Our apostle’s standpoint is still in the Christian synagogue, where he is checking the errors and faults of his brethren. In the last chapter he reproved their obsequiousness to rich incomers, and refutes their excuses; he here checks their ambitious loquacity, aiming to be teachers before they had become competent learners. In James 1:19-26 he had criticised rather the garrulity of hearers and answerers; he here reprehends the assumptions of the speakers.

Masters—Rather, teachers. This did not forbid the expression of Christian experience and interchange of exhortation and counsel by the many. Nor did it forbid catechists and imparters of the elements of established Christian knowledge to be many. Nor does it forbid Sabbath-school instructors at the present day, who are happily very many; but it reprehends self-conceited and self-appointed doctrinaries, ready to blurt their individual notions and maintain them in the assemblies. The result would be crude theologies, heated disputations, and erratic sects and heresies. Alford and Huther condemn Grotius for interpreting many teachers as equivalent to all teachers. But as the whole Church is addressed in the caution it can hardly mean less. The picture it suggests is, that (as in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33) every member of the Church was free to use his tongue in the assembly, and used his freedom fully. The institute of the single pastorate for the single Church was, perhaps, as yet not fully established, though its need was fully felt, and its existence coming in.

Condemnation—Namely, for the offend of next verse, to which we are all liable. Greater condemnation will fall on him who assumes the higher responsibilities and exhibits his assumption most loudly.


Verse 2

2. For—In explanation of the greater condemnation.

We offend— Literally, we stumble. The Greek word is cognate with the Greek word to fall, and they are finely distinguished by St. Paul, Romans 11:11, where he says that Israel has not stumbled that they should fall. (A Greek proverb, “not to stumble twice at the same stone.”)

All—The mere English reader is very apt to understand our translation to mean, we offend every body; making all the object. The true meaning is, that in many things we all stumble; that is, make intellectual and moral mistakes and blunders; which is true enough of the wisest and holiest of us. And, therefore, our apostle cautions us to avoid setting up for too much.

Offend not— Stumble not.

In word—In performance of his assumption to be a teacher in the synagogue.

Perfect man—He has become in mind and spirit what he doubtless has in body—a completely grown, filled out, and proportioned man.

Able also—For, so far as he is able to speak perfectly right, it is probable that he can do perfectly right. The wisdom and moral power with which he can govern his tongue is very likely to govern his whole body. The body, as the whole organ of the soul, with its susceptibilities to temptation, and its limbs as the instruments of right or wrong, as the I, the will, directs.


Verse 3

3. Behold—Of all these instruments of good or evil St. James considers the tongue as the most efficient and often over-efficient. He sets this in the strongest light by putting, by striking images, the vivid contrast between its small magnitude and its great power. Two of these images (James 3:3-4) are now presented to the talkative synagogue. By the bridleth of the last verse is expressed the control of the will over the tongue; but here the bits represent the tongue itself, wherewith we control every thing else.

Whole body—As a horseman with bits turns the whole horse, so a speaker with a persuasive tongue will turn a whole man, nay, a whole body of men. The tongue of the eloquent orator turns whole assemblies, and controls the destinies of States. And so the tongue of the wily errorist may turn a whole Church, may introduce a strange doctrine, or establish a new sect. And so the unrestrained tongues of a synagogue may raise a great buzz, and produce disorder and every evil work. Hence the importance of Church unity under the control of apostolic teaching.


Verse 4

4. Helm—Rudder. The ships are a larger image of the same truth, and, taking in their size and the force of winds, form a fine illustration.


Verse 5

5. Little… great—More accurate and vivid rendering, according to Tischendorf’s pointing: Behold how little a fire, the tongue, kindleth a forest how great! As a fire, a world of iniquity, is the tongue placed among our members; bespotting the whole body, and inflaming the wheel of nature. The especial point is, that the smallness of the tongue should not blind us to the importance of controlling it by the conscience, but in fact arouse us to the thought of the greatness of its effects and the importance of its control. A little fire may result in the conflagration of how wide a prairie, or how great a city!


Verse 6

6. The apostle catches at the thought of a fire, and expands it. Doubtless, many a synagogue had been set into wild conflagration by this fire… the tongue. Perhaps as fire here corresponds to setteth on fire, so world of iniquity may correspond to defileth the whole body. While world, then, is an image of filth and corruption, fire indicates inflammation and destruction. Is—Rather, is constituted or placed among the members.

Course of nature—Absurdly rendered by Alford “orb of creation!” with which the tongue has little to do. The words literally mean, the wheel of generation. But what does that mean? The expression is no way illustrated, as some commentators suppose, by the image of a wheel set on fire by its own rapidity, for here the setting on fire is done, not by the wheel itself, but by the tongue. Nor can there be any allusion to “the world in its various revolutions,” (as Wordsworth,) or to the cycle of animal creation, (as Alford,) for over neither of them has the human tongue any notable influence. The phrase is clearly a physiological one, suggested by the word body, referring to the evolutions that revolve within our bodily system.

The tongue defiles our body, and inflames all the natural functions evolved within it. The circulation of the blood was, indeed, unknown to our apostle, but that round of alimentary, sexual, and passional appetites and gratifications of which the blood-circle is the base, and through which our system whirls, is known to all philosophy. How the roll of this wheel, especially in its sexual department, may be affected by the tongue we all know. The phrase, of nature, is the same as is translated natural in James 1:23, where see note. The face there was the face derived from our generative origin; the wheel here is the internal system derived to us by generation, whose involution carries around the complex circle of our passional life. Our translators’ words, then, hit about the true idea. The tongue does set on fire the course of our inward passional nature, inflaming the whirl of sensuality, gluttony, drunkenness, rage, and fight. Huther’s and Alford’s objection, that the writer would not mention, literally, the whole body, and then “again express it in a figure,” is invalid. To mention first the whole external body literally, and then express in figure the interior blended functions, nervous and mental, is perfectly natural. The exterior body is named with literality because it is plainly visible; the interior functions, being conceptual, are best expressed in conceptual phrase. The mention of the body locates the described functions.

Set on fire of hell—First, our inward nature is set on fire by the tongue as by a torch, and the torch is set on fire by gehenna. The tongue catches from hell the fire with which it inflames our blood, and circulates the burning sensation through our system.


Verse 7

7. Every kind—Literally, every nature; where, as Huther well remarks, not the taming of individuals is meant, but of the brutal natures. The natures of the four great orders here enumerated have been brought under control by the nature and genius of man.


Verse 8

8. Tongue can no man tame—Augustine says, that never, but by the grace of God, has any tongue been tamed. It may be replied that worldly self-interest often tames the tongue as effectually as divine wisdom. As to that, however, it may be asked, To what does worldly prudence tame the tongue? And it may be answered, It tames the tongue to a subdued but still wild and depraved state. Nothing but the grace of God tames the tongue to that docility to which our apostle alludes, submission to the divine law, and the hearty utterance of a holy confession.


Verse 9

9. This wildness of the tongue is now (9-12) shown by the contrariety of its moral uses. We—In James 3:9-10 our apostle passes beyond the limits of the Christian synagogue into the length and breadth of the twelve tribes. And his we includes himself, by courtesy, even among the profane users of the tongue.

Bless we God—Applicable to all Jews, and indicating that his address does go little beyond the monotheistic twelve tribes. A preferred reading is Lord for God.

Even the Father—Creator of man in his own image. The twelve tribes did not fully recognise the Son.

Curse…men—Especially at these times did the tribes curse their Roman conquerors and despots.

Similitude of God—And so to curse as well as to murder (Genesis 1:26; Genesis 9:6) is aggravated by that similitude.


Verse 10

10. Same mouth—Thus far these contrasts have illustrated the versatile power of the tongue. They will now serve to enforce the wickedness of such inconsistency.

My brethren… ought not—And cannot, just so far as they are true brethren, that is, true Christians, or true people of the Messiah.


Verse 11

11. The moral impossibility of such opposite manifestations of character is illustrated by the products of nature. It is, in moral character, the opposition between incompatible qualities. If a man display one set of qualities he cannot possess the other, so as to be a wicked man and a holy man, an heir of heaven and a child of hell at the same time.

Place—Fissure from which the water jets forth.


Verse 13

8. True test of teachers and hearersa heaven-descended wisdom, evinced by rectitude and peacefulness of temper and life, James 3:13-18.

13. Who—Of these contrasts be sure to exhibit the right one.

Wise man— Truly on the side of divine wisdom; the wisdom of James 1:5.

Let him show— Like a good fountain let him pour forth the sweet and not the bitter stream; like a good tree, the right fruit. What the good fruits are he now tells.

Conversation—Conduct, mode of life.

Works—Special good doings.

Meekness—The opposite of the tongueiness of the many teachers.

Wisdom—The wisdom of the just. If there be among you a professed Christian let him come out of an equivocal state, half holy and half wicked, and let him, both by general life and special act, show the Christian tempers.


Verse 14

14. The contrasted traits.

Glory not—Make no proud profession, nor fancy that these are exalting qualities.

Lie not against the truth—By depreciating its excellence in order to exalt your worldly vices. The worldly, emulous spirit fancies itself to be infinitely superior to the meekness and wisdom of the Gospel, having a lordlier wisdom of its own, and this wisdom James characterizes in the next verse.


Verse 15

15. This wisdom—Two counter pictures of the opposite wisdoms in 15-18. There is a proud wisdom that boasts of its worldly value, and knows how to fight its way and beat all before it. Whence came it?

Not from above—It is not the wisdom revealed from God by the holy Jesus. And what is it? Its threefold character is sketched in three terrible words. Man in ascending grades is body, soul, and spirit. See note on 1 Corinthians 15:44. In ascending scale man is corporeal, soulical, spiritual, and by the spiritual, angel-like. In descending scale he is earthly=corporeal; sensual=soulical, animal; spiritual=demoniac, devilish. This wisdom belongs to the descending scale; descending to the infernal by an awful anticlimax of wickedness and woe. Plenty of this wisdom rules among the rulers of this world. Thence come partisan politics, unprincipled diplomacies, and the wars and fightings of James 4:1.


Verse 16

16. The characteristics of this worldly wisdom are envying, rather, emulation, and strife, or rivalry. It is the wisdom of making yourself great in disregard of the rights and well-being of all or any others.

Evil work— Deeds of cruelty and oppression.


Verse 17

17. Contrasted picture of the wisdom that is from above.

First pure— The pure is first as being foremost, and comprehending all the following points, and being inner essence of the whole. It stands in antithesis against the terrible trial of James 3:15. To be pure is to be untainted by the tempers expressed in James 3:16.

Then—After the inner pure follow all the external qualities of character and action.

Peaceable—In antithesis against envying and strife, James 3:16.

Gentle—The reverse of roughness, violence, of word or manner, which exhibit themselves in sweeping assertions and hyperboles.

Easy to be entreated—Or, rather, persuaded; the reverse of obstinacy, the pride of a false consistency, or a set persistence in one’s own way.

Full of mercy—Pity for the unfortunate, and judicious compassion for the guilty.

Good fruits—The reverse of evil work, James 3:16.

Without partiality, and without hypocrisy—These two clauses are two Greek words in the original which have similar terminations, and so make a word-echo. We might nearly parallel them by the words, neither hypercritical, nor hypocritical. The first of the two Greek words may signify, making no undue distinctions, (hence fair, impartial,) as, for instance, between rich and poor. Or, it may mean unequivocal, unambiguous, clear from equivocation or just liability to being doubted. The latter of the two words is, accordingly, rendered rightly in the English translation. We might (with these last definitions of the two) preserve the terminal similarity of sound by, without equivocation or dissimulation.

In regard to the two contrasted wisdoms of 13-17 we may note: First, it is in accordance with the Old Testament use of the word wisdom, which makes it belong to the moral rather than to the intellectual sphere. It refers not so much to the degree of sagacity or scientific education as to the right state of the heart. Second, St. James does not intend to define wisdom in its broadest moral sense, but only as in reference to the vices he has just been reprehending; namely, a use of the tongue as an instrument of emulations and strifes. His wisdom, then, is peace, obtained by gentleness, fairness, sincerity, and silence.


Verse 18

18. Fruit… is sown—By fruit is meant the harvest, crop, or product; and this is virtually sown in the seed that produces it. Fruit, consisting in righteousness, not fruit produced by righteousness. And this fruit, namely, righteousness, springs from a seed-sowing in the soil of peace by them that make or enact peace. The man of holy peace sows that seed in peace which brings forth righteousness. Thus in holy eloquence does St. James appeal to his fellows of the twelve tribes, both Christians and those who should be Christians, among whom strifes of tongue arising from bitterness of heart were producing sin and ruin, to seek for righteousness in the paths of holy quietude and peace. In an angry age his warnings were slighted, and the ruin resulted in the destruction of their capital and the overthrow of their State.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on James 3:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/james-3.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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