The Pulpit Commentary

James 3:1-12 (James 3:1-12)


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James 3:6 (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.

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James 3:1-12 (James 3:1-12)


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).


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).


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)

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James 3:2-6 (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.

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James 3:1-12 (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.


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.

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