Introduction James’s thought in the present section has three layers. The first (3:1 – 2) is a proverb concerning teachers, which serves to introduce the heart of the section. The second layer (3:3 – 5) builds on this proverb by discussing the practical difficulty of controlling speech by focusing on the tongue, as if it had a mind of its own. The final layer (3:6 – 12) also furthers the thought in 3:1 – 2 by outlining the power of the tongue and its leaning toward sin. In all of these our author draws on a wealth of images, from taming animals to navigation to fire to farming, in order to illustrate the power of the tongue for evil or for good.
The duality of blessing and cursing comes from the mythological realm of the sacred: the gods who visit us first sow (chaos) and then blessings order which emerges from the chaos. It's only natural that we should follow in their footsteps, with tongues that sow both blessings and curses. Unless you begin as the author of James did by proclaiming a different sort of God who only sows blessings: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). To remain double minded (blessing and cursing) is to remain part of the fallen order and not part of the Kingdom of God. For God does not curse anyone. God only gives blessings.
Having advocated the path of faith, perseverance, and perfection rather than that of desire, sin, and death (chapter 1), James called for an active reception of God's grace and an active life of devotion (chapter 2) to Jesus. He wants us to remember 1:19-20 and raise it overtly in 1:26, "If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless”. James illustrates the danger of which we should be aware—namely, loose, damaging talk. The illustration of the potency of the tongue leads to a final movement in which James offers outright denunciation of speaking with a forked-tongue.
Monday: What are some ways you bless God and curse people? Verse by Verse Research and Daily Devotions continued
judged more strictly. Because a teacher has great influence, they will be held more accountable (see Luke 20:47). In Paul's list of those who hold great gifts within the Church teachers come second only to the apostles and to the prophets (1Cor.12:28; compare Eph.4:11).
Tuesday: When you teach are you more careful with your words: why or why not? 3:2We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
We all stumbleThere is no man in this world who does not sin in something. The word James uses means to slip up. Sin is so often not deliberate but the result of a slip up when we are off our guard.
perfect man. Since the tongue is so difficult to control, anyone who controls it perfectly gains control of himself in all other areas of life as well. Teachers constantly use words so we need to be careful. When we have mastered the tongue we are a perfect person. If one can control the tongue, they can control the body. The notion of a perfect man (teleos aner) must be that of completeness and maturity, just as in 1:4. This is completeness in Christian virtue, not perfect sinlessness.
in what he says There is no sin into which it is easier to fall and none which has graver consequences than the sin of the tongue. Again this idea is woven into Jewish thought. Jesus warned men that they would give account for every word they spoke. "By your words you will be justified; and by your words you will be condemned" (Matt.12:36-37).
3:3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
3:4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
3:5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
We put a bit into the mouth of a horse, knowing that if we can control its mouth, we can control its whole body. So James says that if we can control the tongue, we can control the whole body; but if the tongue is uncontrolled, the whole life is set on the wrong way path. The tongue also is small, yet it can direct the whole course of a one's life. James’s point is that we should not underestimate the powerful potential of leadership positions nor undervalue the damage that can be done through careless or mean-spirited speech.
Wednesday: Can you recall a time when you were deeply hurt by what someone said? 3:6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
world of evil. is the world in its fallenness. The point James is making is that the great “world of evil” is seen in smaller, specific examples. On one level the uncontrolled tongue is an example of this world-evil that is opposed to God. It means that part of the body which is without God. An uncontrolled tongue is like a world hostile to God. It is the part of us which disobeys God.
sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.this last part of v. 6 is difficult and disputed; the idea seems to be that the power of wicked speech can spread evil through everything in human existence.
set on fire by hell. A figurative way of saying that the source of the tongue's evil is the devil (see John 8:44). Every one must remember the infinite possibilities of evil of which their tongue is capable! "Three things come not back--the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity." There is nothing so impossible to kill as a rumor; there is nothing so impossible to obliterate as an idle and malignant story. Let a man, before he speaks, remember that once a word is spoken it is gone from his control; and let him think before he speaks because, although he cannot get it back, he will most certainly answer for it.
Thursday: Can you recall a time when you hurt someone by what you said? 3:7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man,
In these verses the third figure is developed: the tongue is more vicious than any of the lower animals. For no matter how wild they may be, they can be tamed--in fact, they all have been tamed--by men; but no man can tame the tongue! Even poisonous serpents can be controlled but not the poisonous tongue; it never rests and it’s poison is deadly. James flatly asserts that no one can control speech (v. 8). Indeed, he personifies the tongue, as though it were an independent agent outside anyone's control: “It makes great boasts” (v. 5 NIV; NRSV, “it boasts of great exploits”). Following the logic of v. 2—if anyone controls speech, that is a perfect person—James does not regard human perfection as possible. No human can tame the tongue, but God can.
Friday: How have attempted to control your tongue? What worked and what did not work? 3:9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.
in God's likeness. Since we have been made like God (Genesis 1:26-27), to curse one is like cursing God (see Genesis 9:6).
3:10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
The tongue is inconsistent for it can praise at one moment and curse at the next, and this is not how it should be.
3:11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
3:12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
We can see from nature this is not how it should be and that we should not continue in this sinful manner. Nothing so vividly reveals double-mindedness than to have that curse proceed from the same mouth that blesses God. In man there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner. It is James' conviction that nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the tongue. And yet the very mouths and tongues that had frequently and piously blessed God, were the very same mouths and tongues which cursed fellowmen. To James there was something unnatural about this; it was as unnatural as for a stream to gush out both fresh and salt water or a bush to bear opposite kinds of fruit. Unnatural and wrong such things might be, but they were tragically common in our daily living. There is a larger battle here than that of an individual's struggle for self-control; it is a battle involving spiritual allegiances. Thus when James says that his readers should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” he is not saying anything more than a Hellenistic philosopher would have said.. It is also clear that the failure to perceive in one another God’s image is a part of the complex. By showing favoritism and by displaying an antinomian (it does not matter what we do because we are saved by faith) spirit that apparently treated the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a trifle, certain church leaders were actually encouraging a deviant teaching and practice. Failure to recognize that each of us is created in God’s image will eventually allow us to oppress and enslave one another.
Saturday: How have we sought God’s help in controlling our tongue?
Key to sources for Research Cut and Paste are on the Third Page