Practically Speaking: James 7

Previously, James discussed the absolute folly of thinking one could be religious while the tongue is uncontrolled:

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.  (1:19)

In this section of his letter, he picks us this theme and enlarges upon it.  This is a natural progression, for in the last chapter,  James exposed the absurdity of a “faith” that expresses itself only in words and not in deeds.  Those most tempted to behave like that; practice a dead and lifeless faith, are teachers.   Lenski in his comments on this passage helps us to put it into proper perspective:

We should think of the early churches in which any member might speak out in the meetings.  1 Corinthians 14:26-34 is instructive:  any brother might contribute some word; yet Paul lays down restrictions:  it must be for the purpose of edifying only, must occur in due order, two or three only are to s peak, and the women must keep silent.  James has the same ideas.

1.  Responsibility of teachers, 3:1,2a

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.We 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.

Moffatt in his translation of verse one gives us a clear sense of what James’ point is:

My brothers, do not crowd in to be teachers; remember, we teachers will be judged with special strictness.

At first glance, it seems as though James is introducing a new topic that has little to do with with verse 2.  However, when we stop and consider what James is saying in these two verses, we realize that teachers teach verbally, and their failures relate to what the words they speak.  Therefore, teaching and the use of the tongue go hand in  hand.

Since he has mentioned the the tongue twice already (1:19, 26), this is obviously a subject of importance and concern to James, the pastor.  More than any other writer in the New Testament, James warns against the dangers of an unruly tongue.  In this chapter, verse 1-12, James discusses taming the tongue and in the following chapter, 4:11-12, James warns his readers not to slander one another, and finally, in one last reference, in chapter 5:12, James tells his readers to speak the truth.   This idea of proper speech was a favorite topic of James’ famous brother, Jesus, who once said this:

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  (Matthew 12:36)

It should be pointed out that in no way does James mean to suggest that believes should never do what they can do to help another in their Christian walk.  James’ admonitions are intended to remind us of our responsibilities rather than deter us from our duties (Harper).  In point of fact, the New Testament encourages believers to become teachers of the Good News.  Consider again the words of Jesus in this regard:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

And the writer to the Hebrews actually rebukes his readers for not being good teachers:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  (Hebrews 5:12)

The warning is not so much against teaching but against those who want to teach for the prestige of it.  There are some Christians who are attracted to the idea of standing behind the pulpit, leading others, and counseling others, without realizing the terrible responsibility that comes with that position.  The one who teaches is assumed by those listening to have greater knowledge, and such added light demands added living.  If a teacher fails, their judgment will be much more strict because they have less excuse for failure.

James, in the first part of verse 2, reminds his readers that everybody, even the smartest and most diligent of teachers makes mistakes.  Again, Moffat’s insightful translation is  helpful:

Let no more of you take this upon you that God thrusts out; seeing it is so hard not to offend in speaking much.

3.  Some examples, 3:3-8

Words are important, and the words a person uses can tell us a lot about that person. Charles Wesley’s triumphant hymn tells of the power the tongue:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

And Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” mentions the prince of darkness whose:

Rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word can fell him.

The amazing power of one word.  It can change course of history.  One of the greatest examples of this is what Jesus said on the Cross.  The very last thing He uttered was “It is finished.”  But in the Greek, it is only one word.

James is going to illustrate the powerful influence of the tongue in using to graphic and practical examples.

A bit, verse 3.  The connection between this verse and the preceding one is obvious.  The so-called perfect man is one who never speaks an ill word and  is able to keep his whole body in check.  The bit in the mouth of a horse does just that.  That is how powerful the tiny tongue can be.  If a man, by using a small bit can control a large animal, then he should certainly be able to control his own tongue.
A rudder, verse 4.  This second example is even more powerful when we remember with what awe the Jews of James’ day regarded the sea.  They had a real love-hate relationship with the sea.  They feared it because it was so dangerous; yet many Jews made their living on the sea.  Even though Israel borders Mediterranean Sea, the Jews were never a sea faring people.  These large ships, says James, are steered against the powerful force of the waves by a tiny piece of wood called a rudder.  It is not the waves or the strong winds that determine the course of the ship, it’s the pilot, and he controls the ship with the rudder.   So if a man can direct the course of large ship against the force of the wind and the waves, then he should be able to control his tongue!

Before giving some more examples, James pauses to apply the two examples he just gave.  Just as bits and rudders are small things, the tongue is a small thing.  Yet, just like the tongue, the bit and the rudder have a powerful influence.  The tongue, says James, “makes great boasts.”  J.B. Philips’ translation is interesting:

The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of!

New Testament scholar Curtis Vaughn encapsulates verse five:

It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions.  It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying.  Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.

With verse six, James resumes his list of examples:

A fire, verse 6. The inflammatory tongue (Burdick) is responsible a multitude of sins.  Eason comments:

That world of unrighteousness , the tongue, is set among our members.

James compares the tongue to an out of control wildfire that destroys everything in comes near.  But James also has in mind the idea of a spark:  something so small yet can cause a great forest fire.  Bengal makes a fascinating observation:

As the little world of man is an image of the universe, so the tongue is an image of the little world of man.

All the sins that destroy man are to be found in the tongue.  Again, Burdick observes:

There are few sins people commit in which the tongue is not involved.

Because the tongue is so powerfully influential, and so inclined to evil, the tongue corrupts one’s whole being.  Not only that, it can corrupt others, as Lenski has noted:

You and I do not exist merely as separate entities.  Each of us is not a house that is set off by itself…James thinks of us as houses that are set together in a great city.  A fire that is kindled in any one house will spread and become a a great conflagration.

And finally, the Living Bible paraphrases this verse in striking fashion:

And the tongue is a flame of fire.  It is full of wickedness and poisons every part of the body.  And the tongue is set of fire by hell itself, and turn our whole lives into a blazing flame of destruction and disaster.

The phrase “the whole body” has a dual meaning  here in verses 2 and 6.  It refers to the Church, the whole body of believers, and it also refers to the individual person.  The consequences of careless and hurtful words are such that they can hurt the one speaking and can reach out and affect the lives of others.

Man, the ruler of God’s creation, verses 7 and 8.  James concludes his discussion on taming the tongue with one last illustration.  Man is the ruler of all God’s creation and has been given power over all that flies, swims, and crawls.

Man has been able to subdue all kinds of animals for his pleasure.   Yet despite this, man has been unable to get control over his tongue.  He cannot control his own tongue nor can he control others.  This is not to say that God cannot control the speech of a  man, for we know God can.  In the Bible the priest Zachariah was silenced by God, for example.  The Holy Spirit in the lives of believers is able to change the way they speak, if He is allowed to.  But no man on his own can tame his own tongue because its motivation to evil comes from powerful impulses not of his own choosing; the tongue is set on fire by Hell.

In regards to the destructive nature of the tongue, James makes no exceptions:  No man can tame the tongue.   This brief and emphatic conclusion hearkens back to what James said at the beginning of chapter 3:

We 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.  (verse 2)

More than any other Biblical writer, James paints a starkly bleak picture of man’s tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, like a snake that is never still and whose fangs are full of deadly venom.  Our tongues are unstable, elusive, and restless.   James paints an ugly of what sin has done to man.

Washington Irving, a 19th century American writer wrote:

A sharp tongue is the only edged too that grows keener with constant use.

Every culture has recognized the dangerous power of words:

There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. (German proverb)
A lengthy tongue and early death.  (Persian saying)
Lose lips sink ships.  (American saying)

Finally, some advice from the smartest man who ever lived:

When words are many, sin is not absent,  but he who holds his tongue is wise.  (Proverbs 10:9)

He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.  (13:3)

(c)  2008 witzEnd
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