(Please read James 3:1-12)
The Bible emphasizes control of the tongue as a matter of great importance. The books of Psalms and Proverbs abound in cautions about speech. Proverbs 13:3 says, “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.” Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”—and the latter part of the verse can very well be paraphrased — “Those who love to talk shall suffer the consequences.” Psalm 34:13 says, “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.” Jesus says, “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).
The Scriptures speak of lying tongues, flattering tongues, deceitful tongues, backbiting tongues, and so forth. James was inspired to write much about the tongue. In fact, the matter of speech is mentioned in some way in every one of the five chapters of the Book of James (1:26; 2:14; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:12). However, it is in chapter 3 that we find the most complete instruction on the use of the tongue.
1. The Tremendous Power of the Tongue (3:1-5)
In verse 1 of the chapter, James cautions believers about the danger of rushing into the work of teaching the Word of God, without assuming the sense of responsibility that goes along with the duty of teaching. He exhorts: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.”
The teacher of spiritual truth has a greater opportunity than anyone else to use his tongue either for good or for evil. A teacher’s primary tool is the tongue. The warning here involves a tremendously important principle: larger responsibility involves greater guilt (if that responsibility is abused). James says that many should even avoid becoming teachers, because teachers will be judged by a more strict standard than the person whose influence is not as wide in its scope. James is not questioning the value of good teaching; he is simply warning about the danger of hankering after self-honor as a teacher, without considering the immense responsibilities before God.
Teachers will be judged with special strictness. If we try to teach others what to do, we are under greater responsibility to do exactly the right thing ourselves. And so to carelessly covet the influence and authority of a teacher is something we should avoid doing.
The teacher’s responsibility is weighty because the tongue is the most difficult member of the body to control. In verse 2, James says that we all stumble and sin, and that “if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” We all offend (stumble) in many things. Notice that James places himself on a level with his readers; he includes himself with those who sin. However, because the tongue is used so much (30,000 words per day on the average)—we are likely to sin more in the realm of speech—than in any other realm. And because the tongue is the most difficult member of our bodies to control, one who gains mastery over the tongue, is able also to exercise control over the whole body.
One writer shares an illustration which shows how the tongue reveals one’s character. He tells about a 9-year-old girl who sat at her desk (in the fourth grade) doing her assignment. The boy sitting behind her one day exclaimed, “Oh my God! I’ve spoiled my drawing!”
The little girl turned around and said to him: “You should never say things like that.” The lad replied, “Why? All I said, was Oh my God”—and he explained that his mother frequently used that phrase. He was astonished that Judy should even be concerned. She explained that the Bible says we should not take the name of God in vain.
Now (in light of the above information)—think about a few questions:
- 1) Which child’s mother would be more likely to drink liquor? The mother of the little girl (who was concerned about the use of those words), or the mother of the boy (who used them frequently)?
- 2) Which mother would be more likely to tell suggestive stories?
- 3) Which mother would be more likely to send her child back to the store to return excess change that was given in error?
- 4) Which mother would likely scream at the children in the home when things don’t go her way?
It is quite obvious that the mother who uses God’s name carelessly—will falter more quickly in other areas of life. The control of the tongue is the barometer of Christian maturity, and one’s speech will soon reveal whether or not a person is a spiritual person.
James illustrates the powerful influence of the tongue with a few examples. In verse 3, he says, “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.” The horse is naturally wild and hard to control, but with skill and patience, the movements of the animal can be regulated primarily through the use of a small instrument in the horse’s mouth (called a “bit” or a “bridle”). Just so the tongue (only small in size), can be powerful in its effect.
In verse 4 he illustrates by saying: “Behold also the ships, which though they are so great, and are driven by fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, wherever the governor listeth.” James knew nothing of the huge ocean-going vessels that ride the seas today, but even in his day there were some large ships. The Queen Elizabeth (operated last in 1968) was nearly a thousand feet long. It displaced 83,000 tons of water. It was really a floating hotel. Yet there was only a very small rudder that turned the ship. One man (using only one hand) could turn a lever and steer the massive ship. Just so, the tongue (though only small in size) can be mighty in its effect.
Like the two previous illustrations, the tongue also is a small item. Verse 5 says, “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” The word “matter” is more literally translated “forest.” A great forest can become an ash heap as the result of one carelessly discarded match. Most forest fires are started by carelessness—a campfire left smoldering, or a cigarette thrown into the grass, or even a spark from an overheated locomotive axle. The damage which the tongue can cause, is like the damage caused by a forest fire:
- Fire is painful—so are the burns caused by hot words.
- Fire spreads—so does gossip and evil speaking.
- Fire consumes—just so, careless words consume character.
It is difficult to overestimate the power of the tongue. The tongue is like the bit in a horse’s mouth, the small rudder on a huge ship, and the spark that ignites a large fire. All of these items are small, yet are powerful in use. Just so the tongue can sway men to violence, or it can move them to noble actions. The tongue can instruct the unlearned and encourage the sorrowing, or it can destroy reputations and spread distrust and hate. James is showing in these verses that some very small things can produce some very significant results. The tongue is one of those small things that has a tremendous scope of power.
2. The Vicious Nature of the Tongue (3:6-8)
The tongue has turned brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and nation against nation. James uses three commonplace examples to illustrate how the tongue (wrongly used) can be malicious and destructive in nature. The devastating fire, the untamed beast, and a deadly poison—are all used to illustrate the havoc wrought by the tongue.
The first illustration is given in verse 6: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” James is describing the tongue of an undisciplined person. He is telling what his tongue is by nature, not what it can be by grace. It is a fire, a world of iniquity. Fire (when under control) is a great blessing to man: it drives the chill and dampness from our houses; we use fire to cook our food; we use fire to warm our bodies. But when fire is out of control, it lets a path of desolation and destruction.
The phrase “world of iniquity” (in verse 6) points to the vastness of evil which the tongue is capable of producing. The phrase “defileth the whole body” means that the tongue wrongly used, pollutes man’s whole nature. The phrase “is set on fire of hell” is a striking statement best explained in the sentence: “It can make the whole of life like a blazing hell.”
Verse 7 says, “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed by mankind: but the tongue can no man tame.” Fierce beasts of the forests and wild birds of the jungle can be tamed by men. Pliny (the early Roman historian) tells of the Roman governor who tamed fish. He had a name for each fish, and when he called a particular name, that fish appeared at the top of the water.
Every type of creature can be tamed by men. At a circus, there are elephants and seals and monkeys—all taught to respond to cues from the trainer. One time I saw a chicken taught to play a small piano. The word “tame” (in verse 7) means “to overpower, to subdue, or to conquer.” The passage does not say that the tongue cannot be controlled, but it does declare that no man can tame it. Only man, with the help of God, can do it. One who comes to Jesus Christ as a penitent sinner, and believes the message of the Cross, will know the forgiveness of sins, and will find that the Comforter lives within—cleansing the heart and helping to make the bitter tongue sweet.
“No man can tame the wicked tongue;
No man his soul can save;
Only God can cleanse the heart,
And make the tongue behave.”
In verse 8 we read: “It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is “an unruly evil.” Nature itself seems to indicate this fact in that the tongue is shut up inside the mouth—first of all, by a barricade of the teeth, and then by the door of the lips—and still it gets loose, and sometimes stirs up whole neighborhoods. Husbands and wives lash each other with the tongue. Parents and children rail at each other. Workers and managers accuse each other with their tongues. Thus the tongue is also “full of deadly poison.” And a poisonous drug does not need to be taken in large doses in order to be effective. A drop or two will usually suffice. Just so the tongue doesn’t need to utter long speeches in order to be poisonous. The child’s poem says it well:
“I lost a little word,
only the other day;
It was a very naughty word
I had not meant to say;
But then (it was not really lost),
when from my lips it flew,
My little brother picked it up,
and now he says it too.”
Poisonous lies from the human tongue have destroyed many a person’s reputation. It was a series of lies that put Jesus on the Cross. It was a number of lies that contributed to the stoning of Stephen. Lies played their part in the murder of Naboth. It was a vicious tongue that slandered Joseph in the house of Potiphar, and that accused Jeremiah before the king of Judah.
The tongue is a concealed and dangerous weapon! Our tongues are in a wet place, and they are likely to slip. We must constantly guard against the sins of profanity and lying and gossip and unloving criticism. We need to be on the alert, and crucify the natural man in us, and pray often with the Psalmist: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).
3. The Inconsistency of the Tongue (3:9-12)
The next four verses of the third chapter of James show us the good use of the tongue (blessing God), and also the bad use of the tongue (cursing men)—and the absurdity of doing both with the same tongue.
In verses 9-10 we read: “Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” To “bless God” means to praise Him with love and gratitude. To “curse men” means “to pronounce damnation upon other persons and to invoke evil upon them.” To “curse men” means more than using profanity. It means “wishing for some disaster to strike another person.” (The phrase “the similitude of God” means that human beings are made in the image of God, and even though that image was marred by the Fall, we should have a great concern for fellow human beings). It is inconsistent to praise God with the tongue in one moment, and then at another time, to wish a curse upon a fellow man.
A question is asked in verse 11: “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” James illustrates the inconsistency by saying that a fountain does not send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter water. No one visiting salt springs such as those found near the Dead Sea would expect to find salt water and fresh water coming from the same source.
Verse 12: “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” The illustration is amplified further by saying that fig trees do not yield olives, nor do grape vines produce figs. Olives, grapes, and figs are the three most common fruits of the Mediterranean world. Fig orchards are common. Vineyards cover entire hillsides throughout the Middle East. But nature is consistent. Each kind of fruit tree produces its own kind of fruit—exactly what is expected of it. Just so, the tongue is expected to be an organ of truth, and an instrument of divine praise. Sometimes it becomes an instrument of strife and contention, and an organ of blasphemies. This indeed is an inconsistency.
The tongue can be unruly, but it can also be a source of blessing that will refresh the lives of others. Just as a cool fountain of water (verse 11) on a hot day, and the shade of a big tree (verse 12), are inviting and refreshing, so our words can prove a blessing to others. Many times a kind word or a sympathetic letter or a courteous invitation can help determine the happiness of an eternal soul. Our lips do well to be couched with the words of the hymnwriter when he says, “Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from Thee.”
Many Christians let the Lord almost completely out of their speech. How large a place do His blessings and His commandments and His truths have in your everyday conversation? Malachi says that those who feared the Lord “spake often one to another” and that the Lord treasures our words, and even writes them in “a book of remembrance” (Malachi 3:16). Let each of us be careful with the tongue. Our words are being recorded in a book.