A Subject in Everyone’s Mouth James 3

The average person speaks nearly 30,000 words each day—enough to fill a good-sized book. Do we realize that each of us is writing an unwritten book every day of our lives? As we read a book, we often form certain opinions about the author. What impressions do you leave in the book you are writing?

Solomon and the other writers of the Book of Proverbs recognized the importance of good speech. They mentioned the terms tongue, mouth, or words at least 115 times. The Book of James, often referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament, also has much to say about the importance of the tongue and the words it produces. James devoted the greater part of an entire chapter to the subject that is in everyone’s mouth—the tongue.

Before we consider that chapter, it is important to notice that James had a lot to say about the tongue in the other four chapters of his epistle as well. Consider the following:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (1:19).

If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain (1:26).

So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty (2:12).

Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law (4:11).

But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay, lest ye fall into condemnation (5:12).

Why is the tongue such an important indicator of practical faith? One of the first things a physician does when examining a patient is look at his or her tongue, since it is often an index to the health of the rest of the body. In the same way, that which is produced by the tongue words—also furnishes an index to the health of the spiritual body—the heart. In stressing this truth, James was simply following what his Master had previously taught: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Mt. 12:34).

James began his section on the tongue by warning us not to take lightly the role of public teaching because teachers have a heavy responsibility to discharge. “My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater judgment” (3:1). A teacher’s condemnation is greater because, having professed with his tongue to have a clear knowledge of the truth, he is all the more bound to obey it.

James then described the tongue with some of the most vivid figurative language used anywhere in the Bible. He employed no less than seven similes and metaphors, drawn from nature and experience, to illustrate by analogy the power and pitfalls of the tongue. He compared the tongue to a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, a raging fire, a wild beast, a deadly poison, a flowing fountain, and a blossoming tree (3:3–12). Through these figures of speech, he basically told us three things about the tongue. It is a small member (3:3–5); it is a savage monster (3:6–8); and it is a strange mixture (3:9–12) of both good and evil.

The Tongue Is a Small Member
James’ purpose in 3:3–5 was to illustrate, by means of two metaphors, the huge effects that a small member of the body like the tongue can actually display. He compared the tongue to a small bit in a horse’s mouth by which the rider can control the horse’s entire body. “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body” (3:3). We are reminded of his earlier comment about how ability to bridle the tongue is an evidence of true faith, and inability to bridle it is a mark of hypocrisy (1:26). As the expression goes, “A loose tongue will often land you in a tight situation.”

James continued his colorful comparisons by mentioning the small rudder that can steer a huge ship. “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 [rudder], wherever the pilot willeth” (3:4). An observer never sees the ship’s rudder because it is under the water and is controlled from above by the pilot. In the same way, a person’s tongue is controlled by a pilot—his or her own heart. Whatever the heart dictates to the tongue, it obeys. With great power, that little rudder determines the future course of the ship.

The tongue may be small…but its influence is far out of proportion to its size.

Who can measure how history has been influenced by the tongue? Think of the propagandistic speeches of a Hitler, or the commands of a Napoleon, or even the tender words of a Cleopatra to an Antony. Words have provoked wars, destroyed nations, and wrecked careers. Yes, the tongue may be small in comparison to the other parts of the body, but its influence is far out of proportion to its size.

The Tongue Is a Savage Monster
James continued to describe the destructive power of the tongue in 3:5–8, comparing it to a fire. “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! 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. 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.”

The horrible Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed half of that great city and left 125,000 people homeless. That great conflagration began, according to local lore, when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in its stall. Whether or not the story is true, there can be no doubt that every huge fire begins with a single small flame. When the 1953 fire in Seoul, Korea destroyed three thousand buildings, it was traced to an insignificant pot of rice that had boiled over. In the United States, thousands of acres of rich forests have been destroyed by a single cigarette. Wise Solomon knew these dangers and wrote, “An ungodly man diggeth up evil, and in his lips there is as a burning fire” (Prov. 16:27).

James continued his word pictures by declaring that a wild beast can be tamed, but not the tongue. “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” (3:7–8a). James mentioned mammals, birds, reptiles, and inhabitants of the sea, which can be turned into docile creatures by trainers. How wild, then, must the tongue be? No one else can control yours—it is up to you to tame it.

James finally compared the tongue to poison. “It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8b). Poison ultimately attacks the mind; thus our words can also poison the minds of others. A British children’s rhyme says,

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.

Our words can not only cut people, they can chop and dice them as well. Consider Paul’s wise admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”

The Tongue Is a Strange Mixture
James explained that the tongue often performs contradictory acts, such as blessing and cursing.

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (3:9–10). The practice of simultaneously cursing and blessing others contradicts not only the consistent Christian walk, but contradicts even nature. James employed the figure of a fountain in 3:11: “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” If a faucet is spewing forth brackish water, the problem usually lies, not in the faucet, but in the well or reservoir from which the water comes. In like manner, a tongue that uses foul language is simply a reflection of a foul heart. James must again have had in mind the Book of Proverbs. “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23).

Finally, James referred to a tree that is supposed to bear only one kind of fruit, not two. “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? Either a vine, figs?” (3:12). If a tree is not bearing fruit, the problem lies in the root. James’ good friend Peter learned this bitter lesson when he betrayed the Lord after His arrest. Having cursed and denied Jesus, he also denied that he was one of His followers, but a nearby hearer remarked, “Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee” (Mt. 26:73). Ultimately, our tongues will reveal what is inside us.

James’ solution to the problem of the tongue was to remind us that we must seek the wisdom that is from above, not the wisdom from below. The way to control an earthly tongue is to have a heavenly heart. The concluding passage in this chapter (3:13–18) teaches this clearly. Note especially 3:17: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”

The psalmist knew the balance between his outer tongue and his inner heart when he prayed, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). He also knew the treachery of his tongue, for he prayed, “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). Finally, he vowed to the Lord, “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” (Ps. 39:1).

A saintly woman was asked how she was able to control her speech so well. She replied, “Before I let the words out, I taste them to see if they are good or not.” That is a good example of how a person can learn to control the small member that is often a savage monster before it displays such a strange mixture of good and evil words.

But it takes more than just self-control to deal with the problem of a loose tongue. Even non-Christians can control their speech to an extent. What is needed to solve the problem within? Just as a pilot controls the rudder (3:4), we need the Holy Spirit, our heavenly pilot, to lead us by His power to use our tongues to bless God and others, not to curse them. When that happens, the “subject that is in everyone’s mouth” will be one that we can all enjoy studying!

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