posted on Jun, 18 2012 @ 04:11 PM
In the middle of his New Testament letter (ch3 vv1-12), James presents a number of thoughts on the use of the tongue. They don’t have the kind of
logical progression found in Paul’s letters, which makes the passage seem a little disjointed. Nonetheless, we can find a purpose in the
arrangement; they haven’t been thrown together at random.
His first thought is that people should not be over-eager to teach others, which is one way of using the tongue (v1).
The reason given is that teachers will be judged more strictly, if they get things wrong, because they will have been leading others astray.
I wonder if that includes the episode in my primary school when I was explaining the mysteries of number to the boy at the next desk.
“There are ten tens in a hundred”, I told him, “ten hundreds in a thousand, and ten thousands in a million”.
Nobody picked up on the fact that I was unconsciously misleading him, but I still remember it as an example of the pitfalls of analogy, as well as
But James is probably more concerned with those who teach on religious matters. It’s one aspect of what Jesus meant about “causing one of these
little ones to stumble”.
The remark that “we all make many mistakes” is the link which connects this thought with the next thought.
The second thought is that those who can control their tongues, to the extent of avoiding mistakes altogether, will be able to control the rest of
their bodies as well (v2).
And also the other way round, we must suppose; those who cannot control their tongues will not be controlling their bodies.
The explanation given is that the body is governed by the tongue in the same way that a horse is governed by his bit, or a ship is governed by its
rudder. In each case, there’s a small unit directing and controlling a much larger body, as long as it’s properly guided by the horseman, the
steersman, or the speaker.
We may question whether this really applies to the tongue,
We may think that use of the tongue is a symptom, more than a cause, of self-control or the lack of it.
Certainly an uncontrolled use of the tongue is likely to be the first symptom that presents itself, if we’re meeting someone for the first time.
But we may be willing to accept his observation that self-control in the tongue and self-control in the body tend to go together.
The remark that a small fire, in the same way, can set light to a great forest is the link which connects this thought with the next thought.
His third thought is that the tongue is a fire (v6).
It’s been taken from the fires of Gehenna, which makes it an unholy fire.
The additional comments in that sentence are not always easy to translate.
The phrase “world of unrighteousness” is dropped in rather awkwardly, immediately after the word “fire”. The word KOSMOS, normally translated
“world”, really means “arranged, put in order”.
He says that the tongue “is set up” (KATHISTATAI) among the parts of the body. None of the translations that I’ve consulted even bother
translating that verb. Yet the mere fact that the tongue “is one of the parts of the body” seems too obvious to be worth inserting. I think the
Greek will bear the meaning that the tongue is set up “in office” or “in power” among the parts of the body, which would echo his second
thought. Then the previous phrase could mean that the tongue was bringing about an unrighteous state of order.
He says that the tongue defiles the body, and also sets on fire TO TROCHON TES GENESEOS. The RSV translates this last phrase as “cycle of nature”,
but also offers the alternative translation “wheel of birth”. I wonder if James is using “wheel” as a metaphor for “smooth running”, in
the same way that we talk about “oiling the wheels”, or putting a spoke in them. Then his meaning could be that the tongue brings friction to the
wheels of (social) life and disrupts the smooth running of society at large. This behaviour is a spiritual “defilement of the body” because it’s
against God’s will.
The tongue is also like a wild beast, unique among the wild beasts of the earth in that it cannot be tamed by men. This claim is slightly at odds with
the gist of his previous thought. The whole point of the rudder/horse-bit metaphor was to draw the moral that taming the tongue, keeping it under
control, was both possible and necessary. However, we might accept the claim as a practical observation, that the human race has never been very
successful in keeping the tongue tamed.
The remark that the tongue is full of deadly poison is the link which connects this thought to the next thought.
His fourth thought is that the tongue is used for contradictory purposes (v9). On the one hand, it is used for blessing God, on the other hand it is
used for cursing fellow-men. This kind of thing is against nature, like a spring which gives fresh and salt water at the same time.
It’s possible that all these thoughts had featured independently in James’ conversation and teaching.
Then they were combined into a single discourse by the addition of the connecting links.
But the passage, in its final form, seems to have a recognisable purpose in the context of the letter, following on from his comments on faith and
works, and leading into his commendation of “the wisdom from above”.
At the end of ch2, James was criticising a reliance on a purely verbal faith, pointing out that a man’s faith needs to be demonstrated by what he
I think it’s very plausible that the “verbal faith” which James attacks was being encouraged by teachers inspired by Paul’s language on faith.
(It’s not quite a true reflection of Paul’s own teaching, but that must be a question for another time).
I suggest that his remarks in ch3 on the use of the tongue are intended to have a personal application to the same people he was addressing in the
His first thought is that they are over-eager to be teachers, putting other people right on matters of theology, and not recognising the possibility
that they might be mistaken themselves.
His second thought is that their teaching doesn’t pay enough attention to the need to keep the body under control.
Perhaps he thinks they don’t control their own bodies very well either.
His third thought is that their own use of the tongue, in theological controversy, is intemperate, and causes trouble within the church.
His fourth thought will also be applicable to them if they are in the habit of cursing their theological opponents.
Finally, at the end of the chapter, he gets back to his previous theme, the importance of showing good works “in the meekness of wisdom”. In
other words, after taking these teachers to task about the manner of their teaching, he returns to discussing the content.
So bringing these thoughts together has also had the effect of developing one of the main themes of this letter.