This chapter divides itself into two sections:
The practical character of this letter is further evidenced by the subject of this chapter. The tongue is that member of the body which is given a significant place here. The faculty of speech is a remarkable gift from the Creator and is unique to man. The Lord declares “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”; the tongue, therefore, manifests both the true nature and the motivation of the heart; cf. Matt. 12. 31-37.
James begins by warning his readers against the misuse of teaching, a Jewish practice by which men could the more easily attain to pre-eminence. In 1. 19 the exhortation was given, “slow to speak”—here in chapter 3 it is applied to teaching. The admonition is important in its bearing: firstly, we are not to assume leadership in teaching for carnal purposes; even teaching as a gift must be utilized wisely because it carries great responsibility, for one may preach to others and oneself become “a castaway”, i.e., be disapproved, 1 Cor. 9. 27. A teacher must be consistent with what he teaches, else he shall receive a greater judgment, not as to salvation, but rebuke at the judgment seat of Christ. Secondly, the warning indicates that ministry among the recipients was in complete freedom; public teaching was not vested in a particular class.
Verse 2 is expansive and implies speaking in general: the perfect man is he who does not offend in a word, and so can master his body.
The following verses use various images to illustrate the use and abuse of the tongue. For example, it is likened to a bit, v. 3; a rudder, v. 4; a fire, a world of iniquity, v. 6; an animal, v. 7; an unruly evil, full of deadly poison, v. 8; a fountain, v. 11; a fig tree and vine tree, v. 12. Such a small member can influence the whole person, and it is interesting to see how small things can have major consequences. For instance, verse 5 should read, “Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire”. Again, think of Paul’s words, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump”, 1 Cor. 5. 6. Indeed, our Lord in Mark 7. 20-23 warns of defilement “from within”, “out of the heart” of man. “A world of iniquity” is how James calls the tongue, v. 6, the meaning of which could be: all the evil features of a depraved world find expression through the tongue and so pollute the personality. Furthermore, this has a permanent result throughout the course of human life, it “setteth on fire the course of nature”, v. 6. The R.V. translates “course” as “wheel”, a metaphor for the whole cycle of life. The phrase “and it is set on fire of hell” reminds us of the association in Scripture of the word “fire” with both purification and the provoking of human passion—the latter can ruin one’s life.
Man has power over the lower creation but has no control of the tongue, vv. 7, 8, and James, in his denunciation of its misuse, does so in the spirit of love, referring continually to his readers as “my brethren”, vv. 9, 10. Such sins of the tongue were common among the Jews, and it is only by the power of the Spirit that we can overcome them. Let us, therefore, be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath”, 1. 19.
The tongue can be used for divine purposes, but the danger is that it can easily be utilized otherwise. For example, Peter confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Matt. 16. 16, but shortly afterwards he was rebuked because he opposed the idea of the Lord suffering. Thus the tongue has inconsistencies which are absent from the world of nature, v. 12, “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?”
This exhortation is also appropriate to the Jewish recipients to whom it was written at the first. They were to manifest their good works by their “conversation” or “behaviour”, v. 13. Compare 2. 14f, where a similar theme occurs. Paul, in like manner, writes to Timothy, “the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid”, 1 Tim. 5. 25.
The Jews have been noted for their envying, their strife and self-exaltation. These vices are evident in Gentiles, too. Jealousies and the party spirit cause bitterness and contentions. These are not expressions of divine wisdom, the product of the Spirit and of the new nature, but evidences of the earthly wisdom, arising from fallen man, behind which is the originator of sin. However, the wisdom from above is pure, for it is derived from God and leads to God, and opposes that which is not of God. Consequently, it is peaceable; it desires the fruits of peace among believers, by means of the love declared in 1 Corinthians 13. It is gentle: “Let your moderation (gentleness) be known unto all men”, Phil. 4. 5. It is easily entreated, ready to yield, ignorant of stubbornness, prejudice and self-opinionativeness—the root sources of so much strife and contention among saints. It is not partial either, a sin dealt with in 2. 1f. It aims at the glory of God and upholds His holy character.
When a person realizes that his wisdom is of a superior sort, one can appreciate his reluctance in having his opinion or will disputed. The truth is that there is nothing which so characterizes the superiority of grace, truth and wisdom (divinely ordained) as patience and the absence of anxiety to “push” what one knows as correct. The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace and produces peace. Notice how righteousness is mentioned first, then peace. Compare Hebrews 7. 2, where Melchizedec is called “King of righteousness” and, afterwards, “King of peace”. Righteousness must be the basis of all God’s dealings with men, and only then can peace be achieved. The same will be true of the millennium, as can be seen from Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11; compare Psalm 85. 10, where “righteousness and peace have kissed each other”.