Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker or tee-shirts: “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” In this section (1.19-27), James seems to be driving to a destination: It’s a religion! He will end up talking about religion that is “worthless” (v.26) and religion that is “pure and undefiled” (v.27). Religion is tied up in our speech. Religion addresses our actions. Religion is related to our view and reception of Scripture. So it is a religion! Perhaps the bumper sticker would better read: “It’s a religion…and a relationship!”
There is a Rabbinic saying: Talk little and work much. Also, “The righteous speak little, and do much; the wicked talk much, and do nothing.” And “If speech is silver, then silence is golden.” Perhaps James has these in mind and assumes his primarily Jewish audience will make the connection when he pens this section of the epistle.
“We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk less.” – Epictetus (55-135 AD), Greek philosopher. Unfortunately, some people have this backwards – having two mouths and one ear (and usually end up with both feet in their mouths!). In America, where the first amendment guarantees us the freedom of speech, we believe it is our God-given right to express any and every opinion no matter what the consequences. We are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to become angry. We have it all backwards. James writes to Christians to exhort them to a lifestyle where God’s word and not man’s word is of primary importance.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
James gives several imperatives in this section. The first begins verse 19: “Know.” This is from oida, that knowledge which is certain and refers back to what James has just covered. His “beloved brethren” know about the begetting power of the word of truth. This is a truth that have come to know and continue to know (perfect tense) concerning the word of God. “But let every man be…” begins the list of three imperatives.
A Swift Ear: Bookended by statements which have to do with the “word of truth” (v. 18, 21), it seems best to understand this swiftness in hearing in regards to the word of God. It is the word of God which is “truth” and saves souls. Certainly every person, Christian or not, should be quick to hear the word of the Lord. Tragically, most people have turned a deaf ear to God’s word. Even Christians, whose love has grown cold, are no longer swift to hear. It seems that some of those to whom James is writing fall into this category (cf. v.21).
A Slow Tongue: James is not advocating John Wayne talk, but is calling for a lifestyle which thinks before it speaks. How does this relate to the Word? First, I think of a Christian’s prayer life where we communicate or talk with God. Someone has said that if we are going to talk with God, it’s a good idea to let Him talk first! So we quick to hear God’s word and then speak to Him. Keep God in the proper perspective and remember He is God in heaven and you and human on earth. “Let you words be few” (Ecc 5.2). Second, in this context of temptations, do not be hasty in ascribing blame to God. In fact, as already seen, do not do that at all. So be slow when accusing God responsibility concerning temptation.
Truly, this is a difficult task. A modern proverb derived from Scripture, even from James, says “To control speech is to control self.” Later in James he says, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body” (3.2). Speech control, then, is the supreme example of self-control.
A Serene Temper: Slowness to anger is more than just great advice in self-improvement. To be slow to anger is divine for God Himself possesses this characteristic (see Ex 34.6; Num 14.18; Neh 9.17; Psa 86.15; 103.8; 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2; Nahum 1.3). James does not prohibit anger entirely, but he does warn that anger must be kept under control. One should not have a quick temper; one should be of such a mind that he thinks carefully before becoming angry. Is this worth getting exciting about? If not, why get angry? If it is, manifest the character of Christ in the situation, i.e. sin not.
Christians are to be models of these three qualities to people in the world. Of all the people on earth, Christians should be leading the charge in demonstrating swiftness to hear, slowness to speech, and slowness in becoming angry. We manifest the light of the world in our lives when we are and do these things. Or, as James explains, we put on display for all to see the “righteousness which God requires” (ESV). It is not that when we get angry God is more or less righteous; it is that when we get angry, the product is usually not toward an upright life which God calls us to. Barnes says, “The particular meaning of this passage is, that wrath in the mind of man will not have any tendency to make him righteous.” With sobriety of mind and thought, with a temper that is slow to boil over, one can then look toward the word of God with the proper perspective.
Since verses 19-20 are true and anger can hinder us from working righteousness, James wraps this teaching up by exhorting Christians to “put away” (ESV) several characteristics. Here is yet another imperative for Christians. The word used for “put away” carries the idea of taking off clothing. Therefore, the Christian is to strip him/herself of “filthiness and rampant wickedness” (ESV). First, “filthiness” or “moral filth” (NIV) which is disgusting or offensive evil conduct is to be taken off. This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. Second, “rampant wickedness” or “superfluity of naughtiness” (KJV) which means evil which overflows or abounds is to be removed. “Thus the two words rhuparia and kakia comprise two classes of sins – the sensual and the malignant” (Pulpit Commentary 5). In essence, James is exhorting his brethren to rid themselves of “all” evil in their lives.
They replace anger and all moral impurities with the word of God. Rather than say “put on” and continue the imagery, he exhorts Christians with yet another imperative to “receive with meekness the implanted word” (ESV). With open mind and open heart one takes unto himself the word which is planted in the soil of the heart. There is a sense in which this harkens back to the parable of Jesus about the soils (see Matt 13.3ff). The gospel teaching, when accepted and welcomed into the life, is able and has the power to save or deliver the soul (cf. Rom 1.16). The plant imagery is plain: the word has been planted in the hearts of these Christians. A primarily Jewish audience would have been raised with the “sacred writings” and thereby the word of God would have been planted in them. By receiving the word, the gospel continues to germinate and grow in us, producing good fruit and leading us further toward final deliverance. In other words, a Christian must never think that he/she is done with the word once they have obeyed the gospel.