Having addressed the importance of the tongue, James will now graphically illustrate this principle utilizing several common objects familiar to his readers and even to us. Several of these illustrations can also be found in philosophical writings before the first century (Aristotle, Sophocles, etc.). James will seemingly borrow and baptize these Hellenistic thoughts to suit his purposes in showing the nature of the tongue. If nothing else, these are common and familiar objects for his readers. Nevertheless, these serve to illustrate the importance of the tongue for the believer, especially in how it pertains to the teaching ministry of the church.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.
4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,
8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?
12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
The Power of the Tongue to Direct (3-5a)
James begins with two illustrations which show the tongue’s ability to direct the life of an individual. First, he points his readers to bits which are put into the mouths of horses to “guide their whole bodies.” This sentence begins with “if”(ESV) but is really a statement used to indicate the assumption of some truth. Hence, a reading like “now since…” seems suitable. James is reminding his readers of something they already knew to be true. In fact, James is building on a theme he’s established earlier in this letter (1.26) and which he just made mention of one verse previous (v.2). To bridle the tongue was a common illustration of the time and even centuries before it was used by Plato and Sophocles (Pulpit Commentary 42). Wild horses seem to be untamable. But when broken with bit and bridle firmly in place, he is able to be kept in submission. By using a bit which the animal bites he is under control. So the person who “bites” his tongue, holding his peace, controlling his mouth will use his tongue correctly. Connecting this with the context, the teacher who keeps mastery over his spoken words will not only guide his own body, but will also guide his students in the way they should go. With a horse we guide them from one place to another. Perhaps we guide them from low ground to high ground. So the teacher who uses his tongue rightly will guide himself and his students to the higher ground of maturity. With a horse we would steer them on the path in which they should walk. So a teacher who controls his speech will guide himself and his students in the path of righteousness.
Second, James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct with a ship’s rudder. On clear display is the smallness of the object which directs the larger vessel. As James points out, ships are very large and bulky. Maybe not necessarily an ocean liner, but this is comparative to the very small rudder. It is this least or very small part which is able to steer the much larger ship. This was a common illustration used centuries before by philosophers like Aristotle and Philo (Moo 122).This does not necessarily suggest that James borrowed from these sources or even knew of them, but simply is a testament to the fact of their commonality and prevalence in that culture. That ships are steered by rudders is a basic fact known by most societies. As the pilot directs the ship wherever he wants or needs for the ship to go, he steers the vessel by means of the rudder. Even though strong winds might drive the vessel forward, it is the rudder which directs its course. Again, this illustrates the power of the small tongue to direct the course of a man. The influence of the tongue is great even though it is a small member of the body. In terms of the context of the teacher, the tongue is able to guide a congregation into spiritual health or spiritual harm by what is spoken. No wonder teachers fall under greater judgment!
Before James continues with his illustrations, he first makes a point of application. Just as the bit and the rudder are small parts or members of a much larger body which have a great influence upon the object they direct, so the tongue is a small member of the body of a man but it makes great boasts which has great impact upon the direction of a man. Literally, the word for “boast” means to lift high the neck. This is unusually great confidence in someone or something. Lenski points out that usage of this phrase (“boasts of great things”) is categorically evil when used in other literature but here it is meant only as the possibility of evil.
There are a couple application points to pick up from James here. First, it should be understood that just as bit or rudder controls the course of a horse or ship, so the tongue can control the course of an individual’s life. The “mature man” will learn to control (“bridle”) his tongue and subject the rest of his body. But when the tongue is out of control, it tends to be in the mouth of a person who is undisciplined. Second, even as a bit or rudder can determine the destiny of a horse or ship, so the tongue of a teacher can determine the destiny of a congregation of the Lord’s church. A mature congregation of the Lord’s people will be mark by teachers whose words are controlled and directed (even held captive) by the Spirit infused and inspired word of God. Immature churches are marked by teachers who failed to have their mouth bound by and captive to the God’s word. May teachers in the Lord’s church have their tongues trained by the word of God so that they might direct the congregation to maturity in Christ Jesus.
The Power of the Tongue to Destroy (5b-8)
James transitions now from the power of the tongue to direct to the power of the tongue to destroy. The disproportionate size of the tongue to the destruction caused is graphically demonstrated by the following two illustrations: fire and animals. The previous two illustrations showed that restraint and control could be exercised over the vessel in which the small part was. But now the uncontrolled and unrestrained nature of the tongue is put on clear display through these two illustrations.
Recently, in Arizona, the Wallow fire made national news as millions of acres were set ablaze. Authorities narrowed the origin of the fire to a campground where two men had stayed and had failed to extinguish their campfire fully. They face a severe penalty for this negligence including being banned from national forests for life. We are all aware of the Smokey the Bear commercials warning that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Some forest fires can be traced to a single cigarette butt. But forest fires are not a modern occurrence; indeed, ancient philosophers frequently refer to ancient forest fires (Virgil, Homer). This pours right into James’ next statement that the tongue is a fire and seems to be the force in back of his saying, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” One might point to a similar statement that is found in the extra-biblical work Ecclesiasticus 11.32: “Of a spark of fire a heap of coals is kindled.”
With a powerful metaphor, James drills the point home even further: “The tongue is a fire.” This is so because it is “set on fire by hell” (Gk ghenna). As a fire, the tongue sets ablaze the “entire course of life” (lit. wheel of birth). This phrase is meant to picture life as a wheel which begins rolling at birth and ceases to roll at death. Using that familiar imagery, James communicates the idea that the tongue sets ablaze not only one life but ignites everything it encounters and rolls over. No wonder James calls the tongue “a world of unrighteousness.” This could be understood in a couple of ways. First, we sometimes say that someone is in a world of trouble or in for a world of hurt, meaning there is a whole bunch of trouble or hurt coming their way. Second, Jesus talked about the “unrighteous wealth” of His day (Luke 16.11). Perhaps James, borrowing a page from his older half-brother, speaks of the unrighteous world in a similar manner. Either way, the tongue has been set in our bodies and though small has the ability to stain our whole body.
James goes even further by adding yet another illustration. Wild animals (lions, tigers, bears, etc.), birds (from the sparrow to the birds of prey), reptiles (including snakes; think snake charmers), and marine animals (think Shamu) are all different examples of the animal kingdom over which man exercises dominion. Further, there seems to be a reference made to Genesis 9.2. All of these various creatures are tamed (present tense) and have been tamed (perfect tense) by mankind. The contrast is therefore quite striking that while man can tame these creatures, his tongue is out of control. “No human being can tame the tongue.” It is not possible for man to get control of his own tongue. Man can boast great things of taming every species of animal under the heavens, but he cannot boast of taming his own tongue. But here is the theological connection for James – man cannot tame the tongue, but God can! Only God can take what is unstable and base (“restless evil”), full of venomous poison ready to kill and bring it under control and continued restraint. Just as man can charm a venomous cobra, God can tame the venomous tongue. Even as man can train a deadly lion, so God can tame the wild tongue. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” says the wise man Solomon (Proverbs 18.21). No doubt this is something James has in mind when penning these words describing the deadly nature of the tongue.
The Power of the Tongue to Delight (9-12)
James continues his discourse on the dialect by presenting a perplexing paradox. This is something that is familiar to his style (see ch.1). Building upon what he just said about the tongue (the restless or unstable member of the body loaded with poison) and now addressing his readers for the first since verse 1, James zeroes in on what seems to have been a very real issue in the church to which he is writing. The members of the church would show up at the synagogue on Sunday and offer praise to God. Their tongues would bless the Lord and Father no doubt with the highest praise. But then, when the services were over and they went back into the “real world,” they would curse their fellow man. They are seeking for evil to happen to others and vocalize those bad intentions and wishes. In fact, the curse was not just a denunciation of the person but it was the desire to see a person cut off from the presence of God and endure eternal punishment. Some even speculate that these Christians were invoking a curse in the name of the cross! How much more un-Christ-like can one be! So the paradox is quite perplexing – “We bless God for the cross; and then we curse men in the name of the cross” (Pulpit Commentary 50).
Further, James identifies the theological connection – these people that these Christians curse and wish for them to go to hell are the creation of God and bear His likeness. Moo says, “What makes cursing particularly heinous is that the one whom we pronounce damned has been made in God’s image” (128). Even those whom we might curse are important to God. So the greatness of the sin is revealed in the nature of those on whom cursing is pronounced. James sums up the paradox succinctly: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” One of these is natural, the other unnatural. One of these is Christian, the other anti-Christian. Once more with pastoral care and guidance and yet with emphasis and force James admonishes his brethren. “My brothers, these things ought not be so.” Literally, it is neither morally right nor appropriate for these things to keep on happening.
Two more illustrations enter the discussion: fountains and fig trees. The main idea is that fountains and fig trees must produce those things which are beneficial. These are illustrative of man’s proper conduct when it comes to his dialect. Allowing garbage talk to issue forth out the mouth is like a spring producing salt water or like a fig tree bearing olives. These are incongruous. The questions are presented as rhetorical and a negative answer is expected. Of course these things are not so. That is not what these were created for; hence, that is not what man was created for. Instead of salty language from the spring of the mouth, fresh and refreshing water should issue forth. Blessing, especially the Father, is what man’s mouth was made for. Cursing is the antithesis of that creation.