Wisdom Proved by Meekness and Control of the Tongue
James 3. Just as the second chapter expanded on the thread of caring for the poor that was introduced briefly in the first chapter (Jam. 1:9-11), so the third chapter expands on another thread previously introduced; that of controlling the tongue (Jam. 1:19, 26). The problem that was at the root here was those who wanted to take the place of teachers among the brethren without humility and grace. They professed to have great wisdom and sought to display it by much talking, but James shows in this chapter that their wisdom was earthly, natural, and devilish. True wisdom is seen in controlling the tongue and manifesting humility and kindness toward others. While some in ch.2 were merely false professors, it would seem that ch.3 is more a word to the saints. There were some among them who were really walking in a bad state, with wrong ideas, and this is what James seeks to correct.
Nature’s Use of the Tongue (3:1-12)
1 Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment. vv.1-2 Speaking Authoritatively Without Humility. James warns against being “many teachers”. This is not an exhortation against teaching in general, else it would contradict the exhortation for teachers to teach (1 Tim. 4:13-16), etc. This is a peculiar expression which is hard to understand. It refers to setting oneself up to be an authority, teaching others how to live, without humility and self-judgment. The Jews were naturally prone to this because of their background (Romans 2:17-21), but it applies to all of us, especially those who have a privileged spiritual heritage. We are to be characterized by humility, and if we are, we will say less and listen more. The tongue reveals our state of soul, whether it be good or bad; “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). See also Prov. 30:32. The solemn fact, as James brings out, is that speaking – especially in teaching others – increases our responsibility, because we will be judged for what we say. The more careless we are with our speech, the greater the judgment we will receive. The judgment here is that universal judgment that all men face presently under the government of God (1 Peter 1:16-17; 3:10-12). For the believer, we will never face judgment in the judicial sense for sins, because that issue was fully resolved at the cross. There may also be a future sense in which our deeds will be reviewed at the judgment seat of Christ; “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). The Lord Jesus warned the same thing in His preaching; “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36).
2 For we all often offend. If any one offend not in word, “he” is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body too. v.2 Controlling the Tongue. James transitions to the more general tendency in all men to offend in their speech. “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). There are so many ways that we offend with our speech; foolish talking and jesting, lies and half-truths, gossip and slander, overstating and understating, insults and abuse, oaths and curses. We are so prone to this kind of sin that James says one who does not offend is “a perfect man”. The tongue is the hardest member of our body to control, and if a believer had managed to control his tongue, he has arrived at a state called Christian perfection. This does not refer to absolute moral perfection, or impeccability, but to a state of full maturity or spiritual growth. How important it is for us to learn self-control in our speech. “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). The answer to this danger is not to be silent at all times. In an attitude of humility, we are to follow the leading of the Spirit, and speak as God gives us to speak, with full confidence, not in ourselves, but in God.
3 Behold, we put the bits in the mouths of the horses, that they may obey us, and we turn round their whole bodies. 4 Behold also the ships, which are so great, and driven by violent winds, are turned about by a very small rudder, wherever the pleasure of the helmsman will. 5 Thus also the tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. See how little a fire, how large a wood it kindles! 6 and the tongue is fire, the world of unrighteousness; the tongue is set in our members, the defiler of the whole body, and which sets fire to the course of nature, and is set on fire of hell. 7 For every species both of beasts and of birds, both of creeping things and of sea animals, is tamed and has been tamed by the human species; 8 but the tongue can no one among men tame; it is an unsettled evil, full of death-bringing poison. vv.3-8 The Treachery and Volatility of the Tongue. James proceeds to expand on the idea of the tongue being the most difficult member of our bodies to control. He gives four illustrations of the tongue that show how difficult control of the tongue is to master. First, the tongue is a bit in the mouth of a horse, which turn the horse’s body. A small piece of metal can turn the massive body of a horse, and make them obey the command of their human master. Second, the tongue is a rudder that turns a great ship. A relatively small flat plate can easily maneuver the course of a huge ship, even when “driven by violent winds”. In a similar way, the tongue can be used with relatively little effort to produce proportionately massive consequences, for good or evil. If the tongue is under control, then the whole body is under control too.
Third, the tongue is a little fire that ignites an entire forest. A small fire can lead to a huge wood or forest catching fire, and result in tremendous destruction. A small fire quickly gets out of control, and we have no way to stop it once started. The warning is to be careful, because of the huge potential for destruction. How many relationships have been destroyed through the use of the tongue? Friendships, marriages, families, and assemblies have all been consumed as a result of the wrong use of the tongue. We are still responsible for the results of our speech however (see Ex. 22:6).
Not only can the tongue lead to greater evils, but it is “fire” just in itself, and a “world of unrighteousness”. The tongue is so central to us that, if misused, it can lead our whole body into sin; “the tongue is set in our members, the defiler of the whole body”. The tongue sets things on fire, and it is set on fire itself. It “sets fire to the course [or wheel] of nature”, meaning the tongue can stir up every passion of man’s fallen nature. It sets events in motion that lead to every other kind of evil. But the real source behind the misuse of the tongue is Satan; “and is set on fire of hell”. Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44), and he uses the tongues of men to accomplish his nefarious work.
Fourth, the tongue is an animal that cannot be tamed. Many animals have predictable natures that man is able to control, while others are more difficult. In some way, man is able to tame “every species” and bring it under control (some to a greater degree, and others to a lesser degree). The tongue is likened to a poisonous animal that cannot be tamed. How is it that humans can manage to control “every species” of animal and yet not their own tongues? This brings out the untrustworthiness of the tongue, as well as the harmfulness of the tongue. These four illustrations give us a composite picture of what the tongue is like, how volatile it can be, and why we need to use it carefully. It doesn’t say the tongue cannot be tamed. Only “no one among men” can tame it. With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible! The tongue can be bridled (Jam. 1:26), but it requires dependence and humility.
9 Therewith bless we the Lord and Father, and therewith curse we men made after the likeness of God. 10 Out of the same mouth goes forth blessing and cursing. It is not right, my brethren, that these things should be thus. 11 Does the fountain, out of the same opening, pour forth sweet and bitter? 12 Can, my brethren, a fig produce olives, or a vine figs? Neither can salt water make sweet water. vv.9-12 The Moral Inconsistency of Misusing the Tongue. James next powerfully shows how morally inconsistent it is to use the tongue for evil, how wrong it is to use the same mouth for blessing and cursing. In a religious form men will bless God, and in the same breath they will curse their fellow man. How could I speak the filth of the flesh one minute, then speak the glories of Christ in the next? James brings the moral inconsistency of this home to the conscience: “It is not right, my brethren, that these things should be thus”. The expression “we bless the Lord and Father” is an interesting construction. It would seem that James refers to blessing the Son and the Father together in our praise, referring to the Son as “Lord”. However, it is equally true that the Father is Lord also, although that is not His distinctive office as with Christ in resurrection (Acts 2:36).1 In vv.11-12 he gives three more illustrations of things that defy a natural order to show how the inconsistent use of the tongue defies a moral order. A fountain cannot naturally produce sweet and bitter water. A tree cannot produce the fruits that belong to another species (Matt. 7:16-20). Adding salt to water cannot produce sweet water. With all three of these examples there is a common thread. There is something in the nature or character of the thing that logically cannot produce different outcomes. To produce different outcomes would violate the laws of nature. So with the tongue; to misuse it violates a moral law. This inconsistency is called unrighteousness.
Wisdom’s Use of the Tongue (3:13-18)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you; let him shew out of a good conversation his works in meekness of wisdom; v.13 Wisdom Shown. The Jews were well acquainted with the importance of wisdom and understanding according to the law (1 Kings 4:29; Prov. 2:2). The tendency of the flesh is to think that wisdom and understanding are displayed in teaching others; i.e. by our words. But here James says that true wisdom and understanding are shown in a “good conversation” or manner of life, and through “works in meekness and wisdom”. Rather than take a self-exalted place over others as a teacher (v.1), true wisdom humbles a person, and causes them to display meekness and wisdom in the their works. What a contrast!
14 but if ye have bitter emulation and strife in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. v.14 Hypocrisy Manifested. James turns to speak of the opposite of true wisdom, and that is the false profession of wisdom by those who have not judged the flesh and humbled themselves in the presence of God. They might try to tell others how to live, but if they have “bitter emulation” (or competition) and “strife” (or contention) in their hearts, they are hypocritical. Christians are to be the total opposite of this (Phil. 2:3). To set ourselves up to be teachers while carrying unjudged and evil motives toward others is a very dangerous thing. The solemn warning is, “do not boast and lie against the truth”.
15 This is not the wisdom which comes down from above, but earthly, natural, devilish. 16 For where emulation and strife are, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above first is pure, then peaceful, gentle, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, unquestioning, unfeigned. vv.15-17 Two Kinds of Wisdom. In the previous chapter James had dealt with dead faith manifested by a profession without works, so in this chapter he deals with “earthly, natural, devilish” wisdom manifested by “emulation and strife”. You see, there are two kinds of wisdom, just as there are two kinds of faith. The kind of wisdom that James was decrying was the fleshly wisdom of man.
- It is “earthly” as opposed to heavenly, and therefore centered on self (Phil. 3:19).
- It is “natural” as opposed to spiritual, and therefore ignorant of the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14).
- It is “devilish” as opposed to divine, and therefore positively evil (Eph. 2:2).
Someone with this wisdom will be characterized by fleshly competition and conflict with others, and where those things are there will also be “disorder and every evil thing”. But the wonderful contrast is seen in the “wisdom from above”. This is the wisdom that God gives from heaven to those who ask, and it too has fruits that are manifested.
- First, it is “pure” in the sense of free from moral defilement, and also in the sense of pure motives.
- Second, it is “peaceful” promoting unity rather than strife. Notice that peace is not at the expense of purity.
- Third, it is “gentle” rather than offensive to others.
- Fourth, it is “yielding” or giving way to others, rather than insisting on one’s own will.
- Fifth, it is full of “mercy” and “goodness” to others, especially to the poor, as we had in the previous chapter.
- Sixth, it is “unquestioning” rather than contentious and skeptical.
- Seventh, it is “unfeigned” or genuine, rather than pretended or hypocritical.
These characteristics of heavenly wisdom center around a gracious and humble attitude as well as good behavior and works. Notably absent is any mention of words or teaching.
18 But the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for them that make peace. v.18 Peace. In this verse we have that which characterizes the walk of one who has the wisdom from above; i.e. peace, as opposed to emulation and strife. The verse can be difficult to understand, but it is helpful to see that, in scripture, true peace is a result of righteousness (Heb. 7:2; Isa. 32:17). This is what is meant by the first part of v.18; the fruit of righteousness is seen in peace. Peace is therefore viewed as a harvest which is planted earlier by the peacemaker; “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). When a believer walks in a way that is pleasing to the Lord – in practical righteousness, but also in peace that flows from righteousness – he sows the seed (or perhaps God’s sows it for him)2 that later bears an abundant harvest of peace for themselves in the future. This refers to the government of God for the believer; “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding. There are three terms in scripture that are closely related: knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. There is certainly overlap between knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, but the words do covey different meanings.
- Knowledge. Knowledge is the possession of information or intelligence (Gen. 2:9; 1 Kings 9:27; Rom. 3:20); in scripture particularly of what God has said and done (Num. 24:16; Prov. 2:5; Isa. 11:9). Most importantly, there is the knowledge of Divine Persons which should be every human's highest priority to gain (Eph. 1:17; 3:8; 4:13; Col. 1:10). It is one thing to have natural knowledge, like scientist, but another thing to have the knowledge of God.
- Wisdom. Knowledge asks the question "What?". Wisdom is deeper than knowledge because it asks the questions "Why?" and "How?". Wisdom is the apprehension of the beauty and propriety of what God has said and done (1 Cor. 2:6-8). Often people equate wisdom with age or experience, and often those things are correlated (Job 32:7). Experience should teach a person wisdom, however wisdom is not the same as experience. Wisdom is more like insight; the result of apprehending the inner nature of things. Knowledge apprehends that the sun rises and sets each day, but wisdom apprehends why the sun rises and sets.
- Understanding. Understanding is the ability to practically apply wisdom; to know what to do (1 Chron. 12:32; Ex. 36:1). Understanding and wisdom are often confused, and the words used almost interchangeably. Understanding is more like discernment in a given situation. We see this in 1 Kings 3, where Solomon prayed "Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?" (1 Kings 3:9). The Lord of course answered Solomon's prayer, and gave him the understanding heart, which also implies wisdom and knowledge. An example of understanding follows in the same chapter, where the two women came both claiming the living child was hers. It was Solomon's wisdom to know how a mother's heart is toward her child. But it was understanding which led Solomon to say, "Bring me a sword" and "Divide the living child", because it exposed which was the true mother. This of course is natural understanding, but there is something even greater which is "spiritual understanding" (Col. 1:9); i.e. discernment in spiritual things.
As an example, take an automobile. First, you need to be aware of the parts that make up a car - that's knowledge. Second, you need to grasp how the car works, the purpose of its various systems, and how the pieces fit and function together - that's wisdom. Third, you need to lay hold of the operation of the car, or discern what is to be done to fix the car if it were broken - that's understanding.3 In terms of spiritual things, all three come from the Lord; "For Jehovah giveth wisdom; out of his mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Prov. 2:6).
- There seems no sufficient ground then for doubting that “the Lord” in the usual acceptation of the term is here combined with “the Father” as objects united in our praise. That it is unusual, all admit; but so it is in many a phrase of holy writ, that our narrowness of thought may be corrected and enlarged out of the fulness of divine truth. On the other hand no one should stumble at predicating “Lord” of the Father, if such were the aim of the inspiring Spirit here. For though the crucified Jesus was made by God both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), and He is in distinctive office one sole Lord, as the Father is simply in His nature one sole God (1 Cor. 8:6), it does not follow that “Lord” may not be applied to the other Persons in the Godhead. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
- Some contend strongly that we should understand “by” rather than “for.” Grammatically the clause is susceptible of either sense; but the former seems hardly so suitable to the bearing of the context. Let the Christian reader judge for himself. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
- Thus "wisdom" sees the beauty and propriety of any given thing, and "spiritual understanding" takes the right application. One seizes the cause; the other is occupied with the effect. - Kelly, William. The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians.