James 3 is a division of the Epistle complete in itself, specially concerned with Sins of the Tongue. Warnings and examples are given in plenty (James 3:5-12) followed by exhortations to meekness and gentleness, and the promise of “the fruit of righteousness” to the lovers of peace (James 3:13-18).
The greater condemnation.—Rather, the greater judgment—more strictly searching and severe. “None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7), and, if this be true of common Christian life, how deep is the responsibility incurred in the attempt to teach others! Nay—“who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:6.) The test of all ministry must come at last in the day of trial and fiery inquisition of God; this and not the world’s opinion will be the real approval (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). If the work of any teacher abide. his reward will be exceeding great; if it “be burned,” woe to him! “He himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire,” scathed by that which shall consume the rubbish he has raked together; the faith which prompted such a man shall save him, but no reward can follow useless teaching; nor can there be escape for his own soul, except he wrought honestly.
If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.—If any man: much more one who fain would teach his fellows. To “offend” means to stumble over something, and fall, and in this sense we get the exact meaning of “offending” by an unguarded allusion to a subject painful in the mind of another. “A constant governance of our speech, according to duty and reason, is a high instance, and a special argument of a thoroughly sincere and solid goodness,” says Isaac Barrow; but the meekest of men failed once, and blessed indeed is he who takes heed to his ways that he sins not with his tongue (Psalm 39:1).
Able also to bridle the whole body.—Not that if the tongue be stilled all the members of the body are consequently in peace; but, because the work of ruling the one rebel is so great, that a much less corresponding effort will keep the others in subjection.
Three comparisons of the tongue are now introduced; the bit (James 3:3), the rudder (James 3:4), and a fire (James 3:6): the two former to show what mastery may be gained by self-discipline, the latter to warn us of a danger which may quickly spread beyond our power to quell.
St. James, remembering the storms of the Galilean lake, could well rejoice in a simile like this, although he himself may only have known the craft of an inland sea, and never have beheld “broad rivers and streams” wherein went “galley with oars and gallant ship” (Isaiah 33:21). And none knew better than the brother of the Lord who was the true
“Helm of the ships that keep
Pathway along the deep.”
Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!—It would be more in the spirit and temper of this imaginative passage to render it, “Behold, how great a forest a little spark kindleth!” Thus it is expressed in the Latin Vulgate; and note our own margin, “wood.” The image constantly recurs in poetry, ancient and modern; and in the writer’s mind there seems to have been the picture “of the wrapping of some vast forest in a flame, by the falling of a single spark,” and this in illustration of the far-reaching mischief resulting from a single cause. (Comp. Ecclesiasticus 28:10.)
“Speech is silver; silence, gold.” But even the Christian world will not endure overmuch the godly discipline of silence. Three temptations “to smite with the tongue” are specially powerful of evil: viz., as a relief from passion, as a gratification of spite, as revenge for wrong. The first is experienced by hot tempered folk; the second yielded to by the malicious; the third welcomed by the otherwise weak and defenceless; and all of us at times are in each of these divisions. Then, again, there are the “foolish talkings” (Ephesians 5:4), and worse, the jestings at holy things, and misquotations of Scripture: all to be avoided as not becoming saints. If then we would “walk in love” we must curb the tongue; but, better still, strive to cleanse the heart, and so be quite determined that nothing shall go forth but words of meekness and affection. Nay, if we be truly Christ’s, though “reviled” by the unruly tongues of others, we shall, like Him, “revile not again” (1 Peter 2:23). And as the whole body is the Lord’s to be sanctified to Him (1 Corinthians 6:19 et seq.), so particularly must the tongue be kept from “evil-speaking, lying, and slandering,” and used rightly for the service of God. Thus may we truly offer “the calves of our lips” (Hosea 14:2), more acceptable than the blood of victims slain on a thousand altars, “than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:23).
“He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God Who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
The four-fold division of animal life above is curiously like and unlike that in Acts 10:17, where we read of “four-footed beasts of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and fowls of the air.”
The “likeness of God” assuredly remains in the most abandoned and fallen; and to curse it is to invoke the wrath of its Creator. What then can be urged in defence of anathemas and fulminations of councils, or the mutual execrations of sects and schisms, in the light of these solemn words? “Though they curse, yet bless thou . . . and let them cover themselves with their own confusion” (Psalm 109:28-29).
So can no fountain . . .—This, the last clause of the sentence above in the Authorised version is very confused in the original, but seems to be merely this, Neither can salt (water) bring forth fresh; or, as Wordsworth renders it, Nor can water that is salt produce what is sweet. And such in effect is Alford’s comment: “If the mouth emit cursing, thereby making itself a brackish spring, it cannot to any purpose also emit the sweet stream of praise and good words; if it appear to do so, all must be hypocrisy and mere seeming.” Every blessing is, in fact, tainted by the tongue which has uttered curses; and even “Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner” (Ecclesiasticus 15:9).
“Where shall Wisdom be found,
And where is the place of Understanding?”
was the question of Job (Job 28:12). And the LXX, version marks the parallelism in the same Greek words as those used by St. James to distinguish between the two ideas.
Let him shew out of a good conversation—i.e., right conduct. “Conversation” has slipped from its original meaning, which exactly represented the Greek, and is often misapprehended by the English reader. Literally, “turning oneself about,” it changed to “walking to and fro,” and the talking while engaged in these peripatetics, and then to its limited modern use. There is to be general good conduct, and particular proofs of it in kindly works in meekness of wisdom; noble acts of a holy habit.
Glory not.—Boast not yourselves as partakers of this accursed zeal; behold already what ruin it is bringing on us as a nation and a Church. And it were well to take care even in these milder days of religious factions, that the strife of creeds be wholly different in kind from the old zealot feuds, and not merely in degree. Able only to rend and overthrow, party-spirit will, if it be gloried and exulted in, lay down the walls of Zion “even to the ground.” But “if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy” (1 Corinthians 3:17), and the words must be translated much more sternly, “If any man destroy . . .”
Lie not against the truth.—This is not tautology, nor a Hebraism, but of far deeper import. “What is truth?” said jesting Pilate (John 18:38), and, as Bacon remarks in his Essay on Truth, he would not stay for an answer. Probably he put a question familiar to himself, learned in a certain school of knowledge whose wise conclusion was that mankind could not tell; and the inquirer turned away, unwitting that before him stood the incarnate Truth itself. The world of unbelief repeats the careless utterance of the Roman Governor, and holds with him in its new Agnosticism; and to its self-assurance and pride of life He, Who can only be learned in the doing of His will (John 7:17), is alike unknowable and unknown. But the words of the Apostle have a mournful significance for the ignorant of God; and a terrible one for the Christian who knows and sins against the Light. Falsehood is not the hurt of some abstract virtue, or bare rule of right and wrong, but a direct blow at the living Truth (John 14:6), Who suffered and still “endures such contradiction of sinners against Himself” (Hebrews 12:3). As the fault of Judas was double—personal treachery against his Friend and Master, and a wider attack on Christ, the Truth manifest in the flesh—so in a like two-fold manner we smite at once God and our brother when we speak or act a lie. All faintest shades of falsehood tend to the dark one of a fresh betrayal of the Son of Man if they be conceived against others, while if they be wrought only to shield ourselves, we are. as Montaigne observed, “brave before God, and cowards before men,” who are as the dust of His feet.
“For words and names let angry zealots fight:
Whose life is in the wrong can ne’er be right.”
Truly this wisdom “cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof;” “Happy is the man that findeth her.” (Read Job 28:14-19, and Proverbs 3:13-18.)
“Peace comes at length, though life be full of pain;
Calm in the faith of Christ 1 lay me down;
Pain for His sake is peace, and loss is gain:
For all who bear the cross shall wear the crown.”