Lesson 21. THE DISCIPLINE OF THE TONGUE (JAMES 3:1-12) PART 2
by John Lowe
5. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
Again, the argument is clear. A tiny spark consumes an entire forest, so the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. The tongue is petite but powerful! James develops the image by declaring, “the tongue is a fire.” “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (3:5).
The tongue is a little member - Little compared with the body, as the bit or the rudder is, compared with the horse or the ship.
“but it makes great boasts.” - The apostle intends to illustrate the power and influence of the tongue. This may be done in a great many respects: and the apostle does it by referring to its boasting; to the effects which it produces, resembling that of fire, (James 3:6) 1; to its untameableness (James 3:8-9) 2; and it is giving utterance to the most inconsistent and unpredictable thoughts, (James 3:9-10) 3. The particular idea here is that the tongue seems to be conscious of its influence and power and boasts mainly of what it can do. The apostle means no doubt to convey the idea that it boasts not unjustly of its importance. It has all the influence in the world, for good or for evil, which it claims.
“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” - The Greek word means a wood, forest, grove, and then fire-wood, fuel. This is the meaning here. The sense is that a very little fire is sufficient to ignite a large quantity of combustible materials and that the tongue produces effects similar to that. A spark will kindle a lofty pile, and a word spoken by the tongue may set a neighborhood or a village “in flames.” Can you imagine what a flame of discord and insubordination one man, merely by his persuasive tongue, may kindle among the ordinary people?
6. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
“The tongue also is a fire,” it is often the instrument for producing the most desperate contentions and insurrections—a world of evil. This is an unusual form of speech, but the meaning is plain enough; the term “world” signifies a mass, a great collection, and an abundance. We use the word in the same sense – “a world of troubles,” “a world of work.” The tongue is not only powerful; it is stubborn. It is small and influential, but worse than that; it can be satanic and infectious. “The tongue also is a fire” (cf. Prov. 16:27; 26:18-22), a world of evil. The tongue sets itself up among the members, or parts of one’s body, corrupting, staining or spotting, and inflaming the whole body; the tongue is at the center of the entire course of life (lit. “the wheel of existence or wheel of birth.”). It is as though the tongue is at the center or hub of the wheel of nature, and, like the fireworks display, the wheel is set on fire at the center. The more it burns, the faster it revolves until the whole wheel spins in a blaze, spitting fire in all directions. But the tongue is only the fuse. The source of the deadly fire is hell itself (lit. Gehenna, a place in the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where human sacrifice had been offered (Jer. 7:31)6 and where continuous burning of rubbish made it a fitting illustration of the lake of fire.)
“sets the whole course of one’s life on fire,” I question whether this verse is well understood. There are three different interpretations of it:
1) James does not intend to express the whole circle of human affairs, so much affected by the tongue of man; but rather the punishing wheel of the Greeks, and not unknown among the Jews on which they were accustomed to place criminals to educe them to confess or to punish them for crimes under which punishing wheels (sometimes called the wheel of life), a fire was often put to add to their torments.
2) But is it not possible that by the “wheel of life,” James has blood circulation in mind? Angry or irritating language has a tremendous influence on the circulation of the blood; the heart beats hard and frequently: the blood is hurried through the arteries to the veins, through the veins to the heart, and through the heart to the arteries again, and so on; an extraordinary degree of heat is at the same time engendered, the eyes become more prominent in their sockets; the capillary vessels filled with blood; the face flushed with blood; and in short, the whole wheel of nature is set on fire by those in hell.
3) It is true, however, that the rabbis use the term “the wheel of generations” to mark the successive generations of men, and James might refer to this; as if he had said: “The tongue has been the instrument of confusion and misery through all the ages of the world.” But the other interpretations are more likely.
7. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
The tongue is not only like an uncontrolled fire; it is also like “All kinds ( of animals or beasts),” that is, every species of wild beasts is tamed, i.e., brought under man’s power and dominion – birds of the air, reptiles on land, and creatures of the sea – all are being tamed and have been tamed by man. Beastly nature has been tamed by human nature. But no human can tame the tongue.
The phrase “All kinds (species) of animals (beasts)” signifies the strength and fierceness of wild beasts, the swiftness of birds, the poison of serpents, the exceeding great strength of sea-monsters; is tamed — is subdued, or is capable of being subdued (even domesticated); by humankind — by the human nature; the art and ingenuity of man have overcome every sort of these; so that they have been made subservient to his use and pleasure. According to that term’s general prominence, the apostle cannot mean that such creatures as sharks and whales have been tamed or made harmless and familiar with man. Some beasts, naturally savage, have been; but large fishes are incapable of their nature. But even they have been conquered and brought entirely under the power of man so that he could use them as he desired. But no man can tame the tongue — namely, the tongue of another; no, nor his own, without exceptional help from God; both the shark and whale become easy prey to the skill and influence of the human being.
8. but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
“but no human being can tame the tongue.” No cunning, persuasion, or influence has ever been able to silence it. Nothing but the grace of God, suppression, or death can bring it under subjection.
“It is a restless evil,” an evil that cannot be restrained; it cannot be brought under any kind of supervision; it breaks all bounds.
“Full of deadly poison” refers here to the tongues of serpents, which are supposed to be the means of conveying their poison into wounds made by their teeth. Throughout the whole of this poetic and highly oratorical description, James must have the tongue of the slanderer, maligner, backbiter, whisperer, and a tale-bearer, particularly in view. Vipers, basilisks (a legendary creature), and rattlesnakes are not more dangerous to life than these are to the peace and reputation of men.
“Fortunately James did not say that God cannot control the tongue (or tame it),” while true enough, fails to touch the problem, namely, that the tongue is indeed out of control because man fails to exercise the dominion over it that God commanded. It was true in James’ day, as it is in this, that “It is a restless evil,” It is like a caged beast, even under the best of circumstances, always seeking an opportunity to break free and set the whole world on fire. James does not mean here that a Christian cannot tame his tongue. “If he could not, he would hardly be responsible for its notions, but in James 3:10, he said, “My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
“It is full of deadly poison.” is similar to “full of adultery” (2 Peter 2:14) and “full of envy” (Romans 1:29). Paul also made use of the same metaphor: “The venom of asps is under their lips” (Romans 3:13).