Lesson 21. THE DISCIPLINE OF THE TONGUE (JAMES 3:1-12) PART 3
by John Lowe
9. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.
“With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father,” — That is, with the same tongue we both praise God and curse men; for the apostle, as appears from the next clause, did not speak of himself particularly, or of his fellow-apostles, or even of true private Christians, who certainly do not curse men. Perhaps in this last clause, he glanced at the unconverted Jews, who often cursed the Christians bitterly in their synagogues. Made after the similitude of God — Which we have indeed now lost, but yet there remains within humanity an ingrained nobleness, which we ought to reverence, both in ourselves and others. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing — And the same tongue is often the instrument of expressing both; and “too frequently, when the act of devotion is over, the act of slander, or outrage and insult, commences.” “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” — at least among those who profess Christianity. It is a shame that any such thing should be found in human nature, and it is a still greater shame that anything of the kind should be practiced by any that profess to be the disciples of Him who was manifested to destroy the works of the devil.
“We praise ... we curse.” Note the use of “we” as in James 3:2; here again, the use of it does not indicate any guilt on James's part. As Ward said, “Then, we of pastoral tact shows how far James could go in his desire to win rather than repel.”
“With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father,” The Jewish custom, whenever they named God, of adding, “Blessed be he,” very likely lies behind this.
“Our Lord and Father.” Scholars have busied themselves to find out where James got this expression, but as Lenski said, “He coined it!” The two titles have only one article, showing that James intended for us to read both titles as if pertaining to Jesus Christ our Saviour, showing His divinity and Godhead.
“made in God’s likeness” is a reference to Genesis 1:267, the sin and inconsistency of the same tongue blessing God and cursing men lying in the fact of man’s likeness to God, any curse of men, therefore, is a curse against God in the likeness of men, thus being a curse against God in a parallel of his creation.
10. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
In the warning given here and in the preceding verse (James 3:9), James might have referenced a widespread custom of early Christian times, in which Christians were “cursed bitterly in Jewish synagogues. It would appear, however, that it is not particularly the sins of Jews in cursing Christians that James dealt with, but the habit of some “brethren” engaged in the awful business of cursing men! All such unchristian conduct is vigorously denounced. Not only is this contradictory phenomenon contrary to the will of God, but it is also contrary to the natural order of things.
"Although the believer has in the indwelling Holy Spirit the potential for controlling the tongue, he may not be seizing this potential."
"To the person who praises God in the worship service and then abuses people verbally at home or work, James commands, "Purify your speech through the week." With the person who says, "Oh, I know I talk too much," and laughs it off, James is not amused. He insists, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak." The person who boasts, "I always speak my mind, no matter who gets hurt," James is not impressed. He commands, "Discipline your speaking." To the person who says, "I know I gossip too much, but I just can’t help it," James still says, "Control your tongue." James demands, "Change your speech habits;” "of the person who is in the habit of speaking with insults, ridicule, or sarcasm, the apostle demands, "Change your speech habits." He expects discipline to be happening in the life of a Christian. Any Christian can ask for the grace needed, for God gives good gifts ( James 1:17)8 and gives them generously ( James 1:5).
". . . the Bible nowhere places much value on knowledge that remains merely cerebral. Nothing is known until it also reshapes the life."
"The reference is not to the use of profanity in vulgar speech but seems to envision angry disputes and slanderous remarks in inner-church party strife (cf. James 4:1-29; James 4:11-12)."
“Should not.”—The Greek equivalent for this is only found here in the New Testament and seems strangely weak when we reflect on the usual intensity of the writer. Was he sadly conscious beforehand of the failure of his protest? At least, there seems no trace of satire in the sorrowful tempo of his lines, “Out of the same mouth!”
11. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
“Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring”? It is as if he had said, “No such inconsistency is found in the natural world, and nothing of the kind ought to be known in the moral world.” It was said “that the apostle’s strategy was to confirm his doctrine by four similarities; the first taken from fountains, the second and third from fruit-trees, and the fourth from the sea, “which in its natural state contains salt, and does not produce fresh water.” The Alexandrian MS. says, “So neither can salt water produce sweet.” The Syriac version reads, “Salt waters cannot be made sweet,” and the Vulgate, “So neither can salt water make fresh water.” In like manner, we ought to maintain consistency in our words or discourses. If we profess religion and devotion, we should speak at all times as persons who are endeavoring to employ our tongues to the noble purposes for which the use of speech was granted to man.
It is reported that along the Dead Sea, there were both salt-water and fresh-water fountains, so James made his meaning clear by adding “from the same opening.” The illustration shows that man’s behavior in blessing God and cursing men with the same tongue was a monstrous perversion of nature; in fact, it’s an altogether impossibility in nature.
The image here is appropriate to the Epistle because Palestine has both salt and bitter springs. Though “sweet” springs are sometimes found nearby, yet “sweet and bitter” (water) do not flow “at the same place” (aperture). Grace can make the same mouth that “sent forth the bitter” once, send forth the sweet for the time to come: as the wood (typical of Christ‘s cross) changed Marah‘s bitter water into sweet.
Illustrations highlight this natural inconsistency (cf. Matthew 7:1610). A water source can yield only one kind of water. A tree can only produce the fruit of its kind. A salt spring cannot produce fresh water any more than a fallen human nature can naturally make pure words. A fountain, a tree, and the tongue all have the power to delight (cf. James 3:5; James 3:8).
"Small and influential, the tongue must be controlled; satanic and infectious, the tongue must be corralled; salty and inconsistent, the tongue must be cleansed."
As in the preceding chapters, James dealt with root causes of human behavior that are out of harmony with God’s will. He contrasts strongly with the religious teachers that Jesus rebuked for their superficiality and hypocrisy. He was, of course, picturing human behavior as it is naturally apart from the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit.
12. My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
“My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?.” Once more, James used illustrations drawn from the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 12:34,3511).
“Can a fig tree, etc.” — implying that it is an impossibility: as before in James 3:10, he had said, “this should not be.” James does not, as Matthew (Matthew 7:16, Matthew 7:17), ask the question, “Do men gather figs of thistles?” as Jesus asked. His argument is, No tree “can” bring forth fruit inconsistent with its nature, for example, the fig tree does not produce olive berries, neither does a vine, figs: so if a man speaks bitterly, and afterward speaks good words, the latter must be so only seemingly, and in hypocrisy, they cannot be accurate.
“Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? or a vine, figs?” The inquiry sounds like a memory of our Lord’s, “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16.)
Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. Here the tremendous thrust of James’ teaching is made. In nature, a fountain can't be both salt and sweet, and it is the same with men. “Cursing” shows the natural character of them that do it. Even their “blessing” is in no sense to be interpreted as “sweet.” Their nature denies any goodness that might otherwise have appeared in their pious talk.
So, can no fountain … salt … and fresh — The oldest authorities read, “Neither can a salt (water spring) yield fresh.” So the mouth that emits cursing cannot emit blessing. also
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 emits cursing, thereby making itself a brackish spring, it cannot to any purpose also emit the sweet stream of praise and good words; if it appears to do so, all must be hypocrisy and mere seeming.” Every blessing is tainted by the tongue which has uttered curses, and even “Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner.”