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Bible: What Does James 3 Teach Us About the Power of the Tongue and True Wisdom?

Updated on July 22, 2016



Metaphor for The Tongue

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James 3: Sins of the Tongue/True Wisdom

James 3

The Perils of Becoming a Teacher

James’ typical method of address, “My brethren,” signals another change of topic, as he now discusses the peril of becoming a teacher. He warns that few people should enter this profession because God (and human beings) will judge them more strictly (v. 1). While acknowledging that many circumstances in life trip up fallible human beings, James emphasizes how moral control over communication skills indicates the level of maturity. If individuals do not err morally in what they say, then they are “of full moral and spiritual growth” (Ryrie 422), and can control the desires of their entire body (v. 2). [James does not appear to refer to sinless “perfection,” but spiritual maturity].

The Power of the Tongue

To illustrate his point, he next employs two other examples that demonstrate a small object’s control over a large one (vv. 3-6). First, he cites the fact that a rider gains and maintains control over a horse by using a bit. [A “bit” is the “mouthpiece of a bridle: a part of a bridle, that consists of a metal mouthpiece held in a horse’s mouth by the reins . . .”] Second, James mentions how, in accordance with his will, a navigator turns a large, wind-driven ship with “a very small rudder” (v. 4).

The author also uses fire as a metaphor for the tongue; the embellishments and exaggerations (“it boasts of great things”) of this “little fire” cause conflagrations that create great destruction (v. 5). Ignited by hell, this strategically-placed little member of the body proceeds to wreak havoc on “the whole course of human existence” (Ryrie 422). United to a sin-laden heart, the unbridled tongue defiles the whole body, and eventually corrupts every relationship in which it is involved (v. 6).

Wisdom from Above

Heavenly Wisdom

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Fig Tree


Heavenly and Demonic Wisdom

After asking his readers which people qualify as “wise and understanding,” James answers immediately that such folks demonstrate that they are using heavenly wisdom (“the wisdom that is from above”) to live a life full of good works (vv. 13, 17a).

The primary characteristic of heavenly wisdom—purity—provides the basis for exhibiting amiability, gentleness, sweet reasonableness, compassion, fairness, and sincerity (v. 17b).

He notes that peacemakers disseminate righteousness among those in conflict by means of diplomatic speech and a calm demeanor (v. 18).

On the other hand, an “earthly, sensual, and demonic” wisdom foments “jealousy and selfish ambition,” which in turn produce “confusion and every evil thing” (vv. 14-16).

The Inconsistency of the Tongue

Human beings have tamed every conceivable creature on earth, but they cannot completely control their own tongue (vv. 7-8a).

James considers the tongue an object controlled by an evil soul bent on rebelling against authority and on bringing harm to others (v. 8b).

He regards the tongue’s inconsistency—namely, praising God at one moment and cursing a fellow image-bearer at another—as a state of affairs that should not exist among believers (vv. 9-10).

Using four analogies from nature, three of which he phrases in rhetorical question form, James demonstrates that such contradictions are not the way God intended His people to function (vv. 11-12).

First, he asserts that both fresh and bitter waters do not emit from a fountain (v. 11).

Next, James observes that a fig tree does not sprout olives, and a grapevine does not bear figs.

Finally, he notes that salt and fresh waters do not come out of a spring (v. 12).

"Bit." Encarta ® World English Dictionary (1998-2004). Microsoft Corporation. [v. 3]

© 2013 glynch1


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