James 3:1–18comment (0)
September 19, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Related Scripture: James 3:1–18
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
The Pressure of Words
What a way to begin a lesson for Sunday School teachers. People in James’ day knew that words had power, particularly words that invoked God’s power. Once spoken, a person could not revoke a blessing, a curse or an oath (see 5:12; see also Gen. 25:29–34; 27:1–40; 48:8–20). Something similar happens when we teach about God: words have a powerful effect on those who listen to us or read what we write. Once we teach something, in many ways we cannot revoke it. That power extends to words believers speak to one another. James probably focused on the destructive power of words because that is what his congregations struggled with. In all that follows, when James talks about controlling speech (symbolized by the tongue) he is really talking about the human will.
“Perfect person” picks up the idea of 1:4. But here James is talking about the difficulty of controlling speech, so he shifts his rhetoric, using contradicting statements (“We all stumble” and “Whoever doesn’t stumble”) to impress on readers the challenge of controlling their tongues: it is so difficult that surely whoever can do it can control the entire body.
James introduced the verb “bridle” in the previous sentence and now he extends the metaphor: controlling speech is like directing a horse (a large animal) with a bridle (a small thing). It’s the same with ships: pilots steer large vessels with small rudders (compare 1:8). These metaphors for controlling the will were common among the Greek and Roman philosophers and so were probably also heard frequently in James’ day.
James’ use of “member” and “members” hints that he uses the body as a metaphor for the congregation (the Greek word has a similar range of meanings as the English word; Paul uses it in the same way). Not only must people struggle to bridle their own tongues, congregations struggle with people who use language as a weapon: individuals who refuse to control what they say can cause grave harm to a congregation. James uses images of death: forest fire, hell, poison. He must think that, given free reign, such people can destroy a congregation. In verses 7 and 8, James returns to the story of creation (see 1:14–18): “cycle of nature” and “every kind of beast and bird has been tamed by mankind” recalls Genesis 1:20–25 and 1:26–28, and the reference to the tongue as “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” recalls the poisonous language of the snake in Genesis 3:1–7. Notice how the snake in Genesis causes great evil by telling the truth. (Does that ever happen today?) Verse 9, of course, recalls Genesis 1:6–27.
With “this ought not to be so,” James keeps working with the idea of creation: God intended some things to be so, but the human will is untamed. Like fresh water springs, fig trees and grapevines (compare Matt. 7:16–17; Luke 6:43–44); God intended people to use speech to do one thing (to bless, to build up the congregation), but people use its power to curse, to do damage, violating God’s intention.
James returns to the idea of God’s wisdom (1:5–7), which is ours for the asking, and, continuing to work with the image of the snake, he contrasts it with “earthly,” “unspiritual” and “devilish” wisdom. God’s wisdom yields the virtues of meekness, purity (of intention and deed), peaceableness, gentleness, reasonableness, mercifulness and good works. Earthly wisdom (which is responsible for the misuse of speech), by contrast, springs from the vices of bitter envy and selfish ambition and produces the vices of boasting and telling lies, disorder and “every kind of wickedness” (compare the famous Gal. 5:16–26). “Disorder” is the clue that James is still talking about the congregation. That emphasis will continue in chapter 4, which will occupy us next week.