Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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).
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.(1) Be not many masters.—Better, teachers, which meaning was conveyed by “masters” when the English Bible was first published. The condemnation is of those who appoint themselves, and are as “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). No man had a right to exercise the sacred functions of the appointed masters in Israel (see Note on John 3:10), and none might take the honour of the priesthood unto himself, “but he that was called of God, as was Aaron” (Hebrews 5:4). Whereas we know from our Lord’s own words that the Scribes and Pharisees loved respectful “greetings in the markets, and to be called of men ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:1-12). Nevertheless His disciples were not to be acknowledged thus: for “one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” The neglect of this wholesome caution perplexed the early Church, as much as the later branches thereof. (Comp. Acts 15:24; 1Corinthians 1:12; 1Corinthians 14:26; Galatians 2:12.)
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?” (2Corinthians 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 (1Corinthians 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.
For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.(2) For in many things we offend all.—Better thus, For in many things we all offend: not, what might be inferred, “we are an offence to all,” as Matthew 24:9; 1Corinthians 4:13, et al. Humble, indeed, was the holy mind of James, but this confession of error uplifts him in all right appreciation, and in no way casts him down. The very human weakness of Peter, and Paul, and James, endears them to us; for so we know assuredly that they were “men of like passions” with ourselves (Acts 14:15), and, where they succeeded, we, by the like grace of God, may also win the crown.
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.
Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.(3) Behold.—A more clumsy reading is insisted upon here: but if, instead of “behold.” The supporters of such curious corrections argue that the least likely is the most so; and thus every slip of a copyist, either in grammar or spelling, becomes more sacred in their eyes than is the Received text with believers in verbal inspiration.
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.
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.(4) The governor—i.e., the “helmsman,” from the Latin gubernator. The Venerable Bede, our earliest English translator, refers the ships here to an image of ourselves, and the winds to the impulses of our own minds, by which we are driven hither and thither.
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.”
Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!(5) Even so . . .—Thus, like the tiny rudder of the mighty ship, whereon its course most critically depends—the tongue is a little member; for it “vaunts great words which bring about great acts of mischief.” The verb translated boasteth is peculiar to this place, but occurs so often in the works of Philo that we may be almost certain St. James had read them. And many other verses of our Epistle suggests his knowledge of this famous Alexandrian Jew.
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.)
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.(6) And the tongue is a fire.—Better thus, The tongue—that world of iniquity—is a fire, to burn and destroy the fairest works of peace. The tongue is in our members that which defileth the whole body, and setteth the world aflame, and is set on fire itself of Gehenna. “The course of Nature” is literally the “wheel,” the “orb of creation.” The Jewish word for the place of torment, the accursed side of Hades, should be thus preserved: whence it was that the rich man of the parable prayed for water to cool his tongue (Luke 16:24).
“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” (1Peter 2:23). And as the whole body is the Lord’s to be sanctified to Him (1Corinthians 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).
For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:(7) For every kind of beasts . . .—Compare the margin, and read more exactly, thus: Every nature of beasts and birds, and creeping things, and things of the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed, by the nature of man. All kinds have been mastered by mankind, as promised at creation (Genesis 1:26-28). There lives no creature which may not be won by kindness and gratitude; and—
“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.”
But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.(8) But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly (or, restless) evil, full of deadly poison.—Mortiferous, bringer of death, like a poisoned dart or arrow; and therefore most suggestive of envenomed flights at the fame of others. St. James does not mean that no one can tame his own tongue, for so he would hardly be responsible for its vagaries; and lower down it is written expressly, “these things ought not so to be.” The hopeless savagery of the tongue, excelling the fury of wild beasts, must be that of the liar, the traducer, and blasphemer. (Comp. Psalms 140)
Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.(9) Therewith bless we God, even the Father.—A strange reading of this verse in the more ancient manuscripts makes it, Therewith bless we the Lord and Father. And it may serve to remind us of the oneness of our God, that thus He may be termed Lord and Saviour. His worship and praise are, as explained under James 3:6, the right use of the tongue; but, most inconsistently, therewith curse we men which have been made in the image, after the similitude, of God. See Ps. 1. 16-23, with its final words of warning to the wicked, and praise “to him that ordereth his conversation right.”
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).
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.(10) Ought not.—The Greek equivalent for this is only found here in the New Testament, and seems strangely weak when we reflect on the usual vehemence of the writer. Was he sadly conscious of the failure beforehand of his protest? At least, there seems no trace of satire in the sorrowful cadence of his lines, “Out of the same mouth!”
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?(11) Doth a (or, the) fountain send forth (literally, spurt) at the same place (or, hole, see margin) sweet water and bitter (i.e., fresh water and salt)?—A vivid picture, probably, of the mineral springs abounding in the Jordan valley, near the Dead Sea; with which might be contrasted the clear and sparkling rivulets of the north, fed by the snows of Lebanon. Nature had no confusion in her plans; and thus to pour out curse and blessing from the same lips were unnatural indeed. Or, again—
Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.(12) Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs?—Read, Can a fig-tree bear olives, 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.)
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).
Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.(13) Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge?—Who is wise, i.e., in the wisdom of God, and learned in that of man? The latter state is of knowledge natural or acquired, the former is Sophia, the highest heavenly wisdom, “the breath of the power of God—the brightness of the everlasting light—more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars” (Wisdom Of Solomon 7:25-29). Just as the devils hold with man the lower kinds of faith, that is belief merely (James 2:19), so do they share in his earthly knowledge. The self-same term as that describing it above is used by the evil spirit who answered the presumptuous sons of Sceva, “Paul I know,” while a different one altogether referred to the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:15).
“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.
But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.(14) But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts.—Rather, it should be, bitter zeal and party-spirit. “Above all no zeal” was the worldly caution of an astute French prelate. But that against which the Apostle inveighed had caused Jerusalem to run with blood, and afterwards helped in her last hour to add horror upon shame. The Zealots were really assassins, pledged to any iniquity; such were the forty men “who bound themselves under a curse, saying they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12; see Note there). Some of these desperadoes unluckily escaped the swords of the Romans, and fled to the fastnesses of Mount Lebanon. They were probably the nucleus of a still more infamous society, known in the middle ages as that of the Old Man of the Mountain; in fact, our word “assassin” comes from “Hassan,” their first sheik. Happily for humanity they were at length exterminated by the Turks.
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” (1Corinthians 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.
This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.(15) This wisdom descendeth not from above . . . .—Better thus, This is not the wisdom coming down from above, but is earthly, natural, devilish. This—it were profanation to call it by the holy name of Σοφία (Sophia), being in sharpest contrast to it, of the earth earthy; natural (as margin), or “psychical,” in the second sense of the tripartite division of man—body, soul, and spirit—explained under James 1:21 (comp. Jude 1:19, “Sensual, having not the Spirit”); and even worse, akin to the craft of devils.
For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.(16) For where envying and strife is, there is confusion.—Where emulation, zeal, and rivalry exist, there also are sedition, anarchy, restless disturbance, and every villainous act. The whole state is evil, and utterly contrary to the rule of the Gospel—
“For words and names let angry zealots fight:
Whose life is in the wrong can ne’er be right.”
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.(17) But the wisdom that is from above . . .—Whereas, in sweetest contrast to all this repulsive foulness and riot, the true wisdom from above is first pure, chaste as the Lamb of God, “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), then peaceful, gentle, and compliant—easy to be won, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, not double-minded (non duplex), nor hypocritical. Compare with this beautiful description St. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22), and his discourse on Love (1 Corinthians 13).
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.(18) And the fruit of righteousness . . .—Better thus slightly altered: And fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by them that make peace. They “shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Their fruit is hidden in the precious seed, but “the times of refreshing shall come,” and the glorious plant bring forth her flower, and bear the golden fruit for the blessed ones to eat in the fadeless paradise of God. As “whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7)—here is a harvest laid up for the righteous to enjoy for ever; and (comp. Hebrews 12:11) God’s chastening of the truly penitent yields with it a like promise afterwards of “the peaceable fruit of righteousness”—so, in the tender mercy of our Saviour, “they that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Psalm 126:6). Thus, in some words which well might mark the close of one whose “quiet spirit slowly passeth by to some more perfect peace”—
“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.”