James 3:12
Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
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(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).

3:1-12 We are taught to dread an unruly tongue, as one of the greatest evils. The affairs of mankind are thrown into confusion by the tongues of men. Every age of the world, and every condition of life, private or public, affords examples of this. Hell has more to do in promoting the fire of the tongue than men generally think; and whenever men's tongues are employed in sinful ways, they are set on fire of hell. No man can tame the tongue without Divine grace and assistance. The apostle does not represent it as impossible, but as extremely difficult. Other sins decay with age, this many times gets worse; we grow more froward and fretful, as natural strength decays, and the days come on in which we have no pleasure. When other sins are tamed and subdued by the infirmities of age, the spirit often grows more tart, nature being drawn down to the dregs, and the words used become more passionate. That man's tongue confutes itself, which at one time pretends to adore the perfections of God, and to refer all things to him; and at another time condemns even good men, if they do not use the same words and expressions. True religion will not admit of contradictions: how many sins would be prevented, if men would always be consistent! Pious and edifying language is the genuine produce of a sanctified heart; and none who understand Christianity, expect to hear curses, lies, boastings, and revilings from a true believer's mouth, any more than they look for the fruit of one tree from another. But facts prove that more professors succeed in bridling their senses and appetites, than in duly restraining their tongues. Then, depending on Divine grace, let us take heed to bless and curse not; and let us aim to be consistent in our words and actions.Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive-berries? - Such a thing is impossible in nature, and equally absurd in morals. A fig-tree bears only figs; and so the tongue ought to give utterance only to one class of sentiments and emotions. These illustrations are very striking, and show the absurdity of that which the apostle reproves. At the same time, they accomplish the main purpose which he had in view, to repress the desire of becoming public teachers without suitable qualifications. They show the power of the tongue; they show what a dangerous power it is for a man to wield who has not the proper qualifications; they show that no one should put himself in the position where he may wield this power without such a degree of tried prudence, wisdom, discretion, and piety, that there shall be a moral certainty that he will use it aright. 12. Transition from the mouth to the heart.

Can the fig tree, &c.—implying that it is an impossibility: as before in Jas 3:10 he had said it "ought not so to be." James does not, as Matthew (Mt 7:16, 17), make the question, "Do men gather figs of thistles?" His argument is, No tree "can" bring forth fruit inconsistent with its nature, as for example, the fig tree, olive berries: so if a man speaks bitterly, and afterwards speaks good words, the latter must be so only seemingly, and in hypocrisy, they cannot be real.

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 really emit also blessing.

Can the tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? The same tree cannot ordinarily bring forth fruit of different kinds, (on the same branch, whatever it may on different, by ingrafting), much less contrary natures: see Matthew 7:16-18.

So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh; or, neither can a salt fountain yield fresh water; but the scope is still the same as in our reading. The apostle argues from what is impossible, or monstrous, in naturals, to what is absurd in manners: q.d. It is as absurd in religion, for the tongue of a regenerate man, which is used to bless God, to take a liberty at other times to curse man, as it would be strange in nature for the same tree, on the same branch, to bear fruits of different kinds; or the same fountain at the same place to send forth bitter water and sweet.

Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?.... Every tree bears fruit, according to its kind; a fig tree produces figs, and an olive tree olive berries; a fig tree does not produce olive berries, or an olive tree figs; and neither of them both:

either a vine, figs? or fig trees, grapes; or either of them, figs and grapes:

so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. The Alexandrian copy reads, "neither can the salt water yield sweet water"; that is, the sea cannot yield sweet or fresh water: the Syriac version renders it, "neither can salt water be made sweet": but naturalists say, it may be made sweet, by being strained through sand: the design of these similes is to observe how absurd a thing it is that a man should both bless and curse with his tongue.

Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
Jam 3:12. This verse shows, by examples taken from nature, that from one principle opposite things cannot be produced, but that any cause can only bring forth that which corresponds to its nature. Semler incorrectly paraphrases the first question: μὴ δύναται συκῆ ἐκαίας ποιῆσαι: an fieri potest, ut ficus, cujus est dulcis natura, producat amaras oleas; for that here the contrast of sweet and bitter (which only the last clause of the verse resumes) is not designed to be expressed, is evident from what immediately follows: ἢ ἄμπελος σῦκα, where James would otherwise have mentioned the olive instead of the vine. The idea is rather that nothing can bring forth that which is not corresponding to its nature.[179] Consequently the opinion of de Wette, that here thistles (according to Matthew 7:16), or something similar, instead of ἄμπελος would be more appropriate, is incorrect.

To the question follows as its conclusion the negative clause: ΟὔΤΕ ἉΛΥΚῸΝ ΓΛΥΚῪ ΠΟΙῆΣΑΙ ὝΔΩΡ, which is so construed as if the former sentence, not only in meaning, but also in form, was a negative one; ΟὔΤΕ (א: ΟὐΔΈ) and the omission of ΔΎΝΑΤΑΙ are thus to be explained.[180]

ἁλυκόν is the subject, and ΓΛΥΚῪ ὝΔΩΡ the object; ΠΟΙῆΣΑΙ is used in the same signification as before; thus: Nor can bitter bring forth sweet water. The opposite ideas ἁλυκόν and ΓΛΥΚΎ are emphatically placed beside each other. James hereby indicates, that if from one month the bitter (namely, the κατάρα) and also the sweet (namely, the ΕὐΛΟΓΊΑ) proceed, this is not only morally reprehensible, to which Jam 3:10 points, but is something impossible; accordingly, the person who curses man, who is made after the image of God, cannot also bless (praise) God, and that thus if the mouth yet express both, the εὐλογεῖν can only be mere seeming and hypocrisy (Lange).[181]

[179] Comp. Arrian, Epikt. ii. 20: πῶς γὰρ δύναται ἄμπελος μὴ ἀμπελικῶς κινεῖσθαι ἀλλʼ ἐλαϊκῶς, ἢ ἐλαία πάλιν μὴ ἐλαϊκῶς ἀλλʼ ἀμπελικῶς; ἀμήχανον, ἀδιανόητον; comp. also Plut. de tranq. an. p. 472 E.

[180] Buttmann (p. 315 [E. T. 367]), following Lachmann, praef. p. xliv., assumes a corruption of the passage.

[181] Gunkel incorrectly thinks that ver. 12 only discloses the unnaturalness of the conduct denounced in ver. 10, for μὴ δύναται evidently expresses impossibility. It is also to be observed, that in the last clause of ver. 12 ἁλυκόν (ὕδωρ) is considered as the fountain which cannot bring forth γλυκὺ ὕδωρ, and accordingly points to the bitter disposition, from which only that which is bitter (namely, the bitter κατάρα), but not that which is sweet (namely, the εὐλογία), can proceed. Lange correctly observes, “that the multiplying of examples has the effect of illustrating the general application of the law of life here laid down;” but he strangely supposes that “the individual examples have a symbolical meaning;” the fig-tree, the symbol of a luxurious natural life; the olives, the symbols of spiritual life, etc.

Jam 3:12. With the whole verse cf. Matthew 7:16-17; for the use of ποιεῖν see Matthew 3:10, πᾶν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπόν …; ἁλυκόν does not occur elsewhere in the N.T. or Septuagint, though in Numbers 3:12, Deuteronomy 3:17, etc., we have the phrase ἡ θάλασσα ἡ ἁλυκή = the Dead Sea. “There is great harshness in the construction μὴ δύναται ποιῆσαι; οὔτε ποιῆσαι. If the government of δύναται is continued, we ought to have for οὔτε followed by a question; otherwise we should have expected an entirely independent clause, reading ποιήσει for ποιῆσαι” (Mayor).

12. Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?…] The comparison here also has an eminently local character. The court-yard of well-nigh every house had its vine and fig-tree (2 Kings 18:31). The Mount of Olives supplied the other feature. The idea, as a whole, is parallel to that of Matthew 7:16-17, and may well have been suggested by it.

so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh] The better MSS. give a somewhat briefer form, Neither can a salt (spring) yield sweet (the same adjective as in the preceding verse) water. The comparison seems at first to break down, as the fact which it was meant to illustrate was that “blessing and cursing” did issue from the same mouth. What is meant, however, is that in such a case, the “blessing” loses its character, and is tainted with the bitterness of the cursing. The prayers and praises of the hypocrite who cherishes hatred in his heart, are worse than worthless.

Jam 3:12. Μὴ δύναται, is it possible?) He now prepares a transition from the mouth to the heart. He had said with regard to the former, There is no need [it is not becoming]; he says respecting the latter, it is impossible.—οὕτως οὐδὲ ἁλυκὸν γλυκὺ ποιησαι ὕδωρ, so neither can a salt spring produce sweet water) viz. δύναται (to be supplied). Thus the most weighty authorities, Colbert. 7; Cov. 4; Gen.; Æth.; Copt.; Lat., and the Syr[41], The Alexand. reads οὔτε ἁλυκόν. Baumgarten has a long dissertation in favour of the more generally received reading: Exam., p. xxxii. You will see my reply in App. Crit., Ed. ii., on this passage.[42] The apostle had said in Jam 3:11, that it is not befitting that two contraries should proceed from one source; he now says, that nothing can proceed from any source whatever, unless it be of the same kind. Salt (water), in the nominative case, has the force of a substantive, as just before, sweet and bitter. In Hesychius ἁλυκὴ, ἡ θάλασσα, the sea. In James, ἁλυκὸν has a wider meaning, a lake or spring of salt, pouring forth water.—οὕτως, thus, is used before the word salt, now in particular, because this resemblance, already represented in the 11th verse, puts on here a more strict propriety,[43] and in this place contains the Apodosis itself, which is about to be added immediately, in plain (unfigurative) words.

[41] yr. the Peschito Syriac Version: second cent.: publ. and corrected by Cureton, from MS. of fifth cent.

[42] ABC corrected and later Syr. omit οὕτως, which Rec. Text prefixes without very old authority. ABC Vulg. Memph. Syr. read οὔτε ἁλυκὸν γλυκύ. But Rec. Text without any old authority except later Syr., reads οὐδεμία πηγὴ ἁλυκὸν καὶ γλυκύ.—E.

[43] i.e. It is more strictly in accordance with the simile that ἁλυκὸν should be supposed to send forth γλυκύ, sweet water, than that a πηγὴ, as in ver. 11, should send it forth.—E.

James 3:12So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh

The best texts omit so can no fountain, and the and between salt and fresh. Thus the text reads, οὔτε ἁλυκὸν γλυκὺ ποιῆσαι ὕδωρ. Render, as Rev., neither can salt water yield sweet. Another of James' local allusions, salt waters. The Great Salt Sea was but sixteen miles from Jerusalem. Its shores were lined with salt-pits, to be filled when the spring freshets should raise the waters of the lake. A salt marsh also terminated the valley through which the Jordan flows from the Lake of Tiberius to the Dead Sea, and the adjoining plain was covered with salt streams and brackish springs. Warm springs impregnated with sulphur abound in the volcanic valley of the Jordan. Ἁλυκὸν, salt, occurs only here in the New Testament.

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