James 3:5
Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
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(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.)

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.Even so the tongue is a little member - Little compared with the body, as the bit or the rudder is, compared with the horse or the ship.

And boasteth great things - The design of the apostle is to illustrate the power and influence of the tongue. This may be done in a great many respects: and the apostle does it by referring to its boasting; to the effects which it produces, resembling that of fire, James 3:6; to its untameableness, James 3:8-9; and to its giving utterance to the most inconsistent and incongruous thoughts, James 3:9-10. The particular idea here is, that the tongue seems to be conscious of its influence and power, and boasts largely of what it can do. The apostle means doubtless to convey the idea that it boasts not unjustly of its importance. It has all the influence in the world, for good or for evil, which it claims.

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! - Margin, "wood." The Greek word ὕλην hulēn, means a wood, forest, grove; and then fire-wood, fuel. This is the meaning here. The sense is, that a very little fire is sufficient to ignite a large quantity of combustible materials, and that the tongue produces effects similar to that. A spark will kindle a lofty pile; and a word spoken by the tongue may set a neighborhood or a village "in a flame."

5. boasteth great things—There is great moment in what the careless think "little" things [Bengel]. Compare "a world," "the course of nature," "hell," Jas 3:6, which illustrate how the little tongue's great words produce great mischief.

how great a matter a little fire kindleth—The best manuscripts read, "how little a fire kindleth how great a," &c. Alford, for "matter," translates, "forest." But Grotius translates as English Version, "material for burning": a pile of fuel.

The accommodation of the former similitudes.

The tongue is a little member, i.e. one of the lesser, in comparison of the body.

And boasteth great things; the Greek word signifies, according to its derivation, the lifting up of the neck (as horses, mentioned Jam 3:3, are wont to do in their pride) in a way of bravery and triumph; and hence it is used to express boasting and glorying, but here seems to imply something more, viz. not only the uttering big words, but doing great things, whether good and useful, as in the former similitudes, or evil, as in what follows; or its boasting how great things it can do: q.d. The tongue, though little, is of great force and efficacy, and it will tell you so itself; it not only boasts what its fellow members can do, but especially what itself can.

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! Another similitude, in which he sets forth the evil the tongue, as little as it is, doth, where it is not well governed, as in the former he had shown the good it may do, when kept under rule.

A matter; the word signifies either any combustible stuff, or, as in the margin, wood, that being the ordinary fuel then in use.

A little fire kindleth; even a spark, the smallest quantity or particle, which may do great mischief, when lighting in suitable matter.

Even so the tongue is a little member,.... Like the bit in the horse's mouth, or like the helm of a ship.

And boasteth great things: and does them; for this word may be taken in a good sense: a bridled and sanctified tongue, that is influenced by the grace of God, and directed by the Spirit of God, as it speaks great and good things, it has great power, weight, and influence: the tongue of the just is as choice silver, and the lips of the righteous feed many, Proverbs 10:20, the Gospel, as preached by Christ's faithful ministers, who are the church's tongue, when it comes not in word only, but in power, is the power of God unto salvation: faith comes by hearing it, and hearing by this word; by it souls are convinced, converted, and comforted, enlightened, quickened, and sanctified.

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth; what vast quantities of wood, large forests, stately buildings, and populous towns and cities, are at once seized on by a little fire, a few sparks, and in a short time burnt down, and utterly destroyed. One of the proverbs of Ben Syra is,

"burning fire kindles great heaps;''

suggesting, that an evil tongue does great mischief, as did the tongue of Doeg the Edomite, as the gloss upon it observes: from hence the apostle passes to consider the abuse or vices of the tongue.

Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. {5} Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

(5) On the contrary part he shows how great inconveniences arise by the excesses of the tongue, throughout the whole world, to the end that men may so much the more diligently give themselves to control it.

Jam 3:5. Application of the comparison, particularly of the second illustration, μικρόν, pointing back to ἐλαχίστου.

μεγαλαυχεῖν] which expresses the contrast to μικρόν is not = μεγάλα ἐργάζεσθαι (Oecumenius, Theophylact, Calvin, Laurentius, Pott, Bouman, and others), for the idea of doing is precisely not contained in the word, but it denotes proud conduct in word and behaviour, which has for supposition the performance of great things, and is always used in a bad sense. This certainly does not appear to suit οὕτως, as in the preceding the discourse is not about talking, on which account Lange prefers the reading μεγάλα αὐχεῖ; but also this expression = “boasteth great things,” does not exclude, but includes that secondary meaning, for why would not James otherwise have written simply μεγάλα ποιεῖ? But οὕτως is so far not unsuitable, as the performance of great things—as they are spoken of in the foregoing—forms the reason of the boasting of the tongue. On a mere inanis jactatio it is not natural here to think. This first clause already points to what follows, where the destructive power of the tongue is described. This description begins with a figure: “What a fire kindles what a forest.” In justification of the reading ἡλίκον (instead of ὀλίγον), de Wette (with whom Brückner agrees), translating ἡλίκον πῦρ: “what a great fire,” observes, “that the burning of the forest is contemplated in its whole extent.” But the verb ἀνάπτει, as Wiesinger correctly observes, is opposed to this explanation; also this clause forms the transition from the foregoing to what follows, and therefore must still contain the reference to μικρόν, which certainly is afterwards laid aside. This does not, however, constrain us to the rejection of the reading ἡλίκον (against Wiesinger and Bouman), since this word, which indeed chiefly emphasizes greatness, can also be used to give prominence to smallness; see Pape. The older expositors, according to its meaning, correctly explained the quantus of the Vulgate by quantulus; thus Cajetan., Paes, and others; the same explanation by Lange. If Brückner thinks that it is not appropriate to take ἡλίκον here in this signification, owing to the following ἡλίκην, it is, on the contrary, to be observed that precisely the opposition of the same word in a different signification is entirely in accordance with the liveliness of the sentiment.

On the use of ἡλίκος in the interrogative explanatory sense, see A. Buttmann, p. 217 [E. T. 253]. Erasmus, Laurentius, Grotius, Baumgarten, Augusti explain the word ὕλη by materia, lignorum congeries, as it has in Sir 28:10 the signification of fuel; but the image is evidently much more lively and graphic when ὕλη is retained in its usual meaning: forest. Corresponding descriptions in Homer, Il. xi. 155. Pindar, Pyth. iii. 66; see also Sir 11:32. Philo, de migr. Abrah. 407 A. In Stobaeus it is said: Parva facula cacumen Idae incendi potest.

Jam 3:5. ἡ γλῶσσα …; For this idea of the independent action of a member of the body taken as though personality were attached to it see Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 15:19; it is quite in the Hebrew style, cf. in the O.T. the same thing in connection with anthropomorphic expressions. Moffatt (Expository Times, xiv. p. 568) draws attention to Plutarch’s essay, De Garrulitate, 10, where the union of similar nautical and igneous metaphors (as in Jam 3:4-6) is found; “the moralist speaks first of speech as beyond control once it is uttered, like a ship which has broken loose from its anchorage. But in the following sentence, he comes nearer to the idea of James by quoting from a fragment of Euripides these lines:—

Μικροῦ γὰρ ἐκ λαμπτῆρος Ἰδαῖον λέπας Πρήσειεν ἄν τις· καὶ πρὸς ἄνδρʼ εἰπὼν ἕνα,

Πύθοιντʼ ἂν ἀστοὶ πάντες.”—

καὶ μεγάλα αὐχεῖ: ἅπ. λεγ. in N.T.; the same would apply to the alternative reading (see critical note above) μεγαλαυχεῖ. In Sir 48:18 we have, καὶ ἐμεγαλαύχησεν ὑπερηφανίᾳ αὐτοῦ. Mayor most truly remarks: “There is no idea of vain boasting, the whole argument turns upon the reality of the power which the tongue possesses”; this fully bears out what has been implied above, that this section has for its object the attempt to pacify the bitterness which had arisen in certain Synagogues of the Diaspora owing to controversies aroused by the harangues of various “teachers”.—ἰδοὺ ἡλίκον πῦρ ἡλίκην ὕλην ἀνάπτει: at the risk of being charged with fancifulness the surmise may be permitted as to whether this picture was not suggested by the sight of an excited audience in some place of meeting; when an Eastern audience has been aroused to a high pitch, the noise of tongues, and gesticulation of the arms occasioned by the discussion following upon the oration which has been delivered, might most aptly be compared to a forest fire; the tongue of one speaker has set ablaze all the inflammable material which controversy brings into being. The possibility that the writer had something of this kind in his mind should not be altogether excluded.—ἀνάπτει occurs in the N.T. elsewhere only in Luke 12:49; Taylor (quoted by Mayor) says: “On fires kindled by the tongue see Midr. Rabb. on Lev. (Leviticus 14:2) where the words are almost the same as those in St. James, quanta incendia lingua excitat!

5. and boasteth great things] The Greek verb is a compound word, which does not occur elsewhere, but is used not unfrequently by Philo. The fact is not without interest, as indicating, together with the parallelisms just referred to, St James’s probable acquaintance with that writer.

how great a matter a little fire kindleth] The form of the Greek is somewhat more emphatic. A little fire kindles how great a mass of timber. The word translated “matter” means primarily “a forest—wood in growth;” and with this meaning, which is adopted in the Vulgate “silvam”, the illustration would stand parallel to Homer’s simile:

“As when a spark scarce seen will set ablaze

The illimitable forest.”

Iliad ii. 455.

So in Virgil, Georg. ii. 303, we have a fuller description of the spark which, dropped at hazard, kindles the bark, and the branches, and the foliage:

“And as in triumph seizes on the boughs,

And reigns upon the throne of pine-tree tops,

And wraps the forest in a robe of flame.”

The word, however, had gradually passed into the hands of the metaphysicians, and like the Latin materia, which originally meant “timber” (a meaning still traceable in the name of Madeira, “the well-timbered island”), had come to mean matter as distinct from form, and then passing back, with its modified meaning, into common use, had been used for a pile, or heap of stuff, or materials of any kind. On the whole then, while admitting the greater vividness of the Homeric similitude, St James is likely to have meant a mass of materials rather than a forest. Comp. Proverbs 16:27, and Sir 28:10, where we have exactly the same comparison. The Authorised Version may be accordingly received as not far wrong. Here again it may be noted that Philo employs the same similitude to illustrate the growth of goodness in the soul: “As the smallest spark will, if duly fanned, kindle a vast pyre, so is the least element of virtue capable of growth till the whole nature of the man glows with a new warmth and brightness,” (Philo, de Migr. Abr. p. 407). But he also frequently uses the comparison in reference to the rapid extension of evil.

Jam 3:5. Μεγαλαυχεῖ) boasts itself greatly: makes great pretensions, both respecting the past, and with a view to the future. There is often great importance in those things which the careless think small. The idea of greatness is also conveyed by the words, world, the course of nature, and hell, Jam 3:6.—ἰδοὺ, behold) The word behold, used for the third time, is prefixed to the third comparison.—ὀλίγον) So just before, μικρόν, a little. The Alex. MS. reads ἡλίκον,[34] with which the Latin version, and not that alone, plainly agrees: and yet I have with good reason removed this various reading from my margin: (1st) because it is plainly an alliteration with ἡλίκην which follows: (2d) because even Latin writers retain the word modicum. This is sufficient for maintaining the received reading.

[34] Ἡλίκον is the reading of BC corrected and Vulg. So Lachm. and Tisch. Ὀλιγον is the reading of Rec. Text, with A corrected and later authorities.

Verse 5. -

(1) Application, of illustration. The tongue is only a little member, but it boasts great things. The true reading appears to be μεγάλα αὐχεῖ (A, B, C). The compound verb of the Textus Receptus, μεγαλαυχεῖν, is found in the LXX. (Ezekiel 16:50; Zephaniah 3:11; 2 Macc. 15:32; Ecclus. 48:18).

(2) Third illustration. A very small fire may kindle a very large forest. Ἡλίκον (א, A2, B, C1, Vulgate) should be read instead of ὀλίγον (A1, C2, K, L, ff). It is equivalent to quantulus as well as quantus. A somewhat similar thought to the one before us is found in Ecclus. 11:32, "Of a spark of fire a heap of coals is kindled." Υλη "Matter," A.V.; "wood," R.V. The word is only found here in the New Testament. In the LXX. it is used for a "matter" of judgment in Job 19:29; "matter" in the philosophical sense in Wisd. 11:18. (cf. 15:13); the "matter" of a book in 2 Macc. 2:24; the "matter" of a fire in Ecclus. 28:10 (the whole passage, vers. 8-12, is wroth comparing with the one before us); and for "forest" in Job 38:40; Isaiah 10:17. It is most natural to take it in this sense here (so Syriac and Vulgate, silva). "The literal meaning is certainly to be preferred to the philosophical" (Lightfoot on Revision, p. 140). Forest fires are frequently referred to by the ancients. Virgil's description of one ('Georgies,' 2:303) is well known; so also Homer's ('Iliad,' 11:155). James 3:5Boasteth great things (μεγαλαυχεῖ)

The best texts separate the compound, and read μεγάλα αὐχεῖ, of course with the same meaning. Αὐχεῖ, boasteth, only here in New Testament.

How great a matter a little fire kindleth (ἡλίκον πῦρ ἡλίκην ὕλην ἀνάπτει)

The word ὕλη (only here in New Testament) means wood or a forest, and hence the matter or raw material of which a thing is made. Later, it is used in the philosophical sense of matter - "the foundation of the manifold" - opposed to the intelligent or formative principle νοῦς, mind. The authorized version has taken the word in one of its secondary senses, hardly the philosophical sense it would seem; but any departure from the earlier sense was not only needless, but impaired the vividness of the figure, the familiar and natural image of a forest on fire. So Homer:

"As when a fire

Seizes a thick-grown forest, and the wind

Drives it along in eddies, while the trunks

Fall with the boughs amid devouring flames."

Iliad, xi., 155.

Hence, Rev., rightly, "Behold how much wood or how great a forest is kindled by how small a fire.

This, too, is the rendering of the Vulgate: quam magnam silvam.

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