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.
Passing from the peculiar responsibility which attaches to teachers of religion, James proceeds to speak generally of the enormous influence of the faculty of speech, especially upon the speaker himself, and of the abuse to which it is liable.
I. A DIRECT STATEMENT OF THIS POWER. "If any stumbleth not in word, the same," etc. (ver. 2). In most cases, the capacity to control one's utterances indicates the measure of one's attainment as regards the keeping of his heart. Sins of the tongue form so large a portion of our multitudinous "stumblings" - they so frequently help to seduce us into other sins - and they afford such a searching test of character, that any one who has learned to avoid riffling into them may without exaggeration be described as "a perfect man." Of course, no person lives in this world of whom it can be affirmed that he never errs in word. James has just remarked that "in many things we all stumble." But he is now suggesting an ideal case - that of a man who is perfectly free from lip-sins; and he asserts that such a person would be found to be both blameless and morally strong over the whole area of his character. The power which can bridle the tongue can control the entire nature. So great is the influence of human speech!
II. SOME ILLUSTRATIONS OF THIS POWER. (Vers. 3-6.) The apostle here compares the tongue first to two familiar mechanical appliances, and then to one of the mighty forces of nature. In all the three selected cases very insignificant-looking means suffice to accomplish great results. The illustrations are extremely graphic; each is more telling than the preceding. They together show that James, the apostle of practical Christianity, possessed the perceptions and the instincts of a poet.
1. The horse-bridle. (Ver. 3.) The first illustration only emphasizes the thought which underlies the word "bridle" in ver. 2, and in James 1:26. The wild horses that roam at will over the American prairies seem quite unsubduable. Yet how complete is the control which man acquires over the tame horse! By means of the bit - the part of the bridle, which the animal bites - he is kept completely under command. The horse is controlled literally by the tongue. Now, in like manner, a man may "turn about his whole body" by subjecting his speech to firm self-government. The spirited steed of this verse may be regarded as a symbol of the flesh, with its lusts and passions. But the man who uses his tongue aright will find its influence very powerful in helping him to subdue his depraved carnal nature.
2. The shifts rudder. (Ver. 4.) Both romance and poetry gather round the idea of a ship. Even the old "galley with oars" was a "gallant" spectacle; and in our time there is no sight more picturesque than that of a sailing-vessel.
"Behold! upon the murmuring waves
A glorious shape appearing!
A broad-winged vessel, through the shower
Of glimmering luster steering!
"She seems to hold her home in view,
And sails as if the path she knew;
So calm and stately in her motion
Across the unfathomed, trackless ocean."
(John Wilson.) The merchantmen of the ancients were of considerable size (Acts 27., 28.); but in our day naval architecture works on a colossal scale of which the ancients never dreamed. And what is it that directs the largest vessel so steadily on its course, and enables it to persevere even in spite of furious storms? It is simply that little tongue, or rudder, at the stern. The steering apparatus is "very small" in proportion to the bulk of the ship; but how wonderfully great its influence! It not only "turns about" the body of the vessel itself; its action is also powerful enough to counteract the driving force of "rough winds." Now, the faculty of speech is the rudder of human nature. The tongue "boasteth great things;" and well it may, for "death and life are in its power" (Proverbs 18:21). If the spirited horse is a symbol of the flesh, the "rough winds" which beat upon the ship are suggestive of the world. The rudder of speech, rightly directed, will help us to continue straight on our heavenward course, despite the fierce gusts and gales of external temptation.
3. The little fire. (Vers. 5, 6.) What a terrific power there is in fire! One tiny neglected spark may kindle a conflagration that will consume a city. The great fire of 1666 in London, which began in a little wooden shop near London Bridge, burned down every building between the Tower and the Temple. And how terrible are the seas of fire, kindled often by some casual spark, which roll along the prairies of North America! The power of a little tongue of flame is simply stupendous; and thus it is a most apposite illustration of the destructive energy of human speech. For "the tongue is a fire." Sometimes this tremendous power is exerted for good; indeed, the "tongue of fire" is the appropriate emblem of Christianity as the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3). More usually, however, fire is contemplated as an instrument of evil. So "the tongue is a fire" as regards its intense energy. Unsanctified speech scorches and consumes. The liar scatters firebrands; the slanderer kindles lambent flames; the profane swearer spits the fire of hell into the face of God. "The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue;" i.e. a whole microcosm of evil resides within the sphere of its operation. It "defileth the whole body;" just as fire soils with its smoke, the tongue stirs up the heart's corruption, and uses it to stain one's own life and character. It "setteth on fire the wheel of nature;" - for the whole circle of an unsanctified life, from birth onwards, is kept burning by the evil tongue. And it "is set on fire by hell;" for the ultimate inspiration of this destructive agency is of internal origin. This fire is devil-lighted, hell-kindled. Satan loaded the human tongue at the Fall with dynamite; and every day he ignites the treacherous magazine from the unquenchable fire. Thus, as the spirited horse represents the flesh, and the fierce winds the world, the raging fire leads us to think of the devil - the power of "the evil one."
CONCLUSION. Let us earnestly seek the grace of God, to deliver our tongue from the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Let us guard the portals of our lips, so that no uncharitable or slanderous words may issue from them. Let us welcome the Pentecostal "tongue of fire," that it may purify us from the evil tongue which is "set on fire by hell." - C.J.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.