James 3:3-4

James 3:3‑4  •  3 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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The figure of “bridling” in verse 2 suggests the illustration in verse 3, which again is strengthened once more in the verse that follows. In the received text we appear to have an error exceedingly frequent among the copyists, who are apt to confound εἰ and ἰ where it does not affect the sense, and where here it does. Probably ἰδοὺ in the beginning of verse 4 led to the idea of commencing verse 3 with ἴδε; but it ought rather to have induced hesitation, for why then vary the adverb? It would seem that εἱ δὲ was thus mistaken, and the more because the apodosis might easily be overlooked by being made part of the conditional protasis.
“Now if we put the horses' bridles (or, bits) in their mouths, that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also. Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are turned about by a very small rudder, where the impulse of the helmsman may purpose” (vers. 3, 4).
The instances chosen energetically tell for the purpose in hand, being homely and familiar. It would be a palpable mistake to doubt the power of a given object, because its size is diminutive. Such are the bits we insert into the horses' mouths. Impetuous the animal may be; but thereby as the rule it is reduced to obedience. Nor is it only the mouth or head that is governed, but “we turn about the whole body also.” Thus is complete contrast secured.
It is true that we ought not to be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings must be bit and bridle for restraint, or they will not come near unto thee (Psa. 32). But this is restraint, and our shame where it is needed, as in the case supposed; for it is our joy, when walking in the spirit of obedience, to know God's guidance in the way we should go, counseled with His eye upon us. But if it be needed, He knows and fails not to restrain and to chastise.
In another form is pointed out a like principle on the sea, as we have had on the land, and in an inanimate object of immensely greater proportions. Let the ship be of ever so vast bulk and driven sometimes by a wind however rough, yet is it turned about by a very small rudder, whither the steerman's impulse may direct. The steering, if it could be questioned, is made evident in the sequel.
We may notice by the way how little avails either a powerful mind or ponderous learning for the just interpretation of scripture, when such a commentator as Grotius could understand “the body” in these verses as said of the church. No inspired writer but the apostle Paul ever employs that figure. James means simply the outer man. He is still dealing with the extreme liability to fail with the tongue. If one does not fail in word, this is a perfect man; for he had owned that we all do fail. This he follows up by two illustrations, which show the influence of a small thing in controlling a great even in the most difficult circumstances, to impress the importance and the duty of governing our speech. Blessed indeed is it, when the tongue, under the guidance of God, testifies to the whole body under His control! He who more than any other urges works, in evidence of reality in those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus, warns us of license in our words, so influential for evil if not for good; and all the more seriously as indicative of the inner man and involving the outer.