James 3:5, 6

James 3:5‑6  •  3 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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Many there are in all ages disposed to take account of nothing but deeds. Freedom in speech seems a necessary prerogative of a man, and its excess of all things most venial. Far different was our Lord's estimate of words (Matt. 12), which yet more than deeds express the feelings and bent of the inner man. And similar is the language of His servant here, couched in terse, severe, highly figurative, but all the more unsparing, terms. “So also the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. See how large a wood how little a fire kindleth! And the tongue is fire, the world of iniquity; the tongue cometh to be in our members that which defileth the whole body, and setteth in a blaze the course [lit. wheel] of nature, and is set in a blaze by gehenna” (vers. 5, 6).
That the tongue should be physically diminutive only gives the more vividness to its capacity for mischief beyond reckoning or measure. Who can conceive the destructive effects of an evil word? Yet the tongue, little as it is, boasts habitually and also great things; and is so much the more readily enticed to persevere and grow bolder, if sin is limited to deeds of the body. It may be observed that the word ὕλη (here as generally translated “wood” or “forest”) is often in philosophical writings used to express “matter,” and by historians or others, like “materia” in Latin authors, the stuff or material of anything, timber, &c. The A. V. had ground for its rendering, even if the preponderance lean to that view which is presented here.
How energetic is the opening of ver. 6! “The tongue is fire.” It is not only that a mighty conflagration ensues from an apparently trivial spark; but the tongue itself is “fire” morally. However free from open acts of unrighteousness he may be who gives it loose rein without God before his eyes, it is without going farther “the world of iniquity.” He Whose ears are open to the cry of the righteous does not fail to mark unbridled license of speech, which shrinks not from any imputation, however unjust, that ill-will can dictate.
The best witnesses, both MSS. and Vv., omit the “thus” which smooths the way for the second time “the tongue” is introduced. It is most forcible as it stands simply. “The tongue cometh to be in our members that which defileth the whole body,” and this is a sense which, prevailing in the best authors so that no detailed justification is necessary, seems to suit the clause, better than the bare “is” of the A. V. or “is constituted” as it frequently means. Here it is liable to give the erroneous notion of being divinely arranged to so evil an end; which is a thought impossible to a good conscience and wholly opposed to the truth. It is through the fall, and the self will or lawlessness which characterizes sin, that the tongue comes thus to be such a burning power of evil in the members. It is the defiler of the whole body, for there is no limit to its unrighteousness; “the world of iniquity,” deeming itself to have immunity as long as it only injures in word.
But the latter clauses both enlarge the sphere of the evil, and deepen our sense of its source to the highest degree. For we are next told that “it setteth in a blaze the course of nature, and is set on a blaze by hell.” The wheel or course of nature extends far beyond the whole body; and such is the inflammatory range for the malignant tongue. What then must be the spring? It is, as we lastly hear, “set on a blaze by hell.” The evil one is a murderer as well as a liar; and unceasing antagonism to Christ in both respects is its flagrant proof.