The Tongue (James 3)

“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire of hell.” So is James’ inspired description of the tongue (James 3:5-6).

There are at least 43 (probably more) sins that are committed by misuse of the tongue. Consider these: arguing, backbiting, blasphemy, boasting, bragging, being a busybody, complaining, contentions, criticizing (overly), cursing, debating, deceit, double-talk, evil speaking, false teaching, false witness, fault finding, filthy speaking, flattery, gossip, guile, injurious, insinuations, insulting, irritating, jesting or foolish talking, lying, meddling in others’ affairs, mocking, murmuring, perjury, prating, quarreling, reviling, slander, sowing discord, taking God’s name in vain, talebearing, tattling, threatening, vaunting oneself, whispering, and wrangling.

Of the seven things hated or an abomination to God listed in Proverbs 6:16-19, three of them are committed by the tongue [a lying tongue, a false witness, sowing discord among brethren]. Jesus also warned about how we use our tongues in Matthew 12:36-37 when He said, “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”

There are a great number of the Proverbs devoted to the use of the tongue also. Consider the following. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise. The tongue of the just is as choice silver: the heart of the wicked is little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many: but fools die for want of wisdom” (Prov. 10:19-21). “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1). “Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding” (Prov. 17:28). “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Prov. 18:8). “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips” (Prov. 20:19). “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23). “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11). “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards” (Prov. 29:11). (Have you ever said, “I say whatever comes to mind”? You might want to look at this last verse again.) Remember that James had already said, “Swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Many try to justify sins of the tongue by arguing that we cannot control the tongue. But that is not true. James uses two illustrations to show that the tongue can be controlled: the horse controlled by the bits placed in its mouth and the ship controlled by “a very small helm.” If man could not control his tongue, he would not be responsible for his sins; just blame it on the tongue! However, just as the small “bits” and the “very small helm” are able to be controlled by one, so also the tongue, a “little member” can also be controlled even though it may “boast of great things.” The whole point of this discourse would be pointless if man were unable to control his tongue. When James speaks of the tongue and all its power, he is also speaking of the desire of the steersman who directs it. I can’t blame the rudder or the bits or the tongue, because I am on the controlling end! Remember the context: James is not just speaking of the bit’s ability to turn the horse nor the helm’s ability to control the ship, nor of the tongue’s ability to control the whole body, but he is stressing our responsibility over the bit, the helm, and the tongue!

Paul M. Wilmoth

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