Commentary on James 3:1-12
The preacher encountering this text might be forgiven for the sudden urge to suggest, in lieu of the sermon, that the congregation engage in a time of silent prayer.
This passage begins with a stern warning to those who teach and proceeds to a set of pronouncements, nearly a tirade, on how the human tongue is dangerous and evil, that inevitably it does more harm than good, and that our only hope is to some extent to keep it under control.
James casts his warning to those who teach in the first person plural, indicating clearly that he understands himself to be one of the teachers of the congregation. In any case, he makes it clear that, far from garnering special favor from God, the act of teaching earns one extra scrutiny from God, since the always-dangerous act of speaking is fraught with even greater peril when the speech is accorded authority. The observation that no human being is perfect may be commonplace, but James insightfully links authority to greater risk of harm stemming from imperfection in speech.
Much attention has been given to the three metaphors developed in verses 3-7. Each explores a different aspect of the tongue, which is itself a metaphor for the power of human speech. So James piles metaphor upon metaphor, yet the images he portrays are clear, so that we are able to follow his points.
The first metaphor, that of guiding a horse with a bridle, is the most simple and straightforward. The rider or chariot driver directs the strength, speed, and direction of a horse much larger than himself by means of a bit in the horse’s mouth — an implement which, incidentally, functions by pressing against the animal’s tongue. Quite literally, then, the one who is able to control the horse’s tongue with the bit in its mouth controls its whole body.
The metaphor of the ship’s rudder introduces additional aspects to the metaphor. The captain, rudder, and ship are analogous to the rider or driver, bit, and horse in the previous image. This time, however, we also consider the influence of outside forces: wind and waves that would take the ship on a different course or destroy it altogether. The captain who is able to keep control of the rudder, like the person able to keep control of one’s tongue, can weather difficult circumstances and emerge intact and on course.
The third metaphor develops in a distinctly different direction than the first two. After all, the bit and the rudder are simply tools. In James’s view, however, there is a sense in which the tongue is not simply a tool to be utilized but an agent independent of its possessor. The metaphor of the igniting flame, like those of the bit and the rudder, deals with small entities with large effects. Unlike the bit and the rudder, though, the flame is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and what it sets in motion is not purposeful but destructive. This aspect of the danger of uncontrolled speech is of particular importance to James, and he goes on at some length to describe its disruptive nature, upsetting the entire created order (verse 6, lit. “wheel of birth”). Ultimately, this fire has its source in the everlasting fires of Gehenna (“hell”), vividly imaged for those who lived in the vicinity of Jerusalem by the trash dump which smoldered continuously, fed by the city’s refuse.
James returns to a figure that recalls that of the bit in the horse’s mouth — but with a difference. The horse is tamed by human beings in order to be controlled by a bridle; likewise, other creatures of all species can be subdued by the human species. The tongue alone remains untamable, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8).
Are we at this point to assume that James sees the tongue as inherently evil, controllable with effort but incapable of real change? Or should we read the other side of his metaphors, to recognize, for example, that the spark that starts the raging inferno can also light the home fire that cooks our food and warms our weary bones? Such is the nature of metaphorical language that we must make our own determination as to which way the images should turn. It seems, however, that if we do not allow these metaphors to be multivalent, the next section of the passage is unrelieved cynicism. If the tongue — that is, human speech — is inevitably evil, our attempts to do good in our speech are self-deception at best, at worst insults to God.
It does not seem likely that James intends the picture to remain so gloomy. Rather, verses 9-12 open up new possibilities in James’s metaphors, signaling a shift in perspective from what comes before, and may signal a major shift in the sermon as well. Despite our own experience that the tongue is unruly, that controlling our speech is a never-ending struggle, we can affirm other, quite different experiences.
We do, in fact, bless God with our voices, and we do so sincerely, without reservations or false motives. And if this is the case, then we begin to imagine a situation in which all the dire warnings James has issued about the tongue may not necessarily doom us. In fact, if we are able to bless God with our tongues (and we are), it should follow that we are not the kind of people whose tongues lead them astray — a point James immediately follows up, as before, with images drawn from nature. If we are fig trees, we cannot bear olives. If we are grapevines, we cannot bear figs. No more can we bless God and curse people made in the divine image.
Ultimately James calls on us to examine ourselves closely — an examination focusing largely on the words that come out of our mouths — and determine who we truly are. We will either be one or the other (a theme to be developed more fully in next week’s text). Perhaps we can control that unruly tongue, after all. But to do so will require constant attention to who we are and what God has made us to be.