3. Taming the tongue, 3:1-4:12

i] The destructive power of the tongue


James now speaks on the taming of the tongue. In a series of pictures he describes the effects and influence of the tongue and "the evil that can be caused by an ill-controlled tongue", Mitton.


i] Context: See 2:1-13. We now move again to a section in James' letter which is constructed of linked sayings / instructions, 3:1-5:12. The first of three parts, 3:1-4:12, deals with wisdom and obedience, particularly as it relates to speech. It "describes the qualities of true Christian wisdom as distinguished form the wisdom of this world", Mitton. The point being made is that "by their conduct, Christians should demonstrate heavenly, rather than worldly wisdom. Specifically, they will exhibit purity and peacefulness rather than jealousy and strife", Blomberg.

This unit on the tongue is made up of 11 sayings / instructions formed into 4 sections:

A loose tongue possesses destructive power, 3:1-12;

A loose tongue is driven by worldly wisdom, 3:13-18;

A loose tongue is driven by worldly passions, 4:1-6;

A loose tongue calls for humble repentance, 4:7-12.


ii] Background: 1:1.


ii] Structure: Taming the tongue:


The danger of committing verbal offense.

Instructions / sayings:

#1. Don't be in a rush to become a preacher, v1;

#2. All people stumble, and the tongue is the hardest to avoid, v2;

#3. The tongue has influence out of all proportion to its size, v3-5a;

#4. The tongue has destructive powers, v5b-6;

#5. The tongue possesses a treacherous inconsistency, v7-8b;

#6. The tongue is duplicitous, v8c-12.


Dibelius classifies this passage as the third in a series of three sermons, but it is not as unified as the sermon on partiality, nor the sermon on faith and works, and does not begin with a general proposition as do the two sermons. So, it is likely that we have a collection of independent sayings, here six sayings stitched together under a unifying theme, namely, the "danger of committing verbal offense", Dibelius.


iv] Interpretation:

Through the viewpoint of Wisdom, James now examines the tongue and its negative potential. It well may be that this first collection of sayings is particularly intended for preachers. Certainly the first saying is directed to teachers. We note that James does often set the theme for a collection of sayings with the first saying, eg., the sayings on favoritism in chapter 2. Watson in Novum Testamentum 35, proposes that the passage is rhetorical with the first verse serving as the proposition, followed by a reason, confirmation and ending up with a conclusion in v10b-12. Yet, the general nature of the sayings in 3:2-12 do not present a clear connection with v1, nor is a clear structure evident. What we have is a general collection of sayings on the tongue and its negative potential, applicable to all, but with particular relevance for Christian leaders. Martin proposes that a specific life-situation lies behind the instructions, but such is unnecessary speculation. Tasker has suggested that the passage is linked to the previous section on faith and works ("words are also works"), but no clear connection is evident. James has moved on to his next subject, and this time it is about the tongue, a little muscle with the potential to do great harm. So, what we have is a collection of sayings on uncontrolled speech with particular relevance for teachers. "Teachers are engaged in a dangerous enterprise, and only the mature person of humility, purity, gentleness and sincerity (3:17) should engage in it", McCartney.


Greek: Note how the sayings / instructions from v3 onward use highly descriptive metaphors.


v] Exposition: A simple exposition of this passage may be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.

Text - 3:1

Instruction #1, v1. "Don't be in any rush to become a teacher", Peterson. Believers are encouraged to consider the responsibilities that are associated with a ministry of the Word before rushing to the pulpit. Christian ministry provides abundant opportunities for teaching the Word of God, but it does come with its responsibilities. As Jesus reminds his disciples, "from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded."

mh "not" - This negation takes an emphatic position in the Gk.

ginesqe (ginomai) pres. imp. "should presume to be" - be [not]. Often used instead of the verb to-be. "You ought not try to become teachers", Barclay, carries the sense, although the actual sense is "not many of you are to be teachers", Dibelius.

didaskaloi (oV) "teachers" - [many] teachers. Predicate nominative. Surely "Christian teachers", teachers of the Word.

adelfoi mou "my brothers" - brothers of me. In James, often used to introduce a new section.

eidoteV (oida) perf. part. "because you know" - knowing. The participle is adverbial, probably causal, as NIV, although possibly imperatival, "remember, we teachers will be judged with special strictness", Moffatt.

oJti "that" - Introducing a dependent statement of perception expressing what we should know.

lhmyomeqa (lambanw) fut. "we who teach will be" - we will receive. The teaching office brings with it responsibilities and accountability.

krima (a atoV) "judged" - [greater] judgment. "Those who teach come under greater scrutiny and are liable to greater judgment", Martin, presumably in the day of judgment. Possibly "we will receive the greater condemnation", AV, ie., the judicial verdict rather than the process of judging, although "it seems unlikely that James would hold out to all teachers, and indeed himself, only the prospect of greater or lesser punishment", Laws. The context certainly supports the case that the tongue can get us into no amount of trouble, whether it be just a foolish word, or a major heresy, and therefore opens the teacher to greater scrutiny, so Moo. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded", Lk.12:48.


Instruction #2, v2. "All men stumble, and of all faults, those of the tongue are the hardest to avoid", Ropes. We will make mistakes, particularly when it comes to the things we say; "who is he who has never sinned with his tongue?", Ecc.19:16. To never put our foot wrong implies perfection. James clearly stitches this saying to v1, but it may just serve as a transitional saying leading to the more general issue of Christian conversation. Peterson puts it nicely, "We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life."

gar "-" - for. Possibly introducing a causal clause explaining why we should think twice before embarking on a teaching ministry, "because we all make many a slip", Berkeley, yet possibly just as a stitching device for the next saying and so left untranslated.

ptaiomen (ptaiw) pres. "we [all] stumble" - we [all] stumble, trip, fall / offend. The present tense may be iterative, expressing repeated action.

polla acc. adj. "in many ways" - on many occasions. Possibly accusative of reference, "with reference to many things." Either "many" in the sense of "often", "many" in the sense of "all kinds of ways", Phillips.

ei + ind. "if" - if, as is the case, [anyone in speech does not stumble, then ....]. Introducing a conditional clause 1st. class, where the proposed condition is assumed true, here for argument sake. Surely hypothetical, given that James has already stated that "we all make mistakes." Yet, is James setting an ideal, or is he being facetious?

ou ptaiei (ptaiw) pres. "is never at fault" - does not stumble, trip, fall.

en + dat. "in [what he says / they say]" - in [word, speech]. Adverbial, reference; "with respect to what they say."

teleioV (oV) "perfect" - [then this one is] a perfect, complete, mature [man]. Predicate nominative. "Blameless", Ropes.

calinagwghsai (calinagwgew) aor. inf. "[able] to keep" - [able] to bridle, restrain. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of "is able". "Hold in check", Ropes.

oJlon adj. "[his] whole [body]" - [also the] whole [body]. Accusative direct object of the infinitive "to restrain." "The man who is master of his speech is ipso facto in total control of himself", Laws.


Instruction #3, v3-5a. "The tongue has influence out of all proportion to its size", Moo. James now sets out to establish the power of the tongue, "a small part ... but it makes great claims", v5a. This fact is illustrated in two metaphors / similes ("so also" = like? v5): of the bit that controls the horse, v3; of the rudder that steers the ship. There is no agreement as to the extent of this unit, eg. Davids has v2b-5a, Moo includes the spark that ignites a forest fire, v5b.

de "-" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step to a new saying.

ei + ind. "when" - if. Introducing a conditional clause, 1st class, where the condition is assumed to be true; "if, as is the case, ..... then. Note that there are numerous variant readings, eg. ide, "behold", Ropes.

twn iJttwn (oV) gen. "of horses" - [we put bits into the mouths] of horses. The genitive is adjectival, possessive.

eiV to peiqesqai (peiqw) pres. inf. + dat. "to make [them] obey" - to make [them] obey. This preposition with the articular infinitive usually forms a purpose clause, "in order to persuade them".

hJmin dat. pro. "us" - Dative of direct object after the verb "to make obey, persuade."

metagomen (metagw) "we can turn [the whole animal]" - then we direct, guide, change direction of [the whole body of them]. "We are in a position to turn their entire body this way or that", Cassirer.


This second illustration makes the same point as the first, "very small things can direct very large things", Moo.

kai "or" - and. Adjunctive, "and also", ie., like horses, cf. Ropes.

idou "take [ships] as an example" - behold. Serving to direct attention.

onta (eimi) pres. part. "although they are" - [the ships] being [so great]. The participle is probably adverbial, concessive, as NIV, "behold the ships, although they are so great." Yet, note the variant ta ploia ta thlikouta onta which would make the participle adjectival, "behold the ships which are so great."

elaunomena (elaunw) pres. pas. part. "are driven" - being driven. The participle is similarly concessive as above.

uJpo + gen. "by [strong winds]" - by [hard winds]. Instrumental, expressing means.

elacistou adj. "a very small [rudder]" - [is guided by] a littlest [rudder wherever the impulse/desire]. Superlative adjective, referring to the rudder as the smallest of mechanisms. "The tiniest rudder", Johnson.

tou euqunontoV (euqunw) "the pilot" - of the one making straight, directing, steering [decides]. The participle serves as a substantive; "the man at the helm", Zerwick.


"So also the tongue; although a small part of the body it has great power [for good or evil]." Davids observes a shift in thought from the power of the tongue to the tongue being an implement out of control, ie., the helmsman is often not in control. It is more likely that James remains on message, but does go on to develop this idea in the next saying. Note alliteration mikron meloV ... megala, see Laws.

ouJtwV adv. "likewise" - thus, so, in the same way [the tongue is a small member / part]. Comparative adverb, forward pointing.

megala aucei (aucew) pres. "[but] it makes great boasts" - [and] great things boasts. Ropes notes that the two words are used for balance and that together are equivalent to megalaucei "be haughty", not in the sense of an "empty boast", but a "haughty sense of importance", so "it can make huge claims", NEB; "its pretensions are great", REB. This is certainly the sense in 4:16-17, but here a neutral sense, rather than negative, seems more likely. James is referring to the power of the tongue, a power which, like the bit and the rudder, can change things (for good or evil). "The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of!" Phillips.


Instruction #4, v5b-6. The tongue has "destructive power", Laws. More often than not the tongue functions like fire in the hands of an arsonist; it is destructive beyond all measure. As Moo puts it, the tongue is too often the "conduit by which all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us." So, a loose tongue not only damages the business of life for ourselves and others, it pushes us toward the very fires of hell.

idou "Consider" - behold. "Take the case of a forest fire", Barclay.

anaptei (anaptw) pres. "is set on fire" - sets fire to, lights up, burns [how great / large a forest]. "A tiny match can start a raging forest fire."


In a complicated metaphor, James describes the tongue as a fire. The first clause is made up of one verb and five words in the nominative case and is therefore difficult to punctuate, and this made even more difficult by numerous variants, see Martin. The whole verse is best treated as one sentence with two main clauses supported by appositional clauses and followed up by two adjectival participial clauses:

"And the tongue [is] a fire;

the world / sum-total of wickedness,

it (hJ glwssa, "the tongue", emphatic) is set among (????) our members;

corrupting the whole body,

and setting on fire the course of life,

and being set on fire by Gehenna".

kai "also" - and. Adjunctive, "also". "And yes, the tongue really is a fire", Moo.

oJ kosmoV "a world" - [the tongue is a fire,] the world = sum total. Standing in apposition to "tongue" / nominative complement. Here in a figurative sense, the tongue as the "universe / sum-total of wickedness", possibly "the adornment of wickedness", possibly even the "power / authority of wickedness", although most translations opt for something like "a world of iniquity", NRSV, as NIV. So, probably something like "the representation of all that is wicked in this world", cf., Barclay.

thV adikiaV (a) gen. "[a world] of evil" - of unrighteousness, wickedness, injustice. The genitive is probably adjectival, attributive, limiting "world"; "an unrighteous world." Possibly partitive, "a world of malice", NLT.

kaqistatai (kaqisthmi) pres. pas/mid. "-" - [the tongue] becomes. The meaning of this verb in the context, and whether it is middle or passive, is open to some debate. Possibly something like "placed among our members", NRSV, giving a passive sense, but then God would be the agent. In 4:4 kaqistatai is obviously middle, and if middle the tongue is the agent. So, the tongue places itself in our members, setting itself up, placing itself in charge, making itself the "conduit by which all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us", Moo.

en + dat. "among" - in = among. Expressing, space, as NIV.

melesin (oV) dat. "the parts of the body" - the parts, members [of us].

hJ spilousa (spilow) pres. part. "it corrupts [the whole body]" - staining. The articular participle is adjectival, attributive, limiting hJ glwssa, "tongue", and translated as a relative clause, "which defileth", Ropes.

to swma (a atoV) "the [whole] person" - the [whole] body. "It pollutes our whole being", REB.

flogizousa (flogizw) pres. act. part. "sets .... on fire" - [and] setting on fire. The participle is adjectival, attributive, limiting "tongue"; "and which sets on fire the entire course of life." "It causes the greatest damage to ourselves and to others", Junkins.

ton trocon thV genesewV "the whole course of his life" - the turning = course of existence, life. Most likely a technical phrase describing the cycle of life in the image of a wheel ("what goes around comes around", or is it "what comes around goes around"? = a stoic view of life), "the ups and downs of life", see Dibelius.

flogizomehn (flogizw) pres. pas. part. "is itself set on fire" - and being set on fire. The third in this series of adjectival participles. The destructive power of the tongue is such that it brings upon itself, and its owner, ultimate destruction - the fires of hell.

uJpo "by" - Instrumental, expressing agency.

thV geennhV (a hV) "[by] hell" - gehenna. The name for the ever-burning rubbish tip outside Jerusalem = "Hell", the place of punishment for the dead.


Instruction #5, v7-8b. The tongue possesses a "treacherous inconsistency - an evil irreducible to order, to a consistent character of disciplined obedience and to righteousness", Adamson. James makes the point that humans have been quite successful in taming animals, but that we fail miserably when it comes to the tongue.

gar "-" - for. Again used to link saying units, and so lacking any explanatory function and therefore best left untranslated as NIV.

fusiV (iV ewV) "kinds" - [every] nature = species [of beasts and birds, of reptiles both and sea creatures]. The noun is followed by a series of partitive genitives.

damazetai kai dedamastai (damazw) pres./perf. pas. "are being tamed and have been tamed" - is subdued, tamed and has been subdued, tamed. In the sense of "domesticated".

th/ anqrwpinh/ (oV) dat. "by mankind" - by human [species]. The dative expresses agency.


de "but" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step to a contrasting point. "But no human being is able to tame the tongue", Berkeley.

anqrwpwn (oV) gen. "human" - [no one] of men. The genitive is adjectival, partitive.

damasai (damazw) aor. inf. "tame" - [is able] to tame [the tongue]. The infinitive is complementary, completing the verb "is able."

akatastaton adj. "it is a restless [evil]" - an uncontrollable, restless [evil]. Nominative absolute, although most agree we have a solecism here, ie., irregular grammar, so possibly functioning in apposition to "tongue", " ..... tongue - a restless evil", NRSV. The NIV assumes that it is a predicate nominative, the subject of a new sentence with the verb to-be assumed. Note the variant akatasceton, "an uncontrollable evil." The adjective kakon, "evil", serves as a substantive while the adjective akatastaton, "restless, unstable", serves as a attributive adjective. Probably "restless" in the sense of "always liable to break out", Phillips. "But no human being is capable of subduing the tongue, never-resting evil that it is", Cassirer.


Instruction #6, v8c-12. For a believer, the tongue can be duplicitous, "on the one hand, it is very religious, but, on the other, it can be most profane in daily life", Davids. On the one hand, our pious words wouldn't melt chocolate, but then comes Monday and our mouth turns into a sewer. Rightly James asks whether we can live such a double life.

Grammatically, the nominative absolute in v8c seems to stand with "restless evil" in apposition to "tongue" in the first part of v8, "..... tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison", NRSV. Yet, in subject matter it seems to introduce James' saying on taming the tongue . As such it would function as a predicate nominative, "tongue" understood; "The tongue is full of death-bringing poison."

qanathforou adj. "deadly" - [the tongue is full] of death-bearing. "Death-dealing", Johnson.

iou (oV) gen. "poison" - poison / rust. The genitive is adjectival, idiomatic / of content. Obviously here "poison", esp. of seductiveness, so "full of a poison on the lips which is death-dealing".


"The tongue is full of deadly poison (v8c). With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men made in the likeness of God", Barclay.

en + dat. "with" - in. Here instrumental, as NIV; "by means of".

auth/ "the tongue" - it [we bless the lord and father and with it we curse the men]. "With the tongue ...."

touV ...... gegonotaV (ginomai) perf. part. "who have been made" - having been made. The articular participle is adjectival, introducing an attributive relative clause limiting touV anqrwouV, "human beings", as NIV.

kaq (kata) + acc. "in [God's likeness]" - according to [likeness of god]. Expressing a standard; "in accordance with."


"Out of the same mouth we curse some and speak of others with praise", Junkins.

ek + gen. "out of" - from [the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing]. Expressing source / origin.

ou crh pres. + inf. "[my brothers, this] should not" - it is not necessary [brothers of me these things]. Hapax legomenon, from cran "to give what is needful", BDF, here negated.

ginesqai (ginomai) pres. inf. "be" - to be. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of "ought". "This is just not right, brothers and sisters".

autwV adv. "-" - so, thus. Comparative adverb, backward pointing.


"A spring doesn't gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it?" Peterson.

mhti "-" - not [the fountain]. A softened negation, prompting a question expecting a negative answer.

ek + gen. "from" - out of, from [the same opening]. Expressing source / origin.

bruei (bruw) pres. "can ........ flow ...?" - bursts forth = pours forth, pours out, gushes forth [the sweet and the bitter]. Hapax legomenon.


mh dunatai (dunamai) pres. pas. "can" - is not able [brothers of me]. If a question, this negation would imply a negative answer; see oute below.

poihsai (poiew) "bear [olives]" - [a fig tree] to do = produce [olives]. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of "is able".

h] "or" - or [a vine to produce figs]. Disjunctive.

oute "neither" - neither [salt water to do = make sweet water]. With the initial mh this conjunction forms a negative correlative construction, "neither ...... nor [does a salty spring .....]". "In the same way, no salt (salty) spring has the power to bring forth fresh water", Cassirer.


James Introduction



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