James 3 Bible Commentary

Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown

(Read all of James 3)

1. be not--literally, "become not": taking the office too hastily, and of your own accord.
many--The office is a noble one; but few are fit for it. Few govern the tongue well (James 3:2), and only such as can govern it are fit for the office; therefore, "teachers" ought not to be many.
masters--rather, "teachers." The Jews were especially prone to this presumption. The idea that faith (so called) without works (James 2:14-26) was all that is required, prompted "many" to set up as "teachers," as has been the case in all ages of the Church. At first all were allowed to teach in turns. Even their inspired gifts did not prevent liability to abuse, as James here implies: much more is this so when self-constituted teachers have no such miraculous gifts.
knowing--as all might know.
we . . . greater condemnation--James in a humble, conciliatory spirit, includes himself: if we teachers abuse the office, we shall receive greater condemnation than those who are mere hearers (compare Luke 12:42-46). CALVIN, like English Version, translates, "masters" that is, self-constituted censors and reprovers of others James 4:12 accords with this view.

2. all--The Greek implies "all without exception": even the apostles.
offend not--literally "stumbleth not": is void of offence or "slip" in word: in which respect one is especially tried who sets up to be a "teacher."

3. Behold--The best authorities read, "but if," that is, Now whensoever (in the case) of horses (such is the emphatic position of "horses" in the Greek) we put the bits (so literally, "the customary bits") into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about also their whole body. This is to illustrate how man turns about his whole body with the little tongue. "The same applies to the pen, which is the substitute for the tongue among the absent" [BENGEL].

4. Not only animals, but even ships.
the governor listeth--literally, "the impulse of the steersman pleaseth." The feeling which moves the tongue corresponds with this.

5. boasteth great things--There is great moment in what the careless think "little" things [BENGEL]. Compare "a world," "the course of nature," "hell," James 3:6, which illustrate how the little tongue's great words produce great mischief.
how great a matter a little fire kindleth--The best manuscripts read, "how little a fire kindleth how great a," &c. ALFORD, for "matter," translates, "forest." But GROTIUS translates as English Version, "material for burning": a pile of fuel.

6. Translate, "The tongue, that world of iniquity, is a fire." As man's little world is an image of the greater world, the universe, so the tongue is an image of the former [BENGEL].
so--omitted in the oldest authorities.
is--literally, "is constituted." "The tongue is (constituted), among the members, the one which defileth," &c. (namely, as fire defiles with its smoke).
course of nature--"the orb (cycle) of creation."
setteth on fire . . . is set on fire--habitually and continually. While a man inflames others, he passes out of his own power, being consumed in the flame himself.
of hell--that is, of the devil. Greek, "Gehenna"; found here only and in Matthew 5:22. James has much in common with the Sermon on the Mount (Proverbs 16:27).

7. every kind--rather, "every nature" (that is, natural disposition and characteristic power).
of beasts--that is, quadrupeds of every disposition; as distinguished from the three other classes of creation, "birds, creeping things (the Greek includes not merely 'serpents,' as English Version), and things in the sea."
is tamed, and hath been--is continually being tamed, and hath been so long ago.
of mankind--rather, "by the nature of man": man's characteristic power taming that of the inferior animals. The dative in the Greek may imply, "Hath suffered itself to be brought into tame subjection TO the nature of men." So it shall be in the millennial world; even now man, by gentle firmness, may tame the inferior animal, and even elevate its nature.

8. no man--literally, "no one of men": neither can a man control his neighbor's, nor even his own tongue. Hence the truth of James 3:2 appears.
unruly evil--The Greek, implies that it is at once restless and incapable of restraint. Nay, though nature has hedged it in with a double barrier of the lips and teeth, it bursts from its barriers to assail and ruin men [ESTIUS].
deadly--literally, "death-bearing."

9. God--The oldest authorities read, "Lord." "Him who is Lord and Father." The uncommonness of the application of "Lord" to the Father, doubtless caused the change in modern texts to "God" (James 1:27). But as Messiah is called "Father," Isaiah 9:6, so God the Father is called by the Son's title, "Lord": showing the unity of the Godhead. "Father" implies His paternal love; "Lord," His dominion.
men, which--not "men who"; for what is meant is not particular men, but men genetically [ALFORD].
are made after . . . similitude of God--Though in a great measure man has lost the likeness of God in which he was originally made, yet enough of it still remains to show what once it was, and what in regenerated and restored man it shall be. We ought to reverence this remnant and earnest of what man shall be in ourselves and in others. "Absalom has fallen from his father's favor, but the people still recognize him to be the king's son" [BENGEL]. Man resembles in humanity the Son of man, "the express image of His person" (Hebrews 1:3), compare Genesis 1:26, 1 John 4:20. In the passage, Genesis 1:26, "image" and "likeness" are distinct: "image," according to the Alexandrians, was something in which men were created, being common to all, and continuing to man after the fall, while the "likeness" was something toward which man was created, to strive after and attain it: the former marks man's physical and intellectual, the latter his moral pre-eminence.

10. The tongue, says ÆSOP, is at once the best and the worst of things. So in a fable, a man with the same breath blows hot and cold. "Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (compare Psalms 62:4).
brethren--an appeal to their consciences by their brotherhood in Christ.
ought not so to be--a mild appeal, leaving it to themselves to understand that such conduct deserves the most severe reprobation.

11. fountain--an image of the heart: as the aperture (so the Greek for "place" is literally) of the fountain is an image of man's mouth. The image here is appropriate to the scene of the Epistle, Palestine, wherein salt and bitter springs are found. Though "sweet" springs are sometimes found near, yet "sweet and bitter" (water) do not flow "at the same place" (aperture). Grace can make the same mouth that "sent forth the bitter" once, send forth the sweet for the time to come: as the wood (typical of Christ's cross) changed Marah's bitter water into sweet.

12. Transition from the mouth to the heart.
Can the fig tree, &c.--implying that it is an impossibility: as before in James 3:10 he had said it "ought not so to be." James does not, as Matthew (Matthew 7:16,17), make the question, "Do men gather figs of thistles?" His argument is, No tree "can" bring forth fruit inconsistent with its nature, as for example, the fig tree, olive berries: so if a man speaks bitterly, and afterwards speaks good words, the latter must be so only seemingly, and in hypocrisy, they cannot be real.
so can no fountain . . . salt . . . and fresh--The oldest authorities read, "Neither can a salt (water spring) yield fresh." So the mouth that emits cursing, cannot really emit also blessing.

13. Who--(Compare Psalms 34:12,13). All wish to appear "wise": few are so.
show--"by works," and not merely by profession, referring to James 2:18.
out of a good conversation his works--by general "good conduct" manifested in particular "works." "Wisdom" and "knowledge," without these being "shown," are as dead as faith would be without works [ALFORD].
with meekness of wisdom--with the meekness inseparable from true "wisdom."

14. if ye have--as is the case (this is implied in the Greek indicative).
bitter--Ephesians 4:31, "bitterness."
envying--rather, "emulation," or literally, "zeal": kindly, generous emulation, or zeal, is not condemned, but that which is "bitter" [BENGEL].
strife--rather, "rivalry."
in your hearts--from which flow your words and deeds, as from a fountain.
glory not, and lie not against the truth--To boast of your wisdom is virtually a lying against the truth (the gospel), while your lives belie your glorying. 3:15, 1:18, "The word of truth." Romans 2:17,23, speaks similarly of the same contentious Jewish Christians.

15. This wisdom--in which ye "glory," as if ye were "wise" (James 3:13,14).
descendeth not from above--literally, "is not one descending," &c.: "from the Father of lights" (true illumination and wisdom), James 1:17; through "the Spirit of truth," John 15:26.
earthly--opposed to heavenly. Distinct from "earthy," 1 Corinthians 15:47. Earthly is what is IN the earth; earthy, what is of the earth.
sensual--literally, "animal-like": the wisdom of the "natural" (the same Greek) man, not born again of God; "not having the Spirit" (Jude 1:19).
devilish--in its origin (from "hell," James 3:6; not from God, the Giver of true wisdom, James 1:5), and also in its character, which accords with its origin. Earthly, sensual, and devilish, answer to the three spiritual foes of man, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

16. envying--So English Version translates the Greek, which usually means "zeal"; "emulation," in Romans 13:13. "The envious man stands in his own light. He thinks his candle cannot shine in the presence of another's sun. He aims directly at men, obliquely at God, who makes men to differ."
strife--rivalry [ALFORD].
confusion--literally, "tumultuous anarchy": both in society (translated "commotions," Luke 21:9; "tumults," 2 Corinthians 6:5), and in the individual mind; in contrast to the "peaceable" composure of true "wisdom," James 3:17. James does not honor such effects of this earthly wisdom with the name "fruit," as he does in the case of the wisdom from above. James 3:18; compare Galatians 5:19-22, "works of the flesh . . . fruit of the Spirit."

17. first pure--literally, "chaste," "sanctified": pure from all that is "earthly, sensual (animal), devilish" (James 3:15). This is put, "first of all," before "peaceable" because there is an unholy peace with the world which makes no distinction between clean and unclean. Compare "undefiled" and "unspotted from the world," 1:27, 4:4,8, "purify . . . hearts"; 1 Peter 1:22, "purified . . . souls" (the same Greek). Ministers must not preach before a purifying change of heart, "Peace," where there is no peace. Seven (the perfect number) characteristic peculiarities of true wisdom are enumerated. Purity or sanctity is put first because it has respect both to God and to ourselves; the six that follow regard our fellow men. Our first concern is to have in ourselves sanctity; our second, to be at peace with men.
gentle--"forbearing"; making allowances for others; lenient towards neighbors, as to the DUTIES they owe us.
easy to be entreated--literally, "easily persuaded," tractable; not harsh as to a neighbor's FAULTS.
full of mercy--as to a neighbor's MISERIES.
good fruits--contrasted with "every evil work," James 3:16.
without partiality--recurring to the warning against partial "respect to persons," James 2:1,4,9. ALFORD translates as the Greek is translated, James 1:6, "wavering," "without doubting." But thus there would be an epithet referring to one's self inserted amidst those referring to one's conduct towards others. English Version is therefore better.
without hypocrisy--Not as ALFORD explains from James 1:22,26, "Without deceiving yourselves" with the name without the reality of religion. For it must refer, like the rest of the six epithets, to our relations to others; our peaceableness and mercy towards others must be "without dissimulation."

18. "The peaceable fruit of righteousness." He says "righteousness"; because it is itself the true wisdom. As in the case of the earthly wisdom, after the characteristic description came its results; so in this verse, in the case of the heavenly wisdom. There the results were present; here, future.
fruit . . . sown--Compare Psalms 97:11, Isaiah 61:3, "trees of righteousness." Anticipatory, that is, the seed whose "fruit," namely, "righteousness," shall be ultimately reaped, is now "sown in peace." "Righteousness," now in germ, when fully developed as "fruit" shall be itself the everlasting reward of the righteous. As "sowing in peace" (compare "sown in dishonor," 1 Corinthians 15:43) produces the "fruit of righteousness," so conversely "the work" and "effect of righteousness" is "peace."
of them that make peace--"by (implying also that it is for them, and to their good) them that work peace." They, and they alone, are "blessed." "Peacemakers," not merely they who reconcile others, but who work peace. "Cultivate peace" [ESTIUS]. Those truly wise towards God, while peaceable and tolerant towards their neighbors, yet make it their chief concern to sow righteousness, not cloaking men's sins, but reproving them with such peaceable moderation as to be the physicians, rather than the executioners, of sinners [CALVIN].