PROBABLY JAMES 3 IS ONE OF THE BEST-KNOWN passages in all of literature dealing with the tongue.
(1) The burden of James 3:3–6 is that although the tongue is a very small organ, in many respects it controls and, in the worst case, inflames the rest of the human being. Each of the analogies James draws casts a fresh hue on the subject. The bit is tiny compared with the rest of the horse, yet it steers the horse. Something similar can be said of the rudder with respect to the ship, only now it is part of the ship rather than separate from it. The spark is tiny compared with the conflagration it causes—but in this case the focus is not only on relative size but on the horrible damage the tongue can achieve.
(2) The next section (James 3:7–8) adapts the last of these three analogies, and purposely distances itself from the first. The notion of a bit in a horse's mouth might conjure up mental expectations of control and discipline. The reality, James insists, is closer to conflagration. We manage to tame "all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea" (James 3:7), but no one can tame the tongue. "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8).
(3) In particular, it is the tongue's wild inconsistency that is so offensive (James 3:9–12). The analogies James draws suggest that if with the one tongue we praise God and abuse God's image-bearers, the praise we offer to God cannot possibly be more than religious cant. One stream cannot provide both fresh water and bitter.
(4) All of this is in danger of being misunderstood. The focus on the tongue is rhetorically powerful, of course, but we all know that the tongue is not independent of the person. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom (James 3:13–18). At issue is who we are as persons. If our hearts "harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition" (James 3:14), that will surface in our speech. We control our own tongues—and what we need is "the wisdom that comes from heaven" (James 3:17), so graphically described in the last two verses of the chapter.
(5) Similarly, the opening two verses of the chapter cannot be abstracted from what James says about the tongue. These two verses are frightening to any thoughtful teacher of Scripture: "We who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1) That is part of a biblical axiom: responsibility is assessed as a function of knowledge. But teachers know that their performance is tied to what they say (James 3:2). We have returned to the tongue—or, by only the slightest extension, to the printed page and the CD-ROM.
1 Chronicles 16; James 3; Obadiah; Luke 5