“But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.” James 3:8, NASB
Words possess great and lasting power. Not surprisingly then the book of Proverbs repeatedly addresses speech and its influence for good or ill.[i] As Proverbs 18:21 says: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.”[ii] As this statement indicates, the tongue is a formidable member, involving the most serious issues of human existence. To put it simply, the right use of words is a matter of life and death. People have no hope of consistently achieving this in their own strength; the applied power of God is essential for taming the tumultuous tongue.
The Young & The Restless
Like Proverbs, James graphically paints a comprehensive – and also daunting – picture of the tongue and its destructive capability. In describing its influence over oneself he compares it to a horse’s bridle and bit, and a ship’s rudder (Jas. 3:2-4.) Meanwhile, its damaging qualities are likened to a forest fire (Jas. 3:5-6.) He also uses other metaphors like a spring (Jas. 3:11) and types of trees (Jas. 3:12) to contrast the right and wrong uses of one’s mouth. Most dramatically, in verses 7-8 he depicts the restless tongue as a captive animal, frantically straining against its bonds.[iii] It is described as “restless” (v. 8.)[iv] Barnes explains that it is “an evil without restraint, to which no certain and effectual check can be applied.”[v] Another commentator refers to its insidious nature: “It is the kind of evil which is not merely passive but is actively on the attack.”[vi]
As verse 6 indicates, there is a demonic influence in the tongue’s natural state, for it is “set on fire by hell.”[vii] An able Bible teacher details its deadly power:
The tongue, then, is restless. Restlessness is a characteristic of the demonic world and evil, while peace is a characteristic of God and his good kingdom. The tongue is always wanting to say something; often poison that produces death. The murders committed on behalf of a tyrant come about when he issues orders. We experience something similar on the personal level when we speak evil and realize that it has brought death to us rather than life.[viii]
This appalling phenomenon is evidenced in the lives of some of the great heroes of the faith. One moment Peter could be speaking with heavenly insight, the next he was spouting satanic error (Mt. 16:16-17, 22-23.)
The Tongue Of The Righteous
In contrast, the Lord Jesus was marked by the wisdom of His speech (Mt. 7:28-29.) Even those who were sent to arrest Him acknowledged: “No man ever spoke like this man!” (Jn. 7:46.) Peter exclaimed: “You alone have the words of life” (Jn. 6:68.) The Messianic Psalm 45:2 poetically opines: “Grace is poured upon your lips.” His tongue always spoke the Father’s words (Jn. 14:10), and His words are “spirit and life” in what they impart (Jn. 6:63.) With a word He raised the dead (Jn. 11:43) and calmed turbulent seas (Mk. 4:39.) One day He will lead praise to His Father in the future glory of heaven (Heb. 2:12.) He never spoke an idle word, or had to recant any statement. Ironically, at His trial He spoke only when it was necessary for the sake of those who were interrogating Him (Jn. 18:34-38; Matt. 26:62-68); otherwise, like a sheep before her shearers, He opened not His mouth (Acts 8:32.) As 1 Peter 2:22-23 sums His speech up: “‘Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” Instead of cursing those around His cross, He said things like “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34) and to a repentant thief, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43.)
Applied Omnipotence By The Spirit
Is there hope for fallen human beings to imitate Christ’s control of the tongue? Yes, but it demands the possession of God’s Holy Spirit. He must be at work within to check the evil use of our words and cause beautiful things to fall from redeemed lips. Only the indwelling Spirit of God can produce the Christ-like “fruit of the Spirit” which includes “self-control” (Gal. 5:23.) “Speaking the truth in love” is part of the Spirit-infused growth into maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:15, 25-31.) Being filled with the Spirit results in a different kind of speech, characterized by “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and thankful words (Eph. 5:18-20.) One receives the Spirit of God when one trusts the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, for this divine Person is part of the gift of the gospel of the risen and ascended Christ (Jn. 14-16; Acts 2:32-33.)
While it is true that the believer possesses the divinely given resources to control the tongue and use it for consistent good, mature saints understand that this danger may flare up at any moment.[ix] If one is to overcome in this area of life, then one must daily depend on the Lord for the requisite help to conquer the restless tongue. As the godly poetess prayed:
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.[x]
Paraphrasing the golden mouthed fourth-century preacher John Chrysostom, Bridges gives voice to the aspiration of the saints’ hearts:
Are not then the sins of the tongue an overwhelming manifestation of the long-suffering of God? ‘Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips.’ When I think of its power even for eternal death or life, shall I not—as Chrysostom warns—‘guard it more than the pupil of the eye?’ Shall I not cry to my God, that he would restrain it; yea—cry more earnestly, that he would consecrate it; that it might be my glory, not my shame; my organ of praise; my exercise of joy? In the inner man the heart is the main thing to be kept—in the outer man the tongue. O my God, take them both into thine own keeping, under thine own discipline, as instruments for thy service and glory.[xi]
[i] For instance, Proverbs refers to “words” 46 times; “mouth” 52 times; “tongue” 19 times; “speaking or speech” 18 times; and “lips” 42 times in the New King James Version.
[ii] The NET margin helpfully quotes an extra-biblical ancient quotation, saying: “What people say can lead to life or death. The Midrash on Psalms shows one way the tongue [what is said] can cause death: ‘The evil tongue slays three, the slanderer, the slandered, and the listener’ (Midrash Tehillim 52:2.)”
[iii] One writer ably sets the scene: “In the present context it forms the picture of a caged animal pacing back and forth and seeking an opportunity to escape. But whereas it is possible to secure an animal so as to prevent such an escape, this is not so with the tongue. Moreover, ‘disorderly evil’ suggests the instability and the double-mindedness of the tongue (see 1:8; 4:8).” Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 48. (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), p. 117.
[iv] The manuscripts used by the KJV and NKJV (Textus Receptus) employ a different Greek word, akataschetos, and render it “unruly” (its only appearance in the KJV); other manuscripts use the word akatastatos, which the KJV & NKJV only use in Jas. 1:8. The best rendering of this latter word is “restless” (e.g. ASV, NASB, ESV, NET); Darby has “unsettled,” which also captures the idea well. Robertson defines it as: “…unsteady, fickle, staggering, reeling like a drunken man.” [A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), commenting on Jas 1:8.] It only occurs in Jas. 1:8 & 3:8, but is found in the LXX (Old Testament Greek translation) at Is. 54:11, where it has a nautical context (compare with Jas. 1:6-8; perhaps James is alluding to this.) A related noun indicating tumult, rebellion, and confusion is found 5 times in 5 verses: Lk. 21:9; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 6:5; 2 Cor. 12:20; Jas. 3:16. This noun, akatastasia, appears in the LXX (OT Greek translation) of Prov. 26:28 (see bold): “A false tongue hates truth, and an unguarded mouth works instability.” [A New English Translation of the Septuagint; http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/25-proverbs-nets.pdf Accessed on 8/7/13.] Another translation of it: “A false tongue hates truth, and an unguarded mouth makes confusion.” [Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), Pr 26:28.]
The classical Greeks also used it to describe instability, confusion, and fickleness of men and circumstances, e.g. Polybius, Histories, Book 32, Chapter 5.5; Epictetus, The Discouses, Book 3, chapter 19.3.
[v] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: James to Jude, ed. Robert Frew (London: Blackie & Son, 1884–1885), p. 59.
[vi] Paul A. Cedar, James / 1 & 2 Peter / Jude, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 34, ed. Lloyd J. Ogilvie. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1984), p. 70.
[vii] Extra-biblical literature also made this connection, so it was evidently popularly held in the Jewish and Christian communities of the first two centuries, e.g. “Slander is evil; it is a restless demon, never at peace, but always having its home among factions. Refrain from it therefore, and thou shalt have success at all times with all men.” Shepherd of Hermas 27:3, J.B. Lightfoot’s translation: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd-lightfoot.html
Accessed on 8/7/13. [Boldface mine.]
[viii] Peter H. Davids, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed., D. A. Carson et al., eds. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Jas 3:1–12.
[ix] During the writing of this article, the author found opportunity to speak angrily and rudely to his wife; this was tragically ironic and necessitated his asking forgiveness, which was readily granted!
[x] Frances Ridley Havergal, “Take my life and let it be.”
[xi] Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1865), p. 253. [Italics original.]
Image found here: http://veteransinfo.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/.pond/img2_nwdns-44-pa-82.jpg.w300h390.jpg on 8/10/13.