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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

James 3


We are not rashly or arrogantly to reprove others: but rather to bridle the tongue; a little member, but a powerful instrument of much good, and great harm. They who are truly wise, are mild, and peaceable, without envying, and strife.

Anno Domini 60.

FROM the writings of St. Paul, but especially from his epistle to the Romans, we learn, that the Jews valued themselves highly on the knowledge of the true God and of his will, which they derived from the divine revelations of which they were the keepers; and set themselves up every where as teachers of the Gentiles. Animated by the same spirit, many of the Jews who had embraced the gospel were exceedingly desirous of the office of teachers in the Christian church. But the apostle James, well knowing that some of them still believed the observance of the law of Moses to be necessary to salvation; that others had not shaken off all the prejudices of their education; and that not a few still followed the bad practices to which they had been formerly accustomed; he earnestly dissuaded them from becoming teachers, by representing to them the punishment to which they exposed themselves, if they either perverted the doctrines, or concealed the precepts of the gospel, James 3:1.—Next, he insinuated that their ancient prejudices, or the want of genuine religion, might lead them to offend in many things: but at the same time to make them attentive to their own conduct, he told them that if they did not offend in word, it would be a proof of their having attained a great degree of piety, and holiness, as it might well be concluded that they were then able also to bridle the whole body, James 3:2.—Then, to make them sensible how dangerous it was to sin with the tongue, he shewed them by the power which bits in the mouths of horses, and helms in ships, have to turn these great bodies, whithersoever their governors please, that the tongue, though a little member, is capable of producing prodigious effects, either good or bad, according as it is used, James 3:3-5.—and further points out the mischief which the intemperate useof speech often produces in society, James 3:6.—adding, that though human ingenuity had been able to subdue all kinds of wild beasts, birds, and sea-monsters, the tongue is so unruly a thing that no one has been able to subdue it, except by the power of almighty grace, James 3:7-8.—And to shew the unruliness of the tongue, the apostle mentioned, that with it we bless God; but with it also we curse men made in the image of God, James 3:9.—Moreover, the absurdity of employing the tongue for such contradictorypurposes, he displayed, by remarking that no such contradictions were to be found in any part of the natural system, James 3:10-12.

To his description of the mischiefs occasioned in society by an unbridled tongue, St. James subjoined an earnest exhortation to such of the Jews as pretended to be wise and intelligent, to make good their pretensions, by shewing their works all done with the meekness of wisdom. In this exhortation, he seems to have had those of them especially in his eye, who set themselves up as teachers; and the rather because they all valued themselves on their wisdom and knowledge, Romans 2:10-20. So that by supposing that many of them were wise and intelligent, he prudently used an argument which might draw their attention, James 3:13.—On the other hand, he told them, that if they taught either the Law or the Gospel with bitter anger and strife after the example of some of their bigotted brethren, they lied against the truth; because such a conduct was a contradiction to the religion which they pretended to teach, James 3:14.—and was no part of the religion which cometh from above, to which they laid claim; but was earthly, animal, and demoniacal, James 3:15.—Besides, bitter anger and strife never fail to produce tumult and every evil work, James 3:16.—Then he recommended to them the wisdom which is from above, by displaying its many amiable qualities, James 3:17.—together with its efficacy in producing in those whom they instructed, the good fruits of true and living faith.

Verse 1

James 3:1. Be not many masters Many teachers. The word Διδασκαλος among the Jews, commonly signified the same with Rabbi, a title of which the Scribes and Pharisees were exceedingly fond, as it signifies frequently the head of a sect, or author of a doctrine, Matthew 23:7. But in that sense no Christians are to desire the title, much less to assume the thing thereby intended; for Christ alone is our Master, or the author of the doctrines which we are to embrace. But the word is here used in a more general sense, and the verse may be thus paraphrased: "Give me leave, my brethren, to caution you against another evil, which I have seen some reason to apprehend; and to press you, that you be not many teachers; that none of you rashly undertake the office of teachers, into which many are ready to intrude themselves, without due qualifications, or a real divine call: but I would urge you to be cautious against such an assuming disposition, as knowing that we who bear that office, must expect that we shall undergo greater and stricter judgment than others in a more private station of life."

Verse 2

James 3:2. For in many things we offend all, &c.— "The many infirmities, to which the best of us are subject, may indeed teach us to think with awe of that exact trial which we are to undergo on the great day, and induce us to fly to the only refuge of sinners, the Blood of the covenant; for in many things we offend all; we are too ready to trip and stumble in our walk. But if any one is enabled to keep a bridle upon his tongue, that it utter no opprobrious, false, or other sinful words, from any corrupt or excessive passion; he is, in avery eminent sense, a finished Christian; is a man of rich attainmentsinknowledgeandexperience,integrityandholiness;andisfurnishedwith such divine assistances, as aresufficient to prevent all irregularities of conduct, and to spread a most amiable influence through all the members of his body; and the whole behaviour of his life, to the advantage of every religious and civil body to which he is related."

Verse 4

James 3:4. Whithersoever the governor listeth Whithersoever the action of the pilot directs. Heylin. Whithersoever the steersman pleaseth. Doddridge; who remarks, "I know not how to express in English the force of 'Ορμη του ευθυνοντος, which, admirably represents the impetuosity with which, in a storm, a man at the helm, on a critical occasion, turns his hand."

Verse 5

James 3:5. And boasteth great things Though the word μεγαλαυχειν signifies in general to boast great things; yet here, to answer the two preceding comparisons, it must signify that the tongue, though a small member, can do great things; just as a small bridle can curb a great horse, and a small helm steer a large ship. Many critics join this first clause of the 5th verse to the 4th, and read the 5th thus: Behold how great a quantity of materials a little fire kindleth! Jam 3:6 and the tongue is a fire, &c.

Verse 6

James 3:6. And the tongue, &c.— St. James seems to have called the tongue of man a world of iniquity, in the same sense that we say "a world of riches,"—"a sea of trouble,"—"an ocean of delights." So Milton, in his Paradise Lost, speaks of "an universe of death," and "a world of woe." The word rendered course is τροχον, and the passage should be rendered, and sets on fire the wheel or course of our life. The present life of man is here compared to a wheel, which is put in motion at our birth, and runs swiftly till death puts a stop to it. By the rapidity of its motion, the tongue sets this wheel in a flame, which sometimes destroys the whole machine. One of the ancient Heathen poets compares human life to a wheel;

For, like a chariot wheel, our life rolls on; thus beautifullypointing out the continual tendency of human life to its final period. The Syriac version has rendered the last clause, and it will itself be burned in the fire; intimating the punishment which men who have used their tongues wickedly, must undergo: but as the false wisdom, Jam 3:15 is called devilish, the common interpretation seems preferable.

Verses 7-8

James 3:7-8. For every kind of beasts, &c.— Instead of serpents, in this verse, some read creeping things. Dr. Doddridge renders it reptiles. Good men have through Divine grace governed their own tongues: otherwise their religion would have been in vain; ch. James 1:26. The comparisons mentioned in the context have led some to interpret the words thus: "That it is difficult for one man to subdue the tongue of another; more difficult than it would be for him to subdue a wild beast." But the apostle seems rather to speak of every man's governing his own tongue; and he could not look upon that as utterly impossible; for his whole design was to persuade Christians to govern their tongues. He does indeed represent it as a very difficult thing, in order to stir them up to a greater care and diligence: but if men could not possibly govern their tongues through the power of Divine grace, the evils which should arise from thence could not be their faults. The word 'Ακατασχετον, rendered unruly, is a metaphor taken from beasts that are with difficulty kept within bounds, by wall, or by hedges, or ditches.

Verse 10

James 3:10. Out of the same mouth proceedeth, &c.— So that "out of one and the same mouth come forth blessings and praises in one mood, and curses in another. Certainly, my Christian brethren, these contrary uses of the same tongue are monstrously incongruous and absurd; and ought, by no means, to have any place in those who make a profession of Christ and his gospel."

Verse 12

James 3:12. So can no fountain both yield, &c.— "Full as inconsistent is it to suppose, that a man's heart, the fountain whence all his words proceed, should habitually vent itself in ways of talking, which are of as directly contrary a nature, as the salt water of the sea, and the sweet water of the finest spring, are one to the other."

Verse 13

James 3:13. Who is a wise man, &c.— "Who is there then among you, that would approve himself to be wise towards God, and for himself and others; prudent in his conduct; and endued with the true knowledge of God, of Christ, and of himself; and withaspiritualdiscernmentoftheabsurdityandself-contradictionofthesethings?Let it be his great care and concern, that, by an honourable deportment in the church and in the world, he may evidently practise every kindof good works, in the whole course of his conversation, with a meek and humble Spirit, which proceeds from, and discovers, the truest wisdom."

Verse 14

James 3:14. But if ye have bitter envying, &c.— "But if ye have bitter zeal against each other, and uncharitable contention in your hearts, boast not of your improvements in Christianity, and lie not against the truth by such groundless pretensions."

Verse 15

James 3:15. This wisdom descendeth not from above, &c.— "For, whatever pretences such a person may make, (James 3:14.) to a greater knowledge, or a sounder faith than others, this fierce zeal and love of strife is not the wisdom which descends from heaven; but it is produced upon earth, arising from a excessive regard to the present world, and proceeds not from the Spirit of God, but from too great an indulgence of the sensual appetites: and it resembles the temper of demons,—those wicked spirits; for wherever there is such a sort of zeal, wherever such a spirit of strife and animosity is the root, the fruit which it yields must be irregularity, tumult, and almost every unchristian and destructive practice." St. James here calls the false wisdom of wicked me ψυχικη, animal, or sensual: it proceeded not from the spirit of God, but from a criminal indulgence of the sensual appetites and passions: it is in other places called the flesh, and condemned under that image. See Romans 8:5; Romans 8:7; Romans 13:14. 1 Corinthians 2:14.Galatians 5:19; Galatians 5:19; Galatians 5:21. 1 Thessalonians 5:23.Jude 1:19; Jude 1:19. Dr. Bates supposes, that the three epithets in this verse refer to the three grand temptations of the world, avarice, pleasure, and ambition; the first of which is earthly, the second sensual, the third diabolical, being the sin by which the devils fell.

Verse 18

James 3:18. The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace "The word σπειρεται, rendered is sown, imports, says Parkhurst, the labour, attention, or pains employed upon any thing, whence are produced fruits or effects good or bad:" in which sense it must be understood in this place; as to sow fruit does not appear a very intelligible expression. The purport of this verse, says Dr. Heylin, is to shew what effect might be expected from a teacher endowed with the heavenly wisdom just before mentioned. Such a one would have learned virtue, before he took upon him to teach it; and as the fruits of one harvest are the seeds from which another is to be produced, so he, being full of those virtuous sentiments, which are the product of his own advanced state, the fruits of righteousness in himself will efficaciously sow the seed of virtue in minds rightly disposed to receive it. Now the right disposition on both sides,—in the teacher, and those who are taught,—is that eternal peace, and total silence of the passions, without which the still voice of wisdom cannot be hea

Inferences.—Let the pathetic discourse of the apostle concerning the difficulty and importance of governing our tongues aright, engage us to the strictest care on this great article of practical religion, of which so many are careless, and in which the most are so far deficient, as to entitle those to the character of perfect men who do not here offend. Let us entreat the assistance of Divine grace, that we may keep our mouths as with a bridle; (Psalms 39:1.) that we may steer this important helm aright, lest, by the mismanagement of it, we shipwreck even our eternal hopes. Let us be cautious of every spark, where there are so many combustible materials; and take heed, lest we, and others, be defiled, and infernal flames kindled and propagated. It is indeed a difficult, but in consequence of this a glorious toil, far more glorious than to subdue the fiercest animals, or the haughtiest enemies: let us therefore resolutely make the attempt, and learn to employ our tongues, as indeed the glory of our frame, to bless God even the Father. And let the remembrance of that similitude of God, in which men are formed, make us tender of all their interests; but especially careful, that we do not injure them by unkind reproaches, or detracting speeches; and so much the rather, that we may maintain a consistency between the words of devotion addressed to God, and those of converse with our fellow-creatures. So shall the well-spring of wisdom, rising up in our hearts, and streaming forth from our lips, be as a flowing brook. Let those, who are by Providence called to be teachers of others, set a double guard upon their words, not only in public, but in private too, as peculiar notice will be taken of them; and the honour of religion, one way or another, be greatly affected by the tenour of their discourses. And let the awful account which such are to give, and the greater judgment they are to expect, prevent any from intruding themselves into such an office, without suitable qualifications, and a Divine call. May God enable them to judge rightly concerning that call; and where it is indeed given, may his grace furnish them for their work, and his mercy cover those many imperfections which the best will see room to acknowledge and lament.

Again, if we desire the character of wisdom, let us learn from the oracles of eternal truth how it is to be obtained—by meekness and a good conversation. Let us avoid that infernal wisdom, here so severely and justly branded, which consists in knowing the most effectual methods to distress others. On the contrary, let us pray, and study, and labour for that which is from above, and of which so amiable a character is here given. And so far as it can be obtained without injuring conscience, let us cultivate universal peace; and let a gentle and placable temper, an impartial and sincere disposition, be ever inviolably preserved, even when we are obliged to contend with others about matters of the highest importance; remembering, that the more sacred the cause is, the more solicitous we should be that we do not injure it by a passionate or iniquitous management of it. Thus let us sow the fruits of righteousness in peace, and wait the promised harvest; leaving wars and contentions to others, lamenting them, and praying that God would cause them entirely to cease.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, They who have the least pretensions to true godliness, are often the most talkative professors of it: to bridle the tongue is therefore among the proofs of living faith.

1. He warns them against a magisterial and censorious behaviour. My brethren, be not many masters; affect not to set up for teachers (διδασκαλοι ), loving to hear yourselves talk, and liberally dealing out reproof and censure; knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation, by being thus forward to pronounce sentence on others, when we do not truly first judge ourselves: for if we were duly sensible of our own faults, we should be less rigid in our judgment of others: seeing in many things we offend all; and the more we know of our own hearts, the more shall we be obliged to own, that our censure can no where so justly light as upon ourselves.

2. He enjoins them to bridle their tongues. If any man offend not in word, and has such a guard over himself, as to utter nothing rash, opprobrious, false, or sinful, the same is a perfect man, a finished Christian, and far advanced indeed in the divine life; and able also to bridle the whole body, and restrain the irregular appetites and passions which war against the soul. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body, governing and directing thereby all their motions. Behold also the ships, which, though, they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor or pilot listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things; and, according as it is under government, or lawless, is capable of doing much good, or much evil.

3. The evil of an unruly tongue is great. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth! what a conflagration blazes from a single spark! And the tongue, when let loose, is a fire, a world of iniquity, poureth forth the abominations of the heart: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature, in nations, churches, families; spreading sedition, treasons, heresies, blasphemies, divisions, enmity; in every age, in every station, its baleful influences appear: and it is set on fire of hell; infected with the old serpent's venom, promoting the interests of Satan's kingdom, by profaneness, rage, lying, lewdness, slander, and all the train of evils which flow from thence; the punishment of which will be, that in hell it shall be tormented in flames unquenchable. For every kind of beasts, the most savage, and of birds, however untractable in their nature; yea, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind, mastered by their power, and rendered gentle by human art: but the tongue can no man tame; nothing short of almighty power can restrain or cure its malignity: it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison; deadly to the owner, and mortal as far as its influence extends. Therewith bless we God, even the Father, in prayer and praise speaking good of his name; and this is indeed the most excellent use of our tongues; but alas, how horrid is that perversion of speech, when therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Yet such is the inconsistency of some professors of religion, that out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing; worship in one breath, and then reviling, slandering, and backbiting in the next. My brethren, these things ought not so to be; such behaviour is utterly incongruous, and contradictory to the faith of the gospel. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig-tree, my brethren, bear olive-berries; either a vine figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh: and as impossible is it for a heart, in which true grace is implanted, to be guilty habitually of such gross inconsistencies.

2nd, Nothing is more desirable than true wisdom. The apostle teaches us,
1. In what way that will shew itself. Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom, and prove his pretensions, not by arrogant boasts, but by his humility, meekness, holy conversation, and every good word and work, which may prove him a partaker of the grace of God in truth, and of the wisdom which maketh wise unto salvation.

2. A contrary conduct evidently demonstrates the folly and falsehood of pretended sophists. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, live under the power of a contentious and disputing spirit, evident in the bitter words which proceed out of your mouths; glory not in any fancied attainments, or zeal for orthodoxy; and lie not against the truth, by pretending to contend for that, to which your temper proves you an utter stranger. This wisdom descendeth not from above, and never had God for its author; but is earthly, in its principle and end; sensual, the offspring of the fallen nature; and devilish, the image of Satan, and cultivated by him to advance the interests of his kingdom: for where envying and strife is, there is confusion, and every evil work, that tends to ruin both our own souls, and all that are around us.

3. How different and lovely are the effects and influence of true wisdom! But the wisdom that is from above, which cometh down from the Father of lights, and is the gift of his grace to his believing people, is first pure, engaging us to all purity in doctrine, manners, temper, speech, and conduct; then peaceable, breathing nothing but love and quietness, averse to noisy broils and hot disputes, maintaining peace where it subsists, and seeking to heal every breach at which division hath entered. It is gentle, affable, courteous, engaging, ready to recede from its own in matters of property to avoid litigation; and mild, where in sentiment any difference subsists; never urging its own opinion with violence, willing patiently to hear the judgment of others: easy to be entreated, and ready to forgive every offence; not rigidly obstinate, but flexible to the advice of the wiser and more experienced: full of mercy and good fruits; benevolent, generous, liberal, willing to the utmost to help and relieve the distresses of the afflicted: without partiality, in judging or censuring others; and without hypocrisy, speaking and acting always with simplicity and godly sincerity, without disguise or design. And the fruit of righteousness, even all the gracious produce above described, is sown in peace of them that make peace; they who are possessed of the peaceable wisdom above described, are the persons who go forth bearing the precious seed, and shall see in their own hearts, and under their ministry, the plenteous success of their labour both here and hereafter; for the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on James 3". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.