Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE PERPLEXING TONGUE”

James 3.6-12

You may remember from last week that I awarded the prize for the most active member in the church to one who was also the littlest member in the church. That littlest member, of course, was the tongue, Pastor James’ metaphor for the faculty of speech. You know him, do you not? He is the little fellow who makes sure kids will never counsel with their pastor, because he has convinced the kids that the pastor is a fool, that the pastor is unfair, and that the pastor is wrong about so many things. He is the member who makes sure that the next-door neighbor will never come to your church, because the next-door neighbor thinks all members are prone to wagging like Mr. Tongue does. He is the member who drives off interested visitors and sometimes-hopeful new converts who have the foolish notion that Christian people should have love toward one another.

Though I am not of the opinion that Mr. Tongue is a prominent member of the Calvary Road Baptist Church, earlier on in my tenure here members of his family were quite well represented in the auditorium. I remember one particular conversation, in which I had a deacon present to make sure the true version of the conversation was preserved, in which someone no longer here admitted to holding close to him as bosom buddies fellows that he readily admitted routinely and viciously lied about me. What was this young man’s response to those two versions of Mr. Tongue wagging? He was so loyal to the friends and the lies he admitted they were telling, that rather than discard his so-called friends who were attempting to take his pastor away from him, he left our church. How brilliant is that?

I recall reading years ago of a story told long ago, myth or truth I do not know, that took place back in the Golden Age of Greece. There lived a Greek philosopher named Xanthus. Xanthus once directed his servant to go to the market and buy the best thing available to feed guests he was entertaining one night. When the meal was served Xanthus, was flustered to discover that his servant had served a four-course meal, but with each of the four courses being tongue. Tongue was made this way, that way and the other way. Four different recipes, all using tongue. Xanthus, of course, and understandably, was not only embarrassed but also indignant, whereupon he blew his top and told his servant, “Didn’t I tell you to get the best food in the market? Yet all you brought back was tongue.” The servant then replied that tongue was the best thing in the market because tongue was the organ of sociability, the organ of eloquence, the organ of kindness, and the organ of worship. Xanthus said, “Agreed, but tomorrow bring me the worst thing in the market.” The next night, when there was a three-course meal of tongue, Xanthus, predictably, exploded once more. “I thought I told you to get the worst thing in the market.” “I did,” said the servant. “Isn’t the tongue the organ of blasphemy, the organ of defamation, and the organ of lying?” What a philosopher that slave was. How extremely perceptive he was to note the potential of the tongue for both good and evil.

In our study of James 3.1-5, we saw how very mighty the tongue is, in spite of its small size. Today we will see that no matter who you are, you cannot control your tongue. Two reasons are given to back up this assertion.

First, YOU CANNOT CONTROL YOUR TONGUE BECAUSE OF ITS INSUBORDINATION

James 3.6-8:    6     And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

7      For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

8      But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

Consider what the tongue’s insubordination is related to:

In verse 6, we see the defilement of an untamed tongue: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” Do you see the magnitude of its iniquity? James tells us that the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. Let us again remind ourselves that by tongue James is symbolizing a person’s pattern of speech. Though there are places in God’s Word where allusions to fire have reference to holiness and to God’s glory, that is not what James illustrates here. Here he is reflecting the tongue much as Solomon did in Proverbs 16.27, where is stated the lips of an ungodly man are “as a burning fire.” There and here in our text, the likeness of fire is associated with the destructive capability of fire. Not only is speech comparable to a fire, but it is also “a world of iniquity.” One wise old commentator wrote about this phrase, “The tongue represents the world, because it is that member by which we are brought into communication with other men; it is the organ of society, the chief channel of temptation from man to man.”[1] Do you see the members that the tongue defiles? “So is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body.” Notice that James writes, “our members,” suggesting that like fire, the effect of the tongue spreads beyond the person speaking to adversely affect everyone within the sound of his voice, and the damage to each individual who hears what he should not hear is to his whole body. The phrase “and setteth on fire the course of nature” deserves some closer attention. That word “course” translates a Greek word that means wheel.[2] Imagine a chariot wheel or a cartwheel in James’ day, with wooden axles and at best an iron collar pressed inside the wheel hub. However it was done in that day before there was such a thing as effective lubricants, the constant turning of the wheel under a load could sometimes generate enough heat to start a fire. Thus, James uses words to paint the picture of someone whose talk is like a wheel on an axle that can spontaneously produce a fire, but you are never certain when it will happen next. Imagine someone who talks and talks and talks and talks and talks and talks, and simply will not shut up! Eventually, that person will say something inflammatory, or the constant noise spewing forth without interruption will produce a reaction from the person subjected to it. Sometimes the hearer gets angry. Others times the hearer just goes somewhere for peace and quiet. What does not happen, you can be sure, is the person talking does not minister grace to those within earshot. From where comes the motivation that the tongue receives? James continues, “And it is set on fire of Hell.” The Greek word is gennhhV, translated hell fire in Matthew 5.22. As heaven stands for God, so this word represents the Devil, as we see in James 3.15. Thus, we see that all that is arrayed against God prompt the tongue, a person’s speech patterns. Notice that in this verse you have mention made of the world, mention made of the body (or the flesh), and mention made of that which represents the Devil. Is it not interesting to note that the tongue James warns us about is motivated by, prompted by, in effect, the world, the flesh, and the Devil? Therefore, anyone who is not actually ministering grace by speaking the truth in love, but is either talking trash or just making noise, is destructive.

In verse 7, we see the domestication of animals: “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind.” In this verse, James refers to both the variety of species and the certainty of the submission of every kind of wild animal you can imagine. While this does not refer to domestication of animals, necessarily, it does refer to subduing animals. What is the point James is making? Is it not ironic that we can tame everything . . . except the tongue? The tongue is a whole new ball game. You can subdue every wild animal in some fashion, yet you cannot subdue your own mouth to control what you say.

In verse 8, we see the danger of an untamed tongue: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” Notice wildness of the tongue, referring of course to man’s speech. Though anything in this world can be tamed, the tongue cannot. Why not? Because of its wickedness, that is why. Hearkening back to the last phrase of verse 6, we need to understand that there are forces other than natural forces and habits struggling for control of your tongue and mine. The Lord Jesus Christ clearly established the connection between the heart and one’s speech, when He said in Matthew 15.17-20:

17     Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?

18     But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

19     For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:

20     These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

On its own, without divine intervention, the tongue is a mirror of the human heart, desperately wicked. Therefore, my friend, you simply cannot control your own tongue. Why not? It is too insubordinate.

Second, YOU CANNOT CONTROL YOUR TONGUE BECAUSE OF ITS INCONGRUITY

James 3.9-12:  9      Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

10     Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

11     Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

12     Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

This trait is stated in verse 9 and the first half of verse 10:

9      Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

10     Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.

Do you not see the great inconsistency James points out? We bless God on one hand and curse man made in God’s image on the other hand. We sing the doxology on Sunday morning and rail on someone an hour later. He great paradox is that both types of speech are coming from the same mouth. Were we not so used to both seeing and hearing that kind of thing, it would boggle our minds. O, what inconsistency.

The trait is rebuked in the last half of verse 10: “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” Notice that James is once again affectionate toward his readers. He again addresses them, “My brethren.” This lets us know that he is not angry with anyone. He is not mad. He is, however, addressing a tragic situation. To accomplish his goal, in addition to being affectionate, he is also quite assertive. This incongruous speech is just plain wrong. There is nothing else to say about it.

It is so wrong, in fact, that in verses 11 and 12 he condemns it:

11     Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

12     Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

Notice the way he condemns this kind of double talk, one minute holy and the other hellish, kind of speech. He does it by comparing it to nature . . . both living and non-living. Can an untampered with tree give forth a fruit that is different than the kind of tree it is? Of course not. Orange trees produce oranges. Plum trees produce plums. Banana trees produce bananas. Palm trees produce coconuts. Unless you perform a graft, fig trees cannot produce olives and vines cannot produce figs. How about a fountain, or an artesian spring? Whatever its source, what kind of water will it give forth? It can only give the kind of water that is supplied to it. Either nasty tasting water comes out of it or good tasting water comes out of it, but not both kinds. Do you see how unnatural it is for the tongue to both bless and curse? Do you see how unnatural it is for someone to speak to glorify God one minute and then say something nasty about someone a few minutes later? How about praising God in the hearing of folks, followed by talking endlessly and without purpose just to hear the sound of your voice? Incongruity.

In conclusion, what do we learn from James’ lesson about the tongue being out of control? Let me suggest several things.

First, I would hope that each of us would learn that the tongue is hopelessly beyond the capacity of any human being to control. This is why he writes, “But the tongue can no man tame,” in verse 8. It also explains why David prayed to God, in Psalm 17.3, “I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.” You and I must have God’s help in controlling our tongues.

Second, from the clue given in the last phrase of verse 6, where James tells us that the tongue is set on fire of Hell, and the examples from the natural world, we ought to see the reason the tongue is beyond human control. As the fig tree cannot give olive berries without being tampered with, and as the fountain can only give water that reflects its source, we need to understand something about our tongue. We need to understand that a struggle for control of your own tongue is underway. That struggle is going on right this moment, and you must learn now that you will lose the struggle for control of your tongue if you try to fight the fight all by yourself, armed only with determination. You see, no man or woman is a neutral observer in this great struggle. Our Lord pointed this out Himself when He said, in Luke 11.23, “He that is not with me is against me.” Make up your mind which side you are on, get angry when the enemy attempts to use you, and fight back.

Quit being the devil’s dummy. Quit letting him pull your strings and move your jaw while he speaks the words that come out of your mouth. Do what Paul writes about doing in Ephesians 4.29-32:

29     Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

30     And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.

31     Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:

32     And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.



[1] Joseph B. Mayer, The Epistle Of James, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), page (425) 115.

[2] Ibid., page 116 (426).



Would you like to contact Dr. Waldrip about this sermon? Please contact him by clicking on the link below. Please do not change the subject within your email message. Thank you.

pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org