As in the previous chapters, James begins his discussion of the tongue with a practical exhortation to deal with basic issues. He spoke of the importance of controlling the mind to help his readers to understand how to control their tongues. Wisdom in the mind affects the use of our tongue. Always remember to put your mind in gear before you put your mouth in motion!
Proverbs 2:6, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Proverbs 3:13-18, “Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. She offers you long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. She will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying. Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.”
Proverbs 13:10 NLT, “Pride leads to conflict; those who take advice are wise.”
Proverbs 16:16, “How much better to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.”
Proverbs 17:28 NLT, “Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.
Proverbs 19:8, “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will find good.”
Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
James 1:5 NLT, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
Now James tells us that to control our tongues, we need wisdom. With this verse, James transitions into dealing with the relationship between wisdom and personal conduct (3:13-18). Divine wisdom produces right words and right actions. Wisdom is the ability to look at things from God’s point of view.
When James invites people who (supposedly) have wisdom and understanding to come forward and identify themselves, he is returning more explicitly to the topic of “teachers” he wrote about in 3:1. Especially for those who think they are wise enough to teach others, James wants his readers to know what true wisdom means.
Paul, in dealing with the problem of food sacrificed to idols said, “Now regarding your question about food that has been offered to idols. Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3 NLT).
Verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.”
The real qualifications of a teacher (James 3:1) are wisdom (the ability to view life from God’s perspective) and understanding (mental perception and comprehension). James probably had the Old Testament scholar in mind. We can perceive understanding in others quite easily, but wisdom is more difficult to identify. James said to look at a person’s behavior if you want to see if he or she is wise. The wisdom James had in mind did not result so much in what one thinks or says but in what one does.
One of the marks of wisdom is gentleness, meekness, and humility. The Greek word prauteti (gentleness) occurs in non-biblical literature to describe a horse that someone had broken and had trained to submit to a bridle. It pictures power under control, specifically the Holy Spirit’s control. The evidence of this attitude is a deliberate placing of oneself under divine authority. The only way to control the tongue is to place your mind deliberately under the authority of God and to let Him control it. The old saying applies here: “Let go and let God…” James" concept of wisdom was Hebraic rather than Greek, moral more than intellectual. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
“The problem seems to be that some self-styled chief people, thinking they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding, had divided the church because of their teaching, which betrayed a misuse of the tongue.” –Martin
“It is very difficult to be a teacher or a preacher and to remain humble; but however difficult it Isaiah , it is absolutely necessary.” –Barclay
“James goes back, as it were, to the beginning of the chapter. His argument runs like this: ‘Is there any of you who wishes to be a real sage and a real teacher? Then let him live a life of such beautiful graciousness that he will prove to all that gentleness is enthroned as the controlling power within his heart. For, if he has a fanatical bitterness and is obviously controlled by selfish and personal ambition, then, whatever claims he makes in his arrogance, all he does is to be false to the truth which he professes to teach.’
James uses two interesting words. His word for zeal is zelos, this need not be a bad word. It could mean the noble emulation which a man felt when confronted with some picture of greatness and goodness. But there is a very narrow dividing line between noble emulation and ignoble envy. The word he uses for selfish ambition is eritheia, which was also a word with no necessarily bad meaning. It originally meant spinning for hire and was used of serving women. Then it came to mean any work done for pay. Then it came to mean the kind of work done solely for what could be got out of it. Then it entered politics and came to mean that selfish ambition which was out for self and for nothing else and was ready to use any means to gain its ends.” –Barclay (edited slightly).
Verse 14: “But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth.”
“’Bitter envy and self-seeking’ are motives that must not control a teacher or he will find himself saying things he should not say. These are attitudes toward others and self that are the antithesis of graciousness that seeks the welfare of others before self. Jealousy and ambition are manifestations of arrogance, and they result in promoting self rather than the truth the teacher is responsible to communicate. Lying against the truth means teaching untrue things, things that oppose the truth. Those who boast of wisdom are not following God because humility does not mark their lives. This is as true of Christians as it is of non-Christians.” –Dr. Thomas Constable (edited)
In contrast to this wisdom from above is man’s wisdom, which results in jealousy, discord, divisiveness, rivalry and selfish ambition. Such people are not of the truth, and the word of truth (James 1:18) has not been effective in their hearts. They have nothing to glory in and any claims that they might make to truth are lies against the truth. For it is possible to destroy the truth of what is said by the spirit in which it is said.
Verse 15: “This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.”
“This wisdom” of bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, and lying against the truth, (verse 14) is earthly, sensual, demonic.”
God is the author of wisdom, from Whom, and though Whom every good and perfect gift descends (James 1:17). Isaiah tells us that God is our teacher: “For He instructs him in right judgment…This also comes from the Lord of hosts, Who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance” (Isaiah 28:26,29). And Paul speaks of this wisdom: “Yet when I am among mature believers, I do speak with words of wisdom, but not the kind of wisdom that belongs to this world or to the rulers of this world, who are soon forgotten. No, the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began” (1 Corinthians 2:6-7 NLT).
Let me associate James 3:15 with 1 John 2:15,16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”
“Earthy:” in 1 John 2:15,16 John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” But this wisdom of which James writes, being sinful, is not from God, because it is “earthly,” of the world, the earth, of no higher value than from the first Adam, who was of the earth, and earthly, (1 Corinthians 15:47) “Whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19).
“Sensual,” in 1 John 2:15,16 John uses the word “lust.” “Lust of the flesh…” “Lust of the eyes…” Sensual means, gratifying the senses, relating to the senses rather than the intellect, or arousing gratification of the senses and physical, especially sexual pleasure.
“Demonic.” in 1 John 2:15,16 John says it, “is not of the Father…” If this wisdom is not of the Father, it is of Satan, it is “demonic.”
“This bitter and arrogant wisdom, so-called, is very different from real wisdom. James first of all describes it in itself, and then in its effects. In itself it is three things.
1) It is earthly. Its standards and sources are earthly. It measures success in worldly terms; and its aims are worldly aims.
2) It is characteristic of the natural man. The word James uses is difficult to translate. It is psuchikos which comes from psuche. The ancients divided man into three parts--body, soul and spirit. The body (soma) is our physical flesh and blood; the soul (psuche) is the physical life which we share with the beasts; the spirit (pneuma) is that which man alone possesses, which differentiates him from the beasts, which makes him a rational creature and kin to God. This is a little confusing for us, because we are in the habit of using soul in the same sense as the ancient people used spirit. James is saying that this wrong kind of wisdom is no more than an animal kind of thing; it is the kind of wisdom which makes an animal snap and snarl with no other thought than that of prey or personal survival.
3) It is devilish. Its source is not God, but the devil. It produces the kind of situation which the devil delights in, not God.”–Barclay
Verse 16: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”
“Envy” in Greek is phthonos. “It is the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of others; this evil sense always attaches to this word.” (Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words) “A painful or resentful awareness of another’s advantage joined with the desire to possess the same advantage.” –Holman Bible Dictionary
“Self-seeking” means, seeking one's own interest or happiness; selfish ambition, or rivalry.
The envious and self-seeking man stands in his own light. He thinks his light can’t shine in presence of another's sun. He aims directly at men, obliquely at God, who makes men to differ.
“Confusion” is tumultuous anarchy. Evil produces confusion, God brings harmony and wisdom, 1 Corinthians 14:33 “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace…” Anyone who is involved in envy and strife is confused. This confusion corrupts human relationships. Apparently the Jewish believers to whom James is writing were going through turmoil because of the actions of the self-seeking people in their church and community.
Verse 17: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”
Godly wisdom is pure, free from defilement, bitter envy and self-seeking.
Godly wisdom is peaceable, a spirit of unity, tranquility and calmness. Godly wisdom is undivided, unwavering and consistent, without hypocrisy, sincere and unpretentious. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9) is the beatitude James certainly had in mind here.
Verse 18: “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
You reap what you sow. If a farmer sows corn, he reaps corn, not beans. If you sow peace, you will reap peace. If you sow selfishness and strife, you will reap conflict.
James warns against anything that does not bear the fruit of good works: unfruitful religion ( James 1:25-26), unfruitful faith ( James 2:26), and unfruitful wisdom ( James 3:17-18).
To restate James’ thought in this chapter, our words are very important as we seek to carry out the ministry God has called us to fulfill. We cannot control our tongues easily. Therefore we should not be too quick to take on a teaching ministry. The only One who can control our tongues is God, who can give us wisdom. The marks of the wisdom He provides are humility, graciousness, and peace.
Isaiah 32:17, “The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever.
Proverbs 11:30, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.
Hebrews 12:11, “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
True wisdom is not found in what you know, it is whom you know and how you act and live your life. They were disqualified from teaching not because they didn’t know the material, but because at their heart they were wicked. Because they were living out of this false wisdom, they were creating a breeding ground for “disorder and every evil thing” (v. 18). They didn’t want to be teachers so that they could bring people closer to God. They wanted to prove how wise they were and how much better they were than others.
This message applies to everyone. We need to guard our tongues. When we don’t we are literally allowing Satan to guide the course of our lives. Along with our tongues we need to check our motives. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says that we should do everything for God’s glory. We can get ourselves off track when we start to do things for our own glory.
“Former US President Harry Truman had a rule: Any letters written in anger had to sit on his desk for 24 hours before they could be mailed. If at the end of that ‘cooling off’ period, he still felt the same sentiments, he would send the letter. By the end of his life, Truman’s unmailed letters filled a large desk drawer.
When we’re gossiping or speaking in anger, we find ourselves outside the lines of what God desires. Our tongues, our pens, and even our keyboards should more often fall silent with thanks in our hearts for the restraint God provides. All too often, when we speak we remind everyone of our brokenness as human beings.
When we want to surprise others with the difference Christ makes, we may need to look no further than restraining our tongue. Others can’t help but notice when we honor God with what we say—or don’t say.
Help me, Lord, to use my words not to tear down others or build up my own reputation, but to seek the good of others first, and in so doing to serve You and Your kingdom. ‘Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles’ (Proverbs 21:23). –Our Daily Bread, March 11, 2014
Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).