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The point of James 3:3-6 is simple and to the point. The tongue exerts a disproportionate influence when compared to its size. Continue reading . . .

The point of James 3:3-6 is simple and to the point. The tongue exerts a disproportionate influence when compared to its size.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:3-6).

Something very small and often hidden from sight can exert a powerful and unexpected influence on things that are obviously much larger. The “bit” in a horse’s mouth is such a small thing compared to the horse, but it controls whether or not he goes forward or backward and what turns he makes. The “rudder” of a ship is tiny in comparison with the boat itself, yet not even strong winds exert a comparable influence on the direction of the vessel. And just as a tiny spark can ignite a massive and indescribably destructive forest fire, so too the tongue can be used to wreak havoc and chaos in the body of Christ.

Before we leave this portion of the text, take a look at the language James uses in v. 6. He describes the tongue as “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (v. 6a). I think he means that the tongue is a vast system of iniquity in the sense that it both embodies and expresses the essence of all wickedness and sin. All the evil characteristics of a fallen world find expression through our words, our tongues. Not only that, but it stains or pollutes the whole body.

But it is that final phrase in v. 6 that intrigues me: the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (v. 6b). The word “hell” is the translation of the Greek word Gehenna. We know from texts such as Jeremiah 7:31-32 that it was in this valley outside Jerusalem that in ancient times young children were offered as a burnt sacrifice to pagan gods such as Molech and Baal. The word thus became a fit way of referring to hell.

But there may be more involved. James may be suggesting that the wickedness and evil and destructive effects of an unbridled tongue have some connection with the demonic realm. I’m not suggesting that James is saying that every time we lose control of our speech it is because a demon is involved. But I do think James wants us to understand that Satan and his hosts will take advantage of our ill-advised speech, our vulgar language, our judgmental comments to promote division and destruction in human relationships.

To be continued . . .

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