James 3


They are exhorted not to be many masters, 1.

And to bridle the tongue, which is often an instrument of

much evil, 2-12.

The character and fruits of true and false wisdom, 13-18.


Verse 1. Be not many masters] Do not affect the teacher's

office, for many wish to be teachers who have more need to learn.

There were many teachers or rabbins among the Jews, each affecting

to have THE truth, and to draw disciples after him. We find a

caution against such persons, and of the same nature with that of

St. James, in Pirkey Aboth, c. i. 10: Love labour, and hate the

rabbin's office.

This caution is still necessary; there are multitudes, whom God

has never called, and never can call, because he has never

qualified them for the work, who earnestly wish to get into the

priest's office. And of this kind, in opposition to St. James, we

have many masters-persons who undertake to show us the way of

salvation, who know nothing of that ways and are unsaved

themselves. These are found among all descriptions of Christians,

and have been the means of bringing the ministerial office into

contempt. Their case is awful; they shall receive greater

condemnation than common sinners; they have not only sinned in

thrusting themselves into that office to which God has never

called them, but through their insufficiency the flocks over whom

they have assumed the mastery perish for lack of knowledge, and

their blood will God require at the watchman's hand. A man may

have this mastery according to the law of the land, and yet not

have it according to the Gospel; another may affect to have it

according to the Gospel, because he dissents from the religion of

the state, and not have it according to Christ. Blockheads are

common, and knaves and hypocrites may be found everywhere.

Verse 2. In many things we offend all.] πταιομεναπαντες. We

all stumble or trip. Dr. Barrow very properly observes: "As the

general course of life is called a way, and particular actions

steps, so going on in a regular course of right action is walking

uprightly; and acting amiss, tripping or stumbling." There are

very few who walk so closely with God, and inoffensively with men,

as never to stumble; and although it is the privilege of every

follower of God to be sincere and without offence to the day of

Christ, yet few of them are so. Were this unavoidable, it would

be useless to make it a subject of regret; but as every man may

receive grace from his God to enable him to walk in every respect

uprightly, it is to be deplored that so few live up to their

privileges. Some have produced these words as a proof that "no

man can live without sinning against God; for James himself, a

holy apostle speaking of himself, all the apostles, and the whole

Church of Christ, says, In many things we offend all." This is a

very bad and dangerous doctrine; and, pushed to its consequences,

would greatly affect the credibility of the whole Gospel system.

Besides, were the doctrine as true as it is dangerous and false,

it is foolish to ground it upon such a text; because St. James,

after the common mode of all teachers, includes himself in his

addresses to his hearers. And were we to suppose that where he

appears by the use of the plural pronoun to include himself, he

means to be thus understood, we must then grant that himself was

one of those many teachers who were to receive a great

condemnation, Jas 3:1;

that he was a horse-breaker, because he says, "we put bits in the

horses' mouths, that they may obey us," Jas 3:3;

that his tongue was a world of iniquity, and set on fire of hell,

for he says, "so is the tongue among our members," Jas 3:6;

that he cursed men, "wherewith curse we men, Jas 3:9.

No man possessing common sense could imagine that James, or any

man of even tolerable morals, could be guilty of those things.

But some of those were thus guilty to whom he wrote; and to soften

his reproofs, and to cause them to enter the more deeply into

their hearts, he appears to include himself in his own censure;

and yet not one of his readers would understand him as being a

brother delinquent.

Offend not in word, the same is a perfect man] To understand

this properly we must refer to the caution St. James gives in the

preceding verse: Be not many masters or teachers-do not affect

that for which you are not qualified, because in your teaching,

not knowing the heavenly doctrine, ye may sin against the anology

of faith. But, says he, if any man offend not, ουπταιει, trip

not, ενλογω, in doctrine, teaching the truth, the whole truth,

and nothing but the truth, the same is τελειοςανηρ, a man fully

instructed in Divine things: How often the term λογος, which we

render word, is used to express doctrine, and the doctrine of the

Gospel, we have seen in many parts of the preceding comment. And

how often the word τελειος, which we translate perfect, is used to

signify an adult Christian, one thoroughly instructed in the

doctrines of the Gospel, may be seen in various parts of St.

Paul's writings. See among others, 1Co 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13;

Php 3:15; Col 4:12; Heb 5:14. The man, therefore, who

advanced no false doctrine, and gave no imperfect view of any of

the great truths of Christianity; that man proved himself thereby

to be thoroughly instructed in Divine things; to be no novice, and

consequently, among the many teachers, to be a perfect master, and

worthy of the sacred vocation.

Able also to bridle the whole body.] Grotius, by body, believed

that the Church of Christ was intended; and this the view we have

taken of the preceding clauses renders very probable. But some

think the passions and appetites are intended; yet these persons

understand not offending in word as referring simply to well

guarded speech. Now how a man's cautiousness in what he says can

be a proof that he has every passion and appetite under control, I

cannot see. Indeed, I have seen so many examples of a contrary

kind, that I can have no doubt of the impropriety of this

exposition. But it is objected "that χαλιναγωγεω signifies to

check, turn, or rule with a bridle; and is never applied to the

government of the Church of Christ." Probably not: but St. James

is a very peculiar writer; his phraseology, metaphors, and diction

in general, are different from all the rest of the New Testament

writers, so as to have scarcely any thing in common with them, but

only that he writes in Greek. The sixth verse Jas 3:6 is

supposed to be a proof against the opinion of Grotius; but I

conceive that verse to belong to a different subject, which

commences Jas 3:3.

Verse 3. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths] In order

to show the necessity of regulating the tongue, to which St. James

was led by his exhortation to them who wished to thrust themselves

into the teacher's office, supposing, because they had the gift of

a ready flow of speech, that therefore they might commence

teachers of Divine things; he proceeds to show that the tongue

must be bridled as the horse, and governed as the ships; because,

though it is small, it is capable of ruling the whole man; and of

irritating and offending others.

Verse 5. Boasteth great things.] That is, can do great

things, whether of a good or evil kind. He seems to refer here

to the powerful and all commanding eloquence of the Greek orators:

they could carry the great mob whithersoever they wished; calm

them to peaceableness and submission, or excite them to furious


Behold, how great a matter] See what a flame of discord and

insubordination one man, merely by his persuasive tongue, may

kindle among the common people.

Verse 6. The tongue is a fire] It is often the instrument of

producing the most desperate contentions and insurrections.

A world of iniquity] This is an unusual form of speech, but

the meaning is plain enough; WORLD signifies here a mass, a great

collection, an abundance. We use the term in the same sense-a

world of troubles, a world of toil, a world of anxiety; for great

troubles, oppressive toil, most distressing anxiety. And one of

our lexicographers calls his work a world of words; i.e. a vast

collection of words: so we also say, a deluge of wickedness, a sea

of troubles; and the Latins, oceanus malorum, an ocean of evils.

I do not recollect an example of this use of the word among the

Greek writers; but in this sense it appears to be used by the

Septuagint, Pr 17:6: τουπιστουολοςοκοσμοςτωνχρηματωντου

δεαπιστουουδεοβολος, which may be translated, "The faithful has

a world of riches, but the unfaithful not a penny." This clause

has nothing answering to it in the Hebrew text. Some think that

the word is thus used, 2Pe 2:5:

And brought the flood, κοσμωασεβων, on the multitude of the

ungodly. Mr. Wakefield translates the clause thus: The tongue is

the varnisher of injustice. We have seen that κοσμος signifies

adorned, elegant, beautiful, &c., but I can scarcely think that

this is its sense in this place. The Syriac gives a curious turn

to the expression: And the tongue is a fire; and the world of

iniquity is like a wood. Above, the same version has: A little

fire burns great woods. So the world of iniquity is represented

as inflamed by the wicked tongues of men; the world being fuel,

and the tongue a fire.

So is the tongue among our members] I think St. James refers

here to those well known speeches of the rabbins, Vayikra Rabba,

sec. 16, fol. 159. "Rabbi Eleazar said, Man has one hundred and

forty-eight members, some confined, others free. The tongue is

placed between the jaws; and from under it proceeds a fountain of

water, (the great sublingual salivary gland,) and it is folded

with various foldings. Come and see what a flame the tongue

kindles! Were it one of the unconfined members, what would it not

do?" The same sentiment, with a little variation, may be found in

Midrash, Yalcut Simeoni, par. 2, fol. 107; and in Erachin, fol.

xv. 2, on Ps 120:3:

What shall be given unto thee, or what shall be done unto thee,

thou false tongue? "The holy blessed God said to the tongue: All

the rest of the members of the body are erect, but thou liest

down; all the rest are external, but thou art internal. Nor is

this enough: I have built two walls about thee; the one bone, the

other flesh: What shall be given unto thee, and what shall be done

unto thee, O thou false tongue?"

Setteth on fire the course of nature] φλογιζουσατοντροχον

τηςγενεσεως. And setteth on fire the wheel of life. I question

much whether this verse be in general well understood. There are

three different interpretations of it: 1. St. James does not

intend to express the whole circle of human affairs, so much

affected by the tongue of man; but rather the penal wheel of the

Greeks, and not unknown to the Jews, on which they were accustomed

to extend criminals, to induce them to confess, or to punish them

for crimes; under which wheels, fire was often placed to add to

their torments. In the book, De Maccabaeis, attributed to

Josephus, and found in Haverkamp's edition, vol. ii., p. 497-520,

where we have the account of the martyrdom of seven Hebrew

brothers, in chap. ix, speaking of the death of the eldest, it is

said: ανεβαλοναυτονεπιτοντροχοτπεριονκατατεινομενος. "They

cast him on the wheel, over which they extended him; πυρ

υπεστρωσανκαιδιηρεθισαντοντροχονπροσεπικατατεινοντες. they

put coals under it, and strongly agitated the wheel." And of the

martyrdom of the sixth brother it is said, cap. 11: παρηγονεπι




διεκαιον. They brought him to the wheel, on which, having

distended his limbs, and broken his joints, they scorched him with

the fire placed underneath; and with sharp spits heated in the

fire, they pierced his sides, and burned his bowels.

The fire and the wheel are mentioned by Achilles Tatius, lib.

7, p. 449. "Having stripped me of my garments, I was carried

aloft, τωνμενμαστιγαςκομιζοντωντωνδεπυρκαιτροχον, some

bringing scourges, others the fire and the wheel." Now as γενεσις

often signifies life, then the wheel of life will signify the

miseries and torments of life. To set on fire the wheel of life

is to increase a man's torments; and to be set on fire from hell

implies having these miseries rendered more active by diabolic

agency; or, in other words, bad men, instigated by the devil,

through their lies and calumnies, make life burdensome to the

objects of their malicious tongues. The wheel and the fire, so

pointedly mentioned by St. James, make it probable that this sort

of punishment might have suggested the idea to him. See more in


2. But is it not possible that by the wheel of life St. James

may have the circulation of the blood in view? Angry or

irritating language has an astonishing influence on the

circulation of the blood: the heart beats high and frequent; the

blood is hurried through the arteries to the veins, through the

veins to the heart, and through the heart to the arteries again,

and so on; an extraordinary degree of heat is at the same time

engendered; the eyes become more prominent in their sockets; the

capillary vessels suffused with blood; the face flushed; and, in

short, the whole wheel of nature is set on fire of hell. No

description can be more natural than this: but it may be objected

that this intimates that the circulation of the blood was known to

St. James. Now supposing it does, is the thing impossible? It is

allowed by some of the most judicious medical writers, that

Solomon refers to this in his celebrated portraiture of old age,

particularly in Ec 12:6: "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or

the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the

fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern." Here is the very

wheel of life from which St. James might have borrowed the idea;

and the different times evidently refer to the circulation of the

blood, which might be as well known to St. James as the doctrine

of the parallax of the sun. See Clarke on Jas 1:17.

3. It is true, however, that the rabbins use the term

gilgal toledoth, "the wheel of generations," to mark

the successive generations of men: and it is possible that St.

James might refer to this; as if he had said: "The tongue has

been the instrument of confusion and misery through all the ages

of the world." But the other interpretations are more likely.

Verse 7. Every kind of beasts] That is, every species of wild

beasts, πασαφυσιςθηριων, is tamed, i.e. brought under man's

power and dominion. Beasts, birds, serpents, and some kinds of

fishes have been tamed so as to be domesticated; but every kind,

particularly τωνεναλιων, of sea monsters, has not been thus

tamed; but all have been subjected to the power of man; both the

shark and whale become an easy prey to the skill and influence of

the human being. I have had the most credible information, when

in the Zetland Isles, of the seals being domesticated, and of one

that would pass part of his time on shore, receive his allowance

of milk, &c., from the servants, go again to sea, and return, and

so on.

Verse 8. But the tongue wan no man tame] No cunning,

persuasion, or influence has ever been able to silence it.

Nothing but the grace of God, excision, or death, can bring it

under subjection.

It is an unruly evil] ακατασχετονκακον. An evil that

cannot be restrained; it cannot be brought under any kind of

government; it breaks all bounds.

Full of deadly poison.] He refers here to the tongues of

serpents, supposed to be the means of conveying their poison into

wounds made by their teeth. Throughout the whole of this poetic

and highly declamatory description, St. James must have the tongue

of the slanderer, calumniator, backbiter, whisperer, and

tale-bearer, particularly in view. Vipers, basilisks; and

rattlesnakes are not more dangerous to life, than these are to the

peace and reputation of men.

Verse 9. Therewith bless we God] The tongue is capable of

rehearsing the praises, and setting forth the glories, of the

eternal King: what a pity that it should ever be employed in a

contrary work! It can proclaim and vindicate the truth of God,

and publish the Gospel of peace and good will among men: what a

pity that it should ever be employed in falsehoods, calumny, or in

the cause of infidelity!

And therewith curse we men] In the true Satanic spirit, many

pray to God, the Father, to destroy those who are objects of their

displeasure! These are the common swearers, whose mouths are

generally full of direful imprecations against those with whom

they are offended.

The consideration that man is made after the image of God

should restrain the tongue of the swearer; but there are many who,

while they pretend to sing the high praises of God, are ready to

wish the direst imprecations either on those who offend them, or

with whom they choose to be offended.

Verse 10. Out of the same mouth] This saying is something

like that, Pr 18:21:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and on this, for an

illustration of St. James' words, hear Vayikra Rabba, sec. 33:

"Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, said to his servant Tobias, Go

and bring me some good food from the market: the servant went, and

he bought tongues. At another time he said to the same servant,

Go and buy me some bad food: the servant went, and bought tongues.

The master said, What is the reason that when I ordered thee to

buy me good and bad food, thou didst bring tongues? The servant

answered, From the tongue both good and evil come to man: if it

be good, there is nothing better; if bad, there is nothing


A saying very like that of St. James as found in Rabbi Tanchum,

fol. 10, 4: "The mouth desires to study in the law, and to speak

good words; to praise God, to glorify him, and to celebrate him

with hymns: but it can also slander, blaspheme, reproach, and

swear falsely." See Schoettgen.

To find a man who officiates in sacred things to be a common

swearer, a slanderer, &c., is truly monstrous; but there have been

many cases of this kind, and I have known several. Let me say to

all such, My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

Verse 11. Doth a fountain send forth-sweet water and bitter?]

In many things nature is a sure guide to man; but no such

inconsistency is found in the natural world as this blessing and

cursing in man. No fountain, at the same opening, sends forth

sweet water and bitter; no fig tree can bear olive berries; no

vine can bear figs; nor can the sea produce salt water and fresh

from the same place. These are all contradictions, and indeed

impossibilities, in nature. And it is depraved man alone that can

act the monstrous part already referred to.

Verse 12. So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.]

For the reading of the common text, which is ουτωςουδεμιαπηγη

αλυκονκαιγλυκυποιησαιυδωρ, so no fountain can produce salt

water and sweet, there are various other readings in the MSS. and

versions. The word ουτως, so, which makes this a continuation of

the comparison in Jas 3:11, is wanting in ABC, one other, with

the Armenian and ancient Syriac; the later Syriac has it in the

margin with an asterisk. ABC, five others, with the Coptic,

Vulgate, one copy of the Itala, and Cyril, have ουτεαλυκον

γλυκυποιησαιυδωρ, neither can salt water produce sweet. In the

Syriac and the Arabic of Erpen, it is, So, likewise, sweet water

cannot become bitter; and bitter water cannot become sweet. The

true reading appears to be, Neither can salt water produce sweet,

or, Neither can the sea produce fresh water; and this is a new

comparison, and not an inference from that in Jas 3:11. This

reading Griesbach has admitted into the text; and of it Professor

White, in his Crisews, says, Lectio indubie genuina, "a reading

undoubtedly genuine." There are therefore, four distinct

comparisons here: 1. A fountain cannot produce sweet water and

bitter. 2. A fig tree cannot produce olive berries. 3. A vine

cannot produce figs. 4. Salt water cannot be made sweet. That

is, according to the ordinary operations of nature, these things

are impossible. Chemical analysis is out of the question.

Verse 13. Who is a wise man] One truly religious; who,

although he can neither bridle nor tame other men's tongues, can

restrain his own.

And endued with knowledge] καιεπιστημων. And qualified to

teach others.

Let him show] Let him by a holy life and chaste conversation

show, through meekness and gentleness, joined to his Divine

information, that he is a Christian indeed; his works and his

spirit proving that God is in him of a truth; and that, from the

fulness of a holy heart, his feet walk, his hands work; and his

tongue speaks. We may learn from this that genuine wisdom is ever

accompanied with meekness and gentleness. Those proud,

overbearing, and disdainful men, who pass for great scholars and

eminent critics, may have learning, but they have not wisdom.

Their learning implies their correct knowledge of the structure of

language, and of composition in general; but wisdom they have

none, nor any self-government. They are like the blind man who

carried a lantern in daylight to keep others from jostling him in

the street. That learning is not only little worth, but

despicable, that does not teach a man to govern his own spirit,

and to be humble in his conduct towards others.

Verse 14. If ye have bitter envying and strife] If ye be

under the influence of an unkind, fierce, and contemptuous spirit,

even while attempting or pretending to defend true religion, do

not boast either of your exertions or success in silencing an

adversary; ye have no religion, and no true wisdom, and to profess

either is to lie against the truth. Let all writers on what is

called polemic (fighting, warring) divinity lay this to heart.

The pious Mr. Herbert gives excellent advice on this subject:-

"Be calm in arguing, for fierceness makes

Error a fault, and truth discourtesy;

Why should I feel another man's mistakes

More than his sickness or his poverty?

In love I should; but anger is not love,

Nor wisdom neither; therefore g-e-n-t-l-y m-o-v-e."

Verse 15. This wisdom descendeth not from above] God is not

the author of it, because it is bitter-not meek. See at the end

of this chapter. "Jas 3:18"

Is earthly] Having this life only in view.

Sensual] ψυχικη. Animal-having for its object the

gratification of the passions and animal propensities.

Devilish] δαιμονιωδης. Demoniacal-inspired by demons, and

maintained in the soul by their indwelling influence.

Verse 16. For where envying and strife is] ζηλοςκαιεριθεια.

Zeal-fiery, inflammatory passion, and contention-altercations

about the different points of the law, of no use for edification,

such as those mentioned, Tit 3:9.

The Jews were the most intolerant of all mankind; it was a maxim

with them to kill those who would not conform to their law; and

their salvation they believed to be impossible. This has been the

spirit of Popery, and of the Romish Church at large; in vain do

they attempt to deny it; they have written it in characters of

blood and fire even in this country, (England,) when they were

possessed of political power. With them it is still an

established maxim, that out of their Church there is no

redemption; and fire and faggot have been in that Church legal

means of conversion or extinction. In the short popish reign of

Mary in this country, besides multitudes who suffered by fine,

imprisonment, confiscation, &c., two hundred and seventy-seven

were burnt alive, among whom were one archbishop, four bishops,

twenty-one clergymen, eight lay gentlemen, eighty-four tradesmen,

one hundred husbandmen, fifty-five women, and four children!

O earth! thou hast not drunk their blood; but their ashes have

been strewed on the face of the field.

Verse 17. The wisdom that is from above] The pure religion of

the Lord Jesus, bought by his blood, and infused by his Spirit.

See the rabbinical meaning of this phrase at the end of this


Is first pure] αγνη. Chaste, holy, and clean.

Peaceable] ειρηνικη. Living in peace with others, and

promoting peace among men.

Gentle] επιεικης. Meek, modest, of an equal mind, taking

every thing in good part, and putting the best construction upon

all the actions of others.

Easy to be entreated] ευπειθης. Not stubborn nor obstinate;

of a yielding disposition in all indifferent things; obsequious,


Full of mercy] Ready to pass by a transgression, and to grant

forgiveness to those who offend, and performing every possible act

of kindness.

Good fruits] Each temper and disposition producing fruits

suited to and descriptive of its nature.

Without partiality] αδιακριτος. Without making a

difference-rendering to every man his due; and being never swayed

by self-interest, worldly honour, or the fear of man; knowing no

man after the flesh. One of the Itala has it irreprehensible.

Without hypocrisy.] ανυποκριτος. Without dissimulation;

without pretending to be what it is not; acting always in its own

character; never working under a mask. Seeking nothing but God's

glory, and using no other means to attain it than those of his own


Verse 18. And the fruit of righteousness is sown] The whole

is the principle of righteousness in the soul, and all the above

virtues are the fruits of that righteousness.

Is sown in peace] When the peace of God rules the heart, all

these virtues and graces grow and flourish abundantly.

Of them that make peace.] The peace-makers are continually

recommending this wisdom to others, and their own conduct is

represented as a sowing of heavenly seed, which brings forth

Divine fruit. Perhaps sowing in peace signifies sowing

prosperously-being very successful. This is not only the proper

disposition for every teacher of the Gospel, but for every

professed follower of the Lord Jesus.

Some render this verse, which is confessedly obscure, thus: And

the peaceable fruits of righteousness are sown for the practisers

of peace. He who labours to live peaceably shall have peace for

his reward.

1. ALMOST the whole of the preceding chapter is founded on

maxims highly accredited in the rabbinical writings, and without a

reference to those writings it would have been impossible, in some

cases, to have understood St. James' meaning. There is one

phrase, the rabbinical meaning and use of which I have reserved

for this place, viz.. The wisdom that is from above. This is

greatly celebrated among them by the terms chocmah

elyonah, the supernal wisdom. This they seem to understand to be

a peculiar inspiration of the Almighty, or a teaching communicated

immediately by the angels of God. In Sohar, Yalcut Rubeni, fol.

19, Rabbi Chiya said: "The wisdom from above was in Adam more than

in the supreme angels, and he knew all things."

In Sohar Chadash, fol. 35, it is said concerning Enoch, "That

the angels were sent from heaven, and taught him the wisdom that

is from above." Ibid. fol. 42, 4: "Solomon came, and he was

perfect in all things, and strongly set forth the praises of the

wisdom that is from above." See more in Schoettgen. St. James

gives us the properties of this wisdom, which are not to be found

in such detail in any of the rabbinical writers. It is another

word for the life of God in the soul of man, or true religion; it

is the teaching of God in the human heart, and he who has this not

is not a child of God; for it is written, All thy children shall

be taught of the Lord.

2. To enjoy the peace of God in the conscience, and to live to

promote peace among men, is to answer the end of our creation, and

to enjoy as much happiness ourselves as the present state of

things can afford. They who are in continual broils live a

wretched life; and they who love the life of the salamander must

share no small portion of the demoniacal nature. In domestic

society such persons are an evil disease; therefore a canker in

the Church, and a pest in the state.

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