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James 3:6

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

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, Proverbs 17:6; : Του πιστου ὁλος ὁ κοσμος των χρηματων, του δε απιστου ουδε οβολος, 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, 2 Peter 2:5; : And brought the flood, κοσμῳ ασεβων, 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, etc., 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 Psalm 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 - Φλογιζουσα τον τροχον της γενεσεως· 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: Ανεβαλον αυτον επι τον τροχοι - περι ὁν κατατεινομενος· "They cast him on the wheel, over which they extended him; πυρ ὑπεστρωσαν και διηρεθισαν τον τροχον προσεπικατατεινοντες· they put coals under it, and strongly agitated the wheel." And of the martyrdom of the sixth brother it is said, cap. 11: Παρηγον επι τον τροχον, εφ 'οὑ κατατεινομενος εκμελως και εκσφονδυλιζομενος ὑπεκαιετο, και οβελισκους δε οξεις πυρωσαντες, τοις νοτοις προσεφερον, και τα πλευρα διαπειραντες αυτου, και τα σπλαγχνα 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, των μεν μαστιγας κομιζοντων, των δε πυρ και τροχον, 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 Kypke.

  1. 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 Ecclesiastes 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 on James 1:17; (note).

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

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

And the tongue is a fire - In this sense, that it produces a “blaze,” or a great conflagration. It produces a disturbance and an agitation that may be compared with the conflagration often produced by a spark.

A world of iniquity - A little world of evil in itself. This is a very expressive phrase, and is similar to one which we often employ, as when we speak of a town as being a world in miniature. We mean by it that it is an epitome of the world; that all that there is in the world is represented there on a small scale. So when the tongue is spoken of as being “a world of iniquity,” it is meant that all kinds of evil that are in the world are exhibited there in miniature; it seems to concentrate all sorts of iniquity that exist on the earth. And what evil is there which may not be originated or fomented by the tongue? What else is there that might, with so much propriety, be represented as a little world of iniquity? With all the good which it does, who can estimate the amount of evil which it causes? Who can measure the evils which arise from scandal, and slander, and profaneness, and perjury, and falsehood, and blasphemy, and obscenity, and the inculcation of error, by the tongue? Who can gauge the amount of broils, and contentions, and strifes, and wars, and suspicions, and enmities, and alienations among friends and neighbors, which it produces? Who can number the evils produced by the “honeyed” words of the seducer; or by the tongue of the eloquent in the maintenance of error, and the defense of wrong? If all men were dumb, what a portion of the crimes of the world would soon cease! If all men would speak only that which ought to be spoken, what a change would come over the face of human affairs!

So is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body - It stains or pollutes the whole body. It occupies a position and relation so important in respect to every part of our moral frame, that there is no portion which is not affected by it. Of the truth of this, no one can have any doubt. There is nothing else pertaining to us as moral and intellectual beings, which exerts such an influence over ourselves as the tongue. A man of pure conversation is understood and felt to be pure in every respect; but who has any confidence in the virtue of the blasphemer, or the man of obscene lips, or the calumniator and slanderer? We always regard such a man as corrupt to the core.

And setteth on fire the course of nature - The margin is “the wheel of nature.” The Greek word also ( τροχός trochos) means “a wheel,” or any thing made for revolving and running. Then it means the course run by a wheel; a circular course or circuit. The word rendered “nature” ( γένεσις genesis), means “procreation, birth, nativity;” and therefore the phrase means, literally, the wheel of birth - that is, the wheel which is set in motion at birth, and which runs on through life. - Rob. Lex. sub voce γένεσεως geneseōsIt may be a matter of doubt whether this refers to successive generations, or to the course of individual life. The more literal sense would be that which refers to an individual; but perhaps the apostle meant to speak in a popular sense, and thought of the affairs of the world as they roll on from age to age, as all enkindled by the tongue, keeping the world in a constant blaze of excitement. Whether applied to an individual life, or to the world at large, every one can see the justice of the comparison. One naturally thinks, when this expression is used, of a chariot driven on with so much speed that its wheels by their rapid motion become self-ignited, and the chariot moves on amidst flames.

And it is set on fire of hell - Hell, or Gehenna, is represented as a place where the fires continually burn. See the notes at Matthew 5:22. The idea here is, that that which causes the tongue to do so much evil derives its origin from hell. Nothing could better characterize much of that which the tongues does, than to say that it has its origin in hell, and has the spirit which reigns there. The very spirit of that world of fire and wickedness - a spirit of falsehood, and slander, and blasphemy, and pollution - seems to inspire the tongue. The image which seems to have been before the mind of the apostle was that of a torch which enkindles and burns everything as it goes along - a torch itself lighted at the fires of hell. One of the most striking descriptions of the woes and curses which there may be in hell, would be to portray the sorrows caused on the earth by the tongue.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
We are taught to dread an unruly tongue, as one of the greatest evils. The affairs of mankind are thrown into confusion by the tongues of men. Every age of the world, and every condition of life, private or public, affords examples of this. Hell has more to do in promoting the fire of the tongue than men generally think; and whenever men's tongues are employed in sinful ways, they are set on fire of hell. No man can tame the tongue without Divine grace and assistance. The apostle does not represent it as impossible, but as extremely difficult. Other sins decay with age, this many times gets worse; we grow more froward and fretful, as natural strength decays, and the days come on in which we have no pleasure. When other sins are tamed and subdued by the infirmities of age, the spirit often grows more tart, nature being drawn down to the dregs, and the words used become more passionate. That man's tongue confutes itself, which at one time pretends to adore the perfections of God, and to refer all things to him; and at another time condemns even good men, if they do not use the same words and expressions. True religion will not admit of contradictions: how many sins would be prevented, if men would always be consistent! Pious and edifying language is the genuine produce of a sanctified heart; and none who understand Christianity, expect to hear curses, lies, boastings, and revilings from a true believer's mouth, any more than they look for the fruit of one tree from another. But facts prove that more professors succeed in bridling their senses and appetites, than in duly restraining their tongues. Then, depending on Divine grace, let us take heed to bless and curse not; and let us aim to be consistent in our words and actions.
Ellen G. White
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, 426

“The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” “The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.” Margin, “a cool spirit.” 2T 426.1

Our great Exemplar was exalted to be equal with God. He was high commander in heaven. All the holy angels delighted to bow before Him. “And again, when He bringeth in the First-begotten into the world, He saith, And let all the angels of God worship Him.” Jesus took upon Himself our nature, laid aside His glory, majesty, and riches to perform his mission, to save that which was lost. He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister unto others. Jesus, when reviled, abused, and insulted, did not retaliate. “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again.” When the cruelty of man caused Him to suffer painful stripes and wounds, He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him who judgeth righteously. The apostle Paul exhorted his Philippian brethren: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” Is the servant greater than his master? Christ has given us His life as a pattern, and we dishonor Him when we become jealous of every slight, and are ready to resent every injury, supposed or real. It is not an evidence of a noble mind to be prepared to defend self, to preserve our own dignity. We would better suffer wrongfully a hundred times than wound the soul by a spirit of retaliation, or by giving vent to wrath. There is strength to be obtained of God. He can help. He can give grace and heavenly wisdom. If you ask in faith, you will receive; but you must watch unto prayer. Watch, pray, work, should be your watchword. 2T 426.2

Your wife might be a blessing if she would only take upon her the responsibility that it is her duty to take. But she has shunned responsibility all her life, and now is in danger of being influenced, instead of influencing you. Instead of having a softening, elevating influence upon you, there is danger of her thinking as you think, and acting as you act, without reaching down deep to be guided by principle in all her actions. You sympathize with each other, and, unfortunately, help each other to view matters incorrectly. She can exert an influence for good, but she possesses a spirit which savors of spiritual indolence and sloth. She is reluctant to engage in any good work if it is not pleasant and agreeable. What was the sin of Meroz? Doing nothing. It was not because of great crimes that they were condemned, but because they did not come up to the help of the Lord. 2T 427.1

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Ellen G. White
Patriarchs and Prophets, 659

He affirmed to his counselors that a conspiracy had been formed against him, and with the offer of rich gifts and positions of honor he bribed them to reveal who among his people had befriended David. Doeg the Edomite turned informer. Moved by ambition and avarice, and by hatred of the priest, who had reproved his sins, Doeg reported David's visit to Ahimelech, representing the matter in such a light as to kindle Saul's anger against the man of God. The words of that mischievous tongue, set on fire of hell, stirred up the worst passions in Saul's heart. Maddened with rage, he declared that the whole family of the priest should perish. And the terrible decree was executed. Not only Ahimelech, but the members of his father's house—“four-score and five persons that did wear a linen ephod”—were slain at the king's command, by the murderous hand of Doeg. PP 659.1

“And Nob, the city of the priests, smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen, and asses, and sheep.” This is what Saul could do under the control of Satan. When God had said that the iniquity of the Amalekites was full, and had commanded him to destroy them utterly, he thought himself too compassionate to execute the divine sentence, and he spared that which was devoted to destruction; but now, without a command from God, under the guidance of Satan, he could slay the priests of the Lord and bring ruin upon the inhabitants of Nob. Such is the perversity of the human heart that has refused the guidance of God. PP 659.2

This deed filled all Israel with horror. It was the king whom they had chosen that had committed this outrage, and he had only done after the manner of the kings of other nations that feared not God. The ark was with them, but the priests of whom they had inquired were slain with the sword. What would come next? PP 659.3

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Ellen G. White
Our High Calling, 274.4

To every soul things will come to provoke, to stir up anger, and if you are not under the full control of God, you will be provoked when these things come. But the meekness of Christ calms the ruffled spirit, controls the tongue, and brings the whole being into subjection to God. Thus we learn how to bear with the censure of others. We shall be misjudged, but the precious ornament of a meek and quiet spirit teaches us how to bear, how to have pity for those who utter hasty, unadvised words. Any unpleasant spirit displayed is sure to arouse the demon of passion in unguarded hearts. Unholy anger need not to be strengthened, but bridled. It is a spark which will set on fire untamed human nature. Avoid speaking words which will stir up strife. Rather suffer wrong than do wrong. God requires every one of His followers, as far as is possible, to live peaceably with all men.... OHC 274.4

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Ellen G. White
The Voice in Speech and Song, 18.1

Of the unsanctified tongue the apostle James writes: “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.” Satan puts into the mind thoughts which the Christian should never utter. The scornful retort, the bitter, passionate utterance, the cruel, suspicious charge, are from him. How many words are spoken that do only harm to those who utter them and to those who hear! Hard words beat upon the heart, awaking to life its worst passions. Those who do evil with their tongues, who sow discord by selfish, jealous words, grieve the Holy Spirit; for they are working at cross-purposes with God.—The Review and Herald, May 12, 1910. VSS 18.1

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