“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 is set on fire of hell” (James 3:6).
“Defileth” means to spot or stain (Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible). When one uses his tongue improperly it stains or spots the whole body; it causes it to be defiled.
“And setteth on fire the course of nature” is a clause that is not so easy to understand because this is not a phrase that is familiar in usage today. The ASV translates it “wheel of nature.” The marginal reading is “birth.” Life begins at conception, but birth is what brings us into the course of things; so the “wheel of birth” may be describing our entire existence from birth until death. Our entire period of existence is set on fire by the improper use of the tongue. It is much less difficult to understand this phrase if we remember to note the context where it appears. James’ purpose is to show the far-reaching effects which come from the misuse of the tongue, and why great restraint is a necessity. Thus, he is showing that the tongue is so powerful that it can influence man’s entire “wheel” or period of existence. An inflamed speech, a few intolerant words said in anger, a false rumor whispered to a friend may start a fire that burns an individual, a city, and even a nation! Remember the rabble-rousing speeches of Hitler and the tremendous wave of the war-spirit that swept over the German nation as a result. Financial institutions have been driven to bankruptcy, lives have been shattered, marriages have been destroyed, families have been broken apart, lifetime friendships have been destroyed, fights, injuries, and murders have been committed all because of careless and thoughtless words spoken in anger over a back fence, or in a casual conversation to someone.
“And it is set on fire of hell” seems to be indicating that the fire or horrible results that come from the misuse and abuse of the tongue can only be compared to the fire which arises in hell. It should be a sobering thought that the fire which figuratively goes out from our tongues when we use them improperly originates in hell, and will lead us there also unless we learn to extinguish it! If James had stopped here we would have enough information about the improper use of the tongue to know fully the importance of keeping it under control, but he has more to say on this subject.
“For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed of mankind. But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8). There are two possible ideas expressed here by James, and both have merit. The facts that James has demonstrated (controlling a horse with a bit, a ship with a rudder, and training a beast by man) have the common thread that the taming is accomplished by another person; the thing being controlled is acted upon by an outside source. Certainly such a feat cannot be accomplished upon the tongue because it defies being tamed, subdued, or stopped by anyone other than its owner. James does not say that a man cannot control his own tongue. In fact, James shows in James 1:26 that unless a man bridles his own tongue, his religion is vain.
A second view that also has merit is that birds and beasts, no matter how wild they are in their native habitat, are no longer dangerous when they have been tamed. We do not ordinarily keep a tamed animal chained. The tongue, however, can never be tamed to the degree that it can just be turned loose and trusted to do no harm. We may restrain our tongue for a number of years, and then in an unguarded moment, allow it to leap out and say hurtful and harmful things. It must be constantly guarded at all times. Therefore, this statement of James was intended to teach us the importance of exercising constant, ceaseless vigilance in all matters where the tongue is involved. How conscious all of us must be to this painful fact. How often do we thoughtlessly say things we would give anything to recall a moment later?
James is certainly not suggesting that man should be excused for the misuse of the tongue. God never assigns us an impossible task, and then demands that it be done (James 1:26; Matt. 12:37). Note also that James did not say every wild thing has been tamed, but that every kind of creature has been brought under the subjection of man. Let all of us quit making excuses, and work constantly to keep this “little member” under control and in its proper place!
—Paul M. Wilmoth January 18, 1944 – April 5, 2021