Pause: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” Psalm 126:1-3
Reading: “Take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3: 4-8
Last month I was reminded of my time in the Royal Navy when the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote about the strength of a three-stranded rope, something I spent a great deal of time with during my service. Today, James reminds me of something else from that time, when he speaks of the size of a ship’s rudder. I spent many hours either at the helm of a warship or at the tiller of a motor boat, and still have my Helmsman’s Certificate somewhere (very much out-of-date!). A rudder is very small when compared with the ship, but its role is vital, and if gets damaged or lost then the ship is in trouble. James uses this truth to speak about one of the smallest parts of our body, the tongue. It too is a vital part of our make-up, but if it gets out of control then it can cause a great deal of damage.
The language James uses here is very strong, and at first reading could almost appear to be too strong. He likens the tongue to the spark that causes a forest fire, then actually speaks of the tongue as a fire, as a world of evil, as a corrupter of the whole body, as something that is set on fire by the enemy, and as something full of deadly poison. Strong words indeed. However, I’m sure that each one of us has been hurt by someone’s words, and also that we have said something which we bitterly regret, so perhaps these words of James really do ring true for each one of us.
James then goes on to teach us that the tongue is incredibly difficult to tame, more difficult even than the taming of wild animals. Throughout the Bible there are many references to the tongue, and most of them speak of the damage that can be done by harsh, unkind, even untrue, words. So, is there no hope of taming this unruly member of one’s body? In his Commentary on this passage, written about 300 years ago, Matthew Henry has this to say about the tongue: “We are next taught how very difficult a thing it is to govern the tongue. The apostle does not intend to represent it as a thing impossible, but as a thing extremely difficult, which therefore will require great watchfulness, and pains, and prayer.”
As Matthew Henry says, taming the tongue is not impossible, but it is something that we need to work at. Firstly, he says, we should be watchful about what we say, and of course about the way that we say it. Our words can be really powerful for good if we seek to build up rather than destroy, to encourage rather than demean, to spread cheer rather than to spread gloom and despondency. This can be costly, as we take great pains to govern what we say, but it will be well worth it. Then, of course, Henry says that taming the tongue will require prayer, and we could emphasis that by saying a great deal of prayer! Our example is our Lord Jesus, whose life was full of prayer, and whose words still inspire, encourage and lead us on in our walk of faith.
A Prayer from Psalm 141:
“Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Amen.