The Excessive Iniquity of the Tongue

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Speech is at once the glory — and the shame of man.
His glory . . . as it distinguishes him above all earthly creatures; as it puts him in communication with his fellow men; as it enables him to pray to and praise his Creator; as it allies him to angelic beings.
His shame — in that he uses this noble faculty . . . to dishonor himself, to dishonor his neighbor, and to dishonor his God.
James 3:6–8 ESV
6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The Insatiable, Polluted Nature of the Tongue

And the tongue is a fire - James has previously argued that the tongues influence was enormously powerful like a small spark that could set a very huge forest ablaze. The tongue is small, but powerful. Here, James call the tongue a fire. The tongue is a devastating, destructive force.
Proverbs 16:27 ESV
27 A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.
Proverbs 26:20–21 ESV
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. 21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
A world of unrighteousness - A world of iniquity. A realm of ungodliness. The tongue represents the fallen state of the world. It spews the fallen nature of man.
The tongue is set among our members - This phrase is similar to that in verse 5, “the tongue is a small member.” Here, the tongue is part of our body, position with or connected to the other parts of our body.
Staining the whole body - The idea here is that the tongue morally defiles the body. The tongue pollutes the whole person. The tongue is a contaminant.
Matthew 15:10–20 ESV
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Lenski writes, “The wicked tongue defiles not merely itself with its fire but “the whole body,” for there is no sin that is committed by any member of the body and no sin that requires the whole body for movement, attitude, etc., in which the tongue does not assume the control; and it does this by the way in which it speaks of the sin, helps to plan it, joins with what it says in carrying out the sin, defends, upholds, and continues the sin after it is done, etc.”
Setting on fire the entire course of life - In addition to defiling the body of a person, the tongue evil nature influences the entire course of life. The tongue wickedness impacts the context in which is lives and moves and has its beings. It impacts the world around it.
William Bacon Stevens’ list of sins of the tongue:
Chattering or babbling. "A chattering fool comes to ruin!" Proverbs 10:10. By this I mean thoughtless, trifling, heedless talking. Paul speaks of such chatterers, and calls them "busybodies," who out of idleness roam about retailing from house to house, the talk which they have heard. The chatterer is never so happy as when talking. He must speak, it matters little what he says; and hence he rattles away, telling anything, and everything that comes into his mind.
Slander. Under this head I enumerate: backbiting, or speaking evil of one behind his back; defaming one's good name by absolute or implied blame; detraction, envious jealousies, secret whisperings, innuendoes, and all other ways by which the tongue wounds and injures the name and reputation of another.
Murmuring, complaining, tongue. There are those who are always discontent, repining, and complaining. Even if blessings come, they murmur because they are no greater, and are ready to find fault, not only with all the dealings of their fellow-men — but with all the providences of God Himself! Nothing receives their unqualified commendation.
Falsehood is another grievous tongue-sin; and in this I would include all kinds of lying: the positive lie — and the negative lie; the direct lie — and the lie by implication; the malignant lie — and the sportive lie.
Filthy talking and indecent speech. It is greatly to be lamented that even in polite, and what would pass for modest society — there is too much of tampering with this sin. Gross indelicacy would of course be avoided; but covert expressions, double entendres, innuendoes, passing allusions, indirect assertions — are too much indulged in
Boasting. Boasting results from an over-estimate of ourselves — and an underestimate of others. It is selfishness manifesting itself in words. It is the inflated mind, venting itself in windy words. It betrays weakness, littleness, ignorance, vanity, self-conceit, arrogance, and pride!
Flattery — or the giving of undue and undeserved praise. The desire to say something . . . which will please the person we are speaking to, or which will secure his favor, or elevate us in his regard; or the desire, perhaps, to have him reciprocate the compliment, and flatter us — are the usual motives for this sin of the tongue.
Profanity — the taking of God's name in vain. I need not here speak of that open blasphemy which so offends the ear even of those who do not profess and call themselves Christians; but shall restrict myself to those who, while they would not swear, as vulgar people do — yet in various ways and by indirect methods, do take God's name in vain.
And set on fire by hell - What is the origin of the tongue’s iniquity? James states clearly that it is hell. He uses the word Gehenna in this instance. South of Jerusalem there was a valley that had been desecrated by worshipping Moloch, in which children were offered as sacrifice.
2 Chronicles 28:3 ESV
3 and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
2 Chronicles 33:6 ESV
6 And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
King Josiah declared this place unclean.
2 Kings 23:10 ESV
10 And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.
Simon Kistemaker writes, “Initially, Gehenna was the site of sacrifices to Molech; later, refuse was burned there. In time the name acquired another meaning: “In the gospels it is the place of punishment in the next life.” Symbolically, the word refers to the place where the devil resides and to which the doomed are banished. The implication in this verse is that Satan himself sets man’s tongue on fire.
What does James aim to communicate from this phrase? One commentator writes, “the evil in a person, already spoken of as the world or evil impulse, is now traced for the first time to its ultimate source in Satan.”
John 8:44 ESV
44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The Uncontrollable, Beastly Nature of the Tongue

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind - In verse 3, James referenced the taming of horses through the use of the bit and bridle. The smaller, less powerful being is controlling the larger, more powerful. Tamed is to become less dangerous to people, willing to cooperate, subdued. James expands the idea by listing the types of animals that mankind has tamed. Man has tamed every kind of beast, four footed animal. Man has tamed every kind of bird, flying, feathered animals. Man has tamed every kind of reptile, these are creeping things like snakes and lizards. Man has tamed every kind of sea creature, these are beings that live in oceans and bodies of water.
Genesis 1:26–28 ESV
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Pride in the ability to tame animals was common in the Greek speaking world. It proved humanities superiority over the animal kingdom because of reason and intellect. Philo writes, “I have frequently known instances of lions being domesticated, and bears and leopards, and made gentle, not only to those who feed them, by reason of their gratitude for necessaries, but also to others, on account, in my opinion, of their resemblance to their feeders.”
But no human being can tame the tongue - Though mankind has this power and influence over all types of creatures, great and small, there is something we do not have the power to control. “But” is the contrasting conjunction. Man can and does subdue many kinds of creatures, BUT he cannot control the tongue.
Lenski explains, “Although the tongue is so small and is caged in man’s own mouth, which man needs only to shut in order to master the tongue completely, “no one of men” is able to subdue it by any power belonging to his nature.”
There is nothing in natural man that gives him the power to control his tongue. There is no desire, ability, choice or will within with this strength. When man fell into sin, he surrendered the power to govern himself. This includes the tongue.

The Unstable, Killing Nature of the Tongue

It is a restless evil - The tongue is an unstable evil, or wickedness. The tongue is always ready to act in an evil manner and does so regularly. The tongue is an unstable, vile thing.
Full of deadly poison - The tongue is filled with death-dealing poison.
Psalm 140:3 ESV
3 They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. Selah
Romans 3:13 ESV
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
Crossway commentary adds the following, “it kills three things at once: the person who is slandered (his reputation, from bad reports) and the person to whom it is told (he believes a lie) and himself (with the sin of defamation).”

Practical Application

Ask God to reveal himself to you, show you your sin, cleanse you and send you.
Isaiah 6:1–8 ESV
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
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