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  • ADAM CLARKE'S BIBLE COMMENTARY -
    JAMES 3

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    CHAPTER III

    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.

    NOTES ON CHAP. III.

    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." - ptaiomen apantev? 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 offense 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, James iii. 1; that he was a horse-breaker, because he says, "we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us," ver. 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," ver. 6; that he cursed men, "wherewith curse we men, ver. 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 analogy of faith. But, says he, if any man offend not, ou ptaiei, trip not, en logw, in doctrine, teaching the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the same is teleiov anhr, a man fully instructed in Divine things: How often the term logov, 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 teleiov, 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, 1 Cor. ii. 6; xiv. 20; Ephesians iv. 13; Phil. iii. 15; Col. iv. 12; Heb. v. 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 calinagwgew 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 is supposed to be a proof against the opinion of Grotius; but I conceive that verse to belong to a different subject, which commences ver. 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 sedition.

    "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, Prov. xvii. 6: tou pistou olov o kosmov twn crhmatwn, tou de apistou oude obolov, 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 Pet. ii. 5: And brought the flood, kosmw asebwn, on the multitude of the ungodly. Mr. Wakefield translates the clause thus: The tongue is the varnisher of injustice. We have seen that kosmov 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 Psalm cxx. 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] flogizousa ton trocon thv genesewv? 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, Deuteronomy 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: anebalon auton epi ton trocot-peri on katateinomenov? "They cast him on the wheel, over which they extended him; pur upestrwsan kai dihreqisan ton trocon prosepikatateinontev? they put coals under it, and strongly agitated the wheel." And of the martyrdom of the sixth brother it is said, cap. 11: parhgon epi ton trocon, ef∆ ou katateinomenov ekmelwv kai eksfondulizomenov upekaieto. kai obeliskouv de oxeiv purwsantev, toiv notoiv proseferon, kai ta pleura diapeirantev autou, kai ta splagcna diekaion? 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, twn men mastigav komizontwn, twn de pur kai trocon, some bringing scourges, others the fire and the wheel." Now as genesiv 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.

    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 Ecclesiastes xii. 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 chap. i. 17.

    3. It is true, however, that the rabbins use the term twdlwt lglg 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, pasa fusiv qhriwn, 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 twn enaliwn, 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" - akatasceton kakon? 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, Prov. xviii. 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. x23: "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 worse." A saying very like that of St. James as found in Rabbi Tanchum, fol. 10, i5: "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 outwv oudemia phgh alukon kai gluku poihsai udwr, so no fountain can produce salt water and sweet, there are various other readings in the MSS. and versions. The word outwv, so, which makes this a continuation of the comparison in ver. 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 oute alukon gluku poihsai udwr, 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 ver. 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" - kai episthmwn? 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 fullness 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.

    "Is earthly" - Having this life only in view.

    "Sensual" - yucikh? Animal - having for its object the gratification of the passions and animal propensities.

    "Devilish" - daimoniwdhv? Demoniacal - inspired by demons, and maintained in the soul by their indwelling influence.

    Verse 16. "For where envying and strife is" - zhlov kai eriqeia? Zeal - fiery, inflammatory passion, and contention - altercations about the different points of the law, of no use for edification, such as those mentioned, Tit. iii. 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 chapter.

    "Is first pure" - ∆agnh? Chaste, holy, and clean.

    "Peaceable" - eirhnikh? Living in peace with others, and promoting peace among men.

    "Gentle" - epieikhv? 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" - eupeiqhv? Not stubborn nor obstinate; of a yielding disposition in all indifferent things; obsequious, docile.

    "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" - adiakritov? 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." - anupokritov? 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 prescribing.

    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 hnwyl[ hmkj 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, i5: "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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