James writes about attempting to tame the tongue…but the tongue is more powerful than we have the ability to control it. And here in this verse he gives the example of just how careless our tongue can be. One minute we can be praising God…and with the next breath we can be speaking harshly and wishing evil against a brother or sister. How can this be possible? I’ll give you a little analogy. Say I’m going to make potato salad, so I place potatoes and eggs in a pot of cold water and place it on the stove. Over the course of 15-20 minutes they cook together in that pot of simmering water…but the potatoes soften while the eggs harden. Same pot, same water, but out came two different responses…one tender, one hard.
The Book of James focuses on the fact that none of us is perfect… none of us is righteous. And especially when it comes to keeping a tight rein on our tongue. In Matthew 12, the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of being Beelzebub, the prince of demons, after healing a man… but Jesus knew their thoughts and reckless words, and told them at the Judgment Day all would have to give account for every careless word spoken…”For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37) Nothing gets us into more trouble than idle conversations or blurting out something before we’ve thought it through. And as James observes, if we can’t keep our tongue in check, how can we expect to keep our whole body from stumbling.
In the world small things can have great power. In the 3rd Chapter of James, he gives examples of a bit in a horse’s mouth, and a rudder of a ship. And if I asked you what the deadliest animal in the world would be…would you guess a tiger, elephant, or maybe a rhino? The real answer is the tiny mosquito that carries Malaria and kills millions of people yearly. Our tongue is one of the smallest parts of our body…but the power it has is potentially devastating. For just like one spark can start a forest fire…one ugly slip of the tongue can destroy a life.
After winning the battle, the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan River where you could cross into Ephraim. It tells us in verses 5-6 that the Gileadites then conducted a linguistic test on any man trying to cross back over to Ephraim. They would simply ask them to say the word “shibboleth”. Because of the Ephraim dialect, even though the man would deny being an Ephraimite… he would mispronounce the word. 42,000 Ephraimites were killed there because their tongues betrayed them. The tongue may be one of the smallest body parts we have…but it can undoubtedly get us into the most trouble.
How many times have you regretted a hurtful, unkind remark made in the heat of an argument? And thought to yourself, “I wish I could take back what I just said.” The tongue has a way of causing trouble for all of us. A flippant, or off-hand remark can cause irreparable damage to a relationship…and something we thought was said in confidence, will sometimes come back to haunt us. The whole course of our lives can be ruled and controlled by our tongues…but for God.
Many years ago I worked at a large health facility as a Dept. Head in a unit set apart from the rest of the building. I knew the rest of the staff well, but didn’t have a lot of daily contact, except for one lady I saw everyday. She was in Medical Records and would bring the paperwork. After settling down at my Nurses Station she would sigh loudly and then start a verbal assault of my fellow staffers at the other end of the building. By the time she was done I was certain there must be blood on the floor around her from all the back stabbing that had occurred. As she walked away I thought to myself, if she was talking so badly about them, what was she saying about me and my staff? So I decided to try a little “experiment”…the next day when she started her tirade I quickly interjected a positive remark about the person in question. This so took her back that she sputtered and tired again about someone else.But once more I made a positive remark about them. Deflated that I wouldn’t join in, she left. And so my little experiment continued daily, and soon our chats were cheerful and positive, void of gossip and back biting. I may not have tamed the tongue, but I did manage to put a teeny tiny bridle on it!