God’s Word for You
James 3:7-8 The tongue’s poison
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, August 5, 2020
7 For every kind of wild animal and bird, crawling animal and sea creature, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no one can tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
My translation of verse 7 differs from the Greek because of the limitations of English. The four categories of living creatures (wild animals, birds, etc.) are plural in Greek, but I have made them singular because of the Greek word physis, “kind.” This word appears at the beginning and end of verse 7, once modified by “all, every” and later modifying anthropine “human; man.” Since we say “kind of” and use the singular (“a kind of sparrow, a kind of paint”), it was necessary to make the creatures singular.
Notice that the four animal varieties correspond to four of the five classes of animals used by Moses in the creation account (Genesis 1:20,24) and in the account of the great flood (Genesis 7:14). At first glance, it may seem as if James mixes the categories up a little, perhaps with a kind of descending nobility, placing the wild animals and birds first and the crawling things and fish second. But in fact, he is grouping them in exactly the same order as the Lord presents them in Genesis 9:2 when God describes the dread that the animals will have for man, but with different Greek words than those found in the Septuagint.
The group that is omitted is the domestic animals; those that have always been tamed and that naturally travel in herds, such as sheep, goats and cattle. James is remarking on the marvels of modern (in his time) human ingenuity, when all sorts of creatures were tamed and brought into parks, pens, aquariums and aviaries for people to see, especially the wealthy. Many of the wild animals were used in the arena, sometimes to kill or maul condemned men (1 Corinthians 15:32 ), sometimes for the spectacle (venatio) of watching a man kill an animal such as a crocodile, hippo, or elephant, and sometimes just for show.
The point James makes is that mankind has tamed everything, every category of creature, except his own tongue. When he says that the tongue “is full of deadly poison,” he is not quoting any Scripture, but it’s hard not to catch the hint that there is a relationship between man’s poisoned tongue and the poisoned mouth of the serpent, through which the fall of man came. When poisoned words cause harm, they are the devil’s potion, killing joy and hope, ruining things God has blessed (2 Corinthians 11:3). When poisoned words twist the word of God into false doctrine, then they bring ruin and death to souls. We have to ask, if you were presented with two bottles of water, and you were told that the bottle on the left has no poison, but the bottle on the right has just a little poison, would you stop to ask, “How much poison?” Wouldn’t you reach for the bottle on the left? If any amount of poison in what we eat or drink is too much, then isn’t any amount of false doctrine in what is preached and taught too much? “All false teaching,” writes Professor Deutschlander, “has three identifying characteristics; where one of them is found, the other two will rarely be far away. False doctrine (1) contradicts the clear teaching of the Scriptures, (2) robs Christ of his glory, and (3) deprives the stubborn sinner of salutary warning and the penitent sinner of needed comfort. Any one of these reasons should be sufficient for all of us to be ever on our guard against false teaching” (Grace Abounds p. ix).
If you have a friend in a church with just a little false doctrine, or a lot, it isn’t your calling to stand at the door of that church and proclaim the truth to all who enter. But it is your Christian privilege to speak out in love to your friend. Tell them the truth; ask them how much poison is too much? Witness to them about Jesus and all of the marvelous things he has done, and let the gospel do all the rest.
Give us lips to sing thy glory,
Tongues thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats to shout the hope that fills us,
Mouths to speak thy holy name.
May the light which thou dost send
Fill our songs with alleluias,
Alleluias without end! (Christian Worship 280:5)
Pastor Timothy Smith