James 3:3-5 (NKJV)3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
“The pen is mightier than the sword,” is a common English proverb and its truth is attested in our passage today. Though perhaps James would have us modify it somewhat. Rather than use the word “pen” James would use the word “tongue” – the tongue is mightier than the sword. Proverbs 12:18 declares, “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health.” This distinction between the wise and foolish tongue is the one that James enters upon in our text today. In anticipation of detailing the abuse to which the tongue can be turned, James begins by making sure we understand the power of the tongue.
James uses three analogies to help us grasp the power, the might of the tongue. First, he compares the tongue to the gear used to control a horse – with special focus on the bit. A horse is truly a mighty animal. Anecdotes of their strength and agility abound – mine concerns a horse who particularly hated pigs. One day a lady brought her pet hog to the stables – and a large one at that. Venturing into the territory of our swine despising equine, the hog soon came to a miserable end. The horse became enraged, clamped onto the pig’s back with his teeth, and proceeded to lift the pig off the ground and shake him back and forth again and again before finally casting him aside as a dead heap of ham. Don’t underestimate what a horse can do! And now, James tells us, meditate on the wee bit of metal that we stick in the horse’s mouth – suddenly this animal capable of tossing pigs to and fro submits to his rider and goes wherever the rider desires. That bit – that small piece of metal – is just like the tongue.
Second, he compares the tongue to the rudder on a ship. Go down to the dockyards. Look at all the massive ships at anchor in the bay. Get a due sense of their size and proportion. Then glance underneath – do you see that little flap of metal, wood, or, these days, fiberglass there under the water at the stern of the ship? That’s the rudder – and it’s job is to control the direction of the entire ship. Even though it is so small, it directs the course of the ship wherever the pilot desires. That, brothers, is the tongue.
Finally, he compares the tongue to a small flame of fire. Every parent, of course, warns his children not to play with matches. But the match is so small. Why worry? Because it only takes a little spark to start a massive fire. And that spark is just like the tongue.
Notice then that James uses each of these analogies to say the same thing – though the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it boasts great things. The tongue controls the rest of the body. Just as the bit controls the horse, just as the rudder controls the ship, just as the spark starts the fire, so the tongue controls you. What you do with your tongue is not a minor thing. If you don’t control it, it will control you. No wonder then that James tells us that the tongue is mightier than the sword.
“There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health.” Have you considered fully the consequences of your words this week? Have you considered the way in which the words you speak are affecting others and even affecting yourself? Are you like one who stabs with a sword each time you speak or are you instead one who uses his tongue to bring healing – both to yourself and to others?
Let us kneel and confess that we have been prone to underestimate the power of the tongue and have used that power to evil purposes.