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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


St. James resumes, in this chapter, the subject briefly glanced at (chap. 1:19 & 26) regarding the government of the tongue: and after showing the danger caused by the tongue in teaching, others (1), he proceeds to treat, in a general way, of the faults committed by means of that member. He says, that by governing the tongue, we show that we can keep all our passions under control (2). He compares the tongue to the bits of horses and the helms of vessels, also to a small spark of fire, which can set a large quantity of timber in a blaze (3–6).

He next points out the difficulty, and, consequently, the great care to be employed, in subduing the tongue (7, 8); the monstrous and incompatible uses, to which it is applied (9, 10); and from the analogy of nature, from what is impossible in the natural order, he argues against what is inconsistent and opposed in morals.

After a lengthened digression regarding the vices of the tongue, he returns to the subject with which he commenced the chapter, regarding those who wish to act in the capacity of teachers, and shows the qualities with which a teacher of others should be gifted’ (13, 14). He notes the characters of true and false wisdom (15–18).


1. Let not too many of you, my brethren, ambition and take upon yourselves the office of teaching others; knowing that the higher and more exalted your office, the weightier your responsibility, and condemnation, should you be found wanting,

2. You will incur the greater judgment; for, we all offend in many things, without entailing upon ourselves the responsibility of teachers. If any man offend not in word, and completely master his tongue, the same is a perfect man, and shows what perfect control he can have over all his passions. Such a person, by bridling his tongue, can govern all his other members, and regulate the whole body of his actions.

3. For, behold, we put bits into horses’ mouths, to make them obedient to our will, and by this means we can govern and turn about their whole body.

4. Behold also how great ships, although driven forward by strong violent winds, are still turned about by a small helm, wherever the will of the steersman chooses to steer them.

5. As, then, horses are managed by a bit, and ships turned about by a small helm; so also is the tongue, though a small member, compared with the entire body, capable of great things, whether for the purposes of good or evil. Behold how large a wood, a small spark of fire can set in a blaze.

6. And the tongue is a fire; nay, an universal instrument for effecting iniquity of all kinds; it is placed among our members, and corrupts the entire body of our actions during the whole course of our lives, being itself set on fire by the powers of hell, and the agency of the infernal spirits.

7. And wild beasts of every description, all sorts of birds and of crawling things and of marine monsters are capable of being tamed, and have been actually tamed, or at least, forcibly mastered and subdued by the skill, power, and industry of man.

8. But the tongue no human power or industry can bring under subjection; it is a restless evil, which cannot be stopped, full of deadly poison, which often-times causes ruin to both soul and body.

9. It is made the monstrous instrument of opposite and conflicting results. By it, we praise and glorify God, who is also our Father, and, strange inconsistency! by the same tongue, we curse man, made after the image and likeness of God.

10. Out of the same mouth proceed two things, both contrary and perfectly incompatible, benediction and malediction. My brethren, it is quite incongruous, that such opposite effects should exist.

11. The analogy of nature itself shows the inconsistency of such conduct. Will a fountain discharge, through the same passage, sweet and bitter water? Certainly not. Why then should man send forth from the same mouth, the sweet water of benediction, and the bitter water of malediction?

12. Will the fig-tree produce grapes, or the vine, figs? By no means. So neither can the salt water yield sweet.

13. But who amongst you is gifted with the wisdom and knowledge, indispensable qualifications of a teacher? If there be any such person amongst you, let him, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, by the example of an edifying life, exhibit his good works, which will be seasoned by meekness in teaching true wisdom; or, which will be accompanied by meek wisdom in teaching.

14. But if you indulge, and give way to, corroding envy, and an inordinate internal disposition for contention, you should not vainly glory and be liars against the truth by claiming what you have not, viz., true wisdom.

15. For, the wisdom exhibited by the envious and contentious is not the true wisdom, which only comes from above, from the throne of God, the unchangeable author of every good gift (1:17). But the wisdom of such persons is “earthly,” having for its object the attainment of mere earthly goods, the gratification of avarice. “Sensual,” having for object the gratification of beastly lusts and animal pleasures. “Devilish,” seeking for the gratification of pride, and for self-advancement, by the base means of intrigue, low cunning, and deceit.

16. For, bitter envy and contention are the parents of confusion and disorderly conduct of every kind, and of all sorts of wicked works.

17. But true wisdom, which descends from above, from the throne of God, is distinguished by opposite qualities and characteristics. First, it inculcates, and disposes to, purity both of soul and body; next, it inculcates, and disposes us to cultivate, as far as possible, peace with all men; it is opposed to all vain display and ostentation, or, it is urbane and affable to all; it is not obstinately wedded to self-opinion and judgment; but, easily persuades us to adopt the good measures and advice proposed by good men; it inclines us interiorly, to take compassion on the wretched and miserable; and prompts us to works of beneficence and charity to the poor, which are the good fruits, springing from the virtue of mercy; it is not precipitate in judging of our neighbour’s actions and intentions; or, it has no respect for persons and parties; it is opposed to all hypocrisy, all intriguing, all affectation of superior sanctity.

18. And the fruit of increasing merits here, and eternal life hereafter, to be reaped from justice, are sown, not in contention, envy, or strive; but in peace, to be possessed by those only, who cultivate peace both with themselves and with others.


1. “Be not many teachers.” St. James here enlarges upon, and fully developes, the subject referred to (1:19), regarding the proper management of the tongue. In this verse, he refers to its abuse in taking upon one’s self the office of religious teacher. In the remainder of the chapter, although some interpreters understand him to refer to the abuse of the tongue, in religious teachers exclusively, it is still more probable, that he refers to the evils of the tongue, in general. “Many teachers.” By these St. Augustine (in Prologo Retrac.) understands teachers propounding opposite and conflicting doctrines; because, although many were to propose the same doctrine of Christ, they could, still, according to him, be said to be only one teacher. It is more likely, that St. James censures the inordinate desire of being esteemed and respected as teachers in religion, for which the Jews were particularly remarkable (Matth. 23; Rom. 2). “That you receive.” In Greek, λεμψομεθα, that we shall receive, &c., or entail upon ourselves greater responsibility.

2. “In many things,” &c. As if to say, we needed not the additional responsibility of teachers, to have to render a heavy account already. St. James manifestly makes the tongue the principal instrument in the commission of those daily faults into which we all fall; to this fault of the tongue the teacher is, of all others, the most liable This is one of the texts which are adduced in proof of a point of faith defined in the Council of Trent (SS. vi., Canon 23), viz.:—“That no man can, during his entire life, avoid all, even venial sins, except by a special privilege, on the part of God, such as the Church holds was conferred on the Blessed Virgin.” “A perfect man,” inasmuch as he shows how perfectly he can master all his other passions, having mastered his tongue, which it is most difficult to restrain. “The whole body,” i.e., the other members of the body—this interpretation is rendered probable by the following comparisons—or, it may mean the whole moral body of his actions.

3. By two comparisons, the Apostle illustrates the importance of governing the tongue, and the influence it exercises over all the other members, and the entire body of our actions. From the same examples, we may easily infer the evil of not bridling it. “For, if we put,” &c. In some Greek copies it is, ιδε, βαλλομεν, behold, we put, &c., according to which reading the sentence is complete. In our Vulgate, the sense is suspended, and the proposition, conditional. The proposition can, however, be made absolute, by throwing out “and” in the words “and we turn,” &c. We find the word “and” oftentimes to be superfluous; or, we may give it the meaning of “also.” Some suppose, by comparing this with verse 4, that the true reading is, ιδε, behold, to which ει δε, “but if,” followed by the Vulgate, is so like in the Greek. The reading in the Codex Vaticanus is ειδε, “but if.”

4. Another comparison, “the force,” ορμὴ, impetus, the will which the “governor,” or steersman, forcibly exerts in turning round the vessel in a storm.

5. “So the tongue also is indeed a little member.” This is the application of the two foregoing examples—the bit and helm are comparatively small, so is the tongue. “And boasteth great things.” “Boasteth” (μεγαλαυχει, magna exaltat), operates, stirs up, great things—sets whole communities, cities, nay, even kingdoms, in a blaze. According to its proper use, or, abuse, it is a powerful instrument tor accomplishing good or evil. “Behold how small a fire, what a great wood it kindleth.” Another illustration of the evil effects which the tongue, although a small instrument, is capable of producing.

6. “The tongue is a fire,” capable of setting the world in a blaze. Nay, it is “a world of iniquity,” i.e., a general, universal instrument for effecting every sort of evil; this general universal power of the tongue, as the instrument of all sorts of evil, is aptly represented by “the world,” composed of so many different elements, and species of creatures of every description; for this reason, it is called “a world,” a general instrument of “iniquity,” i.e., evil of all kinds. In the construction preferred by A’Lapide, the words are interpreted thus:—“The tongue is a fire, the world of iniquity—that is to say, this wicked world—is the wood, which the tongue sets in a blaze.” So that, according to him, the example adduced in the preceding is fully explained in this verse; as the tongue is the small fire, so the “world of iniquity” is the great wood, which it enkindles and sets in a blaze. The construction adopted in the Paraphrase is, however, far the more probable, as appears from the following words, in which, according to the ordinary Greek reading, the preceding illustration is applied and explained:—“The tongue is placed,” &c. According to the ordinary Greek, ουτω και η γλωσσα, it is “so the tongue is placed,” &c. the meaning of which is, as the fire kindles up a great burning; so, is the tongue, though with a very different intention, placed among the members of man, having become, instead of being the instrument of good, according to the original design of God, the corrupter of the entire body, owing to the malice of man. “So,” is wanting in the principal manuscripts and chief versions, and rejected by critics generally. “It sets on fire,” i.e., it inflames with the fire of lust, anger, and all the passions, “the wheel of our nativity,” i.e., the entire course of life, consisting of a revolving succession of days, and seasons, and years. Certain vices are peculiar to certain seasons and periods of life; but the vices of the tongue pervade every season of human existence; “being set on fire by hell,” i.e., it is an instrument of evil prepared for mischief, by the powers of hell, the devil, and his infernal associates.

7. Here, St. James points out the great difficulty of curbing and subduing the tongue, and consequently, the great vigilance and care that should be employed with regard to it. “And of the rest;” in Latin, “cæterorum.” The present Greek reading is, εναλίων, of whales, or the whole tribe of marine monsters—των αλλων, “of the rest,” or, εναλλων, of various kinds, was the reading followed by our Vulgate interpreter. “Is tamed,” i.e., capable of being tamed, “and hath been tamed.” The Greek word for “tamed,” δεδαμασται, means, subdued, and reduced by force, so as to be deprived of the power of inflicting injury.

8. “But the tongue no man,” i.e., no human skill or industry, “can tame,” or render innocuous. Man cannot do so, of himself, without God’s grace; or, the words, more probably, mean, that the evils arising from tongue are more difficult to be checked, than those produced by the most savage beasts. “An unquiet evil.” (In some Greek copies, ακατασχετον κακον, an unruly evil. The Vatican and Alexandrian MSS. have ακαταστατον, “unquiet.”) The idea is borrowed from a virulent disease, the progress of which cannot be stopped. “Full of deadly poison.” The idea here, probably, is borrowed from the incurable bite of a venomous reptile.

9. He here shows the monstrous and incompatible uses for which the tongue is employed. It is employed to “bless God,” i.e., to praise and glorify the Adorable Trinity, who is also our “Father,” both by creation and redemption, “and curse men,” i.e., wish all kinds of evil for them; by it, we calumniate, detract, and treat them contumeliously, although made to the image of God, his most perfect work; and hence, we curse God himself in those creatures by whom his attributes are most clearly reflected.

10. “Out of the same mouth proceeds blessing” of God, “and cursing” of him in his creatures. “My brethren, these things ought not to be.” This is the mild language of rebuke, wherein is conveyed more than is expressed, and even the asperity of the rebuke is softened down by the words, “my brethren.”

11. By a reference to the analogy of nature, he shows the justice of his rebuke, and the incongruity of employing the tongue for such opposite purposes, for, producing such opposite effects. From what is impossible in nature, he argues against what is inconsistent and opposed in morals.

12. “Bear grapes.” The Greek for grapes is, ελαιας, olive berries. “So neither can the salt water yield sweet.” In some Greek readings it is—so no fountain can yield salt and sweet water, as if it were a repetition of the idea conveyed in the words (verse 11), “doth a fountain send forth … sweet and bitter water?” The Vulgate reading is that of the chief manuscripts, of all the Latin copies, and of the Syriac. Hence, it was probably the ancient Greek reading followed by the Syriac. Reason itself would seem to favour the Vulgate; for, what necessity is there for repeating a thing so clear and incontrovertible as the sentence in verse 11? In our reading, then, a fourth illustration is derived from the salt water of the sea. The reasoning of St. James, in these verses, is this:—The same fountain will not produce sweet and bitter water, nor will the same tree produce fruits different from those of its own kind; such, then, being the order of nature, it is monstrous, that in the order of morals, the same instrument should produce not only different, but contrary effects—viz., good and evil.

13. After a rather lengthy digression regarding the vices of the tongue, the Apostle now returns to the subject with which he commenced this chapter, regarding the inordinate desire of acting in capacity of teachers, wherein men are most liable to fall into serious faults of the tongue. He now explains the qualities with which a teacher of others should be gifted. “A wise man and endued with knowledge.” Wisdom and knowledge are two indispensable qualifications for a religious teacher. By “wisdom,” which is the same as the sermo sapientiæ (1 Cor. 12:8), is meant the power or faculty of explaining the truths of faith, on the principles of faith (v.g.), showing the congruity of the Incarnation, on the grounds pointed out by faith; by “knowledge,” the faculty of explaining moral precepts, or of explaining the truths of faith, by examples derived from human things. St. James, by asking the question, “who is gifted with knowledge and wisdom?” supposes that no one can undertake the office of teacher without these qualifications. “His word.” (In Greek, τα εργα αυτου, his works). “In the meekness of wisdom;” without showing good example, teaching will avail but very little. The example of a teacher will be a stronger incentive to virtue than his words can be. “Meekness” is a quality of all others the most necessary; a supercilious moroseness in the exercise of teaching or correction, will only serve to disgust the hearers, instead of promoting edification.

14. “Bitter zeal;” feelings of envy, which imbitter the mind, and are “bitter” in their effects to others. “And there be contentions in your heart.” The Greek has not “there be,” it simply is, και εριθειαν, and contention in your heart, i.e., an inward disposition to indulge in contentions and strife, the constant attendants of bitter zeal or envy; and this bitter zeal results from an inordinate desire to exercise unduly the functions of teacher. “Glory not and be not liars against the truth,” by laying claim to what they have not, viz., true wisdom; for, this they could not possess, together with a spirit of envy in their hearts. “And be not liars,” &c. “Not,” is omitted in the Greek. It is, however, clearly understood.

15. He assigns in this verse reasons for saying, that the envious, contentious men of whom he spoke, would glory against the truth by laying claim to true wisdom; because, the wisdom of such person is not the wisdom “descending from above,” whence alone true wisdom can come (1:17). He describes this wisdom by three characters wholly incompatible with true wisdom—“earthly,” “sensual,” “devilish.”—Vide Paraphrase. It is diabolical or devilish, because the devil is a spirit of pride, the author of lies, of cunning and deceit; and this false wisdom, seeking only for the gratification of pride, urges us on, by means of cunning and intrigue, to self-advancement and self-exaltation. How perfectly similar to the description of the spirit of the world given by St. John (1 Ep. 2) (“Concupiscence of the flesh”), “sensual.” (“Concupiscence of the eyes”), “earthly.” (“Pride of life”), “diabolical.” (“Which is not from the father.”) “This is not wisdom descending from above.”

16. “Inconstancy,” i.e., disquietude, tumults, and seditions. St. James proves that the wisdom of the envious is “earthly, sensual, &c.,” because it is inconstant and turbulent, creating tumults and seditions, clearly observable in the conduct of the heretics, in all ages, but particularly true of modern reformers, as may be seen from the history of their times. The conclusion which St. James wishes us to derive from this verse is, that men acting under the influence of such a spirit cannot be possessed of true wisdom.

17. Having, in the preceding, described true wisdom negatively, the Apostle now gives its peculiar distinguishing characteristics, quite the opposite of those, by which false wisdom is distinguished. First, it is “chaste,” opposed to “sensual” (verse 15). “It is peaceable, modest, easy to be persuaded,” three qualities opposed to “devilish,” “easy to be persuaded,” not obstinately inflexible in its own judgment, but “consenting to the good.” There is no word corresponding with this, in the Greek. It is, most probably, inserted in the Vulgate, as a fuller explanation of the words, “easy to be persuaded,” as if to say; by “easily persuaded” is not meant, easily persuaded to either good or bad measures, by either good or bad men; but consenting and easily persuaded to good measures, proposed by good men. It is not unusual for the Vulgate translator, wherever the Greek word is susceptible of a two-fold meaning (as the Greek word here, ευπειθης, is), to give both; hence, for one word in the Greek, we have sometimes two, in the Vulgate.—Vide Epistle to Galatians, 5:21, 22, 23, &c. “Full of mercy,” &c., opposed to “earthly,” to that selfish spirit of avarice, which makes us close our ears to the wants of the poor, and the relief of the necessitous. “Mercy,” refers to the inward feelings of compassion, “and good fruits,” to the external manifestation of these feelings by good works, which spring from it, as fruits from their root. “Without judging.”—(See Paraphrase). “Without dissimulation,” ανυποκριτος.

18. “The fruit of justice,” may refer to justice itself, so that the words may mean, that justice itself, as a fruit always increasing, is reaped by those who cultivate peace, or (as in Paraphrase), “the fruit of justice,” may mean the fruit, which the seed of justice produces; viz., eternal life, which proceeds from, and is produced by peace, for such as practise and cultivate it.

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