The tongue is like the bit in the mouth of a horse. This tiny appliance controls the enormous power and energy of the horse and is used to give it direction. James may well have been familiar with this picture from common experience in daily life. He had seen powerful Roman military horses and had probably heard stories of chariot races. The point, however, is the extraordinary power and influence concentrated in one small object. So it is with the tongue.
The tongue is also like the rudder in a boat. Large ships were not unknown in the ancient world. The ship that originally was to transport Paul across the Mediterranean en route to Rome held 276 people (Acts 27:37). We know that a large ship like the Isis could carry one thousand people. Yet such a capacious and heavy vessel was directed simply by a turn of the rudder! So it is with the tongue. The tongue is small. But its power, both for good and for ill, is out of all proportion to its size. “A fool’s tongue,” Bruce Waltke wryly notes, “is long enough to cut his own throat.”4
Why does James speak this way? Presumably out of both biblical knowledge and personal experience. The tongue carries into the world the breath that issues from the heart.
Alas, we do not realize how powerful for evil the tongue is because we are so accustomed to its polluting influence. En route to give this address, I rode the hotel elevator with several others. On one floor the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and a woman entered the confined space. The doors closed, and I suspect everyone in the elevator almost instantaneously had the same thought: “She has been smoking!” In this confined “smoke-free” environment her breath could not be disguised.
So, says Jesus, the tongue projects the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is from within, “out of the heart,” that the mouth speaks (cf. Matt. 12:34; 15:18–19). But like the smoker, so accustomed to the odor, the atmosphere in which they live, the person with polluted speech has little or no sense of it—no sense that they exhale bad breath every time they speak.
Sinclair B Ferguson, “The Bit, the Bridle, and the Blessing: An Exposition of James 3:1–12,” in The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2009), 48–49.
Want to make this idea a habit in your life?
We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. The Tongue is a Rudder is our Bible Study based on Nelson’s Searcy’s book Tongue Pierced: How the Words You Speak Transform the Life You Live. It consists of 8 ready-to-use question-based Bible Studies suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.