Tag Archives: The tongue

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 12

Psalm 12Read Psalm 12

The first two words of this psalm—Help, Lord!—identify it as a cry for help, and yet it is also a declaration of confidence in God’s promise and goodness. When human speech becomes empty or evil, deliverance from its power is found not in retaliation whereby we return evil for evil, but in hearing, receiving and trusting the speech of God, especially God’s promise.

In verse one, the psalmist calls out to the Lord for help in the face of the disappearance of the faithful. As in Psalm 11, the focus is on society as a whole and the psalmist laments the evil and unfaithfulness which rises on every side. When one has companions it is perhaps easier to practise godliness and remain faithful while all around falls into decay. With the loss of any companions, however, the psalmist can but cry to the Lord.

Verses two to four characterise the unfaithful in terms of evil speech rather than evil deeds. Ellen Charry remarks that “the picture is of a contemptuous community in which each one takes him- or herself to be his or her own master or mistress, beholden to no one” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 61).

The words of the wicked are empty, ‘smooth,’ and boastful; they use their words as weapons to prevail over others (vv. 2, 4). Falsehood and flattery issue from a deceptive, ‘double’ heart. While they speak with flattering words to gain the trust and allegiance of their hearers, in their hearts they are seeking their own rule and lordship. Their true intent is warfare, not welfare. So distressed is the psalmist that he cries that God would shut their mouths and cut off their flattery and boastful speech (v. 3). In effect, this is a prayer that God would overcome those who boast that no one can master them. Their claim to self-lordship is seen as a challenge and as an affront to the one true Lord.

Verse five marks a decisive change in the psalm as the voice of the Lord now speaks: “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.” How this prophetic word is delivered is not known. Did it come to the psalmist in answer to his prayer? Does he in hope put the words in God’s mouth? Is it a liturgical word spoken in the midst of temple worship? However the prophetic word comes, it is the answer to the cry found four times in the psalms thus far: “Arise, O Lord!” (Psalms 3:7; 7:6; 9:19; 10:12).

Craigie translates the last phrase of verse five as “I will set him in safety. I will shine forth for him” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 136). Although he acknowledges that his translation is by no means certain, the image of God shining forth speaks of the revelation of his faithfulness in answer to the opening cry for help from the psalmist.

Thus, over against the empty, deceitful and boastful words of the wicked stand the promises of the Lord, which are characterised in verse six as ‘pure.’ God’s words are pure as silver is pure:

The word of the Lord is by its very nature valuable (as are silver and gold), but through refinement and purification, in the language of the metaphor, there is no dross in it. By implication, the speech of wicked persons is all dross, devoid of silver and gold! That of God is pure silver, pure gold! It is devoid of the dross of flattery, vanity, and lies, and can therefore be relied upon (Craigie, 138).

Encouraged by the divine promise the psalmist cries out in trust that the Lord will guard and protect his people, even in the midst of a hostile and faithless generation. Because God’s word is true and to be trusted, he can be confident. This confidence is based not in a change of circumstances but in the reliability of God’s word: the wicked will not triumph over the godly for the Lord will preserve them.

The wry observation of verse eight makes this clear: the battle continues. This verse might be seen as an amplification of verse one: the godly and faithful have disappeared from the social environment, while that which is ‘vile’ has been exalted and celebrated. Here the NASB is preferred to the NRSV: the wicked do not so much ‘prowl’ (as though in darkness), but ‘strut about’—openly and boldly in the broad light of day, and on every side. The psalmist’s observation, then, highlights the social implications of God’s ‘pure’ words. As Derek Kidner has pointedly noted, “The battle of words is no side-issue: a weakness here, and the enemy is in” (Kidner, Psalms 1-72 TNTC, 76).

At issue is what it means to be a faithful and godly community. Which words will shape the life of the community—empty and deceptive words, or the pure words which come from God? The people of God are to hear, reflect on and trust the words of God, choosing, declaring and embodying his words, even in a social context.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:26

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:26
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 

In the final two verses of chapter one, James summarises his discussion in the chapter, brings it to its climax, and also prepares for the major discussion that he will undertake in the next sections of the letter. It is possible that in these verses James identifies the key theme of the chapter, and indeed, of the entire epistle: true religion. The word translated “religion” (thrēskos, adjective, in verse 26a, and thrēskeia, noun, 26b, 27) is used only infrequently in biblical Greek, the adjective (26a) only here. Generally it describes outward expressions of religious devotion and may be used in either a positively (e.g. Acts 26:5) or negatively (e.g. Colossians 2:18). James uses it in both senses in these two verses, negatively in verse 26, while positively in verse 27. While it is unclear what particular expressions of religious devotion James may have in mind in his initial comments, it is likely that he would include such things as prayer, fasting and corporate worship (Davids, 101).

For the third time in this chapter James uses an ei tis construction (“if anyone”; cf. vv. 5, 23). Although his statement is set up as a conditional clause, he probably has an actual situation in mind. In this case, there are, perhaps, some who parade their religious observance and think themselves uncommonly spiritual: “If any think they are religious” (Ei tis dokei thrēskos). The problem, however, is that if these same people fail to “bridle their tongue” (mē kalinagōgōn glōssan autou), they have “deceived their own hearts” (alla apatōn kardian autou) about the true nature of their religious practice: their undisciplined speech subverts and undermines their devotion so that they are not actually “religious” at all.

James, of course, has already raised the use of the tongue in verses 19-21, where we found that he was concerned that some in the congregation were tearing at one another with angry and malicious words. What the believers must learn instead is to “bridle” or “restrain” their tongue. Kalinagōgōn, the word used here (and in 3:2), may have been coined by James for it appears in Greek for the first time in this verse (Davids, 101), and only in these instances in biblical Greek. The participle is in the present tense and so suggests that the persons concerned speak in undisciplined ways at the same time that they consider themselves religious.

Finally, James brings his conditional clause to a devastating conclusion: “their religion is worthless” (toutou mataios hē thrēskeia). Mataios means that something is useless, futile or worthless, and in this statement means that their diligent religious practice produces nothing of value either before God or in their own lives. Their religious practice is empty and perhaps even fraudulent. Just as the one who only hears the Word without doing it is deceived, so the person who practices their religion without disciplining their tongue is deceived. Just as angry speech cannot and does not produce the righteousness of God (v. 19), so religious activities without accompanying works do not produce anything of value or worth. It is the “doer of the work” who is blessed (v. 25), and the first work that James highlights is the difficult work of taming the tongue. True religion, true spirituality requires this discipline.

As we have repeatedly seen in our discussion of James 1, James’ teaching echoes the teaching of Jesus who also emphasised the importance of disciplined speech:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:33-37).

Our speech is a truer indication of our heart than our religious practice. The way we speak and use our words reveals the nature, condition and content of the heart. If our heart is filled with vicious anger and malicious intent, it will be betrayed in our speech, and all the religious practice in the world will not cover or disguise the truth of our condition.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:19-20

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:19-20
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (NRSV)

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (NASB)

James addresses his “brothers and sisters” for the third time in this chapter (vv. 2, 16), and as “beloved” for the second time (v. 16). It is also the second time that he refers to his hearers “knowing” something, although the word here (iste) differs from that used in verse 3. The two translations above show that the word could be translated as an indicative (NASB) indicating something that James’ hearers already know, and so referring back to the truths just enumerated in verses 16-18. Or it could be understood as an imperative as in most English translations, and thus as a command to his hearers to know this particular truth which James will now go on to declare. The usual translation is to be preferred, although the NASB has the advantage of translating the tiny particle de (“but”). It is likely that the decision to translate the particle forces the change of translation in the first phrase.

What is it James wants his hearers to know? He begins with a brief aphorism that “everyone” (pas anthrōpos) “must be” (estō) “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (taxys eis to akousai, bradys eis to lalēsai, bradys eis orgēn). The aphorism itself plays on the metaphor of speed: quick—slow—slow. “Quick to listen” and “slow to speak” would provide a balanced and parallel saying. The addition of “slow to anger” slows the saying and hearer, emphasising James’ focus on speech and highlighting especially his main concern—angry speech, and, more to the point, human anger itself.

Thus, James’ main concern is the pithy point given in verse 20: human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (orgē gar andros dikaiosynēn theou ou katergazetai; note that this text follows the fifth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, and so reads ou katergazetai instead of ouk ergazetai (fourth edition). See the discussion in Vlachos, 53-54). The NRSV reads “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” suggesting that at least some members of the community itself are angry. Although this is possible, it obscures the more specific thrust of the verse provided by the contrast between human anger and God’s righteousness. Further, katergazetai here, recalls its earlier use in verse 3, where the trial of our faith “produces” (katergazetai) endurance. If in the midst of trial, James’ hearers resort to anger instead of practising endurance, the result will not be the attainment of divine righteousness; they will not be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verse 4). The phrase “God’s righteousness” (dikaiosyne theou) here thus carries an ethical rather than salvific sense. James is not saying that one’s anger does not bring a person into a saving relation with God, but that human anger does not bear the kind of righteous fruit that God desires or approves. James is concerned here, therefore, not with one’s standing before God, but with practical righteousness, the kind of life lived in accordance with that which is right and good in God’s sight.

On first glance these verses appear to be a stand-alone aphorism intended as practical parenesis and admonition, presaging the larger treatment on human speech and the power of the tongue in chapter 3. There is no doubt that speech is a major issue in James with 29 imperatives in the letter devoted to speech ethics (Vlachos, 52). It is not surprising, therefore, that pastors and preachers read the verse like this, using homely examples such as “God has given us two ears but only one mouth, obviously intending that we should listen twice as much as we should speak!”

Nevertheless, this reading disconnects the verses from what has gone before. It is, however, possible, and I think preferable, to read verses 19-20 as part of James’ ongoing argument. In times of trial and temptation believers are to stand firm in faith, rejoicing in God and praying for wisdom. They are not to accuse or blame God for their temptations for such temptations arise from their own lusts. Therefore God’s people would do well to be slow to speak such words and make such claims (cf. verse 13 “let no one say…”). Instead, believers are to be “quick to hear”—the Word of God. That this is James’ intent becomes clear in verses 21-25 where he goes on to instruct his listeners how they should hear. The primary meaning of this brief aphorism is, therefore, a renewed call for humble submission to God in the midst of trial. That it may also have wider application as a piece of relational and moral wisdom is apparent but secondary to this primary interpretation. James will, of course, develop his instruction on believers’ use of the tongue in interpersonal relations in chapter 3, but that is not the primary content of his exhortation here.