ith it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:9–12)
According to one Japanese proverb, “The tongue is but three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high.”1 How true it is that words have great potential to change our lives forever! One reason that this is so is because we use our words to accomplish so many different things. With the same mouth, we pronounce both words of blessing and words of cursing. God’s Word, however, exhorts us to be consistent in our speech. Just as we seek to honor God consistently with our thinking and feelings, we must also seek to honor God with our speaking. As in every other area of Christian growth, though, to be consistent with our tongues takes some work! So, let’s look more closely at this passage and consider how we might be able to submit this area of our lives to God more fully.
Our tongues are inconsistent (v. 9)
Our text begins by saying, “With it we bless our Lord and Father . . .” Here the tongue is depicted as an instrument through which we bless our God. Of course, other parts of our bodies should also be used for blessing the Lord. Our eyes, ears, hands, and feet—in fact, our entire bodies should be utilized as instruments through which we bless God! Yet, in this passage James is specifically reminding us to employ our tongues as instruments of blessing God.
Isn’t it interesting that, in verse 9, it is we who are said to do the blessing? After all, we should all recognize the fact that God is the greatest source of blessing, and that it is usually God whom the Bible describes as blessing others. That’s why we pray on a daily basis, “Lord, please bless me and my family.” However, in this verse, we see James telling us that we can actually use our tongues to bless our Lord! It’s rather humbling to think that we can bless the God who created us, but what exactly does this mean?
The Bible uses the word “bless” in three distinct ways. First, it is used to bestow grace. Ephesians 1:3 demonstrates this usage with the pronouncement, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” In this context, “bless” means to bestow grace, and only God can do that.
Second, the word “bless” may also be used to ask God to bestow his grace on others. For example, in Luke 6:23, Jesus instructs his disciples to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In this case, the disciples of Jesus are told to bless their persecutors, and to do so primarily by praying and asking God to bestow his blessings upon the persecutors. Even when we are despised by others, we should pray for them as Jesus taught us to do.
Third, the term “bless” may also be used to describe our praise of God. We praise him when we acknowledge who he is and what he has done for us in Christ. It is in this context that James is using the word “bless.” Psalm 103:1–3 uses the word “bless” in the same way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity . . .” In what way does David want his soul to “bless the Lord”? He is exhorting his soul to bless the Lord with worship, praise and adoration as a fitting response to all that God has done for him in the gospel.
As James reminds us, we are able to bless the Lord in this way—as an act of worship–with our tongues. When we worship God as a church family, that’s exactly what we do! We speak our prayers to God; we sing songs of praise; we respond to His Word; we edify one another, and in all of these ways, we are blessing God with our words!
Nevertheless, James explains that there is a great irony in our behavior which is in desperate need of correction, for with that very same tongue that we use to bless God, we also use it to curse people. The word “curse”—like the word “bless”—can be used in different ways. First, it can mean to make something useless. Though humans are certainly capable of destroying things, the word “curse” is used in this way to describe an ability which only God has. For example, in Mark 11, Jesus curses a fig tree, saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Jesus declares the tree to be cursed and it is.
James, however, uses the word “curse” in another way—to mean wishing evil to happen to others. This is a sad truth—that with the same tongue with which we bless God, we also speak hateful things to (or about) other people. We may not have the ability to cause terrible things to happen to others, but sadly, that doesn’t prevent us from using our tongues to wish it were so! What a terrible sin this is—and how frequently it’s committed by those who claim to follow Christ!
Notice, though, that James includes himself in this sinful confession, by saying, “we bless our Lord and Father . . .” and “we curse people . . .” Why does James include himself like this? James could be speaking “as the representative of his people in the name of his guilty people.”2 This is very similar to when I am preaching a sermon and say something like, “Unbelievers—we must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or else we will remain under God’s wrath!” Obviously, by God’s grace I am already a believer in Christ, but I will still sometimes speak to you as a representative of those within our congregation, or those present in a worship service, who don’t yet trust in Christ.
Again, verse 9 shows us the great inconsistency in how we use our tongues, and verse 10 states it even more plainly: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” In Psalm 62:4, David describes the enemies of God in a similar way: “They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” In other words, they are hypocrites. When those outside of the church complain about hypocrites, who speak lovingly about God but hatefully about other people, could it possibly be you or I whom they’re thinking of? Let’s hope not! In any case, this passage goes on to offer us God-honoring instruction about how we may change this behavior in our lives.
God commands us to be consistent with our tongues (v. 10b)
The passage continues, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” This passionate appeal is addressed to “brothers”—those who profess to follow Christ. There is urgency in these words, and they’re intended to convey the idea that this sinful behavior of cursing is not necessary, beneficial, or edifying to anyone. James is saying, “Stop doing this—it is disobedience to God!”
The previous verse offers an extremely compelling reason why this is so—because the curses are directed toward “people who are made in the likeness of God.” Do you know why we should not curse even unbelievers—even radical Muslims who despise us? Because they, too, were created in the image of God. That’s why James uses the generic term for “people” (anthropos in the original Greek), which means men, women, boys and girls of every race and nationality. All of us were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). This is why James exhorts us to not curse others with our speech—because to curse the image-bearer of God is to also curse the God whose image they bear!
Paul exhorts us in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” We are told not to say evil words about our persecutors—but, oh, how easy it is to sin in this way . . . especially when we read news reports about the worldwide persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ!
In one news report, al-Qaeda-linked rebels seized control of a Christian village in Syria. One resident of that village who was a Christian man said that the militants were forcing his fellow Christians to convert to Islam. In his own words, “I saw the militants grabbing five villagers Wednesday and threatening them (saying): ‘Either you convert to Islam, or you will be beheaded,’”3 By reports like this, we almost can’t help but become very angry and pronounce a curse on these persecutors, because the injustice of the situation grieves our hearts terribly.
Still another troubling report tells of a Christian mother who was fined a month’s average salary because of her nine-year-old son’s “illegal religious activity” at school. Her son, David, had given audio CD’s to his two teachers as gifts. When the school’s head teacher saw the label “God loves you too” on one of the CDs, she immediately contacted the police. An investigator asked the boy who permitted him to bring these CDs to school. The boy replied, “My mother,” and his mother was then fined for having allowed her son to do this.4
How fascinating it is that, in this case, the CD title “God loves you, too” was instantly understood to be a reference to the God of the Bible! Isn’t it encouraging for us to know that our God—the only true God—is the God of love, and that even non-believers recognize that? Shouldn’t “Allah” also be acknowledged to be a god who loves his people? Yet, in this case, the CD was not identified in such a way. This, too, tends to anger us because of the terrible injustice shown toward followers of Christ. Yet, we must remember to conform ourselves to the teaching of God’s Word, which tells us not to speak evil against others—even those who wish to do evil to us—because they, too, were created in the image of God.
James illustrates the need for us to be consistent with our tongues (v. 11).
Again, our text reads: “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” Or, more literally, does the fountain out of the same opening pour forth both the sweet (blessing) and the bitter (cursing) water? The obvious answer, of course, is “No, of course not. This is impossible!”
As you likely know, Israel has many fountains of water, which—when they are full—will burst forth with water and provide a source of fresh flowing water for the streams and brooks. In effect, James is reminding his readers to not expect to have two different kinds of water flowing from the same source, since that would be contrary to God’s design in nature. In a similar way, it is morally contrary to God’s law for us to use our tongues to both bless God and curse other people. We can’t do this!
James may also be echoing the words of his half-brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, who in Luke 6:45 said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Here, the human heart is shown to be very similar to the fountains of Israel, for when the heart is full, it produces words which flow out of the mouth.
In other words, the speech that we produce is an excellent indicator of what’s in our hearts. That being the case, our biggest problem isn’t actually our tongue at all—but the condition of our hearts, from which our speech truly comes. J. C. Ryle explains, “Our words are the evidence of the state of our hearts, as surely as the taste of the water is an evidence of the state of the spring.”5
Lately, my wife and I have been reading Tedd Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, and he makes this same biblical observation there. When a child says something bad, the real problem isn’t the child’s tongue, but his heart which is “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9).6 We know that only God can cure and change a heart like this.
I suspect that when the original readers of the book of James first received this book and came upon verse 11, describing the different kinds of water that might pour forth from a spring, that they likely reflected back on one particular event that had taken place many years prior to that time. Here’s the account of the event, as recorded in Exodus 15:22–25:
Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
Some commentators understand the wooden log to symbolically represent the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it made the bitter waters sweet. We recognize that only the cross of Christ can make our bitter tongues sweet again—and only the cross can make our sinful hearts pure. In fact, without the cross of Christ, there would be nothing that we could do to sufficiently address the sin problem in our lives. However, we can give thanks to God, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is absolutely true—and through him our hearts may be eternally changed!
So, I urge you to consider the cross of Christ every day as you seek to honor God with your life. When we wake up in the morning, we should remember that we have this awful tendency to be inconsistent in how we use our tongues and acknowledge that before God. We should all pray, “Lord, help me to resist sin,” and remind ourselves of our desperate need for the gospel. Without the gospel of Jesus Christ, we would simply continue to use our tongues for evil purposes, but because of our relationship with Christ, we can both honor God and bless others with our words.
Some may try to argue, “I was born this way, and I can’t really control the things I say.” In regard to your own abilities, you’re absolutely right! We can’t make ourselves resist sin on our own. The solution, though, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
James uses two more illustrations to express these profound truths to us, writing in 3:12, “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” The point, again, is simply that we should be consistent in the ways that we use our tongues.
Obviously, the issue of hypocrisy is closely connected to the problem that James is addressing in this text. The same call to consistent, righteous living is also issued to us by our Lord, who taught the following to his disciples in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
We cannot truthfully say “I love Jesus” if our lives don’t reflect that—and we’re not entitled to sing “I love to tell the story . . .” if we aren’t actually doing what the song says! It’s one thing to say these things, but another thing to actually do them. Nonetheless, if we want to avoid being appropriately labeled as “hypocrites,” our words and our actions must be in obvious alignment. May the Lord help us to use our tongues wisely and consistently, so that, through our speech, he may be truly exalted in our lives!
How does James use the word “bless” in our passage?
In what way can we bless the Lord with our tongues?
How can the same tongue that blesses God also engage in cursing? Have you been guilty of this inconsistency? If so, how?
What compelling reason does James give to stop cursing others?
How does the use of your tongue indicate what is in your heart?
How and why is the gospel of Christ the solution to the problem we have with our tongues?
1. Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891), 579.
2. John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical, With Special Reference to Ministers and Students (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 99.
3. “Al Qaeda-linked rebels gain control of Christian village, Syrian activists say,” Fox News, September 8, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/09/08/syrian-activists-say-al-qaida-linked-rebels-gain-control-christian-village.html (accessed June 27, 2016).
4. “Kazakh Baptists fined for worship meetings,” Baptist Press, August 27, 2013, http://www.bpnews.net/40979 (accessed June 27, 2016).
5. Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 133.
6. New International Version.
Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have three children, Anna, James, and Abigail. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.