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We have found James's style to be full of imagery, previously using a wave of the sea (1:6), a wild flower (1:10), a crown (1:12), childbirth (1:15), lights and shadows (1:17) and a mirror (1:23), and already using a horse's bit and a ship's rudder in the current passage. Now he adopts a new image appropriate for his topic: fire. The effect of this choice of image can be shown by comparing it to another possible image. If he had compared the tongue to an ax, he could have portrayed quite vividly a destruction of a large tree by a small tool. Instead of such an isolated act of destruction, however, James chose to portray a spreading destruction. An ax destroys one tree at a time; with our tongues, one act of evil starts a destructiveness that spreads beyond the initial act.
What kind of spreading does James have in mind? It is easy to envision the spreading of evil through a church family because of gossip, slander and criticisms. If Paul had written this passage, we might expect him to employ his image of the church as the body of Christ to describe the injury done to other lives by one person's impure speech. But James's reference to the body appears to be in the Jewish sense of the whole person rather than a figure of speech for the church. His focus is more on the destruction of the impure speaker's own life.
We can envision how this might be so. Spread gossip, and people will not trust you. Speak with sarcasm and insults, and people will not follow you. Yet what is especially on James's mind is not the reaction of others to your speech but the spreading of sin from your speech to the rest of your life. Be hateful with your tongue, and you will be hateful with other aspects of your behavior. If you do not discipline and purify your speech, you will not discipline or purify the rest of your life.
A true exposition of this text should be severe, uncompromising and authoritative in its condemnation of this evil, faithful to James's language, which is neither mild nor restrained. With a rapid succession of images prompted by the devastation he sees, James says the uncontrolled tongue
is a world of evil—a whole world of wrongdoing and wickedness, "a vast system of iniquity" (Hiebert 1979:215). The phrase implies a multitude of forms that our impure speech may take.
corrupts the whole person—an image of a staining and defiling spread of sin from wicked speech into all other behavior. The contrasting pattern, using the same term in the form of a negative adjective, was in 1:27—keeping oneself unstained or unpolluted by the world.
sets on fire the course of one's life—now depicting the tongue's wickedness as a conflagration spreading through the time span of one's life as well as the diversity of one's behavior. But this is more serious even than the length of time involved: the fundamental direction of one's life is affected. James refers to this with a phrase that is unique in all of biblical literature: ton trochon tes geneseos. Its literal meaning would be "wheel of existence" or "wheel of human origin." James uses it as a figurative expression to mean the whole course of his life. The phrase emphasizes the thorough and far-reaching destruction wrought by the uncontrolled tongue.
is itself set on fire by hell—taking the same verb that described the action by the tongue and now applying it to the tongue in passive voice, to expose the true origin of the tongue's blazing power to destroy. James picks up the term gehenna ("hell") which Jesus often uses in the Synoptic Gospels. It is hard to imagine a more condemning way to conclude this description of the uncontrolled tongue.
The images thus build in a progression. The first phrase points to the multitude of evils contained within and prompted by impure speech. The second phrase warns that the whole person becomes corrupted by the uncontrolled tongue. The third adds to corruption the picture of destruction and extends it to the whole course of the person's life. The fourth phrase provides the climax by exposing the tongue's source of evil: hell itself. It is altogether a devastating denunciation.