When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
In this curious little paragraph, James fixes his attention on the tongue, or maybe more correctly on what words it sends out…
Using three metaphors to make his point, James set his focus on the damage a tongue can cause. His first metaphor is a bit that is put into a horse’s mouth. By the use of a bit, a rider can control where a horse goes. Next is the rudder of a ship. This relatively small device controls a ship’s course and by adjusting the rudder, a ship can begin a whole new course for either good or ill. His third metaphor is a small spark that can set an entire forest ablaze. Small parts can do great good or great damage.
So it is with the tongue. It is a relatively small part of the body, but when it is misused, it can create tremendous damage, and set a dangerous course for its owner. Of course, the tongue itself is a metaphor, for James is not really talking about anatomy, but the words we speak.
When we speak (or write) we chart a course of sorts; we commit ourselves. We get married by saying “I do.” We can pledge allegiance by saying the words, we can build others up by saying encouraging words, and we can tear people down with abusive words. We can give God glory and we can commit blasphemy with the words we speak. We can use our tongues to plot a course to either heaven or hell.
So what will we say today? Will we build up, or tear down. We will spread love and goodness, or will we spread evil and discord? Will we glorify God, or will we defame His name?
The choice is up to each of us.