In the garden of Eden, the crafty serpent began his attack on God by cunningly sowing seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind. He did this with his tongue. “He said to the woman,” (Gen. 3:1). Words initiated the Fall. They were also the subject of the deception. The serpent said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1). His question assumes a false premise to be true. God did not prohibit every tree in the garden. He prohibited only one. But, it was too late. The words of the serpent were implanted in the mind of a naive woman and a negligent man (Gen. 3:1-7).
Convinced of the serpent’s words, rather than the words of God, they succumbed to his deception and fell into sin. “Sin came into the world through one man” (Rom. 5:12). Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden” and hid themselves from Him (Gen. 3:8). Finding them, God confronts Adam, “have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3:9). Sin, now indwelling in Adam’s heart, reveals itself for the first time in man. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12).
The fall of man began with deceptive words, was concerned about divine words, and resulted in deadly words. In essence, Adam threw his wife under the bus and inadvertently blamed God. Sin, dwelling in a broken heart, brought forth the fire of hell (Ja. 3:6). Deception produced doubt. Doubt produced disobedience. Disobedience produced death. “So death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
An evidence of sin is a shameful tongue. When evil indwells the heart, wickedness spews from the mouth. In James 3:7-8, we are brought to bare with this reality. The tongue reveals our rebellion. It is a wild beast, a restless evil, and deadly poison.
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7–8)
The Tongue is a Wild Beast
A fascinating display of authority took place that is easily missed in the broader story of creation. Adam “gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Gen. 2:20). In doing so, he exercised dominion over the land animals. Had he access to the sea creatures, he would have named them too.
Adam was doing what he was created to do. When God made him after His likeness, He made him to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26). It was not only his responsibility, but his privilege and natural ability. You can say that it came with the territory. Adam, as all humans, have authority over animals.
We might wonder if this sort of authority exists after the Fall. Since the sin of Adam introduced all kinds of sufferings upon the world, the relationship between man and beast has been corrupted (Rom. 8:19-22). But, Noah exhibited this authority by bringing “two of every kind” into the ark (Gen. 6:20). We have no record of any conflict between any living being in any way during their time inside. And, as the story goes, they all exited the big boat safely as they entered. The only exception were those animals meant for sacrifice, which testifies of such dominion.
While we are not escorting all kinds of animals into boats today, we are herding cattle, racing horses, guiding lions, teaching dolphins, domesticating dogs, and performing stunts with elephants. Birds have been used to carry messages. Tigers are circus acts. Snakes are worn for fun. Lizards are teenage toys. In fact, zoos contain all kinds of living creatures for our enjoyment and other animals are used for our meals.
The animal kingdom, although demonstrating a great sense of power and aptitude, are still subject to man’s taming. So, speaking with rhetorical force, James says that “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind” (Ja. 3:7). Man’s dominion over the animals has not diminished. Conversely, his dominion over his tongue has. “But,” denoting the contrast, “no human being can tame the tongue” (Ja. 3:8).
The difference between “can” and “may” was a lesson that no teenager learned when I was young. I’m sure you’ve heard it played out yourself. “Can I go to the restroom?” The students asks his teacher. “I don’t know, can you?” Sometimes, we need the reminder ourselves. It is the difference between ability and permission.
In the original language, the word “can” refers to power and capability. James is saying without apology that no human being has the power to tame the tongue. It is beyond his faculty to do. He has lost his dominion over it. Wild beasts are less primitive and more controllable than the tongues of their masters. Man, in his power alone, is no match for the tongue. It is a wild beast.
The Tongue is a Restless Evil
Seeing a large lion jumping through hoops and balancing on a bucket at the direction of a little circus man is a fascinating thing to watch, not because the stunts are impossibly challenging, but because it is a wild animal doing them. No one would come to see me standing on barrel and jumping through hoops. There’s nothing enchanting about that. A wild animal, tamed by man is captivating, even when it is just lounging in a cage.
Man can deliberately tame wild animals to behave against their natural instincts to prevent them from attacking and even killing humans. Taming develops through the use of various means that lead to building trust and rule. Lions, for instance, learn to live at peace with humans because they enjoy the rule of their masters. The tongue, however, is an unruly and insubordinate refractor to any kind of human regulation. “It is a restless evil” (Ja. 3:8).
The word “restless” in the original language carries the idea of being unsettling, unstable, and easily agitated. It is the same word used earlier in the epistle to describe the “double-minded man.” He is “unstable in all his ways” (Ja. 1:8). He cannot be subdued. He does not stand on principle or behave discretionally. He is a uncaged man making decisions on a whim as his desires carry him. So is the tongue.
Even worse, it is a restless “evil” (Ja. 3:8). It’s nature is wicked and troublesome. It refuses control and confinement. It continuously seeks a way out. Bars cannot imprison it. Locks cannot restrain it. The more it is held back, the more restless it becomes. And, when it breaks loose, it unleashes hell. It will not sleep. It is “set on fire by hell” (Ja. 3:8) and manifests itself through speech.
The Tongue as a Deadly Poison
Wild animals are not dangerous because of their savage instincts only, they also have lethal weapons. A lion is full strength, retractable claws, and teeth like daggers. A shark is fast underwater and its mouth contains about 15 rows of piercing teeth. An eel can shock its prey to sleep. A deer can puncture its enemy with horns. The tongue, like a wild animal, has its own weapon. It is like a snake, “full of deadly poison” (Ja. 3:8).
King David, writing about the evil and violent men that ensue him, said that “they make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s and under their lips is the venom of asps” (Ps. 140:3). They desired evil for David and attacked him with poisonous words. Another instance reveals David’s cry for rescue from venomous tongues.
“Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear. They hold fast to their evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, ‘Who can see them?’ They search out injustice, saying, ‘We have accomplished a diligent search.’ For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.” (Ps. 64:1-8)
Jesus had His share of deadly speech as well. When He stood before a restless crowd, they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Lk. 23:21). Pilate, who desired to have Jesus released, asked a third time for a legitimate reason. “I have found in him no guilt deserving death” (Lk. 23:22). But the crowd was persistent with their tongues, “demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified,” and “their voices prevailed” (Lk. 23:23).
In Paul’s words, “their throat is an open grave” where evil crawls out (Rom. 3:13). Their weapon is their tongue. It spits deception. “The venom of asps is under their lips” (Rom. 3:13). “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Rom. 3:14). Their tongues were as deadly snakes striking with poisonous stings.
Ask Jacob. The poisonous lies of Laban’s sons drove him and his family out of the land and devastated Laban’s own home (Gen. 31). Ask Naboth. The conspiracy spawned by Jezebel involved two men falsely accusing him of blasphemy resulting in his execution (1 Kn. 21:1-13). Ask Esther. The lies of Haman nearly caused the extermination of exiled Jews in Medo-Persia. Ask Stephen. He was stoned to death because of false accusations (Acts 6:8-60).
Our tongues are weapons of destruction. They are wild beasts, restless evils, and deadly poisons. For this reason, David asked God to “set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door my lips” (Ps. 141:3). He knew it couldn’t be done in his own strength. As Paul captured it, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18). Why? Because “nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18).
The next question is simply this: “who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). Jesus Christ our Lord. Through the power of Christ we can tame the wild beast of a tongue in order to speak to others with good and godly things.