The Tongue: World of the Unrighteousness
Exploring the Book of Ya’aqov, Pt. 13
If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to also bridle the whole body. Now if we put the bits into the mouths of the horses for their being persuaded by us, then we can also turn about their whole body. Look! also the ships of the sea—being so great, and being driven by fierce winds—are led about by a very small rudder, wherever the impulse of the helmsman wants. So also the tongue is a little member of the body, yet it boasts greatly. Look! such a little fire—yet how great a forest it sets aflame! And so the tongue is a fire—the world of the unrighteousness. (יַעֲקֹב Ya’aqov 3:2b-6a, mjlt)
The ability to speak—the capacity to formulate thoughts in our minds, and then to express those thoughts vocally in a way that other people can understand—is a miraculous gift from God to man. One would think that the mouth and the tongue are necessarily subservient to the mind—that one is only capable of saying what he is thinking. But many times—too many times—it seems as if our tongue has a mind of its own. We speak “without thinking,” and then claim we didn’t mean what we said. Or we say exactly what we’re thinking, although we didn’t intend to say it out loud. How is such a phenomenon possible? Can our tongues actually speak independently of our minds?
The Scriptures draw several comparisons to illustrate the tongue’s uncanny—and seemingly autonomous—ability. First, the tongue is likened to a tiny bit in a horse’s mouth, able to persuade the large animal to turn its whole body to either side. It is also compared to the “very small rudder” of a ship, and how, despite the fierce winds that propel the vessel, it is the rudder that leads it about “wherever the impulse of the helmsman wants” it to go. And, finally, the Scriptures say that the tongue is “such a little fire,” yet, when left unattended and unchecked, it has the potential to set an entire forest ablaze.
For such a “little member of the body,” the tongue certainly “boasts greatly”—and with good reason. Indeed, the tongue is exceptionally mighty, and wields powerful control over the whole entity to which it belongs. Like the horse’s bit and the ship’s rudder, the tongue can make us go where it wants, leading us into fights, or conflict, or regrets from speaking things we should not have said. And like the little fire that grows to engulf the forest in flames, the tongue can rage out of control. Speaking out of a place of hurt or anger—or even zeal—it can raze its listeners to the ground.
“And so the tongue is a fire—the world of the unrighteousness.” When we let our tongues speak every thought in any circumstance, giving no heed to our state of mind, caring nothing for the one to whom we are speaking, and having no concern for the consequences of our words, we unleash an inferno of unrighteousness upon the earth. Truth and lie alike become agents of manipulation, interchanged in our mouth as they serve the tongue’s unrighteous ends. Permitted to run amok, the unstoppable flow from our lips spews forth, leaving us only to follow in the path of our own tongue’s destructive devastation.
So the tongue, then, indeed, is a horse’s bit—but it still needs a rider to pull it. The tongue is the rudder of a stalwart ship—but it still needs a helmsman to steer it. The tongue is a fire that consumes the timberland—but it still needs the spark to ignite it. We are the rider, the helmsman, and the spark; no, the tongue does not have a mind of its own—we supply all the unrighteousness it needs.
To ascribe power to the tongue is simply to acknowledge that we are in control of and responsible for everything we say. When we speak “without thinking” or say things we didn’t “mean,” it’s not our tongue doing the talking, but our inner secrets and deepest emotions; we let loose the reins of self-control and allow our minds to run wild without restraint. “If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to also bridle the whole body.” Know the power of your words, and the unrighteousness they can bring. Then bridle your body by controlling your tongue, and “stumble in word” no more.
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