Christian Use of Our Ears and Tongue

James 1:19

From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"Wherefore,my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19).

The acquisition of knowledge seems to be the great desire of the majority of people. There is, however, a kind of knowledge which cannot be acquired through our own efforts, but only through the action and impartation of God. Knowing God and His plan for man presupposes receiving God into one's heart and establishing communion with Him. Of this new birth James spoke in verse 18. Now he proceeds in verse 19 to tell us how we should behave after finding ourselves in the unique and privileged position of fellowship with God, since as a result of the new birth the fullness of the Godhead dwells within us.

This is the greatest mystery of all. How wonderful to know that you and I, who have been begotten of God through Jesus Christ, are carrying within us all three Persons of the Trinity! No wonder we have the assurance of ever being victorious. It is a great privilege, but James declares the responsibilities which pertain to this unusual privilege. What are we going to do with that which is within us? There is terrific power, terrific knowledge born in our hearts and lives the moment we are re-created by God.

Regarding the first word of this verse there are two renderings in the ancient manuscripts. The King James Version is based on a manuscriptwhich states: "Wherefore, my beloved brethren." The most ancient and preferred reading, however, is steinstead of hōste. The only difference is the first vowel, but the difference in meaning is great. Therefore, if we were to take this preferred reading, the translation would be "Know ye"-all this you know, my brethren, beloved. Undoubtedly this refers to what has preceded concerning the transforming power of the Word of truth. After being so transformed, you know a great deal more than you did and much more than those who are yet unregenerate, no matter how much education they may have.

The Apostle Paul confirms this as he writes to the Corinthians, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:14-16).Do not be surprised to see the ignorance of people outside the fold of Christ, but thank God for the knowledge which has come to you as a result of your new birth.

Of course, it is impossible for you to have that divine knowledge and not to act upon it. One would expect that the advice which would follow immediately after James' declaration of our possession of this supernatural knowledge would be to talk it out as soon as possible and as much as possible. But strangely, it is not so. Listen to it: "But let every man be swift in hearing, slow in speaking, slow in wrath." May I mention in passing that the conjunction "but" is not in all the original manuscripts, but is in the preferred ancient ones. I think this is important again because it provides the contrast. You have all this divine knowledge, but do not be puffed up, do not be a show-off giving your tongue no rest. It is true that you know a great deal more than the world does, but, as you have just been born into the family of God, you are only a baby. Within the family of God you have a great deal to learn, and the Lord has given you two ears to help in acquiring this spiritual knowledge through the hearing of the Word of truth.

One thing that has impressed me on this continent is that as soon as a person of some fame or notoriety becomes converted, the next day he is in some pulpit of the Christian Church preaching. I definitely believe this is contrary to the explicit teaching of the Word of God. It does not make any difference how prominent a position a person may have been occupying in the entertainment, educational, economic, political, or social world. When he is born-again, he is but a babe, and what he speaks is like the talk of a little baby. Let him continue to sit down and listen to the Word of God, to the Word of truth, and grow in it. Speaking of the qualifications of the bishop, the overseer of other believers, the Apostle Paul says that he should not be a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.

Besides this primary application of the advice given by James to the newly born-again, I believe here we have also something with a more general application. After all, he says, "let every man"-and that means you; it means me; it means everybody. It behooves all of us to learn to keep the right balance between the activities of the ears and mouth. Remember that God gave us two ears, but only one mouth, one tongue. There must be a purpose in that. He meant that we should hear more than we speak. When we hear something which is not good, especially about someone else, instead of letting it come out through the mouth, let it go out through the other ear. How wonderfully the Lord has given us teeth and lips to keep the tongue in check.

The story is told of a young man came to the great philosopher Socrates to be instructed in oratory. The moment the young man was introduced, he began to talk, and there was an incessant stream for some time. When Socrates could get in a word, he said, "Young man, I will have to charge you a double fee." "A double fee, why is that?" The old sage replied, "I will have to teach you two sciences. First, how to hold your tongue, and then, how to use it." What an art for us to learn, especially Christians. 

Notice how these three counsels connect: quick or swift in hearing, slow in speaking, slow in wrath. It is as if James wants to tell us that if the first two are adhered to, then surely the last will be also. It is too bad, of course, that he does not elaborate on these most important injunctions. Swift to hear what? Surely not everything, but the Word of truth which he spoke about in the previous verse. The more of the Word of truth you hear and absorb, the less irritable you are; and the less you say, the less irritable you make others who have to listen to you. Do not for one moment think that God does not want you to open your mouth to witness to others of His saving grace. "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so," declares the Psalmist (107:2), but even our witness for Christ must be given in a way becoming to the dignity of the Word of truth. A word spoken at the wrong time may do more harm to the cause of Christ than the good you intended it to do.

There is a tradition that Jonathan Edwards, third president of Princeton and one of America's greatest thinkers, had a daughter with an ungovernable temper. But, as is often the case, this infirmity was not known to the outside world. A worthy young man fell in love with her and sought her hand in marriage. "You can't have her," was Edwards' abrupt answer. "But I love her," the young man replied. "You can't have her," said Edwards. "But she loves me," continued the young man. Again Edwards said, "You can't have her." "Why?" asked the young man. "Because she is not worthy of you." "But," he asked, "she is a Christian, is she not?" "Yes, she is a Christian, but the grace of God can live with some people with whom no one else could ever live."

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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