But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
— James 3:8
When I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, I loved snakes! In fact, I had a whole collection of snakes — rat snakes, corn snakes, king snakes, garter snakes, boa constrictors, Burmese pythons, and reticulated pythons. I even had several very poisonous snakes, such as the spotted, brownish-yellow copperhead that was once a part of my collection.
Poisonous snakes behave very differently from non-poisonous snakes. Non-poisonous snakes such as boa constrictors or pythons can be domesticated, and even held and stroked. But this isn’t the case with poisonous snakes because they are nervous by nature and easily agitated. They are restless creatures, ready to strike at any moment.
Because poisonous snakes are so vicious and nervous, they are almost impossible to domesticate. If you try to loosely hold or stroke a rattlesnake or a copperhead as you might do with a boa constrictor or python, you can be sure that you’ll be bitten!
The venom depositories situated just above the fangs in the head of the snake are loaded with deadly venom. When poisonous snakes inject their razor-sharp fangs deep into a victim, they push down into his flesh, which causes the venom to pump through the victim’s flesh and into the bloodstream. Once the venom is injected, the snake lets loose and slithers away. Meanwhile, the victim is left to suffer as the poison begins to eat away at his flesh or paralyze his nervous system, often producing death.
The reason I am writing so much about snakes is that this was exactly the picture James had in mind when he wrote James 3:8. This verse says, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” When you understand the full meaning of the Greek words used in this verse, it powerfully depicts the problem of the tongue. It compares the tongue that is not controlled by the Holy Spirit to a ready-to-strike, nervous, and poisonous snake!
James begins by saying, “But the tongue can no man tame.…” Pay careful attention to the word “tame,” because this word accurately describes how impossible it is to control the tongue without the help of God’s Spirit! The word “tame” is from the Greek word damadzo, which is the word that means to domesticate, to subdue, to tame, or to bring under control. It is the same exact word used in Mark 5:4 when talking about the demoniac of Gadara. Mark 5:4 tells us that this man was so wild, so frenzied, and so out of control because of the legion of demons that resided within him that “…neither could any man tame him.” This word “tame” is the same Greek word that is used in James 3:8 to depict the difficulty of taming the tongue!
Let’s look at the full meaning behind the word “tame” — the Greek word damadzo. Not only does it mean to tame, but it was also used to describe animal trainers who were experts at capturing and domesticating the wildest and most ferocious of beasts, such as lions, tigers, and bears. Normally these animals would maul or kill a person, but these skilled trainers were able to take the wildest animals and domesticate them, even turning them into house pets. The fact that this word is used in Mark 5:4 to describe the demoniac of Gadara strongly suggests that wild animal trainers had unsuccessfully attempted to subdue and tame the demoniac. This demon-possessed man was so ferocious that those who could domesticate the most ferocious of beasts were unable to subdue and tame him.
Now James uses this same word in James 3:8 to describe the tongue! By using this word, he lets us know that the tongue is as hard to subdue, tame, and domesticate as is a ferocious wild beast! In fact, the tongue is so hard to subdue that James goes on to tell us, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil.…”
The word “unruly” is the word akatastatos, describing something that is restless, such as a nervous, poisonous snake that is poised and is ready to strike. Because the tongue is so unstable and restless, its behavior is almost impossible to predict. It is like a snake that may appear to be docile but is actually just waiting for a victim to come along in which to inject its venom. This is precisely why James goes on to say, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
The words “full of deadly poison” come from the Greek word thanatephoros, which is a compound of the words thanatos and phero. The word thanatos is the Greek word for death, and the word phero means to bear or to carry. When these two words are compounded into one, as in this case, the new word means death-bearing. Like the poisonous snakes described above, the tongue is depicted as an instrument that is full of death and poison. It is also unruly — unpredictable, listless, nervous, easily agitated, and ready to inject its venom.
An interpretive translation of James 3:8 could be as follows:
“No one can successfully tame or domesticate the tongue! It is listless, nervous, easily agitated, and ready to strike. Like a poisonous snake, it is nearly always poised to strike and to deliver its load of deadly venom.”
Have you ever said anything to someone that was so sharp, it sounded like you were attacking him? Afterward when you thought about what you said, were you embarrassed by your behavior? Were you shocked to realize that you could say something so ugly and derogatory? Did you have to create a recovery operation to fix the mess you created with your words of unkindness?
We are all guilty of saying ugly things from time to time simply because we all have tongues! James asserts that this “tongue” problem is a universal dilemma. The only way our tongue can be subdued, tamed, and brought under control is if we submit it to the control of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says no man can tame the tongue, but the Holy Spirit is well able to tame the tongue once it has been submitted to His sanctifying power!
You don’t have to be embarrassed by unruly words that come out of your mouth any longer! Neither do you ever again have to let your lips inject venom into another person. By committing your tongue and your mouth to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, you give the Holy Spirit the authority to penetrate this realm of your life with His power and control. He will help you keep a tight rein on your mouth so you can keep from saying things you will later regret!
Why not stop right now and submit your mouth and tongue to the Lordship of Jesus? Then ask the Holy Spirit to pervade this part of your life and help you bring it under control. The Holy Spirit is standing by, ready to help you subdue that restless, unruly tongue!
My Prayer for Today
Lord, I am submitting my tongue and my mouth to the Lordship of Jesus Christ today! I am unable to control my tongue by myself, so right now I deliberately make the decision to ask You to invade this area of my life with Your power and Your control. I confess that I need Your help, Lord; I can’t do it on my own. Please help me learn how to overcome in this area of my life.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
My Confession for Today
I boldly declare that my tongue is subdued, tamed, and brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. My lips speak words of kindness; my mouth releases praise; and I am known as one who says encouraging and helpful things to other people. My words are seasoned with grace, and my lips are constantly giving thanks to God! This is what my tongue speaks because it is submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
Questions to Answer
1. Do you relate to this teaching about the tongue being like a snake that occasionally strikes and injects deadly venom into its listeners?
2. Have you ever had the experience of saying things you later regretted — but by the time you came to regret those negative words, the damage was already done? Were you shocked as you thought back on the ugly things you said? Did you ever go back to that person and ask him or her to forgive you for acting so unlike Jesus?
3. When are you going to submit the control of your tongue and mouth to the Lord? Why don’t you take a few minutes right now to get on your knees and consecrate this part of your life to Him?