When James wrote his letter to Christian believers, he included a section on our words. Our words have immense potential for either good or harm, but sometimes it’s not a case of either/or. Sometimes, out of the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing — and this is something which simply shouldn’t happen. Can a fig tree produce olives, or grape vine produce figs? The startling incongruity of these examples is nothing to the sheer wrongness of using our words both to praise God and to curse those who are made in God’s image. This point is developed by Thomas Manton as follows, in an updated extract from his commentary on the Epistle of James.
“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:9). Here James shows the good and bad use of the tongue: the good, to bless God; and the bad, to curse men — as well as the absurdity of doing both with the same tongue, using the same part of your body for the best and worst purposes.
Our words should bless God
The correct use of the tongue is to bless God: “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (Psalm 51:15). Since God gives the gift of speech, he must have the glory; we owe it to him. This is the advantage we have over the other creatures, that we can be explicit in praising God. “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee” (Psalm 145:10). The whole creation is like a well-tuned instrument, but man makes the music. Speech, being the most excellent faculty, should be consecrated to divine uses. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:4). So then, go away and say, “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1). This brings heaven on earth. Some birds sing in winter as well as in spring. Stir up one another (Ephesians 5:19), just as one bird sets a whole flock singing.
We praise “our Lord and Father,” that is, Christ (see James 1:27). We bless God most cheerfully when we consider Him as a father. Thoughts of God as a judge do not bring comfort. Our meditations on Him are sweet when we look on Him as a father in Christ. But not everyone can learn the Lamb’s new song (Revelation 14:3). Wicked men can howl, though they cannot sing. Pharaoh in his misery could say, “The LORD is righteous” (Exodus 9:27).
Our words should not curse each other
“And with the tongue we curse men” (James 1:9). The same tongue should not bless God and curse men; this is hypocrisy. Acts of piety are empty when acts of charity are neglected. “God saith, ‘What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? … Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and your tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slenderest thine own mother’s son’” (Psalm 50:16, 19-20).
Hypocrites are the most censorious, but true piety makes people meek and humble. Some people can curse and bless at the same time (Psalm 62:4); other people curse, pretending to be pious. The evils of the tongue, where they are not restrained, are inconsistent with true piety. With this tongue I have been speaking to God, and shall it presently be set on fire by hell.
Our words should reflect our high status as God’s image-bearers
Man is made after God’s own image. “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). We may catch glimpses of God in His works, but in man we see God’s very image and likeness.
God’s image in man consists in three things.
(1) In his nature, which was rational. God gave man a rational soul, simple, immortal, free in its choice; indeed, even in the body there were some rays of divine glory and majesty.
(2) In those qualities of “knowledge” (Colossians 3:10), “upright[ness]” (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and “true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
(3) In his state — all inward and outward blessings combined, as he enjoys God, exercises power over creatures, etc.
But this image is defaced and can only be restored in Christ. This was the great privilege of our creation — to be made like God; the more we resemble Him, the more happy we are. Remember your original height. We have the custom of urging people to walk worthy of their origins. Plutarch says of Alexander that he used to strengthen his courage by remembering that he came from the gods. Remember that you were made in the image of God; do not deface it in yourselves, or make it open to contempt by giving others opportunity to revile you.
Our words should not attack God via His image-bearers
We are dissuaded from slandering and speaking evil of others when we consider that they are made in God’s image.
We might ask, How can this be a motive, since the image and likeness of God is defaced and lost by the fall?
The answer is, in part, that James is speaking about new creatures especially, in whom Adam’s loss is repaired and made up again in Christ. “[You] have put on the new man, which is [being] renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10). “Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). God is sensitive about His new creatures; intemperance of tongue against saints is dangerous. Take care what you say: these are Christians, created in God’s image, choice pieces whom God has restored out of the common ruins.
The other part of the answer is that James may be speaking about all people, for there are a few relics of God’s image in everyone. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). There would be no force in this reason if there were nothing of God left in man after sin, albeit much deformed. So this saying in James argues that there still remains in people some resemblance to God, such as the simplicity and immortality of the soul, some moral inclinations (instead of true holiness), ordinary evidences of the nature and will of God (instead of saving knowledge). Although these cannot make us happy, they serve to leave us without excuse. There is also some pre-eminence over other creatures, as we have a mind to know God, being capable of divine illumination and grace.
What is the force of the argument, that we ought not to curse people seeing they are made in God’s image?
For one thing, God has made human beings His deputies to receive love and common respect. Higher respect of trust and worship are to be reserved for God alone, but in other things Christians, even the poorest of them, are Christ’s receivers. “He that despiseth you despiseth me” (Luke 10:16). “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45).
For another thing, God Himself is wronged by the injury done to His image, just as, among us, contempt and spite for the king’s image or coin is taken as done to the king himself. In Matthew 23:18, to swear by the altar, which was the symbol of God’s presence, was to swear by God Himself.
Also, this is the fence God has placed against injury: “For in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). This is referred not to the murderer, as if he had sinned against those common ideas of justice and right in his conscience, but to the victim, who is the image of God. God has honoured this lump of flesh by stamping His own image on him; and who would dare to violate the image of the great King? To speak evil against him is to wrong the image of God. All God’s works are to be looked on and spoken of with reverence, and much more His image.
So then, in your behaviour toward people, let this check any injury or impropriety of speech: this person is in God’s image. Though images are not to be worshipped, yet the image of God is not to be splattered with reproaches, especially if they are new creations: these are vessels of honour. Consider who the sin is against: it is spiting God Himself, because it is done to His work and image. Solomon says, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker” (Proverbs 17:5).
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