“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.“ (James 3:5-6, NIV)
As a small spark grows into a raging fire, the tongue has the power to set our whole life aflame. And James gives us a more poignant, one word description: Hell.
The significance of this illustration is often lost on the 21st century reader of Scripture. For you and me, “hell” conjures notions of The Far Side comic with cartoonish devils complete with pointy tails, pitchforks, and cloven hooves.
The usual Greek word for Hell is Hades. But here, James uses the Hebrew word Gehenna. James’ Jewish-Christian readers would have recognized the significance of the word Gehenna immediately. The term has an ugly history. In ancient Jerusalem, there was a valley outside of the walls of the city called Henna (or sometimes Hennom). When Jerusalem was sacked by pagans, these invaders performed child sacrifices to their pagan gods in this valley. Later, when the Jews took Jerusalem back, they always remembered Gehenna, as it was called, to be a place of evil.
People refused to live there and it became the city dump. They would throw their garbage there where it would burn and stink. The valley took on an almost mythological image for people in Jerusalem. It was thought to be haunted or cursed. Over time, the term Gehenna became descriptive of hell – the place in the afterlife to which the wicked are damned. A place of unspeakable atrocity, of filth and stench. A cursed place. A place where fires burned forever.
If I don’t learn to tame the tongue, James is warning, my life will go to hell in a handbasket. Or more descriptively, James would tell me that my life will become like a dump – constant burning, constant stinking – a place of isolation. A living hell. Your tongue can make life hell for you! Maybe you’ve discovered that on your own.
But the good news is that the tongue is a wonderful creation of God, imbued with a noble purpose. If you’re interested in finding that purpose and unlocking it – if you’re interested in taming that fire – join us Sunday as we study James 3:1-12 together. We can control our tongues!
Hope to see you then!