"The Tongue Is a Fire": The Symbolic Language of James 3

Charles Swift

Charles Swift, “‘The Tongue Is a Fire’: The Symbolic Language of James 3,” Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 193–209.

Charles Swift is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Though the scriptures contain the revealed word of God, they are not just containers of the word. They are revealers of it through the Holy Spirit. Thus one of the ways in which the scriptures unfold the Lord’s word is through literary qualities that are not on the page to make it more eloquent but to make it all the more meaningful. To study the literary qualities of the Bible does not require us to read it “in the same way that one would look at any other book” and treat it “as a product of the human mind.”[1] We can appreciate how our understanding of literary tools enhances how we receive the meaning of the Bible without discounting its inspired nature in the least. In fact, the writers of scripture often convey God-given doctrine through literary means. When we are willing to accept the text and the message as one, the words become richer and the meaning more powerful. If we apply this principle of scriptural scholarship to the third chapter of the Epistle of James, particularly as seen through the lens of the Restoration, we will find there is much more to what he had to say about how we can and must master our words.

This chapter of James is rife with symbols and metaphorical language. Often we may consider a symbol to be more or less decorative—the symbol is not what the writer intended to say, but it is simply a more attractive way of saying it than merely stating the facts. Such a view is shortsighted and misses the power of the symbol. The noted literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, “Originally, a symbol was a token or counter, like the stub of a theater ticket which is not the performance, but will take us to where the performance is. It still retains the sense of something that may be of limited interest or value in itself, but points in the direction of something that can be approached directly only with its help.”[2] A symbol is not just a prettier way of saying something; it can be essential to understanding. Symbolic language can convey meaning in ways that direct language cannot.

We know from latter-day scriptures the importance of what we say. The Lord cautions us not to use our tongues in sinful ways when He commands us to “not speak evil of [our] neighbor, nor do him any harm” (D&C 42:27). But He also encourages us to use our tongues for righteous purposes: “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men” (D&C 11:21). Significantly, latter-day scripture gives a name for the devil that is very much centered around the image of the tongue: “And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice” (Moses 4:4; emphasis added; see also 2 Nephi 2:18; 9:9; Ether 8:25).

James’s use of symbols in chapter 3 teaches us doctrine in ways too powerful for direct, expository language. He takes advantage of symbolic language to convey the importance of self-discipline in what we say. In fact, the idea that his writing “touches on many of the standard elements in the discussion of human speech by Greek moralists”[3] supports the concept that James was aware of the power of the symbolic language he was using and chose to write in a way that his readers might be familiar with and perhaps find even more persuasive. Instead of instructing us to “be careful of what you say,” in just a few short verses he compares the tongue to eight different things: a bit in a horse’s mouth, a helm of a ship, a fire, a world of iniquity, an evil, a fountain, a fig tree, and a vine. The result is a host of doctrines, principles, and practices that can touch our hearts because of the symbolic language used.

A Little Member

James speaks of the tongue being “a little member” that “boasteth great things” and observes “how great a matter a little fire kindleth” (James 3:5). He uses the imagery of a bit in a horse’s mouth, a ship’s helm, and a fire to illustrate the concept of a small thing bringing about great consequences. Before discussing these three images, however, it is helpful to understand that James’s reference to the idea of small actions causing large results is a doctrine that is clearly taught in latter-day scripture.

Alma wrote that “ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls” (Alma 37:6–7). In these last days the Lord proclaimed that the “weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones . . . that the fulness of [His] gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers” (D&C 1:19, 23). The Lord also counseled His followers to “be not weary in well-doing” since they were “laying the foundation of a great work,” keeping in mind that “out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64: 33).

There is a doctrine of simplicity in latter-day scriptures, teaching us that small things matter. James’s discussion of the tongue and our need to master it rests to a large degree on this doctrine.

A Bit in a Horse’s Mouth

James writes that “if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body” (James 3:2–3; emphasis added). We are the rider of the horse, that part of ourselves that thinks and feels and thereby makes decisions. Our bodies that do and say things are represented by the horse. And our tongues are symbolized by the bits in the horses’ mouths—the little members that make so much difference. In fact, Elder Russell M. Nelson has stated that this idea, that a person who does not offend in word is a perfect man, constitutes “a practical standard by which mortal perfection could be measured.”[4] In the Bible, the horse is often associated with battle, and its characteristics of “aggressiveness and stubbornness” are sometime alluded to in the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Old Testament.[5] Likewise, it is a battle for us to control ourselves and what we say, and if we are to exercise self-discipline, we must learn to reign in our tendencies to be aggressive and stubborn. As Alma told his son, “See that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12).

For James, the ability to control one’s words—in particular, to refrain from saying what should not be said because it is offensive—is a sign of ultimate self-discipline. If we can control our mouths, we can control our entire bodies. Just as we turn the horse’s body through careful use of the bit, we can control our bodies through careful use of our tongue. Obviously the image of controlling our bodies is not literal; we do not make our leg move by using our tongue to tell it to do so. To control our bodies means to control what they say and do and to control the passions, emotions, and decisions that lead us to speak and act as we do. The “whole body” refers to our “moral actions.”[6] Another interpretation of this image of the “whole body” is that it refers to a larger body, such as an organization. Since James is primarily concerned with teachers, we can learn from this verse how teachers have influence over the Church by their teachings or how leaders who are responsible for “the preaching may control the whole group of believers.”[7]

Modern-day prophets have also taught the importance and power of controlling what we say. Elder Dallin H. Oaks wrote: “Members of the Church, young or old, should never allow profane or vulgar words to pass their lips. The language we use projects the images of our hearts, and our hearts should be pure.”[8] There is a correlation between our words and our hearts; we cannot fool ourselves into believing that our hearts are pure when our language is not. Though intent is certainly important, it is not only intent that matters—it also matters what we actually say. Our words have power. “There is so much of argument in the homes of the people,” President Gordon B. Hinckley said. “It is so destructive. It is so corrosive. It leads only to bitterness, heartbreak, and tears. How well advised we would be, each of us, when there is tension, when there is friction, when there is affliction, to speak with consoling words in the spirit of meekness.”[9]

Latter-day scripture also teaches the truth of James’s words. King Benjamin taught in the Book of Mormon the necessity of being careful about the words we speak if we desire to not perish. “But this much I can tell you,” he said, “that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:30; emphasis added).

The Helm of a Ship

In his discussion of the tongue as a little member, James also utilizes the imagery of a ship’s helm. “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth” (James 3:4). In this analogy, our minds can be seen as the governors (a more accurate translation from the Greek would be “helmsman” or “pilot”), our bodies as the ships, and our tongues as the helms.

This idea of seeing ourselves as ships is not simply a poetic way of talking about our need to control our tongue. The image of a journey is used in scripture as a symbol of our mortal journey towards the promised land of eternal life. For example, there are allusions to sailing by ship in Mormon’s commentary that “we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—and land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven” (Helaman 3:29–30; emphasis added). Along similar symbolic lines, the various journeys by boat in the Book of Mormon, such as when Lehi and his family crossed the ocean to their promised land (see 1 Nephi 18) and when the Jaredites crossed in unique ships to theirs (see Ether 6), can be seen as not only accounts of actual historical events but also as types of the voyage of mortality we must all take.

By contrast, we learn from the Book of Mormon what happens to a ship without a helm. Mormon teaches us that those who follow Satan are “as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her” (Mormon 5:18; emphasis added). What is the fate of a ship without sail, anchor, or helm? Though it may have the appearance from a distance of complete freedom, there is no question that this ship will ultimately end in destruction. Such a vessel cannot be tossed about upon the waves for long without crashing against the rocks or taking on water and sinking. (The Jaredite barges were an exception. They made it to the promised land without sail, anchor, or helm because the Lord guided them through the winds and the waves to the promised land.) As the Prophet Joseph was inspired to write, “A very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves” (D&C 123:16).

In light of what we can learn from this symbolic language in the Book of Mormon, we can more fully appreciate what James has to teach about the tongue being the helm of our personal ship. This is not simply a matter of being careful of what we say, but what we say has much to do with how we fare on this mortal voyage. James is not writing of mere words, but of the power of what we say and its influence on our lives. How we use this power is not only a reflection of ourselves on an individual basis but also upon society in general. As Elder Oaks teaches, “The nature and extent of profanity and vulgarity in our society is a measure of its deterioration.”[10]

Another understanding of this ship imagery is achieved when considering the idea that “for the early Christians a vessel was a favorite symbol of the church. . . . The meaning of this passage becomes clear if it is recognized that the ship represents the church, and the rudder, which actually resembles a tongue, corresponds to the proclamation of the message within the congregation.”[11] Once again this works well with the two contexts of James’s chapter we have discussed: teachers in the Church and those seeking dominion. President Hinckley spoke of “the importance of keeping the doctrine of the Church pure, and seeing that it is taught in all of our meetings. . . . Small aberrations in doctrinal teaching can lead to large and evil falsehoods.”[12]

A Fire and a World of Iniquity

James writes about “how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (James 3:5–6). Perhaps it is helpful to read another translation of these same verses. “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” (New International Version). The image of fire is an archetype—a symbol that is recurrent in a “wide variety of works of literature.”[13] Such symbols “are images of things common to all men, and therefore have a communicable power which is potentially unlimited.”[14]

Fire can serve as a positive archetype of illumination or purification and as a negative image of destruction and torture.[15] Latter-day scripture uses fire in each way. For example, the “brightness” of the “justice of God” is “like unto the brightness of a flaming fire, which ascendeth up unto God forever and ever, and hath no end” (1 Nephi 15:30). And frequently latter-day scriptures speak of the Holy Spirit in terms of fire (see for example, 2 Nephi 31:13–14, 17; D&C 19:31). However, the image of fire is also used in latter-day scriptures to indicate something negative, such as the eternal consequences of being wicked illustrated by the phrase “fire and brimstone” (see 2 Nephi 9:16, 26, 29; D&C 63:17), some expression of “unquenchable” and “everlasting” fire (see Mosiah 2:38; D&C 76:44), or the threat of being “cast into the fire” (see Alma 5:35, 56; D&C 97:7).

Though small, the tongue and its power for evil is so large that James calls it a “world of iniquity” that has power to change a person’s entire life for the worse. The fire of the tongue comes from hell, the dwelling place of the devil. As we take a closer look at James’s imagery in these verses of chapter three, we can gain a greater appreciation for what harm the tongue is capable of. The word “course” in verse six could also be translated as “wheel” and could “refer to any number of literally wheel-shaped things.”[16] One scholar understands this image to refer to the “‘wheel of being,’ which signifies existence. The strange expression calls to mind the cyclic theories of human existence commonly associated with Indian and other Oriental philosophies. But the author was probably more dependent on Stoic ideas concerning different aeons of the world and the destruction of the universe in fire. . . . Thus the tongue is regarded as the instrument by which the great world fire is kindled and spread.”[17] Whether James was inspired to write with imagery that was rooted in Stoic ideas is not the point here, nor does such a possibility lessen to any degree the role of inspiration in his writing. What it does indicate, however, is that James may have been using language in a literary way that would convey to readers, particularly of his day, the notion that the tongue is powerful enough to destroy the world itself.

An Evil

In leading up to his calling the tongue an “evil,” James draws on our feelings about and experiences with animals to help convey the difficulty involved in trying to tame our tongues. “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7–8). Like fire, animals as archetypes have both positive and negative connotations. Such images as a flock of sheep, a lamb, a dove, and any animal that is friendly to people make us feel good about the subject being written about, while images of beasts of prey, snakes, vultures, and any animal that is considered harmful to people bring up negative feelings.[18] Because James writes of how the animals he mentions are tamed, the images are more on the negative side of the archetypal interpretation because of the implication that the animals were wild in the first place and that people needed to gain some sort of control over them. By referring to such creatures as tamable and claiming that the tongue is not, James utilizes imagery that strengthens his argument. We can picture images of lions or snakes or whales and imagine how difficult it is to tame them, yet the author tells us it can be done. Unlike such wild creatures, however, the tongue cannot be tamed.

Though he implies that the tongue is another beast, he does not actually call it that in this passage. Instead, he gives it an unusual name by calling it an “unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” The image would be more straightforward if he were to call it an “unruly beast,” and there is certainly that implied meaning, but more important is the use of the word “evil.” Is the tongue simply an evil beast of some sort, one that is poisonous and therefore dangerous to humankind? Poison is certainly an archetype used throughout literature to convey negative meaning,[19] being undesirable and even dangerous. By not identifying which creature the tongue is being compared to, the image in our minds can be even more threatening, creating any kind of monster that we can think of that is both impossible to tame and dangerous—in fact, deadly. The image of an “unruly evil” intensifies, however, when we realize that it does not have to be any beast or fowl or serpent or fish at all. With this interpretation of the metaphor for the tongue, our imagination has no bounds. All we know is that the tongue is some sort of evil that is deadly. Whatever shape it may take in our minds, whatever characteristics it may manifest—even to the point of being invisible and unidentifiable, making it seem to be completely impossible to defend ourselves against—we know that there is nothing good about it and that it can kill us.

The image of deadly poison might be read as another example of hyperbole, but modern scripture helps us understand that it can also be taken quite literally. Poison is harmful for everyone—both the person who administers it and the one who might receive it. Similarly, harmful words can hurt not only those to whom they are directed but also the speaker as well. As President Hinckley has taught, “Foul talk defiles the man who speaks it.”[20] The tongue can kill us, especially if we think in terms of spiritual death. The Lord cautions us to beware how we take His name upon our lips (see D&C 63:61). Amalickiah used his tongue to “curse God, and also Moroni, swearing with an oath that he would drink his blood” (Alma 49:27). Those who joined secret combinations swore to keep their secrets, even “swearing by their everlasting Maker” (Helaman 1:11). Wicked Nephites cursed God and wished to die (see Mormon 2:14). In fact, the Lord warns the wicked that they “shall lift up their voices and curse God and die” (D&C 45:32).

A Fountain, Fig Tree, and Vine

James teaches us to avoid speaking evil, but only let good come from our mouths. We should not hypocritically bless God and then curse people—His children who were made in His image. “Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Does a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” (James 3:9–12).

“Fountain” as used in the Bible basically means a “source of water”; a number of Hebrew and Greek words that are often translated into “fountain” in English are also translated “well” or “spring.” “The word fountain, like well and especially spring, is associated with the general biblical image of water as life. Since the fountain more precisely indicates the source or origin of water, its figurative use often means source of life.”[21] As an archetype, the image of a fountain is usually considered to be positive, while negative images of water tend to be such things as the sea and “stagnant pools (including the Dead Sea and cisterns).”[22] One of the best examples of this potential for either a positive or negative meaning attached to the image of a fountain is found in the vision of the tree of life in the Book of Mormon. In that vision we find two different fountains.[23] On the negative side, Lehi sees that “many [people] were drowned in the depths of the fountain” (1 Nephi 8:32), and an angel explains to Nephi that the depths of “the fountain of filthy water” which Lehi saw, “even the river of which he spake,” represented “the depths of hell” (1 Nephi 12:16). Such filthy water as an archetype “traditionally belongs to a realm of existence below human life, the state of chaos or dissolution which follows ordinary death, or the reduction to the inorganic. Hence the soul frequently crosses water or sinks into it at death.”[24] However, on the positive side is a different fountain. Nephi understands that “the rod of iron . . . led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25). As an archetype, such water is symbolic of “purification, regeneration, and birth.”[25]

The image of the fountain can be found in a number of places in latter-day scripture. Nephi writes that when Lehi “saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” (1 Nephi 2:9). Alma hides in a place called Mormon, in which there is “a fountain of pure water” and where he baptizes a number of people in “the waters of Mormon” (Mosiah 18:5, 8). The land of the Hill Cumorah is “a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (Mormon 6:4). And, most important, the Lord is referred to as “the fountain of all righteousness” (1 Nephi 2:9; Ether 8:26, 12:28).

Once again, James chooses an image with much more meaning than might first be considered. What we say is so connected to what life we live that we cannot say bad things and yet live a good life. Our tongue, like a fountain, can be seen as a source of life and a sign of what kind of life we live.

Both the fig tree and the vine are symbols “for God in covenant relation to his people.”[26] While James’s analogy certainly works on a literal level (fig trees do not produce olives and neither do vines bring forth figs), the analogies convey the deeper message through their symbolic meaning: just as God in His covenant relationship with His people does not bring forth anything that is evil, so should we, as the covenant people, not bring forth evil in what we say.

Of course, if we are to look at what James writes in a very literal fashion, we can say both good things and evil—James himself admits this in the tenth verse. He does not say that this cannot be, but that it ought not be. By using images that are impossible—a fig tree bearing olives, a vine bearing figs, and a fountain yielding both salt and fresh water—James strengthens his message about how our language should be. Disciples of Christ ought to be so committed to the Lord and His teachings that to speak in ways that are out of harmony with those teachings should be like things that are impossible. In fact, while it is possible for a man to speak both “blessing and cursing,” it is not possible for a disciple to do so. To speak such cursing is to no longer be a disciple in the fullest meaning of the word. We can turn to latter-day scripture for a clear interpretation of the imagery of the fountain: “For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil” (Moroni 7:11).


Latter-day scriptures and teachings help us better understand James’s wise counsel concerning how we should speak as disciples of Christ. This latter-day knowledge, combined with a careful study and appreciation for the power of symbolic language, deepens our comprehension of these great words that can guide us away from the potential harm of that fire that is the tongue.


[1] John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler, and Anthony D. York, The Bible as Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1.

[2] Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 109.

[3] James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), 1275.

[4] Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, November 1995, 86.

[5] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 400–401.

[6] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 256–57.

[7] Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 37.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, “Reverent and Clean,” Ensign, May 1986, 51; emphasis added.

[9] Gordon B. Hinckley, “‘If Thou Art Faithful’,” Ensign, November 1984, 91; emphasis added.

[10] Oaks, “Reverent and Clean,” 49.

[11] Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, 37–38.

[12] Gordon B. Hinckley, General Authority Training Meeting, October 1, 1996; quoted in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 620

[13] M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009), 15.

[14] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 118.

[15] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 27–28.

[16] Johnson, The Letter of James, 260.

[17] Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, 38.

[18] Ryken, Words of Delight, 26, 27.

[19] Ryken, Words of Delight, 28.

[20] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Take Not the Name of God in Vain,” Ensign, November 1987, 47.

[21] Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 307.

[22] Ryken, Words of Delight, 26, 27.

[23] C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 93.

[24] Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 146.

[25] Arnold Whittick, Symbols, Signs, and Their Meaning (London: Leonard Hill, 1960), 291.

[26] Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 283.