“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Many philosophers have said many things about holding your tongue and watching what you say. Among my favorites is Thumper: “If you can’t say some’tin nice… don’t say nothin’ at all.” Then there’s: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.” (Variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Samuel Johnson). And finally: “That mouth of yours is going to get you in big trouble some day!” (Spoken by countless mothers and fathers throughout history).
Controlling the tongue is neither simple nor easy. It is not simply a peripheral issue on the edges of Christian life, but it is the key to controlling the whole self. Someone who is careful with their words and has learned to exercise self-control has earned the privilege to be listened to.
Although the tongue is just a three-inch muscle, wet, floppy, and only partially visible, it is tremendously powerful. To underscore this point, James gives us a few examples of little things that have bigger effects. One of them is the bits we put in the mouths of horses. That little piece of steel in a horse’s mouth, when managed properly, can control a huge animal. The rudder on a ship, that little shaped plank, mostly invisible beneath the waterline enables a captain to pilot an immense vessel. A third example is a spark in the forest. Under control, a spark can make a small fire to warm cold travelers and cook their food. Out of control, a spark can ignite an inferno that devours thousands of acres of woodlands.
Learning how to control your tongue is important, not only to avoid hurting other people emotionally and spiritually, but also to protect yourself. An uncontrolled tongue can turn on you, corrupting the whole person, poisoning your mind, and bringing your body down to the fires of hell (James 3:7).
Talk is not cheap. Words do wound. Words can build up or destroy a person’s self-confidence. Words can turn someone’s proud achievement into humiliation. Words can create or destroy relationships. Words can spread hate or love. Words can sow truth or plant lies. Words can cast suspicion or build trust.
Words are also God’s means to rescue people from hell. A sermon, a Bible study, or an evangelism visit over coffee all look tame and ineffectual. But God’s power to save people, to create and sustain saving faith, rides with words.
Commenting on our text, August Pieper writes: “Concretely then, the tongue taught of God is the tongue of the prophet, preacher, teacher, a tongue that has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The Servant is speaking of His endowment for His prophetic office… His mouth is a sharp sword, a polished arrow, shaped by the Holy Spirit. He proclaims the mysteries of God with the tongue of a master, and therefore with the power of God to convert… His words are spirit and life.”[i]
It is vital for Christians, and especially for us who speak in the Church’s name, to let God’s Word control our words. People hate hypocrisy. “Double-minded” Christians praising God and cursing one another, drive people away from the Savior. That is why James is particularly hard on those who would be pastors: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
Christ has placed a very particular message on the tongues of His preachers. He has sent pastors to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name, teaching the baptized to obey everything He has commanded. There is no room for preachers who seek to replace the Word of Jesus with their own agendas, ambitions, or ideas. Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life and no one gets to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).
Let’s be honest: When it comes to taming and teaching the tongue, we have all failed. Not once of us is innocent—no one, not you, not me. And to drive home this point, James reminds us of what we are all too capable of doing: we can sit here in the Divine Service, praising our God in heaven, and then the next moment with the very same tongue, can utter such lies and filth about others.
St. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). James would agree wholeheartedly. His proof is the tongue. Ours are tongues that cannot be tamed. Sure, we try. We put our mind to fixing the problem. After all, we are children of God. Such a fiery tongue is not befitting us. Wouldn’t God want us to tame it so that it speaks only words that glorify Him? Sure, He would. He does. But the harder we try, it seems, the worse we do. St. James adds insult to injury when he writes: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (v 2b).
But I am not a perfect man. Neither my tongue nor my body is bridled. To borrow more words from St. Paul: “Wretched man than I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
So, is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation? Well, in a way, yes, and in another, no. The battle will go on for each of us. But the words of the Epistle point us toward the victory that is ours. Listen again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2b). And here is the good news of God’s grace toward sinners such as you and me: the Perfect Man.
In Isaiah, this Perfect Man speaks to us. He says, “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; He awakens My ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4).
Just who is speaking here? This is the Servant of the Lord, whom Isaiah had introduced in chapter 42:1 as someone who was anointed with God’s Spirit. When He appeared next, He spoke and announced that Yahweh had given Him a mouth like a sharp sword (49:2). In this passage, the Servant of the Lord clarifies what He means by that: “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of those who are taught.”
Part of the Servant’s ministry will be to proclaim God’s Word. How can we be certain that the words this Servant speaks come from God? The Servant obediently listens. “Morning by morning,” that is, again and again, the Servant gives the Lord’s Word His attention. But He does not just listen to the Word and then forget the words of God, He willingly submits to the Word of God. He knows what the Lord wants, and He obeys perfectly.
And for this, the Servant suffers. For this Servant, obedience means that He will be beaten and humiliated. He will give His back to those who strike Him. He will be whipped. He will give His cheeks to those who would tear out His beard. Such treatment is a disgrace and humiliation, but the Servant will willingly allow it to take place because of His obedience to the Word of the Lord. His willing obedience will be evident in the way He endures reproach and spitting.
The Servant who speaks in this passage must be a special individual sent by God Himself to carry out a mission that will involve proclaiming the truth of God’s Word , as well as enduring such suffering and disgrace. He must be the Great Prophet promised (Deuteronomy 28:17-18) and the Great High Priest, who will offer up Himself as a sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:6-12). We know, of course, that He is Jesus the Christ, pictured here in prophecy.
The truth of this identification becomes clearer the more we learn about this Servant in the next verses. The suffering of the Servant is necessary. It is a part of God’s plan, which the Servant learns from the Lord God Himself. The Servant also learns that the Lord will not desert Him. This idea runs through these Servant passages like a golden thread. We are told, “He will not grow faint or be discouraged” (Isaiah 42:4). Then when the Servant Himself appears to labor for no purpose, He says, “yet surely My right is with the Lord, and My recompense with My God” (Isaiah 49:4). Now He says, “I have not been disgraced” (Isaiah 50:7). He will indeed suffer to accomplish His mission. Therefore, the Servant resolutely faces His suffering: “I have set My face like a flint.”
Hearing these words, I cannot help but recall how resolutely Jesus sets His face as He journeyed to Jerusalem to suffer and die (Luke 9:51). He tells His disciples what will happen there, but the prospect of pain and death does not deter Him (e.g., Matthew 16:21; 20:17-19). From the anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus arises to face those who had come to arrest Him. He willingly obeys the Father and gives Himself up to those who would inflict pain.
There is a note of defiance in Servant’s words here. He will endure pain and suffering, but He will remain convinced that He is doing the will of the Lord and that the Lord will vindicate Him. That knowledge will enable the Servant to defy His accusers. He asks, “Who will contend with Me? Let us stand up together. Who is My adversary? Let him come near to Me” (Isaiah 50:8). The Servant is innocent of any sin. The accusations against Him are intended to condemn Him, but they are all nothing more than a moth-eaten garment, fit only to be discarded with the trash.
So, we hear these passages with Jesus in mind. Consider His words to Annas: “Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:21). Facing the mob, Jesus says: “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture Me? Day after day I sat in the temple, teaching, and you did not seize Me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:55-56).
What does this Servant passage mean to the people of Israel and to the world, to you and me? The Lord has graciously promised deliverance from sin, death, and hell. As God’s prophet Isaiah—yes, all of Scripture tells us, the Lord will fulfill His promise through His Servant. Because we are all sinners, we must have this deliverance from the hand of the Lord of grace. Before God, all humans stand in absolute terror of the punishment we deserve because of our sins. But the faithful and gracious Lord declares all sins not guilty because of this great Servant.
Believers possess deep respect and awe for the Lord; therefore, we listen to His Word. We become especially interested in the Word of this Servant, the One with a tongue that is taught, whom the Lord has sent. Those who show appropriate fear of the Lord prove it by giving ear to the Word of His great Suffering Servant. All who fear the Lord and trust in the Word of the Lord’s Servant will find deliverance, forgiveness, and life.
There is one who is the Perfect Man. There is One who bridles His tongue and bridles His whole body. There is one who lives the perfect life that you and I cannot live. There is One who deserves none of what He receives at the hands of those who hang Him on the cross but suffer every moment as He bears the burden of our sinful tongues.
That perfect One, our Savior Jesus Christ, lives and dies and rises exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). He bridles His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us. So, we need not “give up,” not in the sense of living in despair or guilt. Instead, we live as children of our heavenly Father. We live as those given the inheritance of the only Son of God, who was silent on our behalf.
In the waters of Holy Baptism, that fire that burns from your tongue was extinguished. The Word of God that fills your mind and heart with pure truth from God. That Word replaces all the “other words” and gives your tongue something righteous to speak. As you receive the body and blood of Christ on your tongue, the wounds inflicted on you by the things you say and are said against you are healed. God’s grace is a saving flood that not even the fires of hell can stand against. And what you are helpless against on your own, you conquer in Christ Jesus. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] August Pieper, Isaiah II, Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, p.389.