What is the meaning of James 1:19-20? At first glance we see a verse about listening more, speaking less, and being slow with anger. But you might be surprised to learn there’s something deeper in these verses.
James 1:19-20 states, “19 [u]This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Commentary on James 1:19-20
If Christians strive to honor God more daily, then a part of that should include honoring Him in all of our interactions with people. For example, I try to make it a habit not to speak until someone is finished with what they’re saying. In addition, I attempt to react with less anger if I hear something that gives me a feeling of immediate disapproval. As a result, it perhaps helps us to feel more peaceful in life. Maybe it helps us to be better at communicating with others. And an added bonus, most people tend to really like people who let them talk more. Other Bible verses express a similar sentiment to James 1:19-20.
Proverbs 10:19 “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,
But he who restrains his lips is wise.”
Proverbs 14:29 “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.” (interestingly the next verse after that stated, “A tranquil heart is life to the body, But passion is rottenness to the bones.”)
Proverbs 17:27 “He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.“
The meaning of James 1:19-20
But let’s dig deeper into the context of James 1:19-20. Prior to this verse James was stressing that good things and perfect gifts come from God. We were made firstfruits among His creatures by the Word of Truth.
James 1:17-18 states, “17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or [r]shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be [s]a kind of first fruits [t]among His creatures.” The verses after James 1:19-20 mention putting aside filthiness, wickedness, and receiving the word with humility. James 1:21-22 states, “21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all [v]that remains of wickedness, in [w]humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
So we see filthiness, wickedness, and a lack of humility receiving the Word tied with being quick to speak, quick to anger, and slow to listening.
Because if you’re not being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow anger, you’re not being a doer of the Word. And James expresses that the effectual doers of the Word will be blessed in what they do. James 1:25 states, “25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but [z]an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in [aa]what he does.”
So in not listening diligently, speaking less, and controlling our anger the way God wants us to, we hinder our own blessings in life, and we don’t reflect the rightousness of God. Additionally, James makes a final emphasis on this point by expressing that one’s religion is worthless if they can’t bridle their tongue. James 1:26-27 states, “26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not [ab]bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained [ac]by the world.”
He contrasts an unbridled tongue with visiting widows and orphans in distress, and not being stained by the world. I kind of wonder if not being stained and controlling the tongue connects back to the word filthiness earlier in James 1:21. And if that would connect with what’s stated in Ephesians 5:4 which states, “And there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”
Repeating what James 1:21 states, “21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all [a]that remains of wickedness, in [b]humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” So the Greek word I found that’s used for filthiness in James 1:21 is Rhyparia. And Rhyparia means wickedness as moral defilement, dirtiness, or to dishonor. In following with that meaning, perhaps we’re to avoid speaking words in a way that’s dishonoring and wicked towards others. When you think about it, that tends to be the things that come out of our mouth when we let anger control our tongue first. And I believe all of this reflects the meaning of James 1:19-20.
So I write this commentary to encourage you all to be more careful in your anger, patient in your speaking, and diligent in your listening. Because this results in us being more blessed in life, and reflecting more righteousness that pleases God.
Peace to you all in Christ.