“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: through they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” ~ James 3:3-5a
Explanation of the Text: As a way to emphasize the lack of effort it takes to sin through speech, James employs the use of two well-known cultural examples of the day. The first is the visualization of a bit controlling a horse. Even the most unmanageable and untamable horses can be broken by the insertion of a bit. Although a small piece of equipment, once placed on a horse, the rider can use it to control the horse. The second example is a rudder controlling a ship. Although a very small part of the ship, a rudder is used to guide the ship across thousands of miles of ocean. Whether it be calm seas or strong storms, the same small part is used to guide the ship to its destination.
James concludes these two examples with the summation that even the tongue, which is a small part of the body, also boasts of great things. “Like the bit for the horse and the rudder for the ship, the tongue is small in relation to the body and yet has powerful potential to achieve great results, both good and bad. It can stir up violence or promote peace. It can crush the spirit or soothe the discouraged. If the tongue could personally express itself, it could legitimately boast of its great exploits.”
Examination & Application of the Text: Simply put, the best application of this text is to control the tongue. However, as we have learned through James’ exposition about the tongue, this is no easy task. If it were, there would be no need to devote time to instruct believers about the sin that results from the tongue. The first principle in conquering the tongue must be to read and meditate on the Word of God every day. Out of the mouth flows the heart of man, therefore, as you write God’s Word on your heart, it will be what fills your mouth. The second principle is to rely on God’s strength to conquer the use of the tongue. As weak individuals, nothing can be done apart from Him. Finally, in the even that you have sinned with your tongue, ask forgiveness both from the individual(s) AND God for the offense.
 Thomas D. Lea, Hebrews, James, vol. 10, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 303.