This psalm stands in the Jewish wisdom tradition by condemning the lawless and slandering tongue. The writer uses the adjective παράνομος, a word appearing in the LXX some 73 times, most often in wisdom literature. In Proverbs 3:32, for example, every lawbreaker is impure before the Lord. The writers of the Psalms of Solomon use the word eleven times (see 4:19 for example, may “the bones of the lawless before the sun in dishonor,” a phrase repeated in 12:4). This is not some breach of a pharisaical tradition. The only appearance of the word in the Septuagint translation of the Torah is Deuteronomy 13:14, the lawless who entice people to commit idolatry. In Judges 20:13 it describes the men who raped and killed the Levite’s concubine. It is the kind of rebellion which must be uprooted and cut off from the land (Prov 2:22).

In this psalm, the lawless are known by the way they speak (12:2-3). Their words are “in diversity of twisting” (Lexham LXX). A visit from the lawless one will fill a home with a false tongue. The speech of this person is like a fire which scorches beauty. With glee the lawless one will burn down your house through their lies.

The tongue is often compared to fire in wisdom literature (Ps. 120:3; Prov. 16:27; 26:21; Isaiah 30:27; Sirach 28:12-26).

Psalm 120:3 (ESV) What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?

Proverbs 16:27 (ESV)  A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.

Sirach 28:12–12 (NRSV) If you blow on a spark, it will glow; if you spit on it, it will be put out; yet both come out of your mouth. Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many.

Like James 3:5-6, the tongue is compared to a fire which “scorches beauty” (PsSol 12:2). James and Psalms of Solomon both use the verb φλογίζω. This verb is rare in the LXX, but it has the sense of intentionally setting a fire to destroy something. For example, in 1 Maccabees 3:5, Judas searched out people who broke the Law and “he burned those who troubled his people.” Although most Americans know about how a careless fire can burn thousands of acres, James may have in mind a pyre, wood stacked to make burn quickly (the NEB has “a huge stack of timber” (see Sophie Laws, James, 147).

Rolling Stones TongueAlthough the psalmist began by calling on God to save him from these lawless people, in verses 4-6 he turns to cursing the slanderous and blessing the “quiet person who hates injustice.” He prays that the bones of the lawless be scattered far from those who fear the Lord. Denying someone a proper burial is the ultimate dishonor. He asks God to destroy the slanderous tongue in “flaming fire far from the devout.”  The phrase flaming fire (πυρὶ φλογὸς) appears in 2 Thessalonians 1:8: when the Lord returns with his mighty angels he will inflict vengeance on the ones who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with “flaming fire.”

Once again, this is not far from James 3. James says the tongue starts a fire that sets the course of one’s life. Like a bit or a rudder, misuse of one’s words steers a life one direction or another. Think of a “white like” which requires increasingly more complex lies to cover the first lie. Many political scandals are a series of cover-ups of an initial lie. For James, the person to starts out speaking foolishly will have their live altered by that lie in ways that cannot image. In fact, the tongue can start a fire that is stoked by the fires of Hell. That new trajectory for one’s life leads to Gehenna! Like Psalm of Solomon 12:4, the slanderous speech of the lawless one will result in “flaming fire.”

But the psalmist blesses the quiet person who lives peacefully at home. Paul also describes the ideal Christian life as living quiet, peaceful lives in 1 Thessalonians 5:13-14, 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4. James 3:17–18 includes peacemaking among seven virtues which characterize the righteous. For the psalmist, the righteous are those who “hate injustice (12:5), similar to Psalm of Solomon 5. When I commented on that Psalm I drew the analogy to the sort of “religion God accepts” based on James 1:27. James and Paul both stand within the same stream of Second Temple Jewish wisdom literature as Psalms of Solomon 12 by contrasting a life of wisdom (quiet, peaceful, respectful) with the slanderous unthinking speech of the lawless ones.