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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
James 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

(1) James, a servant (or slave, or bond-servant) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.—Bound to Him, i.e., in devotion and love. In like manner, St. Paul (Romans 1:1, et seq.), St. Peter (2 Peter 1:1), and St. Jude brother of James (James 1:1), begin their Letters. The writer of this has been identified (see Introduction, ante, p. 352) with James the Just, first bishop of Jerusalem, the brother of our Lord.

To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.—Or, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To these remnants of the house of Israel, whose “casting away” (Romans 11:15) was leading to the “reconciling of the world;” whose “fall” had been the cause of its “riches;” “and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles” (James 1:12). Scattered abroad indeed they were, “a by-word among all nations” (Deuteronomy 28:37), “a curse and an astonishment” (Jeremiah 29:18) wherever the Lord had driven them. But there is something figurative, and perhaps prophetic, in the number twelve. Strictly speaking, at the time this Epistle was written, Judah and Benjamin, in great measure, were returned to the Holy Land from their captivity, though numbers of both tribes were living in various parts of the world, chiefly engaged, as at the present day, in commerce. The remaining ten had lost their tribal distinctions, and have now perished from all historical record, though it is still one of the fancies of certain writers, rather pious than learned, to discover traces of them in the aborigines of America, Polynesia, and almost every where else; most ethnologically improbable of all, in the Teutonic nations, and our own families thereof. But long before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, and even the preaching of Christianity, Jewish colonists were found in Europe as well as Asia. “Even where they suffered most, through their own turbulent disposition, or the enmity of their neighbours, they sprang again from the same undying stock, however it might be hewn by the sword or seared by the fire. Massacre seemed to have no effect in thinning their ranks, and, like their forefathers in Egypt, they still multiplied under the most cruel oppression.” (See Milman’s History of the Jews, vol. i., p. 449, et seq.) While the Temple stood these scattered settlements were colonies of a nation, bound together by varied ties and sympathies, but ruled in the East by a Rabbi called the Prince of the Captivity, and in the West by the Patriarch of Tiberias, who, curiously, had his seat in that Gentile city of Palestine. The fall of Jerusalem, and the end therewith of national existence, rather added to than detracted from the authority of these strange governments; the latter ceased only in the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, while the former continued, it is said, in the royal line of David, until the close of the eleventh century, after which the dominion passed wholly into the hands of the Rabbinical aristocracy, from whom it has come down to the present day. The phrase “in the dispersion” was common in the time or our Lord; the Jews wondered whether He would “go unto the dispersion amongst the Gentiles” (John 7:35, and see Note there).


Verse 2

(2) Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.—Better, Account it all joy whenever ye fall into divers temptations—i.e., trials; but even with this more exact rendering of the text, how can we, poor frail creatures of earth, it may well be asked, feel any joy under such? Do we not pray in our Saviour’s words, “Lead us not into temptation”? (See Matthew 6:13, and Note there.) Yet a little consideration will open out the teaching of Holy Scripture very plainly. The Apostle here is following the same line of thought as that expressed in Hebrews 5:14. By use (or habit, more properly) our senses may be exercised to the discernment of good and evil. The grace of God given to the soul is capable of growth and enlargement, like the powers of body and mind. If either be unemployed, weakness must supervene, and eventually decay and death. And just as the veteran who has proved his armour well, and learned to face habitual danger as a duty, is more trustworthy than a raw recruit, however large of limb and stout of heart, so with the Christian soldier. He must learn to “endure hardness” (2 Timothy 2:3), and bear meekly and even gladly all the trials which are to strengthen him for the holy war. Innocence is a grace indeed, and yet there is a higher stage of the same virtue, viz., the purity which has been won by long and often bitter conflict with the thousand suggestions of evil from without, stirring up the natural impurity within. Temptation is not sin. “You cannot,” says the old German divine, “prevent the birds flying over your head, but you can from making nests in your hair;” and the soul victorious over some such trying onset is by that very triumph stronger and better able to undergo the next assault, The act of virtue has, in truth, helped to build up the habit, from which, when it is perfected, a happy life cannot fail to spring. The interpretation of our Lord’s prayer is rather the cry for help to God our Father in the trial, than for actual escape from it: Lead us not, i.e., where we in our free will may choose the wrong and perish. And there is a strangely sweet joy to be snatched from the most grievous temptation in the remembrance that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).


Verses 2-27

(2-27) Immediately after the salutation, and with more or less a play upon the word which we translate “greeting” (“rejoice,” James 1:1; “count it all joy,” James 1:2) there follow appeals on behalf of patience, endurance. and meekness.


Verse 3

(3) Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.—And this verse confirms our view of the preceding one; the habit of patience is to be the blessed result of all the weary effort under God’s probation. James the Wise had learned it long and painfully, and he returns to his exhortation of it again, especially in James 5:7-11 (which see).


Verse 4

(4) Let patience have her perfect work.—Do not think the grace will come to its full beauty in an hour. Emotion and sentiment may have their place in the beginning of a Christian career, but the end thereof is not yet. Until the soul be quite unmoved by any attack of Satan, the work cannot be deemed “perfect.” The doctrine is not mere quietism, much less one of apathy, but rather this, that the conscious strength of patient trust in God is able to say at all times (comp. Psalms 63:8)—

“My soul hath followed hard on Thee;

Thy right hand hath upholden me.”

And if in this patience we can learn to possess our souls (Luke 21:19) the perfect work of God will be wrought within us.

That ye may be perfect and entire (or, complete).—A special proof herein for religious people may be taken with regard to temper. Few trials are harder; and sweetness of disposition often melts away from physical causes, such as ill-health or fatigue. But the great test remains; and it is one which the world will ever apply with scorn to the nominally Christian, refusing to admit the claims of saintliness on the part of any whose religion is not of the household as well as the Church. The entirety and completeness of the life hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) are manifested most by self-restraint.

Wanting nothing.—The older version, “lacking,” found in Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Genevan Bible seems decidedly better. Here is no wish that the faithful should be free from care, heeding nothing; but rather that their whole lives might be without fault or flaw: a perfect sacrifice, as it were, offered up to God. And this idea is confirmed by reflecting on the original meaning of the word translated “entire” above in the Authorised version=complete, i.e., as an offering, with no blemish.


Verse 5

Verse 6

(6) But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.—Surely this verse alone would redeem the Apostle from the charge of slighting the claims of faith. It is here put in the very forefront of necessity; without it all prayer is useless. And mark the addition—

Nothing wavering.—Or, doubting nothing: reechoing the words of our Saviour to the wondering disciples, as they gazed at the withered fig-tree on the road to Bethany (Matthew 21:21). This “doubting” is the halting between belief and unbelief, with inclination towards the latter. But it may be asked by some one, whence and how is an unhesitating faith to be gained? And the reply to this will solve all similar questions: faith, in its first sense, is the direct gift of God; but it must be tended and used with love and zeal, or its precious faculties will soon be gone. In the hour of some besetting thought of unbelief “the shield of faith” will “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (Ephesians 6:16), but that shield must be lifted up, as it were, in an act of faith. “There is no God—at least, to care for me,” may be the hopeless cry, responsive to a cruel wound of the enemy. Let the battle-hymn of the Christian make quick answer, “I believe in God;” and often, with that very effort, the assault will cease for awhile. Further, let us take comfort in the thought that intellectual is not moral doubt: the unorthodox are not as the adulterous. Nevertheless, intellectual doubt may spring from an evil habit of carping criticism and self-opinion, for the foundation of which, in so far as a man himself has been either the wilful or the careless cause, he must bear the curse of its results.

For he that wavereth (or, douhteth) is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.—Doubteth is preferable to “wavereth”; there is no play on the Greek words, as in the English text—“wavereth” and “wave.” Like storm-beaten sailors, the doubtful are “carried” up to heaven and down again to the deep; their soul melteth away because of the trouble (Psalms 107:26). And who can describe the terror, even of the faithful, in those hours of darkness when the face of the Lord is hidden; when, as with the disciples of old, the ship is in the midst of the sea, tossed with the bitter waves. Nevertheless, the raging wind will clear the heavens soon from clouds, and by the radiance of the peaceful moon we too may behold our Helper near—the Lord Jesus walking on the sea—and if He come into the ship the storm must cease.


Verse 7

(7) Once more the Apostle warns the doubtful, holding out no hope of help until the wavering mind be fixed on God.


Verse 8

(8) The eighth verse had better be joined with the seventh, and punctuated thus:—Let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord:—double minded, unstable in all his ways. The reason why he can obtain nothing is because he is a man of two minds, and by consequence uncertain in his ways. The words, apparently are those of a proverb. It is useless to have, as it were, two hearts, one lifted up to God, the other turned away. “Come not unto Him with a double heart” (Sirach 1:28; and comp. Matthew 6:24).


Verse 9

(9) Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted (or, better, in his exaltation).—There is no praise from the plain St. James for the pride which apes humility, nor the affectation which loves to be despised. If it please God to “exalt,” as of old, “the humble and meek,” then anew should be sung a magnificat to Him. The lowly-minded doubt of the Virgin Mary, “How shall this be?” (Luke 1:24), was not reproved by the angel; while the question of blunt incredulity on the part of Zacharias was severely punished (Luke 1:20), and this diverse treatment thus experienced was deserved in either case. Both doubted, yet quite differently, and she of the lower degree rejoiced most in God her Saviour for regarding the lowliness of His handmaiden (Luke 1:47-48). Willingness thus for Christ’s service, whether it be great or little, is the right condition of mind for all disciples, and specially the young, with readiness, nay gladness, for “duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call them.” Pleasure will be naturally felt by most at the prospect of a rise in the world; but there are some finer spirits who fain would shrink from anything like exaltation; and to these the kindly Apostle writes that they may take heart, and not fear the greater dangers which of necessity accompany a higher call.


Verses 9-11

(9-11) Lowly-mindedness is the subject of the next paragraph. There is wide misapprehension of our state of trial: the poor and humble are apt to forget the honour thus vouchsafed to them, worthier in truth than the wealth of this world, which quickly fades away; and the rich and noble are often unmindful of the true source of their dignity, and that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48).


Verse 10

(10) But the rich, in that he is made low (or, better, in his humiliation).—And, on the other hand, let a change of state be a cause of joy to the rich man, hard though the effort thereto must confessedly be.

There is an antithesis between his humiliation and the humility of “the brother of low degree:” “God putteth down one, and setteth up another” (Psalms 75:7). Such seems to be the primary meaning of this passage, though, doubtless, there is a more spiritual significance underlying, which would teach the poorest that he may be “rich toward God,” and win from the most wealthy the acknowledgment of his deep poverty beside the Lord of all “good treasure” (Deuteronomy 28:12). “I know thy poverty,” said the Spirit unto the Church in Smyrna, “but thou art rich” (Revelation 2:9); and to the Laodiceans, “Thou sayest, I am rich . . ., but thou art poor” (Revelation 3:17).

Because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.—No more simple and striking simile of human instability and vanity can be found than “the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven” (Matthew 6:30); and the thought suggests a picture to the mind of the writer, which he draws with strong and yet most tender lines. Our English version misses the setting of his graceful idyl, the exquisite beauty of which can hardly be transferred from the Greek; but the following attempt is at least nearer the original:—


Verse 11

(11) For the sun is no sooner risen . . .—Translate, the sun arose with the burning heat, and dried up the grass; and the flower thereof fell away, and the grace of its fashion perished. The grace, the loveliness, the delicacy of its form and feature—literally, of its face—withered and died away. Often must the Apostle have seen such an effect of the fiery-Eastern sun, scorching with its pitiless glare the rich verdure of the wilderness; and in his ear, perchance, was the cry of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-8):—

“All flesh is grass:

And all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.

The grass withereth;

The flower fadeth;

Because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it:

—Surely the people is grass.

The grass withereth;

The flower fadeth;

But the Word of our God shall stand for ever.”

So also (or, thus) shall the rich man fade away (or, wither) in his ways.—Not the rich brother, observe, is to fade thus, though his wealth will so pass away. The warning is rather (as in Mark 10:24) “for them that trust in riches.” Even “the mammon of unrighteousness,” well used, will make for us “friends that may receive us into everlasting habitations” (Luke 16:9). And he who, out of the possessions wherewith God has blessed him, “deviseth liberal things, by liberal things shall stand” (Isaiah 32:8). There seems, moreover, looking closely at the text, a special fitness in its exact words: for they mean that the rich shall perish in their journeyings for the sake of gain; and to no people could the rebuke apply more sharply than to the Jews, the lenders unto “many nations” (Deuteronomy 15:6), the merchants and bankers of the world. Nor can “the sword of the Spirit,” unsheathed from this Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), be without an edge for those of us in these latter times who err in the former ways.


Verse 12

(12) Blessed is the man that endureth temptation.—Surely the Apostle links such blessedness with the nine Beatitudes, heard in the happy days gone by upon the Mount with Christ (Matthew 5:3-11). The words he uses in the original are the same as those which are expressed above, in our second, third, and fourth verses, by “patience” and “trials,” and mean a firm endurance, steadfastness, tenacity of purpose, and quenchless enthusiasm, such as men of Teutonic blood can appreciate perhaps even better than could either Greek or Jew.

For when he is tried (literally, proved, or tested, and found worthy) he shall receive the crown of life, (i.e., the life) which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.—“Lord” is not found in the best MSS., but of course is required by the sense of the passage. Probably in this case, as in so many others, a little note—or “gloss,” as it is called—was made on the margin of an early manuscript, and included unwittingly in the text by some later copyist.

The “pride” and “beauty” of the worldling are as “a fading flower” (Isaiah 28:1) under the scorching sun; but the unfading, ever-living crown is for the spiritual, the true lovers of their Lord: blessed in truth are they who thus endure the trial. “Therefore,” says the Book of Wisdom (James 5:16), “shall they receive a glorious kingdom, and a beautiful crown from the Lord’s hand.” “The righteous live for evermore” (Wisdom of Solomon 5:15).


Verses 12-18

(12-18) The Apostle returns to the consideration of the afflicted Christian. Such a one has a blessedness, greater infinitely than any earthly happiness, already in possession, and the promise of a future beyond all comparison.

It may be well to point out in this place that the idea of blessedness with regard to man is conveyed to us in the New Testament by a different word from that which expresses the like concerning God. The force of this may be seen in Mark 14:61, where the high priest asks our Lord, “Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” i.e., the Blessed God, to show which the adjective is rightly printed with a capital letter. The word applied to God—as in Luke 1:68; Romans 1:25; Romans 9:5; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 11:31; Ephesians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3—may be almost called a Christian one; at least, it is not found in much earlier writings, whereas the other term descriptive of man’s blessedness (or rather, happiness) is ancient and classical. Only in one passage (1 Timothy 1:11) is there an exception to this remarkable distinction; and such may well be considered, as it is by the German critic De Wette, un-pauline, though on no such a single instance, or even several such, could the superstructure be built that has been raised up by those who deny the genuineness of the Pastoral Epistles.


Verse 13

For God cannot be tempted with evil.—We can see here a good instance of the excellence of the old Geneva Bible, “the first on several occasions to seize the exact meaning of a passage which all the preceding versions had missed.” Our present rendering follows the Genevan exactly, rejecting those of Wiclif. “God is not a tempter of yuell things”; Tyndale, “God tempteth not vnto evyll”; and Cranmer, “God cannot tempte vnto euyll.”

Neither tempteth he any man.—The trial comes of Him, i.e., the Tempter is allowed; but so far, and no further. God Himself is “unversed of evils,” and no possibility of temptation remains with Him. Into the unseen splendour of His fulness no thought of wrong can enter; no foul thing wing its silent flight. It were blasphemy, perilously near that of the Pharisees (Matthew 12:22-37) to think God’s kingdom could be so divided against itself, that He, directly or indirectly, should seduce His subjects into the revolt of sin. No; if we have one golden clue by which we may feel our erring way out of the labyrinth of this lower world into the belief and trust in God our Father for the life to come, it is this: trials and temptations are permitted to strengthen us—if we will—for His mightier service. And, as compulsory homage would be worthless to the loving Lord of all, voluntary must be found instead, and proved and perfected. Herein is the Christian conflict, and the secret of God’s ways with man.


Verse 14

(14) So far the inspired Apostle has spoken of the outward part of temptation; now he lays bare the inner—for we suffer the two-fold evil. From without come the whispers of Satan, by himself or his legionaries, skilled in all that may entice and delude the unwary soul. And if the doctrine be true that to every one a guardian angel is appointed, so also would seem to be the opposite idea, that each has some demon of the pit watching him incessantly, and commissioned specially for his utter destruction. How terrible must be the skill of such assailants, experienced in the arts which have deceived mankind since the first fatal day. But there is the limit of external power in this matter; the ablest and subtlest fiend can but guess what is passing in its victim’s mind, and shape its snares accordingly. God only is the discerner of hearts, and the “spirit of man which is in him” alone, with its Maker, “knoweth the things of a man” (1 Corinthians 2:11). The Holy Spirit “searcheth all things” (James 1:10), and all are manifest in His sight (Hebrews 4:13), but to no less than His own omniscience. Satan, therefore, can merely act on his general knowledge of human nature, aided by particular guesses at the individual before him, whom he fain would destroy. He has learned too well the deep corruption of the heart, and knows what gaudy bait will most attract the longing and licentious eyes.

Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of (or, by) his own lust, and enticed.—Evil humanity thrills responsive as a harp played by a cunning hand; but no power of hell can force its way through the barriers which God the Holy Ghost erects around the faithful and confiding soul: only by treason of the man himself can the great enemy enter in and reign.


Verse 15

(15) Then when lust have conceived. . . .—Then come the downward steps of ruin—Lust, having conceived, bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. The image well depicts the repellent subject. The small beginning, from some vain delight or worldly lust and pleasure; next from the vile embrace, as of an harlot—sin, growing in all its rank luxuriance, until it bear and engender, horribly, of itself, its deadly child. The word of parturition is frightful in the sense it would convey, as of some monstrous deformity, a hideous progeny ten-fold more cursed than its begetter.

The one effect of sin, more especially that of the flesh here alluded to, must be Death. The act itself is mortiferous, the result inevitable; just as much so, and as naturally, as the work of poison on the body. There are antidotes for both, but they must be given in time; the door of mercy stands not always open, nor will the “fountain opened . . . for sin and uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1) flow on for ever. “Because,” says the Wisdom of God (Proverbs 1:24-26), “I have called, and ye refused . . . I also will laugh at your calamity.” “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and their paymaster is the devil.


Verse 16

(16) Do not err, my beloved brethren.—Thus far James the Wise has declared what God is not, what qualities are alien to Him; but this is only a negative aspect of the truth, and he now would show the positive—namely, that God is the Author of all and every good. And this lesson he introduces with a caution to his brethren beloved, not to err. He is most earnest and emphatic. “Be not ye deceived,” however much the world may wander in delusive paths. A marked change from the dreadful tenor of the last verse is here made to bright reflections on the gifts of God; and a new incentive to endurance is found in the happy thoughts of His goodness.


Verse 17

(17) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.—This beautiful sentence, more musical still in the Greek, is thought to be the fragment of some Christian hymn. Two words are translated by our one “gift”; the first is rather the act of giving, the second the gift itself, and the effect of both together is a climax to the statement of God’s benevolence. The difference between the two is observed in the Genevan version of 1557. “There are diversities of gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:4), even as “one star differeth from another star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41), but “the same Spirit” is the giver of all. Where in St. John’s Gospel (John 3:1) we read, “Except a man be born again,” the most probable meaning is “from above,” expressed exactly as in the present case; and thus we know whence is the true birth of the soul.

Cometh down from the Father of lights.—Great difference of opinion is found concerning these “lights,” whether the term be figurative, as of goodness or wisdom; or a reference to the mysterious Urim (Exodus 28:30, et seq.) which flamed on the breast of Aaron; or spiritual, as of grace and glory; or material, viz., the “lights” set “in the firmament of heaven” (Genesis 1:14-15) “when the morning stars sang together” (Job 38:7). It were not amiss to take the whole of these interpretations, for they, and perhaps others, the purport of which we as yet can barely guess, are included in this Scripture. “God,” remarks Bishop Wordsworth, “is the Father of all lights—the light of the natural world, the sun, the moon, and stars, shining in the heavens; the light of reason and conscience; the light of His Law; the light of prophecy, shining in a dark place; the light of the gospel shining throughout the world; the light of apostles, confessors, martyrs, bishops, and priests, preaching that gospel to all nations; the light of the Holy Ghost shining in our hearts; the light of the heavenly city; God is the Father of them all. He is the everlasting Father of the everlasting Son, who is the Light of the world.” But that the mind of the sacred writer was mainly on the lights of the material universe may be seen from his next thought.

With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.—The phraseology is almost scientific. There are changes, literally “parallaxes,” of the heavenly bodies themselves, and eclipses one of another by shadows projected through space, but no such variableness with God, nor changing of faintest shade. And even further, the greatest and most marvellous of His works on high “must be dissolved” (2 Peter 3:11), “the sun darkened, the moon not give her light, the stars fall from heaven” (Matthew 24:29), and the heavens themselves “be rolled together as a scroll” (Isaiah 34:4). But if “the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). “I am the Lord,” is the burden of His latest prophet; “I change not” (Malachi 3:6).


Verse 18

(18) Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.—There is a greater witness to God’s goodness than that which is written upon the dome of heaven, even the regeneration of man. As the old creation was “by the Word” (John 1:3; John 1:10, et seq.), the new is by Him also, the Logos, the Word of Truth, and that by means of His everlasting gospel, delivered in the power of the Holy Ghost. So tenderly is this declared, that a maternal phrase is used—God brought us forth in the new birth; and though “a woman” may forget “the son of her womb” (Isaiah 49:15), yet will He “never leave, nor forsake” (Hebrews 13:5).

That we should be a kind of firstfruit of his creatures.—And why this mercy and loving-kindness? for our own sakes, or for others and for His? Surely the latter; and “if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy” (Romans 11:16). We know “Who is the firstborn of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) “the firstbegotten of the dead” (Revelation 1:5), nay, “the beginning of the creation of God” (Revelation 3:14); “and we are created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10), become new in Him (comp. 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), made the firstfruits of His redemption; and, moreover, it would seem we are the sign of the deliverance promised to the brute creation “which waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19; Romans 8:21). The longing for a future perfection is shared by all created beings upon earth, and their discontent at present imperfection points to another state freed from evil (Romans 8:18-22). “The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope” (Romans 8:20). And the fruition of this hope is foreshadowed in the words above. “The very struggles,” it has been well observed by Dean Howson, “which all animated beings make against pain and death show that pain and death are not a part of the proper laws of their nature, but rather a bondage imposed upon them from without; thus every groan and fear is an unconscious prophecy of liberation from the power of evil.” “The creature itself also shall be delivered” is the plain assertion of St. Paul (Romans 8:21); comparing his with that of St. James, we must conclude that they point to all nature, animate and inanimate as well. “We look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13), and “there shall be no more death . . . nor any more pain” (Revelation 21:4).

“All creation groans and travails;

Thou, O Lord, shalt hear its groan,

For of man, and all creation,

Thou alike art Lord alone.”


Verse 19

(19) We come now to the third subdivision of the chapter. By reason of the Divine benevolence, the Apostle urges his readers—(1) to meekness, (2) self-knowledge, (3) practical religion.

Wherefore, my beloved brethen.—There appears to be some small error in the MSS. here, but the alteration is only just worth mentioning: ye know my brethren beloved, seems the correct version, the very abruptness of which may serve to arrest attention. Yea, “have ye not known?” might well be asked further in the indignant language of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:21; comp. Romans 5:19).

Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.—For all these cautions are required in the building up of the new life. “The quick speaker is the quick kindler;” and we are told later on “how great a matter a little fire kindleth” (James 3:5). And what have we at all to do with wrath, much less that our whole life—as unhappily it often is—should be wasted with such bitterness? Anger, no doubt, is a wholesome tonic for some minds, and certain weaknesses; but “he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32).


Verse 20

(20) For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.—Sarcastically rings the context. Perhaps there is still a sharper point to the satire: the wrath of man does not work God’s righteousness “to the full.” The warning may well be sounded in the ears of Christians still, who are not less apt than Jonah of old to say quickly and in self-excuse, “I do well to be angry” (Jonah 4:9). How many a holy work of household and parish has been and is thus hindered and destroyed; and if the golden words of the first bishop of the Church had been heeded better, there never had appeared one page of her long history blotted with the blood of a religious war.


Verse 21

(21) Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness.—So Peter (1 Peter 3:21) speaks of “the filth of the flesh.” But the defilement here referred to seems general and not special, common, that is, to the whole natural man. The superabundance—the overgrowth—of evil will occupy the heart, if care be not taken to root it out; and, like the thorns in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:7, et seq.), spring up and choke the good seed. All such a rank and poisonous crop must be gathered and laid aside, in caps may be, for some fiery trouble to consume, that out of the dead luxuriant weeds a richer soil for virtue may be made.

Naughtiness (ne-aughtiness, or nothingness) was used in 1611, instead of the older and more correct translation, malice or maliciousness. The badness implied in the original is much more positive than that which appears from our present version.

Receive with meekness the engrafted word.—Or, in mildness accept ye this word of truth (see James 1:18, above), engrafted, like a good olive tree, or rather implanted, in you. The term is peculiar to this place, and means “innate” in its first intention. If taken so, “the innate Word” will be Christ Himself formed within us. (Comp. Galatians 4:19.)

Able to save your souls.—In like manner Paul at Miletus commends the elders of Ephesus “to God, and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Observe, the idea of salvation thus conveyed by the implanted word, is so potentially and not actually. Tended and cultured, it will grow into a tree of life, the fruit whereof may heal the wounds of sin; but the after-growth of this plant of God is largely in the hands of man.

We can hardly help making a brief inquiry in this place on the meaning of “soul.” There are few words more vaguely used by devout persons, or which present greater difficulties to the learned, or open wider fields of speculation for the thoughtful. In common language we speak of “body and soul,” meaning much the same as “body and spirit;” but theologians write more carefully of “body, soul, and spirit” (comp. 1 Thessalonians 5:23); and psychologists distinguish between the animal branch of their subject and the rational or intellectual ( ψυχή νοῦς). The second of these methods of division is known as the trilogy, and is of most importance to the Christian reader. By it is understood (1) the body, wholly and entirely material, of and belonging to this world; (2) the mind or reason, corporal also—that is, arising from the body, and depending in its exquisite balance upon it; (3) the true soul or spirit, the breath as it were of God, immaterial and immortal. Our bodily nature, of course, is shared with the lower creation, and the spiritual with the higher, while the intellectual is peculiar to mankind. If it be hard to draw a line between vegetable and animal, harder still is it to separate instinct from reason, the difference being of degree rather than kind. But if the one side of the mental soul—namely, the rational, be near akin to what is termed instinctive in the brute, the other, the intellectual, however it may, as it does, soar upward, yet approaches not to the angels, for the difference here is of kind and not degree. Now, strange to say, the Apostle treats not of the spirit but the natural soul. Other texts in plenty assure us that God is able to save the one; from this we may learn salvation is for both, such being the work of “the engrafted Word.” Reason and intellect consecrated to divine service have an eternity before them, one of activity and not repose. The highest conception of God to the Greek mind was the Aristotelian idea of intellectual self-sufficiency and contemplation; the Oriental strives, as for ages it has striven, for extinction and nothingness; but to the Christian is given the sure and certain hope of the glorified body, the enlightened soul, the perfected spirit—three in one, and one in three—working the will and praise of its Maker and Redeemer for ever.


Verse 22

(22) Doers of the word.—Acting up to the full of their knowledge, whether gained by the spoken or the written Word of God. There is a force in the original sentence, which our own language cannot supply. The term “deceiving” is the contrary of that rendered “word,” and means its corruption; the Word which is the source of knowledge and life may be so handled as to cause error and death. No acquaintance with the Bible, apart from the practice of its precepts, will avail the Christian any more than it did the Jew. “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). Those who deceive themselves may not altogether be hypocrites; there is a subtler danger of being blind, and nevertheless exclaiming “We see.” (Comp. John 9:41.)


Verse 23

(23) He is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass.—The Apostle points grimly to an example of this self-deception. He (literally, this) is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror. Not a “glass,” but a mirror of polished steel, such as are still used in the East. “His natural face,” or the face of his birth—the real appearance, that is, which the reflection of the Word of God, properly looked into, will afford the inquirer.


Verse 24

(24) For he beholdeth himself . . .—Better, for he beheld himself and went his way, and straightway forgot what he was. Like the simile in James 1:11, this is described as an actual occurrence, seen and noted by the writer. There is a recognition of the well-known face, followed by instant and complete forgetfulness; and thus is it often with the mirror of the soul. In some striking sermon or book a man’s self is made manifest to him, and the picture may be too familiar to cause aversion; but, whether or no, the impression fades from his mind as quickly as the echoes of the preacher’s words. At the best the knowledge was only superficial, perhaps momentary; widely different from that which comes of a holy walk with God.


Verse 25

(25) But whoso looketh . . .—Translate, But he who looked into the perfect law of liberty and continued therein. The past tense is still kept to enforce the figure of the preceding verse. The earnest student of the Scriptures stoops down in humility of body and mind to learn what the will of their Author may be. He reads, as it were, upon his knees; and if he finds therein a law, it is one of liberty and not slavery, life and not death—although, as Dean Alford observes here, “not in contrast with a former law of bondage, but as viewed on the side of its being the law of the new life and birth, with all its spontaneous and free development of obedience.”

Not a forgetful hearer . . .—Literally, not a hearer of forgetfulness, but a doer of work. Thus rendered, the words of the sentence balance each other, and comment is needless.

This man shall be blessed in his deed.—Or, as in the margin, doing. A return perhaps in thought to the Beatitudes, and the close of that Sermon on the Mount, of which they were the opening words. The blessedness of this humbly active Christian is like that of the wise man there spoken of “which built his house upon a rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).


Verse 26

(26) But St. James has thus far dilated only on the first part of his advice in James 1:19, “Let every man be swift to hear”; now he must enforce the remaining clause, “slow to speak.”

If any man among you seem to be religious . . .—Better, If any one imagine himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. The sense of the Greek is slightly obscured by the English version. “If any man . . . seem”—i.e., to himself, and not to others merely; the warning is not to the hypocrite, but the self-deceived. A Christian may have, or rather cannot help having, the feeling that he is a religious man; and so far well. But if such a one deceive his own heart, as confessedly he may, and give to those around him the proof of his self-delusion in not curbing his tongue, vain and useless is all his religious service. Just as some mistakenly suppose there can be a religion of hearing without acting, so others rest satisfied “in outward acts of worship, or exactness of ritual.” “But,” remarks Bishop Moberly on this passage, and his voice may win an audience where another’s would not, “if a man think himself a true worshipper because he conforms to outward services, while he lets his tongue loose in untruth or unkindness or other unseemliness, he deceives himself.” The first mark of true religion is gentleness of tongue, just as the contrary, blasphemy, is the most damning fault of all. Our Lord directly says, “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). The text, however, is more a guide for self-examination than a stone to be cast at a neighbour; and “well is” it indeed for “him that hath not slipped with his tongue” (Sirach 25:8).

The Apostle returns to this subject, though from a different point of view, in James 3, which compare with the above. The best commentary on the whole is Bishop Butler’s Sermon, No. IV., “Upon the Government of the Tongue.”


Verse 27

(27) Pure religion . . .—It will be observed that by religion here is meant religious service. No one word can express this obvious interpretation of the original, taken as it must be in completion of the verse before; and certainly “religion” in its ordinary sense will not convey the right idea. Real worship, we may say, pure and undefiled, beheld and acknowledged as such in the presence of God, even the Father—mark the tender pathos of His divine relationship—is this:

To visit the fatherless (or, orphans) and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.—Here is the double proof of the perfect life of holiness, the savour whereof is as perpetual incense before the throne of God. And the help afforded to the helpless, put thus in the first place of the two requirements, will often bring about the second—namely, that spotless condition of unworldliness which marks, and will ever mark, the true servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. Deeds of benevolence may be and are often done by those who are not His; but all who truly belong to Him must live a life which praises Him continually in good works; not, it is hardly needful to say, as a cause—but rather the natural and inevitable result of love for Him, warming the heart within.

Scrupulous indeed were the “religious” contemporaries of James; they would not enter where the image of Divus Cæsar had its votive flame, while they were ceremonially clean for the keeping of their passover—“they went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled” (John 18:28). But He whom there they cruelly sought to slay had told them before, though in vain, “that which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man” (Mark 7:20), and “nothing from without can defile him” (James 1:15). What an eternal caution may be learned here against cold reliance upon ritual! What an instance, ever, under all varieties and forms, to be applied to themselves by the erring; persecuting, and deceitful sons of men! while, on the other hand, from these words of the wise Apostle we may be sure what is truest, nay, the only true service, acceptable and accepted, of the Most High—“To visit the fatherless and the widow,” beholding in them a new image of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, is to show pity verily to Him; and at the last such “pure religion” will receive His own approval. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Blessed be the ears attuned to catch the golden cadence, for it rings in angel voices round the soothers of the sick and sorrow-laden even now!

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on James 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/james-1.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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