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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
James 5

 

 

Introduction

V.

The first six verses, condemnatory of the trust in riches, ought to follow James 4:17 without a break, and thus end the proper division of the Epistle. Our present arrangement of chapter and verse here, as in so many cases, tends to confusion rather than clearness.


Verse 1

(1) Go to now, ye rich.—As in James 4:3, it was “Woe to you, worldly,” so now “Woe to ye rich: weep, bewailing”—literally, howling for your miseries coming upon you. Comp. Isaiah 13:6; Isaiah 14:31; Isaiah 15:3, where (in the LXX.) the same term is used;—a picture word, imitating the cry of anguish,—peculiar to this place in the New Testament. Observe the immediate future of the misery; it is already coming. Doubtless by this was meant primarily the pillage and destruction of Jerusalem, but under that first intention many others secondary and similar are included: for all “riches certainly make themselves wings” and fly away (Proverbs 23:5). Calvin and others of his school fail to see in this passage an exhortation of the rich to penitence, but only a denunciation of woe upon them; in the sense, however, that all prophecy, whether evil or good, is conditional, there is sufficient room to believe that no irrevocable doom was pronounced by “a Christian Jeremiah.”


Verse 2

(2) Your riches are corrupted . . .—As expanded in the eloquent gloss of Bishop Wordsworth, “Your wealth is mouldering in corruption, and your garments, stored up in vain superfluity, are become moth-eaten: although they may still glitter brightly in your eyes, and may dazzle men by their brilliance, yet they are in fact already cankered; they are loathsome in God’s sight; the Divine anger has breathed upon them and blighted them; they are already withered and blasted.” (Comp. Matthew 6:19.)


Verse 3

(3) Your gold and silver . . .—In like manner, the gold and silver are said to be “cankered,” or eaten up with rust. The precious metals themselves do not corrode, but the base alloy does, which has been mixed with them for worldly use and device. The rust of them shall be a witness to you: not merely against, but convincing yourselves in the day of judgment; and, moreover, a sign of the fire which shall consume you. So will the wages of the traitor, and the harlot, the spoil of the thief and oppressor, burn the hands which have clutched them; the memories of the wrong shiver through each guilty soul, like the liquid fires which Muhammedans say torture the veins of the damned in the halls of Eblis.

Ye have heaped . . .—Read, Ye heaped up treasures in the last days:—the days of grace, given you for repentance, like the years when “the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (Genesis 6:3; 1 Peter 3:20), or the time during which God bore with Canaan, “till the iniquity of the Amorite” was “full” (Genesis 15:16).

Some expositors have seen in this verse an instance of James’s belief that he was “living in the last days of the world’s history;” and compared his delusion with that of Paul and John (1 Thessalonians 4:15, and 1 John 2:18). But there was no mistake on the part of the inspired. writers; freedom from error in their Sacred office must be vindicated, or who shall sever the false gospel from the true? The simple explanation is an old one—the potential nearness of Christ, as it is called. In many ways He has been ever near each individual, as by affliction, or death, or judgment; but His actual return was probably nearer in the first ages of faith than in the brutality of the tenth century, or the splendid atheism of the fifteenth, or the intellectual pride of the nineteenth. His advent is helped or hindered by the state of Christendom itself: “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8), there is: neither past nor future in His sight; only the presence of His own determination: and nought retards Christ’s Second Coming so much as the false and feeble Christianity which prays “Thy kingdom come” in frequent words, but waits not as the handmaid of her Lord, with “loins girded about and lights burning” (Luke 12:35), “until the day dawn, and the day star arise” (2 Peter 1:19).


Verse 4

Verse 5

(5) Ye have lived in pleasure.—And what an indictment is this brought against them by the Apostle:—Ye revelled upon earth, and wantoned; ye nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. The pleasure and wantonness wherein the rich had lived, the selfishness with which they had cared for their own hearts, in a time of death for others—nay, preparation of like for themselves: this is the aggravated wrong, and the inexpiable shame. In the Received text above they are accused of having “nourished their hearts as in a day of slaughter,” the cries of the victims thus seeming an addition to their own delights; but the charge against them is heavy enough without this insertion.

As they had dealt to others, so the vengeance of God dealt with them. The Passover called together the richest Jews from all parts of the earth, and they themselves were the victims in their last sacrifice. No words can overdraw the fury of the Roman onset, under Titus, when the Temple floors ran with blood, and the roofs raged in fire till all was utter desolation.


Verse 6

(6) Ye have condemned and killed the just.—Better thus: Ye condemned, ye slew the just—as in the speech of Peter (Acts 3:14-15), or that of Stephen (Acts 7:52). Such a reference, however, has been disallowed by some commentators, as conveying too harsh an accusation against the whole Jewish people; and besides, it being unfair to forget that St. James was writing to Christian Jews, as well as to the anti-Christian. But, in a manner, all wrong and oppression tend towards the murder of the Just One, as every falsehood (see Note on James 3:13) is an attack on the Truth. And far beyond this, in the present case our Lord is rightly to be considered the victim of the Jews. His blood is on them and on their children (Matthew 27:25); they filled up “the measure of their fathers” (Matthew 23:32), that “the blood of all the righteous” might come upon them, from Abel to Zacharias (Matthew 23:35): the one crowning sin made them guilty of all. And not only is this backward participation true, but there is a forward one as well. Christ Himself was persecuted by Saul in the afflictions of His servants (Acts 9:4-5), and so onward ever till the martyr-roll be full.

It is of strange significance that in this verse—ye condemned, ye slew the just—James the Just prophetically described his own murderers. The last words, moreover, of the Scripture, simply record the behaviour of himself, as of every real witness for Christ: He doth not resist. No: “the servant of the Lord must not strive” (2 Timothy 2:24) even in death; and by such meekness and resignation is best seen the likeness to the divine Master, Who “was brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7). Comp. Wisdom of Solomon 2:10-20 for a striking parallel, on the oppression of the righteous, which would not inaptly describe the “just man,” the “Son of God.”


Verse 7

(7) Be patient.—The third, and last, part of the Letter commences here with these exhortations towards endurance.

Therefore—i.e., because of this your deep and abiding misery, be sure God’s help is nigh:—

“The darkest hour is on the verge of day.”

“Out of your stony griefs” build, like Jacob of old, a house of God (Genesis 28:19), whereunto you may run and find refuge. If there be wrath laid up in store for the oppressor, great is the coming peace of the oppressed.

The husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it . . . Be ye also patient.—It becomes you, the just, to bear with the unjust till God work the end of your trial, and prove them at the same time. Again and again, through several verses (James 5:7-11), St. James repeats his advice, emphasising it with various reasons: the nearness of deliverance; the Judge standing at the gate; the example of the prophets—persecuted by men, and therefore blessed of God; the hope of those who endure—Job for example: the very faithfulness and tender mercy of the Lord, bringing all things to a perfect end. Few ideas are more startling (is a reflection of Dr. Evans) than those produced by the strange combinations in Scripture. Matters are joined there which we mostly put asunder here, speaking of them, at least, as apart. And thus we read in the Revelation (James 1:9) of the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ. But all Christians are citizens of a patient kingdom; the King thereof is more patient, as He hath greater need of patience than His subjects, and He is patient, because He is strong. Impatience is a sign of weakness. God can afford to wait, for His time is eternity. And we can be strong in His strength, and wait also in patience. In so far as St. James’s hearers were earthly minded, they could not learn this lesson; so often with ourselves we would have our wrong righted instantly, and to the full. Only one view of life can alter this, viz., the lifting of our gaze from earth to heaven, remembering that “the time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29).

The early and latter rain.—It is, perhaps, just as well to recollect there were only two seasons of rainfall in the Holy Land, and, if long delayed, famine was a certain result. With the change of the Israelites from pastoral life to agricultural, the malignity of these dearths was lessened; but they were and are still severe. The Bible mentions many such—e.g., in the days of Abraham (Genesis 12:10), Isaac (Genesis 26:1), Jacob (Genesis 42:2), Ruth (James 1:1), Samuel (2 Samuel 21:1), Ahab (1 Kings 18:2). The “early rain” fell during the autumn sowing—in October, November, and December; “the latter” in March and April. By many versions the word “rain” is omitted, but, of course, was always intended.


Verse 8

(8) The coming of the Lord draweth nigh.—Read thus, The presence of the Lord is nigh. For the ancient belief in the nearness of Christ’s second advent, see Note above, in James 5:3. The word used by the Apostle to describe its closeness is the same as that used in Matthew 3:2, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” The afflicted are therefore to establish, or rather strengthen, their hearts. If “comfort” retained its older sense, such would express the true idea. Comp. the great prophecy of Israel’s consolation (Isaiah 40, et seq.).


Verse 9

(9) Grudge not.—Say in preference, Murmur not. “Grudge” has curiously changed its meaning from an outward murmur to an inward feeling. It has unfortunately been retained both here and in 1 Peter 4:9. See also Psalms 59:15, specially the Prayer Book version, “They will . . . grudge if they be not satisfied”—i.e., complain and murmur.

Lest ye . . .—It is not “lest ye be condemned,” but lest ye be judged, repeating the exact words of the original in Matthew 7:1.

Behold, the judge standeth before the door.—Compare this scene with that depicted in Revelation 3:20. In the one Christ lingers mercifully outside the door that “loves its hinge”; fain would He enter and abide. In the other He sounds a note of alarm; men are “waked in the night, not girding their loins for a journey, but in vague wonder at uncertain noise, who may turn again to their slumber,” or in wistful listening wait in vain for the voice of mercy which shall plead with them no more for ever (Ruskin).

One of the mocking questions put to St. James by his enemies, as they hurried him to death, was, “Which is the door of Jesus?” And failing to receive an answer to their mind, they said, “Let us stone this James the Just!” which they did, after they had cast him over the Temple wall.


Verse 10

(10) For an example.—Another reason for endurance, an example of affliction and patience, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. These are the bright ones in the cloud of witnesses, of whom the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12:1) speaks, who, like Daniel, “stopped the mouths of lions”; like Jeremiah and Elijah, “escaped the edge of the sword;” “out of weakness were made strong”; who “were stoned,” like Zachariah; “sawn asunder,” like Isaiah; “slain with the sword,” like Urijah and John; “of whom the world was not worthy.” Thus the saints of the Old Covenant are held up for honour and imitation to those of the New. James was not advocating a religion alien to that of Moses, but building again more widely “the ruins of the tabernacle which had fallen down,” that “all the Gentiles might seek after the Lord.” (Comp. his speech in the synod, Acts 15:13-21.)


Verse 11

(11) We count them happy which endure.—Rather read it, we count them blessed which endure; or, as some critics would have it, endured. (See Matthew 5:11, and 1 Peter 2:19.) The heathen philosopher Solon called no one “happy” upon earth; but, with the mystery of pain around him, cried sadly, “Look to the end.” And the sated and weary soul of Solomon had no better thought than to praise “the dead which are already dead, more than the living” (Ecclesiastes 4:2). How different the teaching of St. James, himself taught by the example of the suffering Christ: verily, “he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” the greatest and the wisest who know not of its light and peace (Matthew 11:11).

The patience of Job.—The earliest notions current in the world were, doubtless, that on the whole prosperity came to those who lived morally and physically well, while adversity in body or mind followed closely on the wicked and improvident. It is easy to see how these opinions, even among the happier races who had not wandered far from God, gradually hardened into stern rules of judgment, by which each man saw in the chances and calamities of life an immediate effort of an avenging Deity. This was ages before a pious Asaph (Psalms 73) could reflect on the contradiction of experience in this matter, and be troubled at the “prosperity” of the wicked; or before the wise king could notice (Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14) the just man perishing “in his righteousness,” and the unjust prolonging “his days in wickedness”; “the fishes taken in an evil net,” and “the birds caught in the snare” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). It was ages earlier still than the presence of that Wiser than Solomon, who spoke of the hapless “eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell”—“Think ye that they were sinners above all?” (Luke 13:4-5). Job’s friends were so certain of his misdeeds, that they would not hear his self-defence; if God tried his endurance, man surely afflicted his patience. We can hear the three in council against him, becoming more zealous as they believe themselves the defenders of God’s justice. (See Job 4-22) They are shocked at Job’s obstinacy, and annoyed into vehement accusation against him, because he will “hold fast” to his “integrity.” It is a damning proof to them of his guilt. Not only had he been wicked, but now actually he is impious and rebellious; such conduct is not to be borne. “Is not thy wickedness great?” says Eliphaz (Job 22:5). Thou must have—nay, “thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing;” thou couldst not—nay, “thou hast not given water to the weary, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry:” truly thine iniquities are infinite.” Now, we know Job was innocent; God Himself bears witness to it (Job 1:8). And finally the suffering, patient, righteous man was declared to have spoken wisely: as Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar the contrary. They—types of a censorious piety—had conceived of God by their own faulty notions of religion, and fondly deemed they could enter into the motives of the Most High. Job for awhile had seemed to cloud his own belief with baser attributes, as (Job 16 et seq.) to a God who causelessly dealt in cruelty and pain; but through such fleeting mistakes he rose at last to the full conviction of His perfect truth and justice. It might be that He gave happiness to those who sought Him; it might be He allowed them misery—as the world would call it; but this nor that had part in the matter at issue. Earthly blessings “He gives to whom He wills, or leaves to the powers of nature to distribute among those who fulfil the laws” thereof; but “to serve him and love Him is higher and better than any mundane welfare, though it be with wounded feet and bleeding forehead, or an ash-heap and filthy sores” (Froude). This was the faith to which Job attained: higher, “clearer, purer, there is not possible to man.” In such like “patience” it were well for us that we should “possess our souls” (Luke 21:19).

And have seen the end of the Lord.—Better thus, Ye have heard . . . see also the end of the Lord. The reference is at once past and future: consider, i.e., what God wrought in the end of trial, on the faithful of old time, like Job; learn from it how great a deliverance He will also work for you. But “if ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established” (Isaiah 7:9). It is a mistake to understand here any allusion to the death of Christ, as if the Apostle spoke to those who witnessed it.

That the Lord is very pitiful.—St. James, in the fulness of his gratitude, seems to have coined a word for this single place. “Great-hearted” would be close to its meaning; but originally the bowels were thought to be the seat of the affections, and hence such terms of expression: as also in Genesis 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Isaiah 63:15; Lamentations 1:20; Philippians 1:8; 1 John 3:17, et al.

“The Lord” here is Jehovah: under which name the Lord spake and wrought before He was made man. See Bishop Pearson On the Creed, in Article 2, proving the significance of κίριος, or Lord, as the right translation of the Hebrew El, Elohim, Shaddai, Adonai, and Jehovah. And compare Isaiah 40:3 with Matthew 3:1; Malachi 3:1 with Matthew 11:10 and Jeremiah 23:6.


Verse 12

(12) The question of the lawfulness of oaths has oftentimes perplexed alike the doctors of the Church and its simpler hearers of God’s word. The text, taken as it stands, would support the views of the Essenes, and many of the Paulicians, and other ancient sectaries. With equal force it might be urged by the followers of Peter Waldo, or the Unitas Fratrum (the Moravians), or the Society of Friends.

Swear not.—The words are put quite distinctly in Greek and English—neither by the heaven, nor by the earth. And it sounds like special pleading, worthy of a rabbi, to hear such a divine as Huther say that “swearing by the name of God is not mentioned,” nor accordingly is such an oath prohibited. “We must not imagine,” he continues (and his argument had best be fairly given), “that this is included in the last member of the clause, the Apostle evidently intending by it (i.e., ‘neither by any other oath’) to point only at certain formulæ, of which several are mentioned in Matthew 5:34-37. Had he intended to forbid swearing by the name of God he would most certainly have mentioned it expressly; for not only is it in the Law, in contradistinction to other oaths, commanded (see Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20; Psalms 63:11), but in the prophets is announced as a token of the future turning of men to God” (Isaiah 65:16; Jeremiah 12:16; Jeremiah 23:7-8). There were, we learn, many subtle distinctions in Jewish oaths; and the unlucky foreigner who trusted in an apparently firm one, too often found out his mistake. Certainly all such subterfuges are utterly condemned; and further, every word which breaks the letter or spirit of God’s Third Commandment. As to the higher judicial forms of oaths, remembering that our Lord answered such before Caiaphas (Matthew 26:63-64), we can fearlessly conclude, with the 39th Article of Religion, that “a man may swear, when the magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the prophet’s teaching—in justice, judgment, and truth.”

Let your yea be yea . . .—Your word be as your bond, needing no strengthening by any invocation of God, or holy things, “lest ye fall into judgment”—not “condemnation,” though certainly such might follow.


Verse 13

(13) We now pass on to advice of different kinds—to the heavy-laden or light-hearted, to the suffering and afflicted. Prayer is to be the refuge of one, praise the safeguard of another; the whole life is to revolve, as it were, around the throne of God, whether in the night of grief or day of joy.

Let him pray.—No worthier comment can be found than Montgomery’s hymn—

“Prayer is the burden of a sigh,

The falling of a tear,

The upward glancing of an eye,

When none but God is near.”

Long petitions, or many, cannot be always made; mind and body may be too weak and ill; but ejaculations—“Arrows of the Lord’s deliverance,” as Augustine called them, “shot out with a sudden quickness”—these are ever in the power of the beleaguered Christian. And—

“More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of.”

Let him sing.—The word originally applied to instrumental music, the Eastern accompaniment of “psalms.” Praise, like prayer, ought to be individual as well as congregational. Hymns might be used by all in their devotions, and could not fail to be a blessing; while for those who have God’s great gift of music, it were surely better to sing—as the Apostle urges—than to say. There is a sadness latent in the most jubilant of earthly tunes, but not so with the heavenly; and quiring angels do not scorn to catch our humblest notes, and weave them in their endless song, if they be raised in thankfulness to Him Whom they and all creation praise.


Verse 14

(14) The elders of the church—i.e., literally, the presbyters. The identity of “bishop” (episcopus) and “presbyter” in the language of the apostolic age seems conclusive. Such is the opinion of Lightfoot (Epistle to the Philippians, 93-97; see also his Dissertation on the Christian Ministry, ibid., 180-267), and few may hope to gainsay it. In fact, the organisation of the early Church was much more elastic than theologians always suppose; and names and terms were applied less rigidly than the schoolmen of the Middle Ages have so stoutly declared. But, on the other hand, no man who has read the Patres Apostolici can deny the reality of Church government as enforced by them, nor base on their authority any defence of Congregationalism or the rule of a mere presbytery. The theory of development must be maintained, though not on the lines of Dr. Newman.


Verse 14-15

(14, 15) Anointing him with oil.—Or, unction. The use of some precious and mysterious ointment, on solemn occasions, obtained in most of the ancient nations, specially the Eastern. The Jews themselves were by no means originators of the habit, although they carried it to its highest ceremonial and significance. Apart, too, from the regular performances of the rite, as upon the accession of a king, or the consecration of a high priest, it often occurred in private cases, and some striking instances are recorded in the Gospels:—the spikenard, costly and fragrant (Luke 7:36-50), wherewith the Saviour’s feet were anointed by “a woman which was a sinner;” and that, again, which Mary, of her grateful love, poured upon Him six days before His death (John 12:3-9). These were not unusual acts, but chiefly worthy of note because of the persons concerned. It was not remarkable for women to make such offerings to a famous rabbi, but that our Lord should be so treated, carried a deeper meaning. Nor, again, was it a new ordinance with which the Apostles were first commissioned, in pursuance whereof they “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13). “Here,” observes Bishop Harold Browne, “unction was evidently an outward sign, similar to that used by our Saviour, when He made clay, and put it to the blind man’s eyes. It was connected with the miraculous power of healing.” This connection only, this use of a known form with a diviner import, was the cause of astonishment; and clearly it was to such a practice, with simply its common intention, that St. James refers. Nor can we refrain from saying, however undesirous of controversy, that all which unction now implies to the Romanist is quite opposed to whatever force and value are given it in Holy Writ. There unction is enjoined “with the special object of recovery;” its purport was a present bodily one, and in no way applicable to the future of the soul. “The prayer of faith shall save the sick”—i.e., shall heal him: the faithful prayer shall be that which God will answer, and so “raise up” the sufferer. But, it is urged, the next clause has a different force: “If he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” Such is only apparent in our own version, and not in the original. The grammatical sense infers that the sick man is abiding under the consequence of some committed sin, which is “presumed to have been the working cause of his present sickness.” So Alford, and Bede similarly: “Many by reason of sins done in the soul are compassed by weakness: nay, even death of the body.” And the former theologian again: “Among all the daring perversions of Scripture, by which the Church of Rome has defended her superstitions, there is none more patent than that of the present passage. Not without reason has the Council of Trent defended its misinterpretation with anathema; for indeed it needed that, and every other recommendation, to support it, and give it any kind of acceptance. The Apostle is treating of a matter totally distinct from the occasion and the object of extreme unction. He is enforcing the efficacy of the prayer of faith in afflictions (James 5:13). Of such efficacy he adduces one special instance. In sickness let the sick man inform the elders of the church. Let them, representing the congregation of the faithful, pray over the sick man, accompanying that prayer with the symbolic and sacramental act of anointing with oil in the name of our Lord. Then the prayer of faith shall save (heal) the sick man, and the Lord shall bring him up out of his sickness; and even if it were occasioned by some sin, that sin shall be forgiven him. Such is the simple and undeniable sense of the Apostle, arguing for the efficacy of prayer; and such the perversion of that sense by the Church of Rome.” Not that we should think this and other like cases are wholly intentional twistings of God’s word. The Latin Bible is in many places a faulty—though not deliberately unfaithful—rendering of the Hebrew and Greek; and half our differences with Rome arise from such misinterpretations. Allowing the beginning of mischief to have been oftentimes a wrong translation, religious opinions engendered from it, we can understand, would be hardly cast aside, more especially when advantageous to their possessors. Little by little the change of doctrine drew on, and most probably thus:—The aim of the apostolic anointing was bodily recovery, and (again we quote Bishop Browne) “this exactly corresponds with the miraculous cures of early ages; . . . so long as such . . . powers remained in the Church, it was reasonable that anointing of the sick should be retained.” But these powers ceased, in the wisdom of God, after awhile; not so, however, the ceremony to which men’s minds in distress had been accustomed. It was retained in affection when its true force had departed. But since no outward result remained visible, fervent and mystical teachers could not well avoid searching for the invisible; and thus the area of operations was removed from the flesh to the spirit. The words of Holy Scripture would, with a little straining, bear such a colourable translation: and so was laid the foundation of that belief now current in a great part of Christendom. The Greek Church still practices unction, but rather in memory of a venerated custom, wherein God’s mercy was aforetime present; the Latin, unfortunately, is bound by its Council of Trent (Sessio xiv.) to believe “extreme unction to be a sacrament, instituted by Christ, conferring good, remitting sins, and comforting the infirm.” Its authorised manual of devotion—The Crown of Jesus (p. 710)—says, “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in His tender solicitude for those whom He has redeemed by His precious blood, has been pleased to institute another sacrament, to help us at that most important hour on which eternity depends—the hour of death. This sacrament is called Extreme Unction, or the last anointing.” And further explains, “The priest, in administering this sacrament, anoints the five principal senses of the body—the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the lips, the hands and the feet—because these have been employed during life in offending God. At each anointing he pronounces these words: ‘May the Lord by this holy anointing, and by His own most tender mercy, pardon thee whatever sin thou hast committed, by thy sight, hearing,’ &c. . . .” Notwithstanding this lamentable departure from right exegesis, some divines think it wise and well to reflect how far with profit the ancient ceremony could be revived; while others would rather let it slumber with the past. “When miraculous powers ceased, it was reasonable that the unction should cease also.” Still more reasonable is it that even the form or memorial, however touching and beautiful, should be abandoned, rather than we should seem by it to be at one with the changed—alas! the false—teaching of that Church of man’s tradition, Rome.


Verse 16

(16) Confess your faults one to another.—The meaning attributed to the words of this verse by many devout Catholics cannot be established either from the opinion of antiquity, or a critical examination of the Greek text according to modern schools. “We have,” observes Alford, “a general injunction arising out of a circumstance necessarily to be inferred in the preceding example (James 5:14-15). There, the sin would of necessity have been confessed to the elders, before the prayer of faith could deal with it. And seeing the blessed consequences in that case ‘generally,’ says the Apostle, in all similar cases, and ‘one to another universally, pursue the same salutary practice of confessing your sins . . .’ Confess therefore one to another—not only to the elders (presbyters) in the case supposed, but to one another generally—your transgressions, and pray for one another that ye may be healed, in case of sickness, as above. The context here forbids any wider meaning . . . and it might appear astonishing, were it not notorious, that on this passage, among others, is built the Romish doctrine of the necessity of confessing sins to a priest.”

Not that all Roman Catholic divines, indeed, have thus read the injunction. Some of the ablest and greatest have admitted “that we cannot certainly affirm sacramental confession to have been meant or spoken of in this place” (Hooker). How then did the gradual perversion take hold of men’s minds? The most laborious investigation of history and theology will alone answer the question properly; and here only a brief résumé is possible. There can be little doubt that, strictly consonant with the apostolic charge, open confession was the custom of old. Offenders hastened to some minister of God, and in words, by which all present in the congregation might take notice of the fault, declared their guilt; convenient remedies were as publicly prescribed, and then all present joined in prayer to God. But after awhile, for many patent reasons, this plain talk about sins was rightly judged to be a cause of mischief to the young and innocent; and such confessions were relegated to a private hearing. The change was in most ways beneficial, and hardly suspected of being a step in a completely new doctrine. It needed years—centuries, in fact—to develop into the hard system of compulsory individual bondage which cost Europe untold blood and treasure to break asunder. A salutary practice in the case of some unhappy creatures, weakened by their vices into a habit of continual sin, was scarcely to be conceived as a rule thrust upon all the Christian world. Yet such it was, and “at length auricular confession, followed by absolution and satisfaction, was elevated to the full dignity of a necessary sacrament. The Council of Trent anathematises all who deny it to be truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ Himself, and necessary to salvation (jure divino); or who say that the method of confessing secretly to the priest alone . . . is alien to Christ’s institution, and of human invention” (Harold Browne). Marvellous perversity of acute brains and worthy sentiment, showing only how steep is the way of error; and how for Christian as for Jew the danger of tradition is perilous indeed. “To conclude,” in the words of Hooker, “we everywhere find the use of confession, especially public, allowed of, and commended by the fathers; but that extreme and rigorous necessity of auricular and private confession, which is at this day so mightily upheld by the Church of Rome, we find not. It was not then the faith and doctrine of God’s Church, as of the Papacy at this present—(1) that the only remedy for sin after baptism is sacramental penitency; (2) that confession in secret is an essential part thereof; (3) that God Himself cannot now forgive sins without the priest; (4) that because forgiveness at the hands of the priests must arise from confession in the offender, therefore to confess unto him is a matter of such necessity as, being not either in deed, or, at the least, in desire, performed, excludeth utterly from all pardon, and must consequently in Scripture be commanded wheresoever any promise of forgiveness is made. No, no; these opinions have youth in their countenance. Antiquity knew them not; it never thought nor dreamed of them” (E. P., vi. iv. 14).

“As for private confession,” says Jewel in his Apology, “abuses and errors set apart, we condemn it not, but leave it at liberty.” Such must be the teaching of any Church which, in the epigram of Bishop Ken, “stands distinguished from all papal and puritan innovations,” resting upon God’s Word, and the earliest, holiest, simplest, best traditions of the Apostles of His dear Son. And if an ancient custom has become a universal practice in the Latin communion, presumed to be of sacramental virtue, scholars will tell us that the notion has never been absent altogether from any branch of the Catholic Church; and that in some shape or form, it lives in most of those societies which sprang into existence at the Reformation largely from abhorrence of the tyranny and misuse of confession.

The effectual fervent prayer . . .—Better, The prayer of a righteous man availeth much in its working. It moves the hand of Him Who moves the world.

“What are men better than sheep, or goats,

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer—

Both for themselves, and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is, every way,

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

In Matthew 14:2, and Mark 6:14, we read of John the Baptist, that “mighty works do show forth themselves in him.” A nearer approach to the sense would be “they work”—energise, if we might coin a word; and such is also the meaning of the present passage—the prayer of the just, pleading, striving fervently, hath power with God, even like Israel of old, and shall prevail (Genesis 32:28). Some divines trace a literal force in the passage, finding in it an allusion to the Energumens of the first century (the “mediums” of that age), who were possessed by demons; that, just as these unhappy beings strove in their bondage, so equally—nay, infinitely more—should Christians “wrestle with the Lord.”


Verse 17

(17) Elias.—James supplies a lacuna in the story of Elijah. In 1 Kings 17:1, the prophet simply and sternly tells Ahab “there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” Further on (1 Kings 18:41-46) “there is a sound of abundance of rain.” In our Epistle we read that Elias “prayed earnestly”—literally, prayed in his prayer, a Hebraistic form of emphasis (see margin). He asked for drought, and it lasted three years and a half, so that “there was a sore famine in Samaria.” He prayed once more, and “the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain,” and thus again “the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man.” Yet Elijah was no demi-god; we even learn how he shrank from his prophet’s yoke, and longed to die. No one therefore may despair in his petitions but rather let his “requests be made known unto God;” for “men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1).

It rained not on the earth.—This Orientalism need not be a snare to the most literal of readers. The punishment, because of Ahab and Jezebel, fell on their own kingdom, and not the whole world. In a similar hyperbole Obadiah told Elijah, concerning this very famine, “there is no nation, or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee” (1 Kings 18:10).


Verse 19

(19) Brethren.—My brethren, it rather ought to be. The last, and, to some, the dearest of the wise Apostle’s remarks, is this on conversion; and it fitly closes his loving and plain-speaking Letter.

If any of you do err . . .—Better thus, If one of you be led away from the truth, and one convert him. It is not the wilful error, so much as the being seduced by others, who draw the unwary from their proper course, till in time they become of themselves “wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude 1:13). As the leading away was an act prompted by the devil, so the bringing home is the service of God, and each will have its fit reward. The sinner is riding, as it were, headlong to destruction, when a friend lays hold upon the rein, and literally “converts” him, i.e., turns him round; but, observe, the wanderer is still far from home, and many a weary league must he traverse, even with face turned and kept heavenward, before the end be neared.


Verse 20

(20) Let him know.—Or, as it rather seems to be, Know ye; be absolutely sure of this, in a knowledge better than all the Gnostic and Agnostic learning of the day. He which turneth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death—the means thereto being given him by the Saviour of all—and shall hide a multitude of sins; not, of course, his own, but those of the penitent, brought back by this good servant into the fold. So is it possible to be a fellow-worker with Christ (2 Corinthians 6:1), and a sharer in His work of salvation, as, in another sense, we too vicariously suffer for the sins and faults of others. (Comp. Colossians 1:24, and Butler’s Analogy, part 2, chap. 5)

What St. James was in word that also was he in deed; for he “prayed fervently” for the pardon and conversion of those who killed him. “Hold,” said some of the by-standers. when the martyr sank upon the stones, “the Just is praying for you!” Stephen’s prayer won Saul for the infant Church: it can hardly be that James’s last breathings of pity were unanswered of God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on James 5:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/james-5.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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