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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

James 5

Verse 1

This chapter has a dramatic denunciation of the wealthy class who had murdered the Messiah, that is, the rich Sadducean aristocracy in Jerusalem who had slain "the Just One" (James 5:6), and whose approaching doom was prophetically announced in this denunciation. This paragraph (James 5:1-6) is parallel to those passages in the gospels which Jesus Christ pronounced against Jerusalem, and the similar pronouncement of the apostle Paul in Acts 28:25-28. Calvin was probably correct in failing to find here any call to repentance.[1] It was past time for that. The hour was approaching when the wrath of God would be poured out upon Israel for their final rejection of Christ; and James adopted the stern language of the Old Testament prophets for pronouncing their doom. As Gibson said, "This paragraph might almost be a leaf torn out of the Old Testament."[2] Despite the original application of these verses, however, there remains an eloquent warning for all men who may be tempted to amass their wealth through selfishness and exploitation. If Christians are in this ungodly class, the warning is for them also. As Lenski said, "Merely bearing the Christian name does not exempt them."[3] James, more than any other New Testament writer, identified the true reason why "the righteous one" was slain. It resulted directly from the selfish hatred of the Jewish religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, a hatred which was inspired by Jesus' twice cleansing the temple and challenging their godless robbing of the people. It was their conduct in the temple that figured prominently in the teachings of Jesus; but in this inspired paragraph, James gives a little more extensive view of their "operations," in the wicked defrauding of farm laborers, and their selfish lives of luxury.

The next paragraph (James 5:7-12) has an admonition directed to the brethren with a plea for them to be patient and wait until the Lord himself would avenge their wrongs and execute judgment upon their oppressors. There is more here than merely a social injustice. "The rich" in focus here were also the persecutors of Christians (James 2:6,7).

[1] Calvin as quoted by E. G. Punchard, Ellicott's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 375.

[2] E. C. S. Gibson, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 21, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 67.

[3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938), p. 644.

Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. (James 5:1)

Ye rich ... "Neither here nor elsewhere in the New Testament are the rich denounced simply because they are rich."[4] Many God-fearing souls have been wealthy, from the days of Job and Abraham until the present day; and the frequent New Testament warnings relative to riches must always be understood as reference to wealth held without regard for the kingdom of God. Yet, there is an inherent dishonesty in riches themselves, meaning not that such wealth was dishonorably procured, or even that its possessor is unmindful of God, but that wealth inherently, within itself, has an evil influence. For discussion of this, see in my Commentary on Luke, pp. 349,350.

Weep and howl for your miseries ... "The verb [@ololuzein] (used here) means more than to wail; it means to shriek ... it depicts the frantic terror of those upon whom the judgment of God has come."[5] This supports the interpretation that what we are dealing with here is a judgment of God upon a self-hardened and rebellious people.

Which are coming upon you ... The tense of the verbs in this paragraph is the present perfect, the traditional prophetic tense of the Old Testament, in which God's judgments are announced in the present tense, indicating that such prophesies are as certain to be fulfilled as if fulfillment had already come to pass. Gibson said that "The perfects are probably to be explained as prophetic in accordance with a common Hebrew idiom."[6]

[4] A. F. Harper, Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), p. 238.

[5] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), p. 115.

[6] E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 67.

Verse 2

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten.

All the fabulous wealth of the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem would prove utterly worthless to prevent the "miseries" coming upon them. Their great stores of oil and wheat would be turned into famine by the siege against the city. Their fine garments would prove as worthless as a moth-eaten rag. And did such miseries indeed come upon them? Alas, they did. As Gibson observed, "The Jewish historian (Josephus) was the unconscious witness of the fulfillment of the prophecies of our Lord and his apostles against Jerusalem."[7] The best commentary upon what befell Jerusalem is found in the works of Josephus, who related in detail the unspeakable horror, disaster, slaughter, famine and total ruin, not merely of the city alone, but even of the temple and everything else. All the major kinds of wealth were enumerated here by James. The riches that would be "corrupted" were supplies like those of corn and oil; fine clothing was also a standard treasure of the rich. Gold and silver would be mentioned next.

Verse 3

Your gold and your silver are rusted; and their rust shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh as fire. Ye have laid up your treasures in the last days.

Gold ... silver ... rusted ... The precious metals themselves did not rust, of course, and James certainly knew that; but the base alloys evil men had mixed with them did rust. The gold and silver of the Sadducean enemies were in no sense "pure," but they had been mixed with fraud, deceit, oppression, falsehood and murder; and the metaphor of rusted gold and silver is eloquent. Even the most precious assets would be of no avail when the judgment fell.

A testimony against you ... As the blood of righteous Abel cried unto God, just so the Sadducean wealth of Jerusalem would cry to heaven for vengeance. Long centuries of God's forbearance and patient love, still spurned, still contemptuously rejected, would at last reap their inevitable harvest.

And shall eat your flesh as fire ... This is a metaphor. The woes coming upon them were, in fact, caused by their inordinate love of that very wealth so avidly and fraudulently acquired; thus it was appropriate to say that the wicked riches unjustly extorted and wickedly abused would indeed eat their flesh as fire. Punchard declared that "The wages of the traitor, the spoil of the thief, and the wealth of the oppressor burn the hands that clasp them. Memories of the wrongs shiver through each guilty soul like fire."[8]

Dummelow referred this to "the siege of Jerusalem."[9] Likewise, Carson:

The last days were already upon them. The Christian is always in the last days (Acts 2:17; 1 John 2:18). The reference is to the last days before the Second Advent, of which the destruction of Jerusalem was a type.[10]

In the destruction of Jerusalem, the wealthy Sadduceans lost all of their wealth, and more than a million were ruthlessly murdered, fulfilling perfectly the promise of Jesus that "The king was wroth; and he sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned their city" (Matthew 22:7). This was "the last days" of the Jewish commonwealth.

Despite the Old Testament overtones of this passage, the spirit and teaching of the New Testament also permeate it, as indicated by this reference to "the last days," and the laying up of treasures where moth and rust doth consume (James 5:2), a plain reference to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:20f.

[8] E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 375.

[9] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1037.

[10] T. Carson, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 580.

Verse 4

Behold the hire of the laborers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth out: and the cries of them that reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.

It was not merely the rejection of Christ that provoked the judgment of God upon the Jewish state, although that was sufficient; but it was their gross rebellion against the very law they pretended so much to adore. Leviticus 13:13, and Deuteronomy 24:15, and countless other passages forbade the withholding of the laborers' pay even for the space of a single day, but the evil men James denounced had withheld it altogether, defrauding them of it.

The hire of the laborers ... This is an eloquent statement. It identifies the place of the offense cited as Jerusalem of Judea, the rest of the civilized world of that period having all of the farm work done by slaves. "Only in Palestine would field laborers have been hired help; elsewhere in the Roman Empire the fields were worked by slaves."[11] It also means that this epistle was surely written before the destruction of Jerusalem, because after that event the slave system prevailed in Judea also.

Lord of Sabaoth ... Some writers seize upon this as proof of their allegation that here we have a Jewish writing; but their error is due to a failure to discern James' reason for this usage. The judgment about to fall upon Israel was due to their having rejected the teachings of the Lord of Sabaoth, as inculcated in the Law of Moses; and it was most fitting that this lapse on their part should have been mentioned in connection with this prophetic announcement of their destruction. The expression means "The Lord of Hosts," "The God of the heavenly armies," "God of the heavenly hosts (such as the sun, moon and stars)," "God of all the armies of angels arranged in an orderly host," etc., etc. It speaks of the omnipotence, glory and eternity of Almighty God. Tasker called this "One of the most majestic of all the titles of God in the Old Testament."[12] The only other New Testament usage of this title is in Romans 9:29, where Paul quoted it from Isaiah in exactly the same context as that in which James used it here, namely, that of discussing the apostasy of Israel. How strange it is that some fail to see the same connection here.

[11] A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 238.

[12] R. V. G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 113.

Verse 5

Ye have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure; ye have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter.

Nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter ... This is a reference (a) to their delicate living and their pleasures, called here "nourishing their hearts" and (b) to the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem, called here "a day of slaughter," the Old Testament expression meaning "the day of God's judgment" (Isaiah 34:6; Ezekiel 21:15); and let it be noted that the day had already arrived. Their sins continued in a day of slaughter, that is, up until the very moment of the impending judgment. As Carson put it, "They were like animals gorging themselves on the very day of their destruction."[13] As Adam Clarke said, concerning "the last days" of James 5:3, and the "day of slaughter" here, "This is not to be understood as the judgment day, but as the last days of the Jewish commonwealth."[14] Carson also said that the best exposition of this verse is "Josephus' account of the destruction of Jerusalem."[15]

[13] T. Carson, op. cit., p. 580.

[14] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. VI (London: Carlton and Porter, 1829), p. 824.

[15] T. Carson, op. cit., p. 580.

Verse 6

Ye have condemned, ye have killed the righteous one; he doth not resist you.

The righteous one ... is an expression used of Christ in a number of New Testament references (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), and this is clearly the meaning of it here. That James did not specify Christ by name is no problem, because New Testament writers generally were most reluctant to mention by name their own family; and James adhered to this rule, making only enough exceptions to identify Jesus as the Christ and Saviour. Dummelow, and many others, concede that "this may refer to the Lord,"[16] and in the total absence of any reason why it should not be referred to him, this is the way we shall construe it. Ward likewise allowed that "James seems to see the condemnation of the Messiah repeated in the experience of his righteous subjects."[17] Tasker and Gibson also apply this to righteous men generally; but, while it is clear enough that it is true of righteous men generally the specific reference here must be to Christ. Our interpretation of this whole paragraph will hardly allow any other meaning. The great sin of the heartless rich being thus condemned and judged was that of murdering the Messiah. "Ye have condemned ..." indicates formal trial and passing sentence, details that were often absent from their unjust dealings with the poor. "Ye have killed ..." This, they did not generally do to the poor; but they effectively wrought the crucifixion of Christ. Barclay admitted that this verse "could be a reference to Jesus Christ,"[18] though he left the question open. That this is actually the meaning will appear in the further examination of the last clause.

He doth not resist you ... It is a well know fact that the Greek words here may be either affirmative or interrogative, the latter being in all probability correct. Hort suggested, and Ropes advocated that it be read as a question, "Doth he not resist you?"[19] Tasker explained that this would have a prophetic meaning, demanding an affirmative reply.[20] The true meaning of the clause then is, "You have killed the Christ, but will he not resist you? .... Do you really think you can escape judgment for such a crime as that?" Thus read, this verse is a powerful and dramatic conclusion of this terrible, yet magnificent, prophecy. The oppression of the poor, the persecution of the church, the cruel and heartless crucifixion of the Messiah inspired James in this sublime paragraph to announce the forthcoming judgment of God as about to fall upon the perpetrators of such wickedness.

While construing this paragraph as primarily a prophecy against entrenched Judaism, it should also be observed that it is charged with social consequences of the most extensive dimensions. As Barclay said:

One of the mysteries is how Christianity ever came to be regarded as the opium of the people. There is no book in any literature that speaks so explosively of social injustice as does the Bible. It does not condemn wealth as such, but there is no book which more strenuously insists on wealth's responsibilities, and on the perils that surround the man of wealth.[21]

This passage (James 5:1-6) deserves to rank alongside the greatest passages of the Bible for its tremendous social implications. Charles David Eldridge identified the Bible as the source of all social justice in these words:

The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers denounce the exclusive privileges of the rich, and the usurpation of the rights of the poor, and strenuously enforce their demands for righteous dealings among men. The Bible, like an unfailing arsenal, has supplied the ammunition for the age-long struggle for liberty.[22]

Such qualities shine with exceptional brilliance in James' thundering denunciation in this passage.

The connection with the foregoing in the following passage (James 5:7-12) is most intimate and instructive. With Lenski we deplore the blindness which has viewed these as isolated statements. "He is charged with patching heterogeneous pieces together. A redactor (!) is also mentioned."[23] It is simply incredible that men should not see how closely James followed the teachings of Jesus Christ, the writings of the New Testament authors, and the teachings of the Old Testament in this epistle. There is no need whatever to quote from apocalyptic literature, the book of Wisdom, Sirach and the inter-testamental writings in an effort to understand James. The Holy Bible illuminates every word that he wrote.

The historical situation in which this epistle occurs is that of the expectancy permeating the whole church during those years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which was known and anticipated throughout the world of that period. Christ had categorically predicted it in a prophecy that so inspired the church that when the city was finally destroyed, not a Christian perished in the disaster. They, having been forewarned, fled to Pella. This universal expectancy which dominated Christian thought in this period is conspicuous in the writings of Paul, who noted with consternation a flowering of conceit and gloating expectancy among the Gentile segment of Christianity, and who at Once wrote the book of Romans, addressing it specifically to that conceit (see in my Commentary on Romans, pp. 412,413). In the same manner, James in this epistle addressed that air of expectancy (especially among the poor who had made up the vast majority of Jewish Christianity), which as the years passed and Jerusalem was still standing, had tended to be alloyed with impatience. The vital, intimate and urgent connection is simply this: (1) the first six verses are a prophecy of the certain and impending overthrow of the Sadducean overlords who were notorious oppressors of the poor and the terminal heirs of that generation which had murdered the Son of God; (2) the next six verses are concerned with the proper behavior and attitude of the Christians who were destined to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy.

[16] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit, p. 1037.

[17] Ronald A. Ward, New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 1233.

[18] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 120.

[19] R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 116.

[20] Ibid.

[21] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 117.

[22] Source of this quotation unknown.

[23] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 645.

Verse 7

Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain.

Until the coming of the Lord ... In Jesus' great prophetic utterances regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, as recorded in Matthew 24; Mark 13, and Luke 21, our Lord blended the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem with those of the coming of the end of the world; and, in all probability, not even the apostles and other New Testament writers understood until long afterward that the two events would be separated by a vast distance in time. Only time would reveal that the destruction of Jerusalem, which was indeed the end of the Jewish dispensation, of the Jewish state, and of Judaistic persecution of Christianity, would be only a type of the destruction of the whole world at the Second Advent. They fully understood that Jerusalem was to be destroyed before that "generation" had passed (see in my Commentary on Mark for double meaning of "generation," p. 292). "Coming of the Lord," therefore, in this place has primary reference to the destruction of Jerusalem; but in its wider reference to the Second Advent, the admonition of "patience" applies to all generations of Christians.

Be patient, therefore ... "Patience," as used here, does not mean merely patience with respect to persons, but as Gibson noted, "It includes endurance in respect of things (that is, of events)."[24] Harper paraphrased the meaning as "Patiently accept God's delay in the timing of our Lord's return."[25]

The early and latter rain ... "The husbandman" here is a farmer who, after planting his crops, does not expect the harvest at once, but patiently waits until the early and latter rains have sprouted and matured the grain. As Wessel explained:

In Palestine, the early rain in October and November came after the crop was planted, and the latter rain in April and May when they were maturing. Both were crucial for the success of the crop.[26]

Some have seen in this illustration an intimation that God in his harvest of the earth will also wait for the early rain (that prosperous era of Christianity before the destruction of Jerusalem), and the latter rain (the evangelization of the world prior to the final advent of Christ). Although interesting, it is precarious to make such an illustration the basis of any specific prophesy. However, as Carson noted, "The words naturally recall our Lord's comparison of the consummation of the age to a harvest (Matthew 13:39)."[27] Joel also has some words in the same line of thought (Joel 2:23).

[24] E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 68.

[25] A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 242.

[26] Walter W. Wessel, Wycliffe New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 961.

[27] T. Carson, op. cit., p. 580.

Verse 8

Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

It is difficult not to lose patience with those commentators who receive every such reference as this as an occasion for declaiming upon the "mistake" of all the New Testament writers in expecting the "coming of the Lord" (in his final advent, of course) as an event certain to occur in their lifetime. See extended discussion of "The Speedy Return" of Christ, under 1 Thessalonians 1:10, in CT. The particular "coming of the Lord" mentioned by James here was indeed "at hand." As James would declare a little later, "The judge standeth before the doors" (James 5:9).

Verse 9

Murmur not, brethren, one against another, that ye be not judged: behold, the judge standeth before the doors.

The judge standeth before the doors ... It is agreed by all that "the judge" here is Christ, thus justifying the conclusion that "the judge" mentioned a moment earlier in James 4:12 is also Christ. As Roberts observed, "The clause reflects the very words of Jesus (Mark 13:29; Matthew 24:33). The judge is Christ."[28]

Murmur not ... This is "grudge not" in the KJV, another example of words changing their meaning. "Grudge has curiously changed its meaning from an outward murmur to an inward feeling."[29] The type of murmuring which was likely to have existed in the churches which originally received this letter was that of complaining because so many years had passed and yet the old Sadducean hypocrites were still totally in charge in Jerusalem. During the interval between the governorships of Festus and Albinus, the wicked high priest Ananus seized the opportunity to murder James the author of this epistle.

He convened the judges and brought before them James a brother of Jesus who was called Christ .... He accused him of having transgressed the law and delivered him up to be stoned.[30]

Unlike many early traditions, this one is generally received as being authentic.[31] Punchard has this additional reference to it:

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?" Failing to receive an answer, they said, "Let us stone this James the Just." So, they threw him from the pinnacle of the temple, after which he was beaten to death with a fuller's club.[32]

Thus, it is particularly interesting that James' words in this very verse were mentioned on the occasion of his martyrdom.

Dummelow's paraphrase seems to be an accurate reflection of James' admonition in this verse: "Do not let your irritation and soreness at outside oppression vent itself in impatience and grumbling towards one another."[33]

[28] J. W. Roberts, The Letter of James (Austin, Texas: The Sweet Publishing Company, 1977), p. 154.

[29] E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 377.

[30] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, 20:9. 1 (200).

[31] Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 141.

[32] E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 377.

[33] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 1037.

Verse 10

Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spake in the name of the Lord.

The mention of "prophets" suggests that there were many of these whose lives were good examples of suffering and of patience; but, in the next verse, James would mention only the example of Job, perhaps singling out this one because of the significant time element involved in his example, exactly the crucial factor in the problem of the brethren addressed by James. Note the repeated use of "brethren" (James 5:7,10).

Verse 11

Behold, we call them blessed that endured: ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, how that the Lord is full of pity, and merciful.

We call them blessed that endured ... The true meaning of "patience" in this section is inherent in this. In the sense of stoicism, Job would hardly classify as "patient"; however, he endured despite every temptation.

The patience of Job ... "Job is mentioned only here in the New Testament,"[34] however, the book of Job is quoted in 1 Corinthians 3:19, which refers to Job 5:13.

The Lord is full of pity, and merciful ... Punchard suggested that James here "in the fullness of his gratitude, coined a word for this single phrase. `Great-hearted' would be close to its meaning,"[35]

The particular purpose served by the introduction of Job as an example here was explained by James Moffatt thus:

(The point of this is that) patient endurance can sustain itself on the conviction that hardships are not meaningless, but that God has some end or purpose in them which he will accomplish.[36]

The marvelous endurance of Job's faith in God is inherently visible in his reaction to one disaster after another. When death overtook his family, he said, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). When even his wife suggested that he curse God and die, he said, "What, shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). When his philosophical friends accused him of sin, citing the calamities which had overwhelmed him as proof of it, he said, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15).

[34] Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 962.

[35] E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 378.

[36] James Moffatt, The Moffatt New Testament Commentary, James (Garden City, N.Y.: 1928), p. 74.

Verse 12

But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment.

Above all ... This should be understood merely in the sense of "especially." It was a common sin of that day to punctuate ordinary conversation with all kinds of imprecations and oaths used as a device for establishing credibility. Apparently, many to whom James wrote were guilty of this, hence the emphasis upon it. Dummelow's paraphrase is: "Avoid especially the use of an oath to strengthen your assertions in ordinary conversation."[37] The words "above all" have the additional utility of identifying the admonition here as having been given originally by the Lord Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 5:34,37). Agreement is felt with Roberts and many others who have insisted that "This passage has nothing to do with solemn and serious and religious oaths."[38] Christ himself permitted himself to be placed under oath for his Great Confession (Mark 14:61,62). The inherent connection of this verse with the foregoing is plain in that it was dealing with the demeanor and attitude of those awaiting "the coming of the Lord" in judgment against Jerusalem. For fuller discussion of the question of oaths, see in my Commentary on Matthew, p. 67.

[37] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 1037.

[38] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 155.

Verse 13

Is any among you suffering? let him pray. Is any cheerful? let him sing praise.

Here begins a series of separate admonitions making up the final section of the epistle.

Any suffering? ... let him pray ... This was, and is, the general rule for suffering of all kinds; and it included even the special cases alluded to in James 5:14 a moment later. In a sense, all healing is divine. Over the main portal of the great Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, N.Y., there are engraved the words: "All healing is of God; physicians only bind up the wounds."

Any cheerful? ... let him sing praise ... Singing, from the earliest New Testament times, was used by the church for the purpose of sanctifying times of emotion, whether joyful or sorrowful. As Harper pointed out, "Christian singing is supposed to be the medium of the light and joyful as well as more serious sentiments."[39]

It is regrettable that commentators, for example, Tasker, and others drag into the interpretation of this verse an attempted justification of instrumental music in Christian worship, thus:

[@Psallo] originally meant to play by touching a stringed instrument ... it describes the stirring of the soul ... it refers to every sounding of God's praises, whether in the company of others or alone, whether vocally with or without musical accompaniment, or silently.[40]

It is a fact eloquently stated by F. F. Bruce that (concerning the Greek words [@psallo] and [@psalmos] as used in this place) "Both are irrelevant to the question of instrumental accompaniment, one way or the other."[41] For those interested in pursuing the subject further, the scholarly work of J. W. Roberts settles the question completely. "Nothing in the context indicates a meaning other than that of vocal music."[42] No matter what the "original meaning" of [@psallo] might have been, the instrument to be "plucked" is given in the sacred text; and it is not a mechanical instrument, but the human voice.

God's church is a singing church. As early as 111 A.D., when Pliny wrote the Emperor Trajan that the Christians assembled very "early on a fixed day and sang by turns a hymn to Christ as God,"[43] until the present day, the churches of Christ ring with the songs of praise and adoration. What a contrast this is with every other religion ever known!

In the orthodox Jewish synagogue, since the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there has been no music, for, when they worship, they remember a tragedy; but, in the Christian church, from the beginning until now, there has been the music of praise.[44]

The Moslem shouts from his minaret at morning, noon and night, "To prayer! To prayer!" The pagan temples for centuries resounded to the brassy cacophony of trumpets and horns. The primitives of the African interior beat their tom-toms. Only the Christian sings!

[39] A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 245.

[40] R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 128.

[41] F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 107.

[42] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 163.

[43] Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 6.

[44] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 129.

Verse 14

Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.

James in this remarkable paragraph plainly has under consideration the charismatic gift of healing, one of the special gifts that attended the early propagation of Christianity for the purpose of confirming the word of God. As Tasker succinctly put it:

It is probable that the mention of oil in this passage is to be regarded as one of the accompaniments of that miraculous healing which was no infrequent occurrence in the apostolic age, and is regarded in the New Testament as a supernatural sign vindicating the truth of the Christian gospel in the early days of its proclamation.[45]

Supporting this view is the fact of the apostles, upon the Lord's instructions, using such a method when they were first sent out by Jesus (Mark 6:13).

An objection to this view has been founded on the fact that the New Testament does not say that "the elders" were the ones who usually possessed such gifts; nevertheless, the passage here may be interpreted as implying that very thing, an implication that is certainly not contradicted by anything else in the New Testament. It is inherently reasonable that the very ones usually endowed by the Holy Spirit with those special gifts would have been, of course, the elders of the church. The miraculous gift of healing was the fourth in Paul's list of nine such gifts (1 Corinthians 12:9).

The understanding of this place is further illuminated by the words of Roberts:

Since it is clearly demonstrated from the New Testament that such miraculous aid existed in the church of that age,

and since this healing would be more certain to offer aid to the sick, it would seem that it might be expected that the instructions of James concern the miraculous healings.[46]

Punchard's quotation from Bishop Browne follows this same line of interpretation, thus:

The aim of the apostolic anointing was bodily recovery, and this exactly corresponds with the miraculous cures of early ages ... so long as such powers remained in the church, it was reasonable that the anointing of the sick should be retained.[47]

Another objection to this view has been based upon the "absence from this passage of `laying on of hands' usually mentioned in connection with the miraculous gift";[48] but since the anointing with oil would necessarily involve "laying on of hands," the objection refutes itself. Carson recognized the interpretation adopted here in saying that "Some believe that we have here the exercise of the miraculous gift of healing."[49] From the citations here, it is clear enough that our interpretation does not lack scholarly support.


Any interpretation of this passage must take account of the Roman Catholic doctrine of extreme unction which is erroneously based upon it. The footnote in the Douay Bible has this: "St. James promulgated here the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Presbyters is certainly used here in the sense of priests."[50]

James did not promulgate the doctrine mentioned. Indeed, it was never even heard of in the Catholic Church itself until centuries after the New Testament was written.

In the twelfth century, Petrus Lombardus named this as the fifth of the Roman sacraments; and three centuries later the Council of Trent established the Catholic sacrament as we know it today.[51]

Regarding the notion that "presbyters," as James used the word here, actually means "priests," this is a preposterous error. There is not a single instance of any such meaning pertaining to "presbyters" in the whole New Testament.

Of the many contradictions in the Roman "sacrament" against the New Testament itself, the following may be noted: (1) The end in view in this passage is the recovery of the patient; in "extreme unction," it is his death which is imminent. (2) In the New Testament, it is the elders of the church who were to be called; in "extreme unction," it is a priest. (3) In the New Testament, it is the bodily recovery of the patient; in "extreme unction," it is the alleged salvation of the soul that is accomplished. "Anointing in the name of the Lord" does not mean that a so-called "sacrament" is in view; because, as Lenski pointed out, "All that we do in word or in deed is done `in the name of the Lord' (Colossians 3:17).[52]

Before leaving these two verses, the sharp distinction between James 5:13 and James 5:14,15 should be marked. The rule for all ages includes prayer for the suffering (James 5:13); the special rule for the miraculous healing still available when James wrote is given in the next two verses. For those who believe that miraculous cures are still being effected, the consideration should be pondered that such "cures" carry no universal conviction, being neither like the truly miraculous cures of the New Testament, nor in any manner serving to confirm the word of the Lord. Those "performing" the cures are also different. Instead of being humble servants of God who never took money for their miracles, the self-glorified "faith-healers" of today have made themselves fantastically rich; and far from being infallible, as were the apostles, in the performance of their wonders, the modern miracle workers fail more often than they succeed, and countless thousands have sought them in vain. Such considerations as these should give pause to any who might suppose that the power James mentioned in these verses is anywhere on earth available to men today.

[45] R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 130.

[46] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 169.

[47] E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 380.

[48] T. Carson, op. cit., p. 591.

[49] Ibid.

[50] The Douay Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1949), in loco.

[51] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 665.

[52] Ibid., p. 663.

Verse 16

Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.

One to another ... Mutuality is certainly implied by this. There is no class of men set up in God's church to hear confessions. No so-called "priest" ever had the right to hear the confessions of the penitent, unless he himself, in turn, would likewise confess his own sins to the confessor. As Roberts aptly wrote:

The Roman Catholic doctrine of auricular confession has no support from this passage. "Elders" does not refer to a priestly set of workers. And not even the elders ever had the power to absolve a sinner or set terms and conditions of his forgiveness.[53]

The cathartic effect of confession, as mutually engaged among Christians, is helpful and beneficial, the purpose of such confessions being that of enlisting the mutual prayers of Christians for each other. There is not in view here any requirement for Christians to confess their sins "to the whole church," a practice which is not only not in view here, but which, under certain circumstances, can have a positively detrimental effect. The holy church itself is not a "priest" standing between the penitent Christian and his forgiveness.

It is felt that the comment of Wessel on this verse is appropriate:

This does not mean that Christians are to indulge in indiscriminate public, or even private confessions; and certainly the passage has nothing to do with confession to a priest.[54]

The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working ... Again, as Wessel said, "There is no unanimity as to how to render this; but the meaning is clear: a good man has great power in prayer."[55] This is as good a place as any to stress the meaning apparent here. No matter what circumstance of suffering or illness may overtake the child of God, the avenue of prayer is open for his seeking relief from the Father himself through Christ. It has been the happy good fortune of this writer to behold many answers to prayers in conditions and circumstances approaching, but not reaching, the miraculous itself. God answers his children's prayers; and the power of those prayers is sealed by James' word in this place.

Regarding the fad of some present-day religious groups unbosoming themselves completely to those initiated into the cult, "It is apt to have more harmful than beneficial results, giving an outlet for an unhealthy exhibitionism."[56]

It is also wrong to take James' words here as laying down any additional condition of a Christian's forgiveness. The apostle Peter made repentance and prayer to be the sole conditions of a sinning, penitent Christian's forgiveness; and it is not true that James here laid down another condition. Helpful and beneficial as confession assuredly is in many circumstances, no new condition is in evidence.

[53] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 173.

[54] Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 962.

[55] Ibid.

[56] R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 135.

Verse 17

Elijah was a man of like passions with us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth for three years and six months.

Elijah ... a man of like passions ... The argument is that Elijah, despite the fact of his being a noted prophet, was nevertheless a fallible and sinful man like the Christians of all generations; but that, in spite of his mortality, sin and imperfections, God mightily answers his prayers, and he will do the same for us.

Three years and six months ... The event in view in these words is recorded in 1 Kings 17:1-18:lff, where the exact duration of the drought is nowhere mentioned. Despite this, the Old Testament expression "in the third year" in that passage is sometimes construed as a "contradiction" of the "three years and six months" of this passage and the one in Luke 4:25. Of course, this is another well-known "pseudocon." As Haley said, "We may reckon `the third year' of the Old Testament, not as indicating the length of the drought, but a reference to the sojourn of Elijah with the widow of Zarephath."[57] In other words, the drought began six months before the famine did, the Old Testament "third year" having reference to the duration of the famine, and the New Testament "three years and six months" referring to the duration of the drought itself. Jesus himself endorsed this calculation (Luke 4:25).

Verse 18

And he prayed again; and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

Significantly, the Old Testament does not specifically mention the prayer of Elijah as being the cause of the drought; but, in this particular, James illuminates the Old Testament. All miracles were wrought in answer to prayer, even those of Jesus, as indicated by John 9:31; John 11:41. See further comment on this in my Commentary on John, p. 284. Thus, if all the miracles of Jesus were wrought in answer to prayer, it would be very illogical to suppose that those wrought by Elijah were achieved in any manner differently.

Verse 19

My brethren, if any among you err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.

The great difficulty for some in these verses, as stated by Ward, is "in the thought of the doom of a Christian."[58] Of course, the source of the difficulty is not in what James said but in the Calvinistic doctrine which has no support in the New Testament, and which, in fact, is contradicted on almost every page of it, including this one. It is no denial of this that the word "convert" used here is the same one used by Peter after he denied the Lord (Luke 22:32). That usage merely confirms the thought that if Peter himself had not been converted even though he was a true believer, he still would have suffered eternal death.

To avoid the thrust of this passage, some follow the course of Wessel in referring "death" here to "physical death."[59] This, however, is not indicated at all. As Roberts said, "Death here is eternal death, the second death of the Bible. Repentance will not save a soul from any other kind of death?[60]

If any err from the truth ... The implications of this are profound. That a Christian can err from the truth is not merely a possibility, but a frequent occurrence. Inherent in this is also a fact, as Barclay put it, that "Truth is something that must be done."[61] Failure to do it is a failure to win eternal life.

Another question that surfaces in reference to these verses is the question of whether or not the covering of "a multitude of sins" applies to the sins of the converted, or to the sins of the one doing the converting. The primary meaning must certainly be the former; although, of course, there is a sense in which those who win souls may Scripturally be said to "save themselves." Thus, Paul wrote Timothy, "In doing this thou shalt save both thyself and them that hear thee" (1 Timothy 4:16). Barclay caught the spirit of these words, "To save another's soul is the surest way to save one's own soul."[62]

Many have commented on James' seemingly abrupt ending of the epistle; but this is altogether appropriate. He closed on the note of every Christian's concern for the reclamation of the backslider, including also the larger sphere of winning the alien lost to Christ. As Tasker aptly phrased it:

No duty laid upon Christians is more in keeping with the mind of their Lord, or more expressive of Christian love, than the duty of reclaiming the backslider.[63]

Here there is no signature, no farewell greeting, no formal closure of any kind, just the bold imperious words of the inspired writer, standing starkly against the mists of fleeting centuries like a massive inscription chiseled into a granite mountain. No pseudonymous writer, no forger, no impostor of later times would have dared to conclude a letter like this. James carries its own inherent testimony of its truth and inspiration of God.

[58] Ronald A. Ward, op. cit., p. 1235.

[59] Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 963.

[60] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 179.

[61] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 133.

[62] Ibid., p. 134.

[63] R. V. G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 142.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on James 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.