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Bible Commentaries
James 1

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

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Verses 1-99


1 4. Trials and their Purpose

1 . a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ ] The description which the writer gives of himself throws no light on his identity. The term “servant,” better slave , as one who had been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20 , 1 Corinthians 7:23 ), was used of themselves by both St Peter (2 Peter 1:1 ) and St Paul (Romans 1:15 Titus 1:1 ). It might be claimed by either of the Apostles who bore the name of James, or by the brother of our Lord, or indeed by any believer. (1 Peter 2:16 ).

It may be noted that this and ch. 2:1 are the only passages in which St James names our Lord, and that the form in which the Name appears is identical with that in the Epistle from the Apostles and Elders assembled under St James’s presidency, in Acts 15:26 .

to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad ] Literally, that are in the dispersion . The superscription is interesting as shewing that the ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel, though they had been carried into a more distant exile than Judah and Benjamin, were thought of, not as lost and out of sight, but as still sharing the faith and hope of their fathers. So St Paul speaks of “the twelve-tribed nation” as “serving God day and night” (Acts 26:7 ), and our Lord’s promise that His twelve disciples should sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28 ), and the Apocalyptic vision of the sealing of the tribes (Revelation 7:5-8 ) imply the same belief. The legend as to the disappearance of the Ten Tribes, which has given rise to so many insane dreams as to their identification with the Red Indians of America or our Anglo-Saxon forefathers, appears for the first time in the Apocryphal 2 Esdras (13:39 47), a book probably of about the same date as the Revelation of St John.

The term, “the dispersion,” the abstract noun being used for the concrete, had come to be a technical term for the Hellenistic and other Jews who were to be found within, or beyond, the limits of the Roman Empire. So the Jews ask whether our Lord will go “to the dispersion of (i. e. among) the Greeks” (John 7:35 ). So St Peter writes to “the sojourners of the dispersion ” in the provinces of Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1 ). The term had probably come into use from the LXX. of Deuteronomy 28:25 (“There shall be a dispersion in all the kingdoms of the world”). So in Judith 5:19, Judah and Benjamin are said “to have come back from the dispersion ,” and the prayer of Nehemiah in 2 Macc. 1:27 is that “God would gather together his dispersion ,”

greeting ] The salutation is the same as in the Epistle purporting to come from the Church over which St James presided, in Acts 15:23 . The literal meaning of the word is to rejoice, and the idiomatic use of the infinitive is a condensed expression of the full “I wish you joy.” It was primarily a formula of Greek letter-writers, but it had been used by the LXX. for the Hebrew “peace” in Isaiah 48:22 , Isaiah 57:21 , and appears in the superscription of the letters of Antiochus in 2 Macc. 9:19. It is the word used in the mock salutations of the soldiers in the history of the Passion, “ Hail , King of the Jews” (Matthew 26:49 , Matthew 27:29 , Matthew 28:9 ). In 2 John verses 10, 11 it is rendered by the colloquial English of “bidding God speed.” It is not used in any other of the Epistles of the New Testament, St Paul and St Peter using the formula “grace and peace.”

2 . count it all joy …] We lose, in the English, the link which connects the wish for “joy” merged in our “greeting,” with the thought which indicates how the wish may be realised even under conditions that seem most adverse to it. The transition may be noticed as characteristic of the style of the Epistle. Other examples of a like method will meet us as we go on. The Greek formula for “all joy” (literally, every kind of joy ) suggests the thought of the varied elements of joy that were to be found in the manifold forms of trial.

into divers temptations ] The word, as commonly in the New Testament, stands for trials that take the form of suffering, rather than for the enticements of pleasure. Comp. Luke 22:28 ; Acts 20:19 ; 1 Corinthians 10:13 ; 1 Peter 1:6 . Its use implies accordingly that those to whom the Epistle was written were passing through a time of adversity. This was true, more or less, of the whole Jewish race, everywhere, but it was specially true of those who being of the Twelve Tribes, also held the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of those most of all who were most within the writer’s view. Comp. 1 Thessalonians 2:14 ; Hebrews 10:32 , Hebrews 10:33 , for the sufferings of Jewish and specially of Hebrew Christians. The word for “fall into” implies an unlooked-for concurrence of adverse circumstances.

3 . that the trying of your faith ] The word for “trying” implies at once a “test,” and a “discipline” leading to improvement. The same phrase meets us, in conjunction also with “divers temptations,” in 1 Peter 1:7 . Each was, perhaps, quoting what had become an axiom of the Church’s life.

worketh patience ] The Greek word always implies more than mere passive submission, the “ endurance unto the end” of Matthew 10:22 , Matthew 24:13 , the perseverance which does not falter under suffering.

4 . But let patience have her perfect work ] Better, and let endurance have a perfect work , there being sequence of thought but not contrast. The word for “perfect” expresses the perfection of that which reaches its end, and so implies, possibly, a reference to our Lord’s words in Matthew 10:22 . The form of the counsel implies that the work might be hindered unless the will of those who were called to suffer co-operated with the Divine purpose. The sufferings must be borne joyfully as well as submissively.

that ye may be perfect and entire ] The latter word implies completeness in all parts or regions of the spiritual life, as the former does the attainment of the end, the completeness of growth. The corresponding substantive is used for the “perfect soundness” of the restored cripple in Acts 3:16 ; the adjective, in a like spiritual application, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 .

wanting nothing ] The English is unfortunately ambiguous. Better, failing or lacking in nothing .

5 8. Wisdom, and the Prayer that gains it

5 . If any of you lack wisdom ] As before, in verses 1 and 2, the prominent word of the preceding clause suggests the opening of the next, the word for “lack” being the same as the “wanting” in the previous verse. The prominence thus given to wisdom is characteristic of the teaching of St James (comp. ch. 3:13 17). It is as though he had largely fashioned his thoughts of the spiritual life on the teaching of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, perhaps also on the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. Wisdom, in its good sense, stands, in New Testament language, as implying both a wider range of thought and a more direct influence on conduct than knowledge (1 Corinthians 12:8 ; Colossians 2:3 ).

that giveth to all men liberally ] Literally, simply , but as to give simply, without reserve or arrière pensée , is to give freely, both the adverb and the corresponding noun often carried with them the idea of liberality (comp. Romans 12:8 ; 2 Corinthians 9:11 , 2 Corinthians 9:13 ). The thought is that God gives absolutely all good gifts to those that ask Him (Matthew 6:11 ), and the highest gift, that of the Spirit that imparts wisdom, is included in the promise (Luke 11:13 ).

and upbraideth not ] The word implies a contrast with human givers who too often, at the time or afterwards, mar their bounty with bitter and reproachful speeches. There seems here a direct allusion to the description in Ecclus. 20:15, of “the gift of a fool,” “He giveth little and upbraideth much,” to the counsel “after thou hast given, upbraid not” (Ecclus. 41:23). Not so, St James implies, does God give, though we are more open to His reproaches than any who are the objects of our bounty can be to ours.

and it shall be given him ] An obvious echo of our Lord’s promise in Matthew 7:7 ; Luke 11:9 .

6 . let him ask in faith ] The prominence thus given to faith at the very outset of the Epistle must be borne in mind in connection with the subsequent teaching of ch. 2:14 26. Faith, i.e. trust in God, as distinct from belief in a dogma, is with him, as with St Paul, of the very essence of the spiritual life.

nothing wavering ] Better, “nothing doubting .” Another echo from our Lord’s teaching (Matthew 21:21 ). The variations in the English version hinder us from seeing that St Paul, when he said that “Abraham staggered not at the promise of God … but was strong in faith” (Romans 4:20 ), was reproducing the very thought and language of St James. The primary idea of the verb used, as here, in the middle voice, is that of the inner “debating” which implies doubt. It does not involve the absolute negation of unbelief, though, as in Romans 4:20 , it tends to this, but represents the state of one who meets the question, “Will God keep His promise?” now with Yes , and now with No . The words of our own poet,

“Faith and Unfaith can ne’er be equal powers,

Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all.”

Tennyson’s Merlin and Vivien .

reproduce the substance of St James’s teaching.

he that wavereth is like a wave ] Better, he that doubteth . The English play upon the word, though happy in itself, has nothing corresponding to it in the Greek. Wycliffe gives “doubt”. Tyndal introduced “waver” in the previous clause, but kept “doubteth” in this.

driven with the wind and tossed ] Better, driven by the winds and blasts , both words describing the action of a storm at sea, the latter pointing especially to sudden gusts and squalls. The image, true at all times and for all nations, was specially forcible for a people to whom, like the Jews, the perils of the sea were comparatively unfamiliar. Comp. the description of the storm in Proverbs 23:34 and the comparison of the wicked to the “troubled sea” in Isaiah 57:20 . Popular speech likens a man who has no stedfastness to a ship drifting on the troubled waves of life. St James goes one step farther and likens him to the unresting wave itself. Now he is in the depths, now uplifted high. In Ephesians 4:14 the same image describes those who are “carried about by every wind of doctrine.” So far as St James wrote from personal experience we trace, perhaps, a recollection of stormy nights upon the Sea of Galilee. If we could identify him with the son of Zebedee, we might think of him as remembering such a night as that of Matthew 8:24 or John 6:18 .

7 . let not that man think …] Faith, undoubting faith, is then the condition of the prayer for wisdom, as of all other prayers, being heard and answered. Without it, the No excludes the Yes , which yet the man will not quite abandon.

of the Lord ] It is a question whether the Divine Title is used in the Old Testament sense, for the Father, or, as generally, though not exclusively, in the New Testament, for the Son. On the whole, looking (1) to the meaning of the word in ch. 5:7, 14, 15, (2) and to the frequent use of “ God ” and “ the Father ,” where Christ is not meant, there seems a balance of evidence in favour of the latter meaning. Christ also, not less than the Father, is thought of as giving or not giving, in answer to prayer. Possibly, however, the word was used without the thought of a distinction between the Divine Persons.

8 . A double minded man …] The context shews that the man so described (the Greek word is not found in any earlier writer and may have been coined by St James) is not the fraudulent man but the waverer, trying to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24 ), halting between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21 ). It answers to the “ double heart ” (Heb. “ a heart and a heart ”) of Psalms 12:2 . In Ecclus. 1:28 we find the same thought, though not the same word, “Come not unto the Lord with a double heart ,” and again in Ecclus. 2:12, where a woe is uttered against the “sinner that goeth two ways ,” in company with “the fearful and faint-hearted.” Clement of Rome (i. 11) reproduces St James’s word. The construction of the sentence is doubtful, and may be taken either as in the English text, or, with “he that doubteth” as the subject and “double-minded, unstable” as predicates.

unstable ] The Greek word is found in the LXX. of Isaiah 54:11 , where the English version has “tossed with tempest.” It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, except as a various reading in ch. 3:8, but the corresponding noun is often used both literally and figuratively (Luke 21:9 ; 1 Corinthians 14:33 ; 2 Corinthians 6:5 , 2 Corinthians 6:12 :20; James 3:16 and the LXX. of Proverbs 26:28 ). There is a slight change of imagery, and the picture brought before us is that of a man who does not walk straight onward, but in “all his ways” goes to and fro, now on this side, now on that, staggering, like a drunken man.

9 11. Riches, and their perishableness

9 . Let the brother of low degree ] The Greek joins the sentence on to the preceding with the conjunction which may be either “and,” or “but,” implying that there is a sequence of ideas of some kind. The train of thought would seem to lie in the fact, as shewn in our Lord’s words (Matthew 6:24 ) that the love of mammon is the most common source of the “double-mindedness” which St James condemns, both in the poor and in the rich. The “brother” is used, as commonly in the New Testament as meaning one of the brotherhood of Christ. The word Christian had probably not as yet come into use in the Churches of Judæa, and was, at any rate, used of the disciples by others rather than by themselves. “Of low degree” is, perhaps, somewhat too narrow a rendering. Better, he that is lowly or more simply “he that is low .” The contrast with the rich man shews that “poverty” is the chief feature in the low estate spoken of.

rejoice ] Better as elsewhere, glory , or exult .

in that he is exalted ] Better, in his exaltation . His lowliness instead of being a thing to be ashamed of, was his true title to honour. Christ had marked him out as an heir of the Kingdom (Luke 6:20 ; see ch. 2:5). Man’s estimate of honour and dishonour is reversed by God.

10 . But the rich, in that he is made low ] Better, in his humiliation or lowliness . The context implies that the rich man also is a “brother.” Such an one was tempted to exult in his wealth as that which raised him above his fellow-men. The view which Christ had taught him to take was, that it placed him on a level lower than that of the poor. His true ground for exultation would be to accept that lower position, to glory in it, as it were, as St Paul gloried in his infirmities (2 Corinthians 12:9 ), and to make himself, by the right use of his wealth, a servant of servants unto his brethren. The two other interpretations which have been given of the words, (1) that suggested by the English, that the rich man is to rejoice when he is brought low by adversity, and (2) that the sentence is to be filled up not by an imperative but an indicative, “but the rich man” (on this assumption, not a “brother”) “exults in what is indeed his degradation,” are, it is believed, less satisfying. Possibly, still keeping the imperative, the words may be taken as ironical “let him glory in his shame.” The whole passage, however interpreted, shews, like chap. 4:11; 1 Peter 5:6 , the impression that had been made on the minds of the disciples by the teaching of their Master in Matthew 23:12 ; Luke 14:11 , Luke 18:14 .

because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away ] This, so the train of thought runs, is that which is most humbling to the man of wealth. His riches are transient. They vanish often during life. He can carry nothing with him when he dies. For the third time in this chapter we notice a close parallelism of thought and language with St Peter (1 Peter 1:24 ), both drawing from Isaiah 40:6 , as a common source.

11 . For the sun is no sooner risen … but it withereth ] Better, for the sun arose and withered . The Greek has nothing that answers to “no sooner,” and the verbs are throughout in the past tense as in a narrative. It is as though St James were using the form not of a similitude, but of a parable, apparently not without a reminiscence of some features of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:6 ) and of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:30 ).

with a burning heat ] Better, with the scorching heat , probably the Simoom , or hot wind that blows from the desert in the early morning, as in Luke 12:55 . The whole description comes, as above, from Isaiah 40:6 . Comp. also Jonah 4:8 .

falleth … perisheth ] Better, as continuing the narrative, fell perished .

fade away ] Better, perhaps, as expressing the force of the Greek passive, be blighted . The Greek verb is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but meets us in the Wisd. of Song of Solomon 2:8 , in a passage which may well have been present to the mind of the writer. An adjective derived from it is found in the “crown that fadeth not away,” literally, the amaranthine crown , of 1 Peter 5:4 . See also 1 Peter 1:4 . The idea of the “fading” of earthly riches, the “unfading” character of heavenly, was another thought common to the two writers.

the grace of the fashion of it ] Better, the goodliness of its form , literally, of its face . The first substantive is not found elsewhere in the New Testament.

in his ways ] Literally, in his goings or journeyings , as in Luke 13:22 , perhaps with a special reference to the restlessness in trading which shewed itself in the money-making Jews of Palestine. “Going” and “getting” ( poreuomai and emporeuomai ) made up the sum total of their ideal of life. Comp. chap. 4:13. A various reading gives “in his gettings ” here, as a possible meaning, but the balance of evidence is in favour of “goings.”

12 15. Temptation, and its history

12 . Blessed is the man that endureth temptation ] The mode of teaching by Beatitudes reminds us at once of the Sermon on the Mount, with which, it will be seen afterwards, the Epistle has so many points of contact. Stress is laid on “enduring” as distinct from simply “suffering,” and the “temptation” is prominently, as in verse 2, that of suffering coming from without.

for when he is tried ] Better, when he has stood the trial , the Greek adjective being applied, as in Romans 14:18 , Romans 16:10 , to one who has been tested and approved.

the crown of life ] The image of the “crown” or wreath of the conqueror for the reward of the righteous is common both to St Peter who speaks of “the crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4 ) and to St Paul who speaks of “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8 ). The “crown of life,” i. e. of eternal life, which is the crown, is, however, peculiar to St James. The figurative use of the word is characteristic of the Son of Sirach (Ecclus. 1:11, 16, 18, 25:6), and of the LXX. of Proverbs (1:9, 4:9). In Wisd. 5:16, we have, in the Greek, the kindred word “diadem.”

which the Lord hath promised to them that love him ] Here again it is a question whether “the Lord” is to be taken in its special New Testament sense, or generally of God. As before (see Note on verse 7) the balance turns in favour of the former, and the tense of the verb (“which the Lord promised”), as if referring to some special utterance, may lead us to think of such words as those of John 14:21 , John 14:23 . A more general promise of the same kind to those that love the Lord is found in Ecclus. 34:16.

13 . Let no man say when he is tempted ] The thought of trial as coming from outward circumstances, and forming part of man’s spiritual education, leads to a deeper inquiry as to its nature, and so passes on to the wider notion of temptation, which includes the allurements of desire as well as the trials of adversity, In both cases men found refuge from the reproof of conscience in a kind of fatalism. God had placed them in such and such circumstances; therefore, He was the author of the sin to which those circumstances had led. The excuse is one which presents itself to men’s minds at all times, but here also there is a special point of contact with the Son of Sirach: “Say not thou, it is through the Lord that I fell away” (Ecclus. 15:11). It may be noted that the popular Pharisaism, which taught a doctrine of necessity (Joseph. Ant . xviii. 1. § 3; Wars , ii. 8. § 14) while speculatively maintaining also the freedom of man’s will, was likely to develope into this kind of practical fatalism.

I am tempted of God ] The order of the Greek words is more emphatic, It is from God that I am tempted .

for God cannot be tempted with evil ] The English “cannot be tempted” answers to a Greek verbal adjective, not used elsewhere in the New Testament or in the LXX. version of the Old, and not found in Classical Greek. Its meaning as used in later Greek writers, is simply “untried,” and so “unversed in,” and it has been maintained that it is so used here, but the context makes it almost certain that St James used it in the sense of “ untempted .” At first it might seem as if this assertion did not meet the thought to which it appears to be answer, but the latent premiss of the reasoning seems to be that no one tempts to evil, who has not been first himself tempted by it. If men shrank from the blasphemy of affirming that of God, they ought to shrink also from the thought that He could ever tempt them to evil. He who was absolutely righteous, could not be the originator of sin. He tries men, but does not tempt them.

neither tempteth he any man ] Better, and He (the pronoun is emphatic) tempteth no one .

14 . when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed ] Both the participles are primarily used of the way in which animals are taken, the first of capture by the hook or noose, as with fish or the crocodile (Herod. 11. 70), the second of beasts or birds which are attracted by food set for them as a bait. Both words had come to be used figuratively of sensual passion, the latter twice by St Peter (2 Peter 2:14 , 2 Peter 2:18 ), and the imagery that follows here suggests the thought that St James had the picture of the harlot of Proverbs 7:6-23 present to his thoughts. There the “young man void of understanding” yields to her allurements as “a bird hasteth to the snare.” “Lust,” or rather, desire , in its widest sense, including desire for safety, riches, ease, as well as sensual pleasure, is to man’s will as the harlot-temptress of that picture. The temptations of which the earlier verses of the Chapter had spoken are thus, though no longer prominent, not excluded. Adversity and persecution expose men to the evil solicitations of their lower nature, to love of ease and safety, no less than luxury and prosperity. In both “desire” tempts the will to depart from what it knows to be the will of God.

15 . when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin ] The image suggested in the previous verse is developed with an almost startling boldness. The will that yields to desire in so doing engenders evil. And as from that fatal embrace, there comes first the conception and then the birth of sin. But sin also grows; it has its infancy of purpose and its maturity of act; and so the parable is continued. Sin, in its turn, grows up, and by its union with the will becomes the mother of a yet more terrible offspring, and that offspring is Death, the loss of the true life of the soul, which consists in its capacity for knowing God. The second of the two words rendered “bringeth forth” (better, perhaps, engendereth ) differs from the first, and seems, as a less common word, to have been used for extraordinary or monstrous births (such e. g. as a woman’s bearing four or five children), and so is appropriate here. The word occurs again in verse 18, where see note. In looking at the allegory as a whole we note: (1) its agreement as to the relation of sin and death, with the teaching of St Paul (Romans 5:12 ); (2) its resemblance to like allegories in the literature of other nations, as in the well-known Choice of Hercules that bears the name of Prodicus, in which Pleasure appears with the garb and allurements of a harlot; (3) its expansion in the marvellous allegory of Sin and Death in Milton’s Paradise Lost (B. II. 745 814), where Satan represents Intellect and Will opposed to God, Sin its offspring, self-generated, and Death the fruit of the union of Mind and Will with Sin. In the incestuous union of Sin and Death that follows and in its horrid progeny, Milton seems to have sought to shadow forth the shame and foulness and misery in which even the fairest forms of sin finally issue.

16 18. God and His perfect gifts

16 . Do not err …] The absolute goodness of God had been presented so far on its negative side as excluding all origination of evil. But the writer feels that that is but a partial view. It has a brighter aspect, more full of hope and blessing, and the error against which he protests is chiefly hurtful as excluding that aspect from its due influence on faith and conduct.

17 . Every good gift and every perfect gift ] The two nouns are different in the Greek, the first expressing the abstract act of giving , the second the gift as actually bestowed. The perfection of the one flows from the goodness of the other. The “perfect gift” carries our thoughts beyond all temporal blessings which, though good, have yet an element of incompleteness, to the greater gifts of righteousness and peace and joy; the gift, i. e. of the Holy Spirit, which is the crowning gift of all. Singularly enough, the axiom, if we may so call it, falls into the cadence of a Greek hexameter, and it is conceivable that it may have been a quotation from a poem, or possibly from an early Christian hymn. Like instances of metre are found, besides the direct quotations in 1 Corinthians 15:33 , Titus 1:12 , in the Greek of Hebrews 12:13 and Revelation 19:12 . The whole passage reminds us once more of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:11 ) and of the parallel promise in Luke 11:13 .

is from above ] The perfect gifts come then, as the new birth of the soul comes, from Heaven, not from Earth (comp. John 3:3 , as in the margin), as does the true wisdom (chap. 3:15, 17). The prominence of the word and the thought in the Epistle is one of the links that connect it with the Gospel of St John, in which a like prominence is traceable (John 3:7 , John 3:31 , John 3:19 :11).

from the Father of lights ] The plural is used to express the thought, that light in all its forms, natural (as in the “great lights” of Psalms 135:7 ), intellectual, spiritual, is an efflux from Him “who is light, and in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ). This axiom as to the Divine Nature was also common to the two great teachers of the Church of the Circumcision, as it was to the teaching of the Apostle of the Gentiles, when he describes the children of God as being also “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8 ). There may possibly be a reference to the Urim and Thummim, the “lights” and “perfections” which symbolised God’s gifts of wisdom in its highest forms (Exodus 28:30 ; Leviticus 8:8 ; Deuteronomy 33:8 ). Comp. also Psalms 48:3 .

with whom is no variableness ] The noun is primarily a scientific term (our English parallax presents a cognate word) as expressing the change of position, real or apparent, of the stars. Here it is apparently suggested by the word “lights,” which primarily conveyed the thought of the heavenly bodies as the light-givers of the world. They, St James seems to say, have their changes, but not so their Creator and their Father.

shadow of turning ] i.e. shadow caused by turning . The latter word, from which we get our “ trope ,” and “ tropic ,” is applied, as in the LXX. of Job 38:33 ; Deuteronomy 33:14 , to the apparent motion of the lights of heaven, and so to any changes. The former is also a quasi-scientific term, applied to the effect produced on the sun’s disc by the moon in an eclipse. St James does not appear to use the terms with any very strict accuracy, but the fact that he employs them at all, and that they occur nowhere else in the New Testament, is in itself interesting as connecting him with the form of wisdom described in Wisd. 7:17 20, which deals with “the alterations of the turning of the sun” (the two terms are nearly identical with those which St James uses) and “the change of seasons.” Science, he seems to say, deals with the mutability of phænomena. Faith, and therefore Wisdom, rest on the immutability of God.

18 . Of his own will begat he us ] The construction of the Greek is participial, willing he begat us , and is parallel to that of Colossians 2:18 , which, rightly rendered, runs “ let no man willing , i.e. by the exercise of his will, deprive you.…” The word implies the rejection of the thought either of a destiny constraining the Divine Will, or of chance and, as it were, random impulses, and the reference of our higher spiritual birth to His deliberate Will. Here again we have a parallelism with St John “born … not of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13 ), and with St Peter (1 Peter 1:23 ).

The word for “begat” is the same as the second “bringeth forth” in verse 15, and is obviously used here, with the general sense of “engendering” or “begetting,” to emphasise the contrast between the process which ends in death and that which issues in a higher life. Here also, though the birth was not monstrous, it was out of the common course of Nature, and therefore the unusual word was rightly employed again.

with the word of truth ] So our Lord makes Truth, the “word which is truth,” the instrument of the consecration or sanctification of His people (John 17:17-19 ). The “word of truth” cannot have here the higher personal sense which the Word or Logos has in John 1:1 , but it is something more than the written Word of the Old Testament Scriptures, or even the spoken word of preachers. It is the whole message from God to man, of which the written or spoken word is but one of the channels, and which to those who receive it rightly is the beginning of a higher life. Comp. Matthew 13:19 ; Mark 4:14 .

a kind of firstfruits of his creatures ]. The meaning of the term is traced back to the Jewish ritual of Leviticus 23:10 ; Deuteronomy 26:2 . The sheaf of the firstfruits was offered as part of the Passover celebration. On their entry into Canaan the Israelites were to offer the firstfruits of the land (Deuteronomy 26:2 ). In each case the consecration of the part was a symbol and earnest of that of the whole. So St James speaks of the “brethren” who have been born to a higher life, not only as better than others, but as the pledge of a fuller harvest. So St Paul speaks of Christ being “the firstfruits of them that sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20 ), of a convert being “the firstfruits of Achaia” (1 Corinthians 16:15 ). St John agrees, as usual, more closely with St James, and describes “the redeemed from the earth” of Revelation 14:4 as “the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” Christians are called and made what they are by the grace of God, that they may shew of what elevation humanity is capable. Comp. Romans 11:16 .

19 21. Man’s wrath, and God’s righteousness

19 . Wherefore ] The better MSS. give “Ye know this … but let every man.”

my beloved brethren ] The formula of address was common to all the four great writers of the Apostolic Church. We find it in St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:58 ), in St Peter (2 Peter 3:14 , 2 Peter 3:15 ), in St John (1 John 2:7 , 1 John 3:2 ). In the last two instances, however, the word “brethren” is wanting.

let every man be swift to hear ] From the general thought of the high ideal of life implied in the new birth from God, St James passes to the special aspect of that ideal which was most in contrast with the besetting sin of his countrymen. To him speech was of silver, and silence of gold. In this as in many other passages of his Epistle, he echoed the teaching of the sapiential books of the Old Testament (Proverbs 13:3 , Proverbs 13:14 :29, Proverbs 13:17 :27; Ecclesiastes 5:2 ) yet more, perhaps, of those of the Apocrypha. So we find “Be swift to hear” in Ecclus. 5:11, and maxims of a like nature in Ecclus. 20:7. The “slow to wrath” follows on “slow to speak” as pointing to the crucial test of character. If it were hard at all times to be “slow to speak,” it was harder than ever when men were roused to anger.

20 . the wrath of man …] Better, A man’s wrath , so as to represent the absence of the article in the original. By “the righteousness of God” the phrase is common to St James and St Paul (Romans 10:3 ; 2 Corinthians 5:21 ; Philippians 3:9 ) is meant the righteousness which God requires and which He also gives. The besetting sin of the Jews was to identify their own anger against what seemed sin and heresy with the Will of God, to think that they did God service by deeds of violence (John 16:2 ), that they were thus working out His righteousness. The teaching is again after the pattern of the purely ethical books of the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 7:9 ). The MSS. give two forms of the verb rendered “work;” the commonly received one, which conveys the thought, “does not work out or bring to completeness,” and that of the better MSS. which means simply, “does not work, or practise.”

21 . lay apart all filthiness …] The cognate adjective is found in its literal sense in ch. 2:2, and figuratively in Revelation 22:11 . A kindred noun appears in a like combination in “the putting away of the fifth of the flesh” of 1 Peter 3:21 and in the LXX. of Proverbs 30:12 . The word points not specifically to what we call “sins of impurity,” but to every form of sin, including the “wrath” of the preceding verse, as defiling the soul.

superfluity of naughtiness ] Better, excess of malice , i. e. excess characterised by malice. The English “naughtiness,” though used in the 16th century, as by Latimer and Shakespeare, as equivalent to “sin” or “wickedness,” has gradually lost its sharpness, and has come to be applied almost exclusively to the faults of children. The Greek word, though, like the Latin word from which malice comes, originally generic in its meaning, had come to be associated mainly (as in Ephesians 4:31 ; Colossians 3:8 ; 1 Peter 2:1 ) with the sins that have their root in wrath and anger, rather than with those that originate in love of pleasure, and so carries on the sequence of thought.

receive with meekness the engrafted word ] The order of the words in the original is more emphatic, but in meekness (as contrasted with wrath and malice) receive ye . The “engrafted word” is that which was before referred to as the instrument by which the new and better life was engendered. The English “engrafted” suggests one process of growth somewhat too definitely, and implanted would be a better rendering. The word is not found elsewhere in the New Testament (the Greek word in Romans 11:17 is more specific), but, like so many of St James’s phrases, appears in the sapiential books of the Apocrypha (Wisd. 12:10, “their malice was bred in them”). We note the agreement of his teaching with that of the Parable of the Sower, where the Seed is the “Word,” and the conditions of its fertility are found in “the honest and good heart” (Matthew 13:23 ), free from prejudice and bitterness. Moral discipline, the putting away of that which defiles, is the right preparation for the highest spiritual life.

which is able to save your souls ] The words express at once the power, and the limits of the power. There was in the implanted word, taken in its widest sense, the promise and the potency of salvation, yet it did not work as by compulsion or by a charm, but required the co-operation of man’s will. So, later on, St James speaks of God Himself as being “able to save” (chap. 4:12).

22 25. Doers and Hearers

22 . But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only ] The thought is the same, though illustrated by a different similitude, as that of the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-28 ). The reference to the “hearers of the word” confirms the explanation given above of the Word of the Truth. It is not primarily the written word, for then we should have the “reader,” not the “hearer,” nor Christ as the Incarnate Word, but the spoken message from God to the soul of man “ Be ye doers ;” literally, “ become ,” as though life were a continued process of such “becoming,” the condition not being that in which men find themselves by nature.

deceiving your own selves ] The word is etymologically more definite than that commonly used for deceiving, and implies strictly the self-deception, if one may so speak, of bad logic. The hypocrite knew the major premiss; “The doers, not the hearers, are blessed,” but though conscience supplied the minor, “I am a hearer, not a doer,” he shut his eyes to it and failed to draw the conclusion. The use of the word in the LXX., as e. g. in Genesis 31:7 , Genesis 31:41 ; Exodus 8:29 , shews, however, that it had come to be used in the general sense of “cheating” or “defrauding,” and it may be questioned, therefore, how far the special sense is to be pressed here.

23 . he is like unto a man …] The instance is chosen to illustrate the nature of the paralogism or fallacy by which the man deceived himself. It lies, as said above, in forgetting the self-knowledge which should form a premiss in his argument, and reasoning as if it did not exist.

beholding his natural face ] Literally, the face of his birth , that which he was born with. The latter word might seem at first almost superfluous, but it serves to point the spiritual interpretation. That which the man sees in the mirror of the Divine Word, is the revelation of himself, as he is by nature (comp. 1 Corinthians 14:24 , 1 Corinthians 14:25 ), weak, sinful, “double-minded.” That revelation is meant to lead him to seek for supernatural strength to rise to the higher life. The word for “beholding” implies more than a passing glance, the man contemplates the reflection of his face (see Matthew 7:3 ; Luke 12:24 ).

in a glass ] Better, in a mirror . The word is the same as in 1 Corinthians 13:12 . The mirrors in use among the Jews, Greeks, and Romans were of polished metal, and as these presented a less perfect image than our modern mirrors, to see through, i. e. by means of, a mirror had become among the later Rabbis, as well as with St Paul, a proverbial phrase for man’s imperfect knowledge of divine things. Here, however, stress is laid on the fact that the mirror does supply, in some measure, the self-knowledge which the man could not attain without it. The sapiential books of the Apocrypha present two interesting illustrations drawn from the same source (Wisd. 7:26; Ecclus. 12:11). It is possible, though it can hardly be insisted on, that there is an emphasis on a man’s casual way of looking at a mirror, and the more careful gaze supposed to be characteristic of a woman .

24 . For he beholdeth himself …] The Greek gives a subtle variation in the tenses. “For he beheld himself” (the momentary act), and hath gone away (the completed departure continuing in the present), and forgat (the oblivion coming and being completed in a moment). The mode of stating a similitude in the form of a narrative related as belonging to the past is characteristic of St James’s style. See note on verse 11.

25 . But whoso looketh …] The word involves primarily the idea of stooping down and bending over that on which we look, as with a fixed gaze. See for its literal use Mark 16:5 ; Luke 24:12 , and for its spiritual application, “which things the angels desire to look into ,” in 1 Peter 1:12 . In Ecclus. 14:23, it is used of the “prying in,” the eager gaze of the seeker after wisdom; in 21:23 of the intrusive gaze of the fool. Here it implies, like our word “attend,” the fixing the whole mind on that which the mirror of the Divine Word discloses to us, but as the act itself might, like the “beholding” of the previous verse, be but transient, St James adds the further condition, “and continueth therein.”

the perfect law of liberty ] The words appear at first to be wide and general, and to echo the language in which Psalmists and others had spoken of “the law of the Eternal” (Psalms 19:7 , Psalms 111:7 , Psalms 119:1 ). On the other hand, we have to remember that at the Council at which St James presided, the law of Moses, as such, was described as “a yoke” of bondage (Acts 15:10 ), even as St Paul spoke of it (Galatians 5:1 ), and that our Lord had spoken of the Truth as that by which alone men could be made “free indeed” (John 8:32 ). It follows from this, almost necessarily, that St James speaks of the new Law, the spiritual code of ethics, which had been proclaimed by Christ, and of which the Sermon on the Mount remains as the great pattern and example. That Law was characterised as giving to the soul freedom from the vices that enslave it. To look into that Law and to continue in it was to share the beatitudes with which it opened. That the writer was familiar with that Sermon we shall see at well nigh every turn of the Epistle.

being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work ] Literally, becoming not a hearer of forgetfulness . The construction is the same as in the “steward of injustice” for the “unjust steward” (Luke 16:8 , Luke 18:6 ), the genitive of the characteristic attribute being used instead of the adjective. As the one clause balances the other the words that follow probably meant an active worker or “doer.” In any case the article, as in the Greek, should be omitted, “ a doer of work .”

this man shall be blessed in his deed ] Once again, as if shewing on what his thoughts had been dwelling, as the law of liberty, St James returns to the formula of a beatitude, and brings together, in so doing, the beginning and the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

26, 27. True and false Religion

26 . If any man among you seem to be religious ] Better, If any man thinks that he is religious . The Greek adjective is one which expresses the outward ritual side of religion, answering to “godliness” as the inward. Comp. the cognate word rendered “ worship of angels” in Colossians 2:18 . It is not easy to find an appropriate English adjective for it. “Religious” in its modern sense is too wide, in its old pre-Reformation sense, as meaning one who belonged to a monastic order, too narrow. That sense can hardly be said to have attached to it at the time of the Authorised Version, as the term is used both in the Homilies (e. g. “Christ and his religion ,” Hom. on Holy Scripture) and Bacon’s Essays ( Of Unity in Religion ) quite in its modern sense for a whole system of faith and practice. “Devout,” “pious,” “reverent,” suggest themselves, but all fail to express what the Greek beyond question expresses. “Worshipper” would perhaps be the nearest equivalent. “Ritualist,” which answers most closely to the strict meaning, has unfortunately acquired a conventional and party meaning.

and bridleth not his tongue ] The image was a sufficiently common one in the Greek poets and philosophers. St James returns to it in 3:2, 3. See note there.

deceiveth his own heart ] Here the word is the more common one, as distinguished from that which had been used in verse 22.

27 . Pure religion ] The word still presents the outward aspect of the devout life. Better perhaps, pure worship .

undefiled ] The term seems chosen with special reference to the Pharisee’s scrupulous care to avoid anything that caused ceremonial defilement. Comp. John 18:28 , “lest they should be defiled ,” where the word is that commonly used in the LXX. for polluted, or being “unclean,” as in Leviticus 5:3 , Leviticus 11:23 . St James reproduces the teaching of our Lord, that the real defilement comes from within, not from without, that true purity is found in “giving alms of such things as we have” (Mark 7:20-23 , Luke 11:40 ).

before God and the Father ] The last word seems chosen with a special reference to the duty that follows. We worship the Father when we are like Him in our care for the orphans (Psalms 68:5 ).

To visit ] The Greek word implies somewhat more than that which we commonly attach to the English; “to care for,” “look after,” as in “God hath visited his people” (Luke 7:16 ).

the fatherless and widows ] These were the natural and therefore proverbial types of extremest affliction. Comp. Job 29:12 , Job 29:13 ; Ecclus. 35:14. We find from Acts 6:1 , that they occupied a prominent place in what we may venture to call the “Charity Organisation” of the Church of Jerusalem. Comp. also Acts 9:39 ; 1 Timothy 5:3-10 .

and to keep himself unspotted from the world ] The adjective is chosen with special reference to the “undefiled.” The “world” is used as including all the circumstances that tempt to sin, especially perhaps, the mass of unrenewed humanity out of which Christians are called, but into which they are in danger of sinking back. The real defilement to be guarded against was to be found in spiritual contact with that “world,” and not, as the Pharisee thought, in touching cup or garment that was ceremonially unclean. Comp. chap. 4:4. In this fullest sense of the word, God alone can thus keep a man unspotted, but it is characteristic of St James to lay stress on the co-operation of man’s will, even, we may add, as St Paul does in “keep thyself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22 ). The teaching of St James finds a striking parallel in that of Philo, who speaks of those who practise “a ritual religion” (using the same word as St James) “instead of holiness” (Philo, p. 173). Comp. also Coleridge, Aids to Reflection , Aph. xxiii. “The outward service ( θρησκεία ) of ancient religion, the rites, ceremonies, and ceremonial vestments of the old law, had morality for their substance. They were the letter of which morality was the spirit; the enigma of which morality was the meaning. But morality itself is the service and ceremonial ( cultus exterior , θρησκεία ) of the Christian religion.”

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on James 1". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/james-1.html. 1896.
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