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Bible Commentaries

Gaebelein's Annotated Bible

James 5

Verses 1-20



1. The oppression by the rich and their coming doom (James 5:1-6 )

2. Be patient unto the coming of the Lord (James 5:7-12 )

3. The prayers of faith and the life of faith (James 5:13-20 )

James 5:1-6

The two classes whom James addresses stand out very prominently in this final chapter of his Epistle. The rich oppressors certainly are not believers but the unbelieving rich; they are not addressed as “brethren”; but others are in verse 7 and exhorted to patience. Both classes, the unbelieving rich and the believing remnant are confronted by the coming of the Lord. “Go to now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. 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 heaped together treasures in the last days.”

The present age, which began with the death and resurrection of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is spoken of as “the last days” and “the last time” (Hebrews 1:2 and 1 John 2:18 ); this age will be followed by the dispensation of the fullness of times, the times of restoration as promised by God’s holy prophets (Ephesians 1:10 ; Acts 3:19-21 ), the age of the kingdom when Christ reigns and His saints with Him. And this present age will end with the coming of the Lord to execute judgment, to right all wrong and judge all unrighteousness. These rich Israelites heaped treasures together, and, as we shall see later, acted outrageously, thereby showing that they did not believe in the day of the Lord, when He will be manifested in judgment glory. Yet their own Scriptures announced exactly that which James here states. See Isaiah 2:10-20 and especially Zephaniah 1:14-18 . In anticipation of that coming day he calls on them to weep and howl, and announces the fate of their treasures.

Let us remember that the Epistle was written years before the destruction of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem fell, and even before its fall, many of the rich Jews became paupers; they were ruined, tortured and murdered, as Josephus tells us. The fall of Jerusalem with its awful horrors, in the year 70 A.D., was a judgment of the Lord, but not the day of the Lord and the coming of the Lord. What happened then to the stubborn unbelieving masses will happen again, only on a larger scale during the coming great tribulation and when the Lord returns in power and in great glory. We believe therefore, that this exhortation to the rich has a special bearing for the future, during the very end of the age.

But they were oppressing the poor as well. “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. Ye have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure; ye have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned, ye have killed the just One; he doth not resist you.” Oppression of the poor, yea, the poor of their own people is another characteristic of the Jewish people. The prophet Amos rebuked it in his day, when the poor were downtrodden and robbed by the rich. It is so today and will be so in the future. And the money which was taken from the poor was used by the rich to live in luxury and wanton pleasures. The spirit they manifested in heaping treasures together, oppressing the poor and needy, robbing them, and living in pleasure, is the same which condemned and killed the Just One, the Lord Jesus Christ, who did not resist. To apply these words primarily and altogether to our Lord can hardly be done. What was done to the Lord of glory these unbelievers did to His true followers. It will be so again during the great tribulation, under Antichrist, when the godly remnant will be persecuted by those who side with the false Messiah. See Psalms 79:1-3 ; Daniel 12:1 ; Matthew 24:9-25 ; Revelation 11:1-19 ; Revelation 12:1-17 ; Revelation 13:1-18 .

James 5:7-12

“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. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts; for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” He addresses in these words the believers, the suffering remnant amongst the unbelieving masses which attended the synagogue. They are to be patient and suffer in patience, without resisting. The coming of the Lord, which is mentioned twice in these verses, is His visible and glorious manifestation, the same which our Lord speaks of in Matthew 24:30-31 . The first Epistle to the Thessalonians, which contains that unique revelation of the coming of the Lord for His saints, the resurrection of the holy dead and the sudden transformation of the living saints, to be caught up together in clouds to meet Him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ) had not yet been given. The mystery “we shall not all sleep but be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 ), was then unknown. And let us note here, that this is one of the mysteries nowhere made known in the Old Testament.

The coming of the Lord, we repeat, is that coming which is so many times announced in the Prophetic Word of the Scriptures. “The first generation of Christians expected to witness in the near future the personal reappearance of Christ on earth to close the old dispensation by punishing unbelievers, and delivering the Christians. These expectations were partly realized when the fall of Jerusalem closed the old Jewish dispensation by the destruction of the temple and the final cessation of the Levitical worship of Jehovah. At the same time misery and ruin befell the Jewish nation which had rejected and crucified our Lord. As regards any more exact fulfilment, the statements of the New Testament must be interpreted according to the principle laid down in 2 Peter 3:8 and 1 John 2:18 .” (This passage is from the New Century Bible. One is grateful to find this paragraph in a work which is more or less on the side of the destructive criticism.) That the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment of the nation was predicted by our Lord is known to all, that the event when it came in the year 70 is the coming of the Lord, is not true.

James exhorts his suffering brethren to be like the husbandman who has to wait between the sowing time and the harvest. But here is another wrong interpretation. The latter rain of which James speaks has been foolishly interpreted as meaning a spiritual latter rain, another Pentecost. This is one of the star arguments of present day Pentecostalism with its supposed revival of apostolic gifts. The former and latter rain of which James speaks has no such meaning; it is purely the rainfall in nature. In Palestine there are two distinct rainy seasons, one in the spring, the other in the fall. (See Deuteronomy 11:14 .)

Then follow other words of encouragement. “Murmur not, brethren, one against the other, that ye be not judged; behold the judge standeth before the door.” Among themselves they were to guard against any friction and fretfulness, always remembering Him who is the judge, and who standeth before the door. They were also to remember the examples in suffering and patience of the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, the patience of job, and how blessedly his suffering ended through the pity and mercy of the Lord. There is a warning also against oath making, such a common thing amongst the Jews. (See our Lord’s warning in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:33-37 ).

James 5:13-20

The Epistle closes with practical exhortations to prayer and the exercise of faith. “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray.” A short but weighty instruction. Instead of murmuring, as their forefathers did, instead of complaining in suffering, prayer must be exercised. The godly in Israel always made prayer their refuge and especially are the Psalms rich in this direction. “Is any cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” The Psalms were used extensively in the synagogue. To teach upon this statement, as had been done, that the church should sing nothing but the Psalms, and reject the great hymns of the saints of God of all ages, born often in adversity and in deep soul exercise, is far fetched. Much in the Psalms does not express true Christianity at all. “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly; 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, they shall be forgiven him.” This exhortation demands a closer scrutiny and examination. Of late this instruction by James has been greatly misapplied by faith-healers. There are many extremists who teach that here is a commandment to the church how sickness among the saints should be dealt with; that means, to alleviate bodily ills, must be fully discarded and if they are used, it is unbelief in the power of God and a hindrance to faith.

There are men and women all over Christendom, who go about with a message of healing of diseases, who anoint the sick by the hundreds and thousands, claiming that this is the only way that illness is to be treated. Then these same healers claim miraculous cures which are, after careful investigation, mostly found to be falsehoods. Some of these advocates of this method of healing, denouncing means and the use of physicians, were taken sick and had to use means to overcome their bodily ills. The entire subject of “faith-healing” we cannot examine here; nor can we enlarge upon the claims of “Christian Science” and other metaphysical cults and systems. Supernatural healing of diseases is claimed by Romish Catholicism, by the shrines and holy places of the Greek Orthodox church, by Spiritism, Mormonism and in many pagan systems. We confine our remarks to the passage before us.

It has been explained by some that the words of James mean that which should be done in case sickness unto death has seized upon a believer. It is then interpreted to mean “Prayer shall save the dying man from the punishment of his sins; and after his death, the Lord will raise him up in resurrection.” This view we reject. No prayer of faith is needed for the coming physical resurrection of a believer. Romanism has made out of it “the sacrament of extreme unction” which is another invention.

inasmuch as “the anointing with oil” seems to be the point most stressed by divine healers, we shall examine this first. What does it mean? Here we must remember the Jewish character of the Epistle. We have shown before that the believers who in James addresses were still closely identified with Judaism, hence they practised many things peculiar to Judaism. Anointing with oil was extensively used in the ceremonies of the Jews. Kings and priests were anointed, oil being liberally poured upon the head, denoting outwardly the fact of consecration to office, and symbolically the Spirit of God, which they needed for the exercise of their functions. Furthermore, oil was also very widely used for health and comfort. It was and is still a great remedial agent in the Orient.

The Good Samaritan poured into the wounds of the man who had fallen among the thieves oil and wine. Oil was used in cases of fever and most generally in skin diseases. Anointing the sick with oil was a general practice, as can be shown from talmudical literature. In Mark 6:13 , we read, “And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” Would they not have been healed if they had not been anointed with oil? The anointing with oil was an old custom which the disciples made use of, but the Lord in commissioning them in connection with the kingdom message did not tell them that they should anoint the sick with oil; they did it, for such was the universal practice. If James commands these Jewish believers who were sick to be anointed with oil he reaffirmed therefore this old Jewish custom. Oil is something beneficial to the body, a remedy, just as wine is recommended by the Spirit of God as a remedy for the ills of the body (1 Timothy 5:23 ). It is therefore an open question whether oil may not stand here also for legitimate means to be used in case of illness. Divine healers carry with them a small bottle of oil and daub the forehead with a drop of oil, but this is not the anointing commanded here. Where is the authority to say that a drop of oil must be put on the forehead?

But it is very striking that apart from this passage, in this transition Epistle, nowhere else in the New Testament (except in Mark 6:13 ), do we read anything about this anointing with oil in case of sickness. Why did not Paul write to Timothy, who often had infirmities, “Call the elders, let them anoint you with oil,” but instead of it, the divinely given remedy, “a little wine,” is urged upon him. And Paul was sick himself, suffered with his eyes, which probably was the thorn in the flesh. Trophimus was sick in Miletus. But nowhere this Jewish ceremony, anointing with oil, is mentioned. The Epistles which are the high water mark of divine revelation, are the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians; we find nothing in these Epistles about healing of diseases by anointing and prayer. Nor is it mentioned in any of the other Pauline Epistles. In Corinthians the gift of healing is found among the gifts of the Spirit, but he who possessed that gift had no need of using oil besides. Our conclusion, then, is that the anointing with oil in this passage is something customary with the Jews, which is not meant to be perpetuated in the Church, for if such were the fact the Holy Spirit would have stated it elsewhere.

We pass over the question as to true elders, which are to be called. Many of those who go about as divine healers are women. Who has ever heard of “women elders”? In fact, in the public healing services which have become such a common thing in our days, the question of elders is entirely ignored. Big advertisements appear in the papers that services for the healing of the sick are to be held. As a result hundreds come and are ready to do anything, to believe anything, if only some hope is held out that they might be cured. They readily submit to the ceremony of having a little oil put on their foreheads, but the command, that the sick person, is to call for the elders of the church, those of authority, is ignored. The question is, “Do we still have the elders in the apostolic sense?” These are matters which are completely set aside by modern faith healers.

But the emphasis in the passage is on “the prayer of faith.” The prayer of faith, not the anointing with oil, shall save the sick. No believer denies the efficacy of believing prayer, yet always guarded by the condition of “if it be His will.” In case of sickness the child of God will not send for a physician in the first place, but the believer turns to the Lord and puts himself in His gracious and merciful hands. The passage here seems to be the matter of sickness as a chastening from the Lord on account of specific sins committed. In such a case when self-judgment has brought the matter into His light, the promise can be claimed “the prayer of faith shall save the sick.”

“Was it intended to be a direction universally applicable to all cases, and to be carried out at all times, in all places, and under all conditions? Surely--most surely not. For note that there is no question at all as to the result: ‘the prayer of faith shall save (it is certain) the sick and the Lord will raise him up.’

“Now, we know perfectly well that this is not and cannot be the invariable outcome of all sickness. The vast majority of mankind--yes, of Christians--has died as the result of some sickness: has this been because ‘elders’ have not been called? Have they come to the end of that life here because they were not anointed with oil, and the prayer that always goes up from loving hearts was not the prayer of faith, and since not of faith, was sin? Who would not reject such conclusions with abhorrence? Yet are they inevitable, if this Scripture be pressed as being the one divinely given direction in the case of all sickness.

“In it every act, every movement, must be in faith: that is recognizing the Lord’s hand in the sickness, and the Lord’s mind in removing it. But where is the great and precious promise on which faith can always rest, that shall make healing sure? In one case only, and that is if the sickness does not come from constitutional weakness, as with Timothy, or the hardship of a Christian devotion as with Epaphroditus, or any other natural cause--but as a chastening of the Lord for some specific sins committed, and this confessed and put away, the chastening ceases.

“And this is naturally enough the point of view of such a writer as James. Freedom from sickness consequent on obedience was interwoven in the first covenant: ‘And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest upon thee; but will lay them upon all that hate thee’--is that what the Christian desires today: his diseases put on anyone else who may hate him? yet is that involved in that covenant.

“What, then, more natural than that this writer, who, although Christian, is still on the ground of a regenerate and sincerely pious Jew, should regard sickness in a light that is common to both Christian and Jew--as a chastening for sin.”--(F.C. Jennings, Our Hope.)

With this we leave this portion of the Epistle, which has led to so much misunderstanding. To help the reader in getting the true conception we add in a brief appendix, at the close of these annotations, the comment as it is given in the Numerical Bible.

“Confess, therefore, your sins one to another, that ye may be healed.” This brings out fully the fact that the sickness in view is on account of specific sins. When the sins are confessed and judged, grace intervenes, and God in mercy heals. Rome builds upon this passage the miserable invention of the confessional. But it does not mean confession to a man-made “priest,” but a simple confiding of believers among themselves.

The great value of prayer is next pointed out by James. “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working”; this is a rendering adopted by many. He cites the case of Elijah. He was a man “of like passions with us” as we learn from the historical record of the Scriptures, which tells us of his great infirmities, as well as of his remarkable faith. He prayed fervently and rain was withheld, he prayed again and God answered his faith. The God of Elijah is our God still, who delights to answer the fervent prayer of the righteous man; the power of prayer can never be separated from the character of him who prays.

“My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.” With this the Epistle ends abruptly. Faith must be manifested by love towards those who err. The exhortation finds an application in a general way, but primarily to those who know the truth and have backslidden. This is learned from the words “if any among you”; the application in a general way is also fully warranted. The ending without greeting has led some critics to assume, that the Epistle is made up of passages from sermons, compiled quite late, by a man by the name of James. The internal as well as the historical evidences refute this assumption.

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Bibliographical Information
Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on James 5". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". 1913-1922.