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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's Bible

James 4

Verses 1-17

"What Is Your Life?"

Jam 4:14

The question may be asked in many tones. It may be asked rebukingly, pensively, comfortingly; we may throw into the inquiry a tone of music and most solemn wonder. There is no doubt as to how the question was asked by the Apostle. He was taking a rather humbling view of life. He was addressing certain persons who were boastfully saying, "To-day, or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain," descendants of the man who pulled down his barns and built greater in his dreams, and who said to his soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease. But God said unto him, Thou fool! between to-day and tomorrow stands this night: for that you have made no provision. The Apostle rebukes the boasting buyers and sellers, saying, "Ye know not what shall be on the morrow." That is as great a mystery as God. Yet we are troubling our little heads about God, as who should say, If we could only come to some satisfactory theory about God, we should be good. Oh, slow of heart, you come to some satisfactory theory about tomorrow! It is not in existence; yet it is old as eternity and assured as the throne of God. Do not pretend to be impiously or piously religious upon all the great conceptions and outlooks of faith, as who should say, If we could but master these, what wonderful men we should be! Look to yourselves; handle the mysteries that are round about you; when you have adjusted these you may proceed to the higher forms in the school of God. The Apostle tells the boasting programme writers that their life "is even a vapour." Here James stern, moral, maxim-loving James becomes almost poetical. When such a man is poetical there is often a wondrously graphic touch about his utterance. Saith James, Your life it is even a vapour, a curling cloud of smoke, a mist that appeareth for a little time, then vanisheth away: what ye ought to say is, "If the Lord will"; ye should connect yourselves with the greatest ministries of the universe, ye should lay on to your souls the currents and fountains of heaven; ye ought to be great speakers, and not little boasters; ye ought to make your morrow's journey contingent on the goodwill of the good Lord. Thus would James have us religious in everything. He would have no loose talk about tomorrow; in the very midst of our boasting he rebukes us by telling us that we are handling a vapour. That is no doubt the immediate Apostolic suggestion.

Yet may we not use the words on a larger base, and for another, yet not wholly unkindred, purpose? May we not read the suggestion in another tone? What is life? what a mystery, what a tragedy, what a pain, what a feast, what a fast, what a desert, what a paradise: how abject, how august is man! It may not have occurred to some of you, as it has of necessity occurred to those of us who are called to preach, that there is hardly a more appalling and pathetic spectacle than a promiscuous congregation. We do not see life in its individuality, but life in its combinations and interrelations of most delicate, subtle, suggestive, and potential kind. When we begin to take the congregation man by man, what a sight it is! The old, and the very young; the pilgrim going to lay his staff down, tired of the long journey, and the little child sitting on its mother's knee: the rich man whose touch is gold, the poor man whose most strenuous effort is his most stinging disappointment; men who are doomed to poverty, men who never have a holiday; if they were absent one day it was that they might crowd two days' work into one when they went back again; and men who have never been out of the sunshine, before whose sweet homes there slopes a velvet lawn. What is your life?

Then, if we go a little farther into the matter, the audience becomes still more mysterious and solemn. What broken hearts are in every congregation, what concealed experiences, what smiles of dissimulation! as who should say, We are happy; yes, we are happy, we are happy. The protestation is its own contradiction. There is a protesting too much. There are griefs that cannot be shared, burning griefs, griefs that weep inwardly, so that we never see a tear, and therefore would never suspect what a sorrow it is that is eating out the soul. There are purposes that no man can explain, and yet they are influential factors in life: because they cannot be explained they often invest a man's life and policy with a kind of mystery, that brings him under many a needless suspicion. If the poor soul could only tell out all its plans, all its purpose, the mystery would be shot through and through with light, and men would no longer painfully wonder at the ambiguity, nay, the very duplicity and falsehood of certain lives. But who can explain a half-formed plan? Who can call into his heart's confidence all his friends when his heart has not made up its own scheme? He will not have an inward parliament then, he does not want the matter to be talked over by many tongues; he is thinking, dreaming, scheming, and, saith he to himself, When I have perfected this, then I will tell my friends, and they will rejoice with me. Meanwhile, he is under suspicion; he is supposed to be a dark-minded man; he is understood to be a person whom you can never fathom; whereas, in the soul of him, he is frank as a child, white as the snow, has no unkind or malign feeling or purpose towards any living creature, but he is so constituted that he cannot take men into half-confidence or make them sharers of partial mental operations.

If we go a little farther into the matter, what minister can read his congregation through and through? Men are not what they seem. That man, so good-looking, so well-dressed, so well-behaved, has a thirst within him that vineyards could not quench. He speaks gently, courteously; he is indeed through nine-tenths of his constitution an honest, good soul; but even he dare not tell his own mother what an unquenchable fire he carries. He thirsts for drink. He dare not go to God's own sacrament lest some whiff of the intoxicating fluid should cause that inward fire to blaze out of him, and he would go down to the very mouth of hell enwrapped in flames. Who suspects him? No man. He has never told the dreadful secret. We should be careful how we turn such things into matters of frivolity. We should be ready to surround that man, not ostentatiously, but subtly and sympathetically, and hold him up in every good desire. When that man utters a poor, stumbling prayer, he utters an eloquence that moves all heaven; its feebleness is its omnipotence. Another man can hardly trust himself to touch money that is not his own, because he was born a robber. I do not blame him so much as I might blame some of his ancestors, if I could trace his heredity. The man was born so; it had been good for him if he had never been born, if he had lived in some other sphere, and never set foot upon this tempting earth. We cannot hear him tell the tale, for he never tells it; all the while he is saying to himself, I long to steal, to plunder: how can I keep this hand out of other people's treasure? Yet still he sits in God's house; when he sings a hymn he sings it honestly; when he bows his head in prayer it is to seek real help from heaven. We cannot tell what we are. Every man has his own secret: the heart knoweth his own bitterness. Everywhere it would seem as if the signature of the devil were a very vivid impress on the human heart. And even in God's house, are men who unknowingly gamble. They could even take part in a demonstration against gambling, and still practise the mean device and imposition an imposition which tells heavily upon themselves. These men are not known; if they were known, they are not to be so much blamed as we might in some moods suppose: we must know more about the cases before we are so lavish with our judgments and rebukes. Man is a mystery to himself, to others, mostly to himself. God is judge. Who art thou that judgest thy brother? Thou dost not judge thy brother, thou dost judge the law. You cannot offend against a man without offending against God; you cannot be harsh with a fellow-creature without inflicting an impious criticism upon the government of the universe. How many men burn with eternal fire! And all these things unrevealed, un-confessed, unacknowledged. Yet, looking upon a promiscuous concourse, one would say, How respectable, how intelligent, how delightful to meet such people! The terms are not wholly to be condemned. There may be much justice in the use of such terms, and yet to him who can see us through and through, what a sight we present! Blessed be his name, his eyes only can see us, and blessed be his love as written red on the Cross, those eyes are eyes of pity.

The only power that can touch all these classes and conditions is the gospel of Christ. No lecturer upon any limited subject can touch a whole congregation in its deepest and most painful and tragic experiences. No lecturer on astronomy can search the heart. Science holds no candle above the chamber of motive, passion, deepest, maddest desire. The gospel of Christ covers the whole area. How does it cover the whole area of human experience? First as a hope. Blessed be God, that is a gospel word. Christianity does not come down to men with judgment and fire, and burning; the gospel is not an exhibition of wrath, retaliation, vengeance: the gospel is love, the gospel says to the worst of us, For you there is hope; I know you, I know all the fire that burns in you, all the temptations that assail you, all the difficulties that surround you as with insurmountable granite walls: I know them all, and, poor soul, I have come with good news from God, good news from Calvary; I have come to say, Hope on, for there is a way to reconciliation, and pardon, and purity, and peace. Then the gospel comes covering the whole area, not only as a hope, but with co-operation. If we might personify the case, the gospel would thus address man: I have come not only to tell you to hope, but I have come to help you to do so; the work is very hard, and I will do most of it; what you have to show is a willing heart, an earnest disposition, and, come now, together we shall work out this salvation of yours. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God that worketh in you, with you, for you: we are fellow-labourers with God. And then there is a third consideration, without which the case would be incomplete. Christianity, or the gospel, is not only a hope, and co-operative, it is a discipline. You always come upon the strong word in a great appeal. It is not all tears; you come upon the backbone, upon the line of iron, upon the base of rock. So the gospel comes to us as a discipline, and says, Having then, dearly beloved, these promises let us purify ourselves, even as God and Christ are pure; now for work, self-criticism, self-restraint, self-control, now for patient endeavour: cheer thee! It is a gospel word. Gospel calls mean gospel helps.

Who knows what life is? It is the secret of God. Up and down the mountains and valleys of the soul there are countless millions of germs waiting for the sunshine, and the dew, and all the chemistry of the spiritual kingdom; and out of these germs will come inventions, discoveries, new policies, novel and grand suggestions, heroisms undreamt-of, evangelisations and civilisations that shall eclipse the proudest record of time. Every evil thought you have kills one of these germs. When you long to gratify some illicit appetite, you have killed part of your soul. He that sinneth against me, saith Wisdom, wrongeth his own soul. He is a millionth part dead: the germ that might have meant a grand discovery has been extinguished, burned in hell. Every time you give way to an unholy passion you disqualify yourself to pray, yea even to think soberly and wisely. A continual process of self-murder may therefore be going on in a man's soul. We do not need the bare bodkin or the hemp thread to put an end to life: bad thoughts are murderers; evil desires take the soul out of the soul; the fever within does not boil the blood, it burns the soul.

What is life? A mystery, a seedhouse, a sensitive treasure. What is life? It is the beginning of immortality. The dawn is the day: the child is the man. We do not wait till the child becomes old before we recognise him; when he is born we write him down among the treasures of the nation, and the nation takes charge of the child. It does not belong to one man or to one woman, it belongs to the total humanity of the nation. Will you expose the little creature and let it die? You will be hunted; blessed be God, you will be hunted down, and for that life you must answer. But it was a little life. The emphasis is not upon "little," but upon "life." There is no little life in any sense that implies insignificance or contemptibleness. So we have in us but a child-life, an infantile spark, quite a little beginning; but it is a beginning, and the grandeur is not in the word "little," but in the word "beginning." And, because we have this consciousness of life within us we ought to have a corresponding sense of responsibility; and to answer great appeals we ought to connect ourselves with the vital currents of the universe. Why take this little life and say we will handle it ourselves? As well take a bulb out of the earth and say, We will grow this without the earth and without the sun. We cannot: neither can we grow our own life into fruition and beauty and completeness unless we be associated with the currents of the universe. What are they? gospel currents, Christian vitalities, spiritual ministries, in a word, God the Holy Ghost. "Marvel not that I say unto you, ye must be born again." This is time, little time; but little gates may open great estates, small doors may open great palaces. This is the time-gate, but it swings back upon the infiniteness of God's eternity. It is high time to awake out of sleep and to realise the tragedy, the grandeur, and the responsibility of life. He who loses time loses eternity.


Almighty God, do thou form within us the Son of God, the Hope of glory, the Teacher of all wisdom, the Light of all truth. We bless thee for the mystery of motive, we thank thee for the outcome of conduct; we cannot understand these things, but may we yield ourselves to all holy ministries that at the end under thine own hand we may be perfect men in Christ Jesus. We bless thee for what little has been done in our shaping and formation and direction; we thank thee if we have begun the alphabet of good behaviour: help us to read on steadily, to work on patiently; say to us by thy Holy Spirit, In your patience ye shall win yourselves. We desire that this prize may be ours; we would not hold our prizes in our hands, we would have ourselves as our victories, we would be delivered to keep the truth. We bless thee for these aspirations; once our eyes were in the dust, now they are lifted up and they at least see the outline of the stars; may we look steadfastly and eagerly from the Cross, and by-and-by, like our Lord, we shall see heaven opened, and in the opening heaven we shall forget the dying earth. The Lord help us to live wisely, purely, nobly, usefully; may we be living epistles, may we write the gospels again in holy conduct; may men take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus and have learned of him; may we remember in all things that, by our very profession, we represent the Son of God. Where thou has sent great affliction thou wilt not neglect to send great comfort; thou hast a voice which can be heard even in the cloud; thou canst divide the great sea, and rebuke the deep river, and cause the mountains to disappear from before thy pilgrims. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on James 4". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.