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Monday, July 15th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
James 5

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Verses 1-6



James 5:1. Rich men.—Always in Scripture, the men who are proud of their riches, centred in their riches, and are nothing but rich. The good man, who happens to have the trust of wealth, and is trying to use it faithfully, should not be thought of as addressed in Scripture reproofs. Howl.—Only used here in the New Testament, but found in Isaiah 13:6; Isaiah 14:31; Isaiah 15:3; “weep with howling,” a desperate form of distress. Illustrate by the woes that came on the rich in connection with the siege of Jerusalem. Shall come.—Better, “are now actually coming.”

James 5:3. Cankered.—Rusted; used generally of the tarnish that comes over all metals exposed to the action of the air. Witness against you.—“For a witness to you,” not testimony against, but warning lest. For the last.—Better, “in the last.” Evidently in mind is the speedy fulfilment of our Lord’s predictions.

James 5:4. Of the Lord of sabaoth.—Κυρίου Σαβαώθ. Lord of hosts, especially characteristic name found in Malachi.

James 5:5. Lived in pleasure.—Better, “ye lived luxuriously and spent wantonly.” As in.—Better, “in.” “The rich men’ of Judæa, in their pampered luxury, were but fattening themselves, all unconscious of their doom, as beasts are fattened for the slaughter” (Plumptre).

James 5:6. The just.—Not specifically “the Just One,” but generally “pious, righteous men.”


Rich Men that are Only Rich.—This passage seems to have the character of an “aside” or “parenthesis.” It is difficult to conceive that persons of such character, worthy of such severe condemnation, could have been members of the Jewish Christian Churches. It is more reasonable to think that St. James sends this severe message to such as were persecuting the members of the Churches, and riding over them in the masterfulness of their pride, and that he designed to comfort the persecuted and distressed by the assurance that God was surely dealing with their persecutors, and that there could be no reason for envying their lot. The message is but an echo of our Lord’s saying, “Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). It is important to make a careful distinction between persons who are rich and persons who are only rich. It is not wrong to be rich. It is not necessarily a hindrance to Christian life to be rich. A man may just as sincerely and acceptably lay his riches upon the altar of service as anything else that he has. But it is wrong to be a rich man and nothing else. It is wrong when that is all you can say about the man. It is woful wrong when you are compelled to say that he is a bad rich man. This message should not be taken as sent to all rich men—only to such rich men as St. James describes. This distinction and qualification needs to be kept in mind in treating all the New Testament references to rich men. With some care the circumstances of the rich Jews, in the time immediately preceding the final fall of Jerusalem, should be presented.

I. Riches with troubles.—In the best of times to increase riches is to increase anxieties and troubles; and when hard times come, their strain is always felt most severely by the rich. For one thing, as riches increase, wants are multiplied, indulgences become necessities, and there is so much to give up, when banks break, ships founder, and speculations fail. The poor may feel the strain of troublous times first, but they do not feel it worst. It is but a little step from their usual limitations down into poverty; but it is a big step from the mansion to the workhouse. St. James sees, in the swiftly advancing miseries that were coming on the Jewish nation, the just judgment of God on men who were rich, and nothing else; at least, nothing else that was good. If a man is only rich, he can lose everything in a time of national calamity. If a man has character, and is rich in that way, all the woes of the world cannot take his riches away. Ward Beecher says: “No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has.” We envy the rich; but perhaps we should not if we clearly saw that we must take riches with trouble. That truth may be borne in upon us by watching the faces of the carriage-folk in Hyde Park. It is a most rare thing to see a sunny face in middle-aged man or woman; discontent, weariness, envy, bad temper, well-nigh everywhere, so plainly revealing that, for them with all their riches, life is a failure and a bore. If it is thus when a country is peaceful and plenty abounds, what must be the troubles of the rich when Roman armies encircle the city, and drought and famine and pestilence stalk around? Riches can do so little to alleviate misery then; and a gaunt, famished crowd have no respect for any, but grasp and steal wherever they can. Bishop Wordsworth vigorously paraphrases James 5:2-3 : “Your wealth is mouldering in corruption, and your garments, stored up in vain superfluity, are become moth-eaten: although they may still glitter brightly in your eyes, and may dazzle men by their brilliance, yet they are in fact already cankered; they are loathsome in God’s sight; the Divine anger has breathed upon them and blighted them; they are already withered and blasted.” When the rich man has character, then only is he prepared for the trouble-times of life; then only has he the “treasure in heaven, which neither moth nor rust doth corrupt.”

II. Riches with injustice.—“Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth.” It is making wholly wrong use of this passage to compel it to support modern socialistic schemes, which are based on the false assumption, that all employers of labour deal unfairly with their labourers. It would be as true to say that all labourers deal unfairly with their employers; and that is manifestly false. There are cases. Deal with the cases; but do not attempt to base a general law upon isolated cases. Oppressing the hireling in his wages was, however, a characteristic Jewish sin. “The grasping avarice that characterised the latter days of Judaism showed itself in this form of oppression among others.” And it should be recognised that the possession of riches easily becomes, or supports, a temptation to deal unjustly with the poor. Injustice may take form as

(1) failure to consider their due claims;
(2) reserve of the payments due to them through indifference or wilfulness;
(3) inattention to the things necessary to their physical, sanitary, and moral well-being. Happy is that man in the possession of riches who, having a sensitive conscience, finds it brings him no accusations of injustice.

III. Riches with self-indulgence.—“Ye have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure; ye have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The sentence is a severe one, and forcibly presents to us the self-centredness of the rich, pampering his appetite—every sort of appetite—clothing in scarlet and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day, like Dives. St. James, with the licence of poetic imagination, pictures them dressing themselves for death, fattening themselves for the day of slaughter. This self-indulgence is the supreme peril of the rich. They have no call to the exercise of self-restraint, and every moral fibre becomes relaxed. Self-indulgent people easily do wrong things.

IV. Riches with violence.—“Ye have condemned, ye have killed the righteous one.” Not Christ. St. James is speaking in a poetic vein, and giving point to his accusation by compelling them to think of some one case. Reference is directly to some cases of persecution, in connection with the Jewish Christian Church, which had aroused St. James’s indignation. Of this all may be assured who suffer wrong in any way from the masterfulness and injustice of unprincipled rich men—“Their cry enters into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” “He is the avenger of all such.”


James 5:1-3. The Poverty of Riches.—It is important to recognise that the rich man denounced in Scripture is never the man who merely has possessions. They may come to him by the accident of birth, or as the natural result of business ability. There is nothing wrong, or necessarily mischievous, in possession; and wealth is just as truly a trust from God, to be used in helpful ministries, as is any personal talent. But, like everything else frail man deals with, riches may be misused. They may come to be trusted in; they may take the soul’s confidence from God. They may spoil a man’s relations with his fellow-man. They may seriously deteriorate a man’s personal character. The peril of riches lies in their persuasion of the man to trust in them, and in their attraction of the man to seek them at any cost or sacrifice. “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare.” Because riches so easily entice, persuade, and tempt, it is necessary to point out what a side of poverty there is even to great riches. Its purchasing power is the real test of the value of wealth. It is thus we estimate the differing values of gold and silver and copper. A thing is reckoned of no value if it has in it no purchasing power.

I. What can riches buy?—Only what belongs to the range of material good. We need not think of that material good as in any narrow limitations. It includes all pleasant things meeting bodily needs and bodily desires; but it includes also all that ministers to mind, to artistic feeling, to society interests, and even to spiritual necessities. The rich man has at command whatsoever of good the material world can supply; and getting it for himself, he cannot help getting it for others to share with him. If man were only of the earth earthy, riches might secure supply of all his need.

II. What cannot riches buy?—It has no purchasing power in any of the immaterial worlds. It cannot buy love. It cannot secure the noblest form of human service—the service of love. Love is only bought with love. No coin was ever yet paid for it. True of the love of man to man. Sublimely true of the love of God to man. It is bought “without money and without price.”

James 5:4. Loyalty to Workpeople.—There are peculiarities in Eastern workpeople which partly explain the need for such advice as this. Eastern workpeople have no such personal independence as characterises even the labourers of our Western lands. They are more correctly associated with our idea of slaves. They have the spiritless character, the unintelligent submission, the disposition to shirk burdens, which we connect with our notion of slaves. In Eastern countries no kind of servant or workman can be trusted alone without direct personal supervision. Overseers are always appointed, to keep them at their duty. As a natural consequence, masters readily become severe and tyrannical, indifferent to the labourers’ well-being, and practically out of all sympathy with them. Moses had to legislate for their protection (Leviticus 19:13). Prophets had to denounce the sin of oppressing the labourer (Jeremiah 22:13; Malachi 3:5). “The grasping avarice that characterised the latter days of Judaism showed itself in this form of oppression.” Christianity indirectly improves the position and relations of workpeople. It does not directly interfere with social conditions. Its principle is distinctly stated in the apostolic decision, “Let every man wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” It affects workpeople by improving them, and by altering the sentiments of their masters concerning them. A worldly master sees in his workpeople only persons with whose help he is to make money. A Christian master sees in his workpeople persons for whose all-round well-being he is responsible. There are some senses in which they cannot help themselves. Yet in those things their truest well-being is bound up. Loyalty to Christ means loyalty to them; and this brings upon the Christian a burden of responsibility to them. Let the Christian master feel his loyalty to those who serve him, and cherish a right spirit towards them; these will be sure to inspire right and wise and kindly deeds. How far the individual sense of loyalty and responsibility is likely to be destroyed by modern strikes, combinations, social, or rather socialistic, movements, must be left open to individual decision.

James 5:5. The Moral Mischief of living delicately.—It greatly surprises us that such intensely severe reproofs could be needed for persons in the actual membership of the early Christian Church. The R.V. renders this passage, “Ye have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure.” We might render, “Ye lived luxuriously, and spent wantonly.” In this is severely reproved the misuse of the riches possessed. And riches are always misused when they are made to pamper bodily appetite. The word “delicately” is suggestive as reminding us that luxurious and wanton living as readily takes refined and artistic as coarse and animal forms. The point which may be worked out is that, no matter what may be the station, culture, or resources at command of the Christian professor, he is under absolute obligation to Christ to hold himself under all due self-restraint, and to put all his relations into wise and careful limitations. His “moderation is to be known unto all men.” This means a moral bracing himself up, to secure control of himself, and control of his circumstances; and with that control the man is safe amid temptations. But any form of self-indulgence unbraces a man, loosens and weakens the moral fibre. And when a man loses his power of self-restraint and self-rule in some one thing, he can never be certain of holding his power of self-restraint in any other. And, moreover, he has opened one “gate of the city of Man-soul” to the enemy, and the city is no longer safe. It is usually on the side of some bodily indulgence that Christian professors begin to fail. Moral mischief comes with indulgence at the table, or in drink; sometimes there is a relaxation which allows a man to be carried away by worldly pleasures or sensual attractions—the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life.” The apostle gives the advice, which we may wisely apply in a variety of directions, when he bids us “keep the vessel of our body in sanctification and honour.” In relation to delicacy of eating and drinking, it should be better known than it is, that highly cooked and spiced foods bear mischievously on the animal feelings which are so closely associated with the moral life.

Verses 7-11


James 5:7. Margin, “suffer with long patience.” St. James inculcates a systematic course of action. Early and latter rain.Early rain fell from October to February, latter from March to end of April.

James 5:9. Grudge not.—A caution against an impatient, querulous temper. “Complain not.” “Groan not.”

James 5:11. Endure.—Some prefer “endured.” Pitful.—Large-hearted; tender-hearted. The word used, πολύσπλαγχνος, is peculiar, and it is thought may have been coined by St. James.


Our Duty in the Waiting-times of Life.—Throughout his epistle St. James keeps before him the suffering and distressed condition of the Jewish Christians. There was grave fear lest they should be led to give up their faith in Christ; but there was even a greater fear lest they should come to reproach one another, and so spoil their life of kindly relations, and deteriorate their own Christian characters. The times called for the spirit of endurance. The call of the hour was to waiting-work. In every sphere of life and relationship, in those days, the Christians were called to quiet waiting. There was so little that they could do. They had no power of control over the social and national movements of the age. Their strength was to sit still, holding their own with a quiet persistency. Their endurance was their witness to their age. But that waiting is the hardest thing ever given to man to do; and it is a great help to him in the doing if he can have the inspiration of an ideal, if he can have some great waiting in mind to which he may be constantly lifting himself, and in the great effort making all lesser efforts at waiting come easier. The typical waiting then was for the “coming of the Lord.” The typical waiting still is for the “coming of the Lord.” It was not realised then as men imagined it, but it was realised. It is not realised now as men imagine it, but it is realised. This is the mission of that expectation of the Lord’s coming which so many devout souls still cherish: it inspires endurance; it nourishes the spirit of quiet bearing of present ills; it enables a man to be patient amid the cares and disappointments of the earthly life; it uplifts with the cheer of a high hope. No doubt our Lord’s great discourse on the “last things,” which is recorded in Matthew 24:0, led to a general belief of His speedy return in human form, but with heavenly powers, to rectify those abuses and disorders of society, which pressed so heavily upon His disciples. It was only the form of His coming that was misconceived. It is only the form of His coming that is still misconceived. He did come to waiting souls. He does come to waiting souls. He came in providences. He came in spiritual manifestations. He came as the relieving angel “Israfil.” It was, and it is, the support of our waiting moods that His disciples keep quite sure that He is always just upon coming to help them. That leads them on, enabling them cheerfully to bear their burdens day by day. And it is but the Christian translation of the feeling that has been cherished by God’s saints in all the ages. It expressed itself in this way in the older times—“Thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.” And in this way in the newer times—“Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly.”

I. What are the duties of Christians during their waiting-times?—St. James does not deal with all the duties—only with such as were relative to the needs of those to whom he wrote.

1. They ought to keep from restlessness. That is the idea of “patience” as here commended. The restlessness that keeps going to the door, or looking out at the window, and so takes men off from the duty of the hour. We cannot do our work well while we keep a restless state of mind. If we are expecting an arrival at our home, but are uncertain of the precise time, it altogether spoils our work for the day; it compels us to do nothing, if we suffer ourselves to become restless and anxious. In this way our hope of Christ’s coming may become morally mischievous. It will, if it makes us restless and dissatisfied. We shall undervalue our present work, and think lightly of our present responsibilities; and instead of spending our strength in service, we shall spend it in worrying and restless watchings. Our Lord pointed out this danger, when He taught that the servant who expected his master’s home-coming watched best by quietly waiting, fully occupied at his servant-duties, and actually found at work when the master entered the house. Restlessness never becomes a Christian virtue by disguising itself in pietistic forms. “Be patient unto [in respect of] the coming of the Lord.”

2. St. James points out another duty of the hour. They should keep from doubting. Restlessness might make them neglect their work; but doubting would altogether change the character of their work. It would soon cease to be work for Christ, and come to be work for self. If the servant began to say within himself, “My lord delayeth his coming”; if he said to himself, doubtingly, “He will not come soon, and I question whether he means to come at all,” that servant would soon begin to lose all wise restraint of himself, and “to eat and drink with the drunken.” St. James bids the Jewish Christians who were tried by the seeming delay of their deliverance from present evils, “stablish,” or “strengthen,” their hearts. If we gave the advice in these days we should say, “Don’t lose heart,” “Don’t give way to doubts and fears,” “Buttress your hearts against all temptations to doubt,” “Nourish your souls into such spiritual strength that you can throw off from you all poison atmospheres of doubt.” Hearts are stablished and strengthened, not by trying to force a way into the mysteries of God’s doing or delaying, but by meditating on what God has done, by realising what God is, and by inquiring, with a full purpose of obedience, into what God would have done by us. Three things are always at hand for the mastery of temptations to doubt:

(1) the revelation of God, which contains the “exceeding great and precious promises”;
(2) communion with God, which brings personal satisfactions to the soul; and
(3) active service, which takes a man off from perilous broodings. Those who dwell unduly on the “coming of the Lord” are especially liable to doubt, if they are active-minded; for they are compelled to recognise that He never has come, never does come, and never will come just as men have expected Him to. Those who wait must not only wait quietly; they must wait hopefully. Our time is alway ready. He who is coming will come; He does not really tarry.
3. St. James further points out the duty of keeping kindly relations with one another while we wait. “Grudge not one against another.” “Murmur not, brethren, one against another.” So easily, in their waiting-times, even Christians can get to wranglings and mutual reproaches. One man has his explanation of the Lord’s delay. Others are not able to accept his explanation. One man is sure that he can fix the day and the hour of the coming. Others remind him that he has fixed it before, and the time has gone by; and he becomes angry at the reminder. It may be comparatively easy for an individual Christian to wait patiently; it is always very hard for a number of Christians to wait patiently together. A Christian man is seriously strained and tested in the time when he can do nothing. A Christian Church gets into all sorts of contentions, misunderstandings, mutual reproaches, bickerings, and jealousies, when it is doing nothing, when it is waiting for some “coming of the Lord.” An inactive Church will often have a good deal of pietistic talk; but that may only be an insincere covering over of rankling enmities, mischievous murmurings, and mutual grudgings. It is like the servant that our Lord pictures who, because he did not keep on with his work, began to “beat his fellow-servants.” That was the mistake that was made by the early Jewish Christian Churches. They had taken up this notion, that Christ was coming at once in some outward way, to redress all their wrongs, overwhelm all their enemies, and enrich them with all benedictions; and in the excitement of this sentiment, they had become restless, they were neglecting their work, and they were quarrelling among themselves. “Every doctrine is known by its fruits”; and the doctrine of the “second coming,” as men usually hold it and teach it, is certainly not commended by its fruits. There is a true doctrine of the “second coming,” but the unduly occupied ear of Christ’s Church is not now open to receive it. There are waiting-times in all our lives. There have been; there will be. St. James’s advice may be fitted precisely to our waiting-times. Keep from restlessness. “Be patient.” Keep from doubting. “Stablish your hearts.” Keep from envying. “Grudge not one against another.”

II. What are the helps to the fulfilment of duty, in their waiting-times, which are at the command of Christians?

1. They may keep the inspiration of good examples. For other people have had to wait, and have waited well. Nay, looking around them, Christians may learn from the spheres of business and social life; and turning over the pages of their Scriptures they may find inspiring instances of heroic endurance.
(1) There is the yearly example of the husbandman. “He waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain.” The husbandman worketh. If he does not plough and clean and smooth his soil, and cast in the living seeds in their season, he will have no waiting-work to do, and nothing to wait for. It is not sufficiently impressed upon us in moral and spiritual spheres that only workers can be waiters. If a man has not worked, what has he to wait for, what has he to wait about? In all true waiting there is expectancy; but expectancy must be based upon something. The husbandman bases it upon his work. Waiting that has no work behind it, and no work in it, is dreamy sentiment, and is no good to anybody. The husbandman has to wait, and work while he waits, for the fruitage of his sowing. The fields must be guarded, tended, nourished, while the crops are growing. But the results of his work get beyond him. He finds himself in the midst of forces that he cannot control; and no efforts of his can possibly hurry on the results. During the months of growing, what a life of waiting-faith every farmer has to live! And what a lesson of the patience of faith comes to us as we walk the fields, and see the crops so slowly, but so surely, growing unto harvest! Our Christian work starts influences which get altogether beyond our control. We work for issues; and want them to come immediately, and they will not. We work in the upbuilding of character, but character grows and unfolds very slowly; and we can no more hurry on our results than can the farmer. God takes all good work into His keeping, and makes His rains and His sunshine nourish the growing crops, which will be reaped to the unspeakable joy of the worker some day. The husbandman may have much anxiety, and much trial of faith and patience, while he waits. Everything depended, in those older days, on the “early” winter rains and the “latter” spring rains; and sometimes they failed altogether, or they were insufficient, or they were excessive. The cold seasons kept the crops back. Wild storms just before harvest laid the heavy-headed stalks; prevailing damp made the grains sprout; prolonged drought burned up the grass, and dried up the seeds of the root-crops as they lay in the ground. Many and many a morning during the growing months the farmer wakes and listens anxiously for the sound of rain, pulls the blind aside, and nourishes or crushes his hope for the day. It is hard indeed for him to see all the fruitage of his toil being hopelessly ruined, and to know that his harvest can only be a “day of grief and desperate sorrow” True, the issues are not often as the fears. Nature—God in nature—has a wonderful recovering power. Constantly we find we have to reap the harvest of God’s mercy, instead of the harvest of our fears. Are not Christian waiting-times anxious times? Parents work in their boys for noble manhood; and the day comes when the boy must go out into life, and battle for himself amidst manifold evils; must soul-thrive amid stormy winds and pelting rains of temptation, and it may be amid blazing suns of success. How can we measure the parental anxiety? See how every letter from the boy is scanned! how mother reads what father cannot see! how the tone of the letter is appraised! All those years of unfolding while out of parental control bring their grave anxieties; and, full of fears, those parents often say to one another—What will the harvest be? It is but the type of all the waiting-times of Christian workers. It is part of our discipline that they shall be full of grave anxieties; and if we are full of concern about the issues of our work, we may realise how concerned God is about us, wanting the very anxieties of our waiting-times to be sanctified to us. But the husbandman keeps the cheer of the certain result while he waits. There stands the word; the years have rolled into centuries, and the centuries have heaped up one upon another, but the word has never been belied—“While the earth remaineth … seedtime and harvest shall not fail.” Get the barns ready, though the cold chills, the heavy rains, or the untempered sunshine do come upon the growing crops. Get the barns ready; they will be filled, as they always have been. Earth never rolled through one of its years, without its people singing unto God their song of harvest home. Must we wait? Is it hard to wait? Does our Lord seem to delay His coming? We too may keep the cheer in our souls while we wait. He has promised. We grip His word so tight that the surge of life’s storm-tossed sea can never loosen our hold. He has said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, ye may be also.”

(2) There is the example of the saints of the older days. “Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” It is not possible now to do any more than let the great “cloud of witnesses” pass before us, in a seemingly endless panorama; and then say, after the eloquent writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, when he had set before us the long list of those who had “endured, as seeing Him who is invisible”: “Time would fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens.” They had their anxious waiting-times, but they waited well; and they came through to victory and their Lord’s “well done, good and faithful.” And
(3) there is the familiar example of Job. “Ye have heard of the patience of Job.” He could wait for God, and wait on God. And while he waited, Job sang in his soul, and cheered his soul with the singing, of such things as the psalmist puts into poetic words, “Clouds and darkness are round about Him, justice and judgment are the habitation of His throne”; “I wait for the Lord; my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope.”
2. They may keep the confidence that God has His gracious purpose in every call to endure. The “end of the Lord”—and He always has an “end”—will be sure to justify the means. We may never think of God as acting on impulse. He has a distinct aim, a purpose of infinite wisdom and goodness, towards which He moves with infinite adaptations of His means. St. James assures us that He is “large-hearted,” “tender-hearted.” He can deal graciously with all the weaknesses that we may show—all the failures from duty—in our waiting-times. He will not let them hinder the carrying through of His purpose. They shall never spoil His harvest. Wait; wait on; wait worthily. Be patient. Keep confidence. Look up, even if there be clouds in the sky. Hold fast by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though His way may seem to you to be “in the sea, and His path in the great waters.” Wait on. Work while you wait. “Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when He cometh shall find so doing: verily I say unto you, that He shall gird Himself; and make them sit down to meat, and shall come and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, and if in the third, and find them so, blessed are those servants.… Be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh.”


James 5:7. The Coming of the Lord.—“Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming [margin, presence] of the Lord.” James 5:8 : “For the coming of the Lord is at hand.” It is perfectly clear that all the early Christian teachers had the distinct expectation of something, which they agreed to call “the coming of the Lord.” It is also certain that they looked upon this coming as the fulfilment of the Lord’s own promises, both in the “upper room” and at His ascension. But it is by no means clear what it was that they expected. It may indeed now be quite impossible to recover their precise thought, because very different thoughts have grown up round the expression “the coming of the Lord” in the course of the Christian ages. It very materially helps us toward the apprehension of the apostolic idea, if we get an answer to this question—Did Christ come to the early Church, in the manner, and at the time, the apostles expected He would? It is quite clear that they understood their Lord to mean that He would come in some material and visible manifestation, and that He would come before the apostolic age closed. The question requires the answer Yes or No, and it can be satisfied with no other answer; it will have no qualified answer that merely turns it aside or puts it from consideration. The answer may be—Yes, He did come in the apostolic age, and He did come in a formal and material manner. Then there is nothing in the historic record of those times which can, by any possibility, be identified as our Lord’s coming, save the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and final breaking up of the Jewish national and ecclesiastical systems. The answer may be—No, He did not come as apostles expected, and has not so come even yet. Then it is impossible to prevent the reasonable suggestion of devout souls, that the apostles may have misapprehended. His meaning, both as to the manner, and as to the time, of His coming. And it is quite open to devout souls to suggest, that if our Lord had been understood spiritually, it would have been seen that He did fulfil His promise, and does fulfil it; but our mistaken apprehensions have prevented our recognising the fulfilment.

James 5:10. Examples of Christian Endurance.—“Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spake in the name of the Lord.” It is questioned whether only the ancient prophets are referred to, or whether the term is intended to include the persecuted and martyred teachers of the Christian age. But even if we assume that St. James thought only of the Old Testament prophets, there is no reason why we should hesitate to include all, in prominent and official positions, who present the example of suffering and patience. And our life is encircled with such examples. History is full of them. Imaginative literature is constantly creating fresh types of heroic sufferers. The actual experience of our lives brings us into fellowship with those who are triumphantly bearing the burdens of lifelong pain or loss or disability.

I. Examples of endurance are constantly presented to us.—Apart altogether from religious motives and helps, there is a heroic endurance in humanity. A power to bear; and even to bear for others, which ennobles man. There is never any occasion for trying to debase humanity in order to exalt religion. It may be necessary to do that in order to lay suitable foundations for a religious creed; but not to maintain revealed and spiritual religion. We can fully admire the moral greatness of man’s endurance and patience, while we recognise his lost standing relations with God.

II. Examples of Christian endurance have a particular influence upon us.—Because they indicate the inspiration of the very highest motive upon which men can act. And they convince us that there can be a Divine presence with man, and a Divine power on man, which can raise him altogether beyond anything that of himself he could attain. Suffering patience with the supreme motive of doing and bearing God’s holy will is an attainment which is wholly impossible save with an indwelling inspiration of God.

James 5:11. The End of the Lord reveals Him.—It has often been pointed out that the final reward and restoration of Job is given after the “poetical justice” with which we are familiar in works of imagination. In actual history or biography we do not meet with such exact restorations. In a book which is the illustration of a great principle, by the use of a historical figure, and conversations in dramatic form, such an ending is befitting, and its precision of detail need not be overpressed.

I. The Lord always has an end.—It is this conviction which gives a man such satisfaction when he sees that his anxieties have come from God. Troubles that are manifestly of our own making are our supreme anxiety, because we can only think of God as overruling them. They are not His mind; He has to come into them in a gracious kind of interfering way. Job’s troubles were not brought on by his own wrong-doing; they were distinctly disciplinary troubles sent by God. God never afflicts willingly. God never smites in any “acts of sovereignty.” There is a distinct purpose in every Divine act, in every Divine permission. He has an end towards which He is ever working. If we are in His chastisement, it is for our profit.

II. The Lord’s end is seldom understood by the Lord’s way.—That need be no surprise to us if we are familiar with the complicated machinery involved in our manufactures. Take the process by which sheep’s wool is turned into clothing; or what seems but rubbish becomes white paper. The tearings, and burnings, and boilings, and rollings can neither be understood separately, nor in their connections; and yet we can believe that each strange thing helps to accomplish the end which has been, all along, held in view. God’s ways cannot but seem strange, and we had better not try to imagine the end by the help of the means.

III. The Lord’s end is always in harmony with Himself.—It is a wisely ordered end, for He is infinitely wise. It is an end of infinite blessing—adapted to us, satisfying to us—for He is love.

Verses 12-13


James 5:13. Merry.—Of good cheer, gladsome at heart. Psalm.—The word suggests a composition fitted to an accompaniment of music.


Christian Conduct fitting Occasions.—St. James closes his epistle with good advice, and indication of what is befitting conduct in the various relations of life. A positive tone of teaching properly concludes an epistle that is so full of warning and rebuke, and even denunciation. Teachings directed against evils and abuses are as necessary now as they ever were, but they should never constitute the whole of teaching; they should never be allowed to stand alone, and carry a complete impression of Christianity. They should be qualified with teachings of positive duty, and commendations of the right spirit to cherish. Christian teaching may be represented by the two related sentences—“Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good.” The advice of this passage is precisely adapted to the circumstances and temptations of Jewish Christians in those days. (The advice in reference to the sick is treated as a separate section, because it introduces controversial matter.)

I. There should be the ring of truth in all ordinary conversation.—“Swear not.” Our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:33-37 comes at once to mind. Swearing is the expression of lost self-control under the impulse of temper. Taking oaths, or supporting what one has to say with an oath, implies mutual suspicion and untrustfulness. St. James has not in mind that use of foul and blasphemous language which we now understand by swearing. Nor does he refer to the taking of legal oaths, which imply no loss of temper, and no purpose to injure a brother, but nevertheless are, from the Christian point of view, concessions to the weakness of human nature, recognitions of the fact that the naked word of sinful man is not to be trusted. St. James urges that there should be such a ring of truth in all the common conversation of a Christian, that it should never be felt necessary to buttress it with an oath. A truthful man is grieved when his simple word is not taken. And the Christian should be a truthful man. His word should be absolutely and always reliable; and to this end the Christian should cultivate discretion and self-restraint. In perplexing, anxious, persecuting times, there is peculiar call for wisdom of speech. Truthful conversation is a good sign of piety.

II. There should be the relief of prayer in times of suffering.—“Is any among you suffering? let him pray.” The idea is that if the sufferer broods over his woes, or talks over his woes, he is sure to get more and more depressed under them. The Christian way of relief is carrying the burden to God in prayer.

1. It is cherishing the spirit of prayer, which is the spirit of submission and dependence.
2. It is getting the relief of acts of prayer, in which the Divine sympathy and help are sought. Even the severely suffering may find help in ejaculatory prayers. St. Augustine calls these “arrows of the Lord’s deliverance, shot out with a sudden quickness.”

III. There should be the song of praise in times of rejoicing and success.—The advice was, and is, especially needed, because there is always grave danger that times of rejoicing may be times of excitement, and so of unrestrainedness, that may bring disgrace on the Christian name. There are natural ways of expressing gladness. At such times we want to sing. Then let the Christian be careful what song he sings. Let it have the ring of a psalm. Let it be such a thanksgiving as turns his heart to God, and fills his thoughts with God. This need not be exaggerated into meaning that we may, in our joy-times, sing nothing but Bible psalms. St. James means this—Take care, in your times of excitement and merry-making, that you do not lose self-restraint, and dishonour your Christian profession. Bring God near, and keep God near, in your joy-times. It is counsel that is always timely. Festivals of all religions have their moral perils; and merry-making times call for the kindly caution, “Is any cheerful? let him sing praise.” The point of impression is this—In all the various circumstances and moods of Christian life, there is a spirit and a conduct that are befitting. Let every professing Christian keep that spirit, and act along that line.


James 5:12. The Truth-tone in Common Talk.—F. W. Robertson concludes his sermon on “Freedom by the Truth” with the two following inferences:

1. To cultivate the love of truth. I do not mean veracity—that is another thing. Veracity is the correspondence between a proposition and a man’s belief. Truth is the correspondence of the proposition with fact. The love of truth is the love of realities—the determination to rest upon facts, and not upon semblances. Take an illustration of the way in which the habit of cultivating truth is got. Two boys see a misshapen, hideous thing in the dark. One goes up to the cause of his terror, examines it, learns what it is; he knows the truth, and the truth has made him free. The other leaves it in mystery and unexplained vagueness, and is a slave for life to superstitious and indefinite terrors. Base the heart on facts.
2. See what a Christian is. Our society is divided into two classes: those who are daring, inquisitive, but restrained by no reverence, and kept back by little religion; those who may be called religious—but, with all their excellences, we cannot help feeling that the elements of their character are feminine rather than masculine, and that they have no grasp or manly breadth, that their hold is on feeling rather than on truth. See what a Christian is, drawn by the hand of Christ. He is a man on whose clear and open brow God has set the stamp of truth; one whose very eye beams bright with honour; in whose very look and bearing you may see freedom, manliness, veracity; a brave man—a noble man—frank, generous, true, with, it may be, many faults; whose freedom may take the form of impetuosity or rashness, but the form of meanness never.

Yea and Nay.—Our Lord taught us that the conversation of a sincere man can always be a simple Yea and Nay. He never needs to bolster up any statement he may make with oaths and asseverations. There is a tone in the Yea and Nay which carries conviction. We are made suspicious whenever a man feels he must support a statement with oaths. If a Christian is uncertain, he does not speak positively. If he is sure, he is satisfied with simply stating what he knows. He is true to himself, and true to his Master, and therefore true to his fellow-man. “In conversation be sincere.”

James 5:13. Prayer in Afflictive Circumstances.—There is a distinction indicated by St. James which is not usually recognised. In James 5:13 he says, “Is any among you afflicted?” In James 5:14 he says, “Is any sick among you?” We are wont to regard “sickness” and “affliction” as the same thing, and so we miss the precision of application. In both cases St. James recommends prayer; but for affliction he recommends personal prayer—for sickness, intercessory and sympathetic prayer. By “sickness” we understand the troubles which come as bodily disease, weakness, peril. This attracts public attention, calls for sympathy, and can be relieved by united, believing, intercessory prayer. By “affliction” we understand those distresses which come from trying and perplexing circumstances; and these are often strictly private matters, and must be kept private. We can ask no elders or Church to pray for us, or with us. All we can do, and the thing we should do, is take such “afflictions” freely to God in private prayer.

Life’s Gladness and its Outlet.—How closely our spiritual nature, as creatures of feeling, is related to the element of sound, wanting this in its distinctions for a language, as truly as it wants the language of words for intellectual discourse. Even as the poets, who are nature’s best oracles, sing,—

“Music! Oh, how faint, how weak,

Language fades before thy spell!

Why should feeling ever speak,

When thou canst breathe her soul so well?”

Accordingly, as we are wont to argue the invisible things of God, even His eternal power and Godhead, from the things that are seen, finding them all images of thought and vehicles of intelligence, so we have an argument for God more impressive, in one view, because the matter of it is so deep and mysterious, from the fact that a grand harmonic, soul-interpreting law of music pervades all the objects of the material creation, and that things without life, all metals, and woods, and valleys, and mountains, and waters, are tempered with distinctions of sound, and toned to be a language to the feeling of the heart. It is as if God had made the world about us to be a grand organ of music, so that our feelings might have play in it, as our understanding has in the light of the sun and the outward colours and forms of things.… There is hid in the secret temper and substance of all matter a silent music, that only waits to sound, and become a voice of utterance to the otherwise unutterable feeling of our heart—a voice, if we will have it, of love and worship to the God of all.—Horace Bushnell, D.D.


James 5:14. The Use of Oil for anointing Bodies.—The use of oil in anointing the body appears to have been general in ancient times among all the nations dwelling around the Mediterranean. Allusions to this use abound in ancient authors. The heroes of Homer are described by him as restoring their weary limbs after a battle by frictions of oil. This was Alexander’s practice. It was Pompey’s daily practice also, as well as that of all the wealthy Romans. We find this custom alluded to in the Scriptures both of the Old and New Testaments. It is mentioned as forming an habitual part of the toilet on special occasions (Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; Micah 6:15); not to be indulged in in case of mourning (2 Samuel 14:2; Daniel 10:2-3). The head was anointed in connection with the recurring daily ablution, as mentioned in Matthew 6:17. Egyptian monuments represent servants anointing guests on their arrival at their entertainer’s house; and alabaster vases still exist which retain traces of the ointment they once contained. This was adopted from the Egyptians by the Jews, and the settlement of many of these people at Alexandria served to maintain Egyptian customs among them. This practice has disappeared in modern times, on account of the conquest of these lands by foreign nations. The hair is now anointed, but mostly by the women, since the men have the head shaved. The wrestlers, called by the Turks Pekhliwans, anoint themselves with oil before wrestling, as did the ancients preparatory to similar athletic exercises, in order to render their bodies more slippery under the grasp of their antagonists. The custom of anointing the body is still prevalent among some nations of Africa.—Van Lennep.

Church Customs of anointing with Oil.—Anointing with oil was a part of the ceremonial of the Jewish law, which has been introduced into the Roman as well as the Oriental Churches. It is prepared by these according to the rule prescribed by Moses, and is with them no inconsiderable source of revenue. The “extreme unction” practised by the Roman Church is defended by a misinterpretation of this text; for extreme unction is never applied until it is considered certain that the patient is about to die, whereas the words of St. James, as well as those in Mark 6:13, connect anointing the sick with recovery. We do not consider that in these cases oil was used either as a means or a symbol; the anointing was simply an exercise of faith similar to Peter and John’s saying to the lame man at the gate of the Temple called Beautiful, “Rise up, and walk.” The elders of the Church, after praying for the sick man, were to treat him as though he were recovered. They were to help him rise from his bed, wash, anoint his head, and dress, and rejoice with him in view of the healing mercies of God.—Ibid.

James 5:15-16. Answers to Prayer.—About thirty years ago, a beloved friend and fellow-labourer was taken alarmingly ill, and his constitution being delicate, it was feared that he would not be able to resist so violent an attack. He was a man most highly esteemed both by teachers and children; indeed, I never knew a man more generally beloved. Kind and gentle in his deportment, superior in natural and acquired talent, and zealously devoted to the interests of the young, he was formed both by nature and grace to be a teacher of the very first order. His sudden indisposition spread a gloom over many hearts, and prayer was made without ceasing unto God for him. Several friends agreed to engage in this exercise every morning at eleven o’clock, and the result was waited for with the greatest anxiety. The next Sabbath came, and this faithful servant of Christ to all human appearance was fast approaching the gates of death; a few hours it was thought would terminate his useful career. But though cast down, his friends were not in despair. A special prayer-meeting was appointed to be held in the evening on his behalf, which was attended by not less than between two and three hundred persons, and never did Christians appear to be more united in purpose, more earnest in desire, and more interested in the one important object for which they were assembled, than were the friends on that occasion. It was in truth a solemn season. Every soul seemed dissolved in tenderness, and every eye melted to tears; while the language of each heart appeared to be, “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan.” For my own part I felt so overcome by the intense sympathy and earnestness displayed, that I was glad to retire from the meeting unobserved, that I might “commune with my own heart, and be still.” The next day was with me a day of much anxiety; but in the evening I was greatly relieved by the information that the disorder of my friend had taken a sudden and favourable change at the very hour appointed for prayer; affording a striking illustration of the faithfulness of the promise, “Before they call I will answer, and while they are yet speaking I will hear.” From that hour the sufferer began slowly to amend, until he was again restored to health, and to the duties from which he had for a season been laid aside. But the most extraordinary part of the story remains to be told. At the meeting referred to, an aged teacher, a man remarkable for the strength and simplicity of his faith, was called upon to pray. Whilst pleading with God on behalf of his friend, Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery came forcibly to his mind, and he prayed that God would be pleased, as in the case of Israel’s king, to add fifteen years to the valuable life of his afflicted brother. Time rolled on, carrying many who had engaged in this interesting service to the ocean of eternity, and with them the venerable man who had offered this singular prayer. He whose life had been given at his petition wept over his remains, crying, “Alas, my brother!” and followed him to the open tomb. Years again passed away, and the circumstance of the fifteen years was forgotten by most, but not by him to whom it particularly referred. He treasured it up in his memory, until old age, with its accompanying infirmities, came stealing upon him. One day, when remarking upon it to his family, he said, “That prayer has been signally answered, for this very week the fifteen years have expired.” In the evening the worn-out pilgrim retired to his rest; but oh, how sweet, how peaceful was that rest! it was the rest that remaineth for the people of God. When the sun again visited our hemisphere, his happy spirit had departed to partake of pleasures which longevity cannot diminish, and eternity itself can never exhaust.—Cranfield.

James 5:16. Luther’s Prayer.—“Just as a shoemaker makes a shoe, and a tailor a coat,” said Luther, “so also ought the Christian to pray. The Christian’s trade is praying. And the prayer of the Church works great miracles. In our days it has raised from the dead three persons, viz. myself, my wife Catherine, and Melancthon, who was nigh unto death at Weimar.” Luther, having spoken thus, he lifted up his eyes towards heaven, praying, “Lord God, Thou hast spoken through the mouth of Thy servant David (Psalms 147:8-9). Why wilt Thou not give us rain now, for which so long we have cried and prayed? Well, then, if no rain, Thou art able to give us something better—a peaceable and quiet life, peace and harmony. Now, we have prayed so much, prayed so often, and our prayers not being granted, dear Father, the wicked will say, Christ, Thy beloved Son, had told a falsehood, saying (John 16:23), Thus they will give both Thee and Thy Son the lie. I know that we sincerely cry to Thee and with yearning. Why, then, dost Thou not hear us?” In the very same night following there fell a very refreshing and productive rain.

Verses 14-16


James 5:14. Call for.—Summon to him. Elders.—Officers usual in synagogues, and probably also found in the Jewish Christian congregations. Not priests, or even ministers. Anointing him with oil.—Clearly not as a religious ceremony, but as an agency for the recovery of health. It is also suggested that the use of oil in the toilet was a recognised sign of recovery to health. Compare our Lord’s saying to the maiden Arise! as if she was actually restored to life and health.

James 5:15. Prayer of faith.—The only kind of prayer that ever is acceptable to God: chap. James 1:6. The prayer that is answered in the restoration of a sick member in no way differs from the prayers for ordinary blessings. Christian prayer is “the prayer of faith.” Sins.—Here specially thought of as the immediate cause of his sickness. The sin of a Christian man, which has brought on him a penalty of suffering. Not all his sins, or the sins of any sick man. The reference of the text is strictly limited.

James 5:16. Faults.—Referring to the immediate case of which St. James is treating. The occasions of sickness are often faults rather than wilful sins; the word used would be better rendered, “transgressions.” One to another.—On the assumption that “all ye are brethren,” pledged to mutual helpfulness. By mutual confidence in one another we learn how, appropriately, to pray for each other. Availeth much.—As the term “effectual fervent” is given in the participle ἐνεργουμένη (working), it is suggested to render, “A righteous man’s supplication is of great weight in its working.”


Christian Treatment of the Sick.—The subject treated in this passage is made difficult by our ignorance of the customs of society, and especially of religious society, in the time of St. James. Our customs so materially differ from those with which he was familiar. It is also made difficult by the development of two doctrines in the Christian Church, both of which—though they stand in marked contrast—are made to rest upon, and draw their support from, this passage: the “extreme unction” of Catholics, and the “faith-healing” of sentimental Protestants.

I. Examine what the passage does really say.—One ever-recurring point of St. James’s teaching is, that faith is an active thing. It cannot rest. It must do something. The activity of faith covers the whole life, and concerns itself with every place and relation. This passage is found among practical directions for the guidance of Christian faith in its activity. What should be done by, and for, the afflicted, the merry, the sick? Observe that, just as the afflicted man, and the happy man, are expected to act for themselves, so the sick man is expected to act for himself. “Let him call for the elders of the Church.” This is important, because it indicates that the man had gained the spiritual blessing intended to be wrought by his sickness, and was in a fit state of mind to receive a gracious healing, as an act of Divine favour. Compare the expression, “perceiving that he had faith to be healed.” The elders were not preachers, not missionaries, not apostles, not priests. They are represented by the elders of the Jewish synagogues, and are to be regarded simply as agents of the Christian Church; they are the Christian Church acting; and have neither power nor authority save as standing for the Church. It should be carefully observed that the sick man was not to call for some one of the elders, but for the elders as a body. If there were three, then all three; if ten, then all ten. These men were to pray over him, when they had anointed him with oil. That is, they were to pray with such a faith that he would be restored, as could show itself in dealing with him as if he actually were already restored. From what is known of anointing customs in daily life, one thing comes out quite clearly. Every one, when in health, used oil more or less in the daily toilet. But oil was never used when a person was laid aside in sickness. His return to the use of oil was a sign of his return to health. A very natural and simple explanation of this difficult and much misused passage can therefore be given. Anointing the body with oil was the sign of health. Those who were sick might not be anointed; nor those passing through a time of mourning. The ancient customs in relation to anointing may be illustrated by our customs in relation to shaving the beard. The sick man will neither trouble himself, nor be troubled, about shaving; but as soon as he begins to recover he will return to his old and cleanly habits. So the ancients would neglect daily anointing during sickness, and their return to their old ways was a sure sign that they were recovering. When St. James therefore gives these directions for the elders, what he really means may be put in this way—“By a sign which will show the sick brother your faith help his faith. Pray for him in such perfect faith that you can even anticipate the healing, and act toward him as if he were already restored.” The elders were to help the sick man to rise, wash, and anoint, and act just as if he were in health again.

II. What things in the passage require special consideration?—The age of miracles had not then passed, if it ever has passed.

1. Note the unconditional character of the promise, “Shall save him that is sick.” It is not really without conditions. See the demand for faith, and for certain defined acts expressing faith, and proving the obedience of faith. Rules should be stated without their exceptions; but all rules have such. Compare our Lord’s strong sentences about prayer.

2. Consider the meaning of the anointing with oil. Whether before or after prayer, the anointing is to be understood as a strictly simultaneous act. Two ideas have been suggested:
(1) The anointing may have been a medicinal healing. Oil was regarded as a curative agent.
(2) The anointing may have been sacramental—a help towards realising the action of Divine grace. Sight and feeling may be helps toward the apprehension of spiritual things. Compare our Lord’s touching those whom He healed, or making clay to put on the eyes of the man whose sight He restored.

3. Observe the sense in which forgiveness is blended with recovery. St. James does not assume that every case of sickness is a case of sin. But he says, if you do meet with a case in which the sickness connects with personal sin, in that case the faith which heals the body brings also forgiveness of the sin.
(1) Sin regarded as scandal to the Church. In such a case the man must be penitent, or he would not send for the elders of the Church.
(2) Sin as before God. Always conceived as the source of human disease. Compare our Lord saying to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.”

III. Removing the local and temporary, what may we learn from the passage for our own times?

1. The duty of showing sympathy with the sick. Example of Christ. Consider sickness from the Christian point of view. Issue of self-will resisting the Divine order. Divine chastisement. Corrective discipline.
2. The duty of using means for the recovery of the sick. Oil was curative agency. The elders were to use means. Anointing here means rubbing the body, not pouring it on the head as a symbol of dedication—rubbing the affected parts, as for rheumatism. Symbol of all healing agents. Show how science now takes the place of miracle.
3. The importance of recognising the power of the “prayer of faith.” This was needed for miracle. How much more is it needed for science! Prayer-power, faith-power, are especially needed if the spiritual ends, for which all sickness—certainly all Christian sickness—is sent, are to be reached.


James 5:14. Signs of Healing.—Here unction was evidently an outward sign, similar to that used by our Saviour, when He made clay, and put it to the blind man’s eyes. It was connected with the miraculous power of healing. The sign by which a healing work is indicated is not the healing, or even a necessary part of the healing. Our Lord could have completed the recovery of the sight without any putting clay on the eyes, and could have healed the leper without any touch. The signs were precisely intended either to impress the person healed, and direct his close attention to his Healer, or else to arouse the interest of bystanders, and compel them to think of the power and claims of Him who could thus heal. If the distinction between the sign and the healing is fully recognised, and the sign is regarded as an addition to the healing for the sake of securing its proper moral influence, the anointing with oil in the name of the Lord can be very simply explained. It was a ceremony, not a healing agency, and in no way essential to the cure. It may be freely admitted that oil is sometimes used in the East—and, for that matter, in the West too—as a medical agent. But it is not sufficiently recognised that the act St. James enjoins is not a rubbing over of the body, or even of affected parts of the body, but the symbolical act of anointing, with which the Jews were familiar. It is most simple to understand St. James as requiring the pouring of oil on the man’s head, as a symbolic act, a sign of the Divine grace unto healing which would come down upon the sick man. Such a symbolic act would have a direct influence on those who prayed for the healing, fixing their thoughts on the power and grace of God whose ministry of healing they sought; and having an equally direct influence on the sufferer; making him look with believing expectancy for the recovering grace which the anointing oil symbolised. In this way the sign of healing, accompanying the prayer for healing, was a direct help to the nourishment of that faith on which the coming of the healing grace must ever depend.

James 5:16. The Healthy Confessional.—“Confess therefore your sins one to another.” It appears to be assumed by St. James, that sicknesses and diseases are often the natural and direct consequences, not only of sin, but of the actual sin of the person who suffers. And he seems to admit that this may even be true of members of the Church. By omissions, negligences, imprudences, and even self-indulgence and wilfulness, those within the Church may bring sickness and suffering upon themselves. There is then assumed a moral condition of sickness, as well as a physical. And the spirit of brotherly love in the Church secures as sincere—and a more anxious—interest in the state of the brother’s soul as in the state of his body. What the Church could do for the body has been dealt with. No inquiries were necessary, and no confessions were required, for the condition of the patient was evident enough. But what the Church could do for the man’s soul-condition was not manifest, for it must depend on what the condition of the man’s soul was, and that could only be found out by inquiry. The man must confess to his brethren if he would have their help towards the restoration of inward health. We cannot pray for one another’s spiritual conditions unless we know what those conditions are, and we can only know any man as he is pleased to reveal himself to us. This is what St. James means by “confessing our sins one to another.” By no scheming can confessing to one another be made to mean confessing to an official who has authority to absolve from the sin, or to remit the penalty. The brethren can neither heal the body nor the soul, but they can use the power of believing prayer about both the body and the soul. They can see with their eyes what to pray for on behalf of the body; but they can only know what to pray for on behalf of the soul, when the man himself tells them his trouble, his sin, or his need. Confessions that simply throw us on the sympathy and helpful love of our brethren and sisters in Christ Jesus are, in every way, healthy confessions.

Verses 17-18


James 5:17. Prayed earnestly.—Margin, “prayed in his prayer.”


Prayer affecting Natural Law.—The statement is made, in support of the advice to “pray for one another,” that “the supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.” This is a strong statement. It is supported by a well-known but very striking instance of effectual prayer, which even influenced the course of nature. Elijah prayed, and the order of the rains was changed. Elijah prayed again, and the order of the rains was restored.

I. It may be fully recognised that all events in nature follow ordered laws.—But these things have to be taken into account:

1. Laws are constantly qualifying laws and changing results.
2. The natural laws which man has traced may not be the entire circle of natural laws. The qualifying power of unknown laws (which we therefore call “supernatural”) may be the real explanation of phenomena. We have no right to say that a thing cannot be until we have mastered all the possible co-workings of all natural laws, known to us and unknown. No man has a right to deny miracle.

II. It must be recognised that He who fixed the laws keeps control over the relative working of the laws.—If God could make the relative conditions and the rules ordering the relations, it is inconceivable that He did not reserve His right of interference. He made the conditions for the accomplishment of His purpose; He must be able to bring His will to bear on the adjustment of the working of rules that necessarily cross and qualify one another.

III. If then God is a being with will, that will must be subject to influence.—Man’s prayer may be one of the influences affecting it. Our prayer may be an element in the formation of Divine judgments and decisions; and so may, not directly, but indirectly, affect the order of nature, and the relative working of natural laws. It should be borne in mind that Christian prayer is never more than the submission of our need and wish to the consideration of the Divine Father.


James 5:17-18. Elijah’s Effectual Prayer.—The necessity of prayer in order that the blessing come. Prayer is the cause intermediate which compels the blessing down. This interlinking and efficient place of prayer, between the Divine promise and the actualisation of that promise, is very significant and wonderful. God had promised the rain, but Elijah must pray for the rain. Ezekiel 26:0 another illustration of the same principle: “I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel.” Acts 1:2 also illustration of the same principle. Christ had promised the descent of the Spirit, but the disciples must pray for His enduement. Apply this principle to prayer about personal need, to the coming of a revival, etc., etc. This effectual prayer of Elijah’s was a prayer of faith. He had for argument in prayer the unequivocal Divine promise, “I will send rain upon the earth.” Upon this promise his faith laid hold, and this weapon of promise he wielded valiantly in his audience with Deity. You can almost hear him pressing the promise as you read of him lying prone there on Mount Carmel. This is the prayer of faith, and so the effectual prayer—a prayer which takes God at His word, and then reverently but really holds Him to it. We do not need to stretch and strain in a spasmodic attempt at more faith. The ground for faith is the Divine word. That is something upon which we can lay hold. And the prayer of faith is simply this—that when we pray we fully believe that God will be true to all that He has promised. “If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you,” etc. This effectual prayer of Elijah’s was a prayer out of a consecrated heart. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James brings forth Elijah as a specimen of such a righteous man. One thing Elijah was intent on; to one thing all his powers were consecrated—the Divine service. He was a man given up to God, and so, in the highest sense, righteous. The test of his consecrated righteousness is his obedience. Mark Elijah’s exact obedience to the Divine commands in the whole Old Testament story. This effectual prayer of Elijah’s was specific prayer. It was for a definite thing. We pray too much generally, not enough specifically. This effectual prayer of Elijah’s was untiring prayer. Though the cloud did not immediately appear, he kept on praying. This effectual prayer of Elijah’s was expectant prayer. Notice in the story how many times he sent his servant. He was on the look-out for answer.—Anon.

Elijah’s waiting on his Prayer.—St. James suggests an historical illustration of the power that lies in fervent and believing prayer. The Jews had a great admiration for the prophet Elijah, and were never tired of hearing of his doings. They lived in constant expectation of his reappearing as the precursor of Messiah. James finds in his story impressive illustration of the power of prayer; but we have no record of Elijah’s acts of prayer when he would have the rains kept away. His prayer for the rains to return is a part of the grandest day in his career. The witnessing fire of God had descended upon Elijah’s sacrifice; and at the sight a sudden shout had risen from the vast watching crowd, “Jehovah, He is the God! Jehovah, He is the God!” So intense was the excitement, and so absolute, for the moment, was the authority of the Jehovah-prophet, that only a word was needed to make that crowd seize the four hundred false prophets of discomfited Baal, hurry them down to the stream of the Kishon, and slay them there, that their bodies might be swept out to sea on the coming floods. But the day’s work was not then complete. The return of the rain showers upon the thirsty earth was virtually pledged in this return of the nation to Jehovah; and he who had prayed for the fire, and knew that he was praying according to the will of God, and had been graciously answered, must pray again for the rain, pray with the assurance that sending the rain was the will of God, and he must wait upon his prayer with the confident expectancy of hope. But the sight is a strange and a striking one. Elijah now goes away from the crowd and from the king, finds a sheltered spot under the crest of the hill, and there he might have been seen, crouching on the ground, his head bent upon his knees, and his cloak thrown over his head, as if to hide everything away that might disturb his intense supplications, absorbed in prayer until the youth sent to look out from the highest point could tell of a little cloud rising on the western edge of the sea. Then Elijah knew that the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

Prayer availing in its Working.—“The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.” These familiar words are somewhat puzzling when careful thought is directed to them. To speak of effectual prayer that avails is an evident repetition, and unnecessary. If it is effectual, it does avail. And the combination “effectual fervent” is unusual. It seems to be two words, and to describe prayer as both effectual and fervent; but there is only one word in the original, and it neither means “effectual” nor “fervent,” nor both terms as combined. The word means “working,” and St. James speaks of the “working prayer of a righteous man” as “availing much.” The Revised Version gives a precise rendering of his meaning thus—“The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.” Then the appropriateness of the illustration from Elijah comes at once into view. Elijah’s prayer did something in its working. It held the rain off; it brought the rain back again. It will be seen that this working power of prayer is precisely what St. James is speaking about in these closing words of his epistle. “Is any afflicted? let him pray,” for prayer can work him both strength to bear, and wisdom to guide him through, his difficulties. “The prayer of faith” can work a blessing for the sick. It “shall save the sick.” Whatever may be the faults and failings spoiling Christian fellowship, “pray for one another,” for prayer can work wondrous healings of broken relations; the supplications even of one good man in a Church can avail much in its working. We may well be thankful to the Revisers for giving us so important and so suggestive a change. It brings before us quite a fresh view of prayer. We had hardly thought of it as, in its very nature, a thing that works. We know that it brings down to us Divine blessings. We know that it has a gracious influence upon the man who prays. But prayer as really an active force, as having in it an actual power of working—prayer as a kind of holy leaven, moving, influencing, wherever it goes—has hardly come into our thought. If it did, and could be worthily apprehended, it would give us a new joy in prayer, and the consciousness of possessing a tool, an instrument, a force, which we might more worthily use for God and for men. We might more constantly set prayer upon doing its work, its own precise, appropriate, and gracious work.

I. We are in the presence of a general truth, which has a wide application.—It always has been true, it always must be true, in the very nature of things, that the prayer of a righteous man availeth much in its working. It would not be true to say that all prayer works; for unless the man who prays is a “righteous” man, he provides conditions that prevent his prayer from working. Prayer is not its effective self, save as it is the prayer of the righteous, right-minded, man. The man who is not right-minded can only pray the prayer of fear, or of brag, or of demand; and no such prayers can avail with God, or work blessing for the man himself, or for others.

1. A right-minded man’s prayers work as a persuasion upon God. We need not hesitate to recognise that God permits Himself to be influenced by the considerations which His people present in their prayers. If we stand hard and fast by notions of Divine absoluteness and sovereignty, all idea of God’s being open to persuasions must be abandoned; and we must look for the value of prayer in its gracious influence only on us, and on those around us. But, if we sit at the feet of Christ, and learn of Him to cry, “Abba, Father,” and see in God the infinite of our finite fatherhood, then we shall readily apprehend how He can be interested in the wishes as well as in the wants of His children. Our prayer availing much in its working on God! The thought is almost overwhelming; but it must not be dismissed. The picture-teaching of it is Jacob’s prevailing at Peniel. And nothing could make prayer more serious, nothing could make us more cautious, reverent, anxious, than to feel that our prayers are to work on God, our Father, and to avail with God in their working. Our prayers will work with God according to their contents, and according to their character. The working may be very different to our expectations. There may even be cross-workings, as in the early praying of St. Augustine, “Lord, convert me, but not yet.” God’s dealings with humanity, with any race, any nation, any church, any generation, any family, can never be read aright unless due account is taken of all that followed the influences and persuasions of the prayers of righteous men. The prophet represents God as refusing at a particular time what He usually admits—the influence and persuasion of human intercessions. “Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be towards this people” (Jeremiah 15:1). To the righteous man is entrusted a prayer-power with God. Our prayers work by making material for His judgments and decisions.

2. A right-minded man’s prayers work in a way of sanctifying himself. It is a familiar thought that prayer proves a blessing to the man who prays; and F. W. Robertson, of Brighton, gives this particular efficacy of prayer a great prominence. He says: “All prayer is to change the will human into submission to the will Divine. That prayer which does not succeed in moderating our wish, in changing the passionate desire into still submission, the anxious, tumultuous expectation into silent surrender, is no true prayer, and proves that we have not the spirit of true prayer. That life is most holy in which there is least of petition and desire, and most of waiting upon God—that in which petition most often passes into thanksgiving.” Perhaps we have been accustomed to think chiefly of the spiritual grace which comes to us in answer to prayer. “Every good gift and every perfect gift,” for the spiritual life, “cometh down from the Father of lights,” and cometh in response to the openness, receptiveness, indicated in our prayers. But it gives a freshness to the familiar thought, if we regard our prayers as positively exerting an active power upon ourselves. Every time we pray we set a force to work, which will work upon ourselves. Our prayers are some of the workmen who are busy at the building and decorating of the spiritual house that we are—that we are raising. Our prayers are positive forces in the culture of the spiritual character—active influences affecting the tone and temper of our daily conduct. We begin the day with prayer; then that prayer is actually to be at work all through the day, and availing much in its working. Arrest life for a moment during the day, and you may trace its working in temper, tone, habit, spirit. It is at work to secure and establish the better self, a Christ-like self. Pray in connection with special difficulties and anxieties; the prayer will work, not merely in bringing Divine light and guidance, but also in fitting us to deal with the difficulties, in lifting us above the anxieties. Pray in relation to the Christian work you undertake, and the prayer works the furbishing of your sword, the spiritual ability for the service. We think too much of the getting by prayer. We need to think much more of the doing of prayer. In all our lives we want the activity and energy of the prayer-power, and so may wisely be “praying without ceasing,” that we may be wholly sanctified.

3. A right-minded man’s prayers work by exerting a moral influence on others. Here again we are wont to think chiefly of the good things for others that can be obtained in answer to the good man’s prayers. And we may easily miss the answering truth, that the prayers themselves work good things. The point of distinction is at once seen if we think of family life. With a holy persistency, for long years, the father supplicates both general and special blessings for his family as he gathers them round the family altar; and, in answer, heavenly benedictions, in gracious abundance and adaptation, do descend, and the family is blessed by the prayer-answering God. But is that all? Is that indeed the best? Perhaps when we can estimate things aright, we shall see, that what the prayers actually did in their working were the truest and best answers the prayers received. Those prayers worked the healing of many a family division; those prayers quickened many a nobler resolve; those prayers kept hearts together in an ever-helpful unity; those prayers saved from sin over and over again. They availed much in their working. Why, some of us can say that the family prayers of our early home life have never ceased to work their gracious work on us, and are even doing their work to-day. What is so evidently true of family prayer is true of all prayer—of private intercessory prayer, of public prayer, of special prayer in relation to Christian ministry and service. It is a power for good. It does influence, inspire, direct, bless. Pray, and you set moving a force that blesses others. Will this help to put a new interest into our prayer; to make us feel afresh the responsibility of our power to pray; and to renew our faith in prayer, as, in a double sense, God’s way of securing spiritual blessings? Shall we estimate again our use of this prayer-power?

II. We are in the presence of a specific truth, with a limited application.—St. James is speaking of one particular matter in our text, and urging on the attention of disciples the working power of prayer in relation to it. Sins of frailty, faults, and failings are sure to appear in Church life. Men and women never do dwell together in any life associations without difficulties, misunderstandings, complex circumstances arising, and they generally come from somebody’s faults, somebody’s failing from the Christian charity, or purity, or duty. Given then a case of failure and inconsistency, something that disturbs relations, and might easily bring in contentions and enmities, what should be done? How would the Spirit of Christ lead the members to act? St. James says, “Confess therefore your sins one to another”; be willing to acknowledge it if you have done wrong or felt wrong; “and pray one for another”: that is the very best way to heal up breaches, to restore pleasant relations, and to cure the faulty one of his faults. It is in this precise connection that St. James says, “The prayer of the righteous man availeth much in its working.” Nothing heals the broken relations of Christ’s disciples like prayer together. And the more spiritually minded members of a Church, the “righteous ones,” have this special power—they can deal effectively with faults, failings, inconsistencies, misunderstandings, by their prayer which avails much in its working. When faults, involving misunderstanding, remain, depend upon it there has been no prayer for one another which avails much. This subject has its yet more special application for us to-day. Throughout the world, wherever care is being taken of the children for Christ’s sake, the minds of Christian workers are being occupied with the power of prayer, and the hearts of Christian workers are being united in the acts of prayer. The tens of thousands are meeting in spirit and sending up a great cry for a blessing on the Sunday schools. And God’s reviving grace will come as an answer to the cry. But there is something more for us to think of. The prayers of to-day will be a new power set to work, and will be working to secure the very things which they will be asking to be sent from God. Think of it; the prayers of to-day, if prayers of the right-hearted and believing, will be availing much in their working on the children, will be availing much in their working on the parents and teachers, will be availing much in their working on the Church, will be availing much in their working on the world. Prayer as an actual moral and spiritual force! Have we rightly thought of that? Is that force active, strong, vigorous, availing—in our personal religious life, in our family life, in our Sunday-school life, in our Church life? The hymnist seems to have had this thought of prayer when he wrote,—

“Restraining prayer, we cease to fight;
Prayer makes the Christian armour bright.”

Restraining prayer! Binding fast the worker! Is there any sense in which we have been doing that? Then let this day of universal and united prayer be the day for loosening the bonds, and letting it go free to do its gracious work. Give prayer full liberty to do its work. Pray for one another, for the “supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.” How much it may avail, let us fully prove.


James 5:17-18. Rain in Answer to Prayer.—An interesting coincidence in connection with this reference to Elijah’s history presents itself in the narrative given in Josephus (Ant., XVIII. viii. 6) of the troubles caused by Caligula’s insane attempt to set up his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem. Petronius, the then governor of Judæa, was moved by the passionate entreaties of the people, and supported the efforts made by Agrippa I., who remained in Rome, to turn the emperor from his purpose. It was one of the years of drought that brought about the great famine foretold by Agabus (Acts 11:28). No rain had fallen for many weeks, and the people—Christians, we may well believe, as well as Jews, though Josephus of course makes no mention of the former—were “instant in prayer,” calling upon the Lord God of Israel to send rain upon the earth. Suddenly rain fell in a plenteous shower from an almost cloudless sky. The earth was refreshed, and the pressing danger averted. Petronius, Josephus relates, was much moved by this manifestation, this Epiphany, of the Divine power, and looked upon it partly as an answer to the prayers of the people, partly as the reward of the equity which he had shown in dealing with them. According to the date which, on independent grounds, has been assigned to St. James’s epistle, the event referred to must have happened but a few months before or but a few months after it. If before, he may well have had it in his thoughts. If after, it may well have been in part the effect of his teaching. Students of Church history will remember the strikingly parallel instance of the prayers of the soldiers of the Thundering Legion in the expedition of Marcus Aurelius against the Marcomanni (Euseb., Hist., James 5:5; Tertul., Apol., c. 5).—Dean Plumptre.

Verses 19-20


James 5:19. Err.—Or, “be led astray.” Convert.—Turn him round, and bring him back.

James 5:20. Hide a multitude of sins.—Compare LXX. on Proverbs 10:12 : “Friendship covers all those that are not contentious.” See 1 Peter 4:8. It is clear that the sins St. James has in mind are those of the object of the action, not of the agent.


The Redeeming Work of the Redeemer’s Servants.—The closing word of the epistle is especially interesting. St. James seems for a moment to stop, to think over what he has been writing. He has had in mind many failures from the Christian spirit and relations. He has thought of many who, in various ways, have “erred from the truth.” What shall be his last word of counsel to the Churches? What should it be but this?—Don’t let what I have been saying breed enmities among you. Don’t let it separate you one from another. Don’t let it make you suspicious of one another. Don’t let it put you upon searching out your heretics, either in belief or practice. Let it bring you closer together in pitiful and sympathetic brotherliness. And if there is any one who makes you anxious, who seems to be going wrong in faith or conduct, set your heart upon his conversion, getting him turned round, and turned back to thoughts and ways of righteousness. Working for his conversion will keep you near to him in sympathy and love; and if you succeed, you will save a soul from death; when he is recovered, the sins of his lapsed time can be fully forgiven; and you will have the joy of knowing that you have been the means of “hiding a multitude of sins.”

I. There is a redeeming work to be done within Christ’s Church.—St. James is not writing about the conversion of outside sinners. There are weak Christians, who slide from righteousness in their weakness. There are wilful Christians, who break out of bounds in their wilfulness. There are always some in a Christian Church who need to be recovered and redeemed; and in the anxiety for the conversion of the world, it is quite possible for us to neglect the conversion of the failing, lapsing members of the Church. Servants of the Redeemer should expect to find redeeming work in every sphere in which they move. We can always find some Christian brother who needs to be converted from the error of his ways. To redeeming work within Christ’s Church attention needs to be more fully directed.

II. There is a redeeming power within Christ’s Church.—The members of a Church ought to have a most unusual and peculiar influence one upon another. That influence may properly be called redemptive. It is the continuance of the work and influence of the Church’s head and Lord. It should be a power checking lapses in their beginning, guarding against persuasions of evil, and restoring the fallen. It should be an influence securing soul-health in the community, which is the best perservation against scepticism, heresy, or unfaithfulness. Very seldom is the Church’s redeeming power upon itself considered; and this may explain why inconsistency is so often permitted to grow into apostasy. We ought to convert one another—within the Christian brotherhood—from the error of any ways into which we may have fallen.

III. The exercise of the redeeming power is a blessing to him who exercises it, as well as to him on whom it is exercised.—“In the very act of seeking to convert one for whom we care, we must turn to God ourselves, and in covering the past sins of another our own also are covered. In such an act love reaches its highest point, and that love includes the faith in God which is the condition of forgiveness.”

1. A blessing to him who tries to convert another, because it
(1) clears his own vision of truth;
(2) makes him anxious about his own example; and
(3) brings to him the sense of Divine sympathy and approval.
2. A blessing to him on whom it is exercised.
(1) It saves a soul from death. For if the man is in sin, this will be true for him—“sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” And
(2) “It shall hide a multitude of sins.” Because when one of His people is heart-restored to His allegiance, God can, and does, cast all his sins behind His back; they are hidden, as the harlots and riotous living of the younger son were all hidden from the home view, when the father had a penitent and restored boy back at his table again. St. Paul teaches the same duty of Church members to one another, when he says, “If any of you be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.”


James 5:19-20. Heresy.

I. These words imply the possibility of a truth-possessor becoming a truth-loser.—Men may “err from the truth” through—

1. A daring, speculative turn of thought.
2. Want of sympathy in their intellectual difficulties.
3. Intellectual pride.

II. The principle of mutual oversight in spiritual life is here recognised.—In him who would convert the sinner, there must be—

1. Intense sympathy with Christ in the love of souls.
2. A thorough acquaintance with the heart’s deceitfulness.
3. An intelligent reverence for the established truths of religion.

III. The text teaches that the salvation of the soul is the sublimest of moral triumphs.—It is so because—

1. Christ deemed it worthy of His incarnation and sacrifice.
2. The mission of God’s Spirit is thus fulfilled.
3. The sum of moral goodness is augmented.—Dr. J. Parker.

James 5:20. Hiding Sin.—This is conversion—to turn a sinner from the error of his ways, and not to turn him from one party to another, or merely from one notion and way of thinking to another. He who thus converteth a sinner from the error of his ways shall, save a soul from death. And by such conversion of heart and life a multitude of sins shall be hid. A most comfortable passage of Scripture is this. We learn hence that though our sins are many, even a multitude, yet they may be hid or pardoned; and that when sin is turned from or forsaken, it shall be hid, never to appear in judgment against us. Let people contrive to cover or excuse their sin as they will, there is no way effectually and finally to hide it but by forsaking it. Some make the sense of this text to be, that conversion shall prevent a multitude of sins; and it is a truth beyond dispute that many sins are prevented in the person converted, many also may be prevented in others that he may have an influence upon, or may converse with.—Matthew Henry.


James 5:19-20. One Conversion leads to Many.—The conversion of a soul to God may issue in the conversion of scores more, and perhaps in the planting of various Christian Churches. It is impossible to calculate where the blessing may terminate. The visit of a travelling pedlar to the door of Richard Baxter’s father led to the purchase of a little book; that little book led to the conversion of Richard Baxter. Baxter wrote the Saint’s Rest, which was blessed to the conversion of Philip Doddridge. Doddridge penned the Rise and Progress of Religion, and that led to the conversion of Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s Practical View was the means of the conversion of Dr. Chalmers and Legh Richmond. How much good Chalmers did by his exalted genius, his burning piety, his sterling writings, it is impossible for any man to estimate; and I think we may safely say that the Dairyman’s Daughter, and other works of Legh Richmond, have been honoured by God to the salvation of thousands.

James 5:20. Thank God for the many instances in which one glowing soul, all aflame with love to God, has sufficed to kindle a whole heap of dead matter, and send it leaping skyward in ruddy brightness. Alas! for the many instances in which the wet, green wood has been too strong for the little spark, and has not only obstinately resisted, but has ignominiously quenched its ineffectual fire.—A. Maclaren, D.D.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on James 5". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/james-5.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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