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Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

James 5

A.M. 4064. A.D. 60.

In this chapter,

(1,) The apostle denounces terrible judgments against the rich unbelieving Jews who defrauded the poor, and lived in luxury and oppression, James 5:1-6 .

(2,) He exhorts the Jewish believers to patience and meekness under their tribulations, which would soon have an end, James 5:7-11 .

(3,) Warns them against rash swearing, and recommends prayer in afflicted, and praise in prosperous circumstances, James 5:12 , James 5:13 .

(4,) He prescribes prayer and anointing with oil for the miraculous recovery of the sick, James 5:14 , James 5:15 .

(5,) He directs private Christians to confess their faults one to another, and to pray fervently for each other, encouraging them to expect the answer of their prayers by the example of Elias, James 5:16-18 .

(6,) Shows the blessedness of being instrumental in the conversion of sinners, James 5:19 , James 5:20 .

Verse 1

James 5:1. The unbelieving Jews, being exceedingly addicted to sensual pleasure, and very covetous, were of course grievous oppressors of the poor. Wherefore, to alarm these wicked men, and, if possible, to bring them to repentance, St. James, in the first paragraph of this chapter, sets before them, in the most lively colours, the miseries which the Romans, the instruments of the divine vengeance, were about to bring on the Jewish people, both in Judea and everywhere else, now deserted of God for their crimes, and particularly for the great crime of murdering the Just One, Jesus of Nazareth, their long-expected Messiah. So that, being soon to lose their possessions and goods, it was not only criminal, but foolish, by injustice and oppression to amass wealth, of which they were soon to be stripped. In this part of his letter the apostle hath introduced figures and expressions which, for boldness, vivacity, and energy, might have been used by the greatest tragic poet. See Macknight. Go to now Or, come now, ye rich men The apostle does not speak this so much for the sake of the rich themselves, as of the poor children of God, who were then groaning under their cruel oppression. Weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you Quickly and unexpectedly. The miseries of which he speaks were those which our Lord had pointed out in his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, and in which this apostle foresaw they would soon be involved; miseries arising from famine, pestilence, and the sword. These fell heaviest on the Jews in Judea. But they extended also to the Jews in the provinces. The reader who desires to see a particular account of these calamities, may read Josephus’s history of the Jewish war, where he will find scenes of misery laid open not to be paralleled in the annals of any nation. And as these were an awful prelude of that wrath which was to fall upon them in the world to come, so this passage may likewise refer to the final vengeance which will then be executed on the impenitent.

Verses 2-3

James 5:2-3. Your riches are corrupted Greek, σεσηπε , are putrefied, or are as things putrefied by being kept too long. The riches of the ancients consisted much in large stores of corn, wine, oil, and costly apparel. These things the rich men in Judea had amassed, like the foolish rich man mentioned Luke 12:18, little imagining that they would soon be robbed of them by the Roman soldiers, and the destructive events of the war. Your garments In your wardrobes; are moth-eaten The fashion of clothes not changing in the eastern countries as with us, persons of fortune used to have many garments made of different costly stuffs, which they laid up as a part of their wealth. Thus, according to Q. Curtius, (lib. 5. c. 6,) when Alexander took Persepolis, he found the riches of all Asia gathered together there, which consisted not only of gold and silver, but vestis ingens modus, a vast quantity of garments. Your gold and silver is cankered Or eaten out with rust; and the rust of them Your perishing stores and moth-eaten garments; shall be, εις μαρτυριον , for a testimony against you Of your covetousness and worldly mind; and of your having foolishly and wickedly buried those talents in the earth, which you ought to have employed, according to your Lord’s will, in relieving the wants of your fellow-creatures. And shall eat your flesh as it were fire Will occasion you as great a torment as if fire were consuming your flesh. Or, as the rust eats into the gold and silver, so shall your flesh and wealth be eaten up as if you had treasured up fire in the midst of it. This was punctually fulfilled in the destruction of that nation by their own seditions, and their wars with the Romans. For, among the Sicarii and the Zealots, the ringleaders of all their seditions, it was crime enough to be rich; and their insatiable avarice induced them continually to search into the houses of the rich, and, by false accusation, to slay them as deserters, for the sake of their property. Yea, both their substance and their bodies were devoured by the flames which burned up the city and the temple: and if any thing remained, it became a prey to the Roman soldiers. Ye have heaped treasure for the last days The days which are now coming, when your enemies shall seize or destroy all, to your infinite vexation and distress: or, you have heaped them up when it is too late; when you have no time or opportunity to enjoy them. This phrase, the last days, does not merely signify for the time to come, but for that period when the whole Jewish economy was to close, and when those awful judgments, threatened in the prophets to be poured out upon wicked men in the last days, were just coming.

Verse 4

James 5:4. Behold, the hire of the labourers The apostle alludes in this verse to Leviticus 19:13: The wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night: and to Deuteronomy 24:15, At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it, &c., lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee. In allusion to these passages, the apostle here mentions a two-fold cry; the cry of the hire unjustly kept back; that is, the cry of the sin against the sinner for vengeance; in which sense those sins chiefly cry to God concerning which human laws are silent; such are luxury, unchastity, and various kinds of injustice. But the cry of the labourers themselves is also here mentioned, to mark more strongly the greatness of the injustice committed. And “by representing the cries of the reapers defrauded of their hire as entering into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, that is, hosts, or armies, the apostle intimates that the great Ruler of the universe attends to the wrongs done to his creatures, and is affected by them as tender-hearted persons are affected by the cries of the miserable; and that he will, in due time, avenge them by punishing their oppressors. Let all oppressors consider this!” Macknight.

Verses 5-6

James 5:5-6. Ye have lived in pleasure, and have been wanton Ετρυφησατε και εσπαταλησατε . The former word signifies, ye have lived luxuriously; or, as the Vulgate has it, Epulati estis, ye have feasted; it being intended of their luxuries and intemperance in eating and drinking : the latter word is intended of their indulging themselves in lasciviousness and carnal lusts. Ye have nourished Or cherished; your hearts Have indulged yourselves to the uttermost; as in a day of slaughter That is, as beasts are fed for a day of slaughter; or, as the words may be rendered, as in a day of sacrifice, which were solemn feast-days among the Jews. The apostle’s meaning is, both that the rich Jews pampered themselves every day, as the luxurious did on high festival-days; and that, by their luxury and lasciviousness, they had rendered themselves fit to be destroyed in the day of God’s wrath. Ye have condemned and killed, τον δικαιον , the Just One Many just men, and in particular that Just One, termed, (Acts 3:14,) the Holy One and Just. They had killed Stephen, also, and they afterward killed James, the writer of this epistle, surnamed the Just. But the expression might be intended to comprehend all the righteous persons who were murdered by the Jews from first to last. And he The Just One; doth not resist you With that display of power which he can easily exert to your utter destruction, and therefore you are secure. But the day will speedily come when God will avenge his own cause, and pour out upon you the judgments he has threatened.

Verses 7-9

James 5:7-9. Be patient therefore, brethren He now addresses the pious, oppressed, and persecuted disciples of Christ: as if he had said, Since the Lord will soon come to punish them, and relieve you, patiently bear the injuries which rich men offer you, and quietly wait till he come. Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit Which will recompense his labour and patience; till he receive the early, or the former rain Immediately after sowing; and the latter Before harvest. In Judea the rains usually come in a regular manner; the early rain about the beginning of November, after the seed is sown, and the latter in the middle or toward the end of April, while the ears are filling. These rains were promised to the Israelites, Deuteronomy 11:14, where see the note, and on Hosea 6:3. Be ye also patient Like the husbandman; stablish Στηριξατε , strengthen, or confirm; your hearts In faith and patience, considering that your sufferings will not be long; the coming of the Lord To destroy your persecutors; draweth nigh And so does his coming to rescue his people from the troubles of this life by death, and to judge the world in righteousness at the last day. Grudge, or, groan, not As στεναζετε signifies; one against another Groaning is caused by oppression; and when it is merely the natural expression of affliction, it is perfectly consistent with genuine piety, and moves God to pity the afflicted person, Judges 2:18: but when it is the effect of impatience, or when it implies a desire of revenge, it becomes criminal, and is the kind of groaning which the apostle forbids. Some read the clause, Murmur not one against another: that is, have patience also with each other; lest ye be condemned Lest you all suffer for it, and perish in the common calamity; behold the Judge Christ; standeth before the door Hearing every word, marking every thought, and ready to execute those judgments.

Verses 10-11

James 5:10-11. Take the prophets Once persecuted like you, even for speaking in the name of the Lord The very men that gloried in having the prophets, yet could not bear their message. Nor did either the holiness or the high commission of these messengers of God screen them from suffering; for an example of suffering affliction Or persecution from the persons to whom they brought divine revelations; and of patience In suffering. Behold, we count them happy We commend them, and believe them to be the beloved children of God; who endure Bear their sufferings with patience, meekness, and a contented mind. The apostle’s mentioning this immediately after he had proposed the prophets as an example of patience in suffering, shows that he herein alludes to Christ’s words, (Matthew 5:11,) Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, &c., for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you. Ye have heard of the patience of Job Under his peculiarly heavy sufferings; and have seen the end of the Lord Ye have seen, in the history of that good man, what a happy issue the Lord gave to his sufferings; or how much to his honour and comfort his various and heavy afflictions concluded; that the Lord is very pitiful, &c. And that it is with the bowels of an affectionate father that he corrects his beloved children, and not for his own gratification, but with a view to their eternal advantage.

Verse 12

James 5:12. But above all things, swear not However provoked. The Jews were notoriously guilty of common swearing, though not so much by God himself as by some of his creatures. The apostle here forbids these oaths, as well as all swearing in common conversation. It is very observable how solemnly the apostle introduces this command; above all things, swear not; as if he had said, Whatever you forget, do not forget this. This abundantly demonstrates the horrible iniquity of the crime. But he does not forbid the taking of a solemn oath before a magistrate. Neither by any other oath Namely, unlawful or unnecessary; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay Let your discourse be confirmed with a bare affirmation or denial; and use no higher asseverations in common discourse. But let your words stand firm; and whatever ye say, take care to make it good; lest ye fall into condemnation Expose yourselves to God’s judgments.

Verse 13

James 5:13 . Is any among you afflicted? let him pray That he may be supported under his affliction, so as to be enabled to bear it with patience and resignation to the divine will, and find it to be sanctified to him, and made the means, as of exercising, so also of increasing his grace, and of purifying him as gold and silver are purified in the furnace. Is any merry? Is any in health, and in a prosperous condition, and under no peculiar trial; let him sing psalms Let him give thanks to God, and express his thankfulness by singing psalms or hymns of praise. The purport of the verse is, that, as believers in Christ, we ought to employ ourselves in such private religious exercises as are suitable to our present circumstances and frame of mind. “When rendered cheerful by contemplating the manifestations which God hath made of his perfections in the works of creation, providence, and redemption, or by any blessing bestowed on ourselves, we are to express our joy, not by drinking, and singing profane, lewd songs, but by hymns of praise and thanksgivings offered to God for all his mercies, Ephesians 5:18-19. On the other hand, when afflicted, we are to pray; that being the best means of producing in ourselves patience and resignation. But as the precept concerning our singing psalms, when cheerful, does not imply that we are not to pray then; so the precept concerning prayer in affliction, does not imply that we are not to express our joy in suffering according to the will of God, by singing psalms or hymns, as Paul and Silas did in the jail at Philippi.” Macknight.

Verses 14-15

James 5:14-15. Is any sick? let him call for the elders of the church Those ministers of Christ whose office it is to oversee and feed the flock; and let them pray over him For his recovery, persuaded that what two or three of the Lord’s true disciples shall agree to ask, it shall be done for them; anointing him with oil “This single conspicuous gift, (healing the sick by anointing them with oil,) which Christ committed to his apostles, (Mark 6:13,) remained in the church long after the other miraculous gifts were withdrawn. Indeed it seems to have been designed to remain always, and St. James directs the elders, who were the most, if not the only gifted men, to administer it. This was the whole process of physic in the Christian Church till it was lost through unbelief. That novel invention among the Romans, extreme unction, practised not for cure, but where life is despaired of, bears no manner of resemblance to this.” See Bengelius and Wesley. And the prayer offered in faith shall save, or heal, the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up From his sickness; and if he have committed sins That is, any special sins, for which this sickness has been laid upon him; they shall be forgiven him Upon his repentance the punishment shall be taken off.

Verse 16

James 5:16. Confess your faults Whether you are sick or in health; one to another He does not say to the elders; this may or may not be done, for it is nowhere commanded. We may confess them to any pious person who can pray in faith: he will then know how to pray for us, and will be more excited so to do. And pray one for another, that ye may be healed Both in soul and body. Let it be observed, 1st, This passage of Scripture, only enjoining true believers to confess their sins to one another, affords no foundation for the Popish practice of auricular confession to a priest. Besides, mutual confession being here enjoined, the priest is as much bound to confess to the people as the people to the priest. 2d, This direction being addressed to women as well as to men, they are required to pray for one another, and even for the men, whether laity or clergy. 3d, There is no mention made here of absolution by a priest, or by any other person. 4th, Absolution, in the sound sense of the word, being nothing but a declaration of the promises of pardon which are made in the gospel to penitent sinners, every one who understands the gospel doctrine may declare these promises to penitent sinners as well as any bishop or priest whatever, and the one has no more authority to do it than the other: nay, every sincere penitent may expect salvation without the absolution of any person whatever: whereas the impenitent have no reason to expect that blessing, although absolved by all the priests in the world. See Dr. Benson. The effectual fervent prayer Greek, δεησις ενεργουμενη , a singular expression, which Macknight renders, the inwrought prayer; and Doddridge, the prayer wrought by the energy of the Spirit; and Whitby, the inspired prayer, observing, “as they who were inwardly acted by an evil spirit were styled ενεργουμενοι , ( persons inwardly wrought upon,) so they who were acted by the Holy Spirit, and inwardly moved by his impulses, were also ενεργουμενοι , inwardly wrought upon, in the good sense: and therefore it seems most proper to apply these words, not to the prayer of every righteous person, but to the prayer offered by such an extraordinary impulse.” Doubtless every prayer of every righteous person is not here intended, but every truly righteous person has the Spirit of Christ, without which no man can belong to him, and is led, more or less, by the Spirit of God, otherwise he could not be a son of God, Romans 8:9; Romans 8:14; and every such a one walks not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, Romans 8:1: and therefore, if not always, yet sometimes, yea, generally, such a one, as Jude expresses it, (James 5:20,) prays in the Holy Ghost; that is, in and by his influence, and therefore in a spirit of true, genuine prayer, feeling sincere and earnest desires after the blessings which he asks, and being enabled to offer those desires up unto God in faith or confidence, that he shall receive what he asks. And this fervent, energetic prayer is evidently the prayer here intended, and said to avail much, or to be of great efficacy, being frequently and remarkably answered by God’s granting the petitions thus addressed to him.

Verses 17-18

James 5:17-18. Elias was a man subject to like passions To the like infirmities; as we are In which sense the same word, ομοιοπαθης , is used, Acts 14:15. It literally signifies, suffering like things with another. Elijah, through natural infirmity, suffered as we do from diseases, from temptation, from persecution, &c. And he prayed earnestly Greek, προσευχη προσηυξατο , in praying he prayed, that it might not rain That, by being punished for their idolatry and murder of the prophets, they might be brought to true repentance for these crimes. And it rained not on the earth That is, on the land of the ten tribes; for three years and six months This is the period which our Lord likewise says the drought continued, Luke 4:25. It is said, indeed, (1 Kings 18:1,) that in the third year the word of the Lord came to Elijah, namely, concerning the rain. But this third year was computed from the time of his going to live at Zarephath, which happened many days after the drought began; as is plain from this, that he remained at the brook Cherith till it was dried up, and then went to Zarephath in the country of Sidon, 1 Kings 17:7; 1 Kings 17:9. Wherefore the three years and six months must be computed from his denouncing the drought, at which time that judgment commenced. See note on 1 Kings 18:1. And he prayed again When idolatry was abolished; and the heaven gave rain As is recorded 1 Kings 18:0., where we are told, that he cast himself down on the earth, and put his face between his knees, which was the posture of an humble and earnest supplicant. Thus Moses’s praying is expressed by his falling on his face, Numbers 16:4.

Verses 19-20

James 5:19-20. Brethren As if he had said, I have now warned you of those things to which you are most liable. And in all these respects watch, not only over yourselves, but every one over his brother also. Labour, in particular, to recover those that are fallen. For if any of you do err from the truth From the right way in which he ought to walk, if he be seduced by any means from the doctrine and practice of the gospel; and one Any one; convert him Be a means of bringing him back into that way from which he had wandered; let him know Who has been enabled to effect so good a work; that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way From the false doctrine and bad practice to which he had turned aside, shall produce a much happier effect than any miraculous cure of the body; for he shall save a precious immortal soul from spiritual and eternal death, and shall hide a multitude of sins Namely, the sins of the persons thus converted, which shall no more, how many soever they are, be remembered to his condemnation. “The covering of sin is a phrase which often occurs in the Old Testament, and always signifies the pardoning of sin. Nor has it any other meaning here. For surely it cannot be the apostle’s intention to tell us, that the turning of a sinner from the error of his way will conceal from the eye of God’s justice a multitude of sins committed by the person who does this charitable office, if he continueth in them. Such a person needs himself to be turned from the error of his way, in order that his own soul may be saved from death. St. Peter has a similar expression, (1 Peter 4:8,) love covereth a multitude of sins; not, however, in the person who is possessed of love, but in the person who is the object of his love.” Macknight.

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Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on James 5". Benson's Commentary. 1857.