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Bible Commentaries

Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT

James 5

Verse 1

These words may be considered wither relatively or absolutely.

Consider them, 1. With relation to the Jews, to whom they were written immmediately, and they are a prediction or denuncitation of that judgment which was coming upon the right men in the Jewish nation; which prediction, Josephus assures us, was fulfilled by the slaughter and spoiling of the rich Jews throughout Galilee and Judea, the zealots sparing none but the poor and low. Thus did the vengeance of God, and does to this day, pursue and follow that wicked people, who killed the Lord of Life, and their own prophets, who brought judgment on themselves to the uttermost.

Consider the words absolutely in themselves, and they are a severe and cutting reprehension to covetous rich men, for their sordid sparing of that wealth which God had given them for public service. And the apostle gives us,

1. A description of their sin. 2. A declaration of their punishment.

Observe, 1. A description of the sin of the covetous rich worldlings, they chose rather to have their goods to be corrupted and spoiled, than to be employed to good uses; their victuals might have refreshed the bowels of the hungry, but they rather suffered them to putrify and stink; the garments which lay useless in their wardrobes, might have clothed the backs of their naked brethren, but they had rather let them be moth eaten; their gold and silver might have been applied to many good uses, but they had rather it should be cankered, and rust in their chests.

Observe, 2. The punishment denounced against them for this their sin, the rust of their gold and silver shall witness against them; that is, their consciences shall at once convince them of their base covetousness, and torment them for it; and this corroding of their consciences shall have an impression upon their bodies, it shall eat their flesh as it were fire; and all that treasure which, with wrong to others, and violation of their own consciences, they had heaped together, was but heaped up for the spoiler, and the violence of the last days.

Learn from the whole, 1. That it is hard to possess riches without sin; a hard matter to have them, and not be hindered from heaven by them.

Learn, 2. That a covetous hoarding, and sordid sparing of wealth, which our suffering brethren want, brings a curse both upon our persons and estates.

3. That more miseries, and dreadful judgments, shall come upon wicked rich men, which, if believingly apprehended, would cause them now to weep and howl. We do not hurt with our wealth, say some; aye, but what good do you do with it? Where are the poor members of Christ, whom ye have relieved with the superfluities of your table? But can many say truly, they have done no harm with their estates?

Lord! what carelessness in religion, what contempt of God, what riot and excess is found amongst many that abound in wealth, who expend more upon a lust in one day, than would maintain a poor family many years.

Learn, 4. That in the day of judgment, not only our actions, but all the circumstances of our actions, shall be brought forth, and produced as arguments of conviction; the rusty iron, the cankered silver, the moth eaten clothes, shall be produced; the stones of the wall, built by oppression, shall cry, "Lord, we were built by oppression and violence;" and the beam out of the timber shall answer it, True, Lord, even so it is, Habakkuk 2:11 The circumstances of men's sins at the great day will be as so many memorials to put them in mind of guilt, and God in mind of vengeance: Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of it shall be witness against you.

Verse 4

The next sin which our apostle convicts the rich of, and condemns them for, is the sin of oppression, and that of the worst sorts, even of labourers and servants; their covetousness was the cause of this oppression. There is no sin so heinous and base but covetousness may be a mother or a nurse to it: What more sordid than for the rich master to detain the wages of the poor labourer? Yet, Behold the hire of the labourers crieth: though they did not, durst not complain, yet their hire kept back did complain.

Learn hence, that as all oppression is very sinful, so especially the detaining of the labourers' wages when their hire is delayed or denied, both are exceeding sinful; and accordingly we find oppressors in Scripture joined with the vilest of sinners, even with sorcerers, adulterers, and false swearers.

And to testify that God cannot want witnesses against oppressors, he tells us, their hire shall cry as well as the poor themselves: "The beam, and the stone out of the wall shall cry," Habakkuk 2:11.

Remember we then that secret wrongs are known to God; the poor may not always know who wrongs them, but the Lord fully knows, and their wrongs and oppressions will cry against us, when they know not against whom to cry.

And note, the person gloriously described, who is the poor's avenger; he is the Lord of Sabaoth, or the Lord of hosts, who has all power in his hand, and all creatures at his command. How bold and daring then is the oppressor to afflict the poor, who have the Lord of hosts for their avenger? Their cry is entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.

Verse 5

The next sin he charges upon them, is sensuality, luxury, lasciviousness, their eating and drinking to excess in their feasts, pampering themselves for the slaughter and the shambles. These are sins very natural to corrupt nature, but chiefly incident to the rich. Pride, idleness, fulness of bread, and living in pleasure, are too frequently sins that do abound in rich men's houses: though their abundance is no excuse, but rather an aggravation of their sin.

God allows us to use pleasure, but not to live in pleasure; and by calling it pleasure upon earth, he intimates,

1. That sensual delights are only enjoyed here in this world: 2. That their desires ran after these earthly pleasures only:

The pleasures of the beast only pleased them; whereas the delights of sense are so far from being the chief pleasure for which God designed us, that, on the contrary, he intended we should take our chief pleasure, not in gratifying, but in restraining our sensual appetite, in reducing that rebellious power under the government and dominion of reason and religion.

Verse 6

By the just, may be understood Jesus Christ, that just One whom the nation of the Jews condemned and killed; and also such of his members, orthodox Christians, who the judaizing Christians persecuted. By their condemning the just, understand how they proceeded against them under a pretence and colour of law; before they would actually kill, they pretended legally to condemn.

Learn then, that God takes notice not only of the open violences offered to his people, but also of all the injuries done unto them under the form of a legal procedure; it is a mighty provocation when public authority, which is the defense of innocency, is made the pretense of oppression.

It follows, ye have killed the just: This is added to let us know that oppression will preceed as far as death. Wickedness knoweth no bounds; good men are oft-times arraigned, condemned, and killed; they fall a sacrifice to the rage of their persecutors and oppressors.

It is added, He doth not resist you; which if applied to Christ, points at his meekness; he was slain without resistance: he came to suffer, therefore would not resist. If applied to the suffering Christians, it points at their weakness and inability to make resistance, as well as at their meekness and patience under sufferings: Ye have condemned and killed the just, and he doth not resist you.

Verse 7

Observe here, 1. The duty exhorted to, patience: Be patient, brethren. Patience is a sense of afflictions without murmuring, and of injuries without revenge. It is the duty of Christians to be patient under their sufferings, though they be long and sharp.

Observe, 2. The argument to enforce this duty, The coming of the Lord draweth nigh. This may be understood of Christ's particular coming to judge his murderers at Jerusalem, which was then at hand, or of his general coming to judge the world at the last day. As if our apostle had said, "Have a little patience, and when your Lord cometh he will put a period to all your afflictions; with desire long for his coming, and yet with patience wait for it."

Observe, 3. A pattern of patience, propounded in the husbandman, he waiteth, and waiteth long for the time of harvest; and in order thereunto, for the former and latter rain, to prepare the corn for the day of a joyful harvest. Now, in imitation of the husbandman, the patient Christian thus argues with himself: "If the husbandman waits with patience for the coming of the harvest, shall not I wait with perseverance for the coming of my Lord? The approach of harvest is precious to him, and shall not the appearance of Christ be so to me? Shall he endure so much for a little corn, and not I much more for a heavenly kingdom?

Observe, 4. The direction given in order to the obtaining of this patience and long suffering, stablish your hearts; that is, in a firm expectaion of Christ's coming, believe that he will come certainly, and may come suddenly, and sooner perhaps than you may apprehend.

Learn hence, that it is the duty of Christians, in and under their afflictions, to stablish their hearts in a firm belief of the coming and appearance of Christ, to put a final period to all their sufferings, and to reward their victorious faith and patience: Be ye also patient, stablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

Verse 9

Observe here, 1. A prohibiton, Grudge not one against another; that is, do not murmur or repine, groan or grieve, as impatient men use to do under their pressure; complain not of God, because the time of your deliverance is delayed: thirst not after revenge against your persecutors, and envy not those who are exercised with fewer troubles than yourselves: grudge not.

Observe, 2. The enforcement of this prohibition from the danger of the fact, lest ye be condemned. As if he had said, "Impatience and discontent, envy and distrust, will expose you to greater miseries than you complain of: Your sufferings here are but for your probation, but your grudging and repining will be your condemnation."

Observe, 3. The anticipation or forestalling of an objection, which some might make. What! must we suffer, and may we not complain? Must we, by tamely bearing many affronts, invite more, and revenge none?" Yes, says the apostle, be patient, and commit your cause to him that judegeth righteously; for Behold the Judge standeth before the door.

Where note, 1. A Judge, the supreme and universal Judge, Jesus Christ, who was here judged by his creatures, but now is coming to judge his judges.

2. His posture, He standeth, which is the Judge's posture when he executes judgment. St. Stephen saw Christ standing, Acts 7:55, at God's right hand; not as an advocate to plead his cause, (Christ is said to sit at God's right hand when he does that); but he stood now as a Judge, to take speedy vengeance on St. Stephen's murderers for that bloody act.

Note, 3. The place where the Judge standeth before the door; that is, he is coming to judgment, and he is just at hand; he has put on his robes, and is ascending his tribunal.

Observe, lastly, the note of attention, Behold! this ushers in the whole, Behold the Judge standeth at the door.

Learn hence, that the consideration of Christ's near approach to judgment should awe the consciences of men, and mould their conversations into a dutiful compliance with divine commands.

Verse 10

Here the apostle exhorts suffering Christians to patience, by the example of the Old Testament saints, who were exceeding dear to God, employed in special services for God, yet exercised with long and sharp afflictions for him. Now, their nature was as tender and as frail as ours, and we have the same blessed Spirit to comfort and assist us with them.

Note thence, 1. That the examples of excellent persons who have gone in the thorny path of affliction before us, and beaten it for us, are of excellent use to suppress our fears, to support our spirits under all our conflicts, and to rouse our courage in all our encounters.

Note, 2. That it is our great duty to eye the encouraging examples of those that have trod the path of sufferings before us, and strive to imitate and follow such worthy patterns. The first sufferers had the hardest task; strange and untried torments are most terrible; they knew not the strength of their enemy which they were to engage, but we fight with an enemy which has been often beaten and triumphed over by our brethren that went before us; certainly we that live in these last times have the best helps that ever any had to subdue our fears; Take we then the prophets, and primitive saints, for an example both of grievous sufferings and of great patience.

Verse 11

That is, all persons do judge and pronounce those that have suffered death, for righteousness sake, to be in a very happy condition; though they live persecuted, yet they die sainted. Living saints are an eye sore; by the strictness of their lives, and the severity of their reproofs, they torment a wicked world; but dead saints do not stand in the way of their lusts, they will therefore have a good word for the dead saints, whilst they hate and persecute the living; Behold, we count them happy which endure.

That is, "Ye have heard how eminent Job was, both for his sufferings and his patience, and you have seen (it is set before your eyes in his story) what an end the Lord made with him, giving him double in this world for what he lost; therefore, though you may be losers for God, yet fear not that you shall be losers by him."

Learn hence, 1. That it is good and useful in our afflictions, to propound Job's pattern and example to our own imitation. He was famous for his suffering, and as famous for his patience: do you suffer various kinds of affliction? Do you suffer in your body, in your spirit, in your nearest relations, in your dearest earthly comforts? And under all these do you suffer the heaviest censures for hypocrisy?

It is but Job's portion, and if you compare notes, not half of his condition neither: so for his patience, let us propound that for our pattern too, and take this encouragement to do it, namely, that though Job discovered much impatience, cursing the day of his birth, &c. yet that is not here mentioned, but mercifully pitied, and pardoned, and graciously overlooked. Where the heart is upright with God, infirmities are not mentioned by him.

Learn, 2. That our afflictions ought not so much to be considered in their nature and beginning, as in their issue and end. You have seen the end of the Lord. God gives always a gracious end, and a glorious end, to the afflictions of his people, and sometimes a temporal end also. Job had all these: let us, under the rod, wait upon God with Job's patience, and he will give us Job's end.

Learn, 3. What an affectionate regard God bears to his children in and under all their heavy sufferings; he is full of bowels, as the word signifies, truly compassionate, very pitful and of tender mercy. As he has pardon for their sins, so he has pity for their afflictions; he is pitiful as well as merciful, yea, very pitiful, and of tender mercy.

Observe, lastly, that the book of Job is a real history, not a parable. There was such a man as Job, how else could his patience be propounded as a pattern? And whence is it that we find him numbered with Noah and Daniel? Ezekiel 14:14. As they were real persons, and truly prevalent in prayer, so was he, Job 42:10.

Verse 12

Observe, that an oath here is not absolutely forbidden, but restrained: Above all things, my brethren.

Note, with what vehemency and earnestness the apostle speaks, Swear not, that is, swear not vainly and rashly, swear not lightly and profanely, swear not unduly, by any of the creatures, (but by the Creator only), which was a sin that the Jews were dreadfully guilty of: But let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay: accustom yourselves to a true simplicity and plainness of speech, in affirming or denying, letting oaths alone, lest ye fall into condemnation; that is, plainly, into the condemnation of hell.

Learn hence, 1. That rash and vain swearing, or profane oaths, are a high abuse of the dreadful name of God, and a mighty provocation to him: verily there is no sin that doth more weary the patience of God, because there is no sin that doth more banish the fear of God out of our hearts.

Learn, 2. That the great end of speech being to communicate the sense of our minds to each other, we ought to use such plainness and simplicity in speaking, that we may believe one another without oaths, or more solemn religious asservations.

But yet, 3. To take an oath upon a solemn occasion, when lawfully called thereunto, is a Christian and necessary duty.

Verse 13

Here observe, 1. That affliction is a praying season. Prayer is a duty never out of season, but never more in season than in and under affliction.

Observe, 2. That though the time of affliction be a special time when a saint prayeth, yet it is not the only time, he prays at all times, because he loves to pray; he prays then, because he especially stands then in need of prayer. A carnal heart has no mind to the duty: he visits not God unless God visits him; but a good man prays continually, prays without ceasing, in health and sickness, in poverty and want; when the candle of the Lord shines about his tabernacles, as well as when he walketh through darkness.

He that prays, makes music in the ears of God: he that sings psalms, performs a duty suitable to his condition. Several conditions require several duties, and all duties are to be performed suitably to our several conditions. Singing is proper to a prosperous state; both to sing God's praises, and to sing to his praise; prayer is proper to an afflicted condition; it is our best remedy, because it leads us to God our best refuge: therefore if any be afflicted, let him pray to God to alleviate and sanctify his affliction. Is any merry? let him sing psalms of praise to that God who hath given him this cheerfulness of spirit.

Verse 14

Some observe, 1. That St. James doth not say, "Is any man sick? let him pray;" but let him send for others to pray with him, and for him: plainly supposing, that the sick man is very unfit to pray himself, or to pray for himself; in other afflictions let him pray, but in sickness let others pray for him, he having enough to do to grapple with his grief, and to conflict with his affliction: a diseased body unfits the mind for holy duties.

Yet observe, 2. It is one thing to want a heart in sickness to pray for ourselves, and another thing to want ability to pray for ourselves. Many desire the prayers of others in sickness, who wanted hearts to pray for themselves in health. This is a sad symptom that the soul is as sick, yea, more dangerously sick than the body. Add to this, that the prayers of others are very rarely beneficial to us, unless we pray, or have a desire to pray, for ourselves.

Observe, 3. The sick man's duty, not only to desire prayer, but to send to the elders of the church to pray for him, and with him.

Quest. But if the sick neglect to send, may the minister neglect to go, if he knows of the sickness?

Ans. Doubtless we ought to go, if we know of it, whether they send or not, for they want our prayers and help most when they desire it least; and by refusing to go, we may lose the last, and perhaps the best opportunity of doing good unto them. If our people, through stupidity and insensibleness, omit their duty in sending for us, God forbid, that either through pride or sluggishness, we should neglect our duty in going to them; too, too often we never hear our people are sick, till the bell tells us they are dead: if therefore by any means we gain the knowlege of their condition, let us apply ourselves with all our might to their condition, lest God be more angry with us for not going to them, than with them for not sending to us, imitating our Lord, who was found of them that sought him not.

Some make this anointing with oil to be a medicinal practice among the Jews, and that they administered it physically: but why then must the elders administer it? The physician might have done it as well as they. True, but the elders are sent for, that they, applying this corporeal remedy, might join with it spiritual physic of prayer, good admonition and comfort. As if a sick person should send for the minister at his taking of physic, that he might then pray with him, counsel and comfort him. Others make this anointing with oil a religious act. Christ empowered his apostles to work miracles, and, amongst others, they had the gift of healing the sick, whom they anointed in the name of the Lord, or by the authority of the Lord; but the gospel being sufficiently confirmed, this gift of healing is ceased, and therewith the rite of anointing; therefore the church of Rome keep up an idle ceremony in anointing the sick, unless they had a miraculous power to heal the sick: to keep up the rite, unless they could produce the effect; to pretend to the anointing, without the power of healing, is a mere piece of pageantry; besides, they anoint those that are given over for dead, and the apostle's anointing for the benefit of the living, as appears by the following verse.

Verse 15

Here our apostle shews the good effects of this anointing and praying; yet note, that he ascribes the sick man's recovery, not to the oil, but to the prayer; the prayer of faith shall save the sick. The moral means is taken notice of before the ritual and ceremonial: the prayer of faith shall save the sick.

There was required to the miracle faith, both in the elder, and in the sick person, to save, that is, to recover the sick; yet mark, it is said, The Lord shall raise him up, to note, that the efficacy of faith lies in the object of faith; it is not faith properly, but God called upon in faith, that saveth the sick; the efficacy of faith is not from its own merit, but from God's power and grace.

If he have committed sins: why, is there any question to be made of that? No; but if he has committed such sins as brought this sickness upon him, they shall be forgiven him, upon this prayer of faith; if any special or particular sin has drawn down this disease upon him, it shall be remitted, and the disease removed; where the sickness is by way of chastisement, the healing is a testimony of God's forgiveness.

Learn hence, how absurd is the Popish sacrament of Extreme Unction: how can they gather a perpetual ordinance from an action that was extraordinary and miraculous, and long since ceased? Or apply a sacrament to dying persons, from a rite used upon persons who were not to die, but to be raised from sickness? Or how can they promise to him forgiveness of sins, to whom they cannot promise that recovery which was the token of it?

Verse 16

Note here, 1. That there is a time and season when it is our duty to confess our sins, not only to God, but to one another, to a pious and prudent minister, to an injured and wronged neighbour, to those that have been tempted by us, and have consented with us in sinning.

Note, 2. How absurdly the Papists ground their practice of auricular confession upon this text, here is not one word spoken of a priest, nor of our confessing to him: and if so, the text proves it the priest's duty to confess to the people, as much as the people's to confess to the priest, for the duty required is mutual, confess one to another; accordingly the words are generally understood of confessing private injuries one to another: that the sick person must reconcile himself to his neighbour as well as to God, that he may recover; for so it follows, pray for one another, that ye may be healed; intimating, that it is the duty of Christians to confess their miscarriages and private injuries one to another, and by their prayers to succour, help, and relieve each other; it is the duty of the strong to pray for the weak, and the strong may be strengthened by the prayers of the weak.

Observe here, 1. The qualification of that prayer, which at that time was effectual for the recovery of the sick person in a miraculous manner, it may be rendered an inspired prayer; as they that were actuated by the evil spirits, so such as were moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit, were called Energoumenoi, in a good sense, the phrase properly signifies a prayer inwardly wrought and excited, and implies the efficacious influence of the Holy Spirit, and the force and vehemency of a Christian's spirit and affection exerted and put forth in the duty; in wrought prayer, or prayer that works in and upon our own hearts, has a mighty prevalency with God.

Observe, 2. The qualification of the person praying, a righteous man, not legally righteous, one in a state of sinless perfection, but a person justified by faith, and whose faith is fruitful in good works.

Observe, 3. The prevalency and efficacy of such a person's prayer; it availeth much; he doth not say how much that is better experienced than expressed; it availeth much for ourselves, sometimes more for others than for ourselves.

Note, that the fervent prayers and intercessions of the righteous have a mighty prevalency with God, both for themselves and others.

Verse 17

Our apostle in these words proves the general proposition he had laid down, that the fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, by a particular instance, the example of Elias: who seemed to carry the keys of heaven at his girdle, to shut and open the heavens at his pleasure.

As the Lord liveth, there shall not be dew nor rain, but according to my word 1 Kings 17:1: the Apostle here tells us what word this was, namely, a word of prayer, and not a word of command; Elias prayed, and the heavens gave rain; he prayed in prayer, so the original; that is, he prayed with faith and fervency, according to the will of God revealed to him; and though he was a man subject to the common infirmities of human nature with ourselves, yet his passions did not hinder the prevalency of his prayers; nothing has wrought such wonderful effects in the world as prayer; it made the sun stand still in heaven, it brought fire out of heaven, 1 Kings 1:10, and here it shut up the windows of heaven, that it rained not for the space of three years and six months: it has a divine kind of omnipotency in it.

Verse 19

Our apostle concludes his epistle with an exhortation to the duty of fraternal correction and Christian admonition: "If, says he, any one among you, who hath made an outward profession of Christianity, shall, for fear of persecution, or otherwise turn aside from the rule of the gospel, whether in matters of faith or practice, such a person, either Minister or private Christian, as shall be instrumental, by prayer, reproof, or counsel to recover him out of that wandering and backsliding condition, shall have the honour to save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins; that is, he shall be a means of bringing him to a sight of his sins, and to seek a pardon of them, which is the only true and happy way of hiding and of covering of them."

Learn hence, 1. It is not sufficient that every one takes care of his own soul, but he must also watch over the souls of others; there is no brother so mean in the Christian church, but the care of his salvation belongeth to all in the Christian communion.

Learn, 2. What great honour God puts upon the creature, in calling him a Saviour to a restored and converted brother, he shall save a soul from death: but when God puts the glory of his own work upon the head of the creature, what cause has he to lay the crown of his excellency at the foot of God? When the honour of the supreme Cause is put upon the instrument, the instrument ought to ascribe all the efficacy and efficiency to the first cause, saying, Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name be the praise. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on James 5". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. 1700-1703.