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Bible Commentaries
James 5

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

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Verse 1

4. Denunciatory appeal to the rich for their oppression, self-indulgence, and persecution, James 5:1-6.

1. Go to now Note on James 4:13.

Rich men The rich men of St. James were something different from the honest and charitable possessors of wealth of which our Christianity has since furnished so many specimens. They displayed great outward pomp, James 2:2-3; they were political dynasts, ( καταδυναστευουσιν ,) or potentates, James 2:6; they were blasphemers and persecutors, James 2:7; they used their power to defraud the labourers upon their broad acres, James 5:4; they held judicial positions, and used them to put the just man to death, James 5:6. They are, therefore, the Jewish ruling tyrant-class of the day, called rich men, because their gorgeous display of pomp and opulence is their prominent aspect to the Christian eye. Of the rich men of St. James’s day in the Roman empire generally, see note on James 5:6. But the strangest thing in interpreting the words of St. James is, the fact that leading commentators imagine these rich men to be Christians! Howl and shall come are both participles in the present tense. A literal rendering of the whole verse would be, Ho, now, ye rich men, weep! howling upon the miseries coming on. The howling aggravates the weep, likening them to a pack of eastern dogs.

Verse 2

2. Riches are corrupted Under a series of physical images the great truth is proclaimed that ill-gotten and oppressive wealth brings upon the possessor the divine malediction, fulfilled in this or a coming world. The various forms of wealth are either to be themselves destroyed, or to become the destroyers of their holders. As it is rich men of the twelve tribes who are here more specifically addressed as the epistle was written from Jerusalem, and as the magnates of the tribes were even now on the brink of destruction in the coming overthrow of the Jewish State, it is a plausible interpretation which applies this passage as a prophecy, in accordance with our Lord’s memorable predictions of that downfall.

Nor is it supposable that a man so deeply imbued with so national and patriotic a sympathy for his kindred would overlook that coming catastrophe so fully predicted by Jesus, and so well understood by Jewish Christians as that they thereby effected their own escape. Indeed, this predicting the day of slaughter, and then the parousia of James 5:7, is remarkably parallel to our Lord’s discourse distinguishing and contrasting these two great events. The specifications of their treasures with their destruction embraces a triad, namely, riches, or hoarded goods; garments; and gold and silver. The first has been (for the three verbs are in the perfect tense, and should have been strictly so rendered) rotted; the second, motheaten; the third, not only rusted, but so rusted as that the rust shall corrode like fire, and consume their flesh. Like the old prophets, our apostle takes his standpoint in the future, and contemplates the destruction he predicts as already completed.

Corrupted Literally, putrified, rotted.

Verse 3

3. Gold… cankered Literally, rusted. Gold, however, never does truly rust, or oxidize, just as fire does not eat, or rust eat flesh. Such a fact is, of course, here only figured, as an image of the perishability of human fortunes. Bloomfield says, “Gold does not, properly, rust; yet by long use it contracts a green colour, and a sort of acid humour. The ancient gold and silver might be more liable to rust, from having a greater proportion of alloy.” That greening of gold coin was viewed as a sort of rust, as appears from the poet Theocritus, (Idyl 16,) where he says that no one would give poets money; nay, “not rub off the rust of their money and give it to them.”

Witness against you Not against, but to, you. It does not testify to any crime, but prophesies that you shall be even cankered as it is.

For the last days Literally, in last days. It is to be noted that the heaping of the treasure was within, not previous to, the last days. Both last days and day of slaughter are without the Greek article, while coming, of James 5:7, (where see note,) has the article. Both these terms, last days and day, clearly signify the closing days of the apostolic age of the Church, coincident with the closing days of the Jewish State. See notes on 2 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:18-22; 1Jn 4:3 ; 2 John 1:7.

Verse 4

4. Hire of the labourers The rich men were great landholders, who had, perhaps, thousands of tenants or serfs, kept to a barely living recompense. Their rightful wages were withheld, and misery and starvation were the result to the helpless toiler.

Crieth Like the blood of Abel against his murderer, (Genesis 4:10;) like the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, (Genesis 18:20;) like the groaning of Israel against the oppression of Pharaoh, Exodus 2:23-24.

Lord of Sabaoth Especially are these predictions fulfilled in a nation like our own, which boasted of its Christianity and its freedom, while holding a stolen race in oppression. We have lately found the national crime an antecedent to a national day of slaughter.

Verse 5

5. On the earth Spoken, as above said, as if from the judgment throne.

Wanton Lascivious, as a result of wealth and luxury.

Nourished Fattened like swine.

In a day of slaughter The crime lasted so as to be, as it were, in the very time of the penalty. The penalty was so sudden as to be in the day of the crime. The (rather, a) day of slaughter ever interrupts the days of oppression, luxury, and lust. So it was in the Jewish state, the Roman empire, the French revolution, and, finally, our own days of slaveholding.

Verse 6

6. The just True pre-eminently of their condemning and killing the just One, Jesus; and afterwards Stephen, and, finally, St. James himself.

Doth not The continuous present, implying that the martyr is ever non-resistant.

The character of the rich men of St. James’s age may be understood by the following description from a chapter on “The Decline of the Roman Empire,” by the historian Bancroft, in his “Miscellanies:”

“The aristocracy owned the soil and its cultivators. The vast capacity for accumulation which the laws of society secure to capital in a greater degree than to personal exertion, displays itself nowhere so clearly as in slave-holding States, where the labouring class is but a portion of the capital of the opulent. As wealth consists chiefly in land and slaves, the rates of interest are, from universally operative causes always comparatively high, making the difficulty of advancing with borrowed capital proportionably great. The small landholder finds himself unable to compete with those who are possessed of whole cohorts of bondmen; his slaves, his lands, rapidly pass, in consequence of his debts, into the hands of the more opulent. The large plantations are constantly swallowing up the smaller ones; and land and slaves come to be engrossed by the few. Before Caesar passed the Rubicon this condition existed in the extreme in the Roman State. The rural indigent crept into the walls of Rome. A free labourer was hardly known. The large proprietors of slaves not only tilled their immense plantations, but also indulged their avarice in training their slaves to every species of labour, and letting them out, as horses from a livery stable, for the performance of every conceivable species of work. Four or five hundred men were not an uncommon number in one family; fifteen or twenty thousand sometimes belonged to one master. The immense wealth of Crassus consisted chiefly in lands and slaves: on the number of his slaves we hardly dare hazard a conjecture. Of joiners and masons he had over five hundred. Nor was this the whole evil. The nobles, having impoverished their lands, became usurers, and had their agents dispersed over all the provinces. The censor, Cato, closed his career by recommending usury as more productive than agriculture; and such was the prodigality of the Roman planters, that, to indulge their fondness for luxury, many of them mortgaged their estates to the moneylenders. Thus the lands of Italy, at best in the hands of a few proprietors, became virtually vested in a still smaller number of usurers. No man’s house, no man’s person, was secure.

“The captives in war were sold at auction. Cicero, during the little campaign in which he was commander, sold men enough to produce, at half price, about half a million of dollars.

“The second mode of supplying the slave market was by commerce; and this supply was so uniform and abundant that the price of an ordinary labourer hardly varied for centuries. The reason is obvious; where the slave merchant gets his cargoes from kidnappers the first cost is inconsiderable. The great centres of this traffic were in the countries bordering on the Euxine; and Scythians were often stolen. Caravans penetrated the deserts of Africa, and made regular hunts for slaves. Blacks were highly valued; they were rare, and, therefore, both male and female negroes were favourite articles of luxury among the opulent Romans. At one period Delos was most remarkable as the emporium for slaves. It had its harbours, chains, prisons, every thing so amply arranged to favour a brisk traffic that ten thousand slaves could change hands and be shipped in a single day, an operation which would have required thirty-three or thirty-four ships of the size of the vessel in which Paul the apostle was wrecked. There was hardly a port in the Roman empire, convenient for kidnapping foreigners, in which the slave trade was not prosecuted. In most heathen countries, also, men would sell their own children into bondage. The English continued to do so even after the introduction of Christianity. In modern times, when men incurred debts, they have mortgaged their own bodies; the ancients mortgaged their sons and daughters.

“It is a calumny to charge the devastation of Italy upon the barbarians. The large Roman plantations, tilled by slave labour, were its ruin. The careless system impoverished the soil, and wore out even the rich fields of Campania. Large districts were left waste; others had been turned into pastures, and grazing substituted for tillage.… When Alaric led the Goths into Italy he could not sustain his army in the beautiful but deserted territory.… Slavery had destroyed the democracy, had destroyed the aristocracy, had destroyed the empire.”

Verse 7

5. The Christian sufferer under these wrongs pointed to the judgment day, James 5:7-11.

7. Brethren Our apostle turns in contrast, from the rich men to the just men; from the persecutors to the persecuted. But what shall we think of commentators who are not quite sure that the rich men and the brethren are not the same!

Be patient To the Church in all ages the judgment seat of Christ, even though long millenniums distant, is, conceptually, near at hand. See supplementary note to Matthew 25:0, and note on 2 Peter 3:8.

Coming The PAROUSIA; the second advent, the day when the human race, in resurrection state, stands in the presence of its final Judge.

Observe, again, that, unlike last days, in James 5:3, and day of slaughter, in James 5:5, this Parousia has the Greek article. This indicates that the two former were indefinite events, and the last a definite. That is, the latter indicates the one well known and universally expected event, while the former are a special era for these rich men and their contemporaries.

Husbandman As the planter fixes his conceptual eye upon the day of harvest, so do ye fix your mind’s eye upon the final reward.

Long patience An intimation of the unknown length of the period intervening before the judgment day.

Early and latter The word rain, though truly implied, is not, perhaps, a genuine reading. The early “rainy season” in Palestine is autumnal, extending from first of October to last of December, and even, with slight snow, into January. February brings an interval of fine weather. The latter rain is in spring, embracing March and April.

Verse 8

8. Emphasis on ye, as imitators of the husbandman.

Draweth nigh Note on 2 Peter 3:8.

Verse 9

9. Grudge Rather, murmur. A return to the caution against mutual evil speaking of James 4:11-12. Lessons of submission under persecution, of patience with each other, and waiting for their final reward, interchange with each other.

Standeth before the door Not to be applied to the destruction of Jerusalem, but to the Parousia of James 5:8.

Verse 10

10. The prophets In St. James’ view the Christian has a full right to the Old Testament, and he is in his day as the prophets of old. Both suffer on earth in solemn hope of a better life.

In the name Using the name as representatives of him.

Verse 11

11. Count them happy which endure The noble saints of old are eulogized. We esteem them happy in having left such a record. Be thou like them, and you will be finally happy, too.

End of the Lord The end which Jehovah has for the truly patient. “The Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.” Job 42:12.

Lord… mercy Job’s example does not prove that you will have, like him, a prosperous latter end; but it does prove the character of our Lord; and that it is his nature to append a happy consequent to our patient antecedents.

Verse 12

6. Cautions against use of violent language, James 5:12.

12. Above all things Not that this was the greatest of crimes, but that it was one of the greatest sins that a good Christian would be likely to incur.

Swear not A precept of holy patience. It inculcates a preservation of moral serenity by an avoidance of profane and violent speech. The conversational oath, which is not content with the simple yea and nay, is the result and the token of an impatient and peremptory spirit, akin to the violence of persecutors and brigands. That recklessness which constitutes the charm is the reverse of the calm spirit that rests on God and reveres his name. Of course this has nothing to do with the solemn oath in the court of justice, in which reverence is the spirit, and an end of strife is the aim. Let your yea, your affirmation, be not an oath, but a simple yea.

Condemnation From violent feeling or action, produced by violent language.

Verse 13


1. Consolations for the sad, the merry, the sick; the prayer of faith, James 5:13-18.

13. Our apostle now shows better methods than swearing to give vent to our moods.

Afflicted Suffers one any evil? Let him not swear, but pray! Merry Cheery, in good spirits? Let him not blaspheme, but sing psalms. These are the richest methods of letting forth our abounding nature within the sphere of the blessed and divine. No need of oaths, or bacchanalian riot, in order to the most joyous and happy activities of our souls and voices.

Verse 14

14. Sick And even for bodily illness apostolic Christianity had its divine resource.

The elders of the church From this it is to be inferred that organized Churches, with definite authoritative elders, existed in the time of this epistle. We find in Acts (Acts 21:18) that our St. James had a body of attendant elders over whom he appears to be president.

The church The body of the people, whose place of worship is called a synagogue in James 2:2, as see note.

Let them pray As men whose office and power are to pray.

Anointing him with oil Wordsworth remarks that there is no indication in primitive history that oil was used sacramentally. It was used medically, as a means of restoration, with prayer for the due effect.

Wordsworth notes that the gift of healing remained some time in the Christian Church; for which he quotes the authority of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Eusebius, and others; that the Greek Church still retains the custom here prescribed for the purpose of a gracious restoration to health; whereas the Roman Church retains the ritual of oil, but not for the purpose of recovery, having perverted it to an “extreme unction,” or rite for the salvation of those beyond recovery. But the English Church, in the time of reform under Edward VI., after due consideration, disused the anointing with oil, lest it should seem to claim the gift of healing as now existing in the Church. The English Church thereby disclaimed any miraculous power over disease.

Verse 15

15. Prayer of faith Prayer impregnated with and upborne by faith. No formal prayer, but such as is further described in James 5:16.

Shall Will, a simple future.

Save From temporal death.

Committed sins By which the illness has been caused.

Verse 16

16. In order that the sins may be known and prayed for, confess your faults This not in the public congregation, where the effect would be bad; but individually, one to another, in a most sincere and penitent way. We now have a fuller description of the nature of that prayer of faith that will save.

The effectual The Greek word (taken in the middle voice) is defined effective, which makes it almost a tautology. We prefer, with the old English commentators Hammond, Bull, Benson, and Macknight, to take it in the passive voice, so that it would signify energized, or inwrought, that is, by the divine Spirit. The Greek commentator OEcumenius considers it passive, and makes it mean energized, that is, by the co-operative prayer of the patient himself. And Michaelis (quoted by Huther) defines the phrase, preces agitante Spiritu sancto effusae, prayers poured forth prompted by the Holy Spirit. This last most nearly expresses the true thought. The prayer is a special prayer, wrought by the divine in the human, by which the supernatural result is produced. This accords with the old distinction between the faith of justification and the faith of miracles. Such faith is the special gift of God, and is accompanied often, if not always, with full supernatural assurance that the prayer is to be answered and the work accomplished.

And this furnishes, we apprehend, a fair answer to Mr. Tyndall’s celebrated “prayer test.” He proposed that a certain number of sick in a hospital be set apart for whose recovery prayer should be made, and that comparative statistics should decide whether any effect was produced. The fair answer would seem to be, that the English Church, and most Protestant Churches, do not claim that the gift of healing remains in the Church. If it did, with exact results, of course the medical profession could be mostly spared. Nor does the Church claim by prayer at will to overrule the forces of nature. When such things are done in answer to prayer, not only the result but the prayer is supernatural and extraordinary. Note on Matthew 17:20. Such a “test” the prophet Elijah did (1 Kings 18:17-40) propose with triumphant result; but he did it, evidently, under special divine premonition. And only with such an inspired premonition could any one now, wisely or authoritatively, accept and institute such “test.” The supernatural fulfilment of a prayer is a sovereign act, “reserved by the Father in his own power;” and it would, undoubtedly, be a presumptuous act for any one, unimpelled by divine assurance, to contract with a sceptic or a divine interposition. We said on Matthew 17:20, (written long before the proposal of the “ test,”) “God gives no man faith wherewith to play miraculous pranks;”

and we now add, or to make miraculous contracts. A claim over the forces of nature by prayer at will would be a claim to throw the established course of events out of order, and to take the processes of nature out of the hands of the God of nature. But in the sphere of the Spirit, in the region of mental forces, the case is different. We may say that, according to the laws of the spiritual world, in the kingdom of Christ, prayer is the stated antecedent to spiritual effects, to regeneration, sanctification, and salvation. And, hence, the evangelical Church, whatever Romanism may claim, is chary in praying for secular or mechanical results, and, even when praying for them, leaves them humbly to the divine will. She prays for souls rather than for bodies, and for heavenly rather than for earthly goods.

The word fervent is superfluous, having no correspondent Greek word in the text. And the word effectual produces, apparently, a flat truism, making the sentence say, that an effectual prayer is effectual.

Of a righteous man It is the holy prayer, divinely inwrought, of a holy man.

Verse 17

17. The doctrine confirmed by an illustrious example in Old Testament times.

Subject to like passions Simply like-passioned: had all the intellectualities and susceptibilities of all human beings. As human as we, and we no more human than he. He was not without some failure of temper, 1 Kings 19:4; 1 Kings 19:10.

Prayed earnestly Literally, prayed with prayer. A Hebraism; he prayed with prayer that was prayer indeed.

Three years and six months One half the sacred seven. See our note on “Sacred Numbers,” in vol. ii, p. 81.

Verse 18

18. Prayed In the Old Testament narrative (1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:42-45) it is not expressly said that he prayed. Herein Huther affirms, and Alford does not deny, a discrepancy. But the whole narrative (1 Kings 18:36-46) suggests the truth of our apostle’s statement. At the time of the evening sacrifice Elijah prays for God’s vindication of himself by miracle, and the prayer is answered by fire. As concluding part of the same transaction Elijah is described as first warning Ahab of the approaching rain which closed the miraculous drought, and as then on Carmel putting himself in the attitude of profound prayer, while his servant was commissioned to watch and report the tokens of the coming of the “great rain.” We are hereby entitled to infer that Elijah’s position by divine assignment was that of deep communion and harmony with God. His office was as mediator between God and Israel, to pray for the divine self-vindication, and the self-vindication itself was verified as being a manifested answer to his permanent inward and outward prayer. Hence was he a true example for the early Church standing in the same position. When specially gifted with the prayer of miraculous faith by its deep communion with God, and commissioned to vindicate God’s revelation of himself in Christianity, the apostolic Church was entitled to offer that prayer which was antecedent to a divine response. It was thereby that the apostle fully comprehended, both by sympathy and similar position, the position of Elijah. And similar to this of James was the view of St. John, as appears by his allusion in Revelation 11:6. Similar was, doubtless, the view of the entire apostolic Church. And similar, too, was, probably, the view of the devout in the Jewish Church. So Sir 48:1-3 : “Then stood up Elias the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp. He brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heaven, and also three times brought down fire.” Here is a depth of sympathetic understanding of the divine word that rebukes the shallowness of modern rationalism. The deep divine assent of the great prophet, wrought by his commissioning God, was a permanent prayer of which the miracle was the consequent. So that in this deep view our writers make him cause the miracles he predicts. When he prayed again, then the heaven and earth obeyed his prayer through an intervening omnipotence. Her accustomed fruit So long miraculously withheld.

Verse 19

2. The reclaim of the wanderer, and its reward, 19, 20.

19. Brethren In the closing two verses our apostle completes his series of fraternal suggestions of Christian duty among themselves, in line with James 5:16; James 5:12; James 5:10, and many preceding points in the entire epistle. This closing suggestion is of immense importance, touching the restoration of the wandering backslider. Any one of you Bringing the point closely down to each one, as an individual duty and reward.

Err A passive verb, and rightly rendered by Alford be seduced.

From the truth Not merely from Christian doctrine, but from that word of truth (James 1:18) which is the life-principle of the soul, without which the man is sure to become, practically, as next verse, a sinner, and will relapse into death.

Convert him From error and sin back to the truth. A clear implication that sin and death would be the result of his apostasy.

Verse 20

20. Let him know Or, by a reading preferred by Alford, know ye. What now follows is stated as a universal truth, implying that this individual case would be included under it.

The sinner Rather, a sinner, whoever and wherever he may be.

Error of his way Error, or wandering, is the characteristic quality of the way he is pursuing.

Shall save The future far reaching beyond the present.

Death The eternal consequent, commenced here and perpetuated hereafter, of unpardoned sin.

Hide Cover from sight. So Psalms 32:1-2, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” And Psalms 85:2, “Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people; thou hast covered all their sin.” The sins which he shall cover are, of course, the sins of the sinner. The idea of some commentators, that the converter will thereby cover his own sins, is unevangelical. The converter’s sins must be covered by his own penitence and faith, not by bringing somebody else to these conditions. Our apostle incites us to the work of converting the sinner by the greatness and glory in the result itself. Not only a soul is saved from death, but a mass of sins is forgiven, and no longer offends the eye of a holy God, or the hearts of holy men. Doubtless the blessed work performed in true faith has, also, its own exceeding great reward to the worker. But that reward is not the forgiveness of the converter’s sins, but consists in his own increased blessedness and his richer final glory. Truly, he that winneth souls is wise; wise for the saved soul, wise for the approbation of heaven and earth, wise for his own soul.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on James 5". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/james-5.html. 1874-1909.
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