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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
James 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-27

God"s Gifts

James 1

James is always thought to be a very stern man. We think of him as never smiling, never bending in familiar and companionable intercourse, but always standing upon a crag of granite, and telling men what they ought to do; and telling men their duty in a voice that indicates no disposition to be trifled with. We have done wrong by some of these men. They are not so stern when we come to know them. It would be impossible for a preacher of Christ to be stern in any sense that drives men away in fear and distrust and shame. We shall find on reading the whole Epistle of James that there are some tender words in it. Even James recognises the possibility of some people being "merry." I do not know that his exhortation would be acceptable to all kinds of merriment. When a man says, "Is any among you merry? let him sing Psalm ," he may seem to the frivolous to fall very much below the occasion. Psalm are all Hebrew—grand, rolling, majestic utterances, befitting the expression of reverence, adoration, and a kind of fearsome loyalty, before an infinite throne of ivory jewelled with finest gold. Yet there are hymns for those who cannot sing psalms; lilting, tuneful, happy, bird-like hymns, fit to be sung from the branches of blossoming trees in the springtime. Take up such music as will best express your tender and happy emotion. James is only anxious that mirth should have its expression, as certainly as sickness should have its medicine. If James had lived in our day he would have indicated certain pleasant and beautiful home hymns instead of saying "psalms." Not that he would have ignored the psalms; he would have said, Some voices were not made for Psalm -singing; they have not compass enough, they are not gifted with that subtle, peculiar emphasis which can take up the sublimity of the psalm and express it. So some of us have to go to little hymns; they suit our youthfulness, they stoop down to our weakness, and we may by their gentle and adapted ministry rise from one elevation to another, until we are able to take our share in the utterance of that thunder which rolls so songfully around the eternal throne.

James comes before us, not as a stern Prayer of Manasseh , but as a slave. What a pity we do not put the word "slave" instead of "servant" in the text. "Slave" is the English equivalent of the word which James himself used. "Servant" is an ambiguous profession; yea, it is now in many relations a profession. When a man calls his work a "profession" you may be quite sure he has fallen from grace. Why do we not call it work? Why do we not recognise it as honest industry? When a preacher talks about his "profession" leave him. James was a slave, and therefore at full liberty. Only a slave in the right sense of the term can be a free man—"If ye know the truth, the truth shall make you free." We must be slaves if we love. Love does not stand upright in any posture of conventional or mechanical dignity; love says, What can I do for you? can I run an errand on your account? can I pluck you some flowers? can I sing you a song? can I hand you what you require? make use of me. Love is never so happy as when stooping to do some work which will indicate the reality and completeness of its own intensity and devotion. There are some persons who love us so much that they never write to us. There are others who are so deeply in love with us that we never hear a word from them in any way. That is a mysterious kind of love; that is a sort of absorbed contemplative, self-involved consecration of heart that ends in nothing. We want love to be another name for service, helpfulness, sympathy, co-partnery in prayer, a marvellous companionship of the soul. James never did anything without first saying, Lord, may I do it? When the Lord gave him commandment to do it, none could work with a steadier hand than James. He had his own way of saying things; crisp, epigrammatic, always ad rem, so that his style cannot be confounded with the style of any other man. There are certain persons in all climates and ages who have a wonderful faculty for hitting the nail everywhere but on the head. James had the other faculty. It was a smith"s arm, and a smith"s hammer, and when it came down, the nail knew it. It is not enough to have industry, the industry must be rightly directed. There are persons so continually busy that they never actually do anything; they are always going to do it, they are in some unnamed and unnamable mood of the verb To do, and in conjugating that energetic verb they never come to issue or conclusion; they are in a perpetual swelter, yet they never gather any harvest. In order that our work may be rightly directed we must say to the Master early in the morning, Lord, I am thine, what wouldst thou have me to do? I do not want to do anything except under thy command; I shall not be content with thy permission; I would have an order from the throne: If thou dost say, Go! none shall hinder me, for I know thou wilt not bid me go, unless thou hast first decided to come along with me. He who is thus the slave of law is the free man of the Father. Never believe in any liberty that has no bounds. Liberty that is not bounded is blasphemy, is licence, is madness.

This humble, devoted slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ sends a letter to the twelve tribes, which were scattered abroad. Who thinks of writing to wanderers? Who thinks of telegraphing to people who have no address? That would seem to be a ludicrous Acts , and yet there are persons who have risked messages by committing them to the sea. The ship has struck, there is no hope for her; men have sat down and written messages on slips of paper, put them into bottles, corked the bottles, and thrown them upon the wide sea, if haply they may some day be cast upon the sands far away, and may thus come to express not intelligence only, but affection and devotion to aching hearts. We should often speak to people who are not present with us at the moment. Our words may be reported, they may be quoted, and when they are quoted some persons may listen to them with sacred amazement, and without saying much may feel in their hearts that such gospels were meant from the very first to be theirs, for encouragement, for welcome, for assurance of the possibility of pardoned, and therefore renewed, and therefore immortal, life.

The twelve tribes scattered abroad were not accosted as prodigals or wanderers, though there was probably hardly a good man amongst them. James would get at his people by calling them "My brethren." People will listen to the voice of a brotherhood: there is a masonry in the Church, by which sign true hearts know one another; without unbecoming or undue familiarity they hold the key of each other"s heart, and can enter into the sacred places, the very sanctuary of the soul. Men who are a long way from the Church may be our brethren still. Your son did not cease to be your son because he ran away from your house. The prodigal need not be excluded from your prayers because he has excluded himself from your hearth and home. When you speak of him let it be under some gentle designation; he may hear of it, and the very fact that you called him child, Song of Solomon , loved one, may shape itself into a gospel, and may indicate the point and certainty of his return.

What were the brethren of James to do? To "count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations." We cannot do that, it is impossible; no man can go into the wilderness for the purpose of being glad. It is not in the human heart when it comes into stony and inhospitable places to say, This is what I want. But that is not what the Apostle bade you do, you have broken off his exhortation at a semicolon; he gives you a reason for your counting it all joy when you fall into divers temptations, namely, "Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience." We are not to be glad on account of the pain: we are to be glad because the pain works out a mystery, the sweet, quiet, gentle name of which is patience—the quality that suffers without a ruffle; the condition of soul that accepts the providences of God, whatever they be, thankfully and hopefully. Until we have attained patience we have not touched the crown of orthodoxy. There are many orthodox people who are not patient. There are some people who judge of their own orthodoxy by their own patience; they get so angry with other people that they forget to pray. They think that anger will serve the cause of God, whereas it is plainly written on the portals of heaven that, "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." We want more patience, more hopefulness, more of the spirit which says, The man has gone away from our hold and companionship for a time, but he will come back again. We want the spirit which says, Some mistakes have been made, but mistakes are often the first letters in the lessons of life: experience is a dear school, but experience turns out fine scholars. We should never speak impatiently about any earnest Prayer of Manasseh , wherever he may have wandered and whatever he may have done. Earnestness—burning, religious, pious earnestness—is the guarantee of its own integrity, and of the happy issue to which all sincerity is brought by the Spirit of the living God. We cannot be men until we have had cruel trials and mockings and scourgings, yea sometimes even bonds and imprisonments: but every man must be tried by fire, or he cannot trust himself. The fire has a work to do that nothing else can ever effect. How are we off in this matter of fire? Here is an artist who brings to me some beautiful piece of work upon porcelain or other ware, and I begin to lift a finger, and the artist exclaims, "Do not touch it, if you please." Why not?—"Because it has not yet been fired." What has the fire got to do with this beautiful painting? The fire has got to fasten it, to so work upon it that the ware can be touched, or handled, or used, and yet the figure sustains no loss of outline or beauty. It is even so with young Christians. Some of you have just been, as it were, fashioned and outlined by the Divine artist, but you have not yet undergone the firing process—process of trial—and therefore some people come to you and want to touch you; and some would touch you with the finger of scorn, and others would touch you with the finger of curiosity, and others would touch you simply for the sake of touching you, and finding exactly how deeply the work is done; and the voice of God says, Hands off! these are but young Christians, they have not yet been fired; after they have been in the oven of experience and in the furnace of affliction, I will hand them out of the mould for the world"s using. There are some persons who think that the moment you become a Christian you may become an experienced Christian, and therefore they will try you and mock you and put you to severe straits, not knowing that every soul requires to be tested by fire and to be completed by trial. We must not expect from the young that which is appropriate only to the old. Do not go out in April to pluck the apples: wait until September. Do not shake the tree and scorn it because in April it is only white with blossom: wait till the harvest month, and the tree will bid you welcome to its juicy, luscious fruitage. Every man in his own order; every soul in its own time. God hath appointed these things, and according to the administration of this discipline will be the completeness of our character.

"But let patience have her perfect work." Patience is beautiful. But even patience wants perfecting. There is a partial patience. If endurance be represented by ten points, there are some people who are good for seven of them, but at the eighth they break down. Having tried them with three points, and three more, and then with the seventh, you say, Surely now these people may be allowed to pass as completely patient, and yet when you try them with the eighth difficulty or test they completely break down, and all the other seven points go for nothing. James says, "let patience have her perfect work." That is what we say about the seasons; we say, let spring have her perfect work: let summer have her perfect work: let harvest have her perfect work. We know what perfect work is in nature: who would cut down the wheat when it is all green? The green is of a lovely hue, and every stalk seems well formed: why not thrust in the sickle? Yet nature says, Let the seasons have their perfect work: cut the corn when it is yellow, crisp, golden, when it seems in a gentle breeze to nod its head to the sickle, and say, You may cut me now. So many of us fail about half-way. So many fail, too, at the point last but one. Let us construct a bridge over, say, the river Thames; let us say that the Thames is at the point in view300 feet wide: here is the bridge, and we have to put it up. And the bridge Isaiah 295 feet long: now what are you to do? Nothing; 295 feet of a bridge can never be stretched into300 feet of a river. Yet it is good as far as it goes. Yes. And how many men there are who are content to be good as far as they go? If one boy were owing another twenty shillings and gave him fifteen, would the creditors say, You are good as far as you go; thank you: all is now settled? I think not. The boy who wanted the twenty shillings would say, You have given me but fifteen, I want five more. Who would go over a bridge295 feet long when the river Isaiah 300 feet wide? Can you jump the remaining5 feet? Would you like to drive a horse and carriage over a bridge of that kind? You would be all right for295 feet; never were feet better measured, never was work better done: this you acknowledge, but you say you would be drowned at the point where the bridge ends. Why not apply this figure and this doctrine to human character, and say, Let patience have her perfect work; let the patience be the whole length of the affliction and let the man"s strength be such that he can compass with entireness the whole task which he has to do.

But suppose any man should be conscious of defect, what then? There is a provision made for that consciousness:—

"If any of you lack Wisdom of Solomon , let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." ( James 1:5-8.)

What do we want?—"wisdom." What is the exhortation?— "ask" for it. God never refused wisdom. God cannot refuse that gift. He can refuse wealth. He can refuse honour, he can refuse even health, but he cannot refuse wisdom. He lives to give wisdom; he lives to complete spiritual miracles; he lives to redeem. Let us be careful that we do ask for wisdom—not for mere information, but for that quality of mind which discerns the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the true from the false; that quality of mind which takes in things in their entirety. I find so many people who are clever only in points. They are too sharp to live. For some points they have a perfect genius, but they have no circular action of brain, their brain does not swing around a horizon; it sees a lamp, it sees a bird, it sees some particular feature with marvellous distinctness, but it never takes in the invisible, the uncalculated, the possible, or the impossible; its processes are not complete and comprehensive processes, they are flashes of the mind, intuitional action; they do not represent largeness, not to say completeness, of view; that is mere cleverness; it is commercial or mechanical ability: but philosophy, genius, slow-going calculation says, I must take in all the points, the one will colour the other, there is a process of equipoise and readjustment and correlation. Fools cannot understand this, and therefore they are flying out at all inclines and angles, and doing all sorts of erratic and unprofitable things.

Wisdom is a large gift, quiet, solemn, majestic, rich in resource, enduring in patience. Yet the sharp man is often applauded, when the slow-plodding mind is left behind, because it cannot move with sufficient velocity. It is marvellous how one quality of mind is often mistaken for another, and how the man of information is often put in the chair, and the man of inspiration is left somewhere at the backdoor. Information is nothing but a momentary convenience: inspiration sees central principles, philosophic beginnings and genesis of things, and is always right because the accident comes, goes, changes colour and attitude, and disappears, but he who grasps the centre and reality of things has a permanent sovereignty; he will not always be standing at the backdoor; the poor, little, clever, well-informed chairman will be dropped out of his chair, and probably nobody will care to go back and bring him up again. Inspiration, or Wisdom of Solomon , or the divine faculty of the soul, holds its own for ever, and grows with the growing ages. Distinguish therefore between qualities that seem to be alike. I have heard a nightingale sing and a cock crow at the same moment, and I thought I perceived a difference in their voices. Even for that degree of perception a man ought to be thankful. There are persons who do not know the one voice from the other; so they say to the nightingale, We can hear you, you need not sing so loudly; we can hear you. It is not enough to hear a voice, you must feel it. Hear it! a jackal has a quicker ear than a man has. But to hear is nothing; to feel the subtle spiritual thrill, that is the proper effect of music. So it is with voices that would teach you, with voices that would cheer you. No doubt out of the Christian pulpit there are voices—strident, clamorous, urgent, emphatic voices; but there is no voice you ought to listen to that would not be in place in the sanctuary. Any voice that could not be appropriately uttered within the shadow of the Cross of Christ is the voice of falsehood and deceit. Listen to the angels of the sanctuary, to the ministry of truth as it is exercised within the circle of the Cross, and believe me there is no wisdom that does not begin in the fear of God. We all want Wisdom of Solomon , let us "ask in faith, nothing wavering." You would not give anything yourselves to a man that wavered. First he wants that which is on the right hand, then he wants that which is on the left, and he cannot make up his mind what it is that he really does want. You would be impatient with a suppliant of that kind, and you would dismiss him, and properly so. What should be said by high heaven if we do not know what we want? First say, "Lord, teach us how to pray," and if the prayer be God"s the answer will be his and may be relied upon. We know not what to ask, but we can be taught. We ought to be taught even how to express our souls in the language of supplication and fervent desire: this also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. Here stands the lesson that ought to guide the young mind and the old evermore—that wisdom may be had for asking. But we have to take care how we ask, in whose name we ask, for what reason we ask, that prayer may be purged of selfishness, and desire kindled by the very sacrifice of the Son of God.

Prayer

Almighty God, we come now, as evermore, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, our infinite Saviour, that we may pray thee to keep with us in all the way of life, and make known unto us thy will in every time of darkness and fear. Thou hast guided us by thine eye; thou hast led us by a way that we knew not; thou hast conducted us in safety through the wilderness; and sometimes we think we have seen the green land beyond, and have caught an odour now and then as of the gardens of paradise, and these have cheered us with strange and most healthful encouragement. We know that thou art taking us to a great country; all that we see round about us means greatness, grandeur, completeness, heaven; when we have seen the seed, we have seen the tree; when we have beheld the first little budding leaf, we have seen, in prophecy, all the summer of God. We know and are confident of all this, and it makes the night short, and the day bright, and trials quite easy; it turns labour into rest, and pain into a kind of joy; continue thy ministry in our hearts, that we may know the process of heavenly discipline, and be perfected in all the graces of the holy truth. Amen.


Verses 19-27

The Word of Truth

James 1:19-27

THIS word "wherefore" leads us to inquire what the Apostle has been talking about. What was his last sentence? "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Wherefore"—but is it not a feeble "Wherefore"? Is there any vital connection between the doctrine of James 1:18 and the doctrine of James 1:19? In the18th verse we are called to the sublime doctrine of regeneration, or the new birth, the new manhood; in that verse we are reminded that God of his own will begat us with the word of truth; there we touch the point of doctrinal sublimity; this is the very crown of the work of Christ; here is the new race, here is the seed of the Second Adam: but in James 1:19 we are told that because this is so we are to be swift to hear, and slow to speak. There is no sublimity in this exhortation; these are the most elementary aspects of discipline, decency, and self-control. How can we connect the new birth with the simple act of hearing well, and speaking slowly, hesitantly, in a tone of dubiousness and uncertainty? Yet there must be some connection, because of this "Wherefore," which the critics have endeavoured to modify a little, and to set in a new angle, so as not to necessitate a distinct sequence, as if James 1:19 belonged to James 1:18. But it does. James 1:19 is elliptical. That is to say, it leaves out something which the spiritual understanding can easily supply. If James was not an elliptical writer, he yet wrote so tersely, he packed his sentences so closely, that his Epistle is about the longest letter to be found in the New Testament,—not longest in point of number of words, but boundless, endless, in suggestion, in that glimpse power by which a man skims over all the hills to see the lands that roll and fructify in faraway horizons. Let us fill up James 1:19 in the spirit of James 1:18 :—Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear this word—the word of truth by which we are begotten: let him listen with his soul, for the music never ceases; let him be slow to speak, let him keep his opinions a long time until they mellow and ripen, and become sound doctrine, and really seized hold of by the heart, and kept and treasured as the very word of God: do not let him begin too soon to talk, to chatter, to join in the general theological fray, and to speak words he has only heard by the outward ear, and that have not yet got a thorough housing in his heart, his confidence, his love; and especially let us be slow to wrath, and keep ourselves out of those little fuming controversies in which bigots almost frizzle themselves to death, thinking that if they get angry the universe will be kept from tilting over. It is not an exhortation to listen with the outward ear, or an exhortation to speak slowly, or to wait until everybody else has spoken; the injunction directs itself wholly to the word of truth in the18th verse, and calls upon us to be lifelong students of the word, and when we do speak to speak with our souls" whole conviction and undivided love.

The Apostle gives a reason for the suppression of wrath. "For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." Yet we think it does. It is sometimes almost comical to see into what uncontrollable paroxysms of earnestness some people will get into about nothing; and it is instructive to notice how much emphasis is thrown away; all the minor parts of speech, the conjunctions and adverbs and prepositions, all-important in their own places, are made to carry such disproportionate burdens. Do give God some opportunity of working in his own universe. Do not fear that the Church is going down because some man leaves it, or because all men leave it. You cannot injure the Church. We have taken occasion in this People"s Bible to say that there can be no weak Church, there can be no poor Church. We betray our own worldliness, and narrowness of outlook, and dimness and obscurity of vision, by talking of Christ"s Church as in some cases very poor, very weak. Never! Blessed be God, there can be no weak Church; thrice blessed be God, there can be no poor Church. The moment men begin to attach these limiting and patronising adjectives to the word "Church" they fall from heaven, they are no longer stars of the morning. Given two poor creatures that have not a shilling between them who yet truly love Christ, and live in fellowship with him, and they are neither weak nor poor; but the moment they get the idea that they are a weak Church, they are so far lost; then they go a-begging. Let the word "Church" tower out above all words that would limit and define and qualify it. The Church is but another aspect of Christ. His poverty was an element of his influence. But the wrath of man comes to play precisely where we open a way for it by the use of such words as weak and poor. Stand still, and see the salvation of God. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree: yet"—and say was ever satire so finished, so complete—"he passed away, and lo he was not; yea, I sought him, and he could not be found." So shall it be with all the enemies of the Cross, with all the assailants of the kingdom of heaven, concerning Christ, as concerning his type, it shall be said, "His enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish." Nothing depends upon our anger. Is it worth while getting angry with an atheist? Is it really equal to the occasion, looking at its sublimity and at all its higher indications and uses, for a whole Christian community to be boiling with unutterable rage because the heathen have imagined a vain thing? Peace is an element in our power. Faith is quietness, profound belief is repose: if thou, poor fussy Prayer of Manasseh , if thou wilt go out to shore up God"s kingdom, take care lest thine anger destroy thine own character. The wrath of man can contribute nothing to the righteousness of God. Let God have space to work, and when you are tempted to get up and be very indignant, do pray, in the name of history and prophecy, sit down.

How then are we to proceed? Has the Apostle left the word of God? No; he continues the same doctrine in James 1:21 :—

"Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls." ( James 1:21)

James is as strong upon the "word" as John is. They may be holding out that expression so as to catch different aspects of it, but it is still the word—the word eternal, or the word incarnated, or the word written, or the word spoken: but still the word; the word of truth, the engrafted word. But we can do nothing with this word until we ourselves are clean. We cannot take God"s kingdom into our souls along a path that has been unprepared for its coming and its progress. "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare." So here we have a negative work to do, which is in reality a work of preparation; we must get rid of all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness. Who can hear, if his ears are filled with wax? We must prepare the ear for hearing, lest it can only catch some distant rumble as of inarticulate thunder, and not finer, tenderer, minor music, that whispers its way into the listening and eager heart. We cannot receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save our souls, if we have come to it in the abundance of our prosperity, and in the self-gratulation of our progress, saying, We are men in authority, and can say to this Prayer of Manasseh , Go, and he goeth: and to that Prayer of Manasseh , Come, and he cometh: and we have all things, and are fat with prosperity. Even that disables a man from hearing God"s word: but when it is more than ostentation, when it is downright filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, God will not house with the devil. We should have been better students if we had been better men; we should have known more of God, if we had known less of the enemy by way of consort and co-operation. If we had loved pureness we should by this time have been almost in heaven:—"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Then we have come to meekness, having left wrath. "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God," but meekness receiveth the engrafted word:—"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth": they shall have everything they want, they shall have everything that is good for them; their meekness will deplete their prayers of selfishness, and their very humility of soul will make them rich with God"s favours. Yea, there is a filthiness and superfluity of criticism that can get nothing out of God"s book: the heart does not proceed in the right way, or does not work in the right atmosphere, or is altogether embarrassed and mocked by the medium whom it has chosen. A broken heart can understand every part of the Bible; tears can silt down through all the rocks of difficulty; the contrite soul sees round all the long words without being able to explain them, and knows the coming of God by a sound in the top of the trees, or by some new stirring in the air that has music in it, and celestial fragrance. O Prayer of Manasseh , put down the wrath of thine head, thy fine criticism, and selfish bigotry, and thy ecclesiastical foolery, and be meek, simple, broken-hearted, and read thy Bible on thy knees, and write out what thou wilt of words about the Bible for the people in secret prayer and heart-brokenness; and whilst men cannot tell the beginning of thy influence, or trace its way, or indicate its termination, what then? This is the power of God. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that wields the mysterious influence of heaven.

Here is the great condition for study; here is the sublimest motto for the college. Lay aside all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness—all ambition, ostentation, all intellectual pride, and all spiritual vanity; and sit down meekly, contritely, penitently, and receive. We are so fond of giving in this direction, and suggesting, and taking part in the process; we are so disinclined to be simply negative, receptive, passive; yet this is the only condition in which we can receive the veriest riches of Christ.

"But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty" ( James 1:25). That is easily done? No. Many men look into the Bible and see nothing; because the Bible will not yield its riches of wisdom and suggestion to the merely casual observer, who says he will glance at it, he will look into it, he will bestow some attention upon it. That is not the meaning of James. Looking into, in this case, means two things: first it means stooping; then it means the attitude of peering, intent looking, never taking the eyes off. You thought it was a casual glance, a "looking in" as we use the expression in familiar conversation: whereas it means the stoop of prayer, the penetrating, peering look that says in its very attitude, I am expecting something, it will come presently; do not disturb me: if I turn my eyes away for one moment I may miss it; do not distract me. All language is pictorial. When the great dictionary is written it will be a dictionary of pictures; there need not be much letter-press. At first, of course, words had to be made and remade, and they were fashioned on the pictorial idea; so here we have a man looking—peering ought to be the word—"for whosoever peereth." Have we ever peered into God"s Book? We have the same idea in this expression—"into which things the angels desire to peer." They do not glance at them in the course of some flight to distant regions, paying but casual attention to some transient mystery, but they look with all their might; all their nature becomes a faculty of vision. The true hearer in the Church is listening with every part of his body. He will not know until the process is over how his hands are clinging, clinching, and in what attitude he has been sitting the last half-hour; because his soul has been peering, has been on the outlook, on the watchtower; has been saying to itself, "If I look closely I shall see the beauty of the King." So the Apostle is still on the same subject. We are not dealing with "swift to hear, slow to speak," in the commonplace sense of those terms: the Apostle still fixes his mind on the word of God, called in the25th verse "the perfect law of liberty."

"And continueth therein." The word "therein" in our version is written in italics, we may therefore strike it out, and read: "and continueth"—in the perfect law of liberty? No. Continueth in what?—in peering, in looking, in directing to God"s testimony a penetrating and undivided look. You have missed much in the Bible because you were not looking just then; you lost one sentence in the discourse, and therefore you lost the whole; you missed the opening prayer, therefore the rest of the service was an embarrassment or a mystery. Blessed is that servant who begins at the beginning, and holds on, persists, continues, peers. Let there be no wavering. "He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double-minded Prayer of Manasseh ," or a man whose mind is trying to do two things at the same time, "is unstable in all his ways." Ministers cannot pick off their sermons from the Bible by an easy effort: they must peer, and piercingly look, and continue, and when we say, Where are they now? the answer must be—Continuing. What are they now doing?—Continuing. What is their relation to the Bible?—A relation of peering, keen looking, expectant watchfulness: for they know not in what verse they shall find their Lord next: he may flash out upon them in Genesis , in Nehemiah; he may not be singing so sweetly in the Psalm as in some unfamiliar book; it may be Habakkuk , not David, that shall be chosen by the Lord for the utterance of his ineffable music. Continuous looking, peering, watching; for at such an hour as ye think not your Lord may shine from any verse, and prove the inspiration of the whole by the glory of the part. "... law of liberty": is this a contradiction in terms? No; it is the perfection of philosophy. There is no liberty without law, and there is no law that does not wisely provide for liberty, consulting the dignity of the subject, giving him opportunity for development, and for the exercise of self-control, and for the display of those moral dignities which separate man from all other parts of creation, There is a freedom that is licentiousness; it is a mere superfluity of naughtiness, it is a species of intellectual filthiness. The stars have no freedom except in their obedience to their central fires: related to the dominant suns let them swing like censers before the altar of God"s throne; but if they detach themselves and go to seek liberty they shall find it under the name of ruin. We have a Bible, and we must abide by it; we have a doctrine, and we must understand it with the heart, and exemplify it in the life; we have a glorious liberty—"If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed"; this can only be understood by long experience.

...Not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the word (or work)." The Apostle says, "Meditate on these things." How often is that word "meditate" in that connection wholly misunderstood! We quote in connection with that, that Isaac went into the field at eventide to meditate; we think of Hervey"s Meditations among the Tombs; we think to meditate means a kind of exclusion of all outward objects, and the fastening of the soul in devout attention upon some profound or metaphysical truth, or dwelling sentimentally upon some blessed aspect of the Gospel; there is a meditation that may take that form of exercise: but that is not the "Meditate on these things" of the Apostle. It should be quite another word in English, if we are to get the Apostle"s real meaning. It Isaiah , Practise these things: get them into action, test them in conduct, take them down into the market-place, and see how they wear there; bring them out into the battlefield, and see what weapons they make; put them into the fire of experience and try them: meditate on these things; open your eyes, see what the world Isaiah , what the world wants; take these things down to the world, and practise the Gospel. What can he do who looks upon a game of skill, and says, I am meditating on this, in the hope that I may be able some day to play the game with some degree of skill? He had better go down and take a hand in the game—meditate, practise. How instructive is the case of the man who stands at the water"s edge and says, I am meditating upon the ocean with a view to being able some day to swim in it: how long will a man have to meditate with his clothes on before he can learn to swim? The Apostle says, Practise: plunge in, stretch out, trust the ocean as you trusted your nurse; the old ocean can be rough, but oh, it can caress you like a mother, if you commit yourself to it in the right way; and that you will never do by standing upon a rock hundreds of feet high, and meditating. This is how many persons are trying to be religious: they are entertaining every day to tea about twelve different honest doubters; and they are holding conversation over their steaming cups, and talking all manner of unimaginable nonsense to one another. Why do they not go out and practise the gospel?—teach the ignorant, lead the blind, help the poor, bless the friendless? Why do they not carry the gospel into conduct? Then they will learn its deeper truths more certainly. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this" very thing, practised religion—"To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." Practise these things; go amongst the very poorest of the poor, and hear their tuneful talk; yes, there is music even in the utterance of their rough experiences. I have often been thrilled by some magician in the use of words, I have felt the power of his spell, and have owned the regnancy of his mind, but never have I been so deeply, thoroughly, blessedly moved, as when some poor dear old mother has been taking the tear out of her eye with the corner of her apron, and telling me what the Lord had done for her when she was left without any help but his own. If any man will follow Christianity down into the market-place and the hospital and the battlefield, and the wear and tear of life, he will see that the chiefest of the miracles of God are being wrought in the world at this moment. The age of miracles past? That golden age is dawning!


Verse 27

Practical Religion

James 1:27

The word "religion" here means religious service. Not religious doctrine, not religious profession of a merely nominal kind; but religious service, activity, conduct. This rendering of the text does not do away with faith, theology, doctrine, or spiritual conviction of any kind; the text is not speaking about that line of things at all. We want a ritual, a ceremonial, a code of action: Very good, says James; if you want that, here it Isaiah ,—pure ritual, pure religious service, real, honest, useful religious conduct is this. How many persons there are blessed or unblessed with aesthetic taste in religious ritual! What a marvellous study the religious antics of some men afford! They like a splendid service. James the Apostle says, So be it; here is the splendid service, without trumpet or drum or clash of metal, without colour or pomp or studied attitude, here it is: make room at the table for the orphans, gladden by your presence and assistance the houses that have been desolated by death,—pure religious service is this. Yet how to get rid of that little imp of æstheticism, the bowing and beckoning and posturing and rising and falling and intoning, and only omniscience knows what besides! James looks on and says, You think you are religious—pure religious service does not lie along that line at all: the orphans are round about the synagogue hungry and thirsty, or shivering with cold; pure religious service is to make room for them. That is not æstheticism, that does not lie along the genius of flowers and other emblems of nothing. But James is nothing if not practical; he is nothing if not stern, downright real, almost commercial. In James" church we seem to hear the clash of the scales as they go down upon its counter, and we hear his own voice, so clear and definite in tone, saying, We are wanting, we must have more, this will never do: you are weighed in the balance and found lacking. But we were very aesthetic; we took the Lord"s Supper upon an empty stomach; we always looked towards the east when we were doing certain things, and toward the west when we were not doing them; we always perfumed the air of the church; we always went in at one door and came out by another: does that stand for nothing? Nothing! Pure religious service, real, downright, honest piety is this, To destroy the hunger of your neighbourhood, and make the desolate sing for joy. We have always been hard upon the Unitarians; we have expelled people from the church for not pronouncing "Shibboleth" with a good emphasis on the h; if any man omitted the h we simply turned him out of church: our motto was, Sound doctrine: does that go for nothing? Nothing! That is not pure religious service. Of course, if James was mistaken, there is an end of the matter; if James had no right to speak on the subject, why quote his text at all? why not override him, or depose him, or ignore him, or forget him? If James has any status in the Church at all, he says that pure religious service, the right programme, is this: "To visit the fatherless," literally the orphan. You should increase your family by feeding the orphans; you should enlarge your service by looking out for real poverty and calling it to your hospitality; you should say Whom can I make happy this day? where can I disperse the cloud, or mitigate the storm, or lighten the weight of the burden? what blind folk can I lead across the thoroughfare, that they be not overrun or injured? where can I invest my soul"s truest love of Prayer of Manasseh , because truest love of God? And although you do not know the language of flowers, although you do not know the language of emblems at all, yet you will be regarded in the heavens as having rendered a pure religious service.

But this is very legal; and there are persons who would die rather than be legal in piety. They have a prejudice against that word "legal," principally arising, as nearly every prejudice does, from not knowing what it means. There is nothing so difficult to get rid of as ignorance. Ignorance dies hard. You cut it in two, but still both the pieces begin to wriggle; you have only two worms instead of one. You cut ignorance up syllable by syllable, but every syllable lives, and comes back and sets up a little house of its own. Ignorance is not dispersed by intelligence, paradoxical as that statement may seem to be. A man may know better, and yet retain his ignorance in the form of a prejudice. If you push him and test him intellectually, he will say at the last, I acknowledge that to be so in fact: but what I feel is this. Then he will tell you the action of some deadly superstition upon his soul. The last enemy which shall be destroyed in the Church is superstition. Many persons are afraid of good conduct, lest it should take somewhat from the honour of Christ: on the contrary, I look upon Jesus Christ as the fountain and inspiration of all good conduct. Wherever I find really good conduct, I find Jesus Christ; I say, No man can call Jesus the Lord, and no man can do the works of Jesus, but by the spirit of Jesus, although he may not know it. I will not admit that man can make any other than a waxen flower. Let me find a real flower anywhere, and I will call it a child of the sun; let me find a waxen flower anywhere, and I will say, You keep out of the sun"s way, the sun is your enemy, he will kill you with his burning look. There is a morality that is not moral, that we do not praise or even civilly recognise; we denounce it as semblance, hypocrisy: but wherever there is a real morality, a true manner of the soul, a genuine attitude of reverence, worship and aspiration, resulting in beneficence of conduct, we say, This is the garden of Christ, this is a section of Calvary. It is interesting to watch all those persons who are afraid that if they behave too well they will take somewhat from the honour of Jesus. That is an immoral state of mind; our object should always to be to create under the action of the Divine Spirit a simple, massive, noble character.

How is that character to be cultivated? By acts of service. How is a man to be strong enough to stand upright? By stooping down a great deal. The gospel always proceeds after such methods, saying, If a man would save his life, he must lose it; if a man would serve Christ, he must take up his Cross and follow him; if a man would be really dignified, he must be graciously condescending; if any man would be truly religious he must have a large household of orphans and desolate lives. Perhaps there are some who do not understand such doctrine; in a sense I am not sorry for it, in another sense I regret it very much. If the understanding of metaphysics would interfere with the operation of charity, I should regret that understanding unspeakably: it any man should be so taken up with the metaphysics of Christianity as to neglect its morals, I should describe that man as acting foolishly and suicidally. There are persons who do not know the meaning of the word "metaphysics," but they will not be kept out of heaven on that ground. I am not sure that it is a word worth knowing. The metaphysicians have never been a very lovely or united family: one generation goeth and another generation of metaphysicians cometh, and when the next generation comes it begins to denounce the one that is gone. One longheaded, shrewd, farsighted metaphysician has settled everything and published a book upon it; another metaphysician has arisen and torn him all to pieces, and wondered how in the inscrutable providence of God such a man was ever permitted to live; and no sooner has that boaster uttered his gasconade than there rises up immediately behind him another, and he takes him by the neck and shakes him over the pit of his own ruin. So that, on the whole, I am not extremely careful that men should trouble about metaphysicians and metaphysics until the orphans are all fed, and the sore in heart are all healed, and the last shadow has been chased away from the house and the life; then you can begin what is not worth beginning. Pity the man who is so anxious about doctrine that he absolutely forgets the matter of practice. If any man who commits himself to a holy life ignores the existence of doctrine, then he ignores himself. Doctrine, in some form or under some initial aspect or ministry, exists behind everything else: thought first, then word, then deed; that is the succession of action, not in metaphysics only, but in practical life.

Have you ever helped a really poor man? Then you have prayed; you are not an atheist although you thought you were one, you are not even an agnostic, though you had quite an inclination towards that new Greek formation. You have become almost tired of the old Greek "Atheist," because that word had acquired a bad reputation morally; but "Agnostic" was a sort of clean rag, and you thought you might flutter that as if it bore a strange device. But if you have been feeding orphans, you are not even agnostics, you are Christians. Jesus went about doing good, always doing good. He took up little children in his arms; when he set them down again there were men and women, kings and queens. He broke bread, and multiplied it as he gave it away. He never sent anybody from himself to buy or get anything; he had everything in his own soul and in his own gift. Christianity covers a very wide area of life; we may have thought it only covered a point or two here and there, whereas it covers the whole space of being, so that if a man shall dry a tear from the eyes of sorrow the angels shall say, Behold he prayeth! That is not the end, that is but the beginning, but with such a beginning a glorious end must eventuate, it cannot be kept back long; no man can do these works except the Father be in him and with him, and the very doing of these works will lead on and on until the worker clasps the Christ and says, What is all I have done to this work of thine, thou bleeding Son of God, Priest of the universe?

James is very moral, he is quite a schoolmaster in discipline. He is indeed the martinet of the Church. He will not allow a man to be cleanly on the whole, saying, Taking life as it goes, and looking upon the average of things, I think you may be allowed to pass. He takes up the garment, and looks at it through a microscope,—and what an enemy that microscope is to everything that wants to hide itself! When we go back to James and say, We have fed a hundred orphans to-day, and called at places that death had emptied, and kindled a fire on the cold hearthstone in every instance, now may not we go to heaven? he says, No, let me look at your garments. Oh, that demand! There are plenty of kind-hearted souls, naturally impulsive in the right direction, who would feed any number of orphans if you would not look too critically into their lives. May we not hold the garment a little distance off and say, There, who can find fault with that? is it not right? James says, It is not for you to hold the garment, I must hold it in the name of the Judges , and I will tell you, after due criticism tomorrow, precisely the condition of the robe. You thought from the beginning of this exposition that the whole matter was going to resolve itself into one of charity, as who should say, There are orphans: here is bread; I can spare it, therefore take it. No man can be charitable in giving that which he can spare; love does not begin so long as you can "spare" it. It is when the man says, I cannot very well spare this, but I cannot keep it back from him who loved me and gave himself for me,—that is charity. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity vaunteth not itself, doth not behave itself unseemly, is not puffed up... charity never faileth." Charity does everything but fail. Charity is sometimes mistaken for lunacy; charity is sometimes mistaken for simple exaggeration; and there have been some men who have called it ostentatious—bad men, who see themselves in everything as in a looking-glass, doubling their hideousness or giving some new aspect to their perversity.

But now we have come to a section of the thought which means travail, almost punishment Here is spiritual judgment; here is a criticism of motive. Who can put his motive into the fire and wait until it drops out and take it up again, saying, Behold the fire hath found no dross in this inspiration? In proportion as we are pressed along this direction do we need everything that is evangelical. It is at this point the gospel comes in to supply all our lack. We say to the Apostle, representing the true Judges , Why not acquit us at the point of having visited the orphan and the widows in their affliction? can we not be spared the remainder of the trial? The Apostle says, No: now the garment must be searched, and the searcher must look for spots. Who can stand? Not one.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on James 1:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/james-1.html. 1885-95.

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Saturday, December 7th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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