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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
James 5

 

 

Verses 1-20

Curious Identifications

James 5:11

Let us notice how very curiously, and in some cases how very eccentrically and frivolously, some men are identified in Holy Scripture. The texts might be a hundred in number: one will do to start with—"Ye have heard of the patience of Job." Thus we hear of men in little points, striking aspects, wise or silly anecdotes. Who knows anything about Job , except his patience? Who can quote any argument of the great sufferer? Who can recite his curse upon his birthday? Who knows how many chapters there are in the book of Job? Yet there is hardly a child in the world attached in any way to a Christian home or a Christian school who has not heard of the patience of Job. You never hear the whole man discussed. You never hear a whole sermon quoted, but some odd sentence, some little unhappy or infelicitous phrase into which the speaker may have been momentarily betrayed; but the whole genius of the discourse, the picture, the apocalypse, the miracle of thinking and the miracle of expression, these are never referred to. Some little curious sentence determines the man"s reputation. "Ye have heard of the patience of Job." Can you prove it? When was Job patient? Was his patience a mere rumour? When did the Lord say to the patriarch, Job , you have been very patient under all this harrowing? When did Job ever pretend to be patient? Cannot more petulant, rasping, whining expressions be quoted from Job than from any man who ever lived?

"Ye have heard------" But we have heard so many things that are not true. When will men give over believing a single word they hear that is really not good, beautiful, musical, and divine? Thousands of years have not taken out of us the devil that wants to hear everything that is vicious and debasing. We have classified the great heroes of Bible history, so that now we have the whole of them in a kind of question and answer form. Thus:—Who was the meekest man? Moses. Who was the most patient man? Job. Who was the strongest man? Samson. Who was the wisest man? Solomon. No grasp of the whole character. What do you know about Jeremiah? Listen:—I have heard him called the weeping prophet. Exactly: and therein you have done the man infinite injustice. He could fly as high as Ezekiel , he could burn like Isaiah , and he could cry like a fountain. But all you have heard of him is that he is a weeping prophet. When shall we give over indicating or identifying men by little points, small peculiarities, frivolous idiosyncrasies? When shall we come to do them such justice as to grasp the whole unit and say, Here is a man of a many elements, personalities, and virtues; manifold, interplaying, mysterious music; complicated yet beautiful as light.

Some men can be struck oft in this frivolous one-sentenced way. Thus ( Deuteronomy 3:11)—"Og." What Og was this? This Og:—"Behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? Nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man." That is all! Some men can therefore thus be indicated superficially because they are superficial: they have a large collection of autographs—Oh! that is the man you mean? Yes. What more about him? Nothing. He is the man who has a large collection of insects. Is that all? Yes. Then pass on to the next character! Sometimes a man is known by his mere physical contour, peculiarity, strength, way of walking, his gait. One such man there was at Gath, "where was a man of great stature, whose fingers and toes were four-and-twenty, six on each hand, and six on each foot,"—and that is an end of him. The man could not help it. He fixed neither his stature, nor the number of his fingers and toes; but they were the making of him in history. Nothing more do we know about him, except that he was "the son of a giant." This peculiarity of stature, and perhaps multiplication of digits, ran in the family. That is all. "Ye have heard of the patience of Job"; you have heard of Og"s bedstead; you have heard of the giant of Gath with the four-and-twenty fingers and toes: you have heard nothing of any of these men,—unless it be in the later cases we have heard all there is to be known about them, in which case the instances are pitiful. Sometimes the Lord Jesus described men in a way that has a smile almost as broad as a laugh between the lines. "There was a certain rich Prayer of Manasseh ," said Hebrews , "clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day." You cannot add a word to that. You cannot imagine a more complete representation of gilded debasement, decorated degradation. Oh, how heartbreaking! that a man should be known as rich, clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day!

Let us now come into another class of identifications, where the air is purer, where the light is the blessing of a summer day. There was a man called Caiaphas; but this name is not an uncommon one in the period and in the race to which he belonged. Which Caiaphas therefore was it? Now comes the point of identification, the descriptive clause:—"Now Caiaphas was Hebrews , which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people." Here is a man associated with a great idea. We know nothing of his stature, of his fingers, toes, bedstead, clothing; he stands in history associated with the sublimest thought: patriotism ennobled and sanctified; theology dark with excess of light. Caiaphas did not know what he was saying. What man has ever given expression to any great idea who knew the circumference of it? Who knows where one vibration of the air ceases to palpitate? Who then can tell where one real, living, divine thought ends its issues? Talk of expounding the prophets! who can do it? The very fact that they were prophets lifts them above our exposition. We can move in their direction, we can catch a portion of their spirit, we can represent some outline of their meaning: but the prophets themselves did not know what they were thinking about or praying about; they wondered what the Spirit meant when it spoke of suffering and death and millennium, and the wolf and the lamb feeding together like friends. There are those who would insist upon knowing what Paul means. Paul did not know himself. I do not want to know what Paul means, I want to know what the Holy Ghost meant when he spake through Paul. I do not interrogate the trumpet, I interrogate the trumpeter. So with regard to this Caiaphas. He laid down the most wonderful philosophy that was ever suggested, and did not know in all its fulness and unction and pathos the evangel which he declared. One man dying for the people,—why, that is all history gathered up into one vivid sentence; that is the tragedy of life in one palpitating eager line. Who could die for the people except in symbol? Fear thou not: the Lion of the tribe of Judah hath strength to open the book, and the Son of God hath quality enough to die for the universe every day of the week.

This idea of substitution is one which I cannot explain, and which I cannot relinquish. It is to me the central idea of the atonement. You have followed my teaching but poorly, if you do not know how frequently I have said that the atonement cannot be explained. It can be felt, the eyes of the heart can see the mystery for a moment; that moment may be the moment of salvation. But the atonement is not a riddle to be guessed, it is not a proposition to be controverted; it is a fact to be received by the broken-hearted in their extremest self-disgust and self-helplessness. There are some who will not have the idea of substitution, on the ground that men are suffering for their own sins. I deny it; I join issue upon that statement; I call it, to begin with, a lie. No man is suffering for his sins, in the sense which makes suffering and sin equivalent terms. That is the vital point. A man has five thousand a year, robust health, genial spirits, rising reputation, equipages, and acres, and a score of servants answering a score of bells,—what! he suffering for his sins? It is an irony that might be laughed at, but for the grave fallacy which makes it an obvious lie. A poor Prayer of Manasseh , apparently penniless, breadless, friendless, homeless—is not he suffering for his sins? No, not necessarily. We must understand the case before we pronounce upon it. Has it come to this, then, that a man sins and suffers, and there"s an end of it? Why, doth not nature herself teach you that nothing of the kind is known in all the social mystery of life? A man may suffer for another man"s sins: how then? "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents," and yet he is blind. What about his grandparents, what about the line of heredity stretching far back through generations? The infant of seven days old is in pain—for whose sins? Then there is a law of transference, is there, or a law of sequence? You must recognise that law in the fulness of its meaning before you talk about a man suffering for his sins and therefore there is no need to punish a man for them. That is loose, foolish, blasphemous, wicked talk. Life is not so superficial and lineal and easily measured and managed as all that: life is a tragedy. How one man can die for ten thousand ages, we cannot tell: but we cannot tell why there should be ten thousand ages. We are not called upon to tell: explanation does not lie within the range of our responsibility: we have enough or germ, suggestion, initial action in our own instinct and in our own social administration to give us a hint of the possibility of a grand vicariousness, a marvellous condescension on the part of God, by which his own death in the person of his Son shall be regarded as equal to the death of all who have sinned. Moreover, we cannot tell what sin is. It is not a term in the dictionary, it is not a mere word; before you can determine the matter of suffering you must determine the range, quality, issue, and whole mystery of sin. Sin is not an offence against the magistrate, or against the law, or against some conventional standard; sin goes farther and means more, and strikes God in the heart, and thus shakes the universe. What it means in all the fulness of its significance we shall know in eternity. Meanwhile, I say of my Saviour, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him. How, why, I know not: but I feel that it being so the sinner may call upon him too, and thus be saved.

Let us relieve the agony of these considerations for a moment by turning to another instance of a remarkable reputation. The Apostle writes the word "Judas," and his very hands seem seized with paralysis,—"Judas," and in a parenthesis he says, "Not Iscariot." Blessed be God a man may be called "Judas" without being called "Iscariot." We have to save ourselves from being confounded with some people. Sometimes the names are the same, but the qualities are infinitely different. Sometimes part of the name corresponds with the abhorred appellation, but we are saved by the fact that the other part is utterly distinct from the first. "Not Iscariot,"—not the dealer in blood, not the betrayer of the Son of God, not the man who took thirty pieces of silver that he might sell his Lord; not the liar who blistered Time"s fairest cheek with the foulest kiss; not the damned! There are times when a man is bound to say that he has no connection with such and such deeds and issues.

Take another case, which shall be the last. "Mary is a name that occurs again and again in the New Testament. There were many Marys. I read thus in one case, "It was that Mary which"—listen!—"that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair,"—the best Mary but one, the best but the mother of God. The practical question Isaiah , "How do we mean to be known?" By our stature, by our curiosities, by our fine clothing and fine faring; by the utterance of sublime ideas, by the conception of noble thoughts, by the doing of deeds that would be illustrious in moral majesty if they were not overwhelming first in moral pathos? We may leave no distinctiveness. A person may so live as not to be missed. That is an appalling thought; it Isaiah , however, an indisputable fact. The persons did nothing, said nothing, suggested nothing, lived in nothing and died in nothing, went for nothing. We may leave a bad distinctiveness,—the man of evil habits, the drunken husband, the drunken father, the profane speaker, the man who never opened his mouth but to pollute the air. Or we may, blessed be God, leave a good distinctiveness. We may so live that many will miss us who were never supposed to have known us. We shed influences which we cannot follow. We can have individuality without ostentation. There is a fame of the heart, a fame of goodness, a fame of charity; there is a household glory. A man may be famous at home. The day has not begun until he comes in; the home is only a house until she who is loved appears upon the scene; the house is only furnished by the cabinet-maker, not lighted up by the genius of home, until such and such a life is realised in its holy and happy presence. How are we to be known? It is a poor fame that spreads itself over all the world but has no root at home; it is mere noise. There is nothing so contemptible as fame, if it be not rooted in conscience, in intelligence, and in appreciation at home. To be famous under his own roof, should be the ambition of every man. That lies within the power of all. If fame were a question of genius, statesmanship, production of the finest poem or the finest criticism of the day, why, that fame lies within the reach of ingenious devils; but we should covet the fame of love, the fame of household trust, the fame of the heart. Do not be known merely for little things, but never despise the things that are little. It will be a poor consequence if we are known as the most punctual people in the world, if we are known also as the most untruthful persons ever spoken to. It will be a very poor account to render at last that we were courteous beyond all that was known of civility, and yet we were oppressors of the poor and the helpless. Let us be known for sympathy, for prayerfulness, for that wondrous mystery of life which is called faith—all the five senses gathered up and consummated in a sixth called faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. We walk by faith, not by sight. Faith shall have great harvesting. Reason sows in a little measurable plot that can be cut down in a day by any hireling hand. Faith sows upon the acreage of the universe and wants eternity in which to reap the harvest.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on James 5:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/james-5.html. 1885-95.

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