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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
James 5

 

 

Verse 1

‘Come now, you rich, weep and howl,

For your miseries that are coming on you.’

James enjoins the rich to weep and howl at what is coming on them. People weeping and howling in this way is a regular Old Testament picture. The Moabites wept and howled at what was coming on them in Isaiah 15:2-3. The drunkards were to weep and howl in the coming time of judgment when the supplies of wine would dry up (Joel 1:5). Now the rich also were to weep and howl because of the miseries that were coming on them. It is a sign of total misery (in total contrast with those who rejoice because they suffer for Christ’s sake - James 1:2). Compare also Isaiah 13:6; Isaiah 14:31; Isaiah 16:7; Isaiah 23:1; Isaiah 23:14; Isaiah 65:14; Amos 8:3).

‘For your miseries that are coming on you.’ This is amplified later as, ‘Their corrosion will be for a testimony against you, and will eat your flesh as fire. You have laid up your treasure in the last days.’


Verses 1-6

Diatribe Against The Ungodly Rich (James 5:1-6).

Notice the complete contrast between the rich as described here and those who are being tested and tried in the opening words of the letter, ‘count it all joy when you enter into testing’ (James 1:2) compared with ‘weep and howl for your miseries that are coming on you’ (James 5:1). In this contrast we come to the heart of James’ letter. Those who are looking to God have much to rejoice in, while those who are friends of the world have nothing at all to rejoice in.

James has very much in mind here the unrighteous rich (in contrast with the careless rich in James 4:13) as seen in the light of the Old Testament, and his descriptions should be seen in that light, although he no doubt also drew on his experiences of what was happening in Jerusalem and Judea at that time. Certainly in the period between Jesus’ death and the destruction of Jerusalem the rich there had fleeced and ill-treated the people, as Josephus makes clear. And this was especially so in the time of the great famine and its aftermath, when many of the poor would be heavily in debt (Acts 11:28). But most vivid in his mind were the Old Testament pictures. And he points out that just as the Old Testament had declared that they will reap what they have sown, not in a good sense, but in the worst possible sense, so will it be.

He was aware that in synagogues where his words were read (for many Christian Jews still worshipped alongside other Jews) and in churches which had grown substantially among the Gentiles, there were many rich who were ignoring the teaching of Jesus and of the Old Testament. Some of them may even have claimed to be Christians. These words are addressed to all of them, for all are subject to the law written in the heart.

Analysis.

a Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming on you (James 5:1).

b Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten (James 5:2).

c Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be for a testimony against you, and will eat your flesh as fire (James 5:3 a).

d You have laid up your treasure in the last days (James 5:3 b).

c Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, cries out, and the cries of those who reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (James 5:4).

b You have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure. You have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:5).

a You have condemned, you have killed the righteous one. He does not resist you (James 5:6).

Note that in ‘a’ the rich are to have misery heaped on them, and in the parallel this is because they had heaped misery on the righteous. In ‘b’ their riches are corrupted and their clothing moth-eaten, (their riches are dying around them) and in the parallel this had occurred while they had lived delicately and taken their pleasure, when others had been dying around them. In ‘c’ the corrosion of their riches will be a testimony against them, and in the parallel the hire of their labourers will cry out against them. And centrally they should recognise that they have indeed ‘laid up their treasure’ in the last days, a treasure which is rotten and useless (for they have laid it up on earth and not in Heaven).

There is a kind of semi-poetic flavour to his words here which we may depict as follows:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl,

For your miseries that are coming on you,

Your riches are corrupted,

And your garments have become moth-eaten,

Your gold and your silver are corroded,

And their corrosion will be for a testimony against you,

And will eat your flesh as fire,

You have laid up your treasure in the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields,

Which is of you kept back by fraud cries out,

And the cries of those who reaped,

Have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth,

You have lived delicately on the earth and taken your pleasure.

You have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter,

You have condemned, you have killed the righteous one.

He does not resist (oppose) you.’


Verse 2-3

‘Your riches are corrupted,

And your garments are moth-eaten.

Your gold and your silver are corroded,

And their corrosion will be for a testimony against you,

And will eat your flesh as fire,

‘You have laid up your treasure in the last days.’

This was not, of course, literally true, although possibly partly so. Moths and corrosion wait for no man. It was rather as they were seen looking into the future. In God’s eyes it was already so. He was seeing things as they would be when their miseries came on them. All the wealth that they possessed would be marred in one way or another in such a way as to make it useless and undesirable. This contrasts with James 5:5 where they have ‘lived delicately on the earth, and taken their pleasure’. They have been used to luxury and the very best. Now they will experience the very worst. Their riches will have spoiled (the corn, oil and wine), their garments will have been eaten by moths, and their gold and silver will have corroded, because instead of doing good with it in the present, they had stored it up as treasure for the future. It would thus act as evidence of their failure to do the Father’s will. It was not the wealth itself that was evil, it was the love of it (1 Timothy 6:10) and the failure to use it properly.

Silver and gold were normal means of investment for the future, and clothing was also another form in which the wealthy stored up their wealth. Fine clothing was much valued. Joseph gave changes of clothing to his brothers (Genesis 45:22). It was for a beautiful robe from Shinar that Achan brought judgment on Israel and death both to himself and his family (Joshua 7:21). Samson offered changes of clothing to anyone who could solve his riddle (Judges 14:12). Naaman brought a gift of clothing to Elisha, the prophet of Israel, to obtain which Gehazi, his servant, sinned grievously (2 Kings 5:5; 2 Kings 5:22). Paul declared that he had coveted no man's money or clothing (Acts 20:33).

But all these things would suffer from the ravages of nature. James has in mind here the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus promised similar catastrophes (Matthew 6:19-21). But the general idea was initially based on the Old Testament, see Psalms 39:11; Isaiah 50:9; Isaiah 51:8; Lamentations 4:1; Hosea 5:12, and compare also Ezekiel 7:19.

‘And will eat your flesh as fire.’ Because it would be damning evidence at the judgment their spoiled riches will be responsible for them suffering the flames of judgment. Thus it would ‘eat their flesh as fire’. The very corrosion of their silver and gold would also corrode them.

‘You have laid up your treasure in the last days.’ This connects to the previous line indicating that they have well and truly ‘laid up their treasure in the last days’, for it will eat their flesh as fire. Jesus had told men to lay up their treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:19), but these men have foolishly laid theirs up on earth even though they knew that it was ‘the last days’. It will thus act as a judgmental fire to burn them. For Jews the coming of the Messianic Kingdom was expected and they thus considered themselves to be in the last days. For Christians the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit in overwhelming power were indications of the last days (Acts 2:17) because the Messiah had already come. And the Messiah was to bring forth both a deluge of Holy Spirit and a deluge of fire (Matthew 3:11).


Verse 4

‘Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields,

Which is of you kept back by fraud, cries out,

And the cries of those who reaped,

Have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.’

The rich were not only storing up their treasure for themselves, but they were doing it dishonestly. They were withholding the wages of those who mowed and reaped their fields, which meant that their families starved. This was something that was forbidden (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, compare Malachi 3:5). But what they had forgotten was, that while these men had no influence on the present corrupt courts, their cries had an influence in Heaven. Their cries for justice had reached the ears of God (compare Genesis 4:5; Genesis 18:20-21).

Day labourers were paid so little that they had no means of laying aside for the morrow. If they were not paid the same day their families went without. This is a constant concern of the Scriptures. "You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy.... You shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart on it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). "The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning" (Leviticus 19:13). "Do not withhold goods from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbour, `Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it', when you have it with you" (Proverbs 3:27-28). "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbour serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages" (Jeremiah 22:13). For God will judge "Those who oppress the hireling in his wages" (Malachi 3:5).

The Scriptures lay great emphasis on social justice. Amos condemns those who ‘store up violence and robbery in their strongholds’ (Amos 3:10). He attacks those who ‘trample on the poor’ while they themselves live in ‘houses of hewn stone’ and possess ‘pleasant vineyards’ (Amos 5:11). He speaks of those who, ‘trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end’, who ‘make the measure small and the cost great’, and who ‘buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes’, selling them the rag ends of the wheat. Indeed God says, "I will never forget any of their doings," (Amos 8:4-7). Isaiah warns against those who ‘join house to house and add field to field until there is no more room’ as they build up their property portfolios to the detriment of the less well off (Isaiah 5:8). And so we could go on.

‘Have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.’ The title "Lord of Sabaoth", interpreted as signifying ‘the Lord of Hosts’, that is, of the armies of both Heaven and earth and of all the heavenly bodies, or ‘Almighty God’ (LXX) for that reason (see Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 5:9; Romans 9:29; 2 Corinthians 6:18), puts an emphasis on the all-embracing omnipotence of God. Thus although those who were being oppressed had no one to look to on earth, their cries affected the most powerful Judge of all. James has very much in mind Isaiah 5:8-9 LXX which reads, ‘Woe to those who join house to house, and add field to field, that they may take away something of their neighbour’s. Will you dwell alone upon the land? For these things have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, for though many houses should be built, many and fair houses will be desolate, and there will be no inhabitants in them.’


Verse 5

‘You have lived delicately on the earth, and been wanton,

You have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter.’

The rich had already received their consolation (Luke 6:24). They have enjoyed ‘soft luxury’. They have lived in extravagance and wantonly enjoyed many pleasures of overindulgence (compare James 4:1). We can compare the rich man in Luke 16:19 who ‘was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day’ (and see Amos 6:1-6). Even at a time when many were dying around them, either as a result of the famine or as a result of violence, or even partly because they had not received their wages, the hearts of the rich continued to be nourished, and they fattened themselves up. In other words with death all around them, they have continued with their luxuries unconcerned. Alternately ‘in a day of slaughter’ may signify Judgment day so that we would then translate ‘in the face of the Day of Slaughter’ (compare Isaiah 34:6; Ezekiel 21:15).


Verse 6

‘You have condemned, you have killed the righteous one.

He is not resisting (or ‘opposing’) you.’

‘The Righteous One’ is a New Testament term for Jesus. See Acts 3:14; Acts 7:52; Acts 22:14. That does not, however, mean that we are to see this as a sudden direct reference to Jesus, although there certainly appears to be a good case for suggesting that Jesus is in mind, for James is probably recalling Peter’s sermon in which he cried out to the people in the Temple, ‘You denied the Holy and Righteous One ---and killed the Author of Life’ (Acts 3:14-15). Compare also Stephen’s words, ‘the Righteous One Whom you have now betrayed and murdered’ (Acts 7:52). James’ words are very similar, ‘You have killed the Righteous One’. What we should rather see here therefore is God’s people depicted in terms of being one with the Righteous One. The rich and powerful had killed the Righteous One, and now they had killed His people, thus ‘killing’ Him again (compare Acts 9:4). And the people, like the Messiah Himself, did not resist them. They did not think in terms of violent retaliation, but like their Master received it as from God. The phrase ‘he is not resisting you’ is a striking climax to the whole poem, bringing out the continual savage behaviour and false attitude of the rich, in stark contrast with the unresisting contentment of the poor. It took away any justification for their behaviour. It was a true picture of the churches’ response to persecution, intended to shame those who were responsible. And their very non-resistance emphasises the deserving of the rich to receive their deserts. Like their Master the righteous had said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ It was God Himself Who had determined the rich men’s destiny.


Verse 7

‘Be patiently enduring, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain.’

The idea behind ‘patience’ here is ‘patient endurance’. It does not speak of a quiet waiting, but of a standing up to the trials that face them without wavering and without retaliation. It includes the idea of ‘longsuffering’, facing up to whatever men throw at them and loving them just the same (compare the longsuffering of God - Romans 2:4; 1 Peter 3:20). He makes clear that it will not always be easy. They are thus to praise the Lord through gritted teeth under all circumstances, and are to remember that the Lord is coming. Just as the farmer does year by year when he waits for the early and late rains which will produce his hoped for harvest, sometimes with great apprehension when there appears to be a delay, so are they to wait with patient endurance for what the Lord will do. But one thing they can be sure of. One day the great day of Harvest will come (Matthew 13:41-43), and great will be their rejoicing.

In Palestine the early and late rains were usually regular, and they were vital for food production. The early rain in around September/October would soften and refresh the ground ready to receive the seed. The later rain in March/April, coming before the long hot summer, would feed the roots and make the grain flourish. (See Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Joel 2:23). But sometimes one or other did not come when expected, and so the farmer had to wait for it with patient endurance. This was therefore a reminder that the Lord’s coming, while certain, could not be tied down to a particular time. It might come on cue, or it might be delayed. But certainly there had to be a period during which the heavenly rain (Isaiah 44:1-5; Isaiah 55:10-13 and often) would fall more than once in order to prepare a harvest.


Verses 7-11

A Call To Patient Endurance In The Light Of The Lord’s Coming (James 5:7-11).

James now turns back to those who are true ‘brothers’ and exhorts them to patient endurance, and to watch their tongues, in the light of the Lord’s imminent coming. This is parallel to James 1:2-3; James 1:12 where he speaks of patient endurance and of the Crown of Life promised to all who love Him. ‘The Lord’ here clearly means ‘the Lord, Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1; James 2:1). They are to wait patiently like a farmer waits patiently for his harvest, awaiting the first initial rain which enables sowing, and the later rain which helps to ripen the grain, and are to patiently endure, being careful to watch their tongues. For they must remember that the Lord is full of pity and merciful to those who remain faithful to Him.

Analysis.

a Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord (James 5:7 a).

b Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain (James 5:7 b).

c You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5:8).

d Do not murmur, brothers, one against another, that you be not judged. Behold, the judge stands before the doors (James 5:9).

c Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of patient endurance, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (James 5:10).

b Behold, we call them blessed who endured (James 5:11 a).

a You have heard of the patient endurance of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, how that the Lord is full of pity, and merciful (James 5:11 b).

Note that in ‘a’ we have the call to patience and in the parallel the example of the patience of Job. In ‘b’ we have a ‘Behold’, and the farmer is called on to wait patiently, and in the parallel another ‘Behold’, and a pronouncement of blessing on those who wait patiently and endure. In ‘c’ they are called on to patient endurance because the coming of the Lord is at hand, and in the parallel they are to look for an example of patient endurance to those who spoke in the name of the Lord. Centrally in ‘d’ they are to watch their tongues lest they be judged, because the Judge stands at the doors.


Verse 8

‘You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.’

So they are to await the Lord’s coming with patient endurance, and establish their hearts through prayer (James 1:5-6; James 5:13), through the reading and hearing of the word (James 1:21; Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:13; 1 Peter 2:2), through doing good (James 1:22 and often; Hebrews 10:22-25) and through looking constantly to Him (Hebrews 12:1-2), so that they would be spiritually strong and enduring. There can be little doubt here that ‘the Lord’ here signifies ‘the Lord, Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1; James 2:1). It was for His coming that men were told particularly to wait.

Note the requirement to ‘establish your hearts’. Waiting for the Lord’s coming requires not just patience but preparation. Compare Luke 12:35-40).


Verse 9

‘Do not murmur, brothers, one against another, that you be not judged. Behold, the judge stands before the doors.’

But it is one thing to patiently endure external trials, it is quite another to endure the internal behaviour and attitude of various ‘brothers’. So once more James has to emphasise the need to control the tongue. They must nor murmur and complain against each other. This was clearly a constant problem in the early church, as it is in all churches. But they are to remember that they will be judged by the words that they have spoken (compare James 1:9-10; James 1:13; James 1:19; James 1:26; James 2:3; James 2:12-16; James 2:18; James 3:5-12; James 3:14; James 4:11; James 4:13; James 5:6; James 5:12; Matthew 12:36-37), and should be aware ‘the Judge stands at the door.’ This last phrase contains a regular Scriptural idea common on the lips of Jesus (see Mark 13:29; Matthew 24:33; Luke 12:36; Revelation 3:20). We are to see Jesus as ready to come at any time, so that we should be living in the light of, and in expectancy of, that coming, while at the same time recognising that His coming might be delayed (and therefore establishing ourselves). The one who ‘stands at the door’ may open the door and enter at any time. This was why the early Christians would greet each other with the words ‘Maran-atha’, ‘the Lord is at hand’ (1 Corinthians 16:14; 1 Corinthians 16:22). Indeed Peter tells us that the reason that He has not yet done so is because of His longsuffering for the world (2 Peter 3:9).

The idea of the judge standing before the door is an awesome picture. It is a picture of looming judgment, and is a reminder that all will have to give account. As we live our lives it should for all of us be with the awareness of the nearness of the Judge.

Excursus - Extract from Barclay’s commentary on James concerning the Lord’s Coming

‘We may first note that the New Testament uses three different words to describe the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

(i) The commonest is parousia, a word which has come into English as it stands. It is used in Matthew 24:3; Matthew 24:27; Matthew 24:39; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 John 2:28; 2 Peter 1:16; 2 Peter 3:4. In secular Greek this is the ordinary word for someone's presence or arrival. But it has two other usages, one of which became quite technical. It is used of the invasion of a country by an army and specially it is used of the visit of a king or a governor to a province of his empire. So, then, when this word is used of Jesus, it means that his Second Coming is the final invasion of earth by heaven and the coming of the King to receive the final submission and adoration of his subjects.

(ii) The New Testament also uses the word epiphaneia (Titus 2:13; 2 Timothy 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). In ordinary Greek this word has two special usages. It is used of the appearance of a god to his worshipper; and it is used of the accession of an emperor to the imperial power of Rome. So, then, when this word is used of Jesus, it means that his Second Coming is God appearing to his people, both to those who are waiting for him and to those who are disregarding him.

(iii) Finally the New Testament uses the word apokalupsis (1 Peter 1:7; 1 Peter 1:13). Apokalupsis in ordinary Greek means an unveiling or a laying bare; and when it is used of Jesus, it means that his Second Coming is the laying bare of the power and glory of God come upon men.

Here, then, we have a series of great pictures. The Second Coming of Jesus is the arrival of the King; it is God appearing to his people and mounting his eternal throne; it is God directing on the world the full blaze of his heavenly glory.

THE COMING OF THE KING

We may now gather up briefly the teaching of the New Testament about the Second Coming and the various uses it makes of the idea.

(i) The New Testament is clear that no man knows the day or the hour when Christ comes again. So secret, in fact, is that time that Jesus himself does not know it; it is known to God alone (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). From this basic fact one thing is clear. Human speculation about the time of the Second Coming is not only useless, it is blasphemous; for surely no man should seek to gain a knowledge which is hidden from Jesus Christ himself and resides only in the mind of God.

(ii) The one thing that the New Testament does say about the Second Coming is that it will be as sudden as the lightning and as unexpected as a thief in the night (Matthew 24:27; Matthew 24:37; Matthew 24:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). We cannot wait to get ready when it comes; we must be ready for its coming.

So, the New Testament urges certain duties upon men.

(i) They must be for ever on the watch (1 Peter 4:7). They are like servants whose master has gone away and who, not knowing when he will return, must have everything ready for his return, whether it be at morning, at midday, or at evening (Matthew 24:36-51).

(ii) Long delay must not produce despair or forgetfulness (2 Peter 3:4). God does not see time as men do. To him a thousand years are as a watch in the night and even if the years pass on, it does not mean that he has either changed or abandoned his design.

(iii) Men must use the time given them to prepare for the coming of the King. They must be sober (1 Peter 4:7). They must get to themselves holiness (1 Thessalonians 3:13). By the grace of God they must become blameless in body and in spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). They must put off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light now that the day is far spent (Romans 13:11-14). Men must use the time given them to make themselves such that they can greet the coming of the King with joy and without shame.

(iv) When that time comes, they must be found in fellowship. Peter uses the thought of the Second Coming to urge men to love and mutual hospitality (1 Peter 4:8-9). Paul commands that all things be done in love -- Maran-atha -- the Lord is at hand (1 Corinthians 16:14; 1 Corinthians 16:22). He says that our forbearance must be known to all men because the Lord is at hand (Philippians 4:5). The word translated "forbearance" is epieikes which means the spirit that is more ready to offer forgiveness than to demand justice.

The writer to the Hebrews demands mutual help, mutual Christian fellowship, mutual encouragement because the day is coming near (Hebrews 10:24-25). The New Testament is sure that in view of the Coming of Christ we must have our personal relationships right with our fellowmen. The New Testament would urge that no man ought to end a day with an unhealed breach between himself and a fellowman, lest in the night Christ should come.

(v) John uses the Second Coming as a reason for urging men to abide in Christ (1 John 2:28). Surely the best preparation for meeting Christ is to live close to him every day.

Much of the imagery attached to the Second Coming is Jewish, part of the traditional apparatus of the last things in the ancient Jewish mind. There are many things which we are not meant to take literally. But the great truth behind all the temporary pictures of the Second Coming is that this world is not purposeless but going somewhere, that there is one divine far-off event to which the whole creation moves.’

End of Excursus.


Verse 10

‘Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of patient endurance, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.’

That the church at this time were going through heavy trials is clear. While there was not necessarily persecution by the state, for that was fairly limited, there was certainly fairly regular local persecution (see Acts 8:1-3; Acts 9:1-2; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:2; Acts 14:5; Acts 14:19; Acts 14:22; Acts 16:19-24; Acts 18:12-13; Acts 19:23-29 and compare Matthew 10:17-18; Matthew 10:21-23; Matthew 10:35-36; John 15:18-21; John 16:2-4; 2 Corinthians 11:23-25; 1 Peter 4:12-13). And James himself was aware of the undercurrents of the time and would indeed in the end be martyred in such an outbreak. The church were ever warned not to expect an easy time. They were to expect tribulations (Acts 14:22). James therefore exhorts them to consider the sufferings of the true prophets who ‘spoke in the Name of the Lord’. They suffered and endured, and the early church is to do the same in His Name.

The one whose sufferings we know most about was Jeremiah. He was beaten, put in the stocks, imprisoned in a dank dungeon, tossed into a cystern, and then looked back on by the people as an encouragement in the face of their own suffering. For in their hearts they knew that what he said was true.


Verse 11

‘You have heard of the patient endurance of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, how that the Lord is full of pity, and merciful.’

James then calls on the one who was to the Jews the supreme example of patient endurance. ‘You have heard of the patient endurance of Job.’ Not even his greatest friend could have called Job ‘patient’. He endured with gritted teeth and loud protests (see the Book of Job). But the end was that the Lord was full of pity towards him, and was merciful, because he bore all that came on him and retained his full confidence in God. He had the kind of spirit which faced up to doubt, sorrow and disaster and emerged with a faith stronger than it was before, and in the midst of his trials cried out, ‘Though He may slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15).’. And the Lord understood and had compassion on him, just as He will have compassion on all His people who endure, even though they may in their weakness occasionally despair. We should note that the Jews traditionally saw Job as a prophet (see Ezekiel 14:14; Ezekiel 14:20).


Verse 12

‘But above all things, my brothers, swear not,

Neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath,

But let your yes be yes, and your no, no,

So that you do not fall under judgment.

Notice the ‘above all things’. This should warn us not to see this just as something slipped in. It rather indicates that it is central to James’ thinking. He has come to the final example of what is to be judged. By being totally open and honest, and by always speaking the truth, and by avoiding misusing divine things and dragging God down to their level, they will avoid the judgment that will face so many. It also specifically confirms the need for us to watch our tongues, and is in total contrast to the perfidy of the rich landowners. The picture of the rich landowners is of men who were willing to deceive, and lie and cheat. Having made contracts with their labourers to pay them their wages they broke them. but the true brothers are to be those who speak the truth from the heart with no exemptions, and who can totally be relied on (compare Psalms 15:4).

John would put this another way in his letters. ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness we lie and do not the truth’ (1 John 1:5-6). For to walk with God involves total openness and truth, it involves walking in the light.

‘Neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath.’ This reads as though James is abbreviating Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:34-36 with ‘any other oath’ finally summing up the detail. This is not talking about the making of an oath as a witness in an official court of law, but decrying their use in order either to confirm the truth of the words spoken, or as a device for giving that impression while leaving a loophole by which they can escape from its binding nature (something which was very prevalent in Jerusalem).

‘Let your yes be yes, and your no, no, so that you do not fall under judgment.’ What they are to ensure is that they speak truly and honestly without the need for oaths so that there will be no question of their words needing to be judged as false. Note how James has here again introduced the theme of the section which is judgment. But those people who make a great thing of oaths are in danger of dishonouring God (by referring to Him indirectly in a false manner, depending on the oath), dishonouring themselves (because they demonstrate that they are not to be trusted without an oath), or trivialising truth. The emphasis overall, however, is not on the oaths, but on the truthfulness and honesty that make oaths unnecessary. It is such who can come to God and pray in expectancy.


Verses 12-18

Final Exhortation To Prayer And Faith (James 5:12-18).

Having faced up men and women to judgment in different ways James now ends as he began by putting great emphasis on the need for faith and prayer, and openness in the fellowship, and on reminding us that prayer is effective for anyone who like Elijah had to undergo trials and testings. This parallels James 1:2-5. Only too often this part of James is read as though it was simply all about healing. But that is to degrade the narrative. It is rather all about faith and prayer and the wholeness and wellbeing of all in each fellowship. It tells us when we should pray, when we should praise, and when we will need the prayers of others.

It again reveals James’ love for the poetic, although we must not by that see it as indicating that it is not to be taken seriously. Indeed one of the purposes of Hebrew poetry was to make important instructions memorable so that they could be observed, and it actually helps to bring out the emphases. We can read it as follows:

a ‘Is any among you suffering? Let him pray.

b Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.

c Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church,

d And let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord,

e And the prayer of faith will save him who is sick,

d And the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him.

c Confess therefore your sins one to another,

b And pray one for another, that you may be made whole (healed).

a The supplication of a righteous man avails much in its working.’

Note that in ‘a’ the suffering are told to pray, and in the parallel we are told of the effectiveness of prayer. In ‘b’ we have the one who is whole and therefore able to praise, and in the parallel they are to pray for one another that they might be whole. In ‘c’ the sick are to call in the elders of the church (corporate concern), and in the parallel God’s people are to confess towards one another any faults that lie between them (corporate concern). In ‘d’ they anoint in the Name of the Lord, and in the parallel the Lord will raise them up. Centrally in ‘e’ the prayer of faith ‘saves’ (heals and obtains forgiveness for) the sick


Verse 13

‘Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.’

The second injunction concerns those who are not at present undergoing trials, and who are not burdened down by failure. They are ‘cheerful’. Life is going well for them. What must they do? They must sing praises (compare Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16; Romans 15:9). They must worship their God and express their gratitude in song.


Verse 14-15

‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him.

The third injunction concerns those who are sick. Note that this comes third in the list. Primary in the world of the spirit are those who are undergoing trial for His sake. Second are those who declare His praise. But then we come to the sick.

And what must they do? They are to call in the elders of the church. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is in order to obtain the spiritual assistance of the church through its leadership so that the oneness of the church might reach out to the sick, and so that they might receive spiritual comfort. The second is in order to call in true and reliable praying men. The third is that as duly appointed leaders they will have been given special authority in prayer by the Lord on behalf of the church for which they are responsible. The fourth is because they will be strong in faith. And these godly men are to pray over the sick person, and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. But what does the oil do’ It is a sign that they are acting in the Name of Christ (compare Mark 6:13. Jesus Himself never anointed men with oil). It is a sign that the person in question is being separated off to God. It is an indication that if they have slipped they are being restored to their dedication, and that if they have not slipped they are being rededicated to the Lord. It is bringing God into the action. And it a sign that the whole church are identifying themselves with them. This is the meaning of anointing in the Old Testament. It also in the New Testament connects with the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27). Note that the anointing with oil to heal links them with Mark 6:13 and therefore indicates that ‘the Lord’ here is ‘the Lord, Jesus Christ’. They are acting in His Name.

And what will happen then? ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick.’ The word ‘save’ means ‘make whole’. They will be made whole in soul and body. Their sickness will be healed, for ‘the Lord will raise them up’, but even more importantly their inward man will be forgiven, for ‘if they have committed any sins they will be forgiven them’. So the healing is for both body and soul. (Compare Jesus words to the man ‘borne of four’ in Mark 2:1-12, ‘your sins are forgiven you -- rise and walk’). Note the concern for the whole man. This is no indiscriminate healing. Examination will also have been made into the spiritual condition of the sick person. (But note that he is not being prepared for death, he is being prepared for being made whole).

This was written at a time when the church still expected that God would undoubtedly heal in response to believing prayer, indicating the early date of the letter. James is in no doubt that the person will be healed. But once the first ‘signs of the Spirit’ had ceased, and the church had become firmly established, healing became more a matter of waiting on the will of God. Healings still occurred but not so regularly. Similarly we pray now that God’s will may be done. Yet there is no question but that if God’s people were to act on this more, and with greater expectancy, more would be restored (even medical authorities confirm the benefit in the process of healing of believing prayer. There is no suggestion in this, however, that we should not seek medical attention, for that is one of God’s means of healing). But we must beware of those who make claims beyond what proves to be true, and must remember that Paul at least had to endure in faith, rather than be healed (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). In the end we must accept the sovereignty of God.


Verse 16

‘Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be made whole. The supplication of a righteous man avails much in its working.’

And finally we come to a general injunction that covers all: those under trial (who should be rejoicing); those who are enjoying wholesomeness and are singing God’s praises; and those who are sick and needing a touch from God. And what are they to do? They are to ‘confess their sins one to another’ (not be it noted to a special person). There is to be the expression of an air of openness in the fellowship and a walking in the light with each other (1 John 1:5-7). Any who need help or prayer, any who are conscious of a barrier that remains unremoved between themselves and God, and any who are aware of a barrier between themselves and someone else in the fellowship, may come openly to the congregation, if they have not been willing to sort it out alone with each other first, or if it has not proved possible (Matthew 18:15-17). And there all obstacles to fellowship should be removed. There in the presence of God in the fellowship all dividing barriers must be thrown down. Then they are to pray for each other that they might be made whole. The verb is used in Matthew 13:15; Luke 4:13; John 12:40; 1 Peter 2:24 (where it is through His stripes) to indicate the bringing of men and women to spiritual wholeness.

It would seem probable that James, having recognised the benefit to the sick person of the previous verse of also having his sins dealt with, had gone on to recognise its value too for the whole church. This was not an injunction to have a ‘confession session’ in which everyone was expected to confess. Nor was it a provision for priestly absolution (it is to ‘one another’). But it is to suggest that opportunity should be given for such ‘confession’, and that Christians genuinely burdened should be encouraged to participate (not necessarily in the main services in a large congregation). There is nothing worse or unspiritual than people having to think of minor peccadilloes in order to be able to confess (and at a pinch even ‘inventing some’). Or perhaps we are wrong, for there is something worse. And that is for no opportunity being given for people to genuinely put things right. Both extremes should be avoided. It is, however, an interesting fact that when genuine ‘Revival’ comes (like the Welsh Revival or the Great Awakening) such confessions of the people of God become the norm. At such times Christians are desperate to ‘put things right’.

‘Their sin.’ The word for sins is paraptoma. While the distinction must not be pressed there are indications in its use as compared with hamartia that it refers to ‘lesser sins’ (if such there can be). That use is confirmed in the secular papyri. The admission here is of ‘everyday sins’ not of the more heinous kinds of sin.

‘Made whole.’ The word here is regularly used of healing, but it is also commonly used for being spiritually made whole (see Matthew 13:15 ‘lest they turn and be made whole’; Luke 4:13 ‘heal the broken-hearted’; John 12:40, ‘and turn for Me to make them whole’; 1 Peter 2:24, ‘by His stripes we are made whole’). It should be noted that it is a different word from that in James 5:15 (and also in James 5:20) , indicating a change of emphasis. Although similar James does not appear to want the two ideas too closely connected.

Of course the prayer can include prayer for the sick, but that is not prominent in this injunction. That has already been dealt with in the previous verse. This verse is for the troubled, the untroubled and the sick alike, in order to ensure that all are spiritually whole. It is to give them the opportunity to bring their needs before the congregation so that they might be prayed for and mutually encouraged, while at the same time stirring the consciences of some who sit quietly in the background, so that they too might be made whole.

And then is added the final assurance, that their supplications will be effective, because ‘The supplication of a righteous man avails much in its working’ (RV/ASV), or ‘the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects’ (RSV). Note the assumption that they are the righteous, for they are all His sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18). And the assurance is that their prayers will be effective for that reason. But the Scripture also make clear that if we come to pray with expectancy it must be with prepared hearts. ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me’ (Psalms 66:18). The hands that will be lifted up must be ‘holy hands’ (hands set apart to God - 1 Timothy 2:8). If we would come to God we must first make sure that we are right with others (Matthew 5:23-24). But the whole is a reminder that we should indeed ‘pray one for another that we might be made whole’.


Verse 17

‘And he prayed fervently (literally ‘prayed with prayer’) that it might not rain, and it rained not on the earth for three years and six months.’

And Elijah ‘prayed with prayer’. There was no half-heartedness or superficiality or lack of purpose with him. And with his prayer he controlled the Heavens so that they produced no rain. Note the contrast with the travelling businessmen who were taken up with earthly things (James 4:13-16), and the landlords who thought only of this world’s goods (James 5:1-6), and the comparison with those brothers who wait patiently for rain, no doubt with prayer (5. 7). Here was a man who was not only a hearer of the word, but a doer (James 1:22-23; James 2:14-26), who was concerned only with the purposes of God, and who in the end would receive the Crown of Life (James 1:12), in that he was caught up into Heaven without dying.

‘It rained not on the earth for three years and six months.’ Compare Luke 4:25. This period became symbolic of any period of trial when the faithful were dominated by the powers of this world. Thus it appears again in Revelation in that guise (Revelation 11:2-3 with 6; Revelation 12:6; Revelation 13:5), where also it is connected with an Elijah-like man (Revelation 11:6). Compare also the last half of the seventieth seven in Daniel 9:27, although as Daniel pointedly makes it longer than three year and six months it makes this last comparison doubtful (Daniel 12:11-12).

Thus here was a man who underwent trial and triumphed through faith, demonstrating the power of prayer in one who believed.


Verse 17-18

The Supreme Example Of A Man Undergoing Trials Who Gained The Victory In Prayer (James 5:17-18).

James now gives the example of one man of God who endured trials and testings, and through faith came through triumphantly (compare James 1:1-5), and that was Elijah. He was but a man like us, but through prayer he sealed the Heavens so that they gave no water, and following that he prayed again and the Heavens poured forth water and the result was that the earth brought forth fruit.

Analysis

a Elijah was a man of like passions with us.

b And he prayed fervently that it might not rain.

c And it rained not on the earth for three years and six months.

b And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain.

a And the earth brought forth her fruit.

Note in ‘a’ that Elijah is closely identified with earth and with humankind, and in the parallel it is from nature and the earth that the fruit comes forth. In ‘b’ he prayed fervently and in the parallel he prayed again. Centrally in ‘c’ was the great effect of his prayer.


Verse 18

‘And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.’

And the result of his trials and his faith was that he prayed again, and the heavens produced rain (see 1 Kings 18:36-37; 1 Kings 18:41), and the earth became fruitful. He asked and it was given to him (see James 1:5 and contrast James 4:3), and the result was blessing from Heaven. James no doubt intended his readers to make the connection.

We should, however, note that Elijah’s prayer was answered because the will and purpose of God was his consuming passion. He did not pray for himself or for his own benefit. He prayed in order that God’s work might go forward. Nothing else mattered to him. That is the kind of prayer that is always effective.


Verse 19

‘And one convert him (cause him to turn round).’

It is to be the concern of every brother that if he sees one of his brothers straying, he be concerned to ‘turn him round’. They are to feed and tend the sheep. That was not to encourage them to be busybodies and intrusive in men’s lives, but in order to encourage them to prayerful and practical concern for the whole body of His people and their wellbeing (compare James 5:16). They were to watch out for each other, not critically, but prayerfully and with humility (compare Galatians 6:1-2).


Verse 19-20

A Final Word On The Importance Of The Brothers Having A Practical Concern For Each Other (James 5:19-20).

All through his letter James has been seeking to ‘convert sinners from the errors of their ways’, leading up to his final exhortation to prayer and praise in James 5:13-18. Now he passes on that responsibility to ‘my brothers’. That idea had begun in James 5:18, and the incentive that he now gives is not that they will thereby receive a reward, but that they will be doing eternal good and helping to defeat sin. As we have seen all the way through, God (James 1:17; James 2:23; James 4:4; James 5:7), peace (James 3:18) and eternal life (James 1:12; James 5:20) are to be seen as their own reward (and are indeed precisely what any ‘rewards’ will be all about).

We should not see these words as just a postscript. They are a reminder in the face of all James’ advice and exhortation throughout that his final concern was that sin might be dealt with in as many as possible so that they might be ‘covered’ before God, and they themselves be ‘delivered’ (‘saved’) by God. He was concerned with their salvation, their being ‘made whole’, and his vision was fixed on the work of his Saviour, the Lord, Jesus Christ, Who was to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Note also how in the face of this concern there is no suggestion anywhere for the need of ritual. It was sufficient that they be turned back to God. By this their sins will be ‘covered’. The Atonement is assumed, for he is confident that all his readers are aware of it. That is why they call themselves ‘Christians’. It is also a reminder that he has not been primarily concerned with writing about the way of salvation for the lost, but about the need for those who professed to be ‘saved’ to genuinely experience that salvation. His words were not so much directed at outsiders as at insiders, ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’, the new people of God (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:13-22).

Analysis.

· My brothers, if any among you err from the truth (James 5:19 a),

· And one convert him (James 5:19 b),

· Let him know, that he who converts a sinner from the error of his way (James 5:20 a).

· Will save a soul from death (James 5:20 b).

· And will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:20 c).

Note that in ‘a’ men err from the truth, and in the parallel a multitude of sins are ‘covered’. In ‘b’ one causes another to turn round, and in the parallel he saves a human being from death. And centrally in ‘c’ comes the vital purpose of turning men from the error of their ways.


Verse 20

‘And will cover a multitude of sins.’

To ‘cover’ sins is an Old Testament way of speaking of atonement and cleansing, thus his final words bring out the writer’s deep involvement in Old Testament ideas (compare Psalms 32:1; Psalms 85:2 LXX, the only other two examples where the Greek word is connected with sin, and there forgiveness, pardon and being ‘justified’ are in mind, for sin will not be imputed to them). Those who are turned round will have their sins ‘covered’ before God. They will be forgiven, pardoned and have no sin imputed to them. And the aim of God’s people is to be to bring about the covering of as many sins as possible, sins which in each person are so many that they can be described as ‘a multitude’. That is why Jesus came, to save His people from their sins’. In the words of Paul, ‘Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound’ (Romans 5:20). In these words the heart of James, and his concern for the flock, are laid bare. His aim, like His Lord’s, is that they may all be presented before God ‘holy and without blemish’, genuinely saved and with their sins forgiven. May that be our concern too.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on James 5:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/james-5.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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