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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
James 5

 

 

Verse 13

St. James, having warned his readers against worldliness, and exhorted them to humility before God, proceeds to censure the rich for their forgetfulness of their dependence upon God, their proud confidence in their worldly plans, and their arrogant boasting as if they were their own masters; he reminds them of the brevity and uncertainty of life, and exhorts them to acknowledge God in their worldly transactions, and to realize His absolute power over them. He then apostrophizes the ungodly rich, and, like an Old Testament prophet, pronounces their doom. Their riches, their garments, their gold and silver would all perish; they had accumulated treasure for the day of wrath. Especially he mentions three crying Sins which drew upon them the Divine vengeance: their injustice toward their labourers, their luxury and self-indulgence, and their oppression of the righteous.


Verse 1

James 5:1. Go to now. Whoever may be the persons referred to in the preceding paragraph, we consider that the rich who are here addressed were unbelieving and wicked men not belonging to the Christian community. Some indeed consider that they are rich Christians;(1) but the crime charged upon them of condemning and killing the just cannot be applicable to believers. Hence, Stier correctly remarks: ‘The rich men, whom St. James must here mean, are those already mentioned in chap, James 2:6-7 : those who practised violence on the disciples of Christ, the confessors of the Lord of glory, and blasphemed that good name by which they were called. To them St. James predicts, as a prophet and in the style of the old prophets, the impending judgment to which Jerusalem was doomed, the desolation of the land, and all the misery which he, like the Lord Himself, speaks of as His coming to judgment and salvation.’ It has also been disputed whether we have here a pure and unmixed denunciation of evil, or a call to repentance. Certainly there is in the words no invitation to repentance, but a mere declaration of vengeance. ‘They are mistaken,’ observes Calvin, ‘who consider that St. James here exhorts the rich to repentance. It seems to be a simple denunciation of God’s judgment, by which he meant to terrify them, without giving them any hope of pardon, for all that he says tends only to despair.’ But this must not be too absolutely assumed, for we learn in the case of Nineveh that all God’s denunciations are likewise exhortations to repentance.

ye rich men: to be taken literally, rich in worldly wealth: the same who were formerly mentioned as the oppressors of believers (James 2:6-7). The allusion is not to rich men as a class, but to the unbelieving rich. The words are applicable to all the rich who are living without God in the world; and certainly the rich are under a peculiar temptation of setting their affections upon the things of this world. Riches are too frequently an obstacle to salvation, a weight which prevents the soul soaring upwards to heaven.

weep and howl for your miseries: literally, ‘weep, howling over your miseries.’

that shall come upon you: literally, ‘that are coming upon you.’ The miseries here referred to are those which shall precede or occur at the advent of the Lord; and also, as in our Lord’s prophecy, those which occurred during the Jewish war, then close at hand, miseries which were typical of those which would occur at the advent. These miseries in the Jewish war fell heavily upon the rich. They as a class belonged to the moderate party, who, having much to lose, wished to avoid a war with the Romans, and therefore were especially persecuted by the Jewish zealots, who became the ruling party. Nor were these miseries confined to the Jews in Judea, but embraced the Jews of the dispersion—‘the twelve tribes, scattered abroad.’ There was at that time a general attack upon the Jews throughout the world. ‘St. James,’ observes Bishop Wordsworth, ‘like a Christian Jeremiah, is uttering a Divine prophecy of the woes that are coming on Jerusalem and the Jews throughout the world.’


Verse 2

James 5:2. Your riches are corrupted. We have here a description of the doom that was to befall the rich. Your riches, in which you prided yourselves, and in which you trusted, will be taken from you. Some suppose, on account of the term ‘corrupted,’ that riches in grain are to be understood, which are liable to corruption; but this is refining too much: the word ‘corrupted’ is evidently a figurative term used to denote the perishable nature of the riches. The fact is stated, in a prophetical manner, in the past tense, as having already occurred—‘your riches are corrupted,’ denoting the certain and impending nature of the calamity.

and your garments are moth-eaten. The general idea of ‘riches’ is here specialized as consisting in garments and in treasure—silver and gold. Among the Orientals garments still often constitute a considerable portion of their riches(compare Matthew 6:19; Acts 20:33).


Verse 3

James 5:3. Your gold and your silver: the other treasures in which their riches consisted.

is cankered: corroded, eaten through with rust. Literally, gold and silver do not contract rust, and hence various explanations have been given, as, for example, vessels plated with gold; but such explanations are childish: the expression may well be employed to denote the perishable nature of money.

and the rust of them shall be a witness against you: literally, ‘shall be a testimony to you.’ Some render this: the rust which you have allowed to accumulate on them from want of use shall testify against you in the judgment as an evidence of your parsimony and sinful hoarding. Thus Neander: ‘As their unused treasures of gold and silver are devoured by rust, so this will be a witness against them, their guilt being apparent from this, that what they should have used for the advantage of others, they have suffered by want of use to be corrupted.’ But such a meaning is contrary to the context: it is of the destruction of the rich that St. James here speaks, not of the evidence of their crime. Hence, then, the meaning is: the rust of them shall be a testimony to your destruction; the like destruction shall befall you which befalls your gold and silver.

and shall eat your flesh: the reference being not to the destruction of the body by care, to the corroding nature of riches, but to the infliction of the Divine judgment.

as it were fire: fire being the emblem of judgment: like fire shall the rust eat your flesh. So also we speak of the devouring fire. ‘The Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath, and the fire shall devour them’ (Psalms 21:9).

Ye have heaped treasure together. Some render this: ‘Ye have accumulated treasures of wrath for the day of judgment,’ similar to the words of St. Paul: ‘Thou treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath’ (Romans 2:5). But for this meaning the words ‘of wrath’ have to be supplied. It is best to render it: Ye have heaped together treasure for destruction; treasure which shall perish.

for, or in, the last days: not in the last days of your life; but either in the days that shall precede the coming of Christ, or in the last days of the Jewish nation, when those awful judgments threatened by the prophets and predicted by Jesus Christ will be poured out upon the unbelieving and ungodly Jews. We must not forget that it is to Jews that St. James writes; and ‘the last days’ is a Jewish expression for the age of the Messiah, and hence is fitly employed by the sacred writers to denote the end of the Jewish economy. The zealots during the Jewish war regarded it as a crime to be rich, and their insatiable avarice induced them to search into the houses of the rich, and to murder their inmates.


Verse 4

James 5:4. Now follows a statement of the sins of the rich on account of which they are punished. Three sins are mentioned—injustice, luxury, and oppression. The first sin mentioned is injustice. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud. Some connect the words ‘of you’ with ‘crieth’—‘crieth from you;’ but our version is admissible, and the more simple. In the law of Moses, it was expressly forbidden to keep back the wages of hired labourers: ‘Thou shaft not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him; the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning’ (Leviticus 19:13). And again: ‘Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy. At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee’ (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

crieth: that is, for assistance to the defrauded, or rather for vengeance on the defrauders; like as Abel’s blood crieth unto God (Genesis 4:10). Compare with this the words of Malachi, which some suppose St. James had here in view: ‘I will be a swift witness against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, saith the Lord of hosts’ (Malachi 3:5).

and the cries of them that have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. An Old Testament title of God, generally translated in our version, ‘The Lord of hosts.’(1) It is only used here in the New Testament, and is highly appropriate, as it was an expression familiar to the Jewish Christians. In Romans 9:29, it occurs as a quotation from the Prophecies of Isaiah. It is expressive of the power of God; as, being the Lord of hosts, He has all agencies at His command, and therefore is able to respond to the cries of the oppressed.


Verse 5

James 5:5. The second sin is luxury or self-indulgence. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton—revelled. The Jews at this time were especially addicted to luxury and debauchery.

ye have nourished your hearts, that is, yourselves, as in a day of slaughter. The conjunction ‘as’ is omitted in the best manuscripts. Various meanings have been given to this expression. Some suppose that it denotes a day of feasting, indicative of the luxurious living of the rich; but the omission of the particle of comparison ‘as’ is opposed to this meaning, and besides it would be a mere repetition of the previous clause. Others think that it denotes the carelessness and infatuation of these revellers; that they were like cattle which graze and feed, on the very day of their slaughter, utterly unaware of their danger; the day of slaughter being here regarded as the day of God’s vengeance. Perhaps the correct meaning is: You have nourished yourselves like fed beasts prepared for the slaughter. Thus Neander: ‘As the ox is fattened which is led to the slaughter, so have ye by your devotion to the service of your lusts, and by enjoying yourselves in all security, made yourselves ripe for the impending judgment.’


Verse 6

James 5:6. The third sin is the oppression or persecution of the righteous. Ye have condemned and killed the just, or the just one—the just man, as the word ‘just’ is in the singular. These words have been usually referred to the condemnation and execution of our Lord by the Jews.(1) He is pre-eminently the Just One; and this appears from the Acts of the Apostles to be a common appellation of our Lord in the primitive Church, and perhaps also of the Messiah among the Jews. His murder is ever represented as the crowning sin of the Jewish nation. Thus St. Peter accuses the Jews of having denied the Holy One and the Just and of killing the Prince of life (Acts 3:14); and with the same crime does the martyr Stephen charge his accusers: ‘Your fathers have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One, of whom ye have now been the betrayers and murderers’ (Acts 7:52). And so also Justin Martyr says: ‘Ye have killed the Just One, and before Him the prophets.’ But there is nothing in the context to indicate this, and the words which follow, ‘He doth not resist you,’ are adverse to this meaning: they cannot refer to the non-resistance of Christ, as the verb is not in the past, but in the present tense. Some, indeed, suppose that the words denote ‘God doth not resist you:’ that, as a punishment for their crime in killing Christ, God withdrew from them His Spirit; His Spirit no longer strove with them. But such a meaning is far-fetched. Others read it as a question: ‘And doth He, that is, God, not resist you?’ We prefer the other interpretation, that by the just one is meant just men in general, an individual being taken to represent the class. Christ was the most flagrant, but not the only example of their killing the just. Stephen fell a prey to the fury of the Jews, and many more whose names are unrecorded; and the writer of this Epistle, who also was called the Just, was afterwards an instance of the fact here stated, ‘Ye have condemned and killed the just one.’

and he, that is, Christ, if the expression, the Just One, is restricted to Him, though the present tense of the verb is somewhat opposed to this meaning; or the just man, used generally.

doth not resist you, referring either to the patience with which Christ endured His sufferings, or to the patience of just men in general. There is here a tacit reference to the vengeance of God, who adopts the cause of the just.


Verse 7

James 5:7. The connection with the preceding paragraph is obvious and direct. St. James, having pronounced the doom of the rich oppressors, now proceeds to comfort the oppressed.

Be patient: literally, ‘Be longsuffering;’ an exhortation both to forbearance toward their oppressors, and to a trustful waiting on God for deliverance. Their patience must not be short-lived, but enduring.

therefore: an inference from what precedes; seeing that there is a day of vengeance when the unbelieving and ungodly rich will be punished for their injustice, luxury, and oppression, and consequently a day of deliverance to them.

brethren. St. James having, in the spirit of an Old Testament prophet, apostrophized the ungodly rich who were outside the Church, now returns to his readers, the Jewish Christians, his brethren both in the flesh and in the spirit

unto the coming of the Lord: until this period continue to exercise longsuffering. What is wrong will then be redressed; what is evil will then be removed. The night may be dark and lonely; but the longest night comes to a close. By the Lord here is meant Christ, according to the analogy of Scripture, and the general expectation of the coming of Christ by believers (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Though St. James applies the title ‘Lord’ chiefly to God, yet he had previously applied it to Christ (James 2:1). Two different meanings have been attached to the phrase ‘coming of the Lord.’ Some understand by it the coming of Christ in spirit to destroy Jerusalem, when the Romans were employed as the instruments of His vengeance upon the unbelieving Jews, and to which reference is made in the previous verses. Others, with greater probability, understand by it His coming in person to judge the world, or what is usually termed the second advent. How far the sacred writers distinguished between the destruction of Jerusalem and the future judgment—the type and the antitype—we have no means of ascertaining. St. James, according to his usual custom, illustrates the necessity of patience by an example taken from natural life, that of the husbandman waiting for the harvest

Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. The early and latter rain are often mentioned in the Old Testament as essential for the production of the harvest: ‘I will give you the rain in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil’ (Deuteronomy 11:14). The early rain was the autumnal showers, which fell from the middle of October to the end of November, and prepared the ground for the seed. The latter rain was the spring showers, which fell in March and April, and were necessary for the ripening of the crops.


Verses 7-20

James 5:7-20. St. James concludes his Epistle with a variety of admonitions. He first exhorts his readers to patience; they are to exercise forbearance toward their oppressors and trust toward God, being comforted by the thought of the nearness of the advent of the Lord. Meanwhile they are to possess their hearts in patience; not to indulge in murmuring, discontent, and sinful censuring; but to take the prophets for examples of patient suffering; especially in the case of Job they had a remarkable example of extreme sufferings, and of a happy issue out of them. Next he cautions them against swearing; in their intercourse with one another, their simple word is to be sufficient. He then recommends to them prayer; whether they were in sorrow or in joy, they were to cultivate a devotional spirit; if in sickness, they were to send for the elders of the church, and to use those remedies which the Lord had prescribed; they were to exercise mutual confession and prayer that they might be restored; and as an instance of the efficacy of earnest prayer, be adverts to Elijah, who by prayer opened and shut the floodgates of heaven. He then concludes, and sums up his Epistle with an exhortation to aim at the conversion of the erring, holding out to them the unspeakable blessing which results from converting a sinner from the error of his ways.


Verse 8

James 5:8. Be ye also patient: as well as ‘the husbandman; in this imitate his example.

stablish your hearts: possess your souls in patience; ‘be ye stedfast and immoveable.’ ‘Not the weak, but the strong hearts are qualified to cherish patience’ (Huther). We need strength of mind to be patient; endurance is an evidence of strength.

for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh: the Lord is near; His coming to execute vengeance on your oppressors, and to reward your patience, is close at hand. ‘Lest any,’ observes Calvin, ‘should object, and say that the time of deliverance was too long delayed, he obviates this objection, and says, The Lord was at hand, or, which is the same thing, The coming of the Lord draweth nigh.’ Here, also, two different interpretations are given: some referring this phrase to Christ’s coming in spirit to destroy Jerusalem, and which was close at hand; and others referring it to His coming to judge the world—to the second advent, properly so called. We give the preference to this latter view, as the natural meaning of the words. But, it is asked, how can St. James say that Christ’s second coming draweth nigh? Some solve the difficulty by saying that it was so in the sight of God, with whom ‘one day is as a thousand years,’ and that faith enabled believers to see things as God saw them. But St. James mentions this coming for the comfort of the oppressed, and therefore he must allude to a coming in their estimation near at hand. Others refer it to the then general expectation of the Lord’s advent Believers were then taught to live in constant expectation of the coming of the Lord. This event was indeed shrouded in uncertainty, and our Lord refused to give any revelation as to its time (Acts 1:7); but it was not by the primitive Church regarded, as it is by us, as far removed into the distant future, and as wholly improbable to happen in their days, but as an occurrence which might any time take place—even before that generation had passed away. ‘The longing of the apostolic Church “hasted unto” the coming of the Lord. All Christian time appeared only as the point of transition to the eternal, and thus as something passing quickly away’ (Neander). Hence the exhortations of the sacred writers: ‘Let your moderation,’ says St. Paul, ‘be known unto all men; the Lord is at hand’ (Philippians 4:5). ‘The end of all things,’ says St. Peter, ‘is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer’ (1 Peter 4:7).


Verse 9

James 5:9. Grudge not. The Greek verb means to sigh or groan; it is here rendered ‘grudge,’ because that word in Old English signified to murmur or repine. Hence ‘murmur not;’ be not impatient. This refers not so much to the feeling of envy—‘be not envious to each other’—as to impatience and irritability of temper, which are often the effects of severe or protracted trials. It requires great grace to avoid all murmuring and petulance in suffering; especially it is a difficult attainment calmly to endure great pain; but God giveth more grace

one against another, brethren—murmuring gives rise to mutual recrimination.

lest ye be condemned, or judged. Their murmuring against their brethren led them to find fault with them, and thus to accuse them falsely; and this exposed them to the righteous judgment of God, who is the Avenger of all those who are wrongly condemned. There is here one of those manifest references in this Epistle to the Sermon on the Mount (see Introduction). The sentiment is precisely similar to the maxim of our Lord: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matthew 7:1).

Behold, the Judge standeth before the door. The near approach of the great unerring Judge should cause us to suspend our judgments. This phrase is evidently equivalent to ‘The coming of the Lord draweth nigh,’ and therefore by the Judge we are to understand Christ. Christ is at hand; He is even at the door, ready to render to every man according to his works. ‘Before the door,’ denoting the nearness of the advent. Compare Matthew 24:33 : ‘Likewise, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the door.’ In a different sense, in the Book of Revelation, but still denoting nearness, Christ is represented as before the door: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ (Revelation 3:20). St. James had previously exhorted believers to patience in the endurance of trials by the consideration of this nearness of the advent; now he warns them by the same consideration against all murmuring and rash judgment of each other.


Verse 10

James 5:10. Take, my brethren, the prophets who have spoken in the name of the Lord—namely, the Old Testament prophets, the inspired messengers of God.

for an example. It is an argument for patience in affliction that our sufferings are not peculiar, but that others have likewise suffered, especially those eminent for holiness.

of suffering affliction, or rather, simply ‘of affliction.’—and of patience; not to be weakened, as if it were a Hebraism, ‘for an example of patient affliction.’ The prophets were examples both of affliction and of patience; their afflictions were greater than ours, and therefore the patience with which they endured them was so much the more commendable and worthy of imitation. Examples of affliction are not hard to find; we have only to open our eyes, and we shall see greater sufferers than ourselves; but examples both of affliction and of patience are rarer, yet, thank God, they also may be found. We can now take for examples not only the prophets of the Old Testament, but the saints of the New; and there are a sufficient number of such to console us in our sufferings, and to encourage us to a patient confidence in God.


Verse 11

James 5:11. Behold, we count. St. James here speaks of this not as his own judgment but as the judgment of all Christians, it may be of all right-thinking men.

them happy which endure: literally, ‘blessed that endure;’ that is not merely who are in a state of suffering, but who exercise patience in their sufferings, who endure unto the end. Such are blessed: God will not leave their patience unrewarded. Here we have another reference to the Sermon on the Mount; as the sufferings to which St. James primarily alludes arose from persecution: ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you’ (Matthew 5:10; Matthew 5:12).

Ye have heard of the patience of Job. Job is here adduced as a special example; because he was the most remarkable instance both of affliction and of patience in the Old Testament. The patience of Job appears to have been a proverbial expression among the Jews; it is alluded to in the apocryphal book of Tobit (Tob_2:12). No doubt Job was frequently guilty of impatient utterances; but this is only a proof that the purest virtue is not free from blemish, and on the whole patience had with him its perfect work. This also teaches us that Job was a real person, and not a mere myth or fictitious character; for if so, an inspired writer could hardly have presented him to his readers as an example of patience. He is also mentioned in the Prophecies of Ezekiel along with Noah and Daniel (Ezekiel 14:14), who were undoubtedly real persons.

and have seen. Some manuscripts read ‘Behold, also.’

the end of the Lord. Some think that by the Lord here is meant Christ; and that by ‘the end of the Lord’ is meant His death, or the completion of His work. Christ, it is observed, the highest instance of patience, is here held out for our example. His death, founded on love and borne in patience, is the great fact which can encourage the suffering Christian to patience. But although this meaning is plausible, yet it is inadmissible, and not borne out by the context. The word here rendered ‘end’ is never in the New Testament applied to the death of Christ; and besides what St. James says was seen, namely, that ‘the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy,’ that is, that He compassionates us in our sufferings, is not the prominent lesson which Christ’s death teaches us. The obvious and natural meaning of the passage, and that which is generally adopted, is to consider that by ‘the end of the Lord’ is meant the purpose which God had in view in Job’s sufferings—the happy termination which He put to his afflictions; how the Lord restored him to more than his former prosperity (Job 42:2). The meaning of the passage then is: Consider not merely Job’s affliction and patience, but his happy issue out of all his sufferings—the design which God had in view in these sufferings, and their result in Job’s restoration.

that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy: the lesson to be learned from this example of Job. Let this proof of God’s pity and mercy comfort and support you amid all your trials.


Verse 12

James 5:12. Next follows a caution against swearing. There does not seem to be any connection between this caution and what precedes. St. James was perhaps led to it by the circumstances of his readers. But above all things, my brethren—as a caution of the highest importance

swear not. We have in the prohibition, and in the words in which it is expressed, a third manifest reference to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:34-37). The Jews, as we learn from the Gospels, were very apt to indulge in swearing on trifling occasions; and it was doubtless the continuation of this evil habit among the converted Jews that was the occasion of this prohibition of St James.

neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath. The words are precisely similar to those used by our Lord, only in a more condensed form: ‘I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool’ (Matthew 5:34-35). It is a question, which has been often discussed, whether all oaths are here forbidden. On the one hand, the words appear sufficiently universal; but, on the other hand, there are scriptural declarations which seem to prove the lawfulness of oaths (Hebrews 6:16), and there are instances of oaths having been taken by the sacred writers themselves (2 Corinthians 1:23). It has also been observed that swearing by God is neither here nor in our Lord’s words forbidden; and that, on the contrary, this is in certain cases commanded in the Old Testament. ‘Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt swear by His name’ (Deuteronomy 6:13). It would appear that what St. James has here chiefly in view is the evil custom of swearing in common conversation; but he so expresses himself that oaths among Christians should be unnecessary—a simple affirmation or negation should be sufficient. At the same time, in some cases, as in courts of judicature, an oath is not only lawful, but may be expedient and needful(Hebrews 6:16).

but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay: be content with a simple assertion. Compare Matthew 5:37.

lest ye fall into condemnation: literally, lest ye fall under judgment.


Verse 13

James 5:13. Is any afflicted? The word rendered ‘afflicted’ is a general term, denoting all kinds of affliction—sickness, pain, bereavement, disappointment, persecution. Here perhaps it specially refers to inward affliction—low spirits, in contrast to merry.

let him pray, prayer being the natural resort of the afflicted.

is any merry? that is, cheerful, in good spirits. It is the same word which St. Paul employs when he exhorts his fellow-voyagers to ‘be of good cheer’ (Acts 27:36). It literally signifies to be of good mind; hence free from care.

let him sing psalms: literally, ‘let him praise.’ The primary meaning of the word is to touch, then to touch the strings of the harp, to praise. We are not to express our cheerfulness in riotous mirth, but in praise and gratitude to God. Nor ought prayer and praise to be separated; they should be combined; our prayers should often express themselves in praise, and our praise should be a prayer. Thus Paul and Silas in prison prayed and sang praises to God (Acts 16:25); literally, ‘praying, they sang hymns to God;’ their singing of hymns was their prayer.


Verse 14

James 5:14. Is any sick among you? a particular instance of the general term ‘afflicted;’ to be taken in its literal sense, denoting ‘bodily sickness,’ and not to be spiritualized as denoting ‘spiritual trouble.’

let him call for the elders of the church: not for the aged men, but for the presbyters of the church; that is, of the congregation to which the sick man belongs. This proves that even at the early period at which St. James wrote his Epistle there was a constituted ecclesiastical government; each congregation had its presbyters.

and let them pray over him. This may denote either literally ‘over his bed,’ or ‘over him’ by the imposition of hands; or figuratively ‘with reference to him,’ that is, ‘for him.’

anointing him with oil. This anointing with oil was and still is much employed in the East as a medicinal remedy in the case of sickness, the oil used being chiefly olive oil. Thus in our Lord’s parable, the good Samaritan is represented as pouring into the wounds of the traveller oil and wine (Luke 10:34). Here, however, the anointing with oil appears to have been a religious ceremony, and to have had a symbolical meaning; it was performed by the elders of the Church in the name of the Lord. We read that the disciples, whom our Lord sent endowed with the miraculous powers of healing, ‘anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them’(Mark 6:13).

in the name of the Lord; that is, of Christ, and to be connected with ‘anointing.’ The natural meaning is, that the presbyters were to anoint the sick by the authority or command of Christ. There is certainly no mention of such an injunction, but our ignorance does not exclude the fact; and we have seen that the disciples sent out by our Lord anointed with oil. The name of Christ was the recognised vehicle for the communication of miraculous cures. Compare Acts 3:6 : ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Rise up and walk.’


Verse 15

James 5:15. And the prayer of faith. Some understand by this, prayer uttered in faith—believing prayer—confidence in God as the Hearer of prayer. Others, supposing that the reference is to those miraculous gifts of healing with which the primitive Church was endowed, understand by faith what has been called miraculous faith—a belief that one was called upon to perform a miracle—a secret impulse from God to that effect. This faith was one of those extraordinary gifts which were conferred on the primitive Christians, but which are now withdrawn from the Christian Church. ‘To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles’ (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). It would appear from Scripture that this faith must be possessed by both parties; the person who performs the miracle must be endowed with this miraculous faith; and the person on whom the miracle is wrought must have faith to be healed (Acts 14:9).

shall save the sick: here, as is evident from the context, shall recover the sick man, restore him to bodily health. There is here no reference to the salvation of the soul. The Greek verb here rendered ‘save’ is often used in the New Testament of bodily healing. It is to be observed that the recovery of the sick is not attributed to the anointing with oil, but to the prayer of faith.

and the Lord, that is, Christ, in whose name he is anointed, shall raise him up, bring him out of his sickness, raise him from his bed.

and if: some render the words ‘even if;’ but our version is admissible, and to be preferred as simpler.

he have committed sins—the sins being here regarded as the cause of his sickness. Even in the present day sickness is often occasioned by sin; but this appears to have been particularly the case in the apostolic age. Then it would appear that sickness was inflicted by God in the way of extraordinary punishment for sin. Thus it is said concerning those who profaned the Lord’s Supper among the Corinthians: ‘For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep’ (1 Corinthians 11:30). Compare also John 5:14.

they shall all be forgiven him: the removal of the sickness as the punishment of sin was a proof of its forgiveness.—Such is the exegesis of the passage; but very different interpretations have been attached to it. Of these there are three which merit consideration. The first is the opinion of the Romanists. It is from this passage chiefly that they derive their sacrament of extreme unction. The anointing with oil has a sacramental efficacy, like the sprinkling of water in baptism, or the participation of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. When a man is on the point of death he is to send for the priest, who, after hearing his confession, is to administer the communion to him, and to anoint certain portions of his body with the holy chrism in the name of the Lord, so that his sins may be forgiven him. But there is in this practice a manifest perversion of the words of the apostle. The anointing which St. James recommends has reference not so much to spiritual as to bodily healing. It was administered with the view of recovery from sickness, not, as is the practice of the Romanists, administered when, humanly speaking, all hope of recovery is gone.—A second view is to consider the anointing with oil as a mere medicinal remedy. It was generally so used throughout the East. It was enjoined to be administered in the name of the Lord, because the Divine blessing was to be implored on all occasions; and there was good hope for restoration to health resulting from the use of proper remedies, and given in answer to believing prayer. But the great objection to this view is that it is contrary to the spirit of the passage. The whole description certainly leaves the impression that this anointing was a religious service, and that the recovery of the sick was not the result of natural means, but a supernatural effect resulting from the prayer of faith. If the anointing were a mere medicinal remedy, it would have been performed by the physician rather than by the elders of the church.—We therefore give the preference to the third view, which considers that we have here a reference to the miraculous gift of healing practised in the primitive Church. We learn from the First Epistle to the Corinthians that this gift of healing was conferred by the Spirit upon many of the early Christians (1 Corinthians 12:9); and from the practice of the disciples of Christ, that they combined the anointing of oil with the exercise of this gift (Mark 6:13). Hence, then, we give the following meaning to the passage:—That the elders of the church being sent for anointed the sick man with oil in the name of Christ, and by the prayer of faith miraculously restored him to health. Oil was employed as an external symbol, in a similar manner as our Lord in His miracles sometimes made use of external signs (Mark 7:33; John 9:6). It had a sacred import among the Jews, being the emblem of consecration, and perhaps was here employed to denote that the person cured was consecrated to the Lord. Of course this miraculous gift of healing was not a permanent power to be exercised on all occasions, otherwise there would have been neither sickness nor death in the primitive Church; but it was conditioned by the will of God. Paul undoubtedly possessed and exercised the gift of healing; but still he had to leave Trophimus at Miletum sick, and he could not cure himself of the thorn in his flesh. In the performance of a miracle, then, there was a peculiar impulse of the Spirit. The great objection to the above view is that the sick man was enjoined to call not for those possessed with the gift of healing, but for the presbyters of the church. It is, however, highly probable that those would be selected as presbyters who were the most highly endowed with miraculous gifts.


Verse 16

James 5:16. Confess your faults. Here we are led especially to think on wrongs inflicted upon others—offences against the law of love; but there is no reason to limit the term to any kind of sins; it comprehends sins against God as well as against man.

one to another. On this verse chiefly do the Romanists found their doctrine of auricular confession, that it is the duty of believers to confess their sins to the priest. But for this dogma there is not the slightest foundation in this passage; the confession is to be made not to the priest, but to one another; it is a mutual confession, so that the priest should confess to the penitent, as well as the penitent to the priest.

and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. Some restrict this to bodily healing, as in the case of the sickness mentioned above. But there is no reason for this restriction; as the confession and the prayer are mutual, spiritual healing may also be included. The term, therefore, is to be taken generally, including both spiritual and bodily healing. And certainly confession has a healing efficacy. There is no burden heavier to bear than the burden of some guilty secret. Now this burden is lessened, if not removed, by confession. Confession expels sin from the soul, and restores a man to his true self; whereas secrecy retains sin, and causes a man to live a false life.

The effectual fervent prayer. The Greek word here rendered ‘effectual fervent’ has been differently translated. Literally it means energetic or operative. Some, regarding it as passive, render it ‘inwrought,’ that is, by the Holy Spirit—‘inspired prayer.’ Others render it ‘the prayer of a righteous man availeth much in its working;’(1) that is, worketh very effectually. Perhaps the word ‘fervent’ by itself, or ‘earnest,’ gives the correct meaning; the word ‘effectual’ in our version is wholly superfluous; the earnest prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Prayer, in order to prevail, must proceed from an earnest heart, and be made by a righteous man; that is, by a good, sincere, true-hearted man.


Verse 17

James 5:17. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are. An instance in the life of Elijah is given as an example of the efficacy of the earnest prayer of a righteous man. As, however, the readers might object that the example of Elijah was wholly inapplicable to ordinary men, owing to his peculiar greatness, St. James adds, ‘subject to like passions as we are. By this is not meant passionate, or liable to passion, but liable to the same human infirmities and sufferings, of the same nature as we. Compare Acts 14:15 : ‘We also are men of like passions with you.’ ‘We profit less,’ observes Calvin, ‘by the examples of the saints, because we imagine them to be half gods or heroes, who had peculiar intercourse with God; so that because they were heard, we have no confidence. In order to remove this heathen and profane superstition, James reminds us that the saints ought to be considered as having the infirmity of the flesh, so that we may learn to ascribe what they obtained from the Lord, not to their merits, but to the efficacy of prayer.’

and he prayed earnestly: literally, ‘he prayed with prayer;’ a Hebraism for ‘he prayed earnestly.’

that it might not rain. There is no mention in the Old Testament of this being a prayer of Elijah; it is there given as a prophetic announcement (1 Kings 17:1); but it is a natural inference drawn from the character of Elijah.

and it rained not on the earth; that is, on Palestine and the adjoining regions.

by the space of three years and six months. The same period is stated by our Lord (Luke 4:25). Whereas, in the Book of Kings, it is said that ‘the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year,’ namely, concerning the rain (1 Kings 18:1). But there is here no contradiction, as the third year refers to the time when Elijah repaired to the widow of Zarephath, which he did not do until the brook Chereth had dried up, and consequently some time after the famine had commenced. The period three years and six months is remarkable as being the same space of time during which the two witnesses prophesied who had power to shut heaven that it rain not in the days of their prophecy (Revelation 11:6).


Verse 18

James 5:18. And he prayed again. This, also, is not expressly mentioned in the Old Testament, but it is certainly implied. It is there said that ‘Elijah went up to the top of Carmel, and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees’ (1 Kings 18:42); that is, placed himself in the attitude of prayer.—and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.


Verse 19

James 5:19. We have in these two last verses the conclusion of the Epistle; and certainly the words form a summary of its nature, its contents, and its design. Its sole purpose was to correct the errors of the Jewish Christians, and to restore them to the truth of the Gospel.

Brethren, if any of you do err, literally, be seduced, from the truth, the truth of the Gospel, that word of truth by which they were begotten (James 1:18). Here the reference is not to a single defection, but to an alienation of the heart from the truth. The error includes false doctrine as well as false practice, although it is chiefly with the latter that this Epistle is concerned.

and one convert him—is the instrument in the hand of God of his restoration.


Verse 20

James 5:20. Let him know, as an inducement to attempt the work of restoring the erring, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way—restores him to the truth

shall save a soul from death. Here, evidently, eternal death is meant, the punishment of the condemned, the death of the soul; a death compared with which the death of the body is but a trifle; thus intimating in the strongest manner the infinite importance of the restoration of the erring.

and shall hide a multitude of sins; that is, the sins not of the person who converts, but of the person who is converted; the multitude of his sins are blotted out; his actual sins, not the possible sins which the sinner might have committed, but of which his conversion has prevented the commission. The covering of sins is a common phrase for their remission. Thus David says: ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (Psalms 32:1). And certainly to aim at the conversion of our fellow-men is a far more generous motive presented to us, than if the apostle had appealed to the personal good which such a work would confer upon ourselves in promoting our own holiness, or even to the glorious reward in a future life promised to those who have turned many unto righteousness (Daniel 12:3).

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on James 5:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/james-5.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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