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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
James 1

 

 

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Verse 1

I. THE PRIMITIVE CHRISTIAN UNDER TRIALS, James 1:1-18.

1. Trials, as conducive to firmness, are a joy, James 1:1-4.

1. James—Jacobus, the name which our English language has made Jacob in the Old Testament it has capriciously shortened to James in the New.

Servant—Note on Romans 1:1.

The twelve tribes—See note on the δωδεκαφυλον, or twelve-tribedom. Acts 26:7.

Which are scattered abroad—Literally, which are in the dispersion. 1 Peter 1:1. The dispersion was a customary term applied to that scattered condition of the twelve tribes arising from their repeated captivities. There were four chief dispersions—the Babylonian, the Egyptian, the Syrian, and the western in Greece and Italy. In John 7:35 is mentioned the dispersion of the Greeks; that is, of Jews among the Greeks, or Gentiles. Josephus says: “The race of the Jews has been plentifully dispersed among the inhabitants of the world, but the largest mingling has been in Syria.” Compare the beautiful greeting in 2 Maccabees 1:1, from the Jews of Jerusalem to the Jews in Egypt: “The brethren, the Jews that be at Jerusalem and in the land of Judea, wish unto the brethren that are throughout Egypt, health and peace.” The infant Jesus was for a brief period among the dispersion of Egypt. The two epistles of Peter are also addressed to the “dispersion.”

Yet these epistles contain nothing implying that they do not suit also to the conditions of Palestine and Jerusalem, as partaking, like the rest, in the tribal disorganization arising from the captivities and the desolations. In modern times, the dispersion of Israel, by a memorable history, has been extended to almost every part of the world.

Yet it is plain that St. James specially addresses this epistle to the Christian Israel in Israel; the twelve-tribedom in the twelve-tribedom, who had accepted Jesus Christ. If the whole dispersion of Jews is nominally, and, in some parts, directly addressed, it is because to his strong Judaic feeling all nominally belong to the Messiah, and all ought to accept his epistle as to them. Compare our notes on Matthew 10:5-6; Matthew 19:28; Acts 1:8.

Greeting—The word greeting is a single Greek word in the infinitive, signifying to rejoice, with the phrase bidding you to be supplied before it, making a salutation equivalent to our “wishing you joy.” The old Saxon word greeting signifies saluting, addressing in friendly and honorary style. See note, Acts 15:23.


Verse 2

2. Being not hearers only, but doers of the word, 22-27.


Verse 3

3. Trying—The putting to, or undergoing, the test.

Worketh—The calling our spiritual and moral power into successful action increases the power, just as the muscle is hardened by exercise. Hence the perfectness of our Christian life is much the result of time, trial, and experience.

Patience— Firmness against trial. The resisting the temptation and conquering the tempter begets hardihood and solidity. “The proof of the soldier is hard work, and not indulgence; the test of gold and silver is fire.”


Verse 4

4. Let this firm endurance have… perfect work, its completing effect, so that all temptation may be warded off, all sin avoided, a full power of resistance attained, and a complete Christian solidity be established.

Perfect—The Greek word τελειος (derived from τελος, an end) signifies one finished, or complete. Pagan Greece had her men who were said to be finished, or perfect, after the standard of pagan virtue. Says Isocrates, (quoted by Bloomfield,) “These I pronounce to be wise and perfect men, and to have all the virtues.” We say of a man of culture that he is “a finished man.” St. James accumulates epithets and phrases in asserting the finished Christian man.

Entire—The positive presence of every part requisite to completeness.

Wanting nothing—The same expressed negatively. Of St. James’s perfect man we may note: 1. He is not a sudden product, even by faith, but a growth from trial, persistence, and experience.

Herein this view varies from, perhaps, but does not contradict, St. John’s and St. Paul’s. 2. It is a practical perfection, after a human measure, realizable in this life. It should be the steady aim of every Christian. 3. It consists in a degree of spiritual and moral power, through divine aid, of resisting temptation, avoiding sin, and attaining excellence. Just so far as the Christian possesses that power, so far is he the perfect Christian. And it is not so much a “second blessing” as a consummating of the first one. 4.

Without assuming to decide whether James’s perfect man professes perfectness, we do think that the perfect man as imaged by him reveals himself to men not so much by profession as by practical life and spirit, by which others spontaneously assign him his character, and thereby ratify his profession, if he makes one.


Verse 5

2. Wisdom for such Christian perfection obtainable for all classes by faithful prayer, whether poor or rich, from a gracious God, James 1:5-11.

5. Lack wisdom—The wisdom necessary to possess and to manifest this perfection.

Ask of God—For it is the wisdom of James 3:17, that is from above. He will not attain it by human effort alone, but there is a rich and bountiful source from which it may be obtained.

Liberally—Literally, simply, in contrast with giving with the upbraiding, as follows. There are givers that insult and rebuke while they give, and whom it is an agony to approach with a request. And often those who kindly give find it wise to administer lessons of reproof. But to those who ask aright God is ready; there need not be any fear that he will refuse or give with contumely. The more we ask the better he likes us. It—The needed wisdom for the desired perfection.


Verse 6

6. In faith—The hearty and loving trust that God is ready and willing.

Nothing wavering—The measure of waver is the measure of the want of faith. And the want of faith arises from the lack of real sympathy and communion with God and real wish for the perfect life. A half wish would ask, and a half not-wish would contradict and cancel the ask; so that nothing is really asked, and the man will be quite as unsteady in his practice as in his prayer.

Wave of the sea—He is not a sailor, nor even a ship tossed on the waves; he is merely a pure wave. One wind blows this wave shoreward, and the next one drives it seaward, so that the shore is never reached. Vivid Greek epithets follow to finish the description.

Driven with the wind—A single word in Greek; winded, blast-driven.

Tossed—The Greek verb is derived from a word signifying to throw, to cast; hence, tossed or thrown by the winds.


Verse 7

7. Not… receive any thing—Why should he? He has asked and refused in perhaps equal measure, so that he has not asked. As Stier says, “The wavering beggar has not held heart and hand steady enough and long enough for God to put any thing in.” Not receive is used instead of the above not shall be given to indicate that the failure is not in the giver but in the would-be and would-not-be recipient.

Any thing—That is, of those things he has asked. Many things unasked, as life and its enjoyments, and, perhaps, many other things for which he had faith, have been given him.

The Lord—A word inherited in the Greek from the Septuagint to designate Jehovah, the God of the covenant.


Verse 8

8. A doubleminded man—Literally, a two-souled man. A piquant name for the waverer of James 1:6. To render the sarcasm with more point, some commentators, in view of the fact that is is wanting in the Greek, translate, A double-souled man, unstable in all his ways. The double-minded man is one who has two such opposite modes of thought and conduct alternately prevailing as to seem to be two different individuals at different times. He is “unlike himself.” So a young Persian explained to Cyrus his two opposite courses of conduct under different influences by saying, “I must have two souls.” The word two-souled was probably St. James’s invention, but it was so expressive as to be adopted by the early Christian writers. So the Apostolic Constitutions say, “Be not two-souled in thy prayer, as to whether it shall be fulfilled or not.” And Clement of Rome says, “Wretched are the double-souled, who divide their souls in two.”


Verse 9

9. This doublemindedness may arise, oppositely, either from one’s poverty or from one’s wealth. The poor man is averse from the gospel he approves from discontent, the rich from his pride. St. James sets the two face to face, and gives to each his due counsel.

Low degree—A poor man, a labourer, or a slave.

Exalted—As a child of God, heir of immortal hopes.

Made low—As the poor in this world’s goods finds in the gospel an exaltation, raising his thoughts above his poverty with its discontent, so the rich may find in this same gospel a humbling power, (as well as a humbling association with humble people,) enabling him to feel how transitory is all wealth, how really poor he is without a better foundation.

In this lowliness he may rejoice, or glory, for it gives him an abiding riches infinitely more valuable than this world’s fading wealth. He shall (will) pass away—That is, without the blessed being made low by the gospel.

His earthly wealth is vanishing as a fading flower under the sun-stroke. But his being made low by the gospel has brought him an immortal life, and an inheritance of an eternal patrimony. The humble poor being thus exalted, and the proud rich being humbled, both stand upon the same blessed gospel level upon which they may pray for the wisdom by which perfection may be attained. We prefer this view to the interpretation of Huther and Alford, according to which there is a contrast between the humble Christian and the wicked and withering rich man. The made low of this rich man is certainly a gospel humbleness into which the rich man is brought and may glory, as a salvation from the fate pictured in the words that follow. Even in our Saviour’s day there was a rich man to entomb him. And the other view pushes our apostle into an apparent Ebionism by which the being a rich man is in itself a sin. Note on Luke 16:19.


Verse 11

11. Now and then the rich man found this glorious lowliness and became a Christian; but the rich of St. James’s day and locality was generally a persecutor, (James 2:5,) and an oppressor, (note on James 5:1-6.) Hence in this verse, with a vividness akin to the last quoted passage, St. James paints the evanescence of the proud and oppressive millionaire. The imagery is borrowed mostly from Isaiah 40:6-8, where the fading character of our earthly humanity is described. Is—The Greek has all the verbs in this verse in the past tense, so as to make the description in fact a pictorial narrative. The sun no sooner rose… withered… fell… perished.

Burning heat—The Greek word for burning heat, καυσων, (from καιω, to burn,) often in the Septuagint designates the east wind, which, sweeping over the burning sands, brings a heat terribly scorching to all vegetation. Here it designates simply the burning power of the tropical or semi-tropical sun.

The grass—Pasturage, including all herbage, especially that supplying food for animals.

The flower—The bloom, the flourish.

Grace—Becomingness.

Fashion—Literally, face, aspect. Translate, the becomingness of its aspect.

Fade—Literally, wither; a word applicable to a flower, transferable to dying man.

Ways—Modes, plans, and purposes of life. It is to be noted that St. James here describes, not the vanishing of the riches from the man, but the vanishing of the man from his riches. Human wealth survives its possessor. Human things are often more permanent than human beings. Happy the rich man who passes from an earthly to a heavenly patrimony. He makes, perhaps, the best of both worlds. Such a man is described in the next verse.


Verse 12

3. Blessedness of enduring temptation; which (temptation) comes not from God; from whom is the good alone, James 1:12-18.

12. Blessed is the man—Whether of low degree or rich.

Endureth— Who not only suffers, undergoes, but endureth; that is, bears up against, and conquers temptation.

For—It is the most glorious of triumphs. He it is who may (James 1:2) count it all joy.

Tried—Proved true by the tempting test.

Crown of life—He becomes more than a millionaire; he receives the crown of a heavenly prince—a crown of life—from which he will never pass by death, and which will never wither from him. The phrase crown of life does not signify a crown possessed of or imbued with life; but a crown consisting of life. The life, or glorious immortality, is itself the crown.


Verse 13

13. But while the true endurance of temptation is thus a triumph and a joy, St. James utters no eulogy on temptation itself. It comes not from a divine tempter. This he denies in behalf, not of our responsibility, but of the holy honour of God. God has, indeed, made life a scene of probation. He has made us with susceptibilities to incitement to evil from finite evil agencies. But it is from the finite, and not from the holy Infinite, that the specific temptation as a purposed allurement to evil comes. God means for us a life of successful trial; the tempter means failure and ruin in the trial.

Let no man say—Rather, let no tempted one say.

I am tempted of God— Quoted in the utterer’s own words, implying that there were errorists who declared outright that we have above us an evil Infinite. Others, as Huther well remarks, disown the responsibility for wickedness, by imputing its causation to God. So in Homer’s Iliad, “But I am not the cause, but Jupiter and Fate.” And in the comic poet, Plautus, “God was the impeller to me.” And Terence, “What if some god willed this?” So the Gnostics, descending from Simon Magus, held all sins to be predestinated, and were strenuously opposed by Justin Martyr and the early Church, as thereby making God responsible for sin. Predestination, as Pressense truly says, was viewed by the early Church as a heresy. To this saying our apostle opposes a true analysis of the inward nature of our temptations and yieldings to sin.

Tempted of evil—For he knows its nature, and is in unchanging will opposed to it.

Neither tempteth he—Abraham is quoted as a case in which God tempted a man. That is only verbally true. The devil tempts us that he may bring us to evil; God tries, that he may bring us to manifest faith and triumph. It depends upon us whether we shall make it a fatal temptation or a triumphant trial and a joy. Our apostle counsels us to make it all joy, James 1:2.


Verse 14

14. We are now told how temptation does come. St. James does not here affirm a devilish tempter, nor does he deny the existence of such. He only shows how the coming temptation reaches us through our susceptibilities.

Lust—The Greek word επιθυμια is often used in the New Testament in a good sense, and derives its evil meaning from the connexion. It means the predisposition, the susceptibility, to good or evil. In itself, as an undirected, unperverted susceptibility, it is innocent of sin.

Drawn away— Or, more properly, drawn out; when his susceptibility is drawn towards the wrong.

Enticed—As a fish by the bait. The yielding of the will to the incitement commences the sin. That is, when the incitement towards evil, which in English is truly called lust, induces the volitional consent, then responsibility for actual sin commences.


Verse 15

15. ConceivedLust, by consent of will, becomes a harlot mother; she bringeth forth sin; sin, when finished by the free volition, becomes guilt, and guilt is death. Death is the grandchild of lust, or perverted susceptibility. Eternal death is the deepening and perpetuity of spiritual death.


Verse 16

16. Do not err—A solemn warning against the current doctrine of errorists, that God is the evil source of evil. Our apostle declares that God is the invariable author of good.


Verse 17

17. Literally, every good giving and every perfect gift. Both the act of giving and the gift are named, one as good and the other as perfect.

Father of lights—Physically, he is Father of the material luminaries which beam upon us from above; spiritually, he is Father of all the heavenly and blessed lights which make the world of our soul luminous, and guide us to the land of lights. Of these spiritual lights the heavenly luminaries are a symbol.

No variableness—So that he truly gives us good alone.

Shadow of turning—He has no change, no, not even the shadow of a change. The revolving shadow on the dial-face reveals to us the truth that the firmamental lights are ever revolving; but of God there is no shadow of turning.


Verse 18

18. Of his own will—That is, not by any changeful caprice or shadow of inconstancy.

Begat he us—By a regenerative begetting.

With the word of truth—The preached gospel was the external instrument by which he regenerated us.

Firstfruits—The first gatherings of the harvest were by the Hebrews gratefully consecrated to God. Hence the word firstfruits symbolically indicates pre-eminent excellence and divine consecration. We are regenerated by divine, unchanging will, through the promulgated word, that among the creatures of God we may be the consecrated and truly first in rank and value. By creation man is first among lower creatures; by regeneration and consecration the sons of God are first even among human creatures.

Kind of—That is, not literal firstfruits, but a figurative sort. This firstfruits has no reference to time; and hence cannot indicate the earlier Christian converts as compared with the later, (as Alford,) and so is no proof of the early writing of this epistle.

The immutability of God’s regenerative will is none the less conditional, and our apostle will next show how we must meet the conditions. It is by due attention to, and reception of, the regenerative word.


Verse 19

19. Wherefore—The true reading seems to be, Ye know; that is, of all this you are aware; but (Greek, δε) let every man, etc. Same ye know in Ephesians 5:5, and Hebrews 12:17. In view of the fact that it is by the word of truth that we are regenerated into firstfruits, let us give careful heed to that word. And so our attention to that word with candour, (James 1:14-21,) practical obedience, (22-25,) and self-control, (26,) is discussed until we arrive at pure religion, James 1:27.

Let—An exhortation to a candid, unvociferous, unexcited hearing of the word of truth.

Swift… slow—A frequent antithesis among Greek writers to express readiness and averseness. The importance and brief opportunity of the truth demand quick and earnest listening. It is too valuable to be slighted, and tomorrow may be too late.

Slow to speak—Without hasty and captious interruptions; such as the Christian preacher, as St. Paul, often encountered from unbelieving auditors. The old philosophers said, that men have but one tongue and two ears, and so should speak little and hear much. Wrath is the disputant’s angry excitement against the truth. He first is rash to speak, and then warms as he talks into wrath. The wrath here spoken of is that not of promulgators of the truth, but of cavilling hearers, to whom it is offered. Hence they are, next verse, exhorted to receive the word. For this epistle is addressed to the twelve tribes—not only those who are Christians, but those who should be so.


Verses 19-21

II. WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN SYNAGOGUE: THE PROPER TEMPER, BEHAVIOUR, AND FAITH THERE, James 1:19 to James 3:18.

1. No loquacity nor irritation, but candid hearing, James 1:19-21.

To understand the emphasis laid by St. James in the rest of this chapter on moderation of language and candid listening, we must conceive something of a picture of discussions in the Synagogues, (see note on James 2:2,) in which replies of cavillers could interrupt the Christian preacher, 1 Corinthians 14:27-33. The epistle, in its address, comprehends not only Christian Jews, but all Jews inclined to read and listen, and hence the importance of impressing the whole with the necessity of decency, candour, and readiness in a spirit of meekness to receive the word of the gospel. Inquirers must calmly listen, they must learn in order to practice; but especially must they bridle the tongue, or else the pretences and attempts at religion are futile.


Verse 20

20. Righteousness of God—God’s righteousness, prescribed by him to man. Note on Romans 1:17. Man’s wrath works not in man the righteousness designed and enjoined by God.


Verse 21

21. Filthiness—Ribaldry and indecency against the gospel and its professors and teachers. It often designates filthiness of apparel. Hence, when young Wesley, at Oxford, was walking with the pious Moravian, (Peter Bohler,) and was inclined to shrink from the ribaldry of the students, Peter said, with a smile, “My brother, it does not even stick to your clothes.”

Superfluity—Over-abundance, such as the wrath of man could fluently pour forth.

Naughtiness—Malignity.

Receive—The advice is to James’ unconverted brethren.

Ingrafted word—That gospel, word of truth, (James 1:18,) which, as a graft produces a new tree, produces a regenerate man.

Save—Instrumentally, as a means, and conditionally, by being received.


Verse 22

22. It is not enough to be a hearer, or a receiver of the saving word delivered in the synagogue, and then go out and transgress it in the world. By considering that listening to be sufficient, and omitting to be also doers, we glide into a self-deception. We imagine we are quite good, while in fact we are unsaved. Going to church, reading the Bible, and yet neglecting a holy life, is a delusive course.


Verse 23

23. Natural face—Literally, the face of his birth; the face he was born with, and which he had been in the habit of seeing all his life; and so the stranger that he should forget it the moment he ceases looking at it.

Glass—Mirror. See note, 1 Corinthians 13:12.


Verse 24

24. Forgetteth—A curious and inexplicable fact, that, however clearly we behold ourself in the glass, we retain no distinct impression of our own face. If walking down the street he could meet himself, he would not, by the countenance, recognise himself. So the man who beholds his own spiritual character and moral destiny in the word, as in a glass, may pass away and retain no true impression. A most beautiful illustration of our moral nature from a physiological fact familiar to all, yet seldom noted.


Verse 25

25. Looketh into—The expressive Greek is, stoops down to the law. The man is not now standing and transiently looking into a mirror; he is bending down and poring steadily, as it were, into a book, just as the cherubim stooped down on the ark to look at the decalogue.

Law of liberty—That law which, when studied in its own spirit and with gracious aids, is obeyed with such glad spontaneity that the most perfect obedience is the most perfect liberty. Note on Matthew 11:30. This is a perfect law; absolutely perfect in itself, having God for its author and perfect right for its essence and nature, with perfect obligation on us to obey it. And perfect is he who perfectly obeys it.

Continueth—To look and meditate therein, instead of straightway going his way. The holy volume stirs his heart and attracts his intense study.

Not a forgetful hearer—For what so stirs, fascinates, and fixes him, writes itself indelibly on his memory. Nor is it in him a mere passive process. He determines to be not forgetful; for what stirs his heart is determined by his will, so that he becomes a doer of the word.

Deed—Rather, his continuous doing.


Verse 26

26. Among you—Our apostle is still in the synagogue where disputants are brandishing their sharp tongues.

Religious—Rather, as the Greek signifies, worshipful; strict and regular in formal worship, a due performer of synagogue service. The word emphasizes the external rite without excluding the internal devotion. Ritualism, in a good sense, nearly expresses it.

Bridleth not his tongue—Which is a steed that needs the bridle, especially in the heat of emulous debate, religious or otherwise. For the tongue is the vocal organ of the heart, giving expression to the outcome of the true character. Our doings and our speakings tell what we are. Our apostle, in 22-25, has discussed our doings; he now deals with our speakings.

Deceiveth his own heart—By making himself believe that he is religious when he is only ritualistic.

Vain—Emphatical Greek inversion: of that man vain is the ritualism. His worshipful doings are all undone by his wicked sayings. Our words in their full import decide our true moral state.


Verse 27

27. Pure religion—A worshipfulness pure from these synagogue blemishes. In order to set the quarrelsome ritualism in its true light James contrasts with it a service of the most practical nature. It is a pure worshipfulness, not that quarrels, but that pours forth deeds of beneficence.

Before—As viewed by.

God and the Father—More correctly, our God and Father. Pure service, as our God and Father judges, is this, etc.

Unspotted from the world—The Christian is like a man walking through freshly painted objects, liable, without the greatest care, to being spotted. On every side are examples of vice and temptations to compliance which demand all his care, aided by grace from above, to make his words and his works consistent with a pure profession. Our apostle does not limit all pure religion to benevolence towards orphans and widows; he only contrasts that with the religion of captious talk. But, taking in this closing clause, all religion is comprehended.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on James 1:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/james-1.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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