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THE EPISTLE OF ST. JAMES
The salutation or address is shorter than any other in the N.T. letters, closer to the form commonly employed in ordinary correspondence.
1 James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: greeting.
Three features in this address are singular. (a) Paul calls himself or is called in the addresses of his epistles sometimes ‘a servant of Jesus Christ’ (or ‘of Christ Jesus’), or ‘a servant of God,’ while Judas calls himself ‘a servant of Jesus Christ,’ but a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ is unique. Any Christian might be termed a servant of God, but it was applied to outstanding personalities like prophets. Here servant has its general religious sense (see on Judas 1). It corresponded specially to Lord, as the Greek term kurios meant ‘master’ of slaves or servants in ordinary usage. James does not describe God as the Father of Jesus Christ, but the collocation here and the phrase in ii. 1 imply a divine authority for Christ. (b) The readers are not described as exiles of the Dispersion, though Dispersion means what Peter (1 Peter i. 1) and other writers had popularized; they are the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, a figurative term for catholic Christianity as the true Israel, living for the time being in a strange world, far from its true Fatherland. In the second century Hermas (Similitudes ix. 17) explains 7that the twelve mountains in his vision ‘are the twelve tribes who inhabit the whole world, to whom the Son of God was preached by the apostles’; otherwise the only parallel to this interesting form of the metaphor is perhaps the indirect allusion in Revelation vii. 4 f., xiv. 1. Literally the twelve tribes was a synonym for Israel as a whole, which could by no means be described as in the Dispersion. To James of course it was a matter of supreme indifference what had become of the original ten tribes, and he could therefore coin this bold, double metaphor for the Christian community throughout the world as the People of God. It is an archaic metaphor, the first of several equally daring, in his homily. Apart from Peter’s earlier usage it would be meaningless, but unlike Peter he makes no further use of the figure. Nor does he add a word about the readers’ religious position; he simply closes (c) with a stereotyped epistolary term, greeting (as in Acts xv. 23 and xxiii. 26). An ancient Greek letter began with the name of the sender, the name of those to whom the letter was sent, and this word (sends) greeting; early Christians usually turned it or any equivalent into a prayer or pious wish, but James adheres to the formal word.
However, by playing on the word, he introduces his first counsel (2-4) on bearing trials.
2 Greet it as pure joy, my brothers, when you come across any sort of trial, 3 sure that the sterling temper of your faith produces endurance; 4 only, let your endurance be a finished product, so that you may be finished and complete, with never a defect.
Greeting and greet as (a reason for) pure joy are an attempt to bring out the play on words in the original, where the 8courteous chairein (greeting) is echoed by charan (joy); such a device was not uncommon in letters. The call to joy here is the first of several proofs that he was familiar with the Stoic ethics of the age. Thus Seneca tells Lucilius to avoid hoping (James never speaks of ‘hope’) and to ‘make this your chief business, learn to rejoice . . . . Believe me, real joy is a serious thing’ (Epp. xxiii.), for it has to meet experiences like poverty, temptation, trials, and death. James baptizes this moral joy into religion. The opening sentence of his homily resembles the teaching of 1 Peter i. 6-7, where sterling faith exposed to trials is compared to gold being tested by fire, though Peter means the passing trials of persecution, while James thinks of more general hardships. Both go back to what is said in Sirach ii. 1-5: ‘My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord God, prepare yourself for trial . . . for gold is tested in fire, and men acceptable to God in the furnace of adversity’ (adversity being the same word as James renders in ver. 9 by being lowered).
But James strikes an heroic note. He assumes, or rather he calls upon his readers to be sure to realize, that character is the chief concern; it is so for God and it must be so for His People, not outward calm or prosperity, but the inward ripening of the soul, the relationship of man to God. You will then rejoice, with a kind of stern cheerfulness or satisfaction, in whatever forwards that, however trying the dealings and discipline of God may be. For trial advances the interests of the soul, if it be bravely and faithfully undergone. But all depends on how we take it or think of it. James (vers. 13 f.) hastens to repudiate the idea that in trial God is deliberately trying to break down 9human faith. The true view of faith is that any sort of trial (the same words as Peter uses for various trials), hardship, or misfortune of any kind or degree, is an opportunity for proving our mettle; God’s meaning in it is our training in courage and patience. Therefore, however unwelcome it may be to flesh and blood, it ought to be actually welcomed as a test and training of our powers.
The divine reward is explained later, in ver. 12 and in v. 10-11; here James indicates that the ordeal of faith brings out endurance, the staying power of life. This is not mentioned by Peter, though it had been by Paul in Romans v. 3 (‘we triumph even in our troubles, knowing that trouble produces endurance’); but James uses this cardinal virtue of Jewish and Stoic ethic to rally his brothers, i.e. here as always in the homily his fellow-members of the church as a brotherhood (see on 1 Peter ii. 17). Only trial can prove what we are made of, whether we possess this supreme quality of stedfastness or constancy to our convictions. And trial does attest and ripens this, if we let the discipline attain its end, instead of rendering it incomplete by impatience or repining. 4 It is a moral process which results normally in a finished and complete character, faultless and perfect; there is no immaturity about such constant souls, nothing inadequate or defective. Such is the prospect set before the stedfast Christian by James; like Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior, he is—
More able to endure
As more exposed to suffering and distress,
and through his endurance set on the way to be a ripened character, with never a defect.
This is the ideal. But in real life some may not always 10be quite sure of themselves, able to maintain this exacting vision of what trial means or to carry it out in practical conduct. Besides, it requires a higher power than man’s. The sterling temper of faith must depend upon God. James recollects teaching like that of Wisdom ix. 6 (‘Even if one be a finished character in the eyes of men, should the wisdom that comes from thee be lacking, he shall be accounted nothing’) and viii. 21 (‘Perceiving that I could not enjoy wisdom unless God gave it, I besought the Lord and prayed to him’), and at once adds a word on prayer to God as one expression of genuine faith, during the process of discipline and development. ‘I understand that you possess a mind blameless and unhesitating in endurance,’ says Ignatius to the church at Tralles. This is the temper which James commends and demands in 5-8.
5 Whoever of you is defective in wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men without question or reproach, and the gift will be his. 6 Only, let him ask in faith, with never a doubt; for the doubtful man is like surge of the sea whirled and swayed by the wind; 7, 8that man need not imagine he will get anything from God, double-minded creature that he is, wavering at every turn.
Wisdom throughout this homily is the insight which enables a Christian to understand and practise and advance the religious life that is in keeping with the law of God. James does not use the term and idea in connexion with God’s work in creation and providence, or as a medium of revelation, as the Wisdom literature does; for him it is purely a human endowment, which comes from God but which operates in human life, i.e. in the common life of the Christian Church 11(iii. 13-18). In the Wisdom literature goodness is considered as wisdom rather than as holiness. Under the breath of the Greek spirit it came to mean a life which interpreted the divine law as the rule for faith and morals; the emphasis fell on moral and spiritual requirements rather than on ritual or dogmatic considerations, and this was what commended it to James, as he expounded the Christian religion. Wisdom denoted an absorbing interest in human relationships and responsibilities, actuated by humble reverence for God’s law. This he found in the Wisdom literature, and he carried it over into the vocabulary of the church. Our English term wisdom is almost as inadequate a rendering of the Greek, as the Greek was of the original Hebrew word; it calls up misleading associations of learning and expert science. But there is no better. What James means by it is the divine endowment of the soul by which the believing man recognizes and realizes that divine rule of life called righteousness (see i. 20, iii. 18), either in intercourse with others or, as here, in the management of his own conduct. Now, while God may inflict trial, He is ever ready to give wisdom, or, as the devout Alexandrian Philo had said, to give anything needful. God is called ‘everlasting,’ Philo argued, ‘as being One who does not bestow favour at one time and withhold it at another, but is ever, uninterruptedly bestowing benefits’; there is no giver like God, none so prompt and generous. Sirach warns men against the ugly habit of accompanying a gift with some contemptuous remark: ‘After making a gift, never reproach the recipient’ (xli. 22, also xviii. 15 f., xx. 14 f.) either with his poverty or with the sneer that it is not likely to be repaid in whole or part. God never so taunts our 12prayers. Nor does He ask questions before He gives wisdom, but gives outright. There is nothing ungracious, no thought of self, in His giving; God, as Tindal puts it vigorously, ‘casteth no man in the teeth.’ He bestows on us what we need without raising embarrassing questions about our deserts, and without a hard word, never harping on the benefit or treating prayer as presumption. There is no jealousy of this mean kind (see on iv. 5), no grudging or reluctance on His part.
The prayer of faith (see v. 15 f.) on man’s part must be equally unhesitating. A doubtful or half-hearted man prays, but he is secretly not quite sure of God’s goodwill and there-fore is always wavering or fickle in his practical allegiance; a man who is thus in two minds about the rule of life, now acting on faith and now living as though faith were insufficient, rising and falling constantly like sea-waves between reliance on God and sceptical uncertainty, divided between faith and the world (iii., iv. 4), must not dream of getting any prayer answered. 7This half-and-half character is familiar in the Wisdom literature, where it is the opposite of endurance. Thus in Sirach ii. 12 f., ‘Woe to the sinner who goes two ways, woe to the faint heart for it has no faith, woe to you who have lost your endurance.’
Wavering or unstable is often illustrated by a sea-simile. Thus the Greek orator Demosthenes (De Falsa Legatione 383) calls democracy wavering and compares its shifting, un-reliable policy to winds at sea. It is perhaps an undesigned coincidence that the rebuke of Jesus to the disciples, ‘Where is your faith?’ (in Luke viii. 24, 25) comes after the only other use of the Greek word for surge in the N.T. (‘he checked the wind and the surf,’ or surge). But James (here and in 13iv. 8) introduced the word wavering to the vocabulary of Christianity. It suited his demand for the Christian life being all of a piece. Later, he returns to the reason why prayers are not heard by God; here his point is that the success of prayer depends on personal conduct, and that the one condition of having prayer answered unconditionally lies in single-mindedness.
Up to this point the line of thought is unbroken. Whenever you encounter trials, treat them as opportunities. ‘Calamity is the occasion for valour,’ said Seneca (De Providentia 4); ‘great souls sometimes rejoice in adversities, much as brave soldiers rejoice in wars.’ Christians, says James, always ought to meet troubles in this heroic spirit. But do not, he adds, shut up the lesson-book of endurance too soon, as though you had learned all the lessons God meant you to acquire; and recollect that as ‘to know God is complete righteousness’ (Wisdom xv. 3), so this wisdom of true religion will be imparted freely to those who show by their undivided allegiance to God’s purpose that they really hold this to be the sole concern in life. What follows (in 9-11) seems abrupt and isolated. But there is a thread of connexion, which is more than verbal, indicated in Sirach, where wisdom exalts the poor’ (‘the wisdom of one in low position raises his head,’ xi. 1), and where the warning, ‘approach not the Lord with double heart,’ is followed by, ‘raise not yourself up, lest you fall and bring disgrace upon yourself, and the Lord cast you down in your meeting’ (same words as in James ii. 2). The paragraph is therefore a pendant loosely attached to what has been said in vers. 2-4, 5-8.
9 Let a brother of low position exult when he is raised; 10 but let one who is rich exult in being lowered; for the rich will 14pass away like the flower of the grass—11 up comes the sun with the scorching wind and withers the grass, its flower drops off, and the splendour of it is ruined; so shall the rich fade away amid their pursuits.
When some man of obscure position, like the poor man in ii. 2 f., not only attended a Christian meeting but received the gospel, he was raised to high rank by his faith; was he not one of the pious poor whom God had chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the realm which he has promised to those who love him? Well might he exult in his inward elevation, however mean his social sphere in the world might be. Though he may belong to the lower classes, he is not low in the sight of God. Far from it. Therefore, however little he may possess in the way of outward comforts and possessions, let him be proud of what he has received from God. This is one way of reckoning the trials of life as pure joy, instead of resenting them as though he were badly used by God as well as by men.
But James has more to say about the opposite case of a rich man who has become a Christian brother, perhaps after visiting the church (ii. 2 f.), where at some meeting he found himself ‘wishing himself like to those more rich in hope.’ The. paradox for him is that he is to pride himself on being lowered, i.e. in what from the worldly point of view seems the humiliating position of membership in a poverty-stricken brotherhood where wealth is of no account in the sight of God, and where he has to associate with people the majority of whom are socially inferior. Let him exult in this, for thereby he has learned the real values of life. James does not say that he loses his wealth, though he may have less as he makes money honestly, pays better wages to his employees 15(iv. 13 f., v. 1-6), or parts with much of it in charity (ii. 15 f.); the lowering of the rich brother is as inward as the raising of the poor brother. He is lowered from the false consideration and deference paid to him on account of his wealth, even (James indignantly remarks) by some Christians who ought to know better (ii. 2, 3); when he comes under the law of the gospel and humbly receives the word that regenerates, he no longer prides himself on his outward possessions.
And he is safer so, James adds. For the rich (i.e. the wealthy man who is bound up with his wealth, the unconverted worldly man of property) is to meet a swift, complete doom. In v. 1-6 James describes this fate as applying to rapacious and luxurious landowners, but here he puts the same thought more generally, using a simile from the book of Isaiah (xl. 6) which Peter had employed (1 Peter i. 24) in a different connexion. 11Syrian peasants knew how shortlived the patches of grass were, under the sirocco or scorching wind and blazing sun of a summer which made short work of the flowers and herbage. Such splendour does not last; it, fades and wilts. So with the rich (a generic singular in the original, as in v. 7) amid their pursuits. James uses for pursuits a term literally meaning ‘journeys,’ as turn in ver. 8 literally means ‘way’; the word denotes the fortunes and occupations of the rich, but it seems as if he were specially thinking of wealthy traders, who made their money by travelling and business (iv. 13-16). In any case he expects a speedy settlement of God with the worldly rich, as in v. 1-6. Let the converted rich brother rejoice that he has escaped such a fate, as well as that he has learned how humiliation, the humiliation of becoming a Christian, is no real humiliation but a source of profound joy and pride. Let him be proud to endure the shame of bearing 16the name of Christian which is reviled by his class, as once by himself perhaps (ii. 7), proud to be less rich than he was, for conscience’ sake, proud to undergo the trial of enduring sneers and social persecution on account of the unfashionable faith which he now values more highly than any rank or money in the world.
James now adds another pendant, resuming the subject of trial (vers. 2 f.), but from another side. Some are depressed by trials, but others are stung by them into a resentment which voices itself in blame of God; it is to this mood of self-justification that he addresses himself in the following paragraph (12-19a).
12 Blessed is he who endures under trial; for when he has stood the test, he will gain the crown of life which is promised to all who love Him. 13 Let no one who is tried by temptation say, ‘My temptation comes from God’; God is incapable of being tempted by evil and he tempts no one. 14 Everyone is tempted as he is beguiled and allured by his own desire; 15 then Desire conceives and breeds Sin, while Sin matures and gives birth to Death. 16 Make no mistake about this, my beloved brothers: 17 all we are given is good, and all our endowments are faultless, descending from above, from the Father of the heavenly lights, who knows no change of rising and setting, who casts no shadow on the earth. 18 It was his own will that we should be born by the Word of the truth, to be a kind of first fruits among his creatures. 19 Be sure of that, my beloved brothers.
Blessed is he who endures is a reminiscence of the beatitude for the latter days in Daniel xii. 12, and is also eschatological; the strain will soon be over (v. 7 f.), when fortitude is crowned 17with life eternal from God. Endurance is a function and proof of love or devotion to God; to stand outward trial loyally, without breaking down under it, is a test that proves the sterling quality (ver. 3) of the religious life. And after probation comes reward, as in the similar passage in 1 Peter i. 6, 7, the reward of real or lasting life. The only other reference to love for God is in ii. 5, where James speaks of the pious poor inheriting the realm which God has promised to those who love him; both passages recall Wisdom v. 15, 16, where ‘the righteous live for ever, receiving the realm of splendour’ (the word used by James in ver. 11) ‘and the diadem of beauty from the Lord’s hand,’ the diadem, like the crown (which is practically an equivalent) , being associated with royal or honourable position.
So much for trial cheerfully and courageously borne. But hardship is apt to start questions in the mind; it makes some people think, and think unfairly about God, as if He were to blame for the temptations to disloyalty stirred by trial. If trial involves probation, does it mean that God puts temptation deliberately in the way of man, or that He tries him too severely? When outward hardship rouses some inward impulse to give way, a man heavily tried by temptation may seek to excuse his weakness in yielding by putting the responsibility upon God; ‘this temptation, which is too hard for me, comes from God.’ Paul had met a similar objection in 1 Corinthians x. 13, by arguing that God never makes life too difficult for genuine faith. But James, as usual, deals with the question in the world of thought suggested by Sirach, where (xv. 11 f.) we read: ‘Say not, It was owing to the Lord that I fell away. . . . He deceived me.’ Sirach’s reply is that a true view of God’s nature rules out such a 18complaint (how could God make a man commit sin, when He hates sin?), and that freewill enables anyone to choose the right course. James also explains (a) that to tempt man would be inconsistent with God’s nature, (b) and adds a word on the 13 psychology of temptation and sin. (a) God stands in no relation to temptation, passive or active. James coins a word for incapable of being tempted, which means that the divine nature is utterly unversed in temptation; no one can tempt another to evil unless he himself has some experience (and, it is implied, enjoyment) in yielding to temptation. Marcus Aurelius put the same truth from the Stoic point of view, when he wrote (vi. 1): ‘The Reason (Logos) which rules the universe has no cause in itself for doing wrong, for it has no malice, nor does it do evil to anything, nor is anything harmed by it.’ James, however, feels that he needs to say more about man’s responsibility (b) than about God’s innocence. He can use popular religious language about resisting the devil (iv. 7), but here he ignores Satan as a source of temptation, and like Sirach concentrates upon a man’s 14 own desire or lust (as the word is rendered in 2 Peter i. 4). If this inward inclination is indulged, it breeds disastrous consequences, the result of his own desire, for which he is therefore responsible himself.
In the Imitatio Christi (i. 13) the rise of temptation is thus described: ‘First there comes to mind a simple thought, then a strong imagination, afterwards delight and an evil movement and assent.’ This corresponds to what James means by illicit desire, the imagination toying with a forbidden 15 idea, and then issuing in a decision of the will. The results of this embrace of evil are depicted graphically (Milton’s famous expansion is in Paradise Lost, ii. 648 f.). James 19does not enter into the question, debated in contemporary rabbinic circles, as to how the evil desire or impulse in man arose, and how it could be connected with the creation of man in the likeness of God. As a practical religious teacher he is content to urge that temptations rise in our own nature, and that man, not God, is to blame for the presence of evil desire, sin, and death in the universe. Death is thus the mature or finished product (ver. 4) of sin. The wiles of evil desire, 16 that seduce us, are not due to some malign or imperfect endowment of our being; 17 that notion is a serious mistake, for all we are given is good, and all our endowments are faultless. This reads like a hexameter line, perhaps quoted from some popular source; our faculties all come from a God of absolute generosity and goodwill, who bestows nothing except as a beneficent creator. Perhaps there is a side-allusion to fatalism in the Father of the heavenly lights, as the prevalent astrology ascribed the destinies of men to the influence of the stars; ‘we have a God who is the maker of these luminaries, and our nature is swayed by Him, not by them.’ But any of the readers who had been born and bred Jews would recollect the praise of God which prefaced the daily Shema of piety: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, creator of the luminaries.’ James knew the traditional title of God as the Father (i. 27, iii. 9), but he does not use it in describing the new birth of Christians (ver. 18), and here he takes it as an equivalent for Creator. However, the main thought is that of the modern Christian hymn:
Light of the world! for ever, ever shining,
There is no change in Thee.
Light of the world, undimming and unsetting!
James contrasts the periodic changes in luminaries like the 20sun and the moon with the changeless God, unvarying in His light shed on men, from whom no shadow of evil ever falls on the world of human life. The powers He bestows on us are, like Himself, free from anything low or uncertain or dark; no ‘light that leads astray’ is ever ‘light from heaven,’ and no providence that befalls Christians is designed to upset or mislead them. Sirach, oddly enough, employs the idea of the sun’s changes to illustrate man’s liability to err, the very point which James is controverting: ‘What is brighter than the sun? Yet even the sun fails. And how much more man, with his inclination of flesh and blood?’ (xvii. 31, i.e. why wonder that poor man has sometimes darkened phases of conduct?). But the conception of James was familiar in Jewish and ethnic circles. Thus the devout Philo (in his Legum Allegor., ii. 22) remarks that the only way in which one can believe God is to learn that ‘while all things change, He alone is unchangeable.’ Epictetus (i. 14. 10) observes: ‘If the sun can illuminate so large a part of the universe, leaving only unilluminated what the earth’s shadow covers, cannot He who made the sun itself and causes it to revolve, perceive all things?’ The Greek words for change and casting a shadow are both semi-astronomical terms, employed in a popular sense to suggest the irregularities and defects of the heavenly lights, as compared with their Maker. Whatever goes wrong on earth, He is not to be blamed, as though He failed to afford sufficient and undeviating light to men. Philo, in the treatise just quoted (ii. 19) , praises the true penitence involved in the confession of Numbers xxi. 7 (‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord’), since usually, ‘whenever the mind has sinned and departed from goodness, it throws the blame upon things divine, attributing its own 21change to God.’ This is what James has in mind here. Any deviations in human conduct are due to man himself, not to some imperfection in the life we owe to Him or in the providence under which our ordeal is set. 18 Changing the metaphor, to prove that man is neither unfairly handicapped nor left to his unaided powers, he reiterates that the very object of our being is to reproduce God’s nature. Doubt God? Why, He deliberately willed to make us His own choice offspring; surely His high purpose in regenerating us proves that our faculties must be pure and perfect, as they are meant to contribute to this end? The Word of the truth as the regenerating medium had been already mentioned in 1 Peter i. 22 f., where Christians owe their faith or re-birth to the gospel message or revelation (see the note there). The Word, not the Wisdom, of God is for James the vital expression of His real purpose and life, as we have already seen. This preference for the Word, which is shared by the author of the Fourth Gospel, is deliberate; for him it was rendered more easy by, the fact that already in the Hellenistic theology of Egypt there had been a vague effort to think of some creative Word of God at work in the world of men, revealing and redeeming. At anyrate, this is James’s equivalent for Paul’s doctrine of ‘grace,’ a technical term which James never uses (see on iv. 6). When he wishes to emphasize the Christian truth of life beginning with God alone, of God’s will underlying faith and fellowship, instead of speaking as Paul did about the Spirit (which again he never mentions), he chooses the language of birth into God’s own life. Philo had sadly reflected (in his treatise De Mutatione Nominum 24), ‘There are few whose ears are open to receive the divine words that teach us that it belongs to God alone to sow 22and give birth to what is good.’ James puts a deeper content into this doctrine of regeneration, as bound up with our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (ii. 1), though he implies it instead of stating it. To God we owe our new, true life, to God’s set purpose and to that alone; and—this is the implication which leads him to mention it—so He would be undoing His own work and defeating His own aim, were He to send temptation to us. Whenever man’s lower desire is in question, there is a grim, ugly Birth (ver. 15); when God acts, there is a very different Birth and Breeding.
We have been born anew, James concludes, to be a kind of first fruits among his creatures. The Greek term aparchê might mean ‘gift’ or ‘sacrifice,’ but not here; it is an archaic biblical phrase for ‘the pick of creation,’ Christians being the choicest product of the divine creative purpose in the world. Philo could speak of the Jews as being ‘set apart from the entire human race as a kind of first fruits to their Maker and Father’ (De Spec. Leg., iv. 6), and James takes over the honour for Christians as the real ‘twelve tribes’ of the Lord, in whom the divine purpose was to be realized in its choicest form. There is no allusion here to these Christians being the first of many to follow; it is the supreme honour of their position, the superlative rank of their relationship to God, not any primacy in order of succession, which is implied in first fruits. James does imply, of course, that they must live up to their exalted destiny from above; he is about to urge this in his next paragraph. Here he mentions their privilege in order to prove the lofty character of the God to whom some were being tempted to do less than justice as they felt their own weakness under the trials of 23life. Judge His Fatherly character from His purpose as shown in His work, and you will recognize it is good. Be sure of that, my beloved brothers. And with this crisp, emphatic word he shuts the question up.
But the regenerating Word requires our co-operation: we have a duty towards the Word (19b-25), and our religion is not to be a religion of mere ‘words’ (26, 27). This is the sum of the next paragraph.
19 Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to talk, slow to be angry—20 for human anger does not promote divine righteousness; 21 so clear away all the foul rank growth of malice, and make a soil of modesty for the Word which roots itself inwardly with power to save your souls. 22 Act on the Word, instead of merely listening to it and deluding yourselves. 23 For whoever listens and does nothing, is like a man who glances at his natural face in a mirror; 24 he glances at himself, goes off, and at once forgets what he was like. 25 Whereas he who gazes into the faultless law of freedom and remains in that position, proving himself to be no forgetful listener but an active agent, he will be blessed in his activity. 26 Whoever considers he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, his religion is futile. 27 Pure, unsoiled religion in the judgment of God the Father means this: to care for orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself from the stain of the world.
The three opening counsels are common in ancient social ethics, and the following sentences are strung more or less closely upon them. Anger or bad temper is the theme of 20, 21; to listen and do nothing more is the danger marked in 22-25; and talk suggests the final admonition of 26, 27. 24The transition from the previous paragraph is through the double sense of the Word as seed, which is put clearly in 1 Peter i. 23-ii. 1, a passage parallel to this. When James, like Peter, hastens to urge the moral and spiritual activities of Christians, he passes from the idea of the regenerating Word to the conception of the Word as seed which has to be cared for, if it is to thrive; indeed, he develops the 20 metaphor more definitely than Peter. Give the divine seed a clean soil.
Clear away is the same word as that rendered in Peter off with, and both writers denounce virulent malice, though James does not contrast it with Christian love. Human anger, he begins, a man’s animosity or irritation against his fellow-Christians, does not promote either in himself or in other people divine righteousness, i.e. the divine goodness and character, the devout life as lived under the scrutiny and standards of God, in fact the high purpose spoken of in ver. 18. He may be referring to the general sin of hot temper or sullen anger, which is so markedly branded in N.T. ethics, the sin of those who, like Pope’s lady, are ‘for ever in a passion or a prayer.’ But he probably includes (as in iii. 14) sarcasm and angry argument on the part of earnest Christians, the anger which tried to justify itself as righteous indignation against offenders in the community, the mixture of personal animosity and religious zeal which discredits the faith, hasty wrath against those who differ from us in opinion, and so forth. ‘All other hatred of sin which does not fill the heart with the softest, tenderest affections towards persons miserable in it, is the servant of sin, at the same time that it seems to be hating it,’ says William Law in his Serious Call. This 25is the foul rank growth of malice (see on 1 Peter ii. 1) which gives no chance to the saving, vital power of the Word. The soil for the Word is modesty, i.e. submissiveness to God and at the same time gentle consideration for one’s fellow-men. The Greek term had acquired this range of meaning in the Wisdom literature, where it is synonymous with docile ‘humility,’ that is, with a religious attitude of receptivity towards God which manifests itself, in human relationships, ‘in self-restraint and patience of temper, in thoughtful consideration in the presence of men, or, in matters of importance, in slowness to speak’ (A. B. Davidson, Biblical and Literary Essays, p. 52). What James had said about human nature did not mean that it was faultless; only as the divine Word was received humbly and allowed to root itself in good soil, cleansed from spitefulness and arrogance, could the saving work be accomplished, and Christians be first fruits for God.
The Greek term rendered ‘engrafted’ in the A.V. originally meant ‘innate,’ but this meaning is impossible here; an innate or inborn Word cannot be received. James gave it the sense of ‘engrafted’ or which roots itself inwardly, that being the property of the divine revelation. There was an affinity between God’s saving truth and the human nature; the seed suited the soil. But the seed was not innate in the soil; it entered into the soil, and had to be inwrought, as it were, or developed by a moral process. Here, as in ver. 18, James stresses the vital activity of the Word, even as he recalls the need for human activity, and this explains his application of the Greek term in an unusual sense.
Be quick to listen was a common ethical maxim which 26applied to life in general; thus, to listen patiently to both sides of a case was better than to put in one’s word hastily. But it specially denoted good listening to advice and instruction. James urged this, but he knew the danger of listening to the Word and doing no more. Jesus had put the warning against this peril in a parable of ancient house-building (Matthew vii. 24-27); here (22-25) the figure is different. 22Merely to listen to the preaching and teaching of the gospel is self-delusion; it seems reverent, it makes one feel comfortable and safe; but you must act on the Word, James insists, otherwise your eager attention is a form of self-deception. A teacher or preacher may give an eloquent address on the gospel, or explain ably some O.T. prophecy about Christ, but when the sermon is done, it is not done; something remains to be done by the hearers in life, and if they content themselves with sentimental admiration or with enjoying the emotional or mental treat, they need not imagine that this is religion. It does not lead to any lasting benefit of real self-knowledge. The attention to the Word which does not make a man act upon it by doing something to his life, altering his real self in obedience to what he has heard, is no equivalent for religion, whatever people may think. 23This is the point of the mirror-simile. Natural face is literally ‘the face of his birth,’ i.e. the face a man is born with. James uses the phrase to bring out the casual, superficial character of such religion. He is not necessarily censuring the man. A busy man cannot be thinking of his personal appearance; unless he is idle and conceited, he had better 24forget what he looked like when he caught a casual glimpse of himself in a mirror, unless indeed he ought to have noticed some sign of disease or a mark of dirt on his face. 27James may be merely taking a common illustration of how a passing glance or casual impression in life leads to no permanent or practical result. But his simile was not unfamiliar to ethics, though it was ethnic rather than Jewish. Moralists had actually advocated the use of a metal mirror as a means of self-discipline. Thus Socrates told young men to look at themselves in the mirror; if they were handsome, it would remind them that an ugly life was out of keeping with good looks; and if they were plain-looking, they might remind themselves that handsome actions did much to counteract any impression of facial ugliness. This is quoted sophistically by Apuleius (Apologia 14), as he defends himself against alleged conceit and magical predilections in his use of a mirror. Seneca (Nat. Quaest., i. 17. 4) similarly declares that mirrors were invented to enable men to know themselves, not simply their outward appearance but their moral needs; and that a bad life left ugly traces on the face, the sight of which in a mirror ought to be a warning. So James may well be hinting that the moral use of a mirror resembles the true, thoughtful use of listening to the Word.
We see time’s furrows in another’s brow,
And death entrenched, preparing his assault,
How few themselves in that just mirror see!
Whereas in closely examining the divine Word—a more ‘just mirror’ than that which ought to reveal to us any physical change and decay in our own natures, we win eternal profit. He who gazes with concentrated attention on this Mirror of the Word and remains in that position perseveringly, thereby proves himself to be no forgetful hearer but an active agent (literally ‘a doer of work’). How? The figure of 28the mirror is not quite adequate here; the truth is too large for the illustration. The best of men cannot always remain in front of a mirror, scrutinizing their defects. But the obvious point is that such attention is no mere superficial interest; the man does something with what he has learned of his real self and duty, and acts upon the knowledge which he has thereby taken time and pains to acquire of the law imposed by the Word upon true hearers. Through his close care, as he keeps on looking at God’s will for life, a moral obligation comes to bear upon his practical conduct, and in obedience to these deep and abiding impressions of the law he is blessed.
This is the second beatitude of James. The first was pronounced on the passive mood of life (ver. 12), but this is on the active. The faultless or perfect law of freedom means that the gospel revelation as a rule for life is, like all the endowments of God, faultless (ver. 17); there is none better; it meets all the needs of life, and (this is the fine paradox) it is a law of freedom, by obeying which men are truly free, emancipated from their passions (see 2 Peter ii. 19 and 1 Peter ii. 16). Stoic moralists pled that only the wise man was free, obeying God, and devout Jews had claimed that the only real freedom was through obedience to the Mosaic law; James claims all this for the moral and spiritual law as fulfilled and embodied in the Christian gospel (ii. 8 f.). What is in his mind as he speaks of the law of freedom becomes plain in ii. 12, where the expression is again used deliberately in connexion with lovingkindness. Here, too, this context is implied (see vers. 20-21 and 26-27); the gospel revelation of the Word binds us to a service of practical love, which is at once an impulse and an obligation. It is 29in order to emphasize the truth that this service is both binding and spontaneous that he coins the striking phrase a law of freedom. ‘Law’ suggests something statutory and external; but, as a contemporary put it, ‘the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ is free from any yoke of compulsion’ (Barnabas ii. 6). The ethical hope of the age, in all quarters, was in the obedience of the inward life to the law of divine duty, expressed in some form or another, and James here puts this in terms of the Christian religion, as Jewish rabbis and Stoic teachers were trying to do in their own way around him.
Slow to talk suggests another form of self-deception, that of the religious worshipper who considers he is religious because he attends service and listens to the Word, and yet does not bridle his tongue. This was a flagrant temptation of teachers in the church, and James returns to it in iii. 2 f. But it was not confined to teachers. He is not referring to the habit of using pious phrases as a substitute for real religion, as in ii. 15, 16. Nor does he merely mean talking about religion to excess, though the talkative person is liable to become self-confident and arrogant in pouring out his opinions. To bridle the tongue is to curb the impulse to express malice (ver. 21) or contempt in words. James is thinking of people in the religious world who let their tongues run away with them in spiteful and hasty criticism of their neighbours, or in acrimonious discussion. It may sound and seem very religious to denounce the errors and failings of fellow-Christians, and to let oneself go in indignation against those whose views or conduct may appear unsatisfactory. So, people think, they are serving God (see ver. 20). But such so-called religion is futile, it makes no appeal to God the Father, whose judgment of religion is very different. James 30employs a term for religion (as for religious) which commonly suggests the expression of religious faith in reverence and worship. He does not deny the place of public worship (see ii. 2, v. 14) or of religious observances, but he explains that in God’s sight a pure, unsoiled religion expresses itself 27 in acts of charity and in chastity—the two features of early Christian ethics which impressed the contemporary world.
In Psalm lxviii. 5 God is called ‘the father of orphans and the champion of widows,’ but James need not be recalling this special allusion; orphans and widows in ancient society were the typical and outstanding instances of those who needed aid. No provision was made for them. Hence private charity was called out on their behalf, and Jewish as well as early Christian writers repeatedly urge their claims. ‘Be as a father to orphans and as a husband to their mother, and so shalt thou be a son of the Most High,’ says Sirach (iv. 10). To care for means to visit, i.e. to give personal service, and the thought is that expressed more fully in the trenchant passage on practical religion in Isaiah lviii. 2-12, or in Matthew xxv. 34-40, where the verb care for is rendered visit. In the Apocalypse of Peter (15) there is a Dantesque vision of the punishment in hell reserved for ‘those who were rich and trusted in their riches and had no pity on orphans and widows, but neglected the commands of God’; but James does not confine the duty to the rich.
The second expression of true religion is personal purity, the world being used as in iv. 4 and 2 Peter i. 4, ii. 20, for the corrupting life of pagan society; the term for ‘unstained’ recurs in 2 Peter iii. 14 as unspotted ‘from the contagion of the world’s slow stain.’ Perhaps James included the thought that to mix with the outside world, even in doing charitable 31actions, exposed one to the risk of moral contamination (the idea of Judas 23). In any case he implies that personal purity was not to be sought or gained by a selfish withdrawal from the common, kindly tasks of life. ‘A white bird, she [his mother] told him once, looking at him gravely, a bird which he must carry in his bosom across a crowded public place—his own soul was like that’ (Pater, Marius the Epicurean, ch. 11). This suggests a fastidious, dainty avoidance of human contact. A twofold sensitiveness, to the need and suffering of others and to personal purity amid the contaminating risks of the age, both coarse and refined—such is the moral ideal of James for anyone who claims to be devout.
The thought of religion as worship, indeed as public worship, now suggests a word against another danger of religious services (ii. 1-4).
1 My brothers, as you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Glory, pay no servile regard to people. 2 Suppose there comes into your meeting a man who wears gold rings and handsome clothes, and also a poor man in dirty clothes; 3 if you attend to the wearer of the handsome clothes and say to him, ‘Sit here, this is a good place,’ and tell the poor man, ‘You can stand,’ or ‘Sit there at my feet,’ 4 are you not drawing distinctions in your own minds and proving that you judge people with partiality?
The Christian religion has hitherto been called The Word or The Word of truth or The faultless law of freedom; here it is more explicitly belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the divine Glory—a striking term for Christ as the full manifestation of the divine presence and majesty. The Jews called this the shekinah; thus one contemporary rabbi 31(quoted in Pirke Aboth iii. 3) said that ‘when two sit together and are occupied with the words of the Torah, the shekinah is among them.’
Belief in Christ is incompatible with any social favouritism. Yet it is combined with such servile regard to certain persons in public worship as James proceeds to describe in vivid words. As Christians had no church-buildings at this period, 2 their place of meeting was usually some large room in the house of a wealthy member or a hall hired for the purpose (Acts xix. 9), where outsiders were free to attend the ordinary services, that is, pagans or Jews who were interested in the new faith (1 Corinthians xiv. 16, 23-25). They were to be welcomed, but welcomed without any servility or snobbery. No unseemly deference or obsequious politeness to a rich 3 stranger at the expense of a shabbily dressed visitor! There goes better with sit at my feet than with you can stand, in the direction for the poorer worshipper. The thought of such bad behaviour in a congregation rouses James to the first of his indignant questions. Does not this outward 4 behaviour prove that you are drawing invidious distinctions between people in your own minds and that you judge people with partiality—literally, that you use wrong criteria of judgment? Favouritism was a characteristic vice of Oriental judges (e.g. Deuteronomy i. 17).
Instead of arguing that this is out of keeping with the character of God, who is ‘no respecter of persons,’ James declares that this truckling to the wealthy is contrary to the estimate of God (5–6a); besides, it is futile— you gain nothing by it (6b-7). Finally, it is a fatal breach of the Christian law (8-13, iv. 11-12). The two former arguments hold together closely.33
5 Listen, my beloved brothers; has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to inherit the realm which he has promised to those who love him? 6 Now you insult the poor. Is it not the rich who lord it over you and drag you to court? 7 Is it not they who scoff at the noble Name you bear?
Poor people have a rich calling from God. James, for whom, as for some of the psalmists, ‘poor’ is practically synonymous with ‘pious’ and ‘rich’ with ‘ impious,’ insists that they are far more likely to become Christians than the rich visitors to the congregational worship; possibly he recalled, though he does not quote, the beatitude of Jesus on the poor, or a word like that preserved in Luke xii. 21. Their inheritance in the next world is sure and ample (i. 12), for these poor, shabbily dressed people, to whom you behave so shabbily, belong to a class to which God has opened up rich prospects; you would do better to devote yourselves to them than to wealthy, elegant outsiders who repay your attentions by haling you to court. James knew cases like 6 those which occur in modem India, where rich Hindus will bully and prosecute unjustly the poor pariahs who join the Christian church. He was speaking of and to communities which apparently were in the main composed of humbler-class members, labourers or tenants, perhaps in debt to wealthy pagans or Jews. Lord it over you seems to exclude the idea that the hardships were due to religious persecution; they were social in origin, and justice in the East was apt to be in favour of the rich, if they chose to take advantage of their influence with legal authorities. Some might come to Christian worship, but as a rule they 7 derided the Name of Christian, 34noble as it was. This may be an allusion to prosecution of Christians on the ground of their religion (as in 1 Peter ii. 12), but it includes more. Scurrilous abuse of Christians on account of their religious beliefs and practices went on, apart from direct interference with them; indeed the persecutions at this period usually started from the mob, not from the upper classes.
The next paragraph is addressed to an objection which James anticipates (8 f.). ‘Are you not making too much of this? Is such social deference so very serious ? After all, it is only a single offence.’ It is a sin, he replies; indeed it is the sin of sins, for God’s supreme Law is the law of brotherly love (8-13, iv. 11, 12).
8 If you really fufil the royal law laid down by scripture, You must love your neighbour as yourself, well and good; 9 but if you pay servile regard to people, you commit a sin, and the Law convicts you of transgression. 10 For whoever obeys the whole of the Law and only makes a single slip, is guilty of everything. 11 He who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not kill. Now if you do not commit adultery but if you kill, you have transgressed the Law. 12 Speak, act, as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom; 13 for the judgment will be merciless to the man who has shown no mercy—whereas the merciful life will triumph in the face of judgment. iv. 11 Do not defame one another, brothers; he who defames or judges his brother defames and judges the Law; and if you judge the Law, you pass sentence on it instead of obeying it. 12 One alone is the legislator, who passes sentence; it is He who is able to save and to destroy; who are you, to judge your neighbour?35
Like Paul (Romans xiii. 8-10), James held that love to fellow-Christians was the essence and summary of the moral Law; you cannot really fulfil it, if you behave as you are doing. As laid down by scripture refers to Leviticus xix. 18, i.e. in the Greek Bible used by Christians. He calls it the royal or supreme law, as it was the law for the royal realm (ver. 5), which the subjects of the King. were to obey (see iv. 11). 9 Any servile regard paid to the rich, which involved an unloving attitude towards the poor, is pronounced a breach of this law. ‘You shall not be partial to a poor man, nor defer to a powerful man’ (Leviticus xix. 15), is the strict injunction which precedes the Royal Law.
But James is now passing away from the special case of invidious partiality with which he started, and dealing with the general question of harshness inside the Christian community. The illustration of callous conduct towards a poor visitor to the service is now dropped; he takes broader ground in attacking the unmerciful spirit, the censoriousness and hard temper, of which such conduct is one expression. 10 ‘A sin perhaps, but only one breach of the Law,’ is the plea lo met (in vers. 10 and 11) by the argument that the Law is a unity; a single slip (the term rendered stumble in Romans xi. 11, and slip in 2 Peter i. 10) or deliberate lapse makes the offender guilty of everything; you cannot pick and choose in the requirements of the Law. People may desire to—
Compound for sins they are inclined to,
By, damning those they have no mind to,
but by more than damning such offences; they may complacently point to their freedom from one sin as condoning some lapse in another direction, or hold that obedience to certain primary laws is as good as obedience to the whole.36
James selects as examples of this two precepts of the decalogue singled out by Jesus (in Matthew v. 21 f., 25 f.), and it would lend force to his argument if we could suppose that he had in mind Christ’s interpretation of the sixth commandment, where the angry, unforgiving spirit is reckoned the essence, of murder. If he was conscious of this, however, or of any other view (see on v. 6), he does not put it into words, though the next sentences show that for him the Law was the embodiment of the divine will summed up in the supreme ethical principle of love to one’s neighbour; the moral law of the O.T. runs up into this cardinal obligation as stated by Jesus, i.e. God’s law as working inwardly on12 the conscience of Christians, the law of freedom (as in i. 25), not an external code of statutes. Specific commands rise out of the central unity of the law of brotherly love, to which Christians owe obedience and by which at the end they shall be judged.
Two considerations are put forward. (a) The law of freedom is not laxity but a strict ethical rule of God, and we shall be judged by our adherence to its supreme principle of brotherly love or mercy, i.e. compassion for the sins and sufferings of our fellows. This had been already urged, in i. 20, 21 and 27. Jesus had demanded it from his followers; one of his favourite quotations from the prophets had been, ‘I care for mercy, not for sacrifice,’ and he had made the cold, inhuman spirit that would not forgive or that ignored human need, the damning sin. James puts this truth 13 dramatically; the judgment at the end will be merciless to the man who has shown no mercy. Which sums up the teaching of parables like those of Matthew xviii. 21-35 and Luke xvi. 19 f., or of Sirach xxviii. 1-7. In the positive encouragement, the 37merciful life will triumph in the face of judgment, he personifies as usual; it is a daring expression of the thought expressed elsewhere, e.g. in v. 20 and 1 John iv. 17-21, that much will be forgiven to a loving spirit. Mercy or (as in 1 Peter iv. 8) love hides a host of sins; the life of brotherly love need not fear the judgment of God, for it has been true to the spirit and standards of Him who judges human life. This does not contradict what James has said about the unity of the Law, for brotherly love or mercy constitutes the essence of the Law; in fulfilling it, James implies, all other offences such as immorality and murder are avoided.
The second consideration (b) is that the unbrotherly spirit is a piece of arrogant presumption towards the Law of God. At some early period the passage was misplaced; its proper and original position is here, not in iv. 11, 12. It is terse and epigrammatic rather than lucid, but James seems to be developing his charge that the unbrotherly and censorious dare to judge people at all (ver. 4). The Greek verb krinein iv. could mean not only judge in the widest sense, but 11 pass sentence on, and James avails himself of this to demand that harsh, irresponsible judgments on one’s fellow-Christians (such as Jesus forbade in Luke vi. 37) must be stopped, as being implicitly a criticism of the Law itself and (12) an infringement of God’s prerogative.
The latter is plain, the former is not so clear at first. To defame one another is the sin of slander denounced in 1 Peter ii. 1, malicious insinuations and backbiting in the community; but James associates it with censoriousness, the sharp, critical temper which dares to mount the tribunal and lay down the law for others, generally in a hard spirit and often hastily, without pausing to make allowances or to be generous. The 38difficulty is to see how he who thus defames or judges his brother defames or judges the Law, unless it means either that such irresponsible fault-finding implies that the Law has to be supplemented by our verdicts (which would be a slander on it, an overt criticism of its adequacy), or that such a severe, unbrotherly attitude shows that we have misinterpreted the Law and so may be said to have defamed or slandered it, by failing to recognize that its fundamental truth for us is brotherly love. The former seems to under-lie the charge, you pass sentence on it, by assuming this superiority to its rule. In any case, James holds that to judge the faults and defects of a neighbour or fellow-Christian censoriously is to insult the Law of God. Similarly in the Testament of Gad (iv. 1-3) we read, ‘Beware of hatred, for it works lawlessness even against the Lord himself; it will not listen to the words of His commands upon love to one’s neighbour, and it sins against God. For, if a brother stumble, it is immediately eager to proclaim it to all men, and is eager for him to be judged and punished and put to death.’ James declares that this temper reverses our true attitude towards the divine Law; to act thus is to pass sentence on it (probably by taking matters into your own hands, as though it were not severe enough), whereas our one duty is to obey it (implying perhaps that this will occupy all our time and attention). 12 Besides, it is impertinent. Ours only to obey; God’s unshared prerogative is to pass sentence on human life. Legislator is used only here in the N.T.; able to save recalls i. 21; able to destroy may be an echo of the warning of Jesus (preserved in Matthew x. 28), ‘fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body.’39
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us.
Who are you (the stern question comes, to which there is no answer), to judge your neighbour and encroach thus on the function of his God and yours?
The next paragraph (ii. 14-26, iv. 17) is an equally pungent criticism of the religious belief which failed to fulfil itself in practical service and obedience. James states his thesis (14-17), replies to an objection (18-20), clinches his argument by proofs from scripture (21-25), and concludes by a couple of general statements about the vital importance of practical religion (26, iv. 17).
My brothers, what is the use of anyone declaring he has faith, if he has no deeds to show? Can his faith save him? 15 Suppose some brother or sister is ill-clad and short of daily food; 16 if any of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace! Get warm, get food,’ without supplying their bodily needs, what use is that? 17 So faith, unless it has deeds, is dead in itself.
Act on the Word, be an active agent, speak, act. James has already touched this string; he now strikes some resonant chords from it. Faith for him is religious belief’ in the Christian revelation, in. the unity of God (ver. 19), in the divine Law or Word, and in Jesus Christ (ii. 1). What is the use of such a profession of faith, if it is belief and no more? If a man has no deeds to show, no moral character and conduct corresponding to his religious belief, can his faith save him before the judgment of a God who is merciless to the man who has shown no mercy in his life?
In deeds, in deeds He takes delight.
No pious sentiments or talk avail.40
In 1 John iii. 17, 18 a similar vignette of heartless conduct is drawn, but the sketch of James is more sharply etched. If you coolly dismiss a shivering, starving fellow-Christian by 16 saying, ‘Depart in peace (good-bye), you had better get warm and get some food,’ what use is that kind of faith? The truth that fine words need fine deeds to back them was common. Thus one character in a play of Plautus (Trinummus ii. 4. 38 f.) says, ‘You have his good wishes’; whereupon another observes sarcastically, ‘“Good wishes” is an empty phrase unless the speaker does good deeds.’ Movement and action are the proof of life; thus any religious belief not attended by deeds, by the practical action for which God 17 means it to be a vital impulse, is dead matter, dead in itself, dead, as we might say, at the very root and heart of it, no matter how voluble and orthodox it may be; it is inert, not simply because it is hindered, but because it lacks power and vitality. Epictetus (iii. 23. 27, 28) observes that a true philosopher like himself tells his hearers frankly their moral defects and requirements; ‘if the philosopher’s address does not drive this truth home, both speaker and speech are dead’—the point being that an ethical address, however cultured and finely phrased, is a dead thing, unless it produces a vital change in character and conduct. This illustrates the use of dead here. As high-sounding words and pious wishes are unavailing, apart from practical beneficence, so is religious belief apart from deeds. James uses deeds deliberately, as their range is wider than beneficence; the two examples he is going to cite from the O.T. were of actions inspired by faith which had no direct relation to the important duty of charity.
He now meets curtly an objection to his view (18-20).41
Someone will object, ‘And you claim to have faith!’ Yes, and I claim to have deeds as well; you show me your faith without any deeds, and I will show you by my deeds what faith is. 19 You believe in one God? Well and good. So do the devils, and they shudder. 20 But will you understand, you senseless fellow, that faith without deeds is dead?
James overhears an objector retorting, ‘And you claim to have faith, you who talk so highly of deeds! What do you know of religious belief?’ The reply is that the two are a unity; Yes, James answers his critic, ‘I do claim to have faith and I claim to have deeds as well—which is more than you can do! I can show you by my deeds what faith is, the genuine religious belief which always comes out in living obedience to the will of God. (This is the equivalent in James for Paul’s word on faith active in love; both writers are agreed that the first thing to do with faith is to live by it.) But can you show me your faith without any deeds? You cannot, he implies. All you can produce is a declaration or profession of faith, a mere statement. 19 Let me cross-examine you on it: You believe in one God? Well and good; it is the fundamental article of the creed, this monotheism; but such religious belief, devoid of any deeds, lifts you no higher than the devils or daemons. They believe in one God too, James ironically adds (recalling an old Orphic phrase, see on iii. 6), and they shudder; their faith is shown by their terror, an emotion of self-interest, but that does not save them!’
He does not pursue the subject further; with a touch of 20 scorn for the senseless, empty-headed defender of a purely formal religious belief, he turns to show him two classical 41examples of the deeds which demonstrate what faith is. The next paragraph (21-25) is a scriptural proof of the challenge just maintained.
When our father Abraham offered his son Isaac on the altar, was he not justified by what he did? 22 In his case, you see, faith co-operated with deeds, faith was completed by deeds, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled: Abraham believed God, and this was counted to him as righteousness—he was called God’s friend. 24 You observe it is by what he does that a man is justified, not simply by what he believes. 25 So too with Rahab the harlot. Was she not justified by what she did, when she entertained the scouts and got them away by a different road?
Abraham is our father, the ancestor of all true Christians; real believers are sons of Abraham. Paul had said this in a different connexion already (Galatians iii. 6, 7): ‘the real sons of Abraham are those who rely on faith,’ for Abraham ‘had faith in God, and this was counted to him as righteousness,’ i.e. it was counted to his credit by God, as ground of acceptance; in technical language, he was justified or saved by his faith. James draws another inference from the famous phrase in Genesis xv. 6. It had long ago been connected with the incident of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis xxii. 1-12); thus in 1 Maccabees ii. 52 the devout are bidden ‘remember the deeds of our fathers. . . . Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation [i.e. in the trying ordeal of having to sacrifice or be ready to sacrifice Isaac] and it was counted to him as righteousness?’ Clement of Rome (xxxi.) also cites the sacrifice of Isaac, as he asks, ‘Why was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness 43and truth through faith?’ James also takes this as the supreme manifestation of Abraham’s faith. And note, he urges, it was a deed. Abraham acted on his faith. Was he not justified by what he did, not by a mere assertion or profession of his belief in God? 22 A telling proof that faith and deeds are a unity. In his case—and James regards it as typical and decisive—faith co-operated with deeds, faith was completed by deeds, ripening in the exercise of obedience to God.
In some early manuscripts of Genesis xviii. 17, God called Abraham ‘my friend’; at least the text is so quoted by Philo, and to this tradition, rather than to the title as used in Isaiah xli. 8 or 2 Chronicles xx. 7, James alludes, when he adds, he was called God’s friend. This is by the way, however, for James continues passionately to drive home his teaching;24 you observe (he is speaking now to his hearers in general, no longer, as in ver. 22, to the supposed objector) it is by what he does that a man is justified, not simply by what he believes. Paul had argued that Abraham was justified by faith, not by obedience to the Law; but James knew nothing of deeds or ‘works of the Law,’ i.e. observance of the ritual and ceremonial Law as constituting a claim for merit before God. The notion that religious belief justified by itself arose out of a misapprehension of Paul’s antithesis between faith and works. Whether James’s readers were familiar with what Paul said, or not, James himself is attacking either some ultra-Paulinists or certain people who appealed to Paul’s teaching about faith as justifying a religious belief which did not need moral exercise. Living and real faith, says Archdeacon Julius Hare (Victory of Faith, p. 26), ‘is a practical power; nay, of all principles, of all powers, by which man can be actuated, the most 44practical; so that when it does not show forth its life by good works, we may reasonably conclude that it is dead; just as we infer that a body is dead, when it has ceased to move. Not that the works constitute the life of faith . . . any more than motion constitutes or imparts the life of the body. . . . On the contrary, it is from the living principle of faith that they must receive their life.’ This is the idea of James (see vers. 17 and 26); it is also the idea of Paul, though he would have put it differently; he would have called, indeed he did call, such moral actions fruits of the Spirit rather than deeds, even while he would have agreed heartily with James that no mere assent to religious truth had any saving power. But for James the expression of faith in deeds is also spontaneous. Deeds do not reinforce faith, they are or ought to be the outcome of that relation to the regenerating Word which implies submission of life to the royal law of love (ii. 8 f.). This is bound up with true faith in Jesus Christ. The argument of i. 17 f. was that Christians must let their divine nature or birth have free play within them, and the present argument puts the same truth from another side. For James the exercise of obedience to God or of brotherly love, which is the unforced fulfilment of the law of the Lord, springs out of a vital relation to that Law or Word—that is, out of faith rightly conceived. Or, as he puts it here, what a man does verifies and completes, as nothing else can do, what he believes; his obedience to God is not the discharge of some additional obligation by means of which he makes up for something that mere faith in God has left undone, but the natural issue of what faith involved.
Like the author of Hebrews (xi. 17-19, 31), James cites 45Rahab, a, woman and a pagan, after Abraham; harlot as she was, before her conversion, from his point of view, her conduct was another proof of religious belief prompting active effort. She entertained the scouts (in the tale of Joshua ii. 1-21). One early Christian writer observed that ‘Rahab the harlot was saved on account of her faith and hospitality’ (Clem. Rom. xii.), but James is content to cite her actions as a proof that she was justified by what she did; she believed in God, and evinced her faith by the trouble she took in receiving the scouts and assisting them to escape, at the risk of her own life. No mere belief, this! You need not appeal to Abraham or Rahab in defence of your theory and practice of mere faith as enough!
26 For as the body without the breath of life is dead, so faith is dead without deeds. iv. 17Whoever, then, knows to do what is right to do and does not do it, that is a sin for him.
Again, as in the previous paragraphs (17, 20), James strikes at a
a religious belief which never gets beyond intellectual assent or emotions or talk.
This has been explained on ver. 24. iv.
17 The second sentence clinches the whole argument of 14-26. Then, in view of what I have urged, you cannot plead ignorance; I have shown you what is right to do with your faith, and any failure is therefore a sin. Sins of omission are not venial. ‘Often he who does not do a certain thing does wrong, not simply he who actually does something’ (Marcus Aurelius, ix. 5). It is another 46terse maxim of James, a warning winged against religious knowledge that is satisfied with itself.
Sins of speech: the might and mischief of the human tongue; this is the theme of iii. 1-5a, 5b-8, 9-12. James had already mentioned the peril of talkativeness and un-bridled speech (i. 19, 26), but he now deals vividly with the general temptations of the tongue in social life. He believed, as Sirach had said (v. 13), that ‘a man’s tongue is [responsible for] his fall.’ Words may be a substitute for true religion (as in ii. 14), but here they are studied as explosions of bad temper and passion.
My brothers, do not swell the ranks of the teachers; remember, we teachers will be judged with special strictness. 2 We all make many a slip, but whoever avoids slips of speech is a perfect man; he can bridle the whole of the body as well as the tongue. 3 We put bridles into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and so, you see, we can move the whole of their bodies. 4 Look at ships, too; for all their size and speed under stiff winds, they are turned by a tiny rudder wherever the mind of the steersman chooses. 5a So the tongue is a small member of the body, but it can boast of great exploits.
The churches addressed by James had teachers, of whom he was one, as well as presbyters (v. 14). It was a position of repute and prestige in the early church, and evidently many felt called to this vocation, in which they could exercise above all their powers of rhetoric and culture, as they expounded the scriptures or exhorted the faithful on the truths of the faith. James found that this department 47of church-work had become extremely popular. Hence his warning about its serious responsibilities. God will judge us (ii. 12) on the last day with special strictness on account of our influence over others. The reference is not to erroneous doctrine but to the danger of talkativeness, of reckless statements, of frothy rhetoric, of abusive language, of misleading assertions, and the like. It is because the vocation of a Christian teacher or preacher was specially liable to this temptation that James starts from it to portray the perils of the tongue. Walter Bagehot once said of Cobden as an agitator that ‘very rarely, if even ever in history,’ had a man ‘achieved so much by his words and yet spoken so little evil. There is hardly a word to be found, perhaps, which the recording angel would wish to 2 blot out.’ James thinks a man might well be termed perfect, a finished character (it is the same adjective in Greek), if he could thus avoid the slips (see ii. 10 for these moral lapses) of speech to which all, teachers and taught alike, are prone, apart from other sources of sin. Indeed he seems for the moment to ignore Sirach’s judgment (‘Many a man makes a slip, unintentionally; indeed who has not sinned with his tongue?’ xix. i6) and to assume that this can be done. Such a perfect character (the only safe person to become a teacher in the church), a man who can control his tongue, has sell-command enough to control his entire body. This is an exaggeration; some of the most reticent men have by no means been able to control their sensual passions. But in his enthusiasm for the man who manages to control his 3 unruly tongue, James declares that to bridle (i. 26) the tongue is to master the whole of the body, the tongue being as effective as a 4 bridle for horses or a rudder for ships, and proportionately as small.48
These were fairly common metaphors in ancient ethical 5a writings. The uncommon touch comes at the close: so the tongue, small as it is, can boast of great exploits. Alas, they are often great disasters, the exploits of a mischievous force in human life! For imperfect men suffer cruelly from this pernicious and untameable organ of the body, as James now proceeds to describe (5b–8).
What a forest is set ablaze by a little spark of fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the tongue proves a very world of mischief among our members, staining the whole of the body and setting fire to the round circle of existence with a flame fed by hell. 7 For while every kind of beast and bird, of creeping animals and creatures marine, is tameable and has been tamed by mankind, 8 no man can tame the tongue—plague of disorder that it is, full of deadly venom!
The forest-fire metaphor is familiar enough in ancient literature; Euripides in a fragment of his lost play on Ino, compares the incautious blabbing of a secret to a spark catching hold of a forest, but James probably means the spread of angry passions stirred by some ill-judged, angry 6 word. Staining the body recalls the phrase about the foul nature of malice in i. 21, but it breaks the unity of the metaphor. The round circle of existence is a rhetorical phrase like the ‘orb of creation’; it belonged originally to the Orphic mysteries, where it meant technically the endless cycle or circle of death and rebirth. James uses it colloquially, as he had already recalled (ii. 19) another Orphic tag about God ‘at whom the devils shudder.’ Tindal renders it, ‘all that we have of nature.’ The sentence 49heaps up burning words to brand the ruinous effects of a loose, malicious tongue. A flame fed by hell comes from Judaism; hell renders the Greek term Gehenna, where the nether fires were supposed to burn. Reckless talk of this kind is simply hellish, as the spurious, quarrelsome wisdom is devilish (ver. 15). 8 There is no taming this truculent, disorderly (see ver. 16), poisonous thing, he exclaims, in a hyperbole like the opposite exclamation in ver. 2. The deadly venom of misrepresentation, of rancorous or slanderous speech, was a familiar O.T. figure, as in the psalm cited by Paul in Romans iii. 13; the popular belief was that the hissing, forked tongue of a serpent darted poison, and this suggested a comparison with the human tongue of Orientals who were singularly gifted in abuse and malignity of utterance. The wisdom-literature abounds with warnings against venomous and vicious speech, but this outburst of James suggests that he had suffered from the strife of tongues in the religious world. Somehow and somewhere he had fallen ‘on evil days and evil tongues.’ His lanague is more than picturesque; it reads like a transcript of bitter experience.
In one wisdom-passage on burning words (Sirach xxviii. 12) the writer remarks, ‘If you blow upon a spark it burns up, but if you spit upon it the spark is quenched; and both come out of your mouth.’ This resembles the idea of the closing words in 9-12.
With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with the tongue we curse men made in God’s likeness; 10 blessing and cursing stream from the same lips! My brothers, this ought not to be. 11 Does a fountain pour out fresh water and brackish from the same hole? 12 Can a fig 50tree, my brothers, bear olives? Or a vine, figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
To be consistent we should bless not only God but our fellow-men as made in God’s likeness. Sirach (xvii. 1-14) declares that God created men ‘in his own likeness’ to praise Him, and also gave them ‘a command concerning their neighbours’ (i.e. to love them). This ethical obligation, derived from Genesis i. 26, was a marked feature of Jewish moral teaching; some contemporary rabbis connected 10 the command to love one’s neighbour especially with the creation of man in the likeness of God, arguing that any sin against man was an attack on the divine likeness. 11 Such is the ethical motive employed here by James. The other figures (in 11-12) are taken from Greek and Roman proverbial lore, to bring out the unnatural habit of using the same tongue for piety and rancorous abuse, 12 though the last words are paralleled by this phrase from a contemporary Jewish apocalypse (Fourth Esdras v. 9), where the writer, in depicting the monstrous phenomena that herald the End, declares, ‘Salt waters shall be found in the sweet, friends shall attack one another suddenly.’ The general thought tallies with the Testament of Benjamin (vi. 5): ‘The good mind has not two tongues, of blessing and cursing, of insulting and honouring, of quietness and confusion, of pretence and veracity.’ The metaphors, however, picture life in the religious world of the day, where teachers and preachers uttered lofty sentiments and voiced spiritual truths before their congregations, and also gave way to bitterness in controversy, even cursing their opponents (see v. 12) or dull, slow hearers. Not that James confines 51the sins of the tongue to the officials. Talk about religion among ordinary members of the church might be wholesome, but the same people were guilty of spitefulness and scandal in social intercourse, inflaming the passions of others by cruel, careless words or poisoning the mind by insinuations. As Burke wrote to his son, ‘A very great part of the mischiefs that vex the world arises from words. People soon forget the meaning, but the impression and the passion remain.’
In the Wisdom literature (e.g. in Sirach xxiv. 30 f.) wisdom compared often to a stream whose waters benefit the hearers. After the metaphors of 11 and 12, it was natural for James therefore to pass to a searching analysis of the true wisdom which teachers of the church especially should covet and possess. Any wisdom or religious culture which fostered such bitter talk and thoughts was a caricature. He had already mentioned wisdom in i. 5; now (13-18) he explains its characteristics and criteria.
Who among you is wise and learned? Let him show by his good conduct, with the modesty of wisdom, what his deeds are. 14 But if you are cherishing bitter jealousy and rivalry in your hearts, do not pride yourselves on that—and be false to the truth. 15 That is not the wisdom which comes down from above, it is an earthly wisdom, sensuous, devilish; 16 for wherever jealousy and rivalry exist, there disorder reigns and every evil. 17 The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, forbearing, conciliatory, full of mercy and wholesome fruit, unambiguous, straight-forward; 18 and the peacemakers who sow in peace reap righteousnesss.52
‘In all (modes of) wisdom there is fulfilment of the Law, 13 but to be learned in wickedness is not wisdom’ (Sirach xix. 20, 21). The Greek term for learned (which only occurs here in the N.T.) denotes a sage or expert. James is still dealing with teachers or would-be teachers in the church. Wisdom, in the sense already defined (on i. 5), was the badge and banner of this class; like religious belief (ii. 14), it must attest itself practically, in good conduct among fellow-Christians, and modestly. Words are not enough without deeds, and the deeds of service are not to be done in any spirit of passion or ostentation. The pursuit of opinions for opinion’s sake, the motive of emulation in the study of knowledge, the plague of self-conceit which besets teachers and learned persons both within and without the church, the demoralizing absorption in rhetoric about morals and religion which the deeper spirits of the time, from Paul to Epictetus, denounced, and above all, perhaps, the ambition and intrigues of religious parties and party-leaders—these are the perils before the mind of James in this paragraph.
The modesty (see i. 21) of wisdom is a paradox, till, as Paul told the Corinthians (1 Corinthians viii. 1 f.), 14 we understand what true wisdom means. It is out of keeping with the temper of bitter jealousy and rivalry (i.e. party-spirit, selfish ambition, factiousness). Do not pride yourselves on that, on the intensity and harsh zeal which lead to such unscrupulous partisanship, and which are sometimes justified as loyalty to the truth. This is really to be false to the truth (see on i. 18). The Greek verb might mean to ‘lay false claims to (the truth),’ but the other rendering preserves the profound thought that the truth of Christianity cannot be put forward or defended truly except in the Christian spirit; religious people may be extremely 53provoking, and defeat their own ends by overbearing methods; right views and sound counsels may lose their effect if they are expressed by men who are self-seeking partisans or 15 unscrupulous controversialists. Their so-called wisdom is no divine endowment (i. 17) or revelation, but earthly (or, as Paul said, ‘the wisdom of this world’). Sensuous may have the technical sense of Judas 19, or the broader sense of ‘unspiritual’ (as Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians ii. 14). Devilish is the climax, as in ver. 6; malignant temper and strife, the restless spirit which disturbs and degrades human 16 life, is from below, utterly hostile to God. Disorder is a favourite term of the Stoics which James, like Paul (e.g. 2 Corinthians xii. 20), applies to the squabbles and disturbances of Christians in their fellowship, particularly in connexion with religious discussions and parties (see below, on ver. 18). True knowledge of religious truth is, to begin with, pure, i.e. ethically. The Greek term has no connexion with doctrinal orthodoxy; James never enters into any question about the contents of the creed, he brings out the practical criteria of a genuine religious belief.
Wisdom originally and essentially was the knowledge of duties and dangers in the moral life, as revealed in the law of God, and as this study was directed to practical ends, it involved practical qualities in those who professed to teach it. The bearing of pure here is best seen in the use made of the verb in iv. 8 or by Peter in 1 Peter i. 22 f. It suggests a life unsullied because it is inspired and influenced by God above, free from impure motives and methods, especially from aggressiveness and quarrelsomeness. Peaceable is the opposite of self-assertive; any statement or application of religious truth leads to differences of opinion and difficulties in handling other people, where a 54convinced man is apt to be pugnacious or to insist upon his own way inconsiderately, without being forbearing, i.e. fair and reasonable in meeting opponents, whether they are reasonable or unreasonable. No brusqueness, no pugnacity! Conciliatory (only here in N.T.) is the opposite of stiff and unbending. Manning, wrote Newman, ‘wishes me no ill, but he is determined to bend or to break all opposition. He has an iron will and resolves to have his own way.’ Full of mercy—not of deadly venom (ver. 8)—is elucidated by what was said in ii. 8-13. Wholesome fruit recalls (see ver. 13) the truth that genuine Christian wisdom is to be a benefit to other people, furthering their health and strength. The Christian teacher or indeed anyone who is interested in the study and progress of religious truth, requires what T. H. Green called ‘openings into that active life of charity in which Christian faith is most readily realized’; he needs it for his own sake, and others need his insight and aid there. Two negative adjectives end this sevenfold catalogue of qualities. Unambiguous never occurs elsewhere in the N.T.; it means here ‘free from ambiguity or uncertainty,’ referring to the impression it makes upon others; you must know what to make of any statement, instead of being left doubtful about its bearing or meaning. Teaching in fact is not to be equivocal or evasive, but straightforward (literally, free from hypocrisy or pretence). ‘Say what you judge to be best, only say it in a friendly, modest and straightforward manner.’ (Marcus Aurelius, viii. 5), so that people know where they are and where you are in the matter (‘I do not know,’ Newman wrote once to Manning, ‘whether I am on my head or my heels when I have active relations with you’). These two last words rule out this habit of using speech to half reveal 55and half conceal the mind of the speaker, who has something (as we say) at the back of his mind all the time; any subtle reserve or disingenuous dealing in Christian intercourse is certain to create friction and misunderstanding. Whereas, James means, the qualities he has just been praising make for good feeling and mutual harmony in any community; 18 peace of this kind is the one way of promoting right relations with God see on (i. 20). The final clause which brings this out is remarkable for its double emphasis on peace; teachers who do their work in the spirit which has just been commended, to the exclusion of any selfish ends, are peacemakers, not leaders who stir up strife by their pugnacity and stubbornness and thereby spoil the soil for any real, religious growth (see i. 21). There is a similar phrase in Hebrews xii. 11, where an upright life is the same as righteousness here. The only activity which has any outcome in this divine direction is that of men purged from any taint of self-interest or private ambition, which leads to bitter jealousy and rivalry, since they are thinking more of their own reputation and party than of the interests of God. That means the reign of disorder, in which good seed can neither be sown nor ripen. No wholesome fruit or spiritual crop, James is urging, ever comes from quarrelling and controversy; to sow in peace is to instil and apply the truth as the royal law of love, which can only be done in the unselfish spirit of that law or wisdom.
‘But how speak of peace to you,’ James tells his churches, ‘you wrangling, worldly crew? To your knees before God!’ The thunder of this call to repentance rolls through vers. 1-10. The first part is couched in the short, sharp sentences of contemporary ethical treatises (1-6); the 56second is thrown into the rhythmical style of an O.T. prophet (7-10).
Where do conflicts, where do wrangles come from, in your midst? Is it not from these passions of yours that war among your members? 2 You crave, and miss what you want; you envy and covet, but you cannot acquire: you wrangle and fight—you miss what you want because you do not ask God for it; 3 you do ask and you do not get it, because you ask with the wicked intention of spending it on your pleasures. 4 (Wanton creatures! do you not know that the world’s friendship means enmity to God? Whoever, then, chooses to be the world’s friend, turns enemy to God. 5 What, do you consider this is an idle word of scripture?’ He yearns jealously for the spirit he set within us.) 6 Yet he gives grace more and more: thus it is said,
The haughty God opposes,
‘The body,’ says Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (66), ‘fills us with desires and cravings . . . it is nothing but the body with its passions that is the cause of conflicts and factions and wrangles’; he explains that the conflicts of war are invariably due to material cravings. James also finds that the feuds by which Christians were being torn are manifestations of something wrong within. But he is not referring to military wars. What are conflicts and wrangles? The latter in Greek could mean disputes or pitched battles over doctrine, and this would carry on the argument of the previous paragraph against the factions and quarrels of Christians, especially 57Christian teachers and leaders. But he has more in mind than dissensions. The next four sections (iv. 1-10, 13-16, v. 1-6, 7-11) show that he has begun to handle what a modem would call the social problems of religion. All, poor and rich alike, peasants, traders, and landowners, wanted more than they had. Sometimes they had a right to it. Sometimes they wanted it for wrong ends. Sometimes they wanted it and sought it along wrong ways. The economic aspects do not appeal to James, however; he does not raise the questions of commerce and property and wages. What occupies his mind as a Christian teacher is the moral aspect of the situation. Hence the passions and pleasures to be gratified must be more than the love of pre-eminence or conceit or any of the ugly desires to which the vocation of a teacher or preacher was specially liable. These may be included. But it is the wider craving for more of this world’s goods that is responsible for Christians falling out with one another and clashing. Longinus writes sadly about the ruinous effects of ‘those passions which in a sense garrison our present life, harrying it and plundering it’ (De Sublim., xliv.), especially the love of pleasure and that ‘debasing’ passion, the love of money. James, from the religious side, uses a similar military metaphor. These passions of yours, he says, war among your members, again (as in i. 14 f.), tracing the outward manifestations of evil to their inward source. Your members are the members of the body, where the human personality is organized for outward action. Paul had spoken of ‘the law of sin in my members which wars against the law of my mind and makes me a prisoner’; Peter spoke of ‘the passions of the flesh that wage war on the soul’ (1 Peter ii. 12). James does 58not say what they attack. He remarks that they operate in and through the bodily members. Worldly appetites and interests act through eye, hand, foot, and voice, for example; the emotions come to physical expression; it is in the body that they are rampant.
Crave is quite general; the rendering ‘lust’ is too narrow. There are legitimate cravings for outward things, and if people miss their objects of desire, it does not follow that this is because they are bad, and therefore withheld by God. James comes back to this in a minute. Meantime, in breathless haste, he turns to selfish cravings. The text is obscure, perhaps corrupt. At an early period one word at anyrate was misread by copyists. The traditional text read kill (phoneuete), which cannot by any reasonable interpretation yield a relevant meaning; after kill, covet is a hopeless anticlimax. Erasmus was the first to guess that the original word must have been envy (phthoneuete). Envying and coveting the possessions or position of others fail; you cannot acquire what you want. Why this was so, James does not explain. Perhaps these people had not power to carry out their insurgent demands for a larger share of outward goods. Still, they seethed with the longings of unsatisfied desire and envious greed. You wrangle and fight, doing your best to acquire this or that, under the sway of these imperious inward cravings.
Here the text is broken, or James breaks off. ‘Try prayer to God,’ is his next word. ‘But we do pray.’ ‘Yes, but you pray with a selfish, worldly motive, which prevents your prayers being answered.’ This is the second reason which James offers for unanswered prayer (the first being in i. 7, 8). You do ask God for something (say, some 59more money), instead of trying to snatch it violently from the hands of a neighbour, and yet you do not get it. Why? Because you ask with the wicked intention of spending it, dissipating it, on your pleasures, on self-gratification. That proves you have secretly set your heart on the world, not on God; 4 if you ask Him for something which you mean to take away and lavish on His rival, how can you expect Him to let you have your wish? God looks to the intention of our prayers. He cannot bear to see us sharing our affection between Himself and the world; He cares for us far too deeply and passionately to be content with a divided allegiance.
This is the drift of vers. 4 and 5, which are a sharp aside, suggested by the faithlessness implied in the perverted prayer of ver. 3. Some early scribes were puzzled by the abrupt Wanton creatures (literally, adulteresses), and put in ‘adulterers,’ to make it clear that the men of the church were being addressed as well as the women. But wanton creatures is, of course, figurative. In the O.T. the sin of forsaking the true God for idolatry was called ‘adultery,’ the nation being regarded as the wife of God. ‘Thy Maker is thy Husband’; any apostasy is disloyalty to His love. James applies the same expression pungently to worldly Christians who have broken their baptismal vows to God, transferring their real interest and affection to the world; he uses the feminine form deliberately, for one turn of special contempt and scorn in the ancient world was to call a community or group by some feminine equivalent. Thus Theopompus the Greek historian denounced the adherents of Philip by saying, ‘They were called Friends (hetairoi) of Philip, but they were his mistresses (hetairai).’
The fifth verse is extremely obscure. James had hailed 60the pattern believer Abraham as God’s friend, but instead of urging Christians here to merit that title by devotion to God alone he quotes a scripture passage which seems to describe God’s jealous yearning for the human soul. Friendship with Him and with the world is impossible; He cannot tolerate such a divided affection. You ask, But does He mind it so much? Are you right in saying that to be on good terms with the world would be seriously resented by God? ‘Well, does He not set His heart on having us all for Himself?’ That scripture is not idle or unmeaning.
For the third time James cites inspired scripture explicitly (ii. 8, 22). It is some unknown writing of the early church, which has not survived; possibly it was the Book of Eldad and Modat, which underlies the allusion in ver. 8 (see Introduction). A glance at the text and margin of the English versions will show that the interpretations of this puzzling quotation turn on the point whether spirit is in the nominative or the accusative case. The latter is more likely. To yearn jealously is an echo of the daring O.T. anthropomorphism which emerged from the idea of the People as the Bride of their God, who had an exclusive right to their affections and who grudged the world any share of the love due to Himself. James tacitly rejected the Greek thought of the jealousy of God (see on i. 5), but he could the more readily use language of this kind, as Christians were for him those who love God, and this is the nearest approach he makes to the truth that God loves them; he preferred to call God the Father, as in i. 17 and iii. 9, with special reference to creation, and so this quotation appeals to him with its allusion to the spirit or breath of life divine (ii. 26) which at creation God set within us. The inward life of man, instead of being abandoned 61to passions (ver. 1), ought to be surrendered to the original and intense love which throbs in God for the human soul so dear to Him, the soul He endows with such powers and faculties (i. 17). The seriousness of God’s devotion is contrasted with the lack of seriousness shown by Christians who felt no scruple about using their religion in order to gratify their desires for the pleasant world around them.
Now James resumes the thought of ver. 3. All this preoccupation with worldly interests takes men away from the sphere in which God can freely and fully answer their prayers. Whatever is withheld, He never withholds grace any more than wisdom (i. 5); His favour and friendship are bestowed generously; He never grudges that. To ask grace is to get it more and more, for His goodwill can be given to one without another being the poorer, and He loves to give (see on i. 5). Grace of course does not means for James what it meant for Paul; he merely quotes a well-known text about grace from Proverbs (iii. 34), as Peter does (1 Peter v. 5), to remind his readers of the conditions required for receiving God’s help and favour. No wonder they had failed to get what they asked, for they had been too self-reliant, given over to the proud glory of life which another writer traced to the spirit of the world (1 John ii. 16). Whereas only the humble can be helped and blessed. Here humble is a broader term than in i. 9; it is not social position, but the inward spirit of need and of reliance on God which is meant. The humble are those who are penitent and spiritual, who ask God for what they feel the deepest needs of life, who neither envy nor covet what their neighbours own, unlike the haughty or worldly who are so self-reliant that they give up prayer or attempt to use prayer coolly as a means 62of furthering some private and personal end. This haughtiness is for James a religious, or rather an irreligious, temper here; it is not insolence to one’s fellow-men but primarily the preference of worldly prosperity to anything else. Such friendship with the world means that one is on a footing of hostility towards God, for it defies His will and despises His purpose; disguise it as one may, it is an implicit challenge to God, James argues, a position so dangerous that it must be abandoned entirely. Hence the pungent call to repentance in 7-10.
Well then, submit yourselves to God:
resist the devil,
and he will fly from you:
draw near to God,
and he will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Lament and mourn and weep,
let your laughter be turned to mourning,
and your joy to depression;
humble yourselves before the Lord,
and then he will raise you up.
Submissiveness to God instead of any jaunty self-confidence! Some circles in the early church were perplexed by wondering if post-baptismal sins on the part of Christians could be forgiven. Could any such sins be pardoned by God? If so, what sins, and how? James, with practical good sense, ignores this difficulty, and falls back simply on the duty and blessing of repentance. Resist the devil in 1 Peter v. 9 means resistance to the supreme temptation of apostasy, in a time 63of persecution; here it is more general, the devil being the representative and ruler of the world over against God. As sin gave the devil a chance (Ephesians iv. 27), the one way to escape was to break his hold over the soul by repentance, turning to God. James assumes that the human will has this power. As the whole world lies in the power of the evil One (1 John v. 19), man must challenge that power; it is not irresistible. In the Testament of Naphthali (viii. 4: ‘If you do what is good, the devil will flee from you and the Lord will love you’) and of Simeon (iii. 5: ‘If a man flee to the Lord, the evil spirit runs away from him’) the same metaphor is employed, but James puts it more vigorously and hopefully, summoning his readers to check the evil spirit of self-will which had been allowed to set them against the will of God. In the Book of Eldad and Modat there was a text, ‘The Lord is near to those who turn to him’ (quoted in Hermas, Vis. iii. 4), which 8James recalls in ver. 8. To draw near to God involved a moral purification and consecration of life to His service, which is expressed in the usual metaphors of ritual worship; the true worshipper who would enter the divine presence must have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Psalm xxiv. 4). Hands and hearts denote (as in Sirach xxxviii. l0 and elsewhere) the whole of life, outward and inward. Purify your hearts (the phrase used in 1 Peter i. 22) signifies the consecration of life to God for His ends, instead of the world’s, and this throws light upon the meaning of double-minded here; not, ‘do this without any hesitation’ (as in i. 8), but ‘purify your hearts from false compromise between the world and God’ (4, 5). When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ he meant the single-minded or whole-hearted, whose devotion was free from 64any alloy of worldly motive or self-interest. So here. The double-minded are sinners, though they may not think so. It is a sin to combine worldliness and religion or to divide one’s interest between God and any rival. Instead of being contented and cheerful in your worldly self-satisfaction, 9 instead of your gaiety of spirits, mourn sadly over your sins, then; James speaks in terms of the Hebrew prophets’ language about the anguish of repentance, but lament after double-minded looks like another reminiscence of the Book of Eldad and Modat, if that be the scripture cited anonymously in Clem. Rom. xxiii. 3 (‘Far be that scripture from us where He says, “Wretched [the adjective corresponding to the verb lament] are the double-minded”’). Depression (only here in the N.T.) is the downcast, subdued expression of those who are ashamed and sorry.
James closes with the same assurance as Peter (1 Peter v. 6), but Peter refers to the relief granted by God to loyal Christians who were being oppressed by persecutors, while James means that God will raise up the penitent who have humbled themselves by deploring their offences. The true penitent, like the taxgatherer in the parable of Jesus, does not venture ‘to lift up even his eyes to heaven’; there is nothing uplifted about him now, till God’s pardon raises him to his feet. What James has already said about God raising the humble Christian (in i. 9) is therefore slightly different.
Now for a special case of the pursuit of worldly gain which has just been exposed (1 f.)! Perhaps this is a note of some address to a mixed audience (ii. 3 f.), but there may have been traders in the church whose methods proved that they, left God out of account in their business plans (13-16).65
Come now, you who say, ‘To-day or to-morrow we are going to such and such a city; we shall spend a year there trading and making money’—14 you who know nothing about to-morrow! For what is your life? You are but a mist, which appears for a little and then vanishes. 15 You ought rather to say, ‘If the Lord will, we shall live to do this or that.’ 16 But here you are, boasting in your proud pretensions! All such boasting is wicked.
Both this and the next paragraph open with the brusque 13 Come now. These busy Greek traders have to make plans. James does not censure such foresight; what he denounces is their habit of ignoring God. Say is of course ‘say to yourselves,’ and the religious attitude of James is that of Proverbs xxvii. 1: 14 ‘Boast not about to-morrow, for you never know what a day will bring.’ Life is far too uncertain—for what? For forgetting your dependence upon the providence of God, James replies. A mist or cloud or vapour is one of the commonest figures in ancient writers for hump life as transient. It is the impious in Wisdom (ii. 4) who wail that their ‘life will be scattered like mist before the rays of the sun,’ but James means the life of man in general. Another of the quotations in Clem. Rom. (xvii.) which may have come from the Book of Eldad and Modat (see above, on ver. 8) is a plaint of Moses, ‘I am as mist (or steam) from a pot’; the word for mist is the same as here, and human beings, not life, are compared to it, so that there is a possibility that James had read and recollected this.
If the Lord will had been used by Paul (in 1 Corinthians iv. i9 and Acts xviii. 21). It or some equivalent (‘if the gods will’) was a familiar phrase of piety in pagan circles; the 66Jewish analogies are all later and derived. James recommends it as an antidote to presumption and an expression of humble submissiveness to God (6, 7). We shall live to do this or that is a characteristic touch; a trader who humbly owns the will of God over him can hope to live and do his work; as James himself says in another connexion,16 he will be blessed in his activity, for faith is always practical. But here you are in point of fact boasting (see iii. 14) in (i.e. as you make) your proud pretensions. This last word means in 1 John ii. 16 the proud glory of life, but here it is overweening self-confidence, as in Wisdom v. 8, where the impious at the end lament, ‘What was the profit of our proud pretensions?’ All such boasting, when life is so precarious, is worse than absurd, it is wicked, a positive sin, a specimen of the ungodly haughtiness (ver. 6) of which men should repent.
Rich landowners are next attacked (v. 1-6) in a scathing outburst of indignation. The words sound like part of a sermon addressed to a mixed audience by James, an audience which included (see ii. 2) some wealthy proprietors. This outspoken teacher or preacher at anyrate does not toady to them. Indeed he holds out no prospect of repentance, nor does he summon them, as he did the traders, to mend their ways; this is a threat of doom, in the strain of prophets like Amos and Malachi. It may have been intended to shake some by fear out of their selfishness and injustice, but there is no direct evidence to prove that these plutocrats were members of the church; indeed the last word of the appalling denunciation indicates that it was their victims who belonged to the church, and that the cruelty was part of what Jews or pagans, who lorded it over humble Christian workers, made them suffer.67
1 Come now, you rich men, weep and shriek over your impending miseries!
3b You have been storing up treasure in the very last days;
2 your wealth lies rotting,
and your clothes are moth-eaten;
3a your gold and silver lie rusted over,
and their rust will be evidence against you,
it will devour your flesh like fire.
4 See, the wages of which you have defrauded the workmen who mowed your fields call out,
and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
5 You have revelled on earth and plunged into dissipation;
you have fattened yourselves as for the Day of slaughter;
6 you have condemned, you have murdered the righteous—unresisting.
As in iv. 7-10, the style resembles the rhythmical oracles of the Hebrew prophets, though similar threats of doom against the impious wealthy were a feature of the Wisdom literature and of apocalypses like Enoch. The nearest approach to the tone of James is in Luke vi. 24 (‘woe to you rich folk, you get all the comforts you will ever get’) and xvi. 19-31 (the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The doom is depicted in highly coloured Jewish phrases, and the same immediate prospect of the End is held out as a threat to the rich: and as a consolation to the oppressed poor (in 7-11). Because it was imminent, there was no call to demand social justice for the victims; the whole order of things was to be swept away immediately, and the thought 68of any reform and redress on earth never entered the mind of James. He tells the rich to shriek or howl with anguish (in the demonstrative Oriental fashion of showing distress) over their impending miseries on the day of doom.
The next clause got displaced at an early period, and must be recovered from ver. 3; you have had nothing better to do, have you, on the verge of doom! than to store up treasure? 2 Any eye can see it already ruined and proving your ruin! Raiment and coin were two chief forms of property for a wealthy Oriental: clothes rot and get moth-eaten (Matthew vi. 19, ‘moth and rust corrode’), gold and silver get rusted over (he means, tarnished). With the prophetic eye James sees this rust bearing silent witness against the wealthy for their rapacity in hoarding up their money instead of giving it away. In Sirach xxix. 10 we read, ‘Lose your money to a brother and friend, and let it not rust hidden beneath a stone.’ More than that, James adds, with a Dantesque touch of horror, the rust will devour (or corrode) your flesh like fire, you are so bound up with your greedy gains (see on i. 11); your wealth perishes and you perish with it and by it, eaten away in burning pain.
The second charge is fraudulent treatment of their farm-labourers. The Mosaic code ordered the wages to be paid every evening: ‘You must pay him his wages by the day, nor let the sun go down upon it (for the man is poor and he wants his wages), lest he cries to the Eternal against you and you incur guilt’ (Deuteronomy xxiv. 15). But these farmers, unlike the employer in the parable of Jesus (Matthew xx. 8), kept back the pay of the labourers on their farms or estates; defrauded covers this injustice, though it need not be confined to it. The cries of these harvesters, who have filled your 69barns for you, have reached the ears of the great God, though you would not listen to their protests and appeals. James appositely recalls the language of Isaiah’s similar denunciation of selfish landowners; in the Greek version, which was the Bible of James and his readers (Isaiah v. 8-9), the cries of their victims reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (literally, as in the A.V., Sabaoth), the mighty Judge who avenges such crimes. James, however, makes the doom eschatological and immediate, though he does not hint here, as he does in the case of the two other charges (see vers. 3 and 5), how the imminent punishment was to be inflicted. One of the most relevant passages in the older literature on this charge is Tobit iv. 7-14, where the writer counsels a just and generous use of wealth. ‘Give alms out of your possessions ungrudgingly . . . for thus you store up good treasure for yourself against the day of need’ (i.e. the last day, when account is taken). This is the point which, in 1–3, James implies these rapacious estate-owners have forgotten, though he does not share the Jewish view of alms as meritorious. Tobit continues, ‘in haughty scorn (i.e. of other people) ruin lies and great disorder (the word used by James in iii. 16) . . . let not the wages of any of your work-men remain in your possession, but pay them at once . . . give some of your clothes to those who are ill-clad’ (see James ii. 15, v. 2).
So much for the second charge. The third is wanton luxury, with its social cruelty (5, 6). Your dissipated self-indulgence has been merely preparing you, like the fatted cattle in your stalls, for the Day of slaughter. The phrase was coined by Jeremiah (xii. 3), but in the later apocalypses it became eschatological. One of the woes against the 70impious rich in Enoch (xciv. 8, 9) runs thus: ‘Woe to you rich, for you have trusted in your riches, and from your riches you must be parted, because you have not remembered the Most High in the days of your riches. You have committed blasphemy and unrighteousness, and have become ready for the Day of slaughter, the day of darkness, the day of the last great judgment.’ And this, says James grimly, is. what you have been unconsciously pampering yourselves for! You must pay with your lives for the wanton indulgence that has cost your victims their lives, the 6 victims of your social and judicial oppression. Condemned and murdered echoes what has been already said in ii. 6. Their luxury had been utterly unscrupulous, regardless of human life in its demands. Poor, pious people had been at their mercy, and had received no mercy. Murdered had a wider range in Jewish ethics familiar to James. Thus in Sirach xxxiv. (xxxi.) 24 f. ‘a man who offers sacrifice which he has extorted from the moneys of the poor is as (bad as) a man who slays a son before his father’s eyes. The poor have to live on scanty bread, and anyone who defrauds them of it is a man of blood. He murders his neighbour who deprives him of his living, and he who defrauds a hireling of his wages is a shedder of blood.’ But, coming after condemned, it probably refers to judicial murders, against which the downtrodden victims could do nothing.
The righteous is singular in Greek, the generic singular representing the class of those who are poor because they are pious—a usage stereotyped in the Wisdom literature, which often handled the question. A passage which probably was in the mind of James is the famous determination of the ungodly in Wisdom ii. 10 f.:71
‘Let us lord it over the poor righteous man. . . .
Let us lie in wait for the righteous. . . .
He calls the destiny of the righteous happy,
And boasts that God is his Father. . . .
Let us put him to the test with outrage and torture,
That we may find out if he is patient,
And judge his endurance of evil.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death.’
Unresisting (literally, ‘and he does not resist’) is a vivid climax; the helplessness of the victims aggravates the guilt of their oppressors. Like the defrauded labourers, these poor folk had no means of redress, so far as earth was concerned, and they submitted without a murmur to the suffering. But wait a little, James adds (7-11); heaven has not forgotten you. ‘Resist’ is the same word as oppose in iv. 6, and there is an allusion to that passage taken in a sterner and special sense; it is not for the patient, pious Christians to resist these overbearing tyrants of society, but to leave them and themselves to the God who is soon to intervene. This paves the way for the following counsel, which broadens out into the general thought of all that Christians may have to endure in ordinary life.
7 Be patient, then, brothers, till the arrival of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious crop of the land, biding his time patiently till he gets the autumn and the spring rains; 8 have patience yourselves, strengthen your hearts, for the arrival of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not murmur against one another, brothers, lest you are judged; 10 look, the Judge is standing at the very door! 72As an example of fortitude and endurance, brothers, take the prophets who have spoken in the name of the Lord. 11 See, we call the stedfast happy; you have heard of the stedfastness of Job, and you have seen the end of the Lord with him, seen that the Lord is very compassionate and pitiful.
A word of encouragement to Christians (brothers) who are still being badly treated in these and other ways. James stirs no class-feeling, e.g. of labourers against their unjust employers; leave the wealthy oppressors to God’s imminent vengeance on their cruelty. The religious attitude is what concerns him. The rightful spirit for the righteous in the circumstances, with the arrival of the Lord (explained on 2 Peter i. 16, iii. 12) so sure and speedy, is patient endurance of grievances and hardships that are soon to be removed, a stedfast courage which is content to wait for God without complaining. Bide your time like a farmer awaiting the autumn (Deuteronomy xi. 14) rain in October and November and the spring rain so anxiously expected in March and April throughout Syria. The agriculturist was always anxious about these rains; they were of critical importance for his welfare. But the aptness of the figure here depends on the fact that, according to the O.T. interpretation (Deuteronomy xi. 8 f.), this special feature of the Palestinian climate suggested to the pious the providential intervention of God in man’s affairs. The farmer had to wait for this rainfall twice in the year; but although he could do nothing to bring it, he did not lose heart, 8provided that he was obeying the will of his God. 9So, James implies, with your patient hope: something is coming of it in this order 73of God. It is a failure of this patient self-control when the strain is allowed to make people irritable and censorious. In what has just been said about the need of patient en-durance, James has embraced the role of endurance under the general trials of life which he had already touched in i. 2 f. So in warning, Christians not to murmur or complain against one another, he is repeating the admonition of iv. 11-12, 14 f. against quarrelsomeness and carping judgments on one’s fellow-members; this sharp, unbrotherly temper will be punished by the Lord. For, like Peter (1 Peter iv. 17 f.), James is alive to the ethical fact that God’s judgment will take strict account of Christians’ behaviour as well as of their persecutors. What? Falling out with one another, when the Judge is standing at the very door! Fretful, blaming one another, with God on the point of judging men for such breaches of His Law!
Then, from warning, James swings back to encouragement (10, 11), appealing to his readers’ recollections of the Bible. Jesus had held up the prophets also as an example to his hard-pressed disciples (Matthew v. 12), but it is strange that James does not appeal to the great example of Jesus himself, as other N.T. writers like Peter (1 Peter ii. 21) did. Why too does he describe the prophets as men who have spoken in the name of the Lord (i.e. by the authority of the Lord)? Not to indicate that even distinguished servants of God have to suffer, but to show that genuine, true prophets had to encounter hardship. Job was 11 traditionally reckoned as a prophet (Ezekiel xiv. 14, 20; Sirach xlix. 9), and his heroic endurance is specially recalled. No other N.T. writer mentions Job, but to James his story shows how the end of the Lord with patient sufferers justifies the ordeal; 74those who hold on stedfastly under hardship find, as Job did, that—
All is best, though we oft doubt
What the unsearchable dispose
Of Highest Wisdom brings about,
And ever best found in the close.
This is the most permanent and profound thought of the whole passage; patient endurance can sustain itself on the conviction that hardships are not meaningless, but that God has some end or purpose in them which He will accomplish, if sufferers only are brave enough to hold fast to Him (so i. 4). Job was sometimes impatient and fretful, but he never renounced God, and that was his stedfastness. We call the stedfast (those who endure) happy (or blessed). This is an echo of what he had said in i. 12, and stedfastness is the same term as that rendered endurance in i. 3, 4. The blissful conclusion of the story of Job is claimed as an illustration of Psalm ciii. 8, which is freely quoted from the Greek version as, the Lord is very compassionate and pitiful, the word for pitiful only occurring elsewhere in the N.T. in Luke vi. 36, where God is called merciful. The counsel on stedfast endurance thus closes on the note of history and experience as justifying patience.
Endurance is the crowning quality,
And patience all the passion of great souls.
James had offered an illustration of this from the farmer’s attitude to the slow processes of nature, but he reaches deeper in appealing to what his friends had heard read aloud in the lessons from the O.T. during worship, proving that trial was no new thing in the religious life, and that no one who trusted in God had ever been confounded.
Against oaths (12).75
12 Above all, my brothers, never swear an oath, either by heaven or by earth or by anything else; let your ‘yes’ be a plain ‘yes,’ your ‘no’ a plain ‘ no,’ lest you incur judgment.
A puzzling fragment, on one sin of the tongue, which James seems to regard as specially serious. Above all was a formula which generally came in as a letter was drawing to its end (see 1 Peter iv. 8), calling attention to something particularly important; but it is an anti-climax to put forward a prohibition of cursing (see on iii. 10-12) and swearing as more momentous than anything which has been said in this epistle. Probably James jotted it down as an after-thought, to emphasize the warning of ver. g; in excitement or irritation there was a temptation to curse and swear violently and profanely. Christians, James means, should have more self-restraint; they should also be so truthful and straightforward that their bare word would suffice. Let your sincerity come out in your speech, when you make a statement or a promise, and in intercourse with one another do not give way to frivolous oaths.
Jews had various forms of swearing; for superstitious reasons they avoided the name of God, but swore freely by heaven or by earth or otherwise, though moralists had already protested against the abuse of such oaths. Thus Sirach (xxiii. 9 f.) includes loose swearing among the sins of the tongue. ‘Accustom not your mouth to an oath, nor make a practice of naming the Holy One. . . . If a man swear idly, he shall not be justified’—as James put it, he would incur judgment at the divine tribunal (ver. 9, iv. 11, 12). The disapproval of swearing was not confined to Judaism. 76Thus Epictetus (Enchiridion, xxxiii.) writes, ‘Refuse absolutely to swear an oath, if possible; if it be not possible, refuse as far as you can.’ But James’s word, couched in Jewish terminology, is unqualified, probably because common oaths were to him irreverent, or because they implied and encouraged untruthfulness, or because he was protesting against the casuistry which viewed only oaths, and only some oaths, as binding; an ungarnished yes or no was better than any profuse asseveration backed by an oath. If he was thinking of the courts before which Christians were sometimes dragged (ii. 6, v. 6), the prohibition might refer also or entirely to judicial oaths, but this is less likely, either here or in the curiously similar saying which is attributed to Jesus in Matthew v. 34-37. It is possible that James had this saying in mind, though not necessarily in its present form.
13 Is anyone of you in trouble? let him pray. Is anyone thriving? let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone ill? let him summon the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 the prayer of faith will restore the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; even the sins he has committed will be forgiven him. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed: the prayers of the righteous. have a powerful effect. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature just like our own; but he offered prayer that it might not rain, and for three 77years and six months it did not rain; 18 then he prayed again, and the sky yielded rain, the earth brought- forth its fruit.
To be in trouble is the verb corresponding to the noun underlying fortitude in ver. 10; prayer is what sustains the spirit when any suffering or hardship has to be bravely borne. Instead of murmuring against one another (ver. 9), or complaining peevishly, or breaking out into curses, pray to God. ‘Trust in God with all your might,’ Haydon wrote to Keats. ‘From my soul I declare to you that I never applied for help, or for consolation, or for strength, but I found it. I always rose from my knees with a refreshed fury, an iron-clenched firmness, a crystal piety of feeling that sent me streaming on with a repulsive [repelling, he means] power against the troubles of life.’
James adds, in passing, to complete the picture: And let anyone who is thriving, in good spirits, sing praise to God. Prayer and song are our means of communicating with God. Praise is the sound which ought to rise from a cheerful, prosperous life. Elsewhere in the N.T. the word to sing praise refers to public worship, and always, if the usage in classical Greek and in the Greek O.T. be decisive, to songs with a musical accompaniment. But the use of a musical instrument is not bound up with the verb, and in the case of an individual is less likely.
One form of trouble is illness, and we now have a word on the functions of prayer at the sick-bed. Social oppression is to be endured, but James believed that some trials could be removed, and among them illness. The sickness of a believer is not a merely physical trouble; neither is it a purely individual 78concern; these are the two assumptions of his argument. Illness is somehow connected with sin, and the sick man has the right—perhaps we should rather say, he requires—to call in help from the church. The church or churches addressed by James had teachers, but, like the churches addressed by Peter (1 Peter v. 1 f.), they were ruled by presbyters, who would pray over the sick man as he lay in bed. ‘Let the presbyters care for the sick,’ Polykarp writes to the church of Philippi (Ad Philipp. vi.). Such intercessions were part of their pastoral care and duty. 15 James had spoken about a man praying in faith for himself (i. 5); he now mentions the presbyters offering a prayer of faith for others, which has the effect of restoring the sick man to physical health. The Lord who hears the prayer of faith answers it by raising him from his sick-bed (see Mark ii. 5). And more: even the sins he has committed, by which his illness was brought on, will be forgiven him. It is natural to assume that the presbyters had the right and power of giving him this assurance, or, as the later church would have said, of pronouncing absolution over him in the name of the Lord. This is not mentioned directly, but neither is the man’s personal confession of sins, which is plainly implied (ver. 16). Or is the regaining of health the assurance of spiritual pardon? It is so, among some Chinese Christians to-day, according to Mr. C. N. Moody (The Mind of the Early Converts, p. 19). ‘It is an everyday occurrence to hear the remark, “My sins are very heavy.” This almost invariably means, “My troubles are great”; for converts believe that special affliction is a proof of special transgression, known or unknown,’ and one of ‘the main proofs of forgiveness’ is deliverance, ‘especially a signal 79deliverance from distress’ or ‘a remarkable cure in answer to prayer.’ For James’s age the prevalent belief that sickness was connected with sin is expressed in the Testament of Simeon (v. 9): ‘God brought upon me a disease of the liver [the seat of envious passion], and had not the prayers of my father Jacob succoured me, my spirit could hardly have failed to depart.’ Here the penitence of the sick man is also assumed, and the cure is due to intercessory prayer. In Sirach (xxxviii. 9 f.) the doctor is mentioned. After highly commending the skill of physicians and the science of medicine, the author tells a sick man to do three things. First there is prayer and penitence. ‘Pray to God, for he can heal you . . . cleanse your heart from all sin.’ Then, offer the sacrifice prescribed in Leviticus ii. 1-3. Finally, call in the doctor, ‘for God has created him’; the doctor also prays for a blessing on his diagnosis and treatment of the patient.
James describes a curious custom in the churches which he knew, of employing oil, not by the hands of a doctor but as a religious rite of therapeutic power. While prayer is the decisive factor in the cure, the presbyters are not only to pray over the patient but to smear his body with oil, pronouncing the sacred name of the Lord, i.e. ‘Jesus,’ which was supposed to have potent efficacy in working cures. Oil was a well-known medical remedy in the East, but this is a religious rite of unction, neither mere faith-healing nor purely medical therapeutic. The only other reference to the custom is, in one tradition about a mission of the disciples during the lifetime of Jesus (Mark vi. 13), when they ‘cast out a number of daemons and cured a number of sick people by anointing them with oil.’ If this occasional practice 80was anything more than a recourse to popular medicine on the part of the missioners, it may throw light on the isolated habit in vogue among these Christians to whom James writes. What interests him, however, is not the oil but the prayer of faith, and that as bearing on the forgiveness of sins. So he goes over the important items again, filling in the outline at one point. What follows is not a general statement about mutual confidence and intercessory prayer, but a reiteration: 16 so (as physical health and forgiveness are together won through prayer) confess your sins to one another (patients, e.g., to presbyters) and pray for one another (as presbyters could not do intelligently and truly, unless they were sure of the patient’s penitence), that you who are sick may be healed. That is, the most vital matter is the personal confession of sins.
Now, in the primitive church this was openly done as a rule, before the congregation. The earliest manual of church practice prescribes: ‘you must confess your sins in church, and not betake yourself to prayer with a bad conscience’ (Didaché iv.), and again that confession of sins must precede the communion service (xiv.). Clement of Rome (lvii.) tells the insubordinate members at Corinth that they must ‘submit to the presbyters and be schooled to repentance.’ The context of this admonition of James points to the same practice. To a sick person, unable to attend worship, the visiting presbyters represent the church; they listen to the patient’s confession, and after prayer for his recovery pronounce over him the assurance of God’s pardon. James is speaking to presbyters and other members about their respective duties, when he says Confess . . . pray. It is in line with the functions assigned here to presbyters that in the English Prayer Book, before the communion 81service, the minister exhorts anyone disturbed in conscience to ‘come to me or to some other discreet and learned minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution.’
In this second word (ver. 16) on the subject James seems purposely to reverse the order of the first word in 14, 15, where in introducing the topic he had had to speak of the physical side specially. To remove any misconception, he adds his second word. The prayer of faith is everything in healing. A marvellous power, this, to ascribe to prayer? Yes, but the prayers of the righteous (a generic singular as usual), i.e. of any true Christian like a presbyter who prays in unquestioning faith, are of extraordinary effect.17 He cites an O.T. illustration of this. Abraham, Rahab, Job—and now Elijah as an example of efficacious prayer. In the tale of 1 Kings xvii.-xviii. Elijah does not pray either to bring on or to remove the drought, but Jewish tradition in reverence for his prestige as a prophet had ascribed these wonders to his petitions. Thus in the contemporary apocalypse of 4 Esdras (vii. 109), ‘we find (i.e. in Scripture) that Elijah prayed for those who received the rain.’ One might have expected that James would have found a more telling example in the prayer of the prophet which restored the dead son of the widow to life, but this would have been out of touch with his argument in 14-16; he is not thinking there of a patient dead or on the point of death. The O.T. said that Elijah announced or predicted the drought; then Jewish tradition said that he procured it (this is asserted in Sirach xlviii. 3), and finally, by a not unnatural inference, that he had prayed for it.
Another trace of the Jewish tradition which James follows 8218in this account of Elijah is the change of the O.T. three years into three years and six months. Three and a half, being the half of the perfect number seven, had become the period in years for disaster and distress, in apocalyptic calculations (see Daniel xii. 7, followed in Revelation xi. 2, where Elijah is one of the two prophets). This interpretation rose before Christianity; it is reflected in Luke iv. 25, 26. On the other hand there is an implicit protest against the exaggerated Jewish reverence for Elijah as almost superhuman. James calls him a man with a nature just like our own. An example for us, some might say? But he was a saint far above our mortal level; no wonder his prayers were heard. The reply to this objection is that he was a human being like ourselves, no more righteous than we are or than we ought to be.
A last word of encouragement in the task of restoring lapsed Christians (19, 20).
19 My brothers, if any one of you goes astray from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 understand that he who brings a sinner back from the error of his way saves his soul from death and hides a host of sins.
According to Polykarp (see above, on ver. 14), this was the duty of the presbyters: ‘let the presbyters be merciful to all, bringing back those who have gone astray.’ James certainly regards it as one expression of the mercy which God would reward at the end (ii. 13), but the appeal may be general in its scope; like Judas (22, 23) he probably thought it the duty of every Christian to reclaim a brother who had lapsed from the truth (i. 18), i.e. from the faith and obedience of the gospel. Dealing with a sick, penitent Christian was 83only one method, for not all sins led to physical suffering. Instead of being sharp and harsh with an erring brother, instead of giving him up as hopeless, a true Christian must endeavour to reclaim him, and 20 a twofold motive for this difficult and gracious effort is suggested. It is ‘twice blest,’ like Shakespeare’s quality of mercy, for a Christian who succeeds saves his (the sinner’s) soul from death, which is the outcome of sin (i. 15) and also atones for a number of his own personal misdeeds. James quotes the same O.T. passage as Peter in 1 Peter iv. 8, and in the same sense. The unselfish Christian love which makes one feel responsible for an erring brother and moves one to bring him back to the church, hides a host of the good Christian’s sins (for we all make many a slip in life); such forgiving, redeeming love to a brother will atone for a great deal. It is a good work which the loving God will allow to count in favour of the true Christian—exactly the truth put otherwise in ii. 13, or in another homily (2 Clement xv.), where the writer observes that if a man ‘follows my advice, he will save both himself and me his counsellor; for it is no small reward to bring to salvation an erring, perishing soul.’
So the homily ends—abruptly, even more abruptly than the First Epistle of John, without any closing word of farewell to the readers, abruptly, but not ineffectively. The Wisdom writings on which it is modelled end as suddenly. Indeed Sirach (li. 30) closes on a note which is not altogether unlike the encouraging note of James : ‘do your work [i.e. of. seeking the divine wisdom] before the time [i.e. of the final reckoning], and He will give you your reward at its time.’ But James promises God’s reward to those who do more than seek divine truth for themselves.8485
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