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"Go to now, ye that say, To-day or to-morrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. What is your life? For ye are a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that. But now ye glory in your vauntings: all such glorying is evil. To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."—St. James iv. 13-17.

WORLDLINESS and want of humility are the two kindred subjects which form the groundwork of this portion of the Epistle. This fourth chapter falls into three main divisions, of which the third and last is before us; and these two subjects underlie all three. In the first the arrogant grasping after the pleasures, honours, and riches of the world, in preference to the love of God, is condemned. In the second the arrogant judging of others in defiance of the Divine law of charity is forbidden. In the third arrogant trust in the security of human undertakings, without consideration of God's will, is denounced. The transition from the false confidence which leads men to judge others with a light heart, to the false confidence which leads men to account the future as their own, is easily made; and thus once more, while 262 we seem to be abruptly passing to a fresh topic, we are really moving quite naturally from one branch of the main subject to another. The assurance which finds plenty of time for censuring others, but little or none for censuring self, is closely akin to the assurance which counts on having plenty of time for all its schemes, without thought of death or of the Divine decrees. This, then, is the subject before us—presumptuous security as to future undertakings. The future is God's, not ours, just as to judge mankind belongs to Him, and not to us. Therefore to think and speak of the future as if we had the power to control it is as presumptuous as to think and speak of our fellow-men as if we had the power to judge them. In both cases we assume a knowledge and an authority which we do not possess.

"Go to now" (ἄγε νῦω) is a vigorous form of address, which occurs nowhere in the New Testament, excepting here and at the beginning of the next section. Although originally an imperative singular, it has become so completely an adverb that it can be used, as here, when a number of persons are addressed. It serves to attract attention. Those who think that they can acquit themselves of the charge of censoriousness have yet another form of presumptuous confidence to consider. The parable of the Rich Fool, who said to his soul, "Soul, thou hast much good laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke xii. 19), should be compared with this exhortation. And it is remarkable that it was just after our Lord had refused to be made a judge over two contending brothers that He spoke the parable of the Rich Fool.

There is no special emphasis on "ye that say," as if 263 the meaning were, "ye who not only have these presumptuous thoughts, but dare to utter them." In the previous section giving utterance to unfavourable judgments about one's neighbours is evidently worse than merely thinking them, and is a great aggravation of the sin; but here thinking and saying are much the same. The presumptuous people look far ahead, think every step in the plan quite secure, and speak accordingly. To-day and to-morrow are quite safe. The journey to the proposed city is quite safe. That they will spend a year there is regarded as certain, and that they will be able to spend it as they please, viz. in trading. Lastly, they have no doubts as to the success of the whole enterprise; they will "get gain." All this is thought of and spoken of as being entirely within their own control. They have only to decide on doing it, and the whole will be done. That there is a Providence which needs to be considered is entirely left out of sight. That not even their own lives can be counted on for a single day is a fact that is equally ignored.

It was long ago remarked that "All men are mortal" is a proposition which each man believes to be true of every one excepting himself. Not that any one seriously believes that he himself will be exempt from death; but each one of us habitually thinks and acts as if in his case death were such an indefinite distance off that practically there is no need to take account of it—at any rate at present. The young and the strong rarely think of death as a subject that calls for serious attention. Those who are past the prime of life still think that they have many years of life in store. And even those who have received the solemn warning which is involved in reaching man's allotted threescore and ten 264 years remember with satisfaction that many persons have reached fourscore and ten or more, and that therefore there is good reason for believing that they themselves have a considerable portion of life still in front of them. Perhaps the man of ninety finds himself sometimes thinking, if not talking to others, of what he means to do, not only to-morrow, but next year.

Such habits of thought and language are very common, and a man has to be carefully on the watch against himself, in order to avoid them. They are entirely opposed to the spirit of both the Old and the New Testament, and in the most literal sense of the term may be stigmatized as godless. The security which ignores the will of God in its calculations, and thinks and acts as an independent power, is godless. Dependence upon God is the centre both of Judaism and of Christianity. A story of the Rabbinists brings this out as clearly on the Jewish side as the parable of the Rich Fool does on the Christian. At his son's circumcision a Jewish father set wine that was seven years old before his guests, with the remark that with this wine he would continue for a long time to celebrate the birth of his son. The same night the Angel of Death meets the Rabbi Simeon, who accosts him and asks him, "Why art thou thus wandering about?" "Because," said the angel, "I slay those who say, We will do this or that, and think not how soon death may come upon them. The man who said that he would continue for a long time to drink that wine shall die in thirty days." It is in this way that "the careless ease of fools shall destroy them" (Prov. i. 32). And hence the warning, "Boast not thyself of to-morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth" (Prov. xxvii. 1). The man who makes plans for the future without taking 265 account of Providence is not far removed from "the fool, who says in his heart, There is no God" (Ps. xiv. 1; liii. 1). "Set not thy heart upon thy goods; and say not, I have enough for my life. Follow not thine own mind and thy strength, to walk in the ways of thy heart; and say not, Who shall control me? for the Lord will surely avenge thy pride" (Ecclus. v. 1-3). "There is that waxeth rich by his wariness and pinching, and this is the portion of his reward. Whereas he saith, I have found rest, and now will eat continually of my good; and yet he knoweth not what time shall come upon him, and that he must leave those things to others, and die" (Ecclus. xi. 18, 19).

The Cyrenaics and their more refined followers the Epicureans started from the same premises, viz. the utter uncertainty of the future, and the inability of man to control it, but drew from them a very different conclusion. Dependence upon God was one of the last doctrines likely to be inculcated by those who contended that there is no such thing as Providence, for the gods do not concern themselves with the affairs of men. True wisdom, they said, will consist in the skilful, calm, and deliberate appropriation of such pleasure as our circumstances afford moment by moment, unruffled by passion, prejudice, or superstition. The present alone is ours, and we must resolutely make the most of it, without remorse for a past which we can never alter, and without disquietude about a future which we cannot determine, and may never possess. This is not very profound as philosophy, for in the wear and tear of life it can neither fortify nor console; and as a substitute for religion it is still less satisfying. The whole difference which separates Paganism from Christianity lies between two such stanzas as these;—


"Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quærere; et

Quem Fors dierum cunque dabit, lucro

Appone, nec dulces amores

Sperne puer neque tu choreas;"


"Lead, kindly Light, amid th' encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on:

The night is dark, and I am far from home;

Lead Thou me on.

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me."8181   Horace, Odes I. ix. 13. J. H. Newman, Verses on Various Occasions, "The Pillar of the Cloud," June 16th, 1833.

"We will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain." The frequent conjunctions separate the different items of the plan, which are rehearsed thus one by one with manifest satisfaction. The speakers gloat over the different steps of the programme which they have arranged for themselves. St. James selects trading and getting gain as the end of the supposed scheme, partly in order to show that the aims of these presumptuous schemers are utterly worldly, and partly because a restless activity in commercial enterprise was a common feature among the Jews of the Dispersion. Such pursuits are not condemned; but they are liable to become too absorbing, especially when not pursued in a God-fearing way; and it is this which St. James denounces.

"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. What is your life? For ye are a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." It is not easy to determine the original Greek text with certainty, but about the general sense there is no doubt. It is possible, however, that we ought to read, "Whereas ye know not as to the morrow of what kind 267 your life will be: for ye are a vapour," etc. In any case "Whereas ye know not" represents words which literally mean, "Since ye are people of such nature as not to know" (οἵτινες οὐκ ἐπίστασθε). As human beings, whose life is so full of changes and surprises, it is impossible for them to know what vicissitudes the next day will bring. The real uncertainty of life is in marked contrast to their unreal security.

"What is your life?" Of what kind is it? What is its nature (ποῖα)? Bede remarks that St. James does not ask, "What is our life?" He says, "What is your life?" It is the value of the life of the godless that is in question, not that of the godly. Those who, by their forgetfulness of the Unseen, their desire for material advantages, and their friendliness with the world, have made themselves enemies of God—what is their life worth? Such persons "are a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." But it may be doubted whether St. James is here speaking of the emptiness of an ungodly life. He is addressing godless persons, and in rebuking them reminds them how unstable and fleeting life is, not merely to them, but to all men. It is the same thought as we find in Job's complaint, "As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away, so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more" (vii. 9); and we shall see that in the next two sections (v. 1-6, 7-11) there are coincidences with the Book of Job (see pp. 281, 291). But it is perhaps the Book of Wisdom that is specially in the writer's mind: "Our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, that is driven away with the beams of the sun, and overcome with the heat thereof" (ii. 4). "For the hope of the ungodly is like dust that is blown away 268 with the wind; like a thin froth that is driven away with the storm; like as the smoke which is dispersed here and there with a tempest, and passeth away as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day" (v. 14). And if these passages are the source of St. James's metaphor, Bede's interpretation becomes more probable; for in both of them it is the life of the ungodly that is likened to everything that is unsubstantial and transitory.8282   In commenting on Wisdom ii. 4, Farrar quotes Gregory Nazianzen: "We are a flitting dream, a phantom that cannot be grasped, the scud of a passing breeze, a ship that leaves no trace on the sea, dust, vapour, morning dew, a flower that now blossoms, and now is done away" (Speaker's Commentary, Apocrypha, I., p. 431).

"For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that." We must beware of understanding these words in such a way as to lose the spirit of them. It is one of many passages of Scripture which are often taken according to the letter, when the letter is of little or no importance. As in so much of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we have a principle given in the form of a rule. Rules are given that they may be observed literally. Principles are given that they may be applied intelligently and observed according to their spirit. We do not obey Christ when we allow the thief who has taken our upper garment to have our under one also; nor do we obey St. James when we say, "If the Lord will," or "Please God," of every future event, and make a plentiful use of "D.V." in all our correspondence. Nor is it enough to say that everything depends upon the spirit in which the second garment is surrendered, and in which the "Please God" is uttered, or the "D.V." written. It is quite possible to keep Christ's precept 269 without ever surrendering the second garment at all; and indeed we ought not to surrender it. And it is quite possible to keep His brother's precept without ever writing "D.V." or saying "Please God," the habitual use of which would be almost certain to generate formalism and cant in ourselves, and would be quite certain to provoke needless criticism and irreverent ridicule. St. James means that we should habitually feel that moment by moment we are absolutely dependent upon God, not only for the way in which our lives are henceforth to be spent, but for their being prolonged at all. At any instant we may be called upon to surrender, not only all the materials of enjoyment which He has bestowed upon us, but life itself, which is equally His gift; and whenever He does so call upon us we shall have neither the right nor the power to resist. "Shall He not do what He will with His own?" "The Lord gave; and the Lord may take away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The man who is thoroughly impressed with the fact of his utter dependence upon God for life and all things is sure to express this in his bearing, his tone, and his manner of speaking about the future, even although such phrases as "Please God" and "If the Lord will" never come from his lips or his pen. Indeed, the more complete his realization of this truth is, the less likely will he be to be constantly expressing it in a formula. It is the habitual setting of his thoughts, and does not need to be stated any more than the conditions of time and space. On rare occasions it may be well to remind others of this truth by giving expression to it in words; but in most cases it will be wisest to retain it as an unforgotten but unexpressed premise in the mind. But it is for each one of us to take care that it is not 270 forgotten. Only those who have it constantly in their hearts can safely absolve themselves from the obligation of obeying the words of St. James literally.

"But now ye glory in your vauntings: all such glorying is evil." The carnal self-confidence with which people serenely talk about what they mean to do next year, or many years hence, is only part of a general spirit of arrogance and worldliness which pervades their whole life and conduct; it is one of the results of the thoroughly vitiated moral atmosphere which they have chosen for themselves, and to the noxiousness of which they are constantly contributing. The word here rendered "vaunting," and in 1 John ii. 16 "vainglory," (ἀλαζονεία), indicates insolent and empty assurance; and here the assurance lies in presumptuous trust in the stability of oneself and one's surroundings. Pretentious ostentation is the radical signification of the word, and in Classical Greek it is the pretentiousness which is most prominent, in Hellenistic Greek the ostentation. There is manifest ostentation in speaking confidently about one's future; and seeing how transitory everything human is, the ostentation is empty and pretentious. To be guilty of such vaunting is serious enough; but these fellow-countrymen of St. James, with their minds absorbed in material interests, gloried in their godless view of life. The simple character of his comment makes its severity all the more impressive: "all such glorying is evil." He uses the very word which is commonly used to express "the evil one" (ὁ πονηρός), and thereby indicates the character and source of such glorying.

In concluding this section of his letter, St. James brings the conduct which he has been condemning within the sweep of a very comprehensive principle: 271 "To him, therefore, that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." No Jew, whether Christian or not, could plead ignorance as an excuse for his transgressions in this matter. Every human being has experienced the uncertainty of the future and the transitoriness of human life; and every Jew was well instructed in the truth that man and all his surroundings are absolutely dependent upon the Divine will. Moreover, those whom St. James is addressing prided themselves on their spiritual knowledge (i. 19); they were professed hearers of God's Word (i. 22, 23), and were anxious to become teachers of others (iii. 1). Theirs is the case of servants who knew their master's will, and neglected to do it (Luke xii. 47). They themselves declared, "We see;" and the rejoinder is, "Your sin remaineth" (John ix. 41). They knew, long before St. James instructed them on the subject, what was seemly for human beings living as creatures in dependence upon their Creator; and they neglected to do what is seemly. To them this neglect is sin.

The passage is very commonly understood as applying to all sins of omission; and no doubt it is very capable of such application, but it does not follow that St. James was thinking of more than the particular case before him. The words may be interpreted in three different degrees of comprehensiveness, and St. James may have meant one, or two, or all three of them.

1. The relation in which a creature ought to stand to the Creator is one of humility and entire dependence; and he who knows that he is a creature, and adopts an attitude of self-confidence and independence, sins.

2. In all cases of transgression knowledge of what is right aggravates the sin, which is then a sin against 272 light. "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin" (John xv. 22).

3. This applies not only to transgressions, but to omissions. Knowledge of what is evil creates an obligation to avoid it, and knowledge of what is good constitutes an obligation to perform it. The latter truth is not so readily admitted as the former. Everyone recognizes that an opportunity of doing evil is not a thing about which any choice is allowable. We are not permitted to use the opportunity or not, just as we please; we must on no account make use of it. But not a few persons imagine that an opportunity of doing good is a thing about which they have full right of choice; that they may avail themselves of the opportunity or not, just as they please; whereas there is no more freedom in the one case than in the other. We are bound to make use of the opportunity of doing good. "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

Some of those who think that St. James knew the Epistle to the Romans see here an allusion to the principle which St. Paul there lies down: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (xiv. 23). For reasons already stated (p. 57), it must remain doubtful whether St. James had knowledge of that Epistle; and even if he had, we could not by any means be sure that he had it in his mind when he wrote the words before us. But his words and St. Paul's, when combined, give us a complete statement of a great moral principle respecting the possession or non-possession of knowledge as to what is right and wrong in any given case. So long as we have no knowledge that a given act is right, i.e. so long as we are in doubt as to whether it is allowable 273 or not, it is sin to do it. As soon as we have knowledge that a given act is right it is sin to leave it undone.

This principle cuts at the root of that unwholesome growth which in moral theology is known as the doctrine of Probabilism, and which has worked untold mischief, especially in the Roman Church, in which its chief supporters are to be found. This doctrine teaches that in all cases in which there is doubt as to whether a given act is allowable or not the less safe course may be followed, even when the balance of probability is against its being allowable, if only there are grounds for believing that it is allowable. And some supporters of this doctrine go so far as to maintain that the amount of probability need not be very great. So long as it is not certain that the act in question is forbidden it may be permitted. The object of which teaching is not that which ought to be the object of all moral teaching, viz. to save beings with immortal souls from making serious mistakes of conduct, but to enable beings with strong desires and passions to gratify them without scruple. The moral law is not so much explained as explained away. The very titles of some of the treatises in which the doctrine of Probabilism is advocated indicate their tendency, e.g. "The Art of Perpetual Enjoyment."8383   Ars Semper Gaudendi, by Alphonso de Sarasa, a Flemish theologian of Spanish extraction, 1741. For the fullest account of the history of Probabilism see the great work by Döllinger and Reusch, Geschichte der Moralstreitigkeiten in der Römisch-katholischen Kirche (Nördlingen, 1889). To all such special pleading, and making the Word of God of none effect by human glosses, the simple principles laid down by St. Paul and St. James are the best antidote: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin;" and "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

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