From: A Torah Commentary on James 1-2 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Old Testament Precedents
Invoking of Explicit Old Testament
Quotations to Justify His Teaching:
How Old Testament Concepts Are
Repeatedly Introduced and Woven
into the Heart of His Argument
“The Twelve tribes which are scattered abroad
[throughout the civilized world, ATP]”
(“dispersed abroad,” NASB; “living in all parts of the earth,” BBE;
“scattered over all the world,”
One result of foreign military conquest was the forcible removal of large segments of the native population to nations far away from their homeland. In Deuteronomy 28 this is pictured as Divine punishment that went hand-in-hand with the people’s religious apostasy from Yahweh and which was accompanied by anguish of soul due to the ensuing suffering in alien and hostile environments,
64 Then the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known--wood and stone. 65 And among those nations you shall find no rest, nor shall the sole of your foot have a resting place; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and anguish of soul.
66 Your life shall hang in doubt
before you; you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of life.
67 In the morning you shall say, “Oh, that it were evening!” And at evening you shall say, “Oh, that it
were morning!” because of the fear which terrifies your heart, and because of
the sight which your eyes see. 68 And the Lord will take you back
In Leviticus 26, the threat is also elaborated on at length. Conditional upon obedience to the Divine law, verse 6, “I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land.”
[Page 251] In contrast, if they did not obey “all these commandments” (26:13)--which meant that in behavior they “despise My statues” and “abhor My judgments” (26:15)--the abundant Divine blessings would be transformed into abundant curses. It would become so bad that, “Those who hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee when no one pursues you” (26:17). If this did not bring them to submission, yet more afflictions would pour out to supplement them.
If this were still not sufficient to motivate a change in behavior, “I will scatter you among the nations and draw out a sword after you; your land shall be desolate and your cities waste” (26:33).
Furthermore, those who survived would not only be crushed militarily but be left utterly destitute of any hope of success, “36 ' And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; the sound of a shaken leaf shall cause them to flee; they shall flee as though fleeing from a sword, and they shall fall when no one pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as it were before a sword, when no one pursues; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies.”
In colloquial modern English, we would call this a “head butting” contest and Israel was going to lose it repeatedly because they refused to give up their mule-headed determination to live and worship however they wished—rather than God’s way. This ultimately would bring upon them exile from the land God had promised to Abraham.
Even then, God did not threaten to give up on them totally, but it would still be up to them whether their behavior indicated to God that it was time for things to change for the better. Actions have consequences. Butt your head against the stone wall of God’s law and your head gets cracked, not the wall.
[Page 252] You can apostasize by quite literally adding or substituting other gods in place of Jehovah. You can effective produce the same results when you set aside God’s moral code and substitute the worship of your own greed and self-centered lusts. When you give them the same priority and importance that should go to God alone. When you make yourself God in this manner, you are worshipping a competitor to the real one. And risk similar treatment.
The dispersion of the first century was of a much different nature than these earlier ones. That threatened in Deuteronomy 28 was accompanied by a widespread descent into polytheism (verse 64). That in Leviticus 26 envolved the rejection of doing the things God demanded (verses 40-41) in such a way that it ultimately included the practice of idolatrous systems in place of, or in addition to, that of Yahweh.
The bulk of Jews in the
Furthermore, the Diaspora as it
However--It should be noted
that those Jews in first century
“Trials” and difficulties represent a “test” of our dedication
to obeying Gods will and our appreciation of His blessings.
Here the emphasis is upon the potential result of successfully enduring the pressures of testing. Implied is that God either intends for them to happen or that His purpose is at work in permitting them to occur.
They have the purpose of determining how one will “measure up” to the moral challenges brought about by the difficulties in life: Will they produce in us growth, maturity, strengthening of the inward person? (What God hopes will happen.) Or will they tear us into shreds and cripple us. (Which is the last thing God wants them to do.)
[Page 254] In Deuteronomy 8:2 the Torah speaks of how the forty years in the wilderness was not merely God’s punitive judgement upon explicit rebellion but had another purpose as well: it was “to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” Although James does not use the word “heart,” the idea is clearly the same of revealing what is within the person, the true character and nature.
These hardships would test their willingness to repent and set their lives straight. God wasn’t half as much interested in punishing them as in reforming them. He used the tool of hardships to accomplish it.
Testing with abundance. Oddly enough, even the giving of blessings was sometimes also designed to be a testing. Perhaps “designed” is too strong a word: However it unquestionably would have a temptation element, even though directly intended to meet their wishes and needs. When faced with hunger, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not’ ” (Exodus 16:4).
Having insisted they were starving, the Lord met their need. But far beyond that during the years of
punishment awaiting the entry into
The instinctive response of a grateful people should have been to obey God’s law out of gratitude. They were faced with a dire four decades, yet God gave them above and [Page 255] beyond the essentials. Yet gratitude remains slow even today among many--even when they most deserve to give it. As it was among these ancients. Even when God was ameliorating their punishment by making it vastly easier to endure.
Testing with adverse circumstances. The concept of having patience under adverse testing is an undercurrent in the Deuteronomy as well, while being explicit in James. In Deuteronomy 8:3 it speaks of how they were “allowed . . . to hunger” yet God kept them from perishing by assuring that they had ample food to eat. They had no need to panic; they had no need to go into crisis mode. God produced the test; He also provided a way to survive it. Likewise their clothing needs did not go unheeded even in the wilderness (verse 4) nor were they physically pushed beyond the breaking point (verse 4).
As Charles Dickens wrote of a far future era, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” It was the worst for them because their rebellion would cause a multi-decade delay in entering the promised land. It was the best of times because they were assured a steady and reliable food supply.
The moral purpose of testing is emphasized: it was so that they would put physical needs in their right perspective. Generic man needs physical bread but “man shall not live by bread alone” but also by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (verse 3). God tests in the sense of sending painful experiences not out of vindictiveness but just as a father will sometimes have to use strong measures upon a rebellious child to teach the importance of doing the right thing and rejecting the wrong (verse 5).
[Page 256] The testing those James addressed were of both types. Many were prosperous and their restraint was being tested. How easy to abuse their blessings and assume they is nothing wrong in taking advantage of others.
Others were being tested by the abusive way they were treated and they were attempted to either despair or strike out rather than leaving it to the Lord. Some tested by prosperity and others by lack. But, come in whatever form it may, tested nonetheless.
Successful endurance of “trials” and difficulties
can “produce patience” in the face of adversity
[ATP: “strength to endure whatever happens in the future”].
Why? Because having gone through it before, we know we can succeed the next time we encounter it as well.
This is true of patience in surviving the retribution of God. The wilderness wanderings were years of the ultimate blessing of the Promised Land being postponed. Yet even in those years we saw above that God provided them ample blessings to assure they survived the period. He will do the same for us. And if we should be so foolhardy as to permit our ego to drive us through the same cycle yet again, God’s steadfast strength will still be present if we but avail ourselves of it. He helped us get through it the first time; He will do so again.
[Page 257] But James is not interested in discussing this particular theme, though the precedent certainly helps us understand his point a bit better. What he is concerned with are the inevitable tribulations of life caused by others: Outright enemies, those to whom we are merely “inconvenient obstacles,” or even church members. Indeed, note James’ emphasis upon how church members will treat the poor with idle words of encouragement (chapter 2). Remember also the reference to how the powerful—conspicuously not excluding brethren--will abuse those who work for them (chapter 5).
No Old Testament passage directly links endurance of mistreatment with producing patience. It does, however, recognize that suffering can encourage spiritual growth of one type or another. For example in Psalms 119:71, the writer concedes, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” A few verses earlier suffering is viewed as producing a reformed life, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (119:67). In other words, the suffering he endured had caused Him to cling closer to God’s will. It hadn’t broken his commitment; it had strengthened it.
James notes that there are examples that show us patience
in the face of adversity though the Old Testament texts themselves don’t use
that language in describing them: “10 My
brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example
of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we
count them blessed who endure. You have
heard of the perseverance of Job [“patience,” ASV and English Revised Version;
Hence James rooted the interlocking of endurance and patience in historic examples if not, perhaps, in any specific text.
Prayer for wisdom will be granted.
The prototype example for this, of course, was that of Solomon (1 King 3:9-11). In the case of that king, it was a prayer for an “understanding heart” so that he could properly lead his people and make those hard and difficult decisions that are the lot of any ruler (verse 9). In James the kind of “wisdom” is left unstated, leaving it a broad and general principle applicable to whatever the specific individual’s needs may be. In the immediate context, however, it is wisdom for understanding the purpose of the trials and difficulties that confront us in life. The failure to make this explicit, however, suggests that James is leaving the rhetoric broad so that it can be applicable to all other situations as well.
If Solomon provides the prototype example of the individual searching for a specific type of wisdom, the proverbs attributed to Solomon provide the most detailed description of the “findability” of wisdom in its broadest sense--as applicable to all aspects of daily existence. In Proverbs two the theme is developed at length. Prayer is presented as part of the required method to obtain wisdom, “Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding” (verse 2). Indeed, in a concept strongly similar to James, “The Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (verse 6).
[Page 259] Yet it also requires personal endeavor, persistent effort. One must “incline” the ear to wisdom and “apply” the heart to understanding (verse 3). One must “seek” it as zealously and persistently as if one were searching for hidden earthly treasures (verse 4)-- which, of course, would not be obtained over night. If wisdom “enters your heart” and if “knowledge” actually becomes something we enjoy (verse 10), then--and only then--can wisdom guide us (verse 11) to deliver us from evil in this world (verse 12).
What is often overlooked is that
Solomon did not come to his concept of needing wisdom all by himself. While Solomon was still “young and
inexperienced” (1 Chronicles 22:5), David gave him the commission to build the
He explained to him that God had deemed it best for the warrior king not to be the one to carry out the task but he had done a vast amount of preparatory work for the endeavor.
11 Now, my son, may the Lord be with
you; and may you prosper, and build the house of the Lord your God, as He has
said to you. 12 Only may the
Lord give you wisdom and understanding, and give you charge concerning
[Page 260] It would seem impossible to imagine that David had this attitude and did not assure that the young man’s tutors guided him along a path of education that did the maximum to assure that he would adopt exactly that attitude. Hence, though Solomon is to be praised for seeking wisdom, a well deserved commendation goes to David for personally urging on him that need and, presumably, assuring that his teachers did as well. In modern parlance, he guaranteed that his offspring received the kind of education they needed and not necessarily that which would gain them the most praise from others.
The theme of conscious, dedicated seeking of insight is an important supplement to what James has to say. Prayer is an admission that we don’t understand things as easily or as well as we should. When God gives it, there is still our own role to play, in continuing to seek Divine wisdom.
As the wisdom literature described it, “I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things, to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness” (Ecclesiastes ). “Apply your heart to instruction, and your ears to words of knowledge.”
In other words it became a way of life. Not just a momentary desire, but an on-going trait. The logical outcome of doing so is that we ourselves become individuals that others can use to build their own knowledge and insight,
17 Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge; 18 for it is a pleasant thing if you keep them within you; Let them all be fixed upon your lips, 19 so that your trust may be in the Lord; I have instructed you today, even you. 20 Have I not written to you excellent things of counsels and knowledge, 21 that I may make you know the certainty of the words of truth, that you may answer words of truth to those who send to you? (Proverbs 22)
Even when Divine wisdom is directly involved—rather than the practical wisdom of running a business or a state--the learned studies of others can provide a useful building block. (Not all the “learned” are as learned as they think they are, however; but that’s a different subject—discernment--yet a grim reality not to be forgotten.) Why learn from scratch, when the hundreds of hours of work by others can provide us a “lift up” to a greater understanding of Scripture which, in turn, permits us to help others more quickly, in more depth, and with less danger of error?
Indeed, the person who refuses to seek other counsel may merely be reflecting blind arrogance and self-centeredness. He doesn’t want to hear because, why, that might result in changing his mind and he has too much pride and stubbornness invested in what he currently embraces. Proverbs 18:1 describes this mind frame, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment.”
The requirement of faith to receive answered prayer.
Jesus had Himself stressed the same idea: for prayer to be granted, it had to be one that was based on “faith” and did “not doubt” obtaining the answer (Matthew ). Of course the kind of prayer both Jesus and James is advocating is passionate, dedicated, persistent. Like you really mean it—because you do! You don’t necessarily expect the answer n-o-w, but you do expect it will come—with the timing and in the form the Lord deems best. Which does not always meet with our own preferred time schedule!
Nor is the prerequisite of faith a distinctly New Testament one. It is an implied component in a number of Old Testament passages that do not use the term; yet without the concept being present it is hard to comprehend how the demand of the texts could be met. When the curse of foreign captivity finally drove the people to repentance, it would be through such whole-hearted prayer that God would grant them their wish. This success was because, in spite of His actions, they never reflected the course He would have preferred to take in the first place.
11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you [i.e., when you recognize this]. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive (Jeremiah 29).
This kind of a complete, whole-hearted enthusiasm in prayer that could hardly exist without faith being deeply involved. Or does one prefer to say that chanting empty words, repeatedly, endlessly—even over days, weeks, or months—would be adequate to do the job? God knows a “con” when He sees it!
Furthermore, prayer requires one to
“call upon Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18) but can that be done without faith
being present? Would not the prayer be
empty pretense rather than “truth”? A
few translations are, perhaps, even more clear in bringing this out. There is the CEV’s, “And you are near to
everyone whose prayers are sincere.” And
there is the similar TEV’s, “He is near to those who call to him, who call to
him with sincerity.” Then there is
Furthermore, how does one “seek the Lord” in prayer “with all your heart and with all your soul” unless faith is pervasive throughout one’s prayer (Deuteronomy )? How can the completeness, the “all” of these be present otherwise?
Both here and in Deuteronomy 30, the punishment for apostate behavior could be revoked, if “you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul” (verse 2). Reformed actions, of course, had to accompany this (for how else could true faith—rather than empty ritual--be said to be present?), “If you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (30:10).
[Page 264] King Josiah and the people manifested faith by what they claimed and what they did in returning the kingdom to Yahweh worship, “Then the king stood by a pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people took a stand for the covenant” (2 Kings 23:3).
Which promptly led to a removal of all the pagan images from the temple and their destruction, followed by a similar crusade throughout the country (23:4-20). He had proved faith in his prayer by what he did to fulfill His vow.
Hence what James does is make explicit a demand for faith that is implied on various occasions in the Old Testament.
It is natural for there to be a correlation between faith and answered prayer because those who refuse to obey God are manifesting a way of life that lacks faith. Hence the blunt warning that covers both answered prayer and blessing in general, “I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faith” (Deuteronomy 32:20). Why should they get anything?
Many translations prefer substituting for “no faith” along the lines of the ESV, “I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.” Yet can they have no faithfulness / loyalty without them lacking the faith on which such is built? We come full circle back to them abandoning faith.
The “double-minded”/inconsistent person who will not settle on
any one course of action
(“there is a division in his mind,” BBE; “thinking about two different
things at the same time,” God’s Word; “of two minds about what
will really happen,” ATP; “an indecisive man,” Holman).
Although the terminology is not used, the idea is present in the description of Elijah’s critique of the Baal cult: the people were rebuked for simultaneously trying to serve both Baal and Yahweh instead of settling upon one or the other and giving Him their fully loyalty (1 Kings 18:17-21). The people’s response to the rebuke was silence rather than actually making any commitment (verse 21).
2 Kings 17:27-41 describes how the process could also work in the opposite direction as well, with foreign nations adopting the worship of Yahweh along with the worship of their traditional deities: “They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods--according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away.”
In a moral rather than religious context, Psalms 12:2 describes the flatterer as one who speaks from “a double heart,” i.e., what they are saying and what they are intending are two very different things. In James this condemnation is broadened from a criticism of a specific moral weakness into a rebuke of what has become a pervasive, over-all lifestyle that has infected the person’s entire approach to life.
On a spiritual level, the same fault was found in the days of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord said: ‘Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with [Page 266] their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men’ ” (29:13). They said the right things but there was no inner commitment; it was all form—presumably to “get out of God” what was wanted without actually giving Him any genuine commitment. Here it is not described as “a double heart” but since there is a clear discrepancy between the words and the intents, the description would be far from inappropriate.
The “double hearted” rhetoric carries the inherent imagery of someone who is at war with himself—or herself. Furthermore, the individual who is never stable, always changing, is a danger not only to himself but an annoyance--or worse--to others. In describing the frustration that such a person can create in another, the Septuagint of Psalms 119:113 uses the same Greek term, “I hate the double-minded, but I love Your law.” The emphasis here is on unreliability versus reliability; one could not be counted on while the other could.
Furthermore it appears to be that they had a “double mind” about their religion as well (cf. Isaiah 29:13 above), since this is the broader setting of the statement, “111 Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart. 112 I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes forever, to the very end. 113 I hate the double-minded, but I love Your law. 114 You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word. 115 Depart from me, you evildoers, for I will keep the commandments of my God!”
Hence the double-mindedness was reflected as well in their religious conduct. Indeed, it would seem fair to say that this was the central concern behind the Psalmist’s words.
[Page 267] Proceeding to deuterocanonical works (accepted as part of the canon by Roman Catholics and toward which widely varying attitudes exist among non-Catholics), there is a clear caution against having a divided mind and yet attempting prayer: “do not approach Him with a divided mind” is the warning (Sirach , NRSV). The following chapter generalizes the principle, “Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands, and to the sinner who walks a double path!” (, NRSV)
In the story of the despairing father seeking his child‘s healing, we encounter someone who is seemingly close to having this failure. He cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark ). Yet this individual is not torn between faith and doubt. The text explicitly affirms that he “believe[d].” The fear in his mind was whether he had an adequate faith; whether it measured up to the standard of what it should to receive the blessing of healing that Jesus had promised.
The danger of spiritual wavering in prayer was recognized in the rabbinical writings as well. Hence we read in the Tanhuma Midrash on the Pentateuch, “If you ask before God you must not have two hearts; one for God and one for something else.” This was a comment on the demand of Deuteronomy 26:16 that they be careful to obey God’s law “with all your heart and all your soul.”
The rich person must recognize the limits of wealth.
[Page 268] In James the stress is on the need for the wealthy to recognize that even honestly won riches will not preserve one’s life forever. Like every one else, even the richest of individuals ultimately dies (verse 11). Hence there is the need to be faithful to God so one is prepared to face one’s own demise (verse 12).
The same frame of mind is found in Jeremiah 9:22-24 where the wealthy are warned of their coming doom and the need to set their priorities straight,
Speak, Thus says the Lord: “Even the carcasses of men shall fall as
refuse on the open field. Like cuttings after the harvester, and no one shall
gather them.” Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his
wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory
in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and
knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and
righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.
The bottom line is still the old proverb: Riches can’t buy everything. A lot, yes. Everything? No—including keeping it permanently. And if one does manage to keep it throughout one’s entire life, it is still non-permanent--for someone else will inherit it. As the Psalmist rightly pointed out in his day (in words that had an obvious application to those enduring injustice at the time of James),
5 Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity at my heels surrounds me? 6 Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches, 7 none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him-- 8 for the redemption of their souls is costly, and it shall cease forever-- 9 That he should continue to live eternally, and not see the Pit. 10 For he sees wise men die; likewise the fool and the senseless person perish, and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever, their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. 12 Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the way of those who are foolish, and of their posterity who approve their sayings. Selah (Psalms 49).
Some in the more ancient past had recognized this need for valuing their wealth without letting it become all there was to life. For example, with all the anguish he was undergoing, Job could still see no way that his attitude toward wealth could have brought him any condemnation, “24 If I have made gold my hope, or said to fine gold, ‘You are my confidence’; 25 If I have rejoiced because my wealth was great, and because my hand had gained much; 28 This also would be an iniquity deserving of judgment, for I would have denied God who is above” (Job 31). In effect, James is urging the wealthy of his time to take the same path of keeping riches in their just perspective.
There is even the basis of a certain cynical humor in seeing the overconfident rich who are willing to commit every evil in the book to further themselves—to see them finally getting their earthly comeuppance when they were all so certain that it could never, ever happen to them. David seems to be describings the fate of one such individual who had done him harm,
2 Your tongue devises destruction, like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. 3 You love evil more than good, lying rather than speaking righteousness. 4 You love all devouring words, you deceitful tongue. 5 God shall likewise destroy you forever; He shall take you away, and pluck you out of your dwelling place, and uproot you from the land of the living. 6 The righteous also shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying, 7 “Here is the man who did not make God his strength, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness." (Psalms 52).
Even if David does not have a particular individual in mind, he unquestionably has a specific type of individual under consideration.
The brevity of life portrayed with the imagery of the flowers of the grass.
James warns the rich person that his life is really nothing that much more than the flower of the grass that quickly vanishes. The rich were in special need of this rebuke because the wealth provided a cushion against the grim reality of death: health and physical dangers the laboring man faced were avoided--when there was lack of food he was far more likely to be able to afford it and when disease threatened he could obtain the [Page 271] best care while the poor had to be contented with what scraps were available. (The same is true today: Length of life typically has a direct correlation with economic well-being and for much the same reason.)
Of course the flower imagery is equally applicable to the entire human species regardless of class, gender, race, nationality, or income and is so used in Job 14:1-2. It may or may not be significant that the remark is made specifically in the context of Job, who is pictured as hithertofore an extraordinarily rich man reduced to poverty and disease by the catastrophes of life.
Isaiah’s description of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (40:3-5) is applied by the New Testament to the work of John the Baptist. In Isaiah’s portrait of the proclaimer, he asks what message he is to announce and the response is that he is to warn of the brevity of life--utilizing the image of the quick perishing of the flower and grass of the field: “6 The voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.’ ”
In other words, the same standard of behavior—“the word of our God”—will be around permanently. Individual generations die, but that “word” remains to set the criteria of right and wrong for whoever comes next. You may refuse to obey it, you may even dismiss it as outdated and absurdly “narrow” in its moral demands--but you still can’t escape its ultimate judgment. We all die. It doesn’t.
Some see an intentional and inescapable intended reference by James to this particular text. As Alicia Batten puts it,
James does not slavishly repeat the text, but creatively shapes it to suit his own purposes. . . . James uses the same imagery, but now the flower and the grass are compared to the rich person, or representative rich person, who will pass away and fade away in the middle of his pursuits. As Hartin points out, “by using the words of the prophet Isaiah, James is in effect indicating that what the prophet had foretold now comes in fulfillment in the lives of the rich.”
What happens in Isaiah as occurring to all humanity, now targets the rich in particular. They were the proud, the arrogant, the ones that nothing could stop or curb. James, working from the concept Isaiah presents, stresses that this is true even / especially of the wealthy, who work under the delusion they face no foes mightier than themselves. All humanity has the delusion at some time or other, at least in their dreams, but it is the wealthy that tend to live in a “perception bubble” in which the reality can be ignored the longest.
By God’s standard of timelessness—a thousand years is “like yesterday” and like a sentry’s watch period during a night (Psalms 90:4)—God moves so quickly by His standard of time keeping that interceding in earthly judgment seems like it happens all in one day: “In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers” (90:5-6). Such judgments are punishment for human transgression (90:7-8).
[Page 273] And even when such does not happen in some dramatic form, the span of our lives is still only seventy or eighty years yet, retrospectively, it seems all so short: we are “soon cut off” from life and “we fly away” (90:9-10), a picturesque description of death that remains with us to this day.
Psalms 103 returns to that image of fast passing time, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. And its place remembers it no more” (verses 15-16). If the brevity of life is painful enough, just as bad is the fact “its place remembers it no more.” We have no permanent impact where we are scarred deep into the race’s permanent memory. If one doubts that, compare how history books recount the recent past. Look at how texts, written a few decades apart, manifest the “giants” slowly sinking into the mists of the barely mentioned and then the non mentioneds.
(We lay aside ideologically motivated suppression though that has played a major role in the last several decades. Even without it being present, the same pattern occurs. It simply takes a bit longer.)
If the flower/grass imagery applies to all mankind, it obviously applies to the specific societal segments that compose it as well. Just as James limits the flower/grass imagery to one particular type of individual (the wealthy), the Old Testament also applies the flower/grass imagery in a similarly limited manner in at least some passages.
In regard to the wealthy (the point James is making): Job stresses that those who are blessed with well-being in no way escape Divine examination and if they misuse their blessings He will crush them (Job 24:23-25). Here the image of grain being left to “dry out” is used in place of flowers and grass, though to convey a parallel idea.
[Page 274] The morally corrupt are specifically pictured as grass facing quick withering as well,
1 A Psalm of David. Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. 2 For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. 3 Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass (Psalms 37).
That twin message of evil being struck down being combined with the implicit plea that the sufferer from their hands need not despair and give up hope are key elements in James’ message. We find here even that element from chapter 5 of its imminence. Note the “soon be cut off” and the repetition of the idea later in verse 10, “For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; indeed, you will look carefully for his place, but it shall be no more.”
James does invoke this grass like label—and its invoking of the shortage of life--in his criticism of the waverers he later describes but limits it to the rich. Even so the moral waverer’s very instability and lack of roots makes it an obvious application as well.
The unjust rich are presented as chronically such, but the morally unstable—drifting in and out of appealing excess—has shown such a lack of commitment it is little short of trying “to play both sides of the field.” To be righteous and evil. To be pious and corrupt. To be honorable and untrustworthy.
[Page 275] By chronic non-repentance he or she lives like life will go on forever. Just like the unrepentant rich person.
Can such a person rationally face death as a liberating joy knowing that a beautiful and unprecedented world is about to open for them? Or must they acknowledge that their “playpen” is being removed by death and now God is about to crush them like the rich—with answerability for behavior for which they can have no legitimate justification?
One should never be paranoid about salvation, but one should never live in a manner where one should be paranoid either. Why endanger all for self-indulgence?
Successfully enduring temptation provides the opportunity
for being “blessed” by God.
Since the immediately preceding text has been discussing the poor (verses 9-11), it is possible that James has in mind the trial or temptation that poverty imposes upon an individual. On the other hand the language is kept so broad that, if there is a connection at all, James is simply using the testing posed by poverty as a jumping-off point to speak of the entire spectrum of trials that may inflict an individual.
[Page 276] he kind of temptation being described is the kind God does not send (verse 13). It is the type that appeals to one’s own inner desire to cater to one’s lowest (rather than best) instincts (verses 14-15). Hence, James does not have in mind the kind of corrective retribution God can administer in response to such misconduct in order to shake a person into a recognition of his or her true peril (cf. Job 5:17-18; Psalms 119:67, 71; Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:1-11).
God can certainly send trials to provoke repentance rather than to encourage further evil. These can become a temptation to do further evil by our own belligerence and mutiny against doing so. But they weren’t sent for that purpose: We have twisted what was sent for our betterment into an excuse to do further evil.
Instead what James has in mind are those difficulties and desires which--by their appeal to our worst instincts--automatically goad us in the wrong direction—a direction that part of ourselves already wants to go. At the strongest it inflames a tiny desire into a roaring one. At the weakest, it “lights” a fire we already were half ready to light. In both cases, the outcome is our decision--of whether to exercise (sometimes painful) self-control or simply to quickly lay aside our inhibitions and give full rein to the most irresponsible and reckless part of ourselves.
The assumption in James is that such temptations will occur; they are inevitable. In an overly secular and hostile society in which the only obscene words that are branded unspeakable appear to be “sin” and “sexual immorality,” why should this be unexpected? But even in one in which legal and cultural inhibitions are encouraged to rein in excess, the temptations still lurk in the background. Just less blatant, but ever present.
The past was no moral utopia.
But now we have moral anarchy and delude ourselves that this is “progress.” Yet various societies have been there
before. We are [Page 277] hardly the first. “You shall not do according to all that we
are doing here today, everyone doing whatever
is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8, ESV). In both Judges 17:6 and we have the exact same words, “In those days there was no king in
So the temptations will always be present though their severity and public acceptability will vary immensely. All we have control over is our response to them; not whether we will go through the experience.
In a broad text that could include temptation in this sense (though many other things as well), the Psalmist refers to how “many are the afflictions of the righteous” but promises that “the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalms 34:19), a theme he had already mentioned two verses earlier. Verse 6 is especially relevant in regard to James with his emphasis on the mistreatment of the poor, invoking God as the Divine equalizer, “This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” In a specifically temptation context, one thinks of the promised way of escape out of temptation that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 10:13.
The fact that we have the ability to resist temptation and that He will help us do so, grows out of the fact that He wishes good for us and not evil. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
The prototype for temptation in the Old Testament was, of course, that of Adam and Eve where through appealing to personal pride--the desire for special knowledge of the nature and meaning of good and evil and the desire to be as if God--the sole [Page 278] prohibition imposed upon them was violated (Genesis 3:5). Give mankind one single law and he can’t even keep that!
In Exodus 34:12, the people are implored to “take heed to yourself” lest they make a treaty with the inhabitants of the promised land. Doing so would expose them to the danger of accepting the propriety of polytheism (cf. verses 13-16). Rather than utilize the word temptation, however, the danger is pictured as “a snare in your midst” (verse 12). Even the desire to possess the “silver or gold” that covered wooden idols, could become an excuse to possess such images. In such cases they would be potentially “snared by it” and dragged into idolatry by their respect for the monetary value of such images (Deuteronomy ).
The people are cautioned in Deuteronomy 8:7-18 that such prosperous days are ahead and that they could become puffed up with pride and forget the vital role God had played in providing them both a land and prosperity. Although the term temptation is not utilized, their prosperity and contentment are clearly pictured as functioning in such a manner. If we take the wrong attitude to God’s blessings, we can even distort those into a source of temptation.
The emphasis in James is upon the reward that will be received by successfully resisting such self-destructive impulses and it is pictured in terms of a “crown of life” that is given to reward those that have manifested true love for the Lord (James 1:12). The Old Testament also stresses that faithfulness will reap a recompense. For example: “Great peace” is promised in Psalms 119:165. Yahweh can act on behalf of His people in a way no purported god of the surrounding world ever could (Isaiah 64:4). In the middle of the Ten Commandments there is the pledge that God would be “showing mercy to thousands” and that number is defined as “those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:6).
Reward for the individual who successfully endures tribulation:
“the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
Greek texts are divided between making “the Lord” the promiser and a more ambiguous “he,” which is sometimes considered a reference to God and so rendered in translation.
In Greek society a ceremonial garland (“crown”) was given to victors in various athletic and cultural competitions. The possibility that imagery is intended by the word “crown” is a common assumption. For Greeks that would be the intended allusion--but the epistle is not written to Greeks. On the other hand it might be most appropriate for Grecified Hebrews. Although such individuals would be included in the readership, it seems far more likely that James has directly taken the image from the Old Testament reference to receiving a crown. That would be building on a shared Jewish root regardless of the degree of assimilation of a specific Hebrew.
Indeed, the crown image is used in a number of places in that Testament.
Its usage of King David in Psalms 21 is especially interesting,
The king shall have joy in Your strength, O Lord; and in Your salvation how greatly shall he rejoice! 2 You have given him his heart's desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. 3 For You meet him with the blessings of goodness; You set a crown of pure gold upon his head. 4 He asked life from You, and You gave it to him--length of days forever and ever. 5 His glory is great in Your salvation; honor and majesty You have placed upon him. 6 For You have made him most blessed forever; You have made him exceedingly glad with Your presence. 7 For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the mercy of the Most High he shall not be moved.
Note that the king sought “life” from God and a long life (21:4). He conspicuously did not seek a crown. He had no particular family connections to make such an event probable at all. Yet God could see the heart and the potential and gave one to him in spite of this.
There would be a certain conceptual parallel with first century believers: who of them could one imagine with an actual “crown?” Yet God had been willing to promise it to them and God expected the same kind of affection and respect that David had provided in exchange.
Of special interest to New Testament readers of the first century was the Old Testament precedent of how “crowns” could be lost through disobedience to God, a point of obvious importance to them (Revelation 2:10). Psalms 89:39 speaks of those who have had their crown “cast . . . to the ground” and, as a result, “profaned.” God did so by publicly humiliating such a person (89:40-43) and had “cast his throne down to the ground” (89:44).
[Page 281] Retaining it was a reward for good behavior; losing it being the result of sin, “The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned!” (Lamentations 5:16). Ezekiel 21 speaks of God demanding that a ruler acknowledge that God has deposed him for his evils,
25 Now to you, O profane, wicked
In Proverbs the context is clearly people at large and not just rulers. In that place the reward of heeding the teaching of wisdom is described as “plac[ing] on your head an ornament of grace; a crown of glory [that wisdom] will deliver to you” (4:9). Some translators think of a Gentile style garland. Hence CEV’s “a glorious crown of beautiful flowers. The RSV parallels, “She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” Similarly, the NIV parallels “a garland of grace” in the first half of the verse with “a crown of splendor” in the second half. The GW does the same with “a graceful garland” and “a beautiful crown.”
In Proverbs 4:9 true glory comes not from position but from your insight and comprehension into what is right and proper. Parental teaching is similarly described in [Page282] 1:9—presumably on the basis that it, too, will reflect true wisdom--as “a graceful ornament on our head” (1:9). Again some translations reach out for what we would normally think of as a Greek style explanation: “a graceful wreath,” NASB, YLT; “a fair garland,” RSV; “a garland to grace,” NIV; “a graceful garland,” GW; “a wreath of beauty,” Rotherham; “a handsome turban,” TEV.
Even in the context of the wreaths given to winners, these still carried a regal overtone. They were the garland of supremacy over all competitors. Hence they conceptually functioned as a symbolic crown equivalent to gold or silver or whatever else one chose to think of. Hence we still get back to a “crown” imagery being the intent.
God’s character as being unreachable / uncorruptable by temptation.
This also overlaps the discussion in of “God’s Unchanging Character.” One of the hallmarks of pagan deities was their very human-style moral failures. In contrast, Jehovah is held up as immune to such moral subversion. He neither is evil nor is corruptible by it, the two forming a logical combination with each reinforcing the continuance of the other.
This image of God is not without precedent in the Old Testament. For example, Psalms 5:4 speaks of how, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You.” “Dwell with” is usually taken as a third party (“with you the wicked can not dwell,” NIV, for example) rather than a further description of God’s own nature. A few however clearly permit the latter, such as the ASV’s “Evil shall not sojourn with thee”—evil as if in the abstract rather than embodied form.
[Page 283] Even if it be taken in the sense of not permitting evil doers to “dwell with You,” it is hard to see that is possible unless His own core character regarded such people as deeply repulsive. At that point, aren’t we at or close to the idea of evil being unable to ever find a “home” with Him? I.e., He can neither be impressed by or successfully triumphed over by temptation?
Here we get into a “chicken and egg” situation. Is He morally perfect because He can’t be tempted or is it that He can’t be tempted because He is morally perfect and there is nothing imperfect to appeal to? If the two are “super glued” together irrevocably as we have suggested, the power of that superhuman moral character and the inability of anything to alter it is that much further guaranteed.
As to His inherent nature, there is simply no latent evil in Him that could give rise to being tempted to do wrong: “He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (Psalms 92:15). In an age when “unrighteousness” is not exactly a common word the NIV may well render the verse significantly better, “There is no wickedness in Him.” Or take the God’s Word rendition of “there is no evil in Him.”
Habakkuk describes God as the “Holy One” (), i.e., holiness is the very essence of His being. Indeed, God is as “of purer eyes than to behold evil” with acceptance (verse 13). “Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil,” renders the New American Bible. So pure is His perception that it is beyond His capacity to look upon it with approval, endorsement, and acceptance. “You can’t stand sin or wrong,” renders the CEV.
[Page 284] To Habakkuk this matter of God’s purity bothers him, but from an unexpected direction: Being so pure, why in the world haven’t you already acted?
12 Are You not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, You have appointed them for judgment; O Rock, You have marked them for correction. 13 You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?
God always has His own (good) reasons for delay. What should be most feared by those who smear His moral commandments as antiquated or bigoted is this: If He is so centered on purity that there is no room for anything else in His nature, what will happen to the poor mortal standing in His way when He decides it is time for just retribution? (Picture the image of being run over by a freight train, if you wish.)
If God both is and remains incorrupt, then the high standards He upholds as our goal makes perfect sense. One would expect incorruption to be the goal of an incorrupt(able) Supreme Being. Knowing our imperfections, He would not expect we’ll reach it, but He’ll also know that without trying we’ll simply give into our worst impulses. At best, we’d settle for moral mediocrity rather than moral excellence.
[Page 285] This concept of God’s law reflecting the purity He upholds, is reflected in various scriptural texts. For example, in 1 Chronicles 29:17 we read that, “I know also, my God, that You test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. . . .” Naturally, since He is perfect uprightness Himself.
Compare the translation in the TEV, “I know that you test everyone's heart and are pleased with people of integrity” and the rendering of the NIV, “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.”
He is opposed to ethical failures because it offends His inner nature. His essence. Psalms 11:5 put it this way, “The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates.” In the human sense, God certainly doesn’t have a “soul,” but the word certainly conveys the idea of the inner essence or nature superbly.
Yet humans love to remake God in their own image. Surely if we can rationalize our search for unlimited sexual bed partners, injustice, and flagrant dishonesty, God would understand it and cut us slack! In Psalms 50 this powerful sledgehammer is aimed at those who think God will endorse that which He clearly brands as evil,
16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth, 17 seeing you hate instruction and cast My words behind you?
18 When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers. 19 You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son. 21 These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; but I will rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes.
22 Now consider this, you who forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver: 23 Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; and to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.”
Surely in this context of competing ways of moral behavior, the central thrust is “I am not like you. I have absolutely no room for these things. They are totally contrary to My moral principles.” He doesn’t invoke the words “sinless” or “beyond being tempted,” but how can the language mean less than that and retain its power as a valid critique?
We sin when our inward “desires” are “enticed [ATP: trapped]”
by outward circumstances.
Here James begins a picture of the cause of sin that he develops in terms of a pregnancy (verse 15). A pregnancy (barring those tragic cases of rape) never occurs unless we have an inward sexual desire and we encounter someone who appeals to that desire and is willing to participate. That person may even be actively “enticing” us toward that goal—the sexual liaison rather than the pregnancy--but it would have no success if there weren’t female internal desires that it appealed to as well. Any seduction, by its nature, has to be—at least in part—a self-seduction: I like, I want, I have.
[Page 287] James presents this as a universal rule. “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” This is nothing new. It goes as far back as the story of the Garden of Eden and the eating of the fruit of knowledge. It happened because the opportunity had three appeals to Eve’s inner interests, for “the woman saw that the tree (1) was good for food, (2) that it was pleasant to the eyes, and (3) a tree desirable to make one wise, [so] she took of its fruit and ate . . .” (Genesis 3:6).
It had aspects that clearly “interested” her—appealed to the desire to have a full stomach, to her aesthetic interests and to be smart as well. None of these desires were wrong in themselves. Things went disastrous because she ignored the fact that just because there was an appeal—multiple appeals—yielding to it did not mean that it only had to produce the beneficial results she desired.
What she allowed these desires to push out of her mind was that she had been given an emphatic “no” to consuming the fruit. The personal desire(s) overcame the willingness to avoid the “thou shalt not of God.” What she wanted became more important than what God wanted.
This same misjudgment continues today when we knowingly go ahead and do what our knowledge tells us is rebuked by God as sin. Yet we somehow think we are going to be permitted the luxury, while the punishment for transgression is only found in our spiritual history book, the Bible.
The pattern of allowing personal desire to take the place of following
God’s will did not die with Eve. At the fall of
Some of it wasn’t. Only one man or family decided to follow the condemned alternative of retaining it. Even so, in the following battle of Ai the Israelites suffered an unexpected defeat because that one family had violated this directive.
When Achan was publicly singled out as guilty, he explained why he had violated the instruction, “When I saw among the spoils a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. And there they are, hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent, with the silver under it” ().
The garment appealed because of its appearance and the silver and gold because of their great value. He was overcome by the combination of aesthetics and financial self-improvement (positively worded) or outright greed (to express it more bluntly).
“Coveted,” of course, implies that it appealed to something within himself, in this case the desire for major valuables (in the case of the silver and gold) and what was appealing to his pride of possession (in the case of the fine garment). Most translations still render “coveted” here though a few opt for the less harsh sounding “wanted them” (CEV, TEV). If one wishes substitute language one could hardly improve on the BBE’s “I was overcome by desire.”
Sexual immorality is also described in such terms as having an inward origin. Of Samson we read that he “saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (Judges 16:1). If there hadn’t been a “want” within his heart, he would have continued down the street. What was within mixed with what he saw produced the action of personal defilement with a prostitute.
[Page 289] In the case of David, we know that the entire event of adultery had to have been his own yielding to human weakness—rather than being encouraged in that direction—because the only reason he saw the woman at all was because he was on the roof top, “Then it happened one evening that David arose from his bed and walked on the roof of the king's house. And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold [enticement, though not through any intentional act on her part]” (2 Samuel 11:2). Then he “inquired about the woman” (11:3) and he had her brought to his residence (11:4). Internal desire mixed with external inflammation resulted in the tragic decision that produced unwanted and tragic results for both parties.
Sin pictured as behavior “born”
after the evil “desire has [been] conceived.”
If what follows is properly regarded by you as further elaboration on what has been studied in the previous section, please accept my apology for not merging the two into one. Although this could be done since they are so closely related, yet this wording seems to bring out a slightly different point worthy of separate attention: You don’t sin blindly. You sin because some internal weakness is enticed by exposure to the needed external stimulation. (Or, if you wish, you sin because temptation has tapped some element within you that it appeals to.)
[Page 290] Standing alone neither gets you into trouble. But the combination produces the concrete and specific desire for sin and raises it above an abstract possibility into a “real life” probability. The “conception” of the specific sin to commit has crystallized and is growing stronger by the minute just as the baby within grows in a similar manner, though not as quickly or as dramatically.
The inward roots of sin are pictured in Job in terms of a pregnant woman bearing transgression, “They conceive trouble and bring forth futility; their womb prepares deceit” (Job ). The same pregnancy imagery is utilized in Psalms 7;14, “Behold, the wicked brings forth iniquity; yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood.”
Isaiah 59 speaks of how desiring to do evil—and carrying out those desires--had resulted in their alienation from God,
2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. 3 For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. 4 No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity.
What they had rationalized their way into deciding to do (what they had “conceived”) they had carried out with utter contempt for truth (“your lips have spoken [Page 291] lies, your tongue has muttered perversity”). This was a convenient means of getting whatever they wished; so they used it. The irony, of course, is they did get what they wished, but at the cost of God determining to ultimately break them for what they had done. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” (Hebrews 10:31)
Here in James our inner desires are pictured as the well-spring of our actions. In James 5:6, he speaks of how, “You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
It is interesting that Isaiah 59 ties these two themes together. Having spoken of how they made their plans and did evil, we read that it did not even stop at the line of violence, “6 Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. 7 Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths.”
And they get away with it. Until their time of judgement arrives.
Anything that God gives is “good” and “perfect”—
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.”
James is not denying that very desirable gifts and opportunities may be obtained on this earth. Rather he is strenuously arguing that any sin we get ourselves into can not possibly be God’s fault or preference. If we sin it isn’t because He wants us to, but because we get greater pleasure out of the transgression than out of the obedience.
But aren’t there cases when God sends false prophets or deception on to people. Well, yes. But why? One of the best texts to concisely explain this phenomena is found in 2 Thessalonians 2, “10 And with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, 12 that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
The principle here is clearly: if you scorn God, He is not above helping you complete the spiritual drift you have already embraced. But the reprobate him or herself made the decision to drift.
God would much prefer to continue giving what He used to provide, “every good and every perfect gift [that] is from above” (James ). In this type of unusual case He gives them the “gift” that their attitudes and actions cried out for—and not the kind He would have preferred and, normally, would have provided.
Yet, even then, if we can summon the inner gumption to change for the better, God will certainly act as He had previously. The Psalmist in chapter 85 speaks of how He had done so (85:1-2) and wonders whether God will continue the reconciliation (85:4-7). But he recognizes that restoration is conditional upon “them not turn[ing] back to folly” (85:8). Confident--or is there here a barely hidden fear that the people will refuse to continue to do their part?--the Psalmist speaks of the blessings to come (85:9-13). Of special relevance in light of our subject is verse 12, “Yes, the Lord will give what is good; and our land will yield its increase.”
[Page 293] In the preceding chapter, the writer speaks with a broadness that also fits in well with the message of James, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (84:11).
In a similar vein is Psalms 34:9-10, “Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.”
In the symbolic language of Isaiah 60:19-20 the pervasive generosity of God to the obedient is displayed, “19 The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you; but the Lord will be to you an everlasting light, and your God your glory. 20 Your sun shall no longer go down, nor shall your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and the days of your mourning shall be ended.”
But note the condition for such abundant societal wide blessing in verse 21: “Also your people shall all be righteous. . . .” For all of society to be benefited—rather than just a righteous minority—all of society has to be committed to the goal of moral betterment.
The good gifts God provides, could come in many forms. In the days of miracles it could be by giving specific information, a specific message to speak, as in Moses dealing with Pharaoh (Exodus 4:11-12). In Joseph it was the gift of practical wisdom in how to manage forthcoming bad economic years (Genesis 41:37-40). The “wisdom” that David wished Yahweh to give to Solomon involved insight into the meaning and application of the Law of Moses, “that you may keep the law of the Lord your God” (1 Chronicles -13).
[Page 294] God gives in many shapes and forms whatever it is that we truly need. But to obtain it we have to ask for it and recognize that we ourselves must utilize the gift that has been provided: When God gave generous crops, for example, they still had to go out and harvest them—and help the less fortunate as well. When God blesses us with greater understanding of His will, we then have to live by it rather than multiply excuses to avoid doing so.
Utilized Divine gifts are blessings indeed; unused ones are missed opportunities.
God’s unchanging character.
This is the essence of the idea conveyed by the image of there being “no variation or shadow of turning” that will affect the intensity of the “light” cast by the “Father of lights.” The idea is put forth to prove that God not only has provided, but will continue to provide “every good gift and every perfect gift.”
(In we discussed “God’s character as being unreachable by temptation,” i.e., He can’t be successfully tempted. Here the stress is on the other half of the subject. Even if He were “temptable,” the temptation would still slam into a long-established, permanent moral character that would be repulsed by it.)
[Page 295] Malachi 3:6 sums up the concept in a handful of words, “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” Part of the reason is that he is not a mere mortal like us, subject to human style faults and weaknesses, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers ).
Hence, since God never commits evil He has no need to “repent” as would a
theme also hit on in 1 Samuel , “And also the Strength of
Because of that unvarying character, once God has revealed His will there is no need to change it. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalms 33:11). This consistency bears witness to His character, “You have performed Your words, for You are righteous” (Nehemiah 9:7-8, of God’s promise to Abraham in particular).
Humans have traditionally associated age with wisdom. Furthermore, if God is eternal, surely His wisdom would have to exceed any human alternative. It is very hard to separate the two assertions of eternal existence and supreme knowledge of moral right and wrong, the first inevitably seeming to require the second.
Hence it is quite natural that His moral standards are perpetual; He never has the need to learn something He overlooked, something new that would alter them. That—combined with the reality of His proving Himself right time and again when His people rebelled—what He threatened did come to pass . . . these combined surely constituted de facto proof of the belief. Proof in life rather than abstract reasoning that He was right and that we are answerable for its transgression.
[Page 296] In Psalms 102, the Psalmist quite conspicuously argues that even if the earth were to end—and Jehovah had been here for the creation—He would still be present afterwards as well and would remain “the same,”
24 I said, “O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days; Your years are throughout all generations. 25 Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. 26 They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. 27 But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.”
In other words, there will never be a time when we can escape answerability because of His sudden non-existence. It simply won’t happen.
In light of the repeated scriptural pattern of insistence on Divine wrath to punish those who refuse to yield to God’s standards, there is an additional fact that needs to be remembered: Even in punitive mode, God exercised a trait often lacking in humans—self-control,
35 Then they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer. 36 Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth, and they lied to Him with their tongue; 37 For their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.
38 But He, being full of
compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away,
and did not stir up all His wrath; 39 For He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes
away and does not come again (Psalms 78).
[Page 297] Today we would say “He pulled His punches.” He did not do all He could have. But what of when this life is over: Is He to allow the unrepentant to go unpunished? For the successful unrepentant who committed all the injustice, fraud, lies, and sexual excess and who never had to suffer punitive consequences, will He let that person into eternity unscathed? Then they would have successfully and triumphantly scoffed at His laws and gotten away with it. Surely God’s unchanging holy nature would require a reckoning at that time!
However uncomfortable and painful the details turn out to be if Psalms 78 is any precedent, it won’t be anywhere as bad as it could be. As literal as one chooses to make “the lake of fire” (Revelation ; 21:8), even that could be far, far worse without God’s restraining hand. Which should make it even that much more frightening than it already is.
The image of first fruits is one rooted in the instruction of the Torah that the first grain to be harvested was to be set aside as a special sacrifice to God (Leviticus 23:9-11; Deuteronomy 18:1-5; Deuteronomy 26:1-4). This was both a means of expressing thankfulness to God and an act of faith that yet more was to be harvested.
There was an ethical or moral element implied in the application of
such language to human beings, because the literal animal firstfruits had to be
“without blemish” (Leviticus 23:12; others substitute: “without defect,” NASB, NIV,
The fact that they were to be “firstfruits of His creatures” furthermore implies that James viewed the converts he wrote to as merely the first or beginning of those who would ultimately be reached. This argues against any rigid view that James was convinced that the end of the world was in the near future--a “spin” that is easily put on the texts warning of a rapidly approaching judgement (5:9). Whatever that nearing judgement is interpreted to refer to, the “firstfruits” language would reasonably argue that it would not be an event of such a nature that it would mark the end of the spread of the gospel.
Control over one’s temper and over what one says.
Personal control over speech is not an abstract issue to James. Practical, down-to-earth misuse is in his mind. James speaks specifically of “wrath” (in the NKJV and NAB [Page 299] renderings; “to become outraged,” ATP), that is, an intense anger. Others prefer the milder rendering of “anger” or “angry” (NRSV and NIV), which in actual usage covers everything from serious annoyance to rage.
The reason for the indictment is found in the next verse where we read that such indignation does not “produce the righteousness of God.” This can mean either that it does not result in “right dealing” in our relationship with others (i.e., practical or manifested righteousness) or that God will not count or consider us righteous if we manifest such a hostile mind frame. (One commentator describes the two possibilities as “doing right, as God commands the right” versus “being right with God.”) The two approaches so intertwine they virtually merge into two aspects of the same phenomena. How can we have one without the other?
That anger or rage could be caused by “jumping to conclusions” that turn out to be unjust. On the other hand, it could be an understandable reaction to genuine excess. In either case caution is the keynote lest we make the situation even worse.
Wisdom literature of the Old Testament recognized the need for keeping a tight reign on one’s temper. Proverbs speaks of the “quick-tempered man” who inevitably “acts foolishly.” Not necessarily sinfully—though that is common enough, but also in a way that will make himself look outlandish and excessive.
Similarly, Proverbs speaks of how, “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly.” Although it is arguably more interpretation than translation Today’s English Version gets the point across succinctly, “If you stay calm, you are wise, but if you have a hot temper, you only show how stupid you are.” The God’s Word translation similarly speaks of, how “a person of great understanding is patient, but a short temper is the height of stupidity.”
[Page 300] In some ways that is, perhaps, far worse than doing something outright wrong. Most folk seem far more able to grasp the need to avoid the latter than the trap of doing something so outrageous that it portrays a plain lack of sense. In similar vein Ecclesiastes 7:9 warns against “hasten[ing] in your spirit to be angry” since “anger rests in the bosom of fools.” That is what you can all too easily land up looking like!
This kind of person simply makes a bad situation worse, “A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contention” (Proverbs ). He—or she—not only does not leave the situation the way it was, but positively aggravates it further.
This explosive approach to annoyance guarantees one of the involved parties is highly likely to do the utterly wrong thing. “An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22). It might not be the one who initially explodes but the one who reacts in the same way. Either way, a bad situation is going to be made worse. Or if things weren’t already extremely bad, they are going to be made that way.
Hence we can see the rationale for the condemnation of one who does not control what he says as being no less than a blatant fool, “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back” (Proverbs 29:11). The one who exercises no self-control over “letting loose” at others is also so described in Proverbs , “A fool's wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame.” Or as the New International Version words it, “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.”
The wisdom literature also recognizes that laudable as control of one’s temper is in the abstract, in actual life it is often extremely difficult to practice. Hence Proverbs can speak of how “he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” It is all too often easier to rule and even be a military hero than to successfully rein in oneself.
[Page 301] Recognizing the difficulty of such self-control under provocation, the Psalmist speaks of his need to “restrain my mouth with a muzzle while the wicked are before me” (Psalms 39:1). “I’ll muzzle my mouth when evil people are near” (CEV).
Turning to the deuterocanonical literature, a recognition of the need for such self-control is also manifested. Hand in hand with the ability to keep one’s mouth closed until the right time, comes the ability to rein in the tongue lest one be inconsistent due to rashness in speaking or feel the need to say something even if one does not really know what is appropriate. Hence Sirach cautions that one must, “Stand firm for what you know and let your speech be consistent. Be quick to hear, but deliberate in answering. If you know what to say, answer your neighbor; but if not, put your hand over your mouth” (Sirach -12, NRSV; cf. 20:6-8; 28:25-26).
Two chapters later, in James 3, the writer specifically has in mind the need for teachers to be able to control their speech (3:1-2). Although James ’s admonition to being “swift to hear” as compared with being “slow to speak” does not specifically address teachers, it obviously represents a principle that will help preserve a teacher’s reputation. Indeed, Isaiah 50:4 speaks of how a God given skill in teaching should go hand in hand with responsible listening (being “swift to hear,” to utilize James’ description), “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to hear as the learned.” A smart teacher is also a smart listener.
The imagery of sin as a polluted garment.
When James speaks of the need to “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness,” the action of “lay[ing] aside” utilizes a Greek term that is used of removing one’s clothes in order to prepare for vigorous work or exercise. Since James’ intent is to convey the message of removing one’s “clothing” of moral fault and replacing it with the attire of righteousness, our modern imagery fits well also: taking off one set of clothes in order to put on another (for example, our sweaty work clothes and changing into clean, fresh garments).
The imagery of clothes as representing moral compromise and failure is one found in Zechariah 3 and no less than the High Priest himself is introduced as an example of it!
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest
standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan
standing at his right hand to oppose him.
2 And the Lord
said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen
3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. 4 Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before [Page 303] Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the Lord stood by.
Isaiah alludes to such an image of ourselves but does not develop it in this kind of depth, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
The need for rejecting an immoral lifestyle.
James speaks of the need to lay aside the weight of sin (“all filthiness and overflow of wickedness [ATP: set aside all your vile and abundant wickedness]”) and how this goes hand-in-hand with humbly accepting the “implanted word” which produces salvation. They say they are Christians, but they aren’t really living that life. The Proverbist speaks of how there are generations that think themselves quite “pure,” yet have not removed their transgressions, having not been “washed from [sins’] filthiness” (30:12).
[Page 304] There is shared identical wording in the Septuagint of Proverbs 30:12 and the James text that causes some to regard this precedent as of particular importance. A modern translation of the Septuagint sees the reference as being to not cleaning oneself after a bowel movement, which would have made the intended insult even harsher! (“Wicked progeny judges itself righteous but did not wash off its anus.”)
The Psalmist links together the two themes of James 1:21--abstaining from evil and accepting/living God’s word--when he writes, “I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word” (Psalms 119:101). In both places the two approaches to a living faith are not presented as either/or options but as essential compatriots.
Isaiah 65 hits hard on the theme of those Jews who thought themselves highly religious—apparently, superior to even strict Jehovah followers--even though their “super quality” piety was based on polytheistic worship!
2 I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; [They had a religion that felt “good” and “right” and “comfortable” to their particular tastes—what so many today still make their criteria of church choice.] 3 A people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; who sacrifice in gardens, and burn incense on altars of brick; 4 who sit among the graves, and spend the night in the tombs; who eat swine's flesh, and the broth of abominable things is in their vessels;
[Page 305] 5 Who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!'
These are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day. 6 "Behold, it is written before Me: I will not keep silence, but will repay -- Even repay into their bosom-- 7 Your iniquities and the iniquities of your fathers together," says the Lord, "Who have burned incense on the mountains and blasphemed Me on the hills; therefore I will measure their former work into their bosom."
The Christian Jews aren’t accused of idolatry as these ancients were, but their behavior was still clearly flying in the face of what was just and proper. Forced to face that reality, the idea of coming judgment upon them for their violence (James 5:6) would fit in perfectly with Old Testament admonitions such as Isaiah’s. The closing idea of “getting what they had earned” (65:7) had to be downright frightening in a context of reading the closing chapter of that book.
Continuing to study (“look[ing] into the perfect law of liberty”)
as essential to acceptability with God.
The rendering “look” is not strong enough; the idea is closer to
“staring.” It carries the meaning of “to
stand still and gaze long, seriously, attentively.” Hence it refers not to a casual glance but
“to careful observation.” This leads to such alternative translations as
“looks intently” (Holman, NASB, NIV) and “looks closely” (
[Page 306] Although our text has specifically in mind the apostolic and related teaching available to James’ readers (but see the discussion in the next chapter concerning difficult texts), he presents it as already an authoritative body or system--an intriguing insight into how it was regarded at the quite early date when this epistle most likely originated.
In other words, the teachings of the New Testament writers and prophets were regarded as inherently authoritative from the beginning. The fact that disciples were instructed to carefully examine it on an ongoing basis, argues that key parts were circulated in writing from a similarly early date. It wasn’t an approach that was adopted merely because several decades had passed and the original witnesses were dying off.
The Old Testament, of course, had taken a similar attitude toward its component parts. They were to be studied, examined, and persistently applied to the reader’s or hearer’s own life.
In this vein, Psalms speaks of how God’s word “warn[s]” a person and how obeying it will produce a “great reward.” It is described as providing the standard of comparison for reliably judging one’s behavior (Psalms 19:7-11),
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. 11 Moreover by them Your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward.
All of these images make no sense unless God’s word can be understood and grasped. How could it “convert the soul,” “make wise the simple,” “enlighten the eyes,” etc., unless we can grasp its meaning from our study? How can they “taste” even better than the finest “honey” unless they are able to convey their “taste” and intent? Combining their authoritativeness with the assertion that “in keeping them there is great reward” makes full sense. Without their authoritativeness they have no more value than mere good advice.
Hence there is latent in this description of the Divine revelation the concept of its superiority to any human alternative: We guess at truth; God knows what it is. This fits very well with , “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults.” We too readily rationalize and drift to what is easiest or most self-serving. Only through the medium of this Revelation can be know what our errors are and ask God to forgive them.
Obedience to it must be internalized, made part of our spiritual and psychological essence. By doing that, the outward behavior (described as “steps”) will reflect the inner priorities and standards we have embraced. Note the process of reasoning in Psalms 37:31, “[premise:] The law of his God is in his heart; [result:] none of his steps shall slide.”
[Page 308] Although Psalms 40:6-8 has an obvious Messianic application (and is so used in Hebrews 10:5-9), in its original setting it seems to be a picture of the “ideal Israelite”—as such, an obvious cause for the application of the words to Jesus the uniquely Ideal Israelite. This Ideal Israelite is not lured away by having rich friends or embracing self-serving lies (40:4) but recognizes that all the good God provides to us is beyond our counting (40:5). He is wisely aware that in comparison with “burnt offering and sin offering” neither is required but, instead, following the principle found in the Biblical scroll (40:7), “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and your law is within my heart” (40:8). Internalized and made part of our nature.
Obviously there is no way it is going to be in the heart without regular, systematic studying and meditating upon its applications. And the reason the reader is willing to apply it in such a manner is because he takes “delight” in the Divine Law rather than regarding it as a subjugating or degrading influence.
It reveals how to rise above his very human limitations rather than to indulge them. It teaches him that there are preferences and desires that wisdom demands he says “no” to.
Having done so he recognizes that he has the moral obligation to share God’s message with others as well, “9 I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness in the great assembly; indeed, I do not restrain my lips, O Lord, You Yourself know. I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly” (Psalms 40:9-10). He learned and he taught. That is the principle laid down.
[Page 309] And he did so because he was thoroughly convinced that the revealed Law was something worth investing time upon. From the depth of study implied, he lived the life James advocates: of the one who “looks into” the Divine Law—and persists in doing so. The kind of individual held up by James as the model.
. Psalms 1:2 speaks of the ideal individual as one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” and speaks of how “in His law he meditates day and night”--a different form of the same idea of continual looking / examination utilized by James. Some translations differ from most in rendering “delight” with “makes them happy” (CEV) or “they find joy” TEV). In any of these translations, the effort is not a drudgery, it is not a burden; it is accepted as a practice that enriches themselves.
Similarly, “meditates” is sometimes rendered “think about,” CEV; “study
it,” TEV; “talk with himself” about, (
Joshua 1:7-8 advocates that same principle of continued meditation on the Torah and stresses that by so doing, combined with care not to depart from its teachings in any direction, one would be benefited in “this world” terms and not the spiritual alone,
7 “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
In the context in which Joshua speaks, it is specifically discussing their capacity to conquer pagan Palestine, but the principle would have an obvious broader application as well--both in that generation and those that followed: Note the wording of the promise, “mak[ing] your way prosperous” and “hav[ing] good success,” language that could hardly be limited to the Conquest alone.
Acceptable religion to God consists of neither personal purity alone
nor charity alone,
but a lifestyle that manifests both.
In chapter two, James zeroes in on attitudes toward the poorest in general, but before he gets into that he ends the first chapter with an emphatic emphasis upon the most important of such assistance—that needed by orphans and widows in their time of need. The Old Testament laid great emphasis on such charity since such individuals were the most vulnerable to abuse and misuse of all the poor in society. Likewise it emphasized the other element in this verse, the need for personal moral integrity.
What is interesting in the current passage is how the two are linked together in an unbreakable bond. Some people seem naturally charitable; some seem inclined to moral [Page 311] restraint. The implication of James is that either attribute without the other leaves us maimed in God’s eyes rather than complete: half the person we should be rather than the full person that is our potential.
This linkage of inner character and outward benevolence is not unique to this writer. Isaiah makes a similar linkage between moral reformation and assisting the needy as well. In that prophet’s powerful rhetoric he implores, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah -17). The New American Bible phrases the closing words, “Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”
“Defend” and “plead” are our two key words and are the ones generally used in the various English versions. Both terms carry the idea of active intervention.
“Defend” suggests someone is about to—at the minimum, easily could—take advantage of the youth and someone needs to be a barrier between them and such abuse. The possible assistance covers a wide variety of behaviors, from adoption to providing food or other support.
“Defend” is occasionally rendered as “vindicate the fatherless” (
[Page 312] “Plead for” the widow could well imply that there were others who could have been helping—and should have been—but who were intentionally avoiding the obligation by callous or unconcerned shunning of the elderly. One immediately thinks of the situation of some one with other relatives who had a place for her to stay and who were not providing it. “Out of their sight, out of their mind?” Intervention (“plead[ing] for”) might be able to change the behavior—out of their shame if nothing else.
We are sternly warned that refusal to help our kin manifests the wrong attitude. There is a special bond present that is not in other circumstances. As the ESV has it in 1 Timothy 5:8, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is in the context of widows in particular (verses 4-7).
Bringing pressure to bear could well make a world of difference in such cases. Paul is clearly trying to “plead for” the widow by shaming those kin who could help but aren’t. Those immediately on the scene could do so as well.
In case of either the widow or the orphan, they might also face being taking advantage of by the powerful and influential. Add in a little in the way of possessions made them seem easy pickings. Example: If that widow has a modest cottage and a small parcel of land, how long is she going to be able to keep it if a rich neighbor or a greedy government wants to seize it?
There was certainly the danger of legal chicanery against the orphan whose age would hinder him from adequately defending his rights, “10 Do not remove the ancient landmark, nor enter the fields of the fatherless; 11 for their Redeemer is mighty; He will plead their cause against you (Proverbs -11). Old enough to, somehow, successfully work the land, that would test his physical resources to the maximum without throwing in additional burdens.
[Page 313] The imagery of verse 10 could refer to moving the land markers so one increases the land that is yours at the expense of the juvenile or child who has no way to stop you. Nor the funds to take it to court. It could also refer to stealing the produce from the child’s land out of the same motive: you can get away with it.
You have an excellent chance of success too unless the juvenile has an energetic and influential advocate. Even with that, the only thing holding you in check in a loosely knit non-technological society may well be the sense of Divine justice and Divine retribution.
And a sense of moral oughtness grounded in Divine justice. The regal connections claimed for Proverbs argues that its first circulation was surely among those connected with the court. It was to teach them the expected ideals of proper behavior for one claiming to be of the leadership class of the nation. The ideals expected by the monarch himself not to mention the monarch’s God.
Since imitation of that class would be quite common among those lower on the socio-economic scale, but hopeful of rising to greater attention, these ideals would tend to be taught to the rising generation who were in that category. And it would naturally spread to the broader class of scribes and religious leaders and even to the public.
Thereby it would encourage a set of moral expectations: from the stand point of the more well off, a model of how they should act and from the standpoint of those marginalized, a conception of what it was right to expect and a deepened sense of legitimate grievance when it did not occur.
It was no secret that injustices in such circumstances could, unchecked, become quite extreme indeed. In some situations it could even involve being forcibly removed from the rest of the survivors after the death of the father, “Some snatch the fatherless from the breast, and take a pledge from the poor” (Job 24:9).
Anyone outside the outright criminal wishes an excuse for what they do and the snatching seems an incredibly brazen act and so unjustifiable that even the most ethically “nimble” individual would have a hard time conjuring up an excuse. (“For the baby’s own good,” perhaps?) Likewise the act seems totally unrelated and in jarring contrast with the taking of a pledge in the second half of the verse.
Perhaps the disconcerting oddness of the two acts being mentioned in the same verse has led to the conclusion that the two are actually intertwined rather than totally separate actions. Some translations imply that this occurs because the child had in desperation been promised as collateral for a needed loan and the parent has died before it was due back, making repayment impossible—or perhaps he had even defaulted on the loan before the death: “The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt” (NIV). The result would likely be that provided by the TEV, “Evil men make slaves of fatherless infants and take the poor man’s children in payment for debts.”
Alternatively it has been taken as (apparently) meaning that the mother or other kin is so desperate for assistance after the father’s death that the child has literally been given as collateral to hold: “The fatherless infant is snatched from the breast; the nursing child of the poor is seized as collateral” (Holman). This doesn’t have to mean that the mother is heartless—just despairingly desperate and sees no other choice.
However extreme such an action as
confiscating an infant, yet ethics, in all societies, all too easily yield to
naked power and self-interest. Isaiah refers to how both “princes” and
“everyone” (i.e., the general population) act in a similar manner: “They do not defend the fatherless, nor does
the cause of the widow come before them.”
Factor in unconcerned judges and the situation gets even worse. The Psalmist lamented concerning such people, “2 How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? 3 Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. 4 Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalms 82).
Hence one’s position in society did not alter this obligation to help the helpless rather than exploit them. Therefore the admonition to both the ruler and those powerful folk who surrounded him,
1 Thus says the Lord: “Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and there speak this word, 2 and say, 'Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, you who sit on the throne of David, you and your servants and your people who enter these gates! 3'Thus says the Lord: Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place (Jeremiah 22).
[Page 316] The King of
Though the prophet cites social justice (22:3), the lack of it is identified as tied in with their adoption of other deities to be served. It does not take a pulpit pounding preacher to grasp that when we “trade in” Jehovah for His secular or religious rivals, fundamental principles of justice will ultimately be gutted and removed since they are rooted in principles that came by Divine revelation.
Doubtless it is all rationalized in a self-serving manner by the elite or the government oppressor—perhaps in order to meet their “special needs” that are so much more important than those of the private individual. “Needs” as defined by those who regard Jehovah’s moral strictures as abhorrent and, therefore, inherently inadequate. And who are appalled that they should ever answer to any authority higher than themselves. Much less God.
Zechariah 7:8-14 also discusses the disaster that could occur by forgetting the moral fundamentals—in this case foreign exile of the bulk of the population. Again, because they had ignored these moral fundamentals of justice toward the powerless, “9 Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother’ ” (7:9-10).
[Page 317] In Ezekiel 22 the abuse is presented as part of the description of a society in moral collapse. One in which anything and everything is done simply because no one—or at least, only a minority—are willing to embrace the principle that there are firm “thou shalt nots” in the Divine order. Reality is not “every one is fine doing their own thing.” It’s not “there are no rules to follow higher than national law or what we can get away with.” It’s a matter of whether our behavior meets the ethical ideal of the Being who brought this world into existence and who will be around after He brings it to an end as well.
Crossing those rules in one area inevitably feeds the human ego in its effort to discover what other limitations can be ignored. For we are free men and women with the full liberty to live according to any behavioral lifestyle we choose. We may live this way using our own self-permitting definition of “love.” Or we may be so calloused that anything that gives us pleasure—forget about the other person—meets the required standard we have embraced. After all we are free of any higher authority than ourselves.
And in a sense we are. God isn’t there beating us over the head with a billy club, but He is there, He does know, and He always remembers. His day of retribution will come, but in the meantime comes the bitter fruit of society no longer expected to conform to any superior standards than its own self-serving ones. And the “chickens come home to roost” as the masses destroy each other,
4 "You have become guilty by
the blood which you have shed, and have defiled yourself with the idols which
you have made. You have caused your days
to draw near, and have come to the end of your years; therefore I [Page
318] have made you a reproach to the
nations, and a mockery to all countries.
5 Those near and those far from you will mock you as
infamous and full of tumult. 6 Look,
the princes of
7 "In you they have made light of father and mother; in your midst they have oppressed the stranger; in you they have mistreated the fatherless and the widow. 8 You have despised My holy things and profaned My Sabbaths. 9 In you are men who slander to cause bloodshed; in you are those who eat on the mountains; in your midst they commit lewdness.
10 "In you men uncover their fathers' nakedness; in you they violate women who are set apart during their impurity. 11 One commits abomination with his neighbor's wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; and another in you violates his sister, his father's daughter. 12 In you they take bribes to shed blood; you take usury and increase; you have made profit from your neighbors by extortion, and have forgotten Me," says the Lord God. 13 Behold, therefore, I beat My fists at the dishonest profit which you have made, and at the bloodshed which has been in your midst.
Fortunately there seems to always be a minority—however tiny and struggling—that take pride in having lived by the admonitions to do justice and treat others fairly. Job stressed that such helpfulness had been his lifestyle since his childhood and that he considered himself worthy of physical destruction if he had not acted in such a manner,
If I have kept the poor from their desire, or caused the eyes of the
widow to fail, or eaten my morsel by myself, so that the fatherless could not
eat of it. (But from my youth I reared him as a father, and from my
mother’s womb I guided the widow); if I have seen anyone perish for lack of
clothing, or any poor man without covering; if his heart has not blessed me,
and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; if I have raised my
hand against the fatherless, when I saw I had help in the gate; then let my
arm fall from my shoulder, let my arm be torn from the socket (Job 31:16-
In chapter 29 he had spoken of aid to the orphan and then mentioned, ambiguously, a category that would at least include the widow if not the widow alone, “Because I delivered the poor who cried out, the fatherless and the one who had no helper.”
This is especially fascinating because Eliphaz the Temanite was convinced that Job had done exactly the injustices Job denies having done,
5 Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquity without end? 6 For you have taken pledges from your brother for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. 7 You have not given the weary water to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. 9 You have sent widows away empty, and the strength of the fatherless was crushed. 10 Therefore snares are all around you, and sudden fear troubles you, 11 or darkness so that you cannot see; and an abundance of water covers you. 12 Is not God in the height of heaven? And see the highest stars, how lofty they are! 13 And you say, “What does God know? Can He judge through the deep darkness?” (Job 22).
Never once does he Eliphaz say, “I saw you do this” or “my friends reported back you did this.” His reasoning apparently what, “You must have done something at least this bad in order for God to be punishing you so harshly. I may not have seen it, but it must have occurred.”
We have here a sobering warning: Even when we do the moral good enjoined by Scripture, if hardship comes our way there will be those who will deny that we were really as much a Christian as we claimed. For how else could such evil come upon us?
Well think about this for a moment--Perhaps because discomfort and pain is sometimes the inevitable result of being alive? Or that we can be the victim of situations beyond our control?
One final point. The lengthy proclamation of innocence and even doing positive good toward those who could not possibly return it—the poor and the widow (Job 31:15-22)—ultimately ended the argument: “So these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes” (32:1).
He had done nothing that he believed could provide a pretext for branding him a transgressor. Indeed, his lifestyle had demonstrated that there were no legitimate grievances. Having leaned upon him repeatedly, he still insisted he was innocent and, in fact, had laid out a powerful case that he had lived such a life that Divine punishment for evil was not credible. Nor did they have any evidence beyond sour prejudice that the situation was any different.
[Page 321] But there may be more here than
that. It has been noted that what Job
said amounted to an oath of innocence and that the peoples of the ancient
Historical Allusions to the Old Testament:
 Robert G. Bratcher, A Translator’s Guide to the Letters from James, Peter, and Jude, in the Helps for Translators series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1984), 9.
 As quoted by Sidebottom, 29.
 John Painter, “The Power of Words: Rhetoric in James and Paul,” In The
Missions of James, Peter, and Paul, edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig
Evans, Supplement to Novum Testamentum 115 (
 Cf. Frederick C. Grant, New Testament: Romans-Revelation, Volume 7 of Nelson’s Bible Commentary (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962), 306, on the relationship of James and this passage.
 Batten, “Strategies,” 17-18.
 Held out as a tempting conjecture by Laws, 67.
 Sidebottom, 29.
 For example, Bowman, 101, and Bratcher, 11.
 Cf. Carson, 572.
 Bowman, 102.
 Mitton, 62.
 Bowman, 103.
 McCartney, 116.
 Johann Cook, “Proverbs,” A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included under that Title, edited by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 646.
 Burdick, 175.
 Cf. Morris, 81.
K. Havice, The Concern for the Widow and the Fatherless in the Ancient Near East: A Case Study in Old Testament Ethics
 Ibid., 180, who points to Egyptian evidence.