From:  A Torah Commentary on James 3-5                         Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2014

 

 

 

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Chapter 5B:

Old Testament Precedents

 

 

 

 

Invoking of Explicit Old Testament

Quotations to Justify His Teaching:

 

None

 

 

 

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How Old Testament Concepts Are

Repeatedly Introduced and Woven

 into the Heart of His Argument

 

 

5:1:  Wealth was not adequate to protect against the coming “miseries” (alternate translations:  “terrible things,” ATP, CEV; “hardships,” Rotherham; “sorrows,” Weymouth).  

The wealthy of chapter four versus those in chapter five.  It is normally assumed that the men of the close of chapter four are substantially well off.  Most probably either wealthy or the agents of wealthy individuals since they intend to travel to other (presumably distant) places and trade for an extended period--activities that required a considerable investment not only of time but of money.  Their sin was pride and not recognizing the definitive role God plays in determining whether our plans become reality. 

            Of course the principle also applies to others and to destinations not as far distant.  These would envolve those working on a much slimmer margin, who had scraped together sufficient funds and support that they could responsibly envision undertaking the risks of such foreign mercantile travel.  The earlier category would be those who already had great success and expected more; these would be those who expected their trade to move them further up the social-status totem pole toward greater economic security and recognition.  

[Page 359]                  In both types of cases, their problem is more what they do not do (4:17), rather than the positive transgressions manifested in their lives.  In chapter five the character of the well to do being condemned is marked by a grim shift:  those of chapter four were self-centered and unconcerned; in chapter five they are greedy and downright dangerous.[1]    

 

            James does not deny that wealth is useful--it is tempting to even say desirable.  But he is describing individuals who had utilized their wealth to enable them to deny wages to their workers (5:3) and even to have the innocent unjustly executed (5:6).  The oppressed may be Christians or may not be;[2] it is irrelevant to the argument. What is relevant is that such oppression is evil and obnoxious in the sight of God.

            What is developed at considerable length in this introductory section to chapter five, is summed up in a few words in Proverbs 11:28, “He who trusts in his riches will fall. . . .”   The poor are the righteous and the rich the evil not because the pattern lacks exceptions or is somehow inevitable,[3] but because this is how things are usually like in the real world.

            Psalms 49 mocks the rich who plague the sufferer by their evil in language similar to Proverbs, “Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity at my heels surrounds me?  Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches” (verses 5-6).  They can’t redeem anyone from death even themselves and their kin (verse 7).  The sufferer may die—but they are just as exposed.

[Page 360]                  The oppressor looks around himself and, in self-delusion, thinks that he will be an exception to that reality,

 

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.

 

            A later Psalm speaks of how those who act and think this way will be mocked by those who survive them,

 

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” (Psalm 52).

 

            Job is pictured by the book bearing his name as an extremely wealthy individual before catastrophe struck.  Yet the verbal self-portrait presented is also one of an individual who recognized the limits of his wealth.  Obsession with such is branded “iniquity” (31:28), “If I have made gold my hope, or said to fine gold, ‘You are my confidence’; if I have rejoiced because my wealth was great, and because my hand had gained much” (31:24-25).

[Page 361]                  James’ warning of “miseries” coming upon the rich--also found in the current verse--was a danger spoken of in the Old Testament as well.  Even being able to “anoint yourselves with the best ointments” and being able to “recline at banquets” did not protect from the danger of foreign exile in the days of Amos (6:6-8).       

 

 

            5:1  Wailing in horror that Divine judgment is approaching.  The undercurrent throughout these verses is that a Divine intervention to punish evil is coming their way.  They are living in “the last days” (5:3)—presumably their “last days” regardless of any other connotations it may have. 

The time or event in mind is described as “the coming of the Lord” (5:7) and they are warned that “the Lord is at hand” (5:8) and “at the door,” ready to act as Judge (5:9).  In light of their abuse of wealth and others, the appropriate reaction has to be horror--which is conveyed by the logical instruction to “weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you” (5:1).  They do not have good times to look forward to; they face catastrophic times.

            The Old Testament prophets repeatedly invoked these two concepts of imminent judgment and horror--as to the certainty of the first and the proper cause of the second.  Isaiah 13:6 speaks of the need to, “Wail for the day of the Lord is at hand!  It will come as destruction from the Almighty.”  The New Living Translation’s rendering of the first words “scream in terror,” sums up the idea very well.

[Page 362]                  Without explicit nearness language (but requiring the idea to be present for the plea to make much sense), various groups are spoken to in a similar manner.  The priests are urged to “lament . . . in sackcloth” because the offerings were “withheld from the house of your God” (Joel 1:13).  Farmers are urged to “be ashamed” and to “wail . . . because the harvest of the field has perished.”  

            Sailors are warned that they should “wail” because their ships’ home port of Tyre “is laid waste” and “there is no house, no harbor” for them to return to (Isaiah 23:1).  Indeed the leadership class are warned that it is time to “wail . . . and cry” because “the days of your slaughter and your dispersions are fulfilled” (Jeremiah 25:34).

            Even non-Israelites, facing Yahweh’s wrath, had occasion to “wail” and whine “woe to the day for the day is near” that God acts against the Gentiles in Egypt and Ethiopia (Ezekiel 30:1-4).  Likewise Philistia should “wail” because “no one will be alone” in what is coming their way, i.e., everyone will be affected similarly (Isaiah 14:31).
            Sometimes the opportunity for repentance is explicitly mentioned or called for as in Zephaniah 2,

 

1 Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, O undesirable nation,  2 before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the Lord's fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the Lord's anger comes upon you!  3 Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice.  Seek righteousness, seek humility.  It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord's anger.

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            Although “the decree” to act against rebellious humankind has not yet been made, it is going to be:  “the day of the Lord’s anger” is mentioned as if as inevitable as the rising of the sun.  Only the timing is left open and whether they will take advantage of the great blessing of that additional time in order to change for the better.

            Many denunciations do not explicitly lay out such a plea.  But the very fact that it is given at all, and that God had not yet acted in such cases, implies that there was still time to reform for them as well.  Assuming one was wise enough to take advantage of the opportunity. 

 

           

            5:2:  The imagery of moth-eaten clothing.  Inexpensive, mass-produced clothing was not the commonplace of the ancient world that it is of the beginning of the twenty-first century.  In those days the clothes one possessed were of greater relative cost and carefully held on to since one did not know when one might be able to replace it.  Hence one sign of wealth was possession of abundant (as well as expensive) clothing (cf. 2 Kings 5:5; 1 Maccabees 11:23-24).[4]

            All clothing is inherently liable to both wear and tear and even its disintegration after the passage of time.  Since this was a potential problem in earlier ages as well, the image is used to portray the proneness of mortals to the ravages of age and disease, “Man decays like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten” (Job 13:28).  It is, if you will, part of his inherent nature. 

[Page 364]                  The image of a moth-eaten garment is also used to describe God’s punishment upon those who mock others for obeying God’s law; it is held up as a warning to the righteous not to give in to them (Isaiah 51):  7  Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law:  Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults.   8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation.”

                        In Hosea 5:12 the imagery is made a description of an entire nation, “Therefore I will be to Ephraim like a moth, and to the house of Judah like rottenness.”  The moth imagery was especially appropriate because, at first, you are not going to see the damage and when the damage becomes undeniable it may well be too late to repair it. 

After all, the moth is “a small and seemingly insignificant insect” and it works “imperceptibly and slowly as it destroys whatever it is feeding on.”[5]  Ephraim / Judah were so arrogant and full of themselves in their rebellion against God, they were unable to notice the moral and spiritual disintegration that was slowly killing them.  God used their own sin against them, just as he did the Gentiles in Romans 1. 

Yet the delay also brought them time and opportunity to repent—if they were astute enough to recognize what their sin was doing to them.  Some can in all ages, but self-indulgence far too often blots out such self-awareness. 

 

            5:4:  The wages of workers unjustly denied them by “fraud [ATP:  dishonesty].”   In the Torah, the demand that earned wages be promptly paid is linked to avoiding such dishonesty, “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him.  The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning” (Leviticus 19:13).  In other words, the wages were to be paid the same day earned. 

[Page 365]                  This requirement is repeated in Deuteronomy 24:  14  You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates.  15 Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.”  

National origin (“brethren or one of the aliens”) made absolutely no difference:  he had earned the money; he must be paid it.  To the illegality was added a blunt moral element:  “it be sin to you.”  You don’t just mistreat your fellow man, you anger God as well.  This reminds us that such regulations were not merely part of a civil code, they were also part of the fundamental religious code of the nation. 

            Why such a heavy insistence on prompt payment?  Laying aside the not exactly inconsequential matter of it being a legitimate debt, in a cash-poor society where the underclass had little or no financial reserves at all, such immediate payment was a way of assuring that they would be able to purchase food for themselves.

            One way to improve one’s own cash flow was to delay these payments or to find a way to avoid paying them entirely.  In mining areas of the United States this result (whether intended or not) was once obtained by the proverbial “company store.”  Between low wages and inflated prices at such businesses, the worker rarely was able to advance to the point that moving to another employer or another city was practical.          

What techniques were used in ancient Israel is unknown, but one can imagine a number that sound credible:  there could be disputes over how many hours / how much of [Page 366]   the day that the person “really” worked; there could be disputes over the actual wage level promised; there could be the refusal to pay part of what was promised; there could be the threat that one could not “afford” to pay both one family member and others and that the price of having a job at all would be for one or more to work without wages.  In a rural society and facing a powerful landlord, the excuses for abuse were certainly there in abundance.  And clearly excuses, of some kind were well known or the Torah would not have decreed against the denial of wages.  

            As so often happens, the fact that behavior is considered forbidden and even a social evil does not guarantee that the law will be honored.  The abuse of workers remained a problem in Jeremiah’s day:  3 Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by injustice, who uses his neighbor's service without wages and gives him nothing for his work,  14 who says, ‘I will build myself a wide house with spacious chambers, and cut out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion.’ ” (chapter 22).  He literally uses the unjustly withheld wages to build his dream home!

            This was part of the rebuke to “the king of Judah” (verses 1, 11).  Who better able to demand hard work for no money?  The king was the law.  And what worse example for those under him, the wealthy who would recognize that they were hardly likely to receive a rebuke from someone higher in the “power totem pole” than themselves since the “ultimate authority” was doing exactly the same thing! 

Jeremiah’s prophecy warned the people of such unjustly gained wealth, “As a partridge that broods but does not hatch, so is he who gets riches, but not by right; it will leave him in the midst of his days, and at his end he will be a fool” (17:11).  To use the same example from chapter 22:  the mansion is left unfinished or destroyed by invaders; the prestige has been stripped from your name and those (rich) who were so wonderfully laudatory because they hid behind your example now curse your very name.

[Page 367]                  Malachi attacks such power abuse as well:  “ ‘And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against sorcerers, against adulterers, against perjurers, against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, and against those who turn away an alien--because they do not fear Me,’ says the Lord of hosts” (3:5).  Today’s English Version renders key words in this manner:  “those who cheat employees out of their wages, and those who take advantage of widows, orphans, and foreigners.” 

Note why they act this way:  “because they do not fear Me.”  It is often said that “fear of God” refers to either literal fear or reverential fear, something that is virtually a synonym for respect.  A few translations explicitly render it in the latter sense here, “who do not revere Me” (Rotherham), “do not respect Me” (TEV), or “refuse to respect Me” (CEV). 

Although this is true enough—they clearly weren’t showing God even a modicum of respect, the behavior is so excessive it implies that they did not have the least concern over retaliation either, the total absence of any concern about what His unleashed power could do.  Even with reverential fear there is always a touch of that kind of “fear” as well, knowing that God prefers to deal with softly gloved hands, but that He is quite capable of substituting sturdy brass knuckles if He should be provoked enough.  Their God was so meaningless that He could be totally ignored whenever they wished.

 

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            5:5:  “Pleasure and luxury [ATP:  self-indulgence and wasteful luxury]” as a lifestyle.  James does not assert that the luxuries were necessarily wrong in themselves nor that the pleasures were, for that matter.  They may well have been.  But even if they weren’t, in both there was an ever present danger of the degrading of one’s proper moral values. 

                        Although the underlying two Greek terms “pleasure” and “luxury” are virtually synonymous in the original language, there remains a shade of difference.  “Luxury” easily carries with it the idea of the kind of prosperity that breeds a lazy attitude in which the important things of life become secondary; all that matters (to use a modern expression) are the “toys” of life.  The term “pleasure” tends to carry with it the idea of expensively costing means of self-indulgence.[6]

            In this context James is concerned not with the morality of either the “pleasure” or the “luxury” as an end in itself, but, rather, with the injustice that obtained the wealth that made the indulgence possible (5:1-6).  Of course the removal of the inhibitions against social injustice could easily blot out scruples holding back sexual or other excess as well.  If you have no moral criteria to limit your behavior in getting the wealth, are you likely to recognize any in spending it?

 

            The potential for personal disaster due to an excessive interest in even honorable pleasures is warned of in Old Testament texts.  Proverbs 21:17 cautions that being preoccupied with the seeking of pleasure can reduce one to poverty, “He who loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.”  It becomes an obsession and the cost does not matter.  

[Page 369]                  Here the idea is probably the pleasures of expensive feast-giving to impress one’s “friends” and neighbors.  Providing them with the best wine and the ointments (“oil”) to make their feet and body feel good.  It comes at a cost—and a large one at that.   And to stop doing so, makes one lose reputation in their eyes.  Hence once started, there is no way to rein in the excess.  Especially since the type of person under discussion has come to “love” it so much:  He has become addicted to the excess.

Now, obviously, a good number do stay rich in spite of such self-limiting obsessions—in his day and ours.  But the fundamental admonition remains sound in both ages:  let the ego run wild and the odds are far better of self-destruction than of the preservation and increase of one’s assets. 

 

            Isaiah 47:7-9 diagnoses the reason that people are “given to pleasures” (“lover of pleasure(s),” ESV, GW, NIV; “lover of luxuries,” Holman) in the fact that they think they are unreachable by calamity.  In this case it is presented as a society wide problem.  But the calamity is still going to come—quickly and overwhelmingly (“in a moment, in one day,” verse 9).

            The danger in preoccupation with wealth at any cost is also warned against.  Such individuals are described as those whose “eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish” (Psalms 73:7) and they openly plot oppression to maintain it (cf. verses 8-9). 

The vivid word picture of Amos 6:1-8 pictures how the idle wealthy can become unconcerned with the “affliction” that others suffer and can reap the bitter fruit of their [Page 370]   own oppression.  They become so obsessed with earthly status that it destroys their very humanity.  In a twenty-first century context, think of those corporate heads who fire left and right and “lean on” the surviving staff with a harshness to rival the literal lash of an earlier age.  If we are truly free men and women why do we still hurt and bleed so much from the abuse of power? 

 

                        The image presented in both James 5:5 and the immediate context is that of those whose misconduct has been so blatantly grievous that common sense ought to cry out in their hearts that it is time to set matters aright.  They have eyes to see their bank balance but not their abuses.  (As we travel through the current year, can we escape the same thought of our corporate “betters?”)  Yet they are so pleased and preoccupied with the good fortune of the moment that they could care less for any possible consequences that might come the way of their subordinates and employees.

            And for crushing evil to roll over them, that’s inherently impossible.  Such people ancient and modern are pictured in James 5:5 as the human equivalents of animals fattened for “a day of slaughter.”  In the immediate situation everything is fine, just as it is for the fat and contented animal--until it is taken to the temple to be sacrificed or given to the hired slaughterer to be prepared as the central entree for a joyous feast.  And the feast will be in their “honor”—but it won’t bring them the slightest joy for they are the main dish.

            The modern rural adage fits well:  “The chickens come home to roost.” 

           

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            5:5:  The unrepentant abusers of power to be “sacrificed [ATP:  butchered]” at the very time they seemed at their peak of well-being.  The imagery of verse 5 might well lead a prophetically literate Jewish reader to Isaiah, where that seer notes that it was a time for “weeping and for mourning” but instead the people reacted with “joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating meat and drinking wine:  ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’ ” (Isaiah 22:12-13).  Rather than feel guilt over their sin, they are going to celebrate their excess until the very last moment.  To them, it is far better to die with a full stomach than with an honest heart.

Those who enjoyed the feast were so deep in evil that “for this iniquity there will be no atonement for you, even to your death. . . ’ ” (verse 14).  Or to put it a bit more colloquially, “The Lord All-Powerful has spoken to me this solemn promise:  ‘I won't forgive them for this, not as long as they live’ ” (CEV).  Just as they had sacrificed the animals for personal pleasure, God would, so to speak, “sacrifice” them on the holy altar of injustice avenged.

            The image of the powerful themselves becoming a sacrifice on God’s altar of justice, is presented in a fascinating manner in Ezekiel 39.  There we read of the birds of the sky and the animals of the field--the very type of creatures that themselves could easily become temple sacrifices or items for the private feasts of the powerful.  Their roles would be reversed and they would get to enjoy a banquet composed of the powerful who are struck down for them to consume,

 

                        And as for you, son of man, thus says the Lord God, Speak to every

            sort of bird and to every beast of the field:

            [Page 372]                  “Assemble yourselves and gather together from all sides

to  My sacrificial meal which I am sacrificing for you, a great sacrificial meal

on the mountains of    Israel, that you may eat flesh and drink blood.  You

shall eat the flesh of the mighty, drink the blood of the princes of the earth, of

rams and lambs, of goats and bulls, all of them fatlings of Bashan. 

                        “You shall eat fat till you are full, and drink blood till you are drunk,

at My sacrificial meal which I am sacrificing for you.  You shall be filled at

My table with horses and riders, with mighty men and with all the men of

war,” says the Lord God (verses 17-20).

 

            Or as Jeremiah 51:40 puts it, “I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter, like rams with male goats.”  They think they have the upper hand; their think their triumph is inescapable.  What is inescapable is the wrath of the Lord, who will offer them as if animals in a sacrifice--to exhibit His mighty, overwhelming triumph over the arrogant.

            As Jeremiah 46:10 expresses the concept, “For this is the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that He may avenge Himself on His adversaries.  The sword shall devour; it shall be satiated and made drunk with their blood; for the Lord God of hosts has a sacrifice in the north country by the River Euphrates.”

 

 

[Page 373]                  5:6:   The powerful were guilty of even “murder” against the powerless.  Although this could refer to murder in the sense of uncontrolled hate rather than literal murder, the sociopolitical reality in any age is that certain of the rich and influential will stop at nothing to achieve their way.  In the last decades of the twentieth century, the careful reader of the press would repeatedly come across references to vigilante style groups in various nations around the world.  Allegedly financed by the wealthy and enjoying government acquiescence if not outright support, they terrorized and violently suppressed the “second class” social and ethnic peoples in their respective nations. 

It is unlikely that any age has seen the phenomena totally missing.  Hence, it is quite consistent with both human nature and human history to suspect that some of the condemned “murders” were literally such rather than the language “merely” reflecting a “preachtorial” hyperbole of rebuke. 

            Of course, other means also existed to produce the same result of brazen injustice.  The courts could be abused[7] through false testimony or the favoritism of the judge(s) to strike out at one’s poor laborers.  The poor being late or not present (such can be “arranged,” of course) would provide a simple pretext for an automatic judgement in behalf of the wealthy.  The rich asking for a delay time and again would be very likely to be receptively received—but how many times could the poor financially afford to show up again?  How could they, in fact, afford any delay? 

Whatever the chosen technique that was used, the systematic denial of wages would deny them the ability to feed and care for themselves, easily leading to them sickening and dying.  “Legal” murder in any of these cases. 

 

[Page 374]                  The presence of such a pointed rebuke in an epistle addressed to Christians (rather than unbelievers) has perplexed many.  This has given rise to the theory that James is only giving general moral teaching equally applicable to everyone.  He has no intention to imply that such extremes were actually already present in the community of faith.[8]  They could be, not necessarily were.  

More often the argument seems to go much further and assumes that Christians aren’t actually being addressed at all.  If this is the case, then the implicit argument would be:  this is where your hard-heartedness that I have rebuked could lead to!  You can see it in the world around you!

            The element of specifically Christian faith, at the most, lies almost beneath the surface both here and, for example, in the discussion of faith and works in chapter two.  When the uniqueness of Christianity is a secondary concern and the epistle is written (as this one) in such broad terms that Jewish traditionalists would have had little difficulty considering it wise counsel, the societal rather than strictly believer application has a great appeal.  Also in support of this is the fact that the Old Testament is also full of general rebukes that applied to some or many of the intended audience but definitely not all. 

Having provided all the necessary caveats, it still seems impossible to get then contemporary Christians fully off the hook.  The epistle is written to them, after all!  “I’m writing this to you Christians, but ignore what I’m saying:  It’s not really about you at all.  Not in the least!”  Is that really credible?  

It either concerns what they had done or that which their attitudes and actions created the dangerous precedent for in the future.  At the worst, “a real and present danger” rather than an already existing practice.  And even that concession is extremely hard to reconcile with the powerful indictment, presented by James as if it unquestionably had already occurred!    

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Be that as it may, the emphasis on the abuse of power against the innocent was still a clear Old Testament concern—both in its paganized Jewish context and its “faithful” Jewish form as well. 

            Jeremiah 2 speaks of how in his day the polytheism was pervasive and involved “their kings and their princes, and their priests and their prophets” (2:26).  Nor would they stand for being corrected, “Your sword has devoured your prophets like a destroying lion” (2:30).  Their new religious principles apparently permitted or rationalized striking against anyone who got in their way, “Also on your skirts is found the blood of the lives of the poor innocents.  I have not found it by secret search, but plainly on all these things” (2:34). 

Hence, there was no real effort to hide it; they simply went out and did it.  They had the naked power and that was all there was to it.

            In spite of all this, they were confident that Jehovah, whom they so clearly spit in the face of, would rescue them for they weren’t actually such bad folk were they?  (Not to mention with the right ancestors!)   “You say, 'Because I am innocent, surely His anger shall turn from me.'  Behold, I will plead My case against you, because you say, 'I have not sinned' “ (2:35).  Let them plead to their supposed gods, for the God of Israel had had enough and was not going to act (2:29).

[Page 376]                  They had become so morally and spiritually calloused that they were no longer capable of judging themselves as sinners:  They could look at themselves and only see an “innocent” person, no matter what they had done or were doing.  They had convinced themselves that wrong was right and therefore the condemnation for their actions could not possibly be valid.  A person enslaved by any particular sin can easily fall into this trap even today.                  

Likewise in the alternative possible interpretation:  Some find the blindness as produced by their temporal prosperity and their regarding it as a sign of Divine blessing.  But some blessings God sends on all:  He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  True as some would seek an unjustified hiding place in Divine blessings, a fundamental confusion of right and wrong seems to be the intended cause in Jeremiah 2.   

 

It fully appears that even those “loyally” dedicated to serving the Torah were not above the same power abusing fault.  It reflects a mental attitude far more than any specific religious background.

The Psalmist, for example, warned of “the wicked [who] have drawn the sword and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, to slay (“slaughter,” GW, Holman, NET) those who are of upright conduct” (37:14).  In that case the fatal outcome referred to in James is apparently averted, “Their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken” (verse 15).

            In Psalms 10 we find the picture of the individual who is confident that “adversity” can never come his way (verse 6) and therefore feels no reluctance to engaging in “deceit and oppression” (verse 7).  Not to mention outright violence, “He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the secret places he murders the innocent; his eyes are secretly fixed on the helpless.  He lies in wait secretly, as a lion in his den; he lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor when he draws him into his net” (verses 8-9). 

[Page 377]                  Unlike the earlier case, there is every indication that in this situation the oppressor is quite successful.  What the Psalmist prays for, therefore, is that such individuals might receive their well deserved punishment (verses 14-15).

            They are not depicted as if outsiders; nor any they presented as if having fallen into idolatry.  So far as religious practice and custom, they give the outward appearance of being fellow Jews and followers of Jehovah.  But just because they embraced the twin truths of monotheism and Judaism conspicuously did not make them automatically acceptable to God.  The same core truth (substituting Christianity for Judaism) is the point James is making.

            Such people can even be overtly religious—more or less.  Though they may carefully limit it as far as they can without losing face or appearing the blatant hypocrite.  Amos 8 describes them this way,

4  Hear this, you who swallow up the needy, and make the poor of the land fail,  5  Saying: “When will the New Moon be past, that we may sell grain?  And the Sabbath, that we may trade wheat?  Making the ephah small and the shekel large, falsifying the scales by deceit,  6 That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—even sell the bad wheat?”  7  The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:  “Surely I will never forget any of their works.

            They had a vested interest in “mak[ing] the poor of the land fail”—then they could enslave the poor (verse 6)  They abused them by falsifying prices and, when they collapse into debt induced penury, buying them up dirt cheap--for no more than a pair or shoes (verse 6).  A win / win situation—for the well to do.  

[Page 378]     

            5:7:  “The early and latter rain” refer to the two rainy seasons in Palestine [ATP:  “the fall and spring rains”].  This is most often taken as a reference to the fact that that geographic area has two broad rainy seasons.  Although this is basically true, pinpointing exactly when one ends and the other begins, however, is more difficult because the timing—quite naturally—will vary a bit from year to year.     

            The earliest Torah text on the theme is found in Deuteronomy 11:14, “Then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.”  The idea would seem to be an allusion to a reality true of agriculture in any place and at any time—you need rain . . . not just at an early point in the growing season, but later as well. 

            The rain is necessary to make a crop begin growing and then, later in the process, to continue growing.   It may stop for a while, but unless it is repeated, in sufficient abundance, the crop will almost certainly perish. 

The allusion could also be an allusion to the fact that different crops need rain at different times and that what is necessary for one crop will be too late (or too early) for a different one.  There would need to be a “season” for both types of rains for a range of crops to prosper (Jeremiah 5:24).

            Yet more than once the people blinded themselves to God’s role in assuring such things occurred, became self-centered, and thought they could get away with anything—indefinitely, as the last passage clearly shows in broader context,

[Page 379]

23 But this people has a defiant and rebellious heart; they have revolted and departed.  24 They do not say in their heart, “Let us now fear the Lord our God, who gives rain, both the former and the latter, in its season.  He reserves for us the appointed weeks of the harvest.”   25 Your iniquities have turned these things away, and your sins have withheld good from you.  

26 'For among My people are found wicked men; they lie in wait as one who sets snares; they set a trap; they catch men.  27 As a cage is full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit.  30  An astonishing and horrible thing Has been committed in the land:  31 The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so.  But what will you do in the end?  (Jeremiah 5)

 

            Or as the CEV renders those final words, “But on the day of disaster, where will you turn for help?”

            In spite of the attitude and behavior of so many being so flagrantly wrong, those truly dedicated to God were to still take such “natural blessings” as Divine blessings as well since the hand of man has no absolute way of assuring it.  “Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God; for He has given you the former rain faithfully, and He will cause the rain to come down for you--The former rain, and the latter rain in the first month” (Joel 2.23).  Hence it was right and proper to pray for its continuance (Zechariah 10:1).

 

 

[Page 380]                  5:8, 9:  The imminence of judgment.  “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is echoed even more vigorously, “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (5:9).  Setting aside the texts above, the nearness aspect of judgement is also stressed in Biblical texts that do not specifically label it as coming from the Lord.  (It would be implicit, of course, but the authors do not choose to stress that element.)   

In Psalms 37:1-2 comes the encouragement, “Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity.  For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.”  He returns to this 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.”

Deep into the Psalm, he speaks of how he had seen them disappear so quickly that he did not even know they were dead until he tried to get in contact with them!  “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a native green tree.  Yet he passed away, and behold, he was no more; indeed I sought him, but he could not be found” (verses 35-36).

Job stresses that at the very time that folk enjoy temporal success, God is keeping an eye on their behavior and is quite prepared to quickly terminate their joy,

 

22  But God draws the mighty away with His power; He rises up, but no man is sure of life.  23 He gives them security, and they rely on it; yet His eyes are on their ways.  24 They are exalted for a little while, then they are gone.  They are brought low; they are taken out of the way like all others; they dry out like the heads of grain.  25  Now if it is not so, who will prove me a liar, and make my speech worth nothing? (Job 24).  

[Page 381]

Obviously this does not happen in all cases.  Many live a pleasantly long life and are buried with pious ceremonies in their old age.  But this early fate can overtake anyone.  Hence the nearness emphasis may not be intended to convey literal nearness but the certainty of Divine retribution—it will happen regardless of the time frame.

We should point out that a variety of other passages seem to have the same concept in mind.  Indeed the scriptures themselves warn us that in the course of our life the time gap may seem the very reverse of “quickly”—by our normal human duration standards--but that does not change the irrevocable certainty that God can and will act at the moment He deems best.  And “quickly” by His standards.

To us it may seem that nothing is happening; that all we ever do is wait.  We are warned not to allow that reality to drive us to despair.  The warning is implicit in Micah 7, as we behold an individual who is waiting for God to act, knowing it will happen—but that it is clearly not “near” or “fast” as we normally use those terms.  It is such in God’s time scheme but not in our own, and that is fully enough to provide the needed strength to persevere,

6 For son dishonors father, daughter rises against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are the men of his own household.  7 Therefore I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.  8 Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; when I fall, I will arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.  9 I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my case and executes justice for me.  He will bring me forth to the light; I will see His righteousness.

[Page 382]                  Lamentations 3:25-26 speaks of how a person waits through youth for God to act and how He may not do so till later in life.  This is not “soon” or “near” in our normal usage; instead it is presented as inevitable.  Perhaps for that reason we should also interpret “nearness” language from that standpoint whenever in doubt as to its intent:

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him.  26 It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.  27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.  28 Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; 29 Let him put his mouth in the dust--there may yet be hope.  30 Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach.  31 For the Lord will not cast off forever.  32 Though He causes grief, Yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies

            When the comparison is “the Lord will not cast off forever” then things even involving decades are “near”—in comparison to it never occurring at all.            

            Habakkuk 2 also hits on this paradox:  the promise is fulfilled quickly, but no it is not.  Do the final words of verse 3 blatantly contradict or is the core idea of nearness language its inevitability and not necessarily chronological day or year closeness? 

[Page 383]

2 Then the Lord answered me and said:  "Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.  3 For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.  Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.  

           

Is not “sureness”—the absolute reliability of promise and pledge--the intended definition of “it will not tarry,” of the closeness/imminence language that is used?

 

Quickness language is also used, not of the time until they are judged but of how swiftly disaster overtakes them when God determines it is time to act, “Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction.  Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!  They are utterly consumed with terrors.  As a dream when one awakes, so, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image” (Psalm 73:18-20).

Isaiah 47:9 speaks in similar conceptual language, “But these two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day:  The loss of children, and widowhood.  They shall come upon you in their fullness because of the multitude of your sorceries, for the great abundance of your enchantments.”

 

What then is the meaning of the nearness language in such Old Testament texts and, reasonably arguable, the meaning of it in our James passage as well? The nearness of judgment is an apt assertion for at least three reasons without a literal chronological relationship of short duration between issuance of the threat and the time it is carried out inherently being envolved.  (In other words, these factors would be present whether only a few years, decades, or even far longer in the future is covered by the “duration” language.)

[Page 384]                  (1)  We have no control over it; so it comes at any time and any way in which the Lord decides.  When its time, its there and we can neither delay it nor speed it up.  The usage in Psalms 73:18-20. 

(2)  When a millennium is viewed by God as no more than a mere day (Psalms 90:4), then any certain and inevitable judgement will be—in His terms—“soon” and “imminent.”

            (3)  The allusion to grass that quickly grows and quickly dies as proof that the abusive rich will not be with us indefinitely (James 1:10-11), is—inherently—a claim that all of us “soon” die.  As Hebrews 9:27 puts it, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”  We die “quickly.”  Then there is “judgment.”  Hence “the Judge at the door.”

            Our goal at this point is simply to show that some qualifications on the intent of imminency language grow inevitably out of other Biblical assertions as well, especially how such language is used in various Old Testament passages.  James may or may not have one of these ideas in mind. 

However, when there is a viable and reasonable interpretation of the language as referring to literally near-term events, where is the wisdom in reading into the language a reference to the physical, bodily return of Jesus at the end of this planet?  Why read into nearness language more than a two millennium delay in fulfillment?  Does this not result in theory driven exegesis when it is not needed at all?   

           

            In our discussion of the imminence of the judgment in our “overview” chapter, we argued that James’ words make the most sense of a wartime context.  So far as the Palestinian Jews, the allusion makes us think primarily of the time of the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 A.D. although one would be unwise to exclude the preceding decades in which the Roman rule sometimes allowed chaos to prosper within Judaea. 

[Page 385]                  So far as more distant regions, the description would amply fit similar outbursts in those areas, though few if any lived up to the intensity or duration of what happened in geographic Palestine during the Revolt.  As to intensity, one obvious possible exception would be Boudica’s nearly successful rebellion in 60 or 61 A.D. that tempted Nero to consider withdrawing imperial forces from England.

As to the time of the Jewish War itself and with an empire wide view in mind, remember that this is a world in which there were four emperors in one year (69 A.D.) and in which the Empire seemed within an inch of collapse.  With various regions throwing up their own would be emperors and with the inevitable crumbling of much of international trade and economic well-being during the conflicts.

In spite of the logic of this, one should still consider the alternatives developed above.  I summed up the relevance to the book of James in somewhat this manner in an earlier draft:     

 

Unlike the judgment coming “quickly” upon nations, these texts are talking about specific individuals.  They are not talking about the judgment of destruction via war—at least there is no sense or mention of it.  The condemnation of James is of individuals—yes, many individuals—who had abused their power and influence and economic clout to treat the less blest as nothing but human cattle.

It is not condemnation aimed at specific nations or cities but to a specific life style.  Hence there is no reason to interpret the passage as a reference to the coming destruction of Jerusalem any more than it would be the passages just quoted of individual judgement found in the Old Testament.    

 

Even so, when is the easiest time in this world for the well-to-do to receive “pay back”?  When is the time when all their power and influence is at its weakest?  We still seem to be forced back to a time of societal unrest, revolt, and even war.  If God uses such conditions to bring Divine judgement upon nations, why would it seem strange if He also uses it to bring judgement on individuals as well?  

[Page 386]                  This does not exclude the elements of “nearness” conveying the ideas of inevitability and certainty nor does it exclude other interpretations.  It simply expresses the reality that in a wartime / societal unrest context is the time that we most obviously and clearly see it happen. 

That jumps such a setting to the top of the list of precipitating events that produces this kind of result.  And the most likely intended frame of fulfillment in James 5.

 

           

            5:11:  God’s character as being “very compassionate and merciful [ATP:  generous].”  Often people contrast the “God of retribution” of the Old Testament with the “God of love” of the New.  Actually both images are found in each testament.  In both, God offers the human race either hostility or a tender, loving relationship.  The choice is left up to the individual and the possibility of a reversal of course—via “repentance”--is always left open.

[Page 387]                  Yet we may safely say that of the two options, God much prefers to be the God of compassion and mercy.  Indeed, that characterization is a repeated description of Him in the Old Testament.  When Yahweh gave Moses the Ten Commandments the second time (the first tablets having been destroyed by Moses in anger at the people’s idolatry), He laid great stress upon the positive aspects of the Divine character.  He is described as “the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . . ” (Exodus 34:6-7a)

            In Psalms 103:8-10, the Divine mercy and grace is illustrated by God being “slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.”  It is further demonstrated by the fact that He does not stay angry forever (verse 9) nor punishes us for “our sins” and “our iniquities” the way we deserve (verse 10). 

In effect, God “pulls His punches,” either in how many He hands out or in their intensity or duration.  Far greater than His willingness to punish is His preference for forgiveness, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy.  The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:8-9)

“Great in mercy” can carry several overtones.  The CEV suggests “always loving” and the TEV “full of constant love.”  The NIV “rich in love.”  God’s Word, “always read to forgive.”  All drift away from literalism, but it is hard to imagine any of them actually miss the intended “freight” carried by the words “great in mercy.”            

            God’s willingness to provide temporal blessings for His people also reflects that core attitude of His.  For example, in Psalms 111:4-5, we find how Yahweh’s “gracious[ness]” and “compassion” (verse 4) is expressed by His providing the temporal needs that are required.

 

[Page 388]

            5:11:  The “patience [KJV; ATP:  persistent steadfastness]” of Job.   (For Job, also see historical precedents [below] and difficult texts sections [in a later chapter].)  His example is cited to illustrate the broad principle laid down at the beginning of the verse, “we count them blessed who endure.”  This is presented as their contemporary first century evaluation (“we count them blessed”) rather than as an Old Testament doctrine.  Yet there is no need to interpret this as implying that this was, somehow, a new conclusion.    

Daniel 12:12 edges up to the concept of waiting without despairing—is that not a functional definition of the concept of patience?--by proclaiming that “blessed is he who waits” till Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled.  “Wait[ing]” conveys the idea of accepting the reality that much time would go by, i.e., patience, though the word itself is not used.  Indeed, the CEV speaks of one who “patiently waits” and the NASB of one who “keeps waiting.”  

            In the Old Testament itself, Job is held out as one of three exemplars of proper behavior whose actions resulted in a person saving himself even in times of disaster that overwhelmed everyone else.  We find this in the only other Old Testament text referring to him, Ezekiel 14:

 

14 “Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,” says the Lord God.  15 “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they empty it, and make it so [Page 389]   desolate that no man may pass through because of the beasts,  16 even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters; only they would be delivered, and the land would be desolate.  17  Or if I bring a sword on that land, and say, ‘Sword, go through the land,’ and I cut off man and beast from it,  18 even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but only they themselves would be delivered.  19 Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast,   20 even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”

 

            These verses may or may not tell us anything directly about Job’s “patience” but they certainly show him in such an ideal light that if anyone had it, would it not have been him? 

Furthermore the other two certainly showed patience.  In all those many years building the ark, does anyone doubt for a minute that Noah was repeatedly ridiculed and made fun of--the people mocking that his gigantic vessel would never be used and that he was nothing but an aging fool? 

Do we doubt that as the monotheist outsider in a pagan court, that Daniel faced repeated periods of harassment trying to embarrass or intimidate him into polytheism?  In light of this, would we not expect Ezekiel to have regarded Job as another example of “patience?”  The use might seem a bit strange to us, but in this context would it have seemed strange to the Hebrews?  

 

[Page 390]

            5:11:  In spite of the hardships Job endured, He was ultimately rewarded.  James expresses this concept by referring to how Job illustrates the fact “that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.”   Psalms 103:8 is close to this idea when it speaks of how “[t]he Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

            In one sense nothing that came afterwards could erase what Job had gone through.  The memories would be present forever.  The children of his who had perished remained dead.  Even so, God arranged a kind of crude compensation, within the limits imposed by these two continuing realities. 

One was that “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10) in regard to his possessions (verse 12).  Furthermore, he successfully fathered a new generation of children who he lived to see grow up and produce their own offspring (verses 13-16).  For an individual who looked death in the face and who seemed doomed to see his lineage come to an end, this was no small comfort and reversal of fortune.

            What is particularly surprising is that God’s compassion and mercy would be illustratable from a story that, initially, appears to only be one of stark tragedy.  Yet Job’s ultimate restoration to prosperity and having a new family makes it a quite reasonable example of restoration and blessing after enduring heavy hardship.

 

            The idea of God being concerned with treating his people with compassion and mercy is a generalization referred to in a number of contexts in the Old Testament.  In some places it is simply a blanket assertion:  “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful” (Psalms 116:5).  “For His merciful kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever.  Praise the Lord!”  (117:2). 

[Page 391]                  In other places the concept is fleshed out with comparisons and illustrations.  For example, His mercy is an expression or proof of His love:  “I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the Lord and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, according to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses” (Isaiah 63:7).  In other words, it was not expressed in only one manner but in a “multitude” of ways. 

            In addition, His mercy is linked with His being “longsuffering” (Numbers 14:18).  In other words, the very fact that He is patient with mankind’s individual weaknesses demonstrates His unwillingness to extract the threatened punishment if it can at all be avoided.  Wrath and retribution are His last choice.  Not that He is unwilling to utilize them if He must, but it is far from His preference.   

            Even when He acts, He typically (to use a modern phrase), pulls His punches and restrains from pouring out all the wrath justly due.  The Psalmist points to how His mercy causes Him to avoid inflicting upon us all the temporal punishment we justly deserve:  Because He is “merciful” and “abounding in mercy,” “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities.”  (Psalms 103:8-10; cf. Nehemiah 9:31). 

This restraint grows out of the recognition that we are His children (Psalms 103:13) and of our mortal weaknesses (Psalms 103:14).  Hence His mercy is linked to an unwillingness to stay angry with His creation (Nehemiah 9:17) if it will but act to set matters aright (2 Chronicles 30:9; Joel 2:13). 

[Page 392]     

Nor should it be overlooked that the very giving of the Law of Moses represented a display of compassion and mercy.  Due to our quite human limitations, we are unable to reason our way to a perfect understanding of right and wrong.  And even when we do get things right, self-interest and our human limitations easily carve out self-serving exceptions.  Hence the need for the recognition that, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).

Yet since the Torah was law, it would have been easy to think of it just in terms of obligation rather than recognize that God had ordained it for their good and that by obeying it they demonstrated the sureness of purpose that showed His mercy and love were yielding the fruit He sought. 

 

 

            5:12:  Oaths in the Old Testament and their limitation—being in the name of Israel’s God not being so much a command that oaths by taken but as a prohibition of them being taken in the name of (i.e., out of loyalty to or to honor) any rival deity.  Hence there is a “small” but vital difference between a command saying “thou shalt make oaths” and one instructing “thou shall make oaths in the name of your God”—with an “only” either stated or implied.  The first showed oaths were permissible; the second banned invoking anyone’s name in the oath but that of Jehovah. 

Patrick J. Hartin argues that “the Hebrew tradition readily upheld the taking of oaths” and quotes the following texts (from a different translation than we do) to prove the point:[9] 

[Page 393]

Deuteronomy 6:13:  You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name. 

(The God’s Word translation has as the conclusion, “take your oaths only in His name;” New Revised Standard Version:  “by His name alone you shall swear.”  Another minority of translations put “only” in front of “fearing the Lord your God” [NASB, NIV].  If one is “only” to fear Jehovah, then it seems inescapable that the oaths, also, must “only” be in His name.  Not to mention Israelite monotheism leaving no room for other gods in the first place.) 

Psalms 63:11:  But the king shall rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him shall glory; but the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.  (Note how swearing by Yahweh is contrasted with “speaking lies,” with all its implicit “freight” that what is said will be fully truthful.)

 

Isaiah 65:16:  So that he who blesses himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he who swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hidden from My eyes.  (“In the earth,” i.e., an earth/world-wide requirement; it is the rule not only for where they currently are but anywhere else time and events might place them.)

 

[Page 394]                  Jeremiah 12:16:  And it shall be, if they will learn carefully the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the Lord lives,’ as they taught My people to swear by Baal, then they shall be established in the midst of My people.  (Not “so help me God,” but “As the Lord lives,” i.e., as surely as He genuinely exists I am telling the truth.)

 

1 Kings 17:1:  And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”

 

1 Kings 22:14:  And Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak.”

 

Hartin also appeals to an Old Testament example of the oath taking tradition, how it is applied to Yahweh’s own action, and how such behavior is described in the New Testament:[10]

 

Genesis 22:16:  And said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—“

 

Hebrews 6:16-17:  For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute.  17 Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath.

 

[Page 395]                  Hebrews 7:21:  (for they have become priests without an oath, but He with an oath by Him who said to Him:  The Lord has sworn and will not relent, You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

 

In other words, the New Testament accepted the validity and desirability of certain oaths.  They could be so honorable that even God Himself was willing to invoke them.

It should be noted that none of these various texts enjoin “swear[ing] either by heaven or by earth”—that which James prohibited:  they reasonably have the “silent prohibition” of swearing by earthly things because they are not mentioned at all.   Furthermore, they have the explicit command that any swearing be done by Yahweh alone.  It is not heaven they are to swear by but the God who dwells there.

There should be no distinction between the two, of course.  Although “swearing by heaven” may merely be an euphemism for swearing by the God of heaven, anyone who has observed human behavior for seven decades—as I have--will find it quite credible that there would be others who would exploit the difference for all its worth:  Since they were swearing by heaven rather than God, their truth telling commitment, or their promise to do something, only represented a current intent and not a duty.  They hadn’t committed themselves to anything truly obligatory.

[Page 396]                  This is the way the human mind works when it wants to weasel its way around a commitment.  Are we to believe for a second there weren’t many of that mind frame in the first century?  In fact, does not Jesus refer to them in His criticism of contemporary oath taking (Matthew 23:16-21)? 

On the other hand, Jesus concludes His rebuke in Matthew 23 with the words, “Whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (verse 22).  In other words swearing by heaven must be taken as swearing by God.

This is the way it should be—and so far as Jesus goes is--but the fact that His contemporaries made thin distinctions to justify ignoring their oaths argues that in practice it was not this way.  And Jesus firmly rebukes such disentangling heaven from the God who dwells there.  However much it was done in practice it was regarded as abhorrent by Him.

 

 

5:12:  Oaths in the sense of vows and pledges in the Old Testament--the kind that were always frowned upon:  reckless, unthoughout promises, that you are unable to carry out or fail to.  The Torah in Deuteronomy 2:21-23 notes that oaths to God are not necessary but that if you do make them, there is no way out of fulfilling them without sin.  Verse 22 is especially relevant, “But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be a sin to you.”  The recognition that oaths were supposed to be voluntary provided one with a ready reason not to make them in regard to other people—if he or she was willing to take any verbal harassment that might ensue for failure to do so.  (It’s amazing how many people concede you have a “right” not to do something, but fall apart when you exercise it!)

[Page 397]                  Yet the fact that they were so obligatory in being carried out meant (1) the need to be restrained in how often they were made, (2) caution in their subject matter, and (3) careful consideration of whether one had fully thought out the implications of the commitment being made.

 

Although oaths—including the related form of making “vows” in which a similarly serious pledge is made about conduct or behavior—was common under the Torah and the prophets, tolerating untruth in them was regarded as reprehensible and sinful.  Leviticus 5 begins with the need to provide the entire truth and not a partial account in legal proceedings and “parallels” it with making a rash oath as to what one will do and then realizing we were acting foolishly—branding both as sinfulness that needed to be confessed before God in one’s sacrifices:   

 

1 If a person sins in hearing the utterance of an oath, and is a witness, whether he has seen or known of the matter--if he does not tell it, he bears guilt.   4 Or if a person swears, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, whatever it is that a man may pronounce by an oath, and he is unaware of it --when he realizes it, then he shall be guilty in any of these matters. 5 And it shall be, when he is guilty in any of these matters, that he shall confess that he has sinned in that thing; 6 and he shall bring his trespass offering to the Lord for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats as a sin offering.  So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin.   13 The priest shall make atonement for him, for his sin that he has committed in any of these matters; and it shall be forgiven him. . . .

[Page 398]

            The seriousness of non-legal oaths or vows is heavily emphasized here by putting the punishment for the violation of both types on a par.  In real life, one has to assume that being called for legal testimony would be a rare occasion (or at least a very uncommon one).  The greatest temptation for the abuse of oaths or vows would be in regard to every day commitments and promises to others.

Note the emphasis on how such things could easily get out of hand:  he may easily promise things that are inherently wrong or unwise or simply undoable in the time available or with the resources he has.  The text is written to cover all such contingencies:  “if a person swears, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, whatever it is that a man may pronounce by an oath, and he is unaware of it.”

The CEV calls this “a hasty promise” and the RSV “a rash oath;” the TEV, less pointedly, “a careless vow.”  In common to these various renderings is the idea of carelessness and lack of taking the matter seriously enough:  it’s the easiest thing to say and it’s probably doable so you mutter a solemn promise to get the person off your back.  And the context puts it on the same level as a legal oath, thereby showing us just how serious the offense is.

In the context of the book of James, Leviticus 5 shows that even in the Old Testament, whatever swearing was acceptable was not to contain irresponsible, idle words.  It was to be taken seriously as an important and binding commitment.                         

            Ecclesiastes 5 comes down hard on what are clearly oaths, vows, and solemn promises made to God.  The reasoning surely applied to legal oaths and oaths of various types in regard to other people as well—running one’s mouth antagonizes God and is tempting His retribution,  

[Page 399]

2 Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.  For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few.  3 For a dream comes through much activity, and a fool's voice is known by his many words.  4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools.  Pay what you have vowed--  5 Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.  6 Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error.  Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands?  7 For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity.  But fear God.

 

            Once again, the promiscuous use of oaths in their various forms is warned against.  It is clear that oaths could get out of hand and the writer is appalled at the danger of it happening.  And in traditional oath taking and using societies there was and is the tendency for such to be abundant, of course.    

Indeed the warning against “let[ting] your mouth cause your flesh to sin” sounds like the situation where one has promised to do something that one knows beforehand is sinful.  Alternatively, that upon reflection one discovers that one has unwisely promised something that is horribly out of line.  Few better illustrations of this is possible than that of Jephthah in Judges 11:

[Page 400]

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child.  Besides her he had neither son nor daughter.  35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!  You are among those who trouble me!  For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it.”   39 And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. . . .     

 

            This text has created considerable perplexity, dividing interpreters between those who think Jephthah carried out his solemn but unwise pledge and those who think his obligation was to considerably less,[11]

 

Much to his dismay, his daughter came forth. It has been argued that his vow only pertained to the service in the sanctuary or Temple of the one who came forth and not that the person would be killed.  Other interpreters feel strongly, however, that Jephthah did in fact feel obliged to sacrifice his own daughter as one would slaughter a burnt offering.

[Page 401]                  Human sacrifice, moreover, is utterly condemned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18:10; Ezekiel 16:21).  If one made such a vow to sacrifice a human, it was not binding in the first place because its accomplishment violated a cardinal law of God.  If, on the other hand, Jephthah’s vow only involved the perpetual service of his virgin daughter in the service of God at the sanctuary or Temple, it would have been binding.  Parents, in Old Testament times, had the right to vow such service for their children. The mother of Samuel devoted him to a lifetime ministry as a Nazarite (1 Samuel 1:22, 28).

 

            Jephthah’s vow had two elements:  the first object seen “shall surely be the Lord’s” and, secondly, “I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”  The second aspect most naturally means in this manner the object will become the Lord’s.”  It isn’t presented as either/or “be the Lord’s” or “be a burnt offering,” but of it being both.

            Either way, Jephthah’s promise is the perfect illustration of a well meant and logical pledge—of the “hasty promise” in Leviticus 5 and the “let[ting] your mouth cause your flesh to sin” in Ecclesiastes 5 . . . oaths and vows having repercussions far beyond the comprehension at the time the words were first offered.  If he offered his daughter as a literal sacrifice, he not only killed her for no honorable reason but also blotted out the possibility of having descendants. 

The death penalty for him for murder was not really called for—he himself had “murdered” his own lineage.  Yet if he “merely” forced her into perpetual service, he still eliminated his own future, exterminated it from any existence.  His verbal rashness—well intentioned though it was—had humiliated him at the time of his great victory.         

[Page 402]     

            James speaks of “not swear[ing], either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.”  The Old Testament certainly does not take that dramatic a step—but by its implicit and explicit limitations on swearing it has made major steps on inhibiting how common they should be.  As the Chinese adage goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  In a similar manner, eliminating oaths begins with limiting them.

            When we get beyond the time of the traditional Hebrew Bible we find Jews becoming increasingly skittish about oaths in general—trying to limit them even further than the situations covered in the above texts.  Moving to the deuterocanonical works we find in Sirach 23:9-11 (NRSV) words that warn against the danger of idly multiplying oaths,

 

                        Do not accustom your mouth to oaths, nor habitually utter the name

of the Holy One; for as a servant who is constantly under scrutiny will not

lack bruises, so also the person who always swears and utters the Name will

never be cleansed from sin.  The one who swears many oaths is full of

iniquity, and the scourge will not leave his house.  If he swears in error, his

sin remains on him, and if he disregards it, he sins doubly; if he swears a

false oath, he will not be justified, for his house will be filled with calamities.

 

            Moving into the first century we find the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, coming down hard and at length on such oaths in his commentary on the Decalogue.  It’s far longer than we would prefer to quote, but it seems so relevant that it would be far worse not to quote it:[12]

[Page 403]     

(84)  That being which is the most beautiful, and the most beneficial to human life, and suitable to rational nature, swears not itself, because truth on every point is so innate within him that his bare word is accounted an oath.  Next to not swearing at all, the second best thing is to keep one's oath; for by the mere fact of swearing at all, the swearer shows that there is some suspicion of his not being trustworthy.

(85)  Let a man, therefore, be dilatory, and slow if there is any chance that by delay he may be able to avoid the necessity of taking an oath at all; but if necessity compels him to swear, then he must consider with no superficial attention, every one of the subjects, or parts of the subject, before him; for it is not a matter of slight importance, though from its frequency it is not regarded as it ought to be. . . .

(92)  But there are also some people who, without any idea of acquiring gain, do from a bad habit incessantly and inconsiderately swear upon every occasion, even when there is nothing at all about which any doubt is raised, as if they were desirous to fill up the deficiency of their argument with oaths, as if it would not be better to cut their conversation short, or I might rather say to utter nothing at all, but to preserve entire silence, for from a frequency of oaths arises a habit of perjury and impiety.

[Page 404]                  (93)  On which account the man who is going to take an oath ought to investigate everything with care and exceeding accuracy, considering whether the subject is of serious importance, and whether it has really taken place, and whether, if it has, he has comprehended it properly; and considering himself, also, whether he is pure in soul, and body, and tongue, having the first free from all violation of the law, the second from all defilement, and the last from all blasphemy.  For it is an impiety for any disgraceful words to be uttered by that mouth by which the most sacred name is also mentioned.

(94)  Let him also consider whether the place and the time are suitable; for before now I have known some persons, in profane and impure places (in which it is not fitting that mention should be made of either their father or their mother, or of even any old man among their kindred who may have lived a virtuous life), swearing, and stringing together whole sentences full of oaths, using the name of God with all the variety of titles which belong to him, when they should not, out of sheer impiety.

(95)  And let him who pays but little heed to what has been said here know, in the first place, that he is impure and defiled; and, in the second place, that the most terrible punishments are constantly lying in wait for him; that justice who keeps her eye upon all human affairs, being implacable and inflexible towards all enormities of such a character; and, when she does not think fit to inflict her punishments at once, still exacting satisfaction with abundant usury whenever the opportunity seems to offer in combination with the general advantage.

 

[Page 405]                  Note how the indictment of profligate use of oaths seems to edge into something very close to our modern idea of “swearing” and “vulgarity.”  Even if we are guilty of “back reading” into the ancient text a bit more than we should, the fact remains that Philo is an eloquent testimony against the widespread and needless use of oaths in everyday life.  He regarded it as inherently corrupting
            At least some Greeks had become skittish as well.  Diogenes Laertius described Pythagoras’ attitude as being “not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction.”[13]  Epictetus’ teaching was, “Refuse, if you can, to take an oath at all, but if that is impossible, refuse as far as circumstances allow.”[14]

 

 

5:13:  Prayer in time of suffering.   No life is 100% unmitigated joy.  Pain, anguish, disappointment, illness strike one and all.  The only questions are how often and to what degree.  Hence it is not surprising to find the Old Testament speak of such phenomena and one method it encourages to deal with such hardship is to seek strength through prayer. 

The Psalmist quotes God as saying, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble (“day of distress,” ISV); I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (50:15).  Those who refused to live a life of moral restraint are bluntly excluded from those for whom it would do any good; to those the admonition is one of moral reformation (verses 16-23).

            In Psalms 91, the pledge is similar, “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him” (verse 15).  This, however, is  restricted to those who “love” God (verse 14).  Not “love” in empty words, but as demonstrated by actual behavior.  Words are cheap.  Anyone can utter them.  Only you and I can do the actual obeying.   

[Page 406]                  King Manasseh is cited as an individual who “in affliction” implored God and his hope-prayer was granted (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).  Likewise Jonah’s prayer inside the sea beast is described as “cr(ying) out to the Lord because of my affliction” and, again, the desired result was obtained (Jonah 2:2).

            Some times one is not suffering in the usual external sense of the term.  Fortunately, the Divine healing power concerns not only the outwardly tangible but the inwardly broken heart and spirit, gutted by the turmoils and tribulations of life.  Psalms 147:3 presents the concept this way, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Psalms 107 utilizes an example that fits both physical and emotional havoc--of the seaman who faces waves that seem to carry him into the heights of the sky and then plunge him downward as if the next stop is the bottom of the sea (verses 23-27).  Yet their prayers for deliverance are answered (verses 28-30). 

This illustration is used to argue that all mankind should share such gratitude at surviving their own time of potential danger and disaster, “Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!  Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, and praise Him in the company of the elders” (verses 31-32).
            Sometimes the emotional injury is not from a dramatic crisis such as is depicted in Psalms 107 but from the suffering imposed by the steady pressure of one set back after another.  Hence we hear folk speak of being so overwhelmed by life that it is “killing them,” that they are “dying” a little bit each day. 

[Page 407]                  Psalms 30 sounds as if that is, at least partially, the situation in mind.  God is pictured as rescuing from such mental/emotional distress along with the physical conditions that cause it, “O Lord my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me.  O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave; You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit” (Psalms 30:2-3).

The greatest extreme, of course, is when we are hit by both physical disease and mental distress, knowing full well that there are people who literally do “wish us dead.”  Psalms 41 discusses exactly that scenario and the Psalmist’s prayer to escape their ill wishes.  Our triumph over death in such a case proves what?  The Psalmist provides the answer:  “By this I know that You are well pleased with me, because my enemy does not triumph over me” (verse 11).

 

 

            5:13:  Singing in times of joy.  The Psalter is a book of poetry designed to be chanted and sung.  Some of these are psalms of penitence and sorrow.  Yet others are those expressing joy and thankfulness.  Since these psalms were routinely used in Jewish worship, the utilization of such to express individual Christian happiness would be a natural one.

            Yet we do not have to rely alone upon this broad fact for precedent.  Specific texts either make or edge up to the explicit affirmation of their intent to be used to express such joy, happiness, and celebration in song.  Either in relation to the Psalms themselves or of the broad principle of singing joyfully.

[Page 408]                  Psalms 27:6 seems to parallel “sacrifices of joy” and “sing[ing] praises to the Lord,” as if they are identical or, at a minimum, that both are motivated by joy.   The connection between joy and singing also seems to be the idea in Psalms 65:13.  The idea is explicit in Psalms 67:4, “Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”

            We might, possibly, even anticipate the linkage in the “discouraging” poetry of the Psalms because songs--by their very nature--often have an upbeat, hopeful element in them even when the explicit theme is a discouraging one.  It is almost as if by venting, one’s deepest frustrations one is simultaneously expressing the hope and determination to see better days.

            Be that as it may, other Old Testament books also allude to the singing/joy tie-in.  In Job 30:9, “The blessing of a perishing man came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.”  In other words, even when facing hardships (the “widow’s heart”) there will still be justification to look at the joyous aspects of life that continue to happen.  Not that one pretends the negative factors cease to exist, but that one never neglects the other half of life either.

In Isaiah 65:14 Yahweh is quoted as proclaiming, “Behold, My servants shall sing for joy of heart.”  In Isaiah 42:10-12 the idea is developed at greater length, 

 

10 Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you coastlands and you inhabitants of them!  11 Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits.  Let the inhabitants of Sela sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains.  12 Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare His praise in the coastlands.

[Page 409]

It is extremely hard to conceptually separate singing “praise” (42:10) and “lift[ing] up their voice” (42:11) and “shout[ing] from the top of the mountains” (42:11)—not to mention “give glory” and “declare His praise” (4:12)—from the idea of jubilant joy as well.  How could this text possibly mean just “be loud!” 

Hence the words carry the “freight” of joyous singing and a few translations make verse 11’s admonition “let them shout from the top of the mountains” do so explicitly.  “Let them shout for joy from the tops of the mountains” (NASB).  “Shout for joy from the tops of the mountains!” (TEV).  “From the top of the mountains let them make a sound of joy” (BBE).  

Although the term joy is not utilized, when Jeremiah 31:7 refers to “sing[ing] with gladness for Jacob” the idea seems essentially the same.    In Zephaniah 3:14 the concept of singing is again linked with being “glad” and “rejoic[ing] with all your heart,” as is the case in Zechariah 2:10:  “ ‘Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion!  For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,’ says the Lord.”   

 

 

5:14:  Let the sick person call the leaders of the church.  The only way one can know if another is sick if one has been told.  The sick person was to take the initiative.  Making the request for the leaders (“elders”) to come was itself a statement of faith, of confidence that what they could do would be of value to the ailing. 

We find a parallel to this in the case of when the Shunammite woman’s son died and she took the initiative to seek out Elisha to come and heal him (2 Kings 4:22-37).  He did not know about the death; she acted to assure he would.  And as a result the boy was healed.  

[Page 410]                  Hence calling on the prayers of others has Old Testament precedent.  In a context of physical disease rather than death, King Jeroboam pleaded for a prophet’s prayer (1 Kings 13:6):  “Please entreat the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me.”  He needed help and knew it and wasn’t too proud to ask for it—king or not.

Similarly when Miriam was punished by God with leprosy for stirring up trouble against Moses, the Israelite leader intervened upon the urging of Aaron (Numbers 12:12), though he might well have even without it:  “So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘Please heal her, O God, I pray!’ ” (Verse 13).

 

We can broaden this principle out to seeking the prayers of others for our sin as well; cf. James 5:15:  “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”  Hence ill health can occur in connection with sin or completely on its own (note the conditional “if” in James’ remark).

Intervening in cases of ill health or calamity caused by sin is also firmly rooted in the Old Testament.  For example, when disaster was destroying the wilderness camp of the Israelites, the people called on Moses to intervene with God (Numbers 11:2).  Nearly all translations speak of how “the people cried out to Moses” but the CEV is hardly likely to miss the subtext that is present, “the people begged Moses to help.”  If you prefer:  “implored,” “urged,” “pleaded.”  And when they had done this, he did intervene and immediately the fire came to an end.       

[Page 411]                  Likewise, when the people who jubilantly rejoiced that Saul had been made their first king were forced to realize their error, “And all the people said to Samuel, ‘Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of asking a king for ourselves’ ” (1 Samuel 12:23).  Samuel responded, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23). 

Even so, he wasn’t about to whitewash their sin for he immediately added, “but I will teach you the good and the right way” (verse 23) and that included not adding additional sin to their evil of having a human rather than Divine ruler.

 

 

            5:15:  The saving prayer of faith.  Since the verse refers to how “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven,” the “saving” in this context is from the physical disease rather than from the sin.  The latter, if we may use the expression, is the “bonus” that may occur—but only if that problem is also present.  The main intent is removing the physical affliction from which the person is suffering.  

            Although Abimlech is not explicitly recorded as seeking the prayers of Abraham for his sick servants, the King’s generosity gave evidence that the offense He had given to Yahweh was purely unintentional.  As the result Abraham prayed for them and the curse of sterility was removed (Genesis 20:9-18). 

In a much later case, when faced with a withered hand, King Jeroboam pleaded for a prophet’s intervention through prayer--and healing occurred as well (1 Kings 13:6).  In contrast King Asa relied strictly on his doctors and “did not seek the Lord” in addition--and as a consequence died (2 Chronicles 16:12).  The implication seems to be that if he had done so, he had the potential for surviving the affliction.

[Page 412]                  These are specific examples of the broad Israelite faith that Yahweh was quite capable of intervening against human disease and curing the afflicted.  In Psalms 103:2-4 the conviction is expressed in this manner, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.  Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases.  Who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” 

In other words, God is concerned not only with our spiritual body but also our physical one.  He is there and our prayer for help is an admission of our limitations and our dependence.  It is the destruction of the delusion of total human independence where we never have the need of anyone greater than ourselves.  

           

 

            5:16:  Confessing faults to others and praying for each other.  James had begun verse 15 with a plea for prayer in time of physical illness.  At the close of the verse he shifted to the fact that prayer would also result in the forgiveness of the sins of the physically sick person if such were present.  In verse 16 the transition from physical to spiritual is complete, as the emphasis is explicitly shifted to the need to admit our “trespasses” to each other and to pray for each other’s forgiveness. 

Yet even here, the healing imagery is not fully abandoned for he notes that in the case of such prayers “you may be healed,” a term that one would most naturally associate with physical problems of one kind or another but which is here used metaphorically of sin.  Yet the describing of “iniquity” in terms of being “sick” is not without Old Testament precedent (Isaiah 33:24).

[Page 413]                  Faced with the wrong type of personalities such requests would be useless.  Job mourns that he wished that he had someone who “might plead for a man with God, as a man pleads for his neighbor” (16:21).  He was  apparently convinced that the kind of prayers he needed he could not obtain from the likes of his “comforters” (since they were actually critics).

            We read of the people coming to the prophet Samuel and begging him to “pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die” because of their transgressions (1 Samuel 12:19).  His response was, “far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you” (verse 23).  But praying for them did not mean that they would be allowed to escape legitimate criticism for he immediately adds, “but I will teach you the good and the right way” (verse 23; cf. verses 24-25).  An obvious sermonic point:  How many want the healing and the forgiveness but not the moral debt to God of henceforth doing things His way?

            We also read of Israel gathering together at Mizpah, where they confessed their sin and Samuel prayed for them (1 Samuel 7:3-13).  Indeed, they had first admitted their spiritual rebellion in act by putting away their polytheistic idols (verse 4).  That, in turn, produced Samuel’s offer to prayer for them (verse 5), and their verbal admission of transgression (verse 6). 

 

[Page 414]

            5:16:  The passionate prayer of a morally upright person has a powerful effect . . . To be successful prayer must be “effective” and “fervent” and from a person who is “righteous.”  (AT:  “The passionate prayer of a morally upright person has a powerful effect.”)   Character and enthusiasm must be blended together for the prayer to succeed.  “Righteous” refers to the character of an individual as judged by God, i.e., as one who is counted as consistently attempting to do the right thing in the right way at the right time and to be fully pleasing to God. 

            The linkage between spiritual commitment and prayer is made with a different image in Proverbs 15:8, “The prayer of the upright is His [God’s] delight.”  In verse 29 of the same chapter the expression is the same as in James, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.” 

From the standpoint of the receptivity of Deity itself, Psalms 34:15 argues, “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.”  This doesn’t mean that they are perfect—none is; but that they are doing their best to do the right thing.  They aren’t giving God “token” service and pretending it is more; they are trying to give Him all He is due.

            If we flip the concept over, the reverse of “righteousness” is doing wrong.  Hence the Old Testament also speaks in terms of the negative expression of the same idea:  by avoiding evil, God will answer prayer (2 Chronicles 7:14)  According to Proverbs, in reality there is little choice if one intends to be successful in prayer.  “One who turns his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination: (Proverbs 28:9). 

            The Psalmist hits on this in a fascinatingly broader context in Psalms 66:

[Page 415]

13 I will go into Your house with burnt offerings; I will pay You my vows,  14 Which my lips have uttered and my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble.  15 I will offer You burnt sacrifices of fat animals, with the sweet aroma of rams; I will offer bulls with goats. 

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what He has done for my soul.  17 I cried to Him with my mouth, and He was extolled with my tongue.  18 If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.  19 But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer.  20 Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me!

 

As required under the Old Testament, he had offered burnt offerings and animal sacrifices including those he had made “vows” to perform (verses 13-15), but this was not enough to have his prayers answered.  He had recognized what God had done for him (verse 16) and had praised (“extolled”) Him for it.

But even these were not what got his prayer answered.  He tells us that it was that he had shunned “iniquity in my heart” (verse 18), where it might well hide from others but not from God.  All the other manifestations were fine and good and expected--but without moral integrity controlling his heart, it would not have accomplished anything in having prayer answered.     

 

            To the moral character that this inner purification implies, must be added prayer that aims to be “effective” and which is “fervent” in content and intensity.  We have the image presented of fervency in the case of Elijah healing the dead son of the woman he was staying with while in hiding (1 Kings 17:17-24).  He physically carried the son into the “upper room where he was staying” and stretched him out on his own bed (verse 19).  Three times, in apparent short succession, he repeatedly prayed to God for the survival of the boy--and then it was granted.  A somewhat similar narrative--though far from identical in details--is told of Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37).

[Page 416]                  In other cases we have the rhetoric of fervency even if the term itself is not utilized.  For example the prayer of Asa before battle in 2 Chronicles 14:11:  “And Asa cried out to the Lord his God, and said, ‘Lord, it is nothing for You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, O Lord our God, for we rest on You, and in Your name we go against this multitude.  O Lord, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!’ ”

            In yet other cases the situation depicted would seemingly produce fervency.  The prayer for deliverance from oppression, would be a good example (Psalms 107:6, 10-15, 26-30).  Another would be Moses forty days of fasting and prayer for Israel lest God’s anger turn Him irrevocably against the people (Deuteronomy 9:18-20).

           

            5:19-20:  One’s course to self-destruction can be reversed.  Changing for the better the intentions and behavior of “a sinner” both “cover[s] a multitude of sin” and, by doing that, saves the “soul from death.   The Old Testament is full of individuals who went off the way of propriety and restraint and yet returned to their earlier faithfulness.  David, who fell prey to adultery with Bathsheba, is the classic example.  But whatever the particular moral failing, the Old Testament teaches that one need not allow “wander[ing] from the truth,” to use James’ phrase, to become permanent. 

[Page 417]                  Sometimes the only way to learn right is to first suffer the painful consequences of doing wrong, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now [our emphasis] I keep Your word” (Psalms 119:67).   Today we call this the “school of hard knocks.” 

Quite a few translations find the same point in Jeremiah 31:18-19, “You have disciplined me (31:18) . . .  For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth” (ESV).  In other words, the “turning away” was the turning into sin and away from God and God’s chastisement stripped their delusions from their eyes.  Other translations, however, make it the turning in the other direction, “After I turned back [i.e., to God], I repented” (NASB).      

 

            In the closing verse of Hosea 5, God makes plain He is throwing His ungrateful people to the wolves because their behavior has left no other option, “I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense.  Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me” (verse 15). 

In the first verse of the next chapter is the plea that they do exactly that, “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (6:1).  They were on a course of self-destruction (5:15), but even its arrival did not mean that a change for the better was impossible.  Any chains that hinder us are ones we manufacture for ourselves and refuse to throw away.

            One of the most stinging messages of the Old Testament prophets is that one may be devout and enthusiastic in one’s religious endeavor and yet be so morally and socially corrupt that it does no good.  In Isaiah 1 we read of individuals who enthusiastically offered incense, animal sacrifices, and observed the Sabbath and other holy days (verses 13-14). 

[Page 418]                  Yet they are warned, “when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not hear.  Your hands are full of blood.”  Yet he holds out a message of hope to them as well:  by purifying themselves of their evils (verse 16) and learning to treat others rightly (verse 17) they could be restored to acceptability. 

            To use the rhetoric of James 5:20, this would save them from “death and cover a multitude of sins.”  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool,” promises Isaiah (1:18).  Hence the emphasis is on the relationship with God. 

 

James’ reference to the “cover[ing]”  of sin, however, may have more in mind and be intended to also include the this-world impact.  In other words, a temporal impact, such as the adage of Proverbs 10:12 that “love covers all sins.” 

Note what comes first in that verse though, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.”  Hatred results in this world actions, inflaming the situation.  Since what is said next is intended to be a contrasting idea, then the point is that “love works in the opposite direction, to minimize, remove, avoid unjustified confrontations.”  It makes this life better in addition to removing God’s anger at our excess.   

[Page 419]                  The principle in both Proverbs and James also permits—virtually requires--the possibility of public confrontation over the misconduct being removed from the table.  Even though one may have been personally affected by the hostile actions, the fact that forgiveness is known to have been sought from God means that one does not have to make a public issue out of it--either out of self-protection or to protect others from it.  (Not to mention the possible negative motivations of revenge, annoyance, and contempt.) 

 

 

            5:19-20:  Intervening to encourage others to change their course from indifference or outright rebellion to submission to God’s will.  We already discussed the firm Old Testament basis of James’ concept that we can and should change when we wander away from truth.  Worthy of separate discussion is his embracing the concept that others should also take the initiative in encouraging such behavior:  “let him known that” it both saves the person “from death” as well as “cover(s) a multitude of sins” (5:20).

            In Malachi the ideal priest is pictured as Levi, who was quite capable of intervening just as James urged.  In contrast, Malachi’s priestly contemporaries were guilty of brazen and open evil doing themselves; changing neither themselves nor others was on their agenda.  They caused sin rather than causing others to depart from it:

 

4 “Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord of hosts.  5 “My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, and I gave them to him that he might fear Me; so he feared Me and was reverent before My name.  6 The law of truth was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips.  He walked with Me in peace and equity, and turned many away from iniquity [“turned many from sin,” Holman, ISV, NIV; “turned many people away from sin,” GW, NET].

[Page 420]                  7 For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.  8 But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law.  You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts  (Malachi 2).    

 

 

            The prophetic message that Jeremiah was to share with the people consisted, essentially, of two points:  (1) you can return to God, i.e., it isn’t too late and (2) He will accept you back.  “Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:  Return, backsliding Israel,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not cause My anger to fall on you.  For I am merciful,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not remain angry forever’ ” (Jeremiah 3:12).  Both of these points would be of obvious importance to those in James’ day attempting to induce a constructive change in behavior.

            A key failure in Jeremiah’s day was that false prophets were not only blatantly wrong, but that they also refused to make this kind of effort to get others to righten their relationship with God.  They added a second sin to their root evil, “21 I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran.  I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.  22 But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings” (Jeremiah 23).  Doing that did not require being a prophet; it only required being a faithful Israelite.

[Page 421]                  Daniel speaks of the luster that will come to those who share this reformatory message, “2  And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.  3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12).

           

 

 

Historical Allusions to the Old Testament:

 

           

Old Testament “prophets” as “example[s] of suffering and patience” (5:10). No specific event is alluded too nor any specific prophet.  By the time of the New Testament writings, however, the picture of them as universally rejected was a commonplace of rhetoric. 

            When Stephen was killed by an angry audience to his sermon, almost his closing accusation is, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?”  (Acts 7:52).  Here the words are surely venomous in intention.  Although a rhetorical exaggeration, Stephen’s accusation was clearly regarded as describing a core reality that none would have dared challenge; it would have been too ludicrous—which would have made it even more infuriating to the listeners since they lacked even the pretense or a decent response.

[Page 422]                  In contrast, the somewhat similar words of Jesus sound sad rather than rebuking, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:33-34).  The fact of widespread oppression surely justified both reactions—outrage that it had happened and sadness that opportunities had been so wasted.

            Jesus embraced that same image of consistent rejection to encourage His own disciples:  they would be rejected “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).  They weren’t going to be singled out for oppression in some way unique to themselves, their message, or the century in which they lived; the leaders and the people had persistently acted that way in the past as well.  

 

            Indeed, a concise over-view of prophetic mistreatment is found in the Old Testament itself in 2 Chronicles 36:  15 And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place.  16 But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy.”

Jeremiah spoke of how, “Your sword has devoured your prophets like a destroying lion” (Jeremiah 2:30).  Elijah spoke of the treatment of prophets in his day, crying out to God about how the people have “killed Your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (1 Kings 19:14).  Or as Nehemiah 9:26 describes the reality, the people “cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets, who testified against them to turn them to Yourself; and they worked great provocations.”

[Page 423]                  As to specific forms of abuse, one might think of Jeremiah:  He was put in stocks (Jeremiah 20:2-3), imprisoned (Jeremiah 32:2), and even placed in a muddy beneath ground dungeon (Jeremiah 38:6).

Other prophets did little or no better,[15]

 

Take Ezekiel who suffered greatly in the course of ministry.  What about Daniel who was torn from his home as a young boy and served in Babylon faithfully to the Lord but not without much adversity, even thrown into a den of lions at a very old age for not compromising on his faith. Take Hosea whose marriage and its hardship was an example itself and the Lord’s word to His people.  Amos faced lies and continual scorn.  Isaiah was sawed in two . . .

 

 

            The “suffering and patience [ATP:  persistent steadfastness]” of Job (5:11).   Apparently the story was a ready point of reference in James’ age.  “You have heard of the perseverance of Job,” he notes, and feels no need to provide its details.  It was too well known:  how he was wealthy, lost all his children, and was physically cursed with a loathsome ailment that left him in perpetual discomfort. 

The entire book of Job is an effort to explain how such things can happen to an honorable individual.  Indeed, it is quite possible that Job was not even a Jew since nothing of the Torah is presented nor any of the religious-ritual details connected with that system.  

[Page 424]                  The issue of the book is the “why” of the suffering of the principled and decent individual and the ethnicity and even religious practices of such an honorable person does not arise.  The book closes with Job’s regaining of health and wealth and successfully fathering a new large family. 

            Whether the book “answers” the question of why suffering occurs may be debatable (perhaps because we wish the “answer” to questions in a short concise, easily understood sentence and not everything can be condensed in such a manner), but Job is unquestionably an example of an individual who endured horrendous hardship and disappointment--and survived, returning to a level of outward well-being even greater than where he had begun (Job 42:12).  As such he is an effective representative of the individual toward whom “the Lord is [ultimately] very compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11) even though in the short term he endures pain and suffering. 

            Job clung to the remnants of faith at a time when outward pain gave every excuse to reject it all, until his constructive “mule-headedness” in holding to God gained its just reward,[16]

 

We also know that Job cried out in misery and confusion to God but he did not sin. (Job 2:10)  While Job lashed out at his “comforters” and even protested to God Himself about his sufferings, in the face of unexplained suffering, Job remained an example of endurance under tremendous suffering. 

[Page 425]                  Yes, Job seemed to demand an explanation from God for his unjust suffering.  He complained about God’s treatment of him, but never abandoned his faith. In the midst of his incomprehension, he clung to God and continued to hope in Him (Job 1:21, 2:10, 16:9-21, 19:25-27).  Job struggled and questioned but the flame of his faith was never extinguished in his heart.

 

(For a further discussion of Job, see the material in the “Overview” and “Problem Texts” chapters.)   

 

 

            The drought under Elijah (5:17-18).  In the narrative of 1 Kings 17, Elijah warns King Ahab that it would not rain for an unspecified number of “years, except at my word” (verse 1), at which point God ordered him into hiding, presumably to prevent regal retribution (verses 2ff).  During the drought period that ensued, even “the brook dried up” where Elijah was hiding (verse 7) and he had to take refuge elsewhere.  At an unspecified point “in the third year” Elijah was told that the drought would come to an end (verse 1).  

            Although James introduces the example in the context of vindicating the value of prayer, it is intriguing that the Kings text nowhere explicitly states that Elijah prayed either to request a drought nor that it be brought to an end.  Since the drought threat was that it would not rain “except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1), James clearly read this as a reference to the words used in prayer rather than as to words publicly spoken to miraculously stop or start the cessation of rain.  Hence the drought was not a power delegated to the prophet, but a Divine response to his heart-felt prayer.   

[Page 426]                  After learning the rain was to come to an end, Elijah seeks out an audience with Ahab (1 Kings 18).  He conspicuously does not announce the drought will soon cease.  Instead he challenges the prophets to a prayer contest as to whose god would answer their plea and miraculously light an animal sacrifice--would Baal do it or Yahweh (verse 24)?  Then Elijah prays publicly for the fire to be lit by God and it was (verses 36-38), convincing the onlookers that they should follow his admonition to rid the land of the prophets of Baal (verses 39-40). 

            Then and only then does he tell Ahab that “there is the sound of abundance of rain” (verse 41).  The prayer image again enters the picture.  “Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; then he bowed down on the ground, and put his face between his knees” (verse 42)--a posture of prayer. 

He sends his servant to “look toward the sea” and on the seventh look, he beholds a small cloud.  Elijah immediately responded, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you.’ ” 

It may well be that interpreters such as James read Elijah’s posture as a further implied prayer for rain--and it certainly does not take a leap of the imagination to regard it as such.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine in what other way it could ever have been intended to be taken.            

 

[Page 427]

 

 

Notes

 



[1] For a discussion of the differences in emphasis in the treatment of the rich individual in the two chapters see Laws, 195-196.  

 

[2] Yoder, 1182.  

 

[3] Connick, 359.

 

[4] Burdick, 199.

 

[5] John E. Porter, Bugs of the Bible:  The Magnificence of God’s Creation as Seen through a Microscope (Bloomington, Indiana:  CrossBooks, 2012), 46.

 

[6] Burdick, 200.

 

[7] Davids, James:  A Commentary, 179.  

 

[8] Williams, 130. 

 

[9] Hartin, James, 258.

 

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ernest L. Martin, “Biblical Vows and Their Present Significance.”  (A 1980 exposition revised in 2002 by David Sielaff.)  At:  http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d020801.htm.  [June 2014.]  

[12] Philo of Alexandria, The Decalogue.  Yonge’s translation; part of the Early Christian Writings website.  At:  http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book26.html.  [August 2012.]

 

[13] Lives of the Philosophers, 8:22, as quoted by Hartin, James, 259. 

 

[14] Ench., 33:5 as quoted by Hartin, James, 259. 

 

[15] Dan File, “Endurance of Those Who Have Gone on Before Us!  James 5:10-11.”  Dated April 2, 1013.  At:  http://www.capitolcom.org/colorado/studies/4183/2013/04/

02/james-5-10-11-endurance-of-those-who-have-gone-before-us.  [June 2014.] 

 

[Page 428]   [16] Ibid.