From: A Torah Commentary on James 3-5 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Overview: How the Themes are Developed
Sixth Test of Our Faith:
Inflicting and Enduring Economic Injustice
Their Wealth Is Witness Against the Rich
ATP text: 1 Now is the time for you who are wealthy to weep and
howl in anguish--terrible things are coming upon you! 2 Your riches have
rotted and your garments are moth-eaten and ruined. 3 Your money in gold
and silver have rusted and their corrosion will be evidence against you. Like
fire it will consume your body. You have piled up treasure that will convict
you in these last days.
Development of argument:
The admonition in (“to him who knows to do good and does not do it, for him it is sin”) has an application to both what was written immediately before as well as what is introduced in the beginning section of chapter five. For the earlier section it presents a powerful conclusion. It also constitutes a powerful introduction to the vigorous indictment of the unscrupulous rich who found some pretext or other to deny paying their laborers their wages (5:1-5). If this were not bad, enough they had even resorted to murder to get their way (5:6).
[Page 316] James
provides a vision—so to speak—of their future:
they should “weep and howl” in despair at the “miseries” that are going
to overwhelm them. (Similarly, CEV,
Holman, ISV, NASB, RSV, TEV; “sorrows,”
This is not to overlook the fact that it also posed a warning to future economic abusers who would face their own judgment—from God inescapably and, on more than a few occasions, even in the current world. This is why we see various themes repeatedly raised in both Testaments: old evils never fully die out; a new generation simply rediscovers their own variant of the same and, in their ignorance of history, cultivate the delusion that they can escape the justice that overwhelmed their predecessors.
In a war context it might seem strange to single out the rich, as James does. After all, they have the resources to avoid so much of the tragedy that will grind the poor even deeper into the mire. On the other hand, their very prosperity also makes them prime targets. Others have nothing to steal—either literally or under the pretext of wartime taxation—but they do. Hence the victimizers easily become key targets for their own victimization.
Their very wealth “will eat your flesh like fire” (5:3) in such cases. It was the means for your advancement; it becomes the tools for your destruction. “James intends an image of total destruction: all to be found after a fire is only charred remains.” Just as fire inevitably destroys what it overwhelms, so they will be destroyed as well.
[Page 317] They are living “in the last days” (verse 3). When is the time when you want to have the most resources available for ready use? When disaster is near and you are going to need them to survive. But they have managed to convert what could—even should be an asset—into something that has lost all value to protect them.
Is this a call for repentance? Commentators are divided, with the bulk not thinking so. Certainly repentance is not explicitly mentioned nor any discussion of how their lifestyles must change if they do repent. On the other hand, if their lifestyle consists of doing “such and such”—the items mentioned in these verses—would not repentance automatically be construed as no longer acting in those ways? It is hard to imagine how they could miss this.
The reason for the absence of an explicit call to repentance is probably because the entire argument is structured on the assumption that they will continue their present course. Preachers’ enthusiasm not withstanding, the simple fact is that those with powerful vested interests are far more likely to not change than to change. And if, as sometimes happens, and the rich person “sees the light” and actually repents? Does anyone really believe that James would be anything but happy?
The bulk of James’ listeners are those on the “receiving” rather than the “giving” end of the injustice. For their benefit, he stresses that the seemingly monolithic structure of oppression will be broken into pieces by the power of God. Their challenge is not to allow the cruelties they suffer to corrupt their souls, leaving them as useless to God as those being rebuked.
They Live Luxuriously While
Stealing From and Abusing the Poor
ATP text: 4 Listen: The unpaid wages of the laborers who harvested
your fields--which you kept back by dishonesty--shout out condemnation
against you; and the pleas of the reapers themselves have reached the ears of
the Lord of Heavenly Armies. 5 You have lived a life on earth of self-
indulgence and wasteful luxury; you have fully indulged the desires of your
hearts as animals do even on the day they are butchered. 6 You decided to
make a verdict of wrongful condemnation; you have put to death the one
who has done no wrong--who does not fight to stop you.
Development of argument:
[Page 319] Reality moves on more than one level—the visible and obvious and the undercurrent where God uses it all to accomplish His own purposes. From God’s own standpoint, the catastrophes will be temporal payback for how they had flagrantly abused the poor who worked for them. In a time of war and accompanying chaos, the power players governing the region are no more interested in helping the poor that are their traditional oppressors. They have all been reduced to a kind of “equality” as milk cows.
To the extent that there is a functional governing system, the taxgatherers or rebel leadership are interested in financing the war—and helping their leaders live well during it, of course. Indeed, such actions would provide addition excuses to the wealthy losing resources as to why they could not “afford” to pay the due wages. (They might even be telling the truth for once!)
Then there are the rebel bands who aren’t interested in equity but a quick boast to their own revenues. These are but a bare step above criminal gangs, grabbing whatever they can for themselves . . . these aren’t interested in helping the poor either. Except themselves. Other poor need not apply.
The point in James is conspicuously not that the judgment will improve the circumstances of the poor but that the wealth “nickeled and dimed” out of the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor will be stripped from those who stole it. They had stolen it, but they won’t get to keep it. At least to that extent, earthly justice will have been struck. And the Divine justice as well-- utilizing human wrath to accomplish its own ends.
Of course, there is no need to limit God accomplishing this kind of economic justice only by war. If God is determined to act retributively in the current world, is it likely He will feel bound to restrict Himself to war time alone? In our modern world, equally devastating to the rich can be depressions, stock crashes, military seizures and various other phenomena. Each occurs out of human decisions, but God remains quite capable to using them for His own purposes as well.
[Page 320] And if a specific culprit escapes justice in the current world, there still remains the Divine bar of judgment after death. No defense attorneys permitted to allow you to escape justice. No deception, for the Judge will know every secret you wish to hide. In some ways, the earthly disaster may seem quite restrained when the unrepentant survivors of the first stand before the Divine tribunal.
Their oppressive actions weren’t accidental; they were intentional. They were the powerful “gaming the system” to make it work even better on their behalf. Workers were treated as beneath contempt. What else can one call it when their wages are “kept back by fraud [ATP: kept back by dishonesty]” (5:4)?
Some translations omit the “by fraud,” but the fact that the wages were not paid and they are condemned for it, surely justifies that as a reasonable and perhaps necessary inference. Whether it was all or part of the wages is unstated. Prudence argues for part, however; pay nothing at all and why should they stay? Pay just enough to keep them and you can pocket the rest.
From the standpoint of immediately righting the injustice, these wealthy folks knew full well there was nothing the workers could do. Furthermore, many of the abusers had what we today would call “deniability:” The evil would just as likely be done by their hired overseers and not by those responsible for the decision. (How many abuses of workers in foreign lands or among isolated foreign language speakers in our own country are made possible by this “insulation” between those ultimately responsible and those personally ministering out the injustice?)
[Page 321] Absentee
landowners were common in first century
Under Herod the Great, the transformation was furthered by brute force: the Hasmonean family and key supporters found their land expropriated by the state and he shared the lands between his own family and select supporters. In these cases, he created powerful ties binding the new elite to himself, struck major blows at his upper crust foes, and advanced a system even more rigged against those at the bottom of the economic totem pole.
Injustice can fester in any society, but the pattern of centralization maximized the opportunities and probability of it occurring. And if the owner had no role in initially ordering it or “setting the hostile atmosphere,” surely enterprising subordinates might easily see their own personal road to greater position. If nothing else, might they not be praised by the owner for showing such zealous “initiative”? And gain new status and, perhaps, even a more authoritative status?
Unfortunately for the abusers of power, the mistreated were pouring their hearts out—and God had heard them (5:4).
It isn’t as if there were just one complainer. In that case the person to be criticized might even be the complainer! After all, even the fairest of employers will have a few grouches and ingrates. Instead, the situation is pictured as one in which the employer is in the clear cut wrong and that it envolves general maltreatment and that they were all pleading with God for justice.
Why were they acting in such a repressive way? Note the description: “You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury [ATP: self-indulgence and wasteful luxury]” (5:5). They weren’t cheating to enrich themselves—to buy this business or boat or farm or what have you. There at least we might find a “business / economic rationale”—however debased a morality it would reflect. Instead we find they were doing it merely so they could enjoy themselves more. Others might starve, but they would assure themselves the next step upward in luxury and over-indulgent pleasure.
Here enters a massive irony: In the time of the wealthy landowners’ prosperity it was also “a day of slaughter [ATP: the day they are butchered]” (5:5). That immediately brings to the mind an image of feasting in which the freshly slaughtered animals were brought forth to be cooked for the eating pleasure of the host and invited guests. But here that day of abundant prosperity builds on that image of animal slaughter to argue that it was--as much? more so?--a time of “slaughtering” their innocent human employees and servants. It was as if those dependent upon them were their designated dinner meal.
“Murder” is the label James applies to their behavior and, worse, the victims weren’t even being real obstacles (“he does not resist you,” 5:6). It wasn’t as if they were out there sabotaging your farm or hindering getting the work done. They were mere irrelevancies and treated with contempt as such. A more repulsive moral accusation is hard to imagine. They were, to use a modern idiom, “feasting on the bones of the living.” They were mere “human animals”—and treated with less forbearance than even an animal!
[Page 323] In vivid
contrast to their abusers, these day laborers would be hurting. Not to mention the families they were
obligated to support. Although slavery
was common throughout the
In such cases, life was extremely hand-to-mouth. The wage might be low (the type of rich people being described would hardly be likely to be generous) and the end of day’s wages provided the family food for the next day. Paying the “least I can get by with” as well; enduring such conditions long enough and someone is going to get hurt—and it won’t be the person doing the paying.
They might not pay the money regularly (= daily) as they were supposed to or in the full amount. The poor man might, in desperation, seek out a temporary loan since they’d been promised the full amount—only not to receive it even later. And then be thrown in prison where it’s up to others to provide your food if you expect to be fed at all.
Hence these well-to-do could “murder/kill” them without laying a hand on them. Not a drop of blood from direct violence had necessarily been spilled. Just the fatal circumstances set up, of which they were the victim.
On the other hand, the “murder” might be just that. Having effectively co-opted the legal system due to their wealth, any accusations condemning the poor (5:5a) would [Page 324] gain easy backing from lawyers who lacked a soul and from policing authorities assigned to enforce the law. In this kind of social context, it would seem unwise to take the references to “murder” in this epistle as just rhetorical exaggeration: people are being described with the power and clout to accomplish just that, under the cloak of law if possible . . . but will such a person who is unable to accomplish his goals legally hesitate long—if any—at doing the same thing through paid agents? If carried out with reasonable prudence (say, in isolation or cover of night) the odds of being caught were minimal. It would be simply using a different “tool” to accomplish the desired goal.
When we discuss persecution, we automatically think in terms of “suffering for Christ” since the New Testament puts a great emphasis on that danger. The current text puts us on warning that we may suffer unjustly for other reasons as well. Although their abusers could be abusing them because they were poor Christians and, therefore, especially vulnerable to retribution, that element is conspicuously not made explicit.
The wording is that the attack is on “the wages of the laborers” and not on Christian laborers in particular (5:4). Furthermore, those abused are identified as “the just” (5:6), but that is language broad enough to include honorable men and women whether specifically Christian or not.
Hence the most natural interpretation of our text is that they were being mistreated because the abusers had the power to do so and it somehow benefited their ego or financial interests to do so. Their victims’ faith wasn’t the motivating factor, but the fact that their poverty enabled them to be abused for the financial enrichment of the wealthy. Such is far from unknown in our own society as well!
[Page 325] Note also that it did not require a religious element to make the treatment wrong. The condemnation was based on what was done and not on the religion of the victim. In other words, it was inherently wrong, in and of itself because their was no adequate provocation or danger to justify the degree of force and suppression brought down upon the victim.
(None of this would rule out the possibility that the persecuting rich took extra pleasure when their victims were powerless poor Christians: it might well be a “two for one” situation, from their standpoint. See the Problem Texts section for more on these matters.)
Those Suffering Such Mistreatment
Should be Patient for the Lord Is Ready
to Judge the Abusers
ATP text: 7 Therefore do not despair, spiritual comrades; you wait
for the coming in judgment of the Lord. Consider how the farmer waits for
the valuable crop from the earth, waiting patiently for it to come, knowing
that the soil must first receive both the fall and spring rains. 8 Similarly, you
also need to be patient. Strengthen your inner self by remembering that the
Lord will soon be here! 9 Do not complain about one another, comrades, lest
you be judged as well. Behold, the Judge is standing right outside the door!
Development of argument:
Having rebuked any abusers among them with a stiff warning of upcoming Divine wrath being poured out, James now shifts to words of advice for the suffering. This consists of three aspects.
First, they need to be patient. In a context of the maltreatment they had endured (5:4-6), “be(ing) patient” (5:7) inevitably carries the implication found in the ATP, “Therefore do not despair.” Giving up hope when faced with repeated suppression is inevitably a great temptation. Instead they are to “be patient” since Divine wrath is inevitably heading toward the shoulders of the unjust.
In cases of such brazen injustice, it will be tempting to feel that if they themselves don’t do something about it, no one ever will. But they do not need to take it upon themselves (even assuming their actions would actually accomplish anything); God will act on their behalf—just give Him enough time.
[Page 327] They find themselves in a situation like the farmer. What he would like to get finished and over with won’t happen just because he wants it that way, gets upset at the time it takes, or even despairs. He could even undertake some destructive act out of frustration--like pouring lime over the ground--and it still won’t speed things up at all.
Just as a farmer must “be patient” throughout the year as the rains fall and the crop grows (5:7) and he begins to wonder how long it will all take. Intellectually he knows he can’t speed things up; emotionally, however, he sometimes feels like he should be able to do something to accomplish that goal. But impatience will still do no good. On the other hand, the ultimate outcome is beyond doubt: when the growing year is completed, the crop will be there.
The rains aren’t rewards for the farmer, but they are what make the crop rewards possible. And having had good seed and good rain and having done his own part, they are inevitable. (For early rains in that part of the world think mid-October to mid-November and for the late rain March-April.)
Similarly when the assigned time for the Lord’s judgment on the unjust to occur, it will come with just as much certainty. Just as the farmer gets tired of waiting—even though he knows the crop will ultimately be there, they too will feel the same way. Especially when their pain and suffering has to be added into the equation.
James does not explicitly tell us what is the parallel in our lives to “the precious fruit of the earth” (5:7; similarly, Rotherham, RSV; “good fruit,” BBE; “precious produce,” NASB; “precious crop” or “precious crops,” GW, ISV, TEV; “valuable crop” or “valuable crops,” ATP, CEV, NIV, Weymouth). Presumably it is spiritual maturity in its varied forms.
Even the temporal, physical crop was “precious”—an unusual term we usually associate with things like jewels. But for a smaller (or large) farmer the crop was, indeed, “precious” for it provided him with food to eat and food to sell to pay his various bills. And he values it as precious not only for that but for all the work he had to put in in order to obtain it.
The farmer didn’t simply stop working and relax till it was harvest time. The waiting was a period of major labor as well. They had to “work hard in weeding, hoeing, fertilizing, and doing whatever they could to bring their crops to full fruition. James’s analogy would have resonated deeply with his audience, many of whom were clearly farmers.”
Second of all, Divine wrath will inescapably fall upon the heads of the evil doers. They are to think in terms of how quickly that may occur. They are to picture the situation as, “the Judge is standing at the door!” (5:9). (“Is waiting at the door,” BBE; “the judge is right outside the door,” CEV; “the judge is standing right outside the door, ATP). (For a discussion of the imminency factor see the difficult texts chapters.)
We seem to have here the image of a traveling Judge. He’s had other cases to handle in various places and now he’s arriving where we are. Worrying about how soon he would arrive did not get him there a second earlier. He arrived according to His schedule. Past. Present. Or future. The principle applied in all three directions.
[Page 329] The result is the same if we think of it as a Judge with a predetermined schedule. Whether we are aware of the details of it or not, He is going to be following that timetable. It is not going to be changed just for our convenience. We wait because we know that then justice will finally be rendered.
Yet James wants his readers to have a sense of its imminence because the “standing at the door” imagery makes absolutely no sense without it. If this book is as early as we have suggested . . . and these events have in mind the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. in particular . . . then we have a delay of 20, 25, or 30 years. Yet they were to view it—on an emotional level at least—as so imminent that it was as if the Judge were ready to enter the hearing place itself. . . already!
The “imminency” teaching, therefore, does not seem designed to teach us anything about literal chronology. It has everything to teach us about embracing the certainty of judgment as absolute, unquestionable, inevitable, inescapable. As certain as the sun rising tomorrow morning. Chronology only affects the timing and not the certainty of it.
Thirdly, even under the stress of adversity, they are to still
control what they say. In
addition to cultivation of patience, James urges upon the sufferers another
course as well, “Do not grumble against one another” (5:9; identical, CEV, NIV,
RSV; “complaint,” NASB; “complain against,” TEV, “complain/complaining about,”
ATP, GW, ISV; “say no hard things against,” BBE; “cry out in condemnation,”
[Page 330] Whether that is intended or not, self-aggravation of their shared wounds would be easy enough to occur. First of all, they also had their internal congregational tensions as the epistle has clearly developed in previous chapters. Furthermore, they have the external mistreatment and pressure to factor into their attitudes and mind-frame. This is affecting many or the bulk of them, so broad is the generalization:
Perhaps they are project their frustrations at the landowners onto each other. (In times of stress, we tend to take out our frustrations on those closest to us.) Or perhaps they disagree on how they ought to deal with the oppression, and the different factions complain about each other in their anger. Maybe they are blaming one another for the problems they are facing as a congregation, or maybe they are accusing each other to avoid problems themselves.
Christians won’t necessarily act like Christians. And we naturally have the urge to verbally strike back since that may be the only immediate recourse open to us. But James applies here a caution that seems all so admirable when stated in isolation, standing alone, “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James ).
[Page 331] But what do you do when words are your only weapon of retaliation? Then it becomes considerably harder. Yet, in a very fundamental sense, words are not necessary. Judgment is inevitable. Answering for injustice is inescapable. What more can our indignation actually add to that? Add in all the insults, vulgarities, and outright obscenities you prefer and how will that strengthen the reality of judgment even one iota?
Yet acting in that outraged manner makes us liable to censure as well. Verbal restraint is necessary “lest you be condemned” as well” (5:9). Roughly equivalent to, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Or, “if you act as bad—as it is within your power to do—as the other fellow, you’ve lowered yourself to his level.” And stand in danger of God’s wrath as well.
Patience Under Adversity Can be Seen
in Both the Old Testament Prophets and Job
ATP text: 10 My comrades in faith, take the prophets as an example of
patient endurance when unjustly suffering--individuals who spoke as
messengers from the Lord. 11 In fact, we consider them as spiritually
benefited who endure adversity. You remember the persistent steadfastness
of Job and have seen in the story the end result of the Lord’s dealings--that
the Lord is ultimately very compassionate and generous in time of need.
Development of argument:
In some ways the world never changes. Oppressors never disappear. They may change their skin color or ethnic background. Their title. How blatantly they can act against you. But in one guise or another, they are still there.
Hence James finds no difficulty in appealing to the past. This was a past they should have been well aware of with their Jewish background. Although not speaking just of prophets, the description of the suffering faithful in Hebrews 11 presents the traditional imagery of unjust abuse and hardship that was well known through both scriptural attestation and traditional exegesis of the theme,
32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
[Page 333] 35 Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.
37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented-- 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
No matter what the pretense of being God’s people might be, the reality was far too often that of the majority and the powerful becoming oppressors of the faithful remnant. To allow them to live unhindered and unsuppressed could spread the alarming possibility that the dominant delusions of the time were just that—delusions intended to make practical, every-day apostasy respectable and even admirable.
In other words, blatant sinners could not tolerate their misconduct being challenged. After all, others might come to embrace that judgment as well. Worse—they themselves might be tempted to do so . . . and be forced to substitute a different lifestyle for the one that brought them so much joy and happiness. When one has a “faith” that is, from a practical standpoint, “never having to say no,” what better pseudo-religion can one possibly have?
Only one specific name is given by James in discussing adversity and for that example he reaches back far beyond the Mosaical age and into the patriarchical one. There he picks the example of Job, but that ancient figure sums up perfectly the concept of the righteous suffering. He does this not because Job is a prophet: note the transition from those “who spoke in the name of the Lord” in verse 10 to the broader category of whose “who endure” in verse 11. Though the prophets faithfully endured the opposition and retaliation for their message, this had nothing to do with what happened to Job.
But he is an example of similar endurance and, relevant to the theme of the use of riches because he is a rich man who suffered even though rich—but was still faithful to God. If a poorer person is challenged by such extreme adversity, how much more the one who once had “everything” they wanted!
The reader is informed in Job of the broader context of the suffering in the challenge of Satan. Job, himself, has nothing to go on—no weakness or injustice he can think of that has caused his pain and anguish. Caused his world to “melt down.” It comes out of the clear blue sky and then gets even worse.
That is even worse than the suffering you and I may encounter. But like him, it can still happen without warning and, like a vicious storm at sea; all we can do is try to outride the chaos.
Job’s attitude was translated as one of “patience” (James ) and that idiom “patience of Job” survives to today. But it involved much more than what “patience” would normally suggest. We are “patient” for a library book to become available or for a package to arrive, for example. But here we know what the end will be—the library book will become available and the package will be delivered.
[Page 335] Job had no idea what the outcome would be of what he was going through. He was simply taking it one day at a time, grimly determined to see it through.
Like we do in times of ongoing crisis.
shades into a related idea and, though some maintain that rendering of
“patient” (CEV, TEV), others prefer something more directly descriptive of what
was happening: “endurance / endured,”
GW, Holman, ISV, NASB,
Without this, he might well have heeded his wife’s advice, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9).
He trusts in God in spite of despair and desperation. That was Job’s mindframe. And it was justified because “the end” God intended was to be for His ultimate good (). This was to manifest two of the Divine traits: God being “compassionate” () and His being “merciful” ().
In the context of Job, this turn of fortune went upward as unexpectedly as it had turned downward. In this case, however, God rebukes his three “helpful” critics and embraces Job instead (Job 42:1-9). “Indeed, the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:10) and his relationship with his former friends who had abandoned him was even restored: “Then all his brothers, all his sisters, and all those who had been his acquaintances before, came to him and ate food with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the adversity that the Lord had brought upon him. Each one gave him a piece of silver and each a ring of gold” (42:11). Symbols of their desiring to set shattered relationships right.
[Page 336] A powerful story of survival and restoration for any age. Suffering need not be permanent. God did—and still could once again—give the victory to those suffering in the first century.
Even Under Unjust Adversity,
Control What You Say
ATP text: 12 But above all, my comrades of faith, do not swear in
making a commitment, either by heaven or by earth or with any other kind
of oath. Instead let your "Yes," really mean "Yes," and your "No" really
mean "No." Otherwise you may fall into condemnation.
Development of argument:
What James is dealing with directly are legal style oaths. These involve establishing what the truth is in a given situation. By logical development it has an obvious application to “vows,” which take on certain connotations of an oath—a pledge to unquestionably do or not do a certain thing. Both are well covered by the description in Leviticus 19:11-12, “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”
Some attempt to limit James’ injunction to strictly monetary matters: “These most likely involved promises to pay off debts if only they could be given more loans or more time, in ways that probably often simply exacerbated the problem.”
In other words they committed to such excessive promises to get a loan extension or expansion that they virtually guaranteed that their commitment would fail. Although this was surely a problem for the small farmer of the time, it is hard to see how limiting one’s pledge to “yea, yea” or “nay, nay” was going to transform unrealistic pledges into something more likely to become a reality.
James has been discussed with a natural preorientation toward legal oaths and to a secondary degree toward vow-oaths. In the context of the book of James, however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that James introduces this specific issue of the misuse of the tongue as part of his broader denunciation of their problem with the destructive use of human speech.
[Page 338] His logic seems to be: We must apply to oaths and vow oaths--“formal” pledges and promises--the same kind of control we should exercise in all that we say. Indeed, in regard to other areas of life, that is where the bulk of verbal abuse is surely going to happen!
In a purely legal context, his
emphasis seems odd indeed. He heavily
stresses that this teaching is something so important that it should be
evaluated as, “Above all, my brethren.”
This is the rendering followed by just about all translations, though
some add one word, “Above all things” (ASV, GW,
To understand why this must take priority makes greater sense when one broadens James’ intended point to cover speech in all other forms as well—and not just this particular kind. Back in chapter 3 he had spoken vigorously of this broader context and provided a stern denunciation of the uncontrolled tongue,
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
Adopt this mind frame and the priority placed on controlling the tongue is quite logical: You can inflame a bad situation and make it far worse. Indeed, is there any situation—even one of the most transparent injustice—that an uncontrolled mouth can’t make worse?
[Page 339] If nothing else, your excesses provide excuses for the villains to feel righteous in ignoring what you say.
Connecting this with the idea of “oaths” in the text likely conveys the idea that your excess passion is going to land up causing you to make solemn promises to God—surely including threatening promises in regard to others. Actions that, carried out, may actually be sinful and make you just as evil as the person(s) you are mad at. Think of the case of those who were so mad at Paul that “more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him” (Acts ). Here the intended victim was innocent.
But it can target the guilty as well. The anger gets deep enough, the passions hot enough—and perhaps just a “little liquor” to egg things on?—and an assassination scheme can easily arise. Do they “deserve” it? Quite possibly. But guess who is going to be “on the run,” always looking over the shoulder lest the law catch up to you?
Hence the need to “keep it simple” Keep to “yes” and “no,” James insists. Which also covers not pouring out your passions in unending, harsh, and degrading language. At worst they may give your powerful enemy an excuse for further injustice. At best, the humiliation of his laughing in your face. No one needs either.
Seventh Test of Our Faith:
Meeting the Needs of Other Church Members
in the Time of Their Difficulties
Laying Down the Principle
ATP text: 13 Is anyone among you having trouble? Be sure to pray.
Is anyone cheerful? Be sure to sing psalms of joy. 14 Is anyone among you
ill? Let the person call for the leaders of the congregation and let them pray
for recovery, applying olive oil to the body while seeking the Lord’s help. 15
The prayer offered in confidence will restore the ill, and the Lord will raise
up such a one from the sick bed. If sins have been committed, they will be
forgiven as well. 16 Therefore admit your trespasses to one another, and pray
for each other, that you may be made well. The passionate prayer of a
morally upright person has a powerful effect.
Development of argument:
These verses might be summed up in one simple thought—No matter what condition you are in, or think you are in, there’s always something you can do to make yourself feel at least a little better and more confident of the future. Something that will lay the foundation for a better future. The emphasis is on the relevance of this to all church members: “Is anyone?” (5:13a). “Is anyone?” (5:13b). “Is anyone” () He lists four of our every day situations in particular:
(1) If the problem is our “suffering?” (5:13). With the introduction of sickness in the following verse, the term may have the specific intended meaning of the pains and anguish our bodies face at various points in life. However, the language could also encompass the injustices and oppressions that we encounter and about which James had spoken earlier. In behalf of this, some introduce the suffering mentioned in , which they say is due to one’s economically weak societal position—making that the likely frame of reference.
Actually is specifically about the suffering of prophets though their example is introduced in the broader context of the suffering of the powerless. Could James’ point in 5:10 be, in part, that they suffered—like these first century Christians—because they were among the economically powerless and less respected elements of society? No one felt there was any need to honor them or their message because of their lack of societal “standing.” There was simply no way “that kind of folk” could possibly have the truth.
[Page 342] Yet James has been careful to use a term broad enough to cover all types of affliction, regardless of origin: persecution, sickness, injury, mistreatment by others (several types of which are mentioned by James in the book). This way the teaching could cover all the afflicted rather than just one type. Important as their particular type of distress was, that didn’t mean that that of others was of nonimportance.
Other translations also select a rendering
wide enough to easily encompass a wide variety of difficulties: “Having trouble,” ATP, CEV, GW; “in trouble,”
BBE, NIV, TEV; “in distress,”
How to respond to it: Then “pray” (). Here it is clearly solitary prayer for the “group” element is explicitly brought in only in verse 14 (“the elders) and verse 16 (“one another”). All hint of it is omitted here.
In one sense, of course, God already knows. On the other hand, it is a manifestation of our faith and confidence that God can also do something about it. If it is for our long-term best, we rest confident that He will; if it is not, such prayer implies that whatever is essential (such as strength) will be sent our way.
The answer we want is not guaranteed; what takes in the best interests of every one and everything is. That is a hard truth to accept for we have this (natural?) habit of assuming that “answered” prayer means “answered with a yes”—when the answer might be “no,” “later,” or something better for us “substituted” for our preference.
(2) If we are happy: “cheerful”? (5:13); identical: ATP, Holman, ISV, NASB, Rotherham, RSV; “feeling good,” CEV; “glad,” BBE; “happy,” GW, NIV, TEV; “in good spirits,” Weymouth.
James has had a lot to say in his epistle about situations that make people sad, discouraged, and depressed. But virtually no one spends all of his or her time in that state. At least limited joy and happiness “sneaks in” beneath the pessimism and brings us times to smile and even exuberance. James says to enjoy such and verbally express how happy we feel.
Our discouragement is often intensified when we feed on it and make it our daily meal. On the other hand, when we have joys to take pleasure in, “feasting” on those also increases the intensity of what we are feeling and generates a “carry over” effect that also lingers on.
Scot McKnight stresses that we need to disassociate being “cheerful” from our “happy face” image connected with the term. He notes that the language is used of Paul telling the sailors to retain their “courage” after the nasty prolonged storm and approaching shipwreck (Acts 27:22, 25). Having decided to permit the Jews to retain their temple worship after all, Antiochus publicized the decision “so that they may know our policy and be of good cheer” (2 Maccabees -26). Ignatius, on the way to Rome to die—with all the stress that went with that—could yet look upon the upbeat side of his bad situation and speak of how he had “become more encouraged in a God given freedom from anxiety” (Letter to Polycarp, 7.1).
To apply the principle to James 5, it seems fair to say that among those who are poor and coming face to face with repeated difficulties, it can take the connotation of having an optimistic and upbeat outlook due to the worst pressures having been removed—either literally or because one no longer felt “overloaded” by them.
How to respond to one’s happiness: Then “sing” (). Some renderings describe what is to be
sung as “psalms” (GW, ISV,
This verbal reinforcement of our upbeat mood costs no money. It can be carried out by even those with the worst of voices. It requires no talent with an instrument. Hence it’s open to one and all.
If we claim that everything is going bad and do not take the opportunity to enjoy those times of emotional escape when they become available, are we not committing a kind of “crime” against ourselves. Becoming co-workers with our foes in our own emotional devastation?
James does not discourage seeing the “bad times” as they really are. But he’s outright emphatic that we seize the “good times” as they come as well. In the bad times we turn to God to seek help instinctively; in the good times--. Well, sometimes it is easy to forget the “thankfulness” that should come from obtaining what we have wished for. Or even just for having obtained enough of a relief—not a full release from the problem—that we know we have the strength and stamina to get by. (Think of Ignatius, as we noted earlier, on his way to martyrdom.)
(3) If we are “sick?” (). Nature unstated, the ambiguity intending to cover all forms and types of sickness. The implication seems to be of a serious illness, however. Short term fits of illness overcome one and all. When possible, we continue about our daily business. At the next level we are home bound and even bed-ridden. Even a few days is not all that improbable. For such things, it is hard to see anything so far out of the normal that one would feel this level of need for the intervention of others.
But then there are sicknesses that simply won’t go away. “The Lord will raise him up” (5:15) is language we’d expect in cases of someone who is bed-ridden in particular, with the implication of it going on day after day with no relief in sight. Perhaps something that has moved from short term to something alarmingly longer term and with no grounds to expect any relief.
If not literally near death, then still in severely bad shape, both physically and with the attendant wear and tear on the nerves. To the extent that medical care is available and affordable it is impossible to imagine it hasn’t been sought. As well as any “home remedies” from friends and kin. But the affliction persists in spite of all efforts.
How to respond to it: Then call “the elders” (). The leaders of the local congregations (Acts ; Titus 1:5). Along with the “title” went responsibilities and being there for the needs of the members was part of it. We have a tendency to look upon church office holders in terms of the position itself rather than in regard to the responsibilities that cause the position to exist. The work comes with the position rather than it being a mere honorific title.
[Page 346] In the Old Testament the term “elders” carries the connotation of leaders not so much by official position or appointment but due to societal standing, personal prestige, recognized wisdom, good judgement, and the respect of others. The usage in the gospel accounts is similar. Mark 7:3 is especially illustrative, “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.” Note that it is not “the tradition of the Pharisees” but “the tradition of the elders,” indicating a more prestigious subgrouping of individuals within their society and their movement.
But this prestige
creates an automatic de facto post or category for them. Again, in the first century, we can
illustrate this from
Hence one might argue that the “elders” in James were de facto rather than official leaders, as in the Pastorals. But every organization needs structure: how could de facto leaders long avoid becoming recognized as official ones as well? Date this epistle as early as 35 or 40 A.D., how could official “elders” have avoided being created by that time period?
It should also be noted that the injunction is not to call “a” elder but “the” elders—two more; presumably all of them. This is a collective action of the entire group rather than an action carried out by some single elder acting alone.
[Page 347] Nor is the instruction to “lay hands on” the sick, but simply to pray for them—the former being what was done in the healings of Jesus. Perhaps the reason for this was to stress that what happened next was the result of the power of prayer rather than permit the slightest misapprehension that it was due to some special holiness or spiritual power they themselves had.
Admittedly, the laying on of hands is not explicitly excluded nor explicitly included. It is simply not mentioned. (The only reference to touching is the conceptually different act of “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” —not laying their hands on him, but “anointing him” instead.) Yet perhaps we have overstated the case a bit and that the core idea was simply to remind healers and healed alike that such had no relevancy to the result being sought by both.
(4) If we are guilty of unforgiven sin ()? We have to put the gloss of “unforgiven” on the sin, for if it were already forgiven why would there be the need to pray about it? And praying about it, at some point in their prayer for the sick, was surely involved for otherwise we would have prayer completely unrelated to forgiveness gain forgiveness. That seems a logical absurdity.
How to respond to the need: seek the intercession of others. “They are to pray over him” in many translations; merely pray “for” him in others (). Since the sick person would normally be lying down due to weakness, the posture of “over” him would be the natural one whether required by the Greek or not.
[Page 348] In the context of elders being available: “the prayer of faith” will be of value () “if he has committed sins” (). Note the conditional nature; illness is sometimes connected with sin, but not uniformly. However, if the sick person is aware of some major transgression, what better time to ask for forgiveness?
Would it not be more than a little hypocritical to ask God for physical healing while turning one’s back on the need for spiritual healing as well? Especially when one is well aware that both are badly needed!
Spiritual help may be needed for the well also. With the apparent intention of including any and all believers comes the admonition: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed” (). At this point the intercessory prayer is conspicuously not limited to that of church leaders alone. Any fellow believer we trust enough to share our weaknesses with, can help just as much as the leadership.
If one is on a sick bed and the elders are present, naturally they are the ones to seek the prayer of. But in a different context when one is well and one knows that one has yielded to one’s worst nature, then the prayers of others would be just as beneficial.
What if there is no physical healing? James works from the assumption that there will be an alleviation of the physically sick person’s condition. But what if it doesn’t occur?
[Page 349] If James writes during Paul’s ministry, he would certainly have known of such cases. We read “of Paul, who suffered with a ‘thorn in the flesh,’ which the Lord did not remove (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), who once feared that he might lose Epaphroditus to illness (Philippians -27), and who on at least one occasion had to leave an ailing companion behind (2 Timothy 4:2).”
Furthermore, is it credible to believe that James himself had not already encountered cases where things had not worked out so well for the sick? For that matter this is the same James who speaks of oppression so severe that the perpetrators would only be brought to justice at the second coming of Christ. Could such a realistic man believe that all life-threatening disease would be rolled back and death always avoided? That is not credible at all. It does not fit his blunt realism.
His purpose seems centered on ending the discussion of healing on an optimistic and upbeat note. Just as his realism in picturing oppression is counterbalanced by the reminder that an ultimate day of judgment is inevitably coming, James seems determined to do the same here—to counterbalance present grimness with the certainty of victory.
If the sick is a repentant sinner then yes rising from that sickness of moral blight is assured in the here and now. But if it is just normal illness or disease even if a cure is not forthcoming they are to act as if it were.
They are to be anointed with oil as they would for themselves if they were about to get up and go about their daily business. They are not to despair. They are not to give up hope for even in death, there will be a triumph over death in the physical resurrection from the dead. As with Jesus, death may triumph over us, but it will never have a permanent victory.
Historical Proof That Prayer Works:
The Case of Elijah
ATP text: 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. He fervently
prayed that it would not rain and as the result it did not rain on the land for
three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again and the sky poured out
rain and the earth grew its crops again.
Development of argument:
The relevance of Elijah is not that a miracle was performed in answer to his prayer, but that he “had a nature like ours” (). In that regard he was nothing special even though a prophet: simply another man with the same potential weaknesses and temptations as anyone else. Yet his prayers still worked.
[Page 351] Aside: Translations sometimes try to convey this point with renderings like, “the same kind of person as we are,” TEV; “just as human as we are” (CEV); “human like us,” GW; “just like us” (NIV).
He wasn’t a perfect man. He wasn’t sinless. “Elijah was not some superhuman man in a category far beyond the rest of us mere mortals. Elijah experienced all the emotions of life—joy, sorrow, victory, defeat, frustration, exultation, encouragement, discouragement, anger, forgiveness, despair, and relief.”
Yet nothing short of a massive miracle was worked after his prayer. The lesson to James’ listeners is obvious: You don’t have to be sinless to have your prayers heard and answered in the affirmative. We know it’s been done before and we can work on that precedent in looking toward the future.
This reassurance was highly appropriate in light of the many problems James refers to in his epistle. It would have been very easy for some to give up hope and assume that God would wash His hands of their prayer.
The prayer is
described as “prayed earnestly” (; identical wording in Holman, ISV, NASB, RSV, TEV, with word order
For All the Importance of Prayer,
One Still Needs to Try to Turn an Erring Christian
Back to Faithful Service to God
ATP text: 19 Spiritual comrades, if anyone among you wanders away
from the truth, and someone turns that person back, 20 the rescuer should
recognize that one who turns a sinner from the error of what has been done
will save a soul from death and bring about the forgiveness of a multitude of
Development of argument:
In closing, the door is left open for those who had drifted into sin to seek a restoration to God’s good favor (-20). Although this would certainly be true of all individuals who had drifted, the immediate application was surely to those oppressors who were Christians and are included in the first part of the chapter’s condemnation of such behavior. Also included would be those who had stumbled into evil attitudes and behavior themselves due to such injustice.
[Page 353] Yet the wording is made so broad as to also include those who stumbled into evil by their own, unassisted blindness as well. James is not really interested in how you got into that situation, but in getting you out of it.
Perhaps two major themes deserve special attention in this section.
First of all, the implicit plea to seek out those who have spiritually drifted from the truth (). Interestingly, his argument is not to “seek them out,” but “if . . . someone turns him back,” here’s what will happen. The intended implication surely is that you should, but he is determined not to paint an unrealistic, rosy picture of your effort as guaranteeing success. All you can do is make the effort; the reaction is not within your power.
The truth is that different people react differently to even the mildest correction. For some, it goes “in one ear and out the other.” For some it is denial time: “you misunderstood,” “that’s not the way it really was.” Then there’s the always handy, “it’s done of your business.”
Hence trying to help easily leads to mild or even vehement rejection. Is it worth the risk of rejection? James answers, in effect, yes it can be. For one thing, you’ll never know what the reaction will be until you actually say something.
Much depends upon the known nature of the person. Some have a reputation of being “cool and collected,” and they are likely to take our intervention—even if misguided—as well intended.
It most helps if we know the person well. Then we have an idea of the best way to approach him or her, the best arguments to use, and can judge where to “push” and where to “back off” to accomplish our goal.
[Page 354] Perhaps this is one reason so little of this happens on an individual—as versus an organized church basis—in the modern world. Courtesy of our modern inventions and spread out geographical areas, we often simply don’t know the other people beyond a friendly greeting at church services. And those you don’t really know, how in the world are you going to convince them of much of anything that is as personal as this?
Second of all, it needs to be remembered that no one has accumulated so much sin—or done something so horrendous--that it can’t be forgiven. The person being reached out to is one who has “a multitude of sins” (; this rendering is followed by the bulk of translations; others speak of “many sins,” GW, TEV; “many of their sins,” CEV; “sins without number,” BBE).
Some have done a multitude of evils, harming themselves and others to accomplish whatever short-term goal is controlling them at the moment. Such a person easily looks at their back trail of broken promises and shredded honor and are horrified into despair that reform and forgiveness is ever possible.
Others despair out of the opposite motive. They become so morbidly “sin conscious” that they have the habit of magnifying their sinfulness out of a misplaced demand for a perfection that is beyond human reach. They’ll never be the world’s worst sinner, even if they are not the world’s least. But their very habit of seeing a camel when their sin is a mere gnat, can drive them to despair as well: How can I be forgiven of so much! We simply have too much on the ledger against us!
[Page 355] For both types of people, James is saying: It can be forgiven.
From our standpoint we can look at Paul and ask: If a person actively seeking the punishment and even death of Christians can be forgiven, surely there is room for us as well. None of us has possibly done that badly. And even if we have, Paul was still forgiven and so can we.
 McKnight, James, 388.
 Greenlee, 197.
 Hartin, James, 229.
 Ibid., 235-236.
 Gerald Neufeld, “The Wisdom of Patience.” Page 2.
 Blomberg and Kamell, James, 31-32.
 Scott Sperling. “James 5:1-9.” At: http://www.scripturestudies.com/Vol2/B5/ b5_nt.html. [July 2012.]
 Mark A. Seifrid, “The
 Ibid (35), believes that the words of James in regard to “rising up” and being “healed” are “a gentle play on words” alluding to this event.
 Cf. Steven A. Kreloff, Timeless Truths from a Faithful Shepherd ([N.p.]: Xulon Press, 2011), 14.
 Ray Pritchard, Fire and Rain: The Wild-Hearted Faith of Elijah (