From: A Torah Commentary on James 3-5 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Old Testament Precedents
Invoking of Explicit Old Testament
Quotations to Justify His Teaching:
How Old Testament Concepts Are
Repeatedly Introduced and Woven
into the Heart of His Argument
3:1: So great is the responsibility of teachers that God applies a stricter standard to them than others. James does not specify “elders” or “deacons” or some formal church leadership office. Rather he speaks of the broad category of “teachers,” individuals who might (or might not) occupy one of these other positions in the church as well. The purpose of teachers (whatever additional title might be given them) was to “give new insights into old materials” and to “guard and reinterpret” precept, custom and practice as its application might vary according to differing location and the passing of time.
By definition, a teacher teaches and that involves talking, speaking--profusely and at length. Although speaking of the chronic chatterbox, Proverbs 10:19 certainly expresses a danger to which teachers are vulnerable as well, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Ecclesiastes 5:3 speaks of how “a fool’s voice is known by his many words.” In a teaching format this would be manifested by the individual who really has little or no idea of how to explain a matter but who wanders on and on and on in the hope that something beneficial will be said.
When we do this we are a disaster wanting to happen—a mere mishap if we are fortunate. “An unchecked flow of words gives opportunity for misleading information, thoughtless advice, and just plain personal hurt.” We are a train not knowing where it is headed.
[Page 60] The would be teacher normally claims (implicitly if not explicitly) to be better versed in the subject matter than the audience. At its worst, this can feed dangerous illusions of intellectual superiority when it is actually lacking. The danger of pretense in our intellectual claims is touched on in Ecclesiastes , “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?”
One’s unjustified pride in the superiority of one’s morals or insight can blind one to our lapses that others can see all too well. Perhaps Proverbs serves as a good commentary, “Pride goes before destruction. And a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The Old Testament provided a few guidelines whereby an individual could tell where a would-be teacher’s delusions had taken control and blotted out the message they should be teaching. For example, if an individual made predictions that turned out to be accurate but used them to justify polytheism (Deuteronomy 13:1-5) or if an individual made predictions that did not come to pass at all (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). In both cases he was proved unreliable.
Most teaching was not so provable—or disprovable--but required an astute judgement by the hearer. In the most extreme cases the teacher could, literally, reverse the proper value scales and find a way to describe outrageous evil as a positive good, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). The CEV puts it in modern contemporary prose, “You are headed for trouble! You say wrong is right, darkness is light, and bitter is sweet.” (Today, in politics, we call such people “spin masters.” And pay them top dollar!)
[Page 61] Of course, not all of this was the teachers’ fault: often there was a popular demand for the type of instruction they were delivering, “That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits.’ ” (Isaiah 30:9-10). Again, the CEV provides an interesting modern equivalent, “They tell the prophets to keep quiet. They say, ‘Don't talk to us about what's right. Tell us what we want to hear. Let us keep our illusions.’ ” That says it pretty well, doesn’t it?
If they had not taught them what they wanted to hear, someone else would have, but at least then the encouragement to evil would have been guilt borne by someone else as well: Even when someone “causes you” to do evil, it is still evil. Whether they were self-deluded or simply followed the herd mentality (“everyone believes this”), the result was the same.
Yet God’s wrath would ultimately be upon them no matter how self-deluded they had made themselves and no matter how popular a response the teaching was garnering from the people (Jeremiah 23:1-2, 14-15, 21, 31-32). Such individuals faced a Divine judgment (Hosea 5:1), curse (Jeremiah 48:10), rejection (Hosea 4:6), and punishment (Hosea 4:8-9; Zechariah 10:3). They would even be disgraced in the eyes of those they deceived (Malachi 2:8-9).
What is described by James is nowhere near as advanced or dramatic. He gives no hint of conscious ill intent nor false doctrine propagated out of delusion or hostility. Rather he is speaking of the natural weaknesses whereby the tongue can be misused--most likely excessive claims or exaggeration of what the speaker has to say.
[Page 62] It would include bad temper at challenges, overstatement of one’s case, and the claim to a greater authoritativeness than the power of our argument would naturally gain for itself. Yet it would be hard for the student of the Old Testament not to have recalled what abuse of the teaching position had fallen into in times past as a kind of commentary on the admonition of James. The rebukes did not directly apply--yet. But they could if things fully degenerated as they had in times past.
3:2: The “inevitability” of sin: “we all stumble in many things.” Interestingly James speaks in terms of “stumbl[ing],” not as in making an innocent mistake with no moral overtones, but “stumble”--as of falling into sin and transgression. Translating it as “mistakes”(BBE, GW, ISV, NLT, NRSV, RSV, TEV) is understating the severity and is too weak a rendering. The Greek language verb found here means either to sin or to fail; in an ethical or moral context the latter amounts to virtually the same thing as sin. A synonym if you will.
The rendering “fall short” (NAB) is literally true, but “fall short” stresses the result implied by “stumbling.” If “mistakes” is to be included at all, “sinful mistakes” would seem far more appropriate (and we have so rendered it in the ATP).
The Old Testament was very aware that people are far from all they could be; they invariably fall into transgression of one type or another. Note the interjection in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles 6:36, “for there is no one who does not sin.” The ISV makes it even more emphatic by making the statement wordier, “there isn't a single human being who doesn't sin.” It did not require the ancient equivalent of a Rhodes scholar to know it; simply eyes that were open and aware.
[Page 63] The author of Ecclesiastes is often looked upon as a terrible pessimist and horribly cynical. Far more often, it is simply sad realism. A personality induced negativism has nothing to do with it. Such is the case when the author observes that, “There is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes ). In a similar vein the Proverbist throws out the challenge, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean. I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9).
The Psalmist also recognized this reality, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous” (Psalms 143:2). He also implies the inevitability of sin by stressing that without Divine forgiveness we would be in a hopeless situation, “If you Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalms 130:3-4).
He does not demand that we achieve the unreachable goal of perfection—because we could never accomplish it. Instead He offers us forgiveness if we are willing to seek it. Just as He doesn’t make us sin, He doesn’t make us seek mercy. Both are our alternatives.
It seems strange that “there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.” In other words “fear” is the result of forgiveness! The oddity is probably why some translations take this as intending the idea of respect in particular (“so that we should stand in awe of you,” TEV), especially as manifested in our religious endeavors (“You forgive us and so we will worship you,” CEV).
[Page 64] Another possibility is that the thought is to imply a contrast: if you don’t seek mercy from Me you will be punished. Hence the mercy you receive motivates respectful fear because God did not have to give it and if we do not seek it we have no reason to expect anything but Divine wrath. In its own indirect way, mercy motivates a recognition of how powerful God is and His punitive capacity if ignored. Hence reverential fear is produced. Or should be.
The problem we have is not just that we sin but that our failures seem so abundantly large in comparison to our successes. As Isaiah 64:6 observes, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
James makes plain that the inevitability of error he has in mind is in regard to our (mis)use of the tongue. The concept in this narrower sense is found in Sirach 19:16, “A person may make a slip without intending it. Who has not sinned with his tongue?” (NRSV) Yet the same writer notes that individual cases of misuse of the tongue does not mean that we will always misuse it, “Happy are those who do not blunder with their lips, and need not suffer remorse for sin” (14:1; NRSV).
Even more specifically is misuse of the tongue in teaching the immediate subject. This does not necessarily imply that James is worried about erroneous teaching. Indeed, there is nothing here to suggest that this is his concern. Misguided and uninformed teachers can confuse and divide a congregation without anything overtly “heretical” ever entering the picture.
3:3: Horses are controlled by “bits” placed in their mouth. Likewise the very small tongue is able to control an entire human being (verse 5). James is describing what “is,” not necessarily what “ought to be” when he refers to how the tongue controls the body the way a “bit” does an animal. For, unlike them, we are fully conscious, reasoning individuals—or, at least, are supposed to be.
Even in regard to dealing with God’s will, we often do not exercise our ability to control our behavior but let our worst elements guide us. The Israelites had God’s teaching and He begged them not to act as if He had to put a bit and bridle on them to make them do the right thing, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you” (Psalms 32:8-9).
The New Living Translation sums up verse 9, “Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Often people wonder why God created us capable of sin. Here we have the answer: If He hadn’t, He would have had to put a “bit and bridle” on each of us to make us behave, just like we do animals. In other words, He gave us freedom of choice so our decision to do right would be freely based rather than imposed.
Psalms 39:1 approaches the subject of speech control from a very different angle. In that text the idea is that self-control can be so tested that one, figuratively speaking, must put on a “muzzle” oneself in order to exercise restraint: “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me.’ ”
[Page 66] Today we have a parallel adage, “keeping our tongues on a tight leash.” Again the text grows out of reality-based observation: as human beings we ought to be above needing restraint, but in a conflict strewn world, reinforcement may be needed lest we make a bad situation worse.
3:5: The tongue “boasts great things [ATP: brags about greatness].” It brags of the great things that either have been done or will be done. It speaks of grand accomplishment past, present, and future. The various Old Testament texts denouncing pride and arrogance would have an obvious relevance in this context.
Psalms 10:3 speaks of how “the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire. . . .” Those desires may be evil, base, and unquestionably self-serving, yet so confident is he of success that he could care less what others may think.
Because they have power and wealth they feel they can get away with just about anything they wish,
5 They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men. 6 Therefore pride serves as their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. 7 Their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish. 8 They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression; they speak loftily. 9 They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth (Psalm 73).
They have no concern for God and what He has spoken from “the heavens” and the last verse shows how blind them have become: their bravado leads them to brag of what other “great” things they could accomplish anywhere in the world (“through the earth”). Note the root of this delusion in verse 5: they simply don’t face the problems others do. Therefore “everything” is possible.
The delusion of the wealthy. The powerful. The influential.
Until their world comes crashing in. Bad investments. Foreign invasion. Pure “bad luck.” Then they are among those who “enjoy” the other side of their world—being victimized, mistreated, vilified, of if they are comparatively lucky, simply ignored as unworthy of even the attention necessary to do such things.
The bragging of most is centered around how great they are rather than in what they can do for others. For example, some “boast in the multitude of their riches” (Psalms 49:6), forgetting that even the greatest of wealth has limits as to what it can accomplish (verses 7-9). Others “boast in themselves,” i.e., praise how great they are (Psalms 94:4). “I’ve slept in the White House X times!” Want to make a bet whether you’ll be invited when the fellow from the other party gets elected next year?
If we shift from the image of boasting to that of the tongue that is the actual mechanism doing the boasting, the negative warnings of the Old Testament remain in place, of course. And upon occasion it is specifically singled out: Psalms 12:3 speaks of “the tongue that speaks proud things” and the passage notes that such a person is convinced that one can talk one’s way out of any problem (verse 4). NET renders verse 4 according to its clear intent, “We speak persuasively; we know how to flatter and boast. Who is our master?”
3:6: The tongue as dangerous. The text conveys this point by imagery of being a fire (3:6)--one that spreads far beyond its point of origin (3:5) and that is untamable (3:8). Joining these various images together, what we have is the picture of a dangerous human instrument.
This picture also has a firm Biblical foundation. This kind of individual is described in the Proverbs as “one who speaks like the piercings of a sword” (Proverbs ). This image of the tongue being used like a sword is a common one in the Psalms. For example,
Psalms 57:4 My soul is among lions; I lie among the sons of men who are set on fire, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword. [Being in their midst is as dangerous as having to live among a group of live, large, and hungry lions. Guess who they plan on having for dinner?]
Psalms 59:7 Indeed, they belch with their mouth; swords are in their lips; for they say, “Who hears?” [No one is paying attention, so how can it possibly matter? Perhaps even with the connotation “this is what people expect out of me!”]
Psalms 64:3 Who sharpen their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows--bitter words. [“Sharpen” their tongue, i.e., they work at it. It isn’t a mere accidental outburst, but the kind of derogatory remark they specialize in. “No one is going to walk over me!”]
The sword imagery is surely used because men and women both use the tongue as an offensive weapon and it creates the “warfare” that disrupts relationships with others. This is typically the kind of person who, rather than reining in their vocabulary, lashes out with the “harsh word” that is guaranteed to “stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). We associate this kind of personality with the bold and over-bearing individual who is transparently a troublemaker.
Yet there is another species that is just as dangerous—the more quiet but equally vindictive individual. Psalms 55:21 describes such folk, “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.” The NET well renders the “war was in his heart” with the substitution, “he harbors animosity in his heart.”
This personality type is a specialist in seemingly soft and soothing rhetoric: The words are so logical, so appealing—until the right place is found to slide the dagger in. And you have no idea when the time will be: Today? A week from now? Some time that you are an obstacle and “in the way”? So long as you are furthering his or her agenda, you are a fine fellow; but when you stand in the way—what do you think graveyards were invented for?
Outwardly they speak of “peace” but producing “evil is in their hearts” (Psalms 28:3). The TEV get across the thrust of the verse by its rendering, “Do not condemn me [Page 70] with the wicked, with those who do evil--men whose words are friendly, but who have hatred in their hearts.” “Malice in their hearts,” suggests the NIV. Some substitute “mischief” (ASV, KJV, RSV), which unduly minimizes the malevolence intended.
3:6: The tongue is a “fire” that sets ablaze our body and our relationships with others. It sets on fire our entire body: it excites, angers, outrages our entire being till every physical and mental muscle aches to express that wrath and indignation. Such intense rage “sets on fire the course of nature,” it sets in action the cycle of anger for anger, insult for insult, and even violence for violence.
He (or she!) is always alert to possible evil in the life of others. When he uncovers it, “it is on his lips like a burning fire,” so fervent is he to spread word of that which will harm and hurt others (Proverbs ). How “juicer” it is when the gossip is actually true! He is out to stir up “strife” and destroy the friendships of others (verse 28). The spread of accusations—real or biased--is a readily used tool to accomplish that goal.
Psalms 57:4 speaks of how this kind of person sets his entire body afire with the intensity of the anger, “My soul is among lions; I lie among the sons of men who are set on fire, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” The ISV uses similarly imagery, “I am surrounded by lions. I lie down with those who burn with fire— that is, with people whose teeth are like spears and arrows— whose tongues are like sharp swords.”
[Page 71] If one wishes to emphasize the result rather than the person’s nature, the NASB rendering is effective, “My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows and their tongue a sharp sword.” But if the person “breathes forth fire” does that not also make him one who is “set on fire” and “burns with fire”? Different wording; same basic point.
The deuterocanonical literature also utilizes the fire image for what human speech can do. In Sirach 28 (New American Bible) we read,
8 Avoid strife and your sins will be fewer, for a quarrelsome man kindles disputes, 9 Commits the sin of disrupting friendship and sows discord among those at peace.
10 The more wood, the greater the fire, the more underlying it, the fiercer the fight; the greater a man's strength, the sterner his anger, the greater his power, the greater his wrath. 11 Pitch and resin make fires flare up, and insistent quarrels provoke bloodshed. 12 If you blow upon a spark, it quickens into flame, if you spit on it, it dies out; yet both you do with your mouth!
18 Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as by the tongue. 19 Happy he who is sheltered from it, and has not endured its wrath; Who has not borne its yoke nor been fettered with its chain. 20 For its yoke is a yoke of iron and its chains are chains of bronze! 21 Dire is the death it inflicts, besides which even the nether world is a gain; 22 It will not take hold among the just nor scorch them in its flame, 23 But those who forsake the Lord will fall victims to it, as it burns among them unquenchably! It will hurl itself against them like a lion; like a panther, it will tear them to pieces.
[Page 72] 24 As you hedge round your vineyard with thorns, set barred doors over your mouth; 25 As you seal up your silver and gold, so balance and weigh your words. 26 Take care not to slip by your tongue and fall victim to your foe waiting in ambush.
To Sirach, it is those who “forsake the Lord” that will suffer “its flame,” but this seems a strange blindness to the real world in which those who are trying to live better than surrounding society are often its key targets. Furthermore even Sirach clearly recognizes the fact that those claiming to be faithful to God can be just as bad (verses 24-26). Again, in the real world doesn’t that often come in reaction to those who have utilized such “flames” against us already? “Tit for tat” as the old expression went?
Likewise the openly pseudepigraphical literature utilized similar imagery. In Psalms of Solomon 12:1-4 we read the caution,
1 Lord, save my soul from the criminal and wicked man, from the criminal and slandering tongue that speaks lies and deceit. 2 The words of the wicked man’s tongue (are) twisted in many ways; (they are) as a fire among a people which scorches its beauty. 3 His visit fills homes with a false tongue, cuts down trees of joy, inflaming criminals; by slander he incites homes to fighting. 4 May God remove the lips of the criminals in confusion far from the innocent, and (may) the bones of the slanderers be scattered far from those who fear the Lord. May he destroy the slanderous tongue in flaming fire far from the devout.”
3:8: The tongue as “full of deadly poison [ATP: dangerous poison].” The image implied is that of a poisonous snake, ready to bite and destroy. The destructive capacity of the human tongue we have already noted in the Old Testament (3:6, above). The comparison of the tongue to a snake is also found there.
In Psalms 140:1-3, the personality of such individuals is portrayed as of the type one finds among violent and evil men always looking for a way to take advantage of others, “Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men. Who plan evil things in their hearts; they continually gather together for war. They sharpen their tongues like a serpent; the poison of asps is under their lips.” Or as the GW renders the closing verse, “They make their tongues as sharp as a snake's fang. Their lips hide the venom of poisonous snakes.”
In its most dangerous form, not only are they out to destroy, but like the deaf cobra they are beyond the ability to listen to caution and restraint, “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf cobra that stops its ear, which will not heed the voice of charmers, charming ever so skillfully. Break their teeth in their mouth, O God! Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!” (Psalms 58:4-5).
Rational discourse being impossible, they make naked force the only possible response. And then indignantly wonder why it happened!
3:9: The image of Yahweh as both “God and Father.” We connect that expression to the New Testament, yet it is not without Old Testament roots. In Isaiah 63:16 Yahweh is described in kinship terms, “. . . You, O Lord, are our Father; our Redeemer from Everlasting is Your name.” In Psalms 89:26 the imagery is, “You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.”
Mutual responsibilities grow out of the Father/offspring relationship. For example, Divine mercy is based upon that bond of parent and offspring, “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him” (Psalms 103:13). Divine rebuke also springs from the same family tie, “For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs ).
From the human standpoint, willingness to conform oneself to the Divine pattern is also rooted in that kinship, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). So we yield our preferences to the Divine one.
And because God is like a father He will accept back the ones who recognize the error of their way, “They shall come with weeping, and with supplications I will lead them. I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters, in a straight way in which they shall not stumble; for I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn” (Jeremiah 31:9).
This theme is returned to later in the same chapter, “Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For though I spoke against him, I earnestly remember him still; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (31:20).
3:9: Humans are made “in the similitude [ATP: likeness] of God.” Perhaps the most obvious Biblical reference (outside of direct quotations) found in the entire epistle. In Genesis the creation of mankind is described as “mak[ing] man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis ). A few chapters later the text refers to how, “In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (5:1). When the penalty of death for murder is laid down in Genesis 9, the stated rationale is that, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.”
Few translations (NKJV, Young’s
Literal) maintain the “similitude of God” rendering of the KJV. Most opt for the clearer (to the modern ear)
“in the likeness of God” (NASB, NIV,
A less popular alternative is to speak in terms of “image,” “made in the image of God” (NLT) or “made in God’s image” (BBE). Probably because the text refers to James’ contemporaries rather than the original creation, the CEV makes it a clear reference to the Divine purpose in creation rather than the creation itself by speaking of how we “were created to be like God.”
Although much discussion has been devoted to the meaning of humanity’s creation in the image of God, little of it has relevance here. Yet many of my readers may well be like me and not given but the most passing consideration to the concept through the years. Hence we include the following remarks from Don Dunavant to provide food for additional thought on the matter,
Three authors provide helpful theological direction for us. Wayne Grudem pointed out that the words used in Genesis 1:26-27, "image" (tselem) and "likeness" (demut) in the Hebrew "refer to something that is similar but not identical to the thing that it represents or is the 'image' of." Therefore, Genesis 1:26, "would have meant to the original readers, 'Let us make man to be like us and to represent us.' "
Bruce Ware noted that "the image of God in man involves God's creation of divine representations (images of God) who, in relationship with God and each other, function to represent God (imaging God) in carrying out God's designated responsibilities."
Anthony Hoekema wrote that the image of God "describes not just something that man has, but something man is." Building on these observations, a theological construct for imago Dei begins to crystallize.
[Hence] several characteristics in the uniqueness of humanity help us understand the meaning of the image of God in man. While this is not an exhaustive list, the following seven characteristics reflect imago Dei.
We are spiritual beings. . . . A vital component of this spiritual nature is immortality — human beings that will never cease to exist but will live forever.
We are personal beings. . . . He created humans with personality, as unique individuals with self-consciousness and purpose. While every man and woman share common characteristics, no two people are alike. . . .
[Page 77] We are moral beings. God is holy. He created humanity with a moral compass, a conscience that gives each of us an inner sense of the difference between right and wrong. . . . Moreover, man's moral capacity makes him accountable to God for his actions.
We are relational beings. . . . God created us with the capacity to relate both to God and to others. Humans were not made to live in isolated individualism. . . .
We are rational beings. God is a God of knowledge. While our knowledge is limited, God created us with the capacity to think, to know, and to learn. . . .
We are emotional beings. . . . It is the emotive facet of our makeup that allows us to experience intimacy with those close to us, to feel compassion for others, and to know the deep awe of God that causes us to delight and find soul satisfaction in Him.
We are creative beings. . . . We have an insatiable desire to create, whether producing a piece of art, starting a business, writing a book, or landscaping the yard. While our creativity is different from God's, who made everything from nothing, the linkage of the image of God in man in creation to the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-27 speaks to our creative responsibility.
Nancy Pearcy observes that the first phrase, be fruitful and multiply, may mean: "to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, government, laws." She suggests the second phrase, subdue the earth, means: "to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage … tells us that our original purpose was to create culture and build civilizations — nothing less."
[Page 78] The characteristics listed above are how we have historically understood the image of God in original creation.
3:9-10: The impropriety of “bless[ing] our God and Father” while simultaneously “curs[ing] men.” The concept of blessing God is most clearly revealed in the book of Psalms, many of which are songs of praise, honor, and glorification for what God had done in the past and could do again in the future. What these psalms are about is well summed up in Psalms 145:21, “My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh shall bless His holy name forever and ever.” Hence “praising” God goes hand-in-hand with “blessing” Him. The existence of one should imply the existence of the other.
The central idea of cursing is that of speaking against and would cover any threat or insult intended to inflict unjustified embarrassment or distress upon another. For example, “May your children become idolaters and your wife be unfaithful.” In the modern era it might be, “May your children get AIDS and your wife marry the ugliest man alive.”
Destructive cursing is referred to both by example and by a description of the character faults that typically accompanied it. For example, the drunken cursing of King Abimlech was the tool used by revolutionaries in Shechem to smoke out the sentiments of those similarly inclined to insurrection (Judges -29). In the story of Goliath, the giant was so indignant at the apparent puniness of his Israelite foe that he “cursed David by his gods” (1 Samuel ). After all, what could he possibly have to fear from some Deity who only had such a puny lad as this as His defender?
[Page 79] The moral failures that often accompanied such language are pointed to in several texts. It went hand in hand with petty ante violence (stone throwing in particular, in 2 Samuel 16:5-6), lying (Psalms 59:12), and “deceit and oppression” (Psalms 10:7). The person whose lifestyle was characterized by such language was hardly likely to be out for the good of others. Psalms 109:17 may have this idea in mind when it declares, “As he loved cursing, so let it come to him; as he did not delight in blessing, so let it be far from him.” Paul would surely classify this under, “You reap what you sow.”
Of course, one can also curse by behavior rather than by words—speak as if one faithfully follows God’s will and then lay it aside and act however one prefers. As the old adage sums it up, “No longer do we have the Ten Commandments. We have the Ten Suggestions.” This is “silent cursing,” implicitly making God’s law less than fully authoritative and subject to our individual whim. In more than one “Christian denomination” of today, there is clearly uncertain whether they all qualify as even good “suggestions!”
Yet among theological conservatives, do we not find the attitude all too well? (Though none would be as candid as our liberal friends.) Hence on Sunday morning we may well sit praising God and His law with our mouth--and ignoring it wherever we wish the rest of our life.
Psalms 50 tears into such individuals,
16 But to the wicked God says: "What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth, 17 seeing you hate instruction and cast My words behind you? 18 When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers. 19 You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son.
CEV: 16 But to the wicked I say: You don't have the right to mention my laws or claim to keep our agreement! 17 You refused correction and rejected my commands. 18 You made friends with every crook you met, and you liked people who break their wedding vows. 19 You talked only about violence and told nothing but lies
They even delude themselves into believing that God is still supportive of them in their excesses,
9 Now hear this, You heads of the
house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert
all equity, 10 Who build up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem
with iniquity: 11 Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests
teach for pay [i.e., they teach
whatever you pay them to teach], and her prophets divine for money [Need a prophecy? Just show me the cash!] . Yet they lean on the Lord, and say, "Is
not the Lord among us? No harm can
come upon us." 12 Therefore because of you
-12: Fresh and salt water from the same source / olives and grapes from the same source. The closest the Old Testament comes to the illustration regarding water occurs in those cases where fresh and salt water did come from the same source—but it took nothing short of an overt miracle to accomplish it!
(Of course they did not come at the same time, which is what James clearly has in mind. Hence the comments can be taken as implicit endorsement of the doctrine James presents.)
During the Exodus the Israelites became extremely disgruntled because their latest water source was undrinkable,
So Moses brought
the Wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness and
found no water. 23 Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the
waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called
Marah. 24 And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall
We drink?” 25 So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree.
When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. (Exodus 15).
[Page 82] The closest other example to this would be the miraculous healing of the disease producing water supply by Elisha (2 Kings -22). But here it wasn’t a matter of fresh versus salt water, but water that tasted bad and was causing major health problems, surely by its partially polluted sources. By a miracle it was made all pure. Again, you couldn’t have both types of water coming from the same source at the same time.
The Old Testament doesn’t refer to even the theoretical possibility of olives and grapes coming from the same vine. It does, however, implicitly argue for its impossibility by stressing that when you get something else from a grape vine, it will simply be a different kind of grape—allowed to grow wild rather than cultivated. Isaiah develops the image at the greatest length,
2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the
choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it;
so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes.
3 And no, O inhabitants of
between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more could have been done to My
vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring
forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? 5 And now, please let Me
tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall
be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. (Isaiah
For a form of the same argument but at shorter length, see Jeremiah 2:21-22, “21 Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality. How then have you turned before Me into the degenerate plant of an alien vine? 22 For though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before Me, says the Lord God” (Jeremiah 2).
: The truely “wise and understanding [ATP: well-instructed]” will exhibit in behavior the proof of being such. This is clearly the mind frame invoked in Job 28:28, “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ” The intended interpretive gloss upon both wisdom and understanding is added in the NLT, “And this is what he says to all humanity: The fear of the Lord is true wisdom; to forsake evil is real understanding.”
Implicit throughout the book of Proverbs is this attitude: the book was consciously written and compiled with the purpose of teaching an individual the path of wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 2:2)--not as an abstract proposition or mere intellectual challenge, but as the means of obtaining a lifestyle that would exhibit itself in daily conduct (2:10-12, 20).
The last verse of Hosea refers to the need for this combination of intellectual wisdom and the application of it to life, “Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right: the righteous walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9).
[Page 84] The words “wise and understanding” carry with them the idea of astute insight and comprehension. Hence it is not surprising that the underlying Greek word translated “wise” in James was also used in the technical sense of being a rabbi, a scribe, or other authoritative teacher.
: The impropriety of “boast[ing]” of one’s acceptability to God at the very time one is engaged in destructive behavior (“bitter envy and self-seeking”) that undercuts such a claim. The human heart is strangely able to embrace contradictory claims and behavior without a conscious acknowledgment that there is something inherently inconsistent in the situation. Nor is this a new failure of the human species.
Jeremiah rebuked his generation for living in excess and religious error while simultaneously being confident that God was on their side, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house [temple] which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’?” (Jeremiah 7:9-10).
In the days of Isaiah the people were proud of their religious observance and horrified that their fasting did not bring the intervention of Jehovah on their behalf. The problem was that God was far more interested in fasting from evil than fasting from food. They took great pride, it is clear, in the visible manifestations of religious piety, but blinded themselves to the humanitarian fruit toward their own people that it should have borne,
1 Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God. [They so enjoyed their prayer and worship that they did so “daily” and were convinced they had in no way departed from His will. The adage in the 1950s would have been, “They are there every time the church house is open.” Yet:]
3 “ ‘Why have we fasted,” they say, “and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ ” [They expected Divine “payback” for their piety. Now. The idea that there might be good reason not to have God intervene simply never entered their minds. Since they were God’s people and His faithful worshippers, they deserved such assistance. It was, if you will, their “right”. But God now calls them blind and deluded rather than truly faithful:]
In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. 4 Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
[Page 86] 6 Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, “Here I am.” If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday (Isaiah 58).
The hungering and nakedness references as part of their condemnation (verse 7), makes one think of Jesus’ depiction of the judgment day in Matthew 25:31-46. Also of James’ impassioned words on the same subject in chapter two.
: Destructive behavior may be rationalized as appropriate, but that kind of “wisdom” only reflects what is “earthly, sensual, [and] demonic [ATP: of earthly origin, self-centered, demonic].” We are not informed of the process of reasoning that was being used to justify their envy and self-seeking (verse 14). Verse 15 only asserts that it represents a form of distorted “wisdom,” but the very fact that it is even called “wisdom” argues that there was some form of justification or rationalization behind it. Hence we have implicit warning that not all “reasoning” leads to valid or moral conclusions.
[Page 87] Jeremiah 4:22 bemoans the kind of earthly wisdom James rebukes, “For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.” But even here the criticism is aimed at competency—their ability to effectively do something—rather than at the source of it. But if God is ruled out, what can be the source, but something of this earth and/or evil as well?
Of course part of their problem was that they couldn’t really fathom the this world consequences and evils that flowed out of their behavior. They could only grasp the “good time” and “good feelings” they got out of it; the repercussions and harm for others were an irrelevancy. It was up to them to take care of themselves; it wasn’t their responsibility, was it?
This created a self-inflicted moral blindness: “Hear this now, O foolish people, without understanding, who have eyes and see not, and who have ears and hear not,” who can not grasp that the apparent condemnation of both personal experience and revelation is, indeed, a real one (Jeremiah 5:21). The rules applied to them just as much as to everyone else.
Psalms 14 may well have in mind both this world and spiritual repercussions from alienating God, “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God” (14:2). “Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call on the Lord?” (14:4) If they looked hard enough, they should have seen that God had intervened for the very people they oppressed (14:6).
[Page 88] The reason for this sorry state of affairs was self-inflicted blindness, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good” (14:1). Their behavior had caused them to crush their belief in God—probably not that there was one, but that He was an interventionist God who would ultimately settle scores against the oppressors.
When this kind of “temporal consequence blindness” becomes sufficiently deep—and it happens not just to the rich and powerful as in Psalms 14--then when one studies the scriptures it will be a closed book. Oh they hear the words, but it can’t simply mean what it says and the more they hear the more they blank out the meaning as impossible. Or they put a self-serving gloss on it, such as, “That was true back then, but today the situation is different. At least my situation is different!”
In a way its God’s curse—and their own self-inflicted one--for their folly, i.e., God uses their blindness for His own purposes: “And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed’ ” (Isaiah 6:9-10).
The rejected teaching is inherently impossible, their personal preferences and prejudices and societal mores cry out. So the clearest admonitions become a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Or to use more contemporary language, perhaps a bigotry wrapped in a prejudice.
To say otherwise is to admit that the criticized behavior might actually be exactly what the text claims, i.e., sin. And all smart men and women, especially “modern” and “western” ones, know that such is totally impossible. It too deeply offends self-centered sexually obsessed minds to be otherwise.
[Page 89] And one wonders that God can become outraged at the human species in its arrogance?
Because they can do it, what could possibly be wrong with
it? Yet the prophet warned, “Woe to
those who devise iniquity, and work out evil on their beds! [i.e.,
they preplan it at night.] At
morning light they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand”
Ultimately, their deeds become so addictive there is no room left for them to even consider reform. The RSV conveys the point well in Hosea 5:4, “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of harlotry is within them, and they know not the Lord.” It is the one option not open to them any longer. Not closed by God but by their now deeply engrained chains of behavior.
: Thought patterns of our mind and heart manifest themselves in behavior. The negative way they can do so is stressed in this verse: if “bitter envy and self-seeking” control our thinking, how can one avoid actually doing that which is overtly “evil” as well? Attitudes and thoughts create behavior and behavior reinforces those attitudes and thoughts as appropriate and desirable. This is simply “real world” realism.
Our age, however, insists on creating a major fault line between what one thinks and what one does. This is perhaps most obviously manifest in the claim that one can engage in endless mental philandering without falling over the line into actually acting out our sexual fantasy. Perhaps it can work in some cases and for limited periods of time, [Page 90] but the thought style we cultivate (whether it be sexual, vindictive, or anything else) creates a powerful inner compulsion that is extremely hard to deny manifestation in actual behavior.
The scriptures deal with this linkage of mind and behavior by stressing that how one acts reflects what is in one’s heart. “Keep your heart with all diligence,” urged the Proverbist because, “out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs ). The TEV certainly grasps the core point when it renders the verse, “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
The people of
Proverbs contrasts those “of a perverse heart” with those who are “blameless in their ways,” implying that their respective lifestyles reflect what is in the heart. Ezekiel quotes God as rebuking the people with the charge that “their adulterous heart which has departed from Me” had manifested itself in the outward fruits of idolatry and assorted, unspecified “evils which they committed in all their abominations,” i.e., that were associated with their idolatry (Ezekiel 6:9).
[Page 91] Specific
behavioral evils are attributed to the heart as well as these broader patterns
of misconduct. Proverbs describes the one who has “perversity in
his heart; he devises evil continually, he sows discord.” The Philistines are described as possessing
“a spiteful heart” that had struck out “to destroy because of the old
hatred” (Ezekiel 25:15). The prophecy
: True wisdom comes from “above” (i.e., God). James was edging toward this in earlier verses of this chapter. He speaks of wisdom and understanding being manifested in good behavior (), then contrasts this with envy and self-centeredness that represent a “lie against the truth” (). That kind of destructive behavior “does not descend from above,” he warns his readers (). Then in verse 17 he refers to “the wisdom that is from above” and the positive, upbuilding characteristics it manifests in actual behavior.
The Proverbist stresses near the beginning of his book, “The Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright . . .” (2:6-7a). Wisdom personified is portrayed as being with God even before the creation of the earth (Proverbs -31). Personified wisdom as a gift from God is both briefly mentioned (9:4, 9-10) and discussed at length (-30) in the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon (cf. Sirach 1:1).
The most famous connection of this gift with a Divine origin in the life of a specific individual is found in the case of Solomon. Having sought ability from God to effectively lead his people (1 Kings 3:9), God answers that prayer with the gift of “a wise and understanding heart” (verse 12).
3:17: The Old Testament roots of the specific behavioral patterns endorsed as exhibiting Divine wisdom, thereby showing they are both acceptable and are Divinely encouraged: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”
(1) “Pure.” Psalms 73:1 speaks of how, “Truly God is good
Psalms 24 speaks on this at greater length, “3 Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
The idea of purity as an ideal is found through the use of other language as well, such as “walking uprightly.” Psalms 84:11 points out that Divine blessing hinges upon doing so, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” In a similar vein, Proverbs 2:7 reassures, “He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly.”
[Page 93] Who is morally qualified to live with God in His temple? The Psalmist answers, “Who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart.” Or as the TEV renders it, “A person who obeys God in everything and always does what is right, whose words are true and sincere.”
The Old Testament conveys this same point by its denunciation of the opposite type of behavior, Isaiah 32:6, “For the foolish person will speak foolishness, and his heart will work iniquity: To practice ungodliness, to utter error against the Lord, to keep the hungry unsatisfied, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail” (Isaiah 32:6). He does evil and doesn’t give the proverbial “hoot” about anyone else.
(2) “Peaceable” (“peace seeking,” ATP). The one who gains “wisdom” and “understanding” (Proverbs ) has found the “ways [that] are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (). As the GW renders it, “all its paths lead to peace.” This text is of special interest since Divine wisdom is under consideration in both James 3 and Proverbs 3.
The Psalmist speaks of the one who wishes to live a long life and “see good” (Psalms 34:12) and how the course to accomplish that is to cultivate a constructive rather than destructive lifestyle, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (verses 13-14). The TEV isn’t so literal but certainly conveys the point well when it renders, “Turn away from evil and do good; strive for peace with all your heart.”
[Page 94] Proverbs contrasts those who wish to do harm to others and those who are motivated by an upbeat attitude, “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but counselors of peace have joy” (Proverbs 12:20). This is often read as joy being the result of being “counselors of peace,” but if 12:20a is talking about the motivation for evil behavior, then 12b seems to work best as the motivation for advising peace—that one’s heart is at peace with the world and full of joy.
(3) “Gentle.” In the Messianic picture in Isaiah 40, we have the Messiah acting in this type of kindly manner, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (verse 11).
The Messianic servant is also pictured in a similar manner in Isaiah 42:2-3: “He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth.”
The concept of gentleness was, naturally, tied in with the manner of helpfulness that was extended to others. God pictures what He had done for Israel in such imagery, “I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 2:4). In other words it was done without grudging or contempt and in a kindly manner.
Gentleness in how one acts and speaks. The person who chronically “runs over” everyone is the person with the opposite temperament and both testaments clearly condemn such individuals. In contrast we should extend consideration, respect, and gentleness, at least in regard to areas where the person most needs it. Any legitimate annoyance we may have with them is supposed to be relegated to the “back burner.”
[Page 95] How
one speaks to others can either encourage them or break something within
them. Hence Proverbs 15:4 speaks of a
“wholesome tongue.” Several translations
prefer to render it in line with our current topic, “A gentle tongue is a tree
of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (Other translations that
render it as “gentle” are the ASV, ESV, NLT; “gentleness:”
Proverbs 31:26 encourages such an approach to others, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness.” The person to whom kindness is a binding “law” is the kind of person who is routinely gentle with others. Not one who uses a rhetorical baseball bat on every occasion. In practical terms, the idiom “law of kindness” surely requires that one must always seek to speak this way; it was to be the standard practice.
(4) “Willing to yield” (“open to persuasion,” ATP), putting in a positive form the concept of not being stubborn.
In Abraham we have the example of one who was willing to yield the best grazing land—in order to avoid disputes with his kin. No one impelled him or pleaded that it be done. He was willing to go so far as to actually initiate the proposal to eliminate unwanted conflict—an offer that carried the potential to be to his personal economic injury,
“8 So Abram said to
We also read of those willing to
yield to other’s suggestions when it was contrary to their own pride—as in the
case of stubborn Namaan, who could rid himself of leprosy by washing in the
Jordan River seven times, “And his servants came near and spoke to him, and
said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you
not have done it? How much more then,
when he says to you:
There are also those who are spoken of who clearly represent the diametrical opposite of this virtue of restraint, reasonableness, and willingness to sacrifice. “Now therefore, know and consider what you will do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his household. For he is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him” (1 Samuel 25:17). (These are the poor man’s servants bemoaning the fact that their master is going to bring disaster down upon the household—and since they are part of it, upon their innocent souls as well.)
[Page 97] The TEV, more colloquially translates the master’s character, “He is so mean that he won't listen to anybody!” Or the RSV, with more restraint, “he is so ill-natured that one cannot speak to him.” Offering compromise to him was a hopeless cause. Compromise or yielding was alien to him.
(5) “Full of mercy” (“full of kindness,” ATP). In the Messianic passage in Isaiah 49, we have that imagery explicitly presented, “They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them; for He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them” (verse 10).
Even mercy on an enemy is advocated, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). The idea may be that your generosity “will make him burn with shame” (TEV) or “you will make him feel guilty” (GW). Personally, it strikes me as parallel with the modern idiom, “it will burn him up,” i.e., he will know that he needs it, he will accept it, but having to take it from a foe will infuriate him beyond the ability of words to express.
Those who are without mercy (whether out of self-serving motives or because they can simply get away with it) are vigorously rebuked by God through the prophet Micah—warning them that “payback day” is coming upon them and that they will hate it,
And I said: “Hear now, O heads of Jacob,
and you rulers of the house of
In expecting mercy between humans, Jehovah is demanding the attitude that He Himself exhibits if we are but willing to allow Him the opportunity. If a person refuses to be motivated by anything, but the lash, who is He to deny them what some perverse part of their mind seems to be demanding? But loving mercy—well, that is His preferred mode of operation.
Miles Van Pelt has some interesting observations on mercifulness as a pivotal aspect of the Divine character (which carries with it the latent “freight” that it should be part of ours as well),
It is this last feature that we want to consider further, the procla-
mation of the divine name in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord passed before him
and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to
anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast
love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin… .’ ” . . .
The original context of this divine declaration helps us to understand
the nature of God’s mercy.
covenant with them. They deserved death, but God relented. The mercy of
God in this context is exemplified by His “forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7).
[Page 99] But this is not just a one-time event in order to portray one of God’s “weaker” attributes. Rather, this particular attribute is central to the movement of covenantal history as portrayed in the Old Testament (Psalms 78:38; 86:15; 103:7-14), and it provides motivation for true and genuine repentance (Joel -13; 2 Chronicles 30:9).
God’s mercy is not limited to
it extends to all creation. Consider how Psalm 145:8 rehearses the divine attributes first recorded in Exodus 34:7 and then adds, “The Lord is good to
all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9). The biblical
testimony resists a conception of God’s mercy that is narrowly focused.
Rather, it is a ubiquitous force that shapes all of reality, a pervasive impetus
Mercy and compassion are rooted in the very character of God. His
law commands it. Wisdom teaches it. The prophets enjoin it and the Psalms
applaud it. Of course, the fullest expression of the mercy of God is found in
the person and work of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God incarnate. But
the New Testament does not represent a departure from the Old Testament
at this point, but rather the arrival of its fullest expectation.
(6) “Full of . . . good fruits” (“good deeds,” ATP). The word “good” is not always required to convey the idea. When Proverbs 13:2 speaks of how, “A man shall [Page 100] eat well by the fruit of his mouth, but the soul of the unfaithful feeds on violence,” it is conveying the message that these are “good fruit of his mouth” for how, otherwise, would they be “eatable” at all? The point of the text, of course, is that the good he has done and spoken will come back and give him encouragement—and gain him help from others—in his old age. He or she won’t be alone. A comforting fact in any historical period.
Similarly Proverbs is presenting the same idea, though in considerably different language, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.” How could the behavior/fruit of the righteous do this unless, by definition, it is good fruit that is being produced? Compare Isaiah 3:10’s encouragement, “Say to the righteous that it shall be well with them for they shall eat the fruit of their doings.”
Of course, the scriptures also speak of the results of bearing bad fruit as well—thereby implying the need for the better kind as well. Micah 7:13 warns, “Yet the land shall be desolate because of those who dwell in it, and for the fruit of their deeds.”
Proverbs 1:31 puts it this way, “Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies.” Or as the GW conveys the point, “They will eat the fruit of their lifestyle. They will be stuffed with their own schemes.”
This can happen both individually and collectively. The folly individual men and women commit can become the “standard operating procedure” of an entire nation: All the goodness God has manifested is pushed out of the collective culture and sin reigns as the standard of behavior.
He may even forgive this time and again—and bless it with rescue from calamity and with temporal good--but what if the pattern keeps repeating itself? Isaiah speaks at length of what happened to Israel,
7 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. 8 For He said, “Surely they are My people, children who will not lie.” So He became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old. 10 But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; so He turned Himself against them as an enemy, and He fought against them (Isaiah 63).
In other words they bore the “fruit” of rebellion and spiritual insurrection and God had had enough. Their chief Protector was now their determined foe.
No other nation can boast as they did of being uniquely “God’s people.” But other nations can imitate their folly of laying aside His laws and His blessings. How can they possibly hope for a result any less tragic?
But that can’t happen for they are too wealthy and too powerful? It didn’t do the Israelites any good nor can it anyone else.
(7) “Without partiality” (“consistent,” ATP). The Old Testament’s repeated emphasis on fairness in making judicial decisions—favoring neither the rich nor the poor—represents one obvious example of this mind frame (Deuteronomy ; ). It is not merely a matter of gaining friends or making enemies, it is a matter of fundamental fairness to every one involved.
Hence the warning in Proverbs 18:5, “It is not good to show partiality to the wicked, or to overthrow the righteous in judgment.” When they are clearly in the right in an argument or dispute they are in the right and deserve better treatment than having you try to find a way to condemn them without cause.
Even excess optimism does not justify a distortion of truth: “He’s my friend / coreligionist / preacher--so he must be in the moral right.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. What is the actual evidence?
Obviously this kind of ill treatment can be displayed in both judicial and non-judicial settings as well. For example, in who we praise or criticize in a social setting. Who we allow to be condemned in such settings when we personally know there is absolutely no justice in the outrageous assertions. Why would we expect God to be more approving of the distortion of the truth in that situation than He would in others?
God through Malachi speaks of Levi as the ideal priest for rebuking whoever stood in need of it,
[Page 103] 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. 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 (Malachi 2).
The problem was that the current generation of priests had found ways to introduce partiality not just into court hearings--bad enough if you are the victim!--but even into their general religious and ethical instruction, “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. 9 Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways but have shown partiality in the law.”
Remembering that the context is moral (“truth . . . turned many away from iniquity,” verse 6), it is most natural to interpret the “partiality” and “caus[ing] many to stumble at the law” as references to the results of their bent—and self-serving?—exegesis of the moral and behavioral demands of the Divine law: People used it as authority and justification for doing what was actually wrong. But what could possibly be wrong with it, since the wisest teachers confirmed that no genuine sin was envolved?
Worse yet, it wasn’t as if the teachers were saying that everyone could act in that manner. (Then it would be “just” a matter of corrupted reasoning.) Instead it was only in regard to specific individuals—the select ones for whom they expressed their bent “partiality in the law.”
[Page 104] This
context is strong enough to make the NASB speak of how they were “showing
partiality in the instruction” (with a similar reading in the RSV). They “failed to treat all people alike”
(CEV). The TEV has the warning to be,
“So I, in turn, will make the people of
Perhaps it all pivoted on whether you were poor or unimportant. Then the most rigorous and difficult of the possible interpretations might safely be applied without repercussions. Not to mention enhancing your image as a “stern rebuker of evil.” (At least when the individuals were inconsequential and barely worth the time so obviously “wasted” upon them).
In contrast if the enquirer was prestigious
and wealthy and who might therefore be generous with his gifts—better yet, if
he was a well-known gift giver to “wise” interpreters (i.e., ones who gave the
interpretation that would best serve their interests)—one might suddenly find
“ambiguities” in the text or might suddenly accept as relevant the introduction
of some totally unrelated text as excuse to ignore what is being said in the
current passage. (True, you interpret
scripture in light of scripture but only if the other scripture has
genuine relevancy to the present topic!)
In short, they corrupted the moral intent and meaning of the Divine law itself. Which naturally leads to the challenge in verse 10, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers?”
[Page 105] Note the wording “deal treacherously with one another,” and the means being “by profaning the covenant.” In other words, it was being used in ways it was never intended and the result was doing evil to others rather than doing what was proper. They had used the text as pretext to get their way—or that of the one they were “advising.” “God’s will” became not the standard to abide by but the standard that could safely be ignored or worked around. Or so they thought.
This idea of giving out moral judgments reverse of what they should be is also condemned in Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” The BBE renders it more colorfully and contemporary but gets across the point quite well, “He who gives a decision for the evil-doer and he who gives a decision against the upright, are equally disgusting to the Lord.”
(8) “Without hypocrisy” (“without pretence,” ATP). In other words pretending to be or believe one thing when one’s views are actually the opposite. It is done for either the personal advantage of justifying what one wished to do in the first place, to better take advantage of others, or even out of more willful maliciousness.
To be blunt, he is being deceitful. That malicious element is not to be minimized. As Proverbs 26:24 observes, “He who hates, disguises it with his lips, and lays up deceit within himself.” If he can avoid it, he’s not going to let you see what the real motivation is.
For whatever reason it is done, the Psalmist notes that such behavior lacks any encouragement from God, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2).
[Page 106] Strong language is used in Psalms 5:6 of the one who ignores such fundamentals, “ . . . The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Psalms 5:6). Instead of “abhor” other translations sometimes use equally rigorous substitute language: “detest” (NIV), “despises” (NET), “disgusted” GW), “abominate” (Young).
The language may be hyperbolic to convey the seriousness of the matter (after all, the Bible does equally stress God’s love), but it still reflects a fundamental alienation between God and His creation due to sin.
When you make your life synonymous with evil, God has no choice but to “hate” you for you have embodied that evil in you and it now defines who and what you are. But God’s love is still there because He wants you to repent and set your life right. He loves you so much, even in your sin, that He leaves that option open. If you are willing to take it.
The condemnation in the Torah and Prophets against such evils as lying have an obvious relevance here as well, since the hypocritical language is shared as if the truth and they are speaking with the hypocrisy of pretending to be telling the truth.
The tragedy is that there are always those who consider themselves “God fearing” Jews or Christians who believe that their observable outward piety is enough to prove their faithfulness and full commitment to God. Why they even teach God’s will! Hence, by being fully acceptable to Him by religious—not moral or ethical—obedience, they sometimes subtly (and without conscious awareness they are doing so) cut themselves off from any serious sense of obligation to obey those rules . . . though the very same God also gave them!
In Psalms 50, He tears into those who are so deluded,
16 But to the wicked God says: "What right have you to declare My
statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth, 17 seeing you hate instruction
and cast My words behind you? [You speak them, apparently even teach
them, but you discard any personal application to yourself.] 18 When you saw
a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers.
19 You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit
and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son.
21 These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought that I
was altogether like you [no matter what My commandments said, you were
sure that I’d take no offense when people like you acted this way]; but I will
rebuke you, and set them in order before your eyes. 22 Now consider this,
you who forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver
[i.e., if you don’t live by and advocate My standards, I’ll “throw you to the
wolves”]: 23 Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; and to him who orders his
conduct aright I will show the salvation of God [He who gets my help are
those who live by My standards; now do you really think you’ve been acting so
smartly after all?]."
-18: “Righteousness” will bear “fruit” in behavior just as surely as destructive attitudes will. Verses 14-16 stress destructive behavior; verses 17-18 emphasize that desirable conduct similarly has an impact upon others—but beneficial in nature. Such outward actions also manifest the interests and priorities of the inner heart.
The imagery of verse 18 carries with it that of sowing something that bears a harvest--in this case of good. The contrast of sowing good and evil (and harvesting their respective results) is developed in Hosea 10:12-13, “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till He comes and rains righteousness on you. You have plowed wickedness; you have reaped iniquity. You have eaten the fruit of lies, because you trusted in your own way, in the multitude of your mighty men.”
Raw power made them confident that it did not matter how they conducted themselves. Today we would say, “Might makes right” was the underlying mentality.
The concept of sowing and reaping according to the moral character of what is sown is also developed in Proverbs 11:18-20, “The wicked man does deceptive work, but he who sows righteousness will have a sure reward. As righteousness leads to life, so he who pursues evil pursues it to his own death. Those who are of a perverse heart are an abomination to the Lord, but the blameless in their ways are His delight.”
Note that what you “sow” is equated with what you “pursue.” Hence those who sow/pursue evil are, naturally “an abomination to the Lord” for that is the kind of result that occurs from their deeds. Similarly those who are “blameless” in their behavioral “ways” cause Him delight because what they do will only be of benefit (rather than harm) to others.
[Page 109] There is supposed to be a reciprocal arrangement between mankind and God: God pours down his “righteousness”—His generous benefits and blessings-- and humans are supposed to utilize these things to growth forth their own crop of “righteousness” (i.e., its fruits and consequences in behavior). Thus is the imagery apparently intended in Isaiah 45:8, “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together. I, the Lord, have created it.”
In our James text, the author connects “righteousness” and “peace.” Isaiah makes the same connection, “The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever” (Isaiah 32:17).
Historical Allusions to the Old Testament:
 Cf. Neyrey, 1223.
Hubbard, Proverbs; volume 15 of The Preacher’s Commentary (
 Laws, 141.
 We live in an age of hyper-sensitivity to “gender language” where “man,” “he,” and “his” are often viewed as “sexist” when describing the human race rather than as bridging language that stresses the fundamental oneness of the species. Hence it is of interest that in 1:7-8, -20, and here in 3:2 the specific Greek word indicating a male is utilized (Bratcher, 34). Does James mean to imply that males are the exclusive ones to have problems in the areas discussed or is it simply another example of where “gender language” does not imply the gender limitations modern theorists are often inclined to read into it? Surely the latter!
 Songer, 121.
 Ibid., 120.
 Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish & Christian Apocalypses (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 127.
 Don Dunavant, “Man: Made in the Image of God.” SBC Life: Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention (October 2009). At: http://www.sbclife.net/Articles/ 2009/10/sla6. [May 2014.]
 Songer, 124.
 Burdick, 190.
 Miles Van Pelt, “The Old Testament God of Compassion and Mercy;” part of the Ligonier Ministries website. At: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/old-testament-god-compassion-and-mercy/. [May 2014.]
 For an able presentation that such language in this and other passages should be interpreted in such a manner, see Seth Tipton, “Does God Hate You, Sinner?” At: http://www.mercifultruth.com/doesgodhate.html. [May 2014.]