1Go to now. They are mistaken, as I think, who consider that James here exhorts the rich to repentance. It seems to me to be a simple denunciation of God’s judgment, by which he meant to terrify them without giving them any hope of pardon; for all that he says tends only to despair. He, therefore, does not address them in order to invite them to repentance; but, on the contrary, he has a regard to the faithful, that they, hearing of the miserable and of the rich, might not envy their fortune, and also that knowing that God would be the avenger of the wrongs they suffered, they might with a calm and resigned mind bear them.
But he does not speak of the rich indiscriminately, but of those who, being immersed in pleasures and inflated with pride, thought of nothing but of the world, and who, like inexhaustible gulfs, devoured everything; for they, by their tyranny, oppressed others, as it appears from the whole passage.
Weep and howl, or, Lament, howling. Repentance has indeed its weeping, but being mixed with consolation, it does not proceed to howling. Then James intimates that the heaviness of God’s vengeance will be so horrible and severe on the rich, that they will be constrained to break forth into howling, as though he had said briefly to them, “Woe to you!” But it is a prophetic mode of speaking: the ungodly have the punishment which awaits them set before them, and they are represented as already enduring it. As, then, they were now flattering themselves, and promising to themselves that the prosperity in which they thought themselves happy would be perpetual, he declared that the most grievous miseries were nigh at hand.
Go to now – Notes, Jam_4:13.
Ye rich men – Not all rich men, but only that class of them who are specified as unjust and oppressive. There is no sin in merely being rich; where sin exists peculiarly among the rich, it arises from the manner in which wealth is acquired, the spirit which it tends to engender in the heart, and the way in which it is used. Compare the Luk_6:24 note; 1Ti_6:9 note.
Weep and howl – Greek: “Weep howling.” This would be expressive of very deep distress. The language is intensive in a high degree, showing that the calamities which were coming upon them were not only such as would produce tears, but tears accompanied with loud lamentations. In the East, it is customary to give expression to deep sorrow by loud outcries. Compare Isa_13:6; Isa_14:31; Isa_15:2; Isa_16:7; Jer_4:8; Jer_47:2; Joe_1:5.
For your miseries that shall come upon you – Many expositors, as Benson, Whitby, Macknight, and others, suppose that this refers to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and to the miseries which would be brought in the siege upon the Jewish people, in which the rich would be the peculiar objects of cupidity and vengeance. They refer to passages in Josephus, which describe particularly the sufferings to which the rich were exposed; the searching of their houses by the zealots, and the heavy calamities which came upon them and their families. But there is no reason to suppose that the apostle referred particularly to those events. The poor as well as the rich suffered in that siege, and there were no such special judgments then brought upon the rich as to show that they were the marked objects of the divine displeasure. It is much more natural to suppose that the apostle means to say that such men as he here refers to exposed themselves always to the wrath of God, and that they had great reason to weep in the anticipation of his vengeance. The sentiments here expressed by the apostle are not applicable merely to the Jews of his time. If there is any class of men which has special reason to dread the wrath of God at all times, it is just the class of men here referred to.
4Behold, the hire. He now condemns cruelty, the invariable companion of avarice. But he refers only to one kind, which, above all others, ought justly to be deemed odious. For if a humane and a just man, as Solomon says in Pro_12:10, regards the life of his beast, it is a monstrous barbarity, when man feels no pity towards the man whose sweat he has employed for his own benefit. Hence the Lord has strictly forbidden, in the law, the hire of the laborer to sleep with us (Deu_24:15 ). Besides, James does not refer to laborers in common, but, for the sake of amplifying, he mentions husbandmen and reapers. For what can be more base than that they, who supply us with bread by their labor should be pined through want? And yet this monstrous thing is common; for there are many of such a tyrannical disposition, that they think that the rest of mankind live only for their benefit alone.
But he says that this hire crieth, for whatever men retain either by fraud or by violence, of what belongs to another; it calls for vengeance as it were by a loud voice. We ought to notice what he adds, that the cries of the poor come to the ears of God, so that we may know that the wrong done to them shall not be unpunished. They, therefore, who are oppressed by the unjust ought resignedly to sustain their evils, because they will have God as their defender. And they who have the power of doing wrong ought to abstain from injustice, lest they provoke God against them, who is the protector and patron of the poor. And for this reason also he calls God the Lord of Sabaoth, or of hosts, intimating thereby his power and his might, by which he renders his judgment more dreadful.
The hire of the laborers – The law, Lev_19:13, had ordered: The wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning, every day’s labor being paid for as soon as ended. This is more clearly stated in another law, Deu_24:15 : At his day thou shalt give him his hire; neither shall the sun go down upon it; – lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee. And that God particularly resented this defrauding of the hireling we see from Mal_3:5 : I will come near to you in judgment, and will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hireling in his wages. And on these laws and threatenings is built what we read in Synopsis Sohar, p. 100, l. 45: “When a poor man does any work in a house, the vapor proceeding from him, through the severity of his work, ascends towards heaven. Wo to his employer if he delay to pay him his wages.” To this James seems particularly to allude, when he says: The cries of them who have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts; and the rabbins say, “The vapor arising from the sweat of the hard-worked laborer ascends up before God.” Both images are sufficiently expressive.
The Lord of sabaoth – St. James often conceives in Hebrew though he writes in Greek. It is well known that יהוה צבאות Yehovah tsebaoth, Lord of hosts, or Lord of armies, is a frequent appellation of God in the Old Testament; and signifies his uncontrollable power, and the infinitely numerous means he has for governing the world, and defending his followers, and punishing the wicked.
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields – In the previous verses the form of the sin which the apostle specified was that they had hoarded their property. He now states another form of their guilt, that, while doing this, they had withheld what was due from the very laborers who had cultivated their fields, and to whose labor they were indebted for what they had. The phrase “who have reaped down your fields,” is used to denote labor in general. This particular thing is specified, perhaps, because the reaping of the harvest seems to be more immediately connected with the accumulation of property. What is said here, however, will apply to all kinds of labor. It may be remarked, also, that the sin condemned here is one that may exist not only in reference to those who are hired to cultivate a farm, but to all in our employ – to day-laborers, to mechanics, to seamen, etc.
It will apply, in an eminent degree, to those who hold others in slavery, and who live by their unrequited toils. The very essence of slavery is, that the slave shall produce by his labor so much more than he receives for his own maintenance as to support the master and his family in indolence. The slave is to do the work which the master would otherwise be obliged to do; the advantage of the system is supposed to be that the master is not under a necessity of laboring at all. The amount which the slave receives is not presumed to be what is a fair equivalent for what he does, or what a freeman could be hired for; but so much less than his labor is fairly worth, as to be a source of so much gain to the master. If slaves were fairly compensated for their labor; if they received what was understood to be a just price for what they do, or what they would be willing to bargain for if they were free, the system would at once come to an end. No owner of a slave would keep him if he did not suppose that out of his unrequited toil he might make money, or might be relieved himself from the necessity of labor. He who hires a freeman to reap down his fields pays what the freeman regards as a fair equivalent for what he does; he who employs a slave does not give what the slave would regard as an equivalent, and expects that what he gives will be so much less titan an equivalent, that he may be free alike from the necessity of labor and of paying him what he has fairly earned. The very essence of slavery, therefore, is fraud; and there is nothing to which the remarks of the apostle here are more applicable than to that unjust and oppressive system.
Which is of you kept back by fraud – The Greek word here used is rendered defraud, in Mar_10:10; 1Co_6:7-8; 1Co_7:5; and destitute, in 1Ti_6:5. It occurs nowhere else, except in the passage before us. It means to deprive of, with the notion that that to which it is applied was due to one, or that he had a claim on it. The fraud referred to in keeping it back, may be anything by which the payment is withheld, or the claim evaded – whether it be mere neglect to pay it; or some advantage taken in making the bargain; or some evasion of the law; or mere vexatious delay; or such superior power that he to whom it is due cannot enforce the payment; or such a system that he to whom it is fairly due is supposed in the laws to have no rights, and to be incapable of suing or being sued. Any one of these things would come under the denomination of fraud.
Crieth – That is, cries out to God for punishment. The voice of this wrong goes up to heaven.
And the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth – That is, he hears them, and he will attend to their cry. Comp, Exo_22:27. They are oppressed and wronged; they have none to regard their cry on earth, and to redress their wrongs, and they go and appeal to that God who will regard their cry, and avenge them. On the phrase “Lord of sabaoth,” or Lord of hosts, for so the word sabaoth means, see the Isa_1:9 note, and Rom_9:29 note. Perhaps by the use of the word here it is implied that the God to whom they cry – the mighty Ruler of all worlds – is able to vindicate them. It may be added, that the cry of the oppressed and the wronged is going up constantly from all parts of the earth, and is always heard by God. In his own time he will come forth to vindicate the oppressed, and to punish the oppressor. It may be added, also, that if what is here said were regarded as it should be by all men, slavery, as well as other systems of wrong, would soon come to an end.
If everywhere the workman was fairly paid for his earnings; if the poor slave who cultivates the fields of the rich were properly compensated for his toil; if he received what a freeman would contract to do the work for; if there was no fraud in withholding what he earns, the system would soon cease in the earth. Slavery could not live a day if this were done. Now there is no such compensation; but the cry of oppressed millions will continue to go up to heaven, and the period must come when the system shall cease. Either the master must be brought to such a sense of right that he will be disposed to do justice, and let the oppressed go free; or God will so impoverish the lands where the system prevails as to make all men see that the system is unprofitable and ruinous as compared with free labor; or the oppressed will somehow become so acquainted with their own strength and their rights that they shall arise and assert their freedom; or under the prevalence of true religion better views will prevail, and oppressors, turned to God, shall relax the yoke of bondage; or God will so bring heavy judgments in his holy providence on the oppressors, that the system of slavery will everywhere come to an end on the earth.
Nothing is more certain than that the whole system is condemned by the passage of Scripture before us; that it is contrary to the genuine spirit of Christianity, and that the prevalence of true religion would bring it to an end. Probably all slaveholders feel that to place the Bible in the hands of slaves, and to instruct them to read it, would be inconsistent with the perpetuity of the system. Yet a system which cannot survive the most full and free circulation of the sacred Scriptures, must be founded in wrong.
5In pleasure. He comes now to another vice, even luxury and sinful gratifications; for they who abound in wealth seldom keep within the bounds of moderation, but abuse their abundance by extreme indulgences. There are, indeed, some rich men, as I have said, who pine themselves in the midst of their abundance. For it was not without reason that the poets have imagined Tantalus to be hungry near a table well furnished. There have ever been Tantalians in the world. But James, as it has been said, does not speak of all rich men. It is enough that we see this vice commonly prevailing among the rich, that they are given too much to luxuries, to pomps and superfluities.
And though the Lord allows them to live freely on what they have, yet profusion ought to be avoided and frugality practiced. For it was not in vain that the Lord by his prophets severely reproved those who slept on beds of ivory, who used precious ointments, who delighted themselves at their feasts with the sound of the harp, who were like fat cows in rich pastures. For all these things have been said for this end, that we may know that moderation ought to be observed, and that extravagance is displeasing to God.
Ye have nourished your hearts. He means that they indulged themselves, not only as far as to satisfy nature, but as far as their cupidity led them. He adds a similitude, as in a day of slaughter, because they were wont in their solemn sacrifices to eat more freely than according to their daily habits. He then says, that the rich feasted themselves every day of their life, because they immersed themselves in perpetual indulgences.
Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth – One of the things to which the rich are peculiarly addicted. Their wealth is supposed to be of value, because it furnishes them the means of doing it. Compare Luk_12:19; Luk_16:19. The word translated “lived in pleasure, (τρυφάω truphaō) occurs only here in the New Testament. It means, to live delicately, luxuriously, at ease. There is not in the word essentially the idea or vicious indulgence, but that which characterizes those who live for enjoyment. They lived in ease and affluence on the avails of the labors of others; they indulged in what gratified the taste, and pleased the ear and the eye, while those who contributed the means of this were groaning under oppression. A life of mere indolence and ease, of delicacy and luxury, is nowhere countenanced in the Bible; and even where unconnected with oppression and wrong to others, such a mode of living is regarded as inconsistent with the purpose for which God made man, and placed him on the earth. See Luk_12:19-20. Every man has high and solemn duties to perform, and there is enough to be done on earth to give employment to every human being, and to fill up every hour in a profitable and useful way.
And been wanton – This word now probably conveys to most minds a sense which is not in the original. Our English word is now commonly used in the sense of “lewd, lustful, lascivious.” It was, however, formerly used in the sense of “sportive, joyous, gay,” and was applied to anything that was variable or fickle. The Greek word used here (σπαταλάω spatalaō) means, to live luxuriously or voluptuously. Compare the notes at 1Ti_5:6, where the word is explained. It does not refer necessarily to gross criminal pleasures, though the kind of living here referred to often leads to such indulgences. There is a close connection between what the apostle says here, and what he refers to in the previous verses – the oppression of others, and the withholding of what is due to those who labor. Such acts of oppression and wrong are commonly resorted to in order to obtain the means of luxurious living, and the gratification of sensual pleasures. In all countries where slavery exists, the things here referred to are found in close connection. The fraud and wrong by which the reward of hard toil is withheld from the slave is connected with indolence and sensual indulgence on the part of the master.
Ye have nourished your hearts – Or, yourselves – the word hearts here being equivalent to themselves. The meaning is, that they appeared to have been fattening themselves, like stall-fed beasts, for the day of slaughter. As cattle are carefully fed, and are fattened with a view to their being slaughtered, so they seemed to have been fattoned for the slaughter that was to come on them – the day of vengeance. Thus many now live. They do no work; they contribute nothing to the good of society; they are mere consumers – fruges, consumere nati; and, like stall-fed cattle, they seem to live only with reference to the day of slaughter, and to the recompense which awaits them after death.
As in a day of slaughter – There has been much variety in the interpretation of this expression. Robinson (lex.) renders it, “like beasts in the day of slaughter, without care or forethought.” Rosenmuller (Morgenland) supposes that it means, as in a festival; referring, as he thinks, to the custom among the ancients of having a feast when a part of the animal was consumed in sacrifice, and the rest was eaten by the worshippers. So Benson. On such occasions, indulgence was given to appetite almost without limit; and the idea then would be, that they had given themselves up to a life of pampered luxury. But probably the more correct idea is, that they had fattened themselves as for the day of destruction; that is, as animals are fattened for slaughter. They lived only to eat and drink, and to enjoy life. But, by such a course, they were as certainly preparing for perdition, as cattle were prepared to be killed by being stall-fed.
6Ye have condemned. Here follows another kind of inhumanity, that the rich by their power oppressed and destroyed the poor and weak. He says by a metaphor that the just were condemned and killed; for when they did not kill them by their own hand, or condemn them as judges, they yet employed the authority which they had to do wrong, they corrupted judgments, and contrived various arts to destroy the innocent, that is, really to condemn and kill them.
By adding that the just did not resist them, he intimates that the audacity of the rich was greater; because those whom they oppressed were without any protection. He, however, reminds them that the more ready and prompt would be the vengeance of God, when the poor have no protection from men. But though the just did not resist, because he ought to have patiently endured wrongs, I yet think that their weakness is at the same time referred to, that is he did not resist, because he was unprotected and without any help from men.
Ye have condemned and killed the just – τὸν δίκαιον ton dikaion – “the just one,” or “the just man” – for the word used is in the singular number. This may either refer to the condemnation and crucifixion of Christ – meaning that their conduct towards his people had been similar to the treatment of the Saviour, and was in fact a condemnation and crucifixion of him afresh; or, that by their rejection of him in order to live in sin, they in fact condemned him and his religion; or, that they had condemned and killed the just man – meaning that they had persecuted those who were Christians; or, that by their harsh treatment of others in withholding what was due to them, they had deprived them of the means of subsistence, and had, as it were, killed the righteous. Probably the true meaning is, that it was one of their characteristics that they had been guilty of wrong towards good men. Whether it refers, however, to any particular act of violence, or to such a course as would wear out their lives by a system of oppression, injustice, and fraud, cannot now be determined.
And he doth not resist you – Some have supposed that this refers to God, meaning that he did not oppose them; that is, that he bore with them patiently while they did it. Others suppose that it should be read a question – “and doth he not resist you?” meaning that God would oppose them, and punish them for their acts of oppression and wrong. But probably the true reference is to the “just man” whom they condemned and killed; meaning that they were so powerful that all attempts to resist them would be vain, and that the injured and oppressed could do nothing but submit patiently to their acts of injustice and violence. The sense may be either that they could not oppose them – the rich men being so powerful, and they who were oppressed so feeble; or that they bore their wrongs with meekness, and did not attempt it. The sins, therefore, condemned in these verses Jam_5:1-6, and for which it is said the divine vengeance would come upon those referred to, are these four:
(1) that of hoarding up money when it was unnecessary for their real support and comfort, and when they might do so much good with it, (compare Mat_6:19;)
(2) that of keeping back the wages which was due to those who cultivated their fields; that is, keeping back what would be a fair compensation for their toil – applicable alike to hired men and to slaves;
(3) that of giving themselves up to a life of ease, luxury, and sensual; indulgence; and,
(4) that of wronging and oppressing good and just men – men, perhaps in humble life, who were unable to vindicate their rights, and who had none to undertake their cause; men who were too feeble to offer successful resistance, or who were restrained by their principles from attempting it.
It is needless to say that there are multitudes of such persons now on the earth, and that they have the same reason to dread the divine vengeance which the same class had in the time of the apostle James.
7Be patient therefore. From this inference it is evident that what has hitherto been said against the rich, pertains to the consolation of those who seemed for a time to be exposed to their wrongs with impunity. For after having mentioned the causes of those calamities which were hanging over the rich, and having stated this among others, that they proudly and cruelly ruled over the poor, he immediately adds, that we who are unjustly oppressed, have this reason to be patient, because God would become the judge. For this is what he means when he says, unto the coming of the Lord, that is, that the confusion of things which is now seen in the world will not be perpetual, because the Lord at his coming will reduce things to order, and that therefore our minds ought to entertain good hope; for it is not without reason that the restoration of all things is promised to us at that day. And though the day of the Lord is everywhere called in the Scriptures a manifestation of his judgment and grace, when he succors his people and chastises the ungodly, yet I prefer to regard the expression here as referring to our final deliverance.
Behold, the husbandman. Paul briefly refers to the same similitude in 2Ti_2:6, when he says that the husbandman ought to labor before he gathers the fruit; but James more fully expresses the idea, for he mentions the daily patience of the husbandman, who, after having committed the seed to the earth, confidently, or at least patiently, waits until the time of harvest comes; nor does he fret because the earth does not immediately yield a ripe fruit. He hence concludes, that we ought not to be immoderately anxious, if we must now labor and sow, until the harvest as it were comes, even the day of the Lord.
The precious fruit. He calls it precious, because it is the nourishment of life and the means of sustaining it. And James intimates, that since the husbandman suffers his life, so precious to him, to lie long deposited in the bosom of the earth, and calmly suspends his desire to gather the fruit, we ought not to be too hasty and fretful, but resignedly to wait for the day of our redemption. It is not necessary to specify particularly the other parts of the comparison.
The early and the latter rains. By the two words, earlyand latter, two seasons are pointed out; the first follows soon after sowing; and the other when the corn is ripening. So the prophets spoke, when they intended to set forth the time for rain, (Deu_28:12; Joe_2:23; Hos_6:3.) And he has mentioned both times, in order more fully to shew that husbandmen are not disheartened by the slow progress of time, but bear with the delay.
Be patient, therefore – Because God is coming to execute judgment on this wicked people, therefore be patient till he comes. He seems here to refer to the coming of the Lord to execute judgment on the Jewish nation, which shortly afterwards took place.
The husbandman waiteth – The seed of your deliverance is already sown, and by and by the harvest of your salvation will take place. God’s counsels will ripen in due time.
The early and latter rain – The rain of seed time; and the rain of ripening before harvest: the first fell in Judea, about the beginning of November, after the seed was sown; and the second towards the end of April, when the ears were filling, and this prepared for a full harvest. Without these two rains, the earth would have been unfruitful. These God had promised: I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thy oil, Deu_11:14. But for these they were not only to wait patiently, but also to pray, Ask ye of the Lord rain in the time of the latter rain; so shall the Lord make bright clouds, and give them showers of rain, to every one grass in the field; Zec_10:1.
Be patient therefore, brethren – That is, under such wrongs as the apostle had described in the previous verses. Those whom he addressed were doubtless suffering under those oppressions, and his object was to induce them to bear their wrongs without murmuring and without resistance. One of the methods of doing this was by showing them, in an address to their rich oppressors, that those who injured and wronged them would be suitably punished at the day of judgment, or that their cause was in the hands of God; and another method of doing it was by the direct inculcation of the duty of patience. Compare the notes at Mat_5:38-41, Mat_5:43-45. The margin here is, “be long patient,” or “suffer with long patience.” The sense of the Greek is, “be long-suffering, or let not your patience be exhausted. Your courage, vigor, and forbearance is not to be short-lived, but is to be enduring. Let it continue as long as there is need of it, even to the coming of the Lord. Then you will be released from sufferings.”
Unto the coming of the Lord – The coming of the Lord Jesus – either to remove you by death, or to destroy the city of Jerusalem and bring to an end the Jewish institutions, or to judge the world and receive his people to himself. The “coming of the Lord” in any way was an event which Christians were taught to expect, and which would be connected with their deliverance from troubles. As the time of his appearing was not revealed, it was not improper to refer to that as an event that might possibly be near; and as the removal of Christians by death is denoted by the phrase “the coming of the Lord” – that is, his coming to each one of us – it was not improper to speak of death in that view. On the general subject of the expectations entertained among the early Christians of the second advent of the Saviour, see the 1Co_15:51 note; 2Th_2:2-3 note.
Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth – The farmer waits patiently for the grain to grow. It requires time to mature the crop, and he does not become impatient. The idea seems to be, that we should wait for things to develop themselves in their proper season, and should not be impatient before that season arrives. In due time we may expect the harvest to be ripened. We cannot hasten it. We cannot control the rain, the sun, the season; and the farmer therefore patiently waits until in the regular course of events he has a harvest. So we cannot control and hasten the events which are in God’s own keeping; and we should patiently wait for the developments of his will, and the arrangements of his providence, by which we may obtain what we desire.
And hath long patience for it – That is, his patience is not exhausted. It extends through the whole time in which, by the divine arrangements, he may expect a harvest.
Until he receive the early and latter rain – In the climate of Palestine there are two rainy seasons, on which the harvest essentially depends – the autumnal and the spring rains – called here and elsewhere in the Scriptures the early and the latter rains. See Deu_11:14; Job_29:23; Jer_5:24. The autumnal or early rains of Scripture, usually commence in the latter half of October or the beginning of November; not suddenly, but by degrees, which gives opportunity for the husbandman to sow his fields of wheat and barley. The rains come mostly from the west or south-west, continuing for two or three days at a time, and falling especially during the nights. The wind then chops round to the north or east, and several days of fine weather succeed. During the months of November and December the rains continue to fail heavily; afterwards they return only at longer intervals, and are less heavy; but at no period during the winter do they entirely cease to occur.
Snow often falls in Jerusalem, in January and February, to the depth of a foot or more, but it does not last long. Rain continues to fall more or less through the month of March, but it is rare after that period. At the present time there are not any particular periods of rain, or successions of showers, which might be regarded as distinct rainy seasons. The whole period from October to March now constitutes only one continued rainy season, without any regularly intervening time of prolonged fair weather. Unless, therefore, there has been some change in the climate since the times of the New Testament, the early and the latter rains for which the husbandman waited with longing, seem rather to have implied the first showers of autumn, which revived the parched and thirsty earth, and prepared it for the seed; and the latter showers of spring, which continued to refresh and forward the ripening crops and the vernal products of the fields. In ordinary seasons, from the cessation of the showers in spring until their commencement in October or November, rain never falls, and the sky is usually serene. – Robinson’s Biblical Researches, vol. ii., pp. 96-100.
8Stablish your hearts. Lest any should object and say, that the time of deliverance was too long delayed, he obviates this objection and says, that the Lord was at hand, or (which is the same thing) that his coming was drawing nigh. In the meantime, he bids us to correct the softness of the heart, which weakens us, so as not to persevere in hope. And doubtless the time appears long, because we are too tender and delicate. We ought, then, to gather strength that we may become hardened and this cannot be better attained than by hope, and as it were by a realizing view of the near approach of our Lord.
Be ye also patient – Wait for God’s deliverance, as ye wait for his bounty in providence.
Stablish your hearts – Take courage; do not sink under your trials.
The coming of the Lord draweth nigh – Ηγγικε· Is at hand. He is already on his way to destroy this wicked people, to raze their city and temple, and to destroy their polity for ever; and this judgment will soon take place.
Be ye also patient – As the farmer is. In due time, as he expects the return of the rain, so you may anticipate deliverance from your trials.
Stablish your hearts – Let your purposes and your faith be firm and unwavering. Do not become weary and fretful; but bear with constancy all that is laid upon you, until the time of your deliverance shall come.
For the coming of the Lord draweth nigh – Compare Rev_22:10, Rev_22:12, Rev_22:20; the notes at 1Co_15:51. It is clear, I think, from this place, that the apostle expected that that which he understood by “the coming of the Lord” was soon to occur; for it was to be that by which they would obtain deliverance from the trials which they then endured. See Jam_5:7. Whether it means that he was soon to come to judgment, or to bring to an end the Jewish policy and to set up his kingdom on the earth, or that they would soon be removed by death, cannot be determined from the mere use of the language. The most natural interpretation of the passage, and one which will accord well with the time when the Epistle was written, is, that the predicted time of the destruction of Jerusalem Matt. 24 was at hand; that there were already indications that that would soon occur; and that there was a prevalent expectation among Christians that that event would be a release from many trials of persecution, and would be followed by the setting up of the Redeemer’s kingdom.
Perhaps many expected that the judgment would occur at that time, and that the Saviour would set up a personal reign on the earth. But the expectation of others might have been merely – what is indeed all that is necessarily implied in the predictions on the subject – that there would be after that a rapid and extensive spread of the principles of the Christian religion in the world. The destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple would contribute to that by bringing to an end the whole system of Jewish types and sacrifices; by convincing Christians that there was not to be one central rallying-point, thus destroying their lingering prejudices in favor of the Jewish mode of worship; and by scattering them abroad through the world to propagate the new religion. The Epistle was written, it is supposed, some ten or twelve years before the destruction of Jerusalem, (Introduction, Section 3,) and it is not improbable that there were already some indications of that approaching event.
9Grudge not, or, groan not.As the complaints of many were heard, that they were more severely treated than others, this passage is so explained by some, as though James bade each to be contented with his own lot, not to envy others, nor grudge if the condition of others was more tolerable. But I take another view; for after having spoken of the unhappiness of those who distress good and quiet men by their tyranny, he now exhorts the faithful to be just towards one another and ready to pass by offenses. That this is the real meaning may be gathered from the reason that is added: Be not querulous one against another; lest ye be condemned. We may, indeed, groan, when any evil torments us; but he means an accusing groan, when one expostulates with the Lord against another. And he declares that thus they would all be condemned, because there is no one who does not offend his brethren, and afford them an occasion of groaning. Now, if everyone complained, they would all have accused one another; for no one was so innocent, that he did not do some harm to others.
God will be the common judge of all. What, then, will be the case, but that every one who seeks to bring judgment on others, must allow the same against himself; and thus all will be given up to the same ruin. Let no one, then, ask for vengeance on others, except he wishes to bring it on his own head. And lest they should be hasty in making complaints of this kind, he declares that the judge was at the door. For as our propensity is to profane the name of God, in the slightest offenses we appeal to his judgment. Nothing is a fitter bridle to check our rashness, than to consider that our imprecations vanish not into air, because God’s judgment is at hand.
Grudge not one against another – Margin, “groan, grieve.” The Greek word (στενάζω stenazō) means, “to sigh, to groan,” as of persons in distress, Rom_8:23; and then to sigh or groan through impatience, fretfulness, ill-humor; and hence “to murmur, to find fault, to complain.” The exact idea here is, not that of grudging in the sense of dissatisfaction with what others possess, or of being envious; it is that of being fretful and impatient – or, to use a common word which more exactly expresses the sense that of grumbling. This may arise from many causes; either because others have advantages which we have not, and we are discontented and unhappy, as if it were wrong in them to have such enjoyments; or because we, without reason, suppose they intend to slight and neglect us; or because we are ready to take offence at any little thing, and to “pick a quarrel” with them. There are some persons who are always grumbling. They have a sour, dissatisfied, discontented temper; they see no excellence in other persons; they are displeased that others are more prospered, honored, and beloved than they are themselves; they are always complaining of what others do, not because they are injured, but because others seem to them to be weak and foolish; they seem to feel that it becomes them to complain if everything is not done precisely as in their estimation it should be. It is needless to say that this spirit – the offspring of pride – will make any man lead a wretched life; and equally needless to say that it is wholly contrary to the spirit of the gospel. Compare Luk_3:14; Phi_4:11; 1Ti_6:8; Heb_13:5.
Lest ye be condemned – That is, for judging others with this spirit – for this spirit is in fact judging them. Compare the notes at Mat_7:1.
Behold, the judge standeth before the door – The Lord Jesus, who is soon to come to judge the world. See Jam_5:8. He is, as it were, even now approaching the door – so near that he can hear all that you say.
10Take, my brethren, the prophets. The comfort which he brings is not that which is according to the common proverb, that the miserable hope for like companions in evils. That they set before them associates, in whose number it was desirable to be classed; and to have the same condition with them, was no misery. For as we must necessarily feel extreme grief, when any evil happens to us which the children of God have never experienced, so it is a singular consolation when we know that we suffer nothing different from them; nay, when we know that we have to sustain the same yoke with them.
When Job heard from his friends, “Turn to the saints, can you find any like to thee?”
(Job_5:1,) it was the voice of Satan, because he wished to drive him to despair. When, on the other hand, the Spirit by the mouth of James designs to raise us up to a good hope, he shews to us all the fore-going saints, who as it were stretch out their hand to us, and by their example encourage us to undergo and to conquer afflictions.
The life of men is indeed indiscriminately subject to troubles and adversities; but James did not bring forward any kind of men for examples, for it would have availed nothing to perish with the multitude; but he chose the prophets, a fellowship with whom is blessed. Nothing so breaks us down and disheartens us as the feeling of misery; it is therefore a real consolation to know that those things commonly deemed evils are aids and helps to our salvation. This is, indeed, what is far from being understood by the flesh; yet the faithful ought to be convinced of this, that they are happy when by various troubles they are proved by the Lord. To convince us of this, James reminds us to consider the end or design of the afflictions endured by the prophets; for as our own evils we are without judgment, being influenced by grief, sorrow, or some other immoderate feelings, as we see nothing under a foggy sky and in the midst of storms, and being tossed here and there as it were by a tempest, it is therefore necessary for us to cast our eyes to another quarter, where the sky is in a manner serene and bright. When the afflictions of the saints are related to us, there is no one who will allow that they were miserable, but, on the contrary, that they were happy.
Then James has done well for us; for he has laid before our eyes a pattern, that we may learn to look at it whenever we are tempted to impatience or to despair: and he takes this principle as granted, that the prophets were blessed in their afflictions, for they courageously sustained them. Since it was so, he concludes that the same judgment ought to be formed of us when afflicted.
And he says, the prophets who have spoken in the name of the Lord; by which he intimates that they were accepted and approved by God. If, then, it had been useful for them to have been free from miseries, doubtless God would have kept them free. But it was otherwise. It hence follows that afflictions are salutary to the faithful. He, therefore, bids them to be taken as an example of suffering affliction. But patience also must be added, which is a real evidence of our obedience. Hence he has joined them both together.
Take, my brethren, the prophets – That is, in your trials and persecutions. To encourage them to the exercise of patience, he points them to the example of those who had trod the same thorny path before them. The prophets were in general a much persecuted race of men; and the argument on which the apostle relies from their example is this:
(1) that if the prophets were persecuted and tried, it may be expected that other good men will be;
(2) that they showed such patience in their trials as to be a model for us.
An example of suffering affliction – That is, they showed us how evils are to be borne.
11The patience of Job. Having spoken generally of the prophets, he now refers to an example remarkable above others; for no one, as far as we can learn from histories, has ever been overwhelmed with troubles so hard and so various as Job; and yet he emerged from so deep a gulf. Whosoever, then, will imitate his patience, will no doubt find God’s hand, which at length delivered him, to be the same. We see for what end his history has been written. God suffered not his servant Job to sink, because he patiently endured his afflictions. Then he will disappoint the patience of no one.
If, however, it be asked, Why does the Apostle so much commend the patience of Job, as he had displayed many signs of impatience, being carried away by a hasty spirit? To this I reply, that though he sometimes failed through the infirmity of the flesh, or murmured within himself, yet he ever surrendered himself to God, and was ever willing to be restrained and ruled by him. Though, then, his patience was somewhat deficient, it is yet deservedly commended.
The end of the Lord.By these words he intimates that afflictions ought ever to be estimated by their end. For at first God seems to be far away, and Satan in the meantime revels in the confusion; the flesh suggests to us that we are forsaken of God and lost. We ought, then, to extend our view farther, for near and around us there appears no light. Moreover, he has called it the end of the Lord, because it is his work to give a prosperous issue to adversities. If we do our duty in bearing evils obediently, he will by no means be wanting in performing his part. Hope directs us only to the end; God will then shew himself very merciful, how ever rigid and severe he may seem to be while afflicting us.
We count them happy which endure – According to that saying of our blessed Lord, Blessed are ye when men shall persecute and revile you – for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. Mat_5:11, Mat_5:12, etc.
Ye have heard of the patience of Job – Stripped of all his worldly possessions, deprived at a stroke of all his children, tortured in body with sore disease, tempted by the devil, harassed by his wife, and calumniated by his friends, he nevertheless held fast his integrity, resigned himself to the Divine dispensations, and charged not God foolishly.
And have seen the end of the Lord – The issue to which God brought all his afflictions and trials, giving him children, increasing his property, lengthening out his life, and multiplying to him every kind of spiritual and secular good. This was God’s end with respect to him; but the devil’s end was to drive him to despair, and to cause him to blaspheme his Maker. This mention of Job shows him to have been a real person; for a fictitious person would not have been produced as an example of any virtue so highly important as that of patience and perseverance. The end of the Lord is a Hebraism for the issue to which God brings any thing or business.
The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy – Instead of πολυσπλαγχνος, which we translate very pitiful, and which might be rendered of much sympathy, from πολυς, much, and σπλαγχνον, a bowel, (because any thing that affects us with commiseration causes us to feel an indescribable emotion of the bowels), several MSS. have πολυευσπλαγχνος, from παλυς, much, ευ, easily, and σπλαγχνον, a bowel, a word not easy to be translated; but it signifies one whose commiseration is easily excited, and whose commiseration is great or abundant.
13Is any among you afflicted?he means that there is no time in which God does not invite us to himself. For afflictions ought to stimulate us to pray; prosperity supplies us with an occasion to praise God. But such is the perverseness of men, that they cannot rejoice without forgetting God, and that when afflicted they are disheartened and driven to despair. We ought, then, to keep within due bounds, so that the joy, which usually makes us to forget God, may induce us to set forth the goodness of God, and that our sorrow may teach us to pray. For he has set the singing of psalmsin opposition to profane and unbridled joy; and thus they express their joy who are led, as they ought to be, by prosperity to God.
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray – The Jews taught that the meaning of the ordinance, Lev_13:45, which required the leper to cry, Unclean! unclean! was, “that thus making known his calamity, the people might be led to offer up prayers to God in his behalf,” Sota, page 685, ed. Wagens. They taught also, that when any sickness or affliction entered a family, they should go to the wise men, and implore their prayers. Bava bathra, fol. 116, 1.
In Nedarim, fol. 40, 1, we have this relation: “Rabba, as often as he fell sick, forbade his domestics to mention it for the first day; if he did not then begin to get well, he told his family to go and publish it in the highways, that they who hated him might rejoice, and they that loved him might intercede with God for him.”
Is any merry? let him sing psalms – These are all general but very useful directions. It is natural for a man to sing when he is cheerful and happy. Now no subject can be more noble than that which is Divine: and as God alone is the author of all that good which makes a man happy, then his praise should be the subject of the song of him who is merry. But where persons rejoice in iniquity, and not in the truth, God and sacred things can never be the subject of their song.
Is any among you afflicted? – By sickness, bereavement, disappointment, persecutions, loss of health or property. The word used here refers to suffering evil of any kind, (κακοπαθεῖ kakopathei.)
Let him pray – That is, prayer is appropriate to trial. The mind naturally resorts to it, and in every way it is proper. God only can remove the source of sorrow; he can grant unto us “a happy issue out of all our afflictions;” he can make them the means of sanctifying the soul. Compare 2Ch_33:12; Psa_34:4; Psa_107:6, Psa_107:13, Psa_107:28. It matters not what is the form of the trial, it is a privilege which all have to go to God in prayer. And it is an inestimable privilege. Health fails, friends die, property is lost, disappointments come upon us, danger threatens, death approaches – and to whom shall we go but to God? He ever lives. He never fails us or disappoints us if we trust in him, and his ear is ever open to our cries. This would be a sad world indeed, if it were not for the privilege of prayer. The last resource of millions who suffer – for millions suffer every day – would be taken away, if men were denied the access to the throne of grace. As it is, there is no one so poor that he may not pray; no one so disconsolate and forsaken that he may not find in God a friend; no one so broken-hearted that he is not able to bind up his spirit. One of the designs of affliction is to lead us to the throne of grace; and it is a happy result of trials if we are led by our trials to seek God in prayer.
Is any merry? – The word merry now conveys an idea which is not properly found in the original word here. It refers now, in common usage, to light and noisy pleasure; to that which is jovial; to that which is attended with laughter, or which causes laughter, as a merry jest. In the Scriptures, however, the word properly denotes “cheerful, pleasant, agreeable,” and is applied to a state of mind free from trouble – the opposite of affliction – happy, Pro_15:13, Pro_15:15; Pro_17:22; Isa_24:7; Luk_15:23-24, Luk_15:29, Luk_15:32. The Greek word used here (εὐθυμεῖ euthumei) means, literally, “to have the mind well” (εῦ eu and θυμὸς thumos;) that is, to have it happy, or free from trouble; to be cheerful.
Let him sing psalms – That is, if anyone is happy; if he is in health, and is prospered; if he has his friends around him, and there is nothing to produce anxiety; if he has the free exercise of conscience and enjoys religion, it is proper to express that in notes of praise. Compare Eph_5:19-20. On the meaning of the word here rendered “sing psalms,” see the notes at Eph_5:19, where it is rendered “making melody.” It does not mean to sing psalms in contradistinction from singing hymns, but the reference is to any songs of praise. Praise is appropriate to such a state of mind. The heart naturally gives utterance to its emotions in songs of thanksgiving.
14Is any sick among you. As the gift of healing as yet continued, he directs the sick to have recourse to that remedy. It is, indeed, certain that they were not all healed; but the Lord granted this favor as often and as far as he knew it would be expedient; nor is it probable that the oil was indiscriminately applied, but only when there was some hope of restoration. For, together with the power there was given also discretion to the ministers, lest they should by abuse profane the symbol. The design of James was no other than to commend the grace of God which the faithful might then enjoy, lest the benefit of it should be lost through contempt or neglect.
For this purpose he ordered the presbyters to be sent for, but the use of the anointing must have been confined to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Papists boast mightily of this passage, when they seek to pass off their extreme unction. But how different their corruption is from the ancient ordinance mentioned by James I will not at present undertake to shew. Let readers learn this from my Institutes. I will only say this, that this passage is wickedly and ignorantly perverted; when extreme unction is established by it, and is called a sacrament, to be perpetually observed in the Church. I indeed allow that it was used as a sacrament by the disciples of Christ, (for I cannot agree with those who think that it was medicine;) but as the reality of this sign continued only for a time in the Church, the symbol also must have been only for a time. And it is quite evident, that nothing is more absurd than to call that a sacrament which is void and does not really present to us that which it signifies. That the gift of healing was temporary, all are constrained to allow, and events clearly prove: then the sign of it ought not to be deemed perpetual. It hence follows, that they who at this day set anointing among the sacraments, are not the true followers, but the apes of the Apostles, except they restore the effect produced by it, which God has taken away from the world for more than fourteen hundred years. So we have no dispute, whether anointing was once a sacrament; but whether it has been given to be so perpetually. This latter we deny, because it is evident that the thing signified has long ago ceased.
The presbyters, or elders, of the church. I include here generally all those who presided over the Church; for pastors were not alone called presbyters or elders, but also those who were chosen from the people to be as it were censors to protect discipline. For every Church had, as it were, its own senate, chosen from men of weight and of proved integrity. But as it was customary to choose especially those who were endued with gifts more than ordinary, he ordered them to send for the elders, as being those in whom the power and grace of the Holy Spirit more particularly appeared.
Let them pray over him.This custom of praying over one was intended to shew, that they stood as it were before God; for when we come as it were to the very scene itself, we utter prayers with more feeling; and not only Elisha and Paul, but Christ himself, roused the ardor of prayer and commended the grace of God by thus praying over persons. (2Kg_4:32; Act_20:10; Joh_11:41.)
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders – This was also a Jewish maxim. Rabbi Simeon, in Sepher Hachaiyim, said: “What should a man do who goes to visit the sick? Ans. He who studies to restore the health of the body, should first lay the foundation in the health of the soul. The wise men have said, No healing is equal to that which comes from the word of God and prayer. Rabbi Phineas, the son of Chamma, hath said, ‘When sickness or disease enters into a man’s family, let him apply to a wise man, who will implore mercy in his behalf.’“ See Schoettgen.
St. James very properly sends all such to the elders of the Church, who had power with God through the great Mediator, that they might pray for them.
Anointing him with oil – That St. James neither means any kind of incantation, any kind of miracle, or such extreme unction as the Romish Church prescribes, will be sufficiently evident from these considerations:
1. Be was a holy man, and could prescribe nothing but what was holy.
2. If a miracle was intended, it could have been as well wrought without the oil, as with it.
3. It is not intimated that even this unction is to save the sick man, but the prayer of faith, Jam_5:15.
4. What is here recommended was to be done as a natural means of restoring health, which, while they used prayer and supplication to God, they were not to neglect.
5. Oil in Judea was celebrated for its sanative qualities; so that they scarcely ever took a journey without carrying oil with them, (see in the case of the Samaritan), with which they anointed their bodies, healed their wounds, bruises, etc.
6. Oil was and in frequently used in the east as a means of cure in very dangerous diseases; and in Egypt it is often used in the cure of the plague. Even in Europe it has been tried with great success in the cure of dropsy. And pure olive oil is excellent for recent wounds and bruises; and I have seen it tried in this way with the best effects.
7. But that it was the custom of the Jews to apply it as a means of healing, and that St. James refers to this custom, is not only evident from the case of the wounded man ministered to by the good Samaritan, Luk_10:34, but from the practice of the Jewish rabbins. In Midrash Koheleth, fol. 73, 1, it is said: “Chanina, son of the brother of the Rabbi Joshua, went to visit his uncle at Capernaum; he was taken ill; and Rabbi Joshua went to him and anointed him with oil, and he was restored.” They had, therefore, recourse to this as a natural remedy; and we find that the disciples used it also in this way to heal the sick, not exerting the miraculous power but in cases where natural means were ineffectual. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them; Mar_6:13. On this latter place I have supposed that it might have been done symbolically, in order to prepare the way for a miraculous cure: this is the opinion of many commentators; but I am led, on more mature consideration, to doubt its propriety, yet dare not decide. In short, anointing the sick with oil, in order to their recovery, was a constant practice among the Jews. See Lightfoot and Wetstein on Mar_6:13. And here I am satisfied that it has no other meaning than as a natural means of restoring health; and that St. James desires them to use natural means while looking to God for an especial blessing. And no wise man would direct otherwise.
8. That the anointing recommended here by St. James cannot be such as the Romish Church prescribes, and it is on this passage principally that they found their sacrament of extreme unction, is evident from these considerations:
1. St. James orders the sick person to be anointed in reference to his cure; but they anoint the sick in the agonies of death, when there is no prospect of his recovery; and never administer that sacrament, as it is called, while there is any hope of life.
2. St James orders this anointing for the cure of the body, but they apply it for the cure of the soul; in reference to which use of it St. James gives no directions: and what is said of the forgiveness of sins, in Jam_5:15, is rather to be referred to faith and prayer, which are often the means of restoring lost health, and preventing premature death, when natural means, the most skillfully used, have been useless.
3. The anointing with oil, if ever used as a means or symbol in working miraculous cures, was only applied in some cases, perhaps very few, if any; but the Romish Church uses it in every case; and makes it necessary to the salvation of every departing soul. Therefore, St. James’ unction, and the extreme unction of the Romish Church, are essentially different. See below.
Is any sick among you? – In the previous verse the reference was to affliction in general, and the duty there urged was one that was applicable to all forms of trial. The subject of sickness, however, is so important, since it so often occurs, that a specific direction was desirable. That direction is to call in the aid of others to lead our thoughts, and to aid us in our devotions, because one who is sick is less able to direct his own reflections and to pray for himself than he is in other form of trial. Nothing is said here respecting the degree of sickness, whether it is that which would be fatal if these means were used or not; but the direction pertains to any kind of illness.
Let him call for the elders of the church – Greek “presbyters.” See the notes at Act_15:2; Act_11:30. It cannot be supposed that this refers to the apostles, for it could not be that they would be always accessible; besides, instructions like this were designed to have a permanent character, and to be applicable to the church at all times and in all places. The reference, therefore, is doubtless to the ordinary religious teachers of the congregation; the officers of the church intrusted with its spiritual interests. The spirit of the command would embrace those who are pastors, and any others to whom the spiritual interests of the congregation are confided – ruling elders, deacons, etc. If the allusion is to the ordinary officers of the church, it is evident that the cure to be hoped for Jam_5:15 was not miraculous, but was that to be expected in the use of appropriate means accompanied by prayer.
It may be added, as worthy of note, that the apostle says they should “call” for the elders of the church; that is, they should send for them. They should not wait for them to hear of their sickness, as they might happen to, but they should cause them to be informed of it, and give them an opportunity of visiting them and praying with them. Nothing is more common than for persons – even members of the church – to be sick a long time, and to presume that their pastor must know all about it; and then they wonder that he does not come to see them, and think hard of him because he does not. A pastor cannot be supposed to know everything; nor can it be presumed that he knows when persons are sick, any more than he can know anything else, unless he is apprized of it; and many hard thoughts, and many suspicions of neglect would be avoided, if, when persons are sick, they would in some way inform their pastor of it. It should always be presumed of a minister of the gospel that he is ready to visit the sick. But how can he go unless he is in some way apprized of the illness of those who need his counsel and his prayers? The sick send for their family physician; why should they presume that their pastor will know of their illness any more than that their physician will?
And let them pray over him – With him, and for him. A man who is sick is often little capable of praying himself; and it is a privilege to have some one to lead his thoughts in devotion. Besides, the prayer of a good man may be of avail in restoring him to health, Jam_5:15. Prayer is always one important means of obtaining the divine favor, and there is no place where it is more appropriate than by the bed-side of sickness. That relief from pain may be granted; that the mind may be calm and submissive; that the medicines employed may be blessed to a restoration to health; that past sins may be forgiven; that he who is sick may be sanctified by his trials; that he may be restored to health, or prepared for his “last change” – all these are subjects of prayer which we feel to be appropriate in such a case, and every sick man should avail himself of the aid of those who “have an interest at the throne of grace,” that they may be obtained.
Anointing him with oil – Oil, or unguents of various kinds, were much used among the ancients, both in health and in sickness. The oil which was commonly employed was olive oil. See the Isa_1:6 note; Luk_10:34 note. The custom of anointing the sick with oil still prevails in the East, for it is believed to have medicinal or healing properties. Niebuhr (Beschrieb. von Arabien, s. 131) says, “The southern Arabians believe that to anoint with oil strengthens the body, and secures it against the oppressive heat of the sun, as they go nearly naked. They believe that the oil closes the pores of the skin, and thus prevents the effect of the excessive heat by which the body is so much weakened; perhaps also they regard it as contributing to beauty, by giving the skin a glossy appearance. I myself frequently have observed that the sailors in the ships from Dsjidda and Loheia, as well as the common Arabs in Tehama, anointed their bodies with oil, in order to guard themselves against the heat. The Jews in Mocha assured Mr. Forskal, that the Mohammedans as well as the Jews, in Sana, when they were sick, were accustomed to anoint the body with oil.” Rosenmuller, Morgenland, in loc.
In the name of the Lord – By the authority or direction of the Lord; or as an act in accordance with his will, and that will meet with his approbation. When we do anything that tends to promote virtue, to alleviate misery, to instruct ignorance, to save life, or to prepare others for heaven, it is right to feel that we are doing it in the name of the Lord Compare, for such uses of the phrase “in the name of the Lord,” and “in my name,” Mat_10:22; Mat_18:5, Mat_18:20; Mat_19:29; Mat_24:9; Mar_9:41; Mar_13:13; Luk_21:12, Luk_21:17; Rev_2:3; Col_3:17. There is no reason to think that the phrase is used here to denote any peculiar religious rite or “sacrament.” It was to be done in the name of the Lord, as any other good deed is.
15. But it must be observed, that he connects a promise with the prayer, lest it should be made without faith. For he who doubts, as one who does not rightly call on God, is unworthy to obtain anything, as we have seen in Jas_1:5. Whosoever then really seeks to be heard, must be fully persuaded that he does not pray in vain.
As James brings before us this special gift, to which the external rite was but an addition, we hence learn, that the oil could not have been rightly used without faith. But since it appears that the Papists have no certainty as to their anointing, as it is manifest that they have not the gift, it is evident that their anointing is spurious.
And if he have committed sins. This is not added only for the sake of amplifying, as though he had said, that God would give something more to the sick than health of body; but because diseases were very often inflicted on account of sins; and by speaking of their remission he intimates that the cause of the evil would be removed. And we indeed see that David, when afflicted with disease and seeking relief, was wholly engaged in seeking the pardon of his sins. Why did he do this, except that while he acknowledged the effect of his faults in his punishment, he deemed that there was no other remedy, but that the Lord should cease to impute to him his sins?
The prophets are full of this doctrine, that men are relieved from their evils when they are loosed from the guilt of their iniquities. Let us then know that it is the only fit remedy for our diseases and other calamities, when we carefully examine ourselves, being solicitous to be reconciled to God, and to obtain the pardon of our sins.
And the prayer of faith; shall save the sick – That is, God will often make these the means of a sick man’s recovery; but there often are cases where faith and prayer are both ineffectual, because God sees it will be prejudicial to the patient’s salvation to be restored; and therefore all faith and prayer on such occasions should be exerted on this ground: “If it be most for thy glory, and the eternal good of this man’s soul, let him be restored; if otherwise, Lord, pardon, purify him, and take him to thy glory.”
The Lord shall raise him up – Not the elders, how faithfully and fervently soever they have prayed.
And if he have committed sins – So as to have occasioned his present malady, they shall be forgiven him; for being the cause of the affliction it is natural to conclude that, if the effect be to cease, the cause must be removed. We find that in the miraculous restoration to health, under the powerful hand of Christ, the sin of the party is generally said to be forgiven, and this also before the miracle was wrought on the body: hence there was a maxim among the Jews, and it seems to be founded in common sense and reason, that God never restores a man miraculously to health till he has pardoned his sins; because it would be incongruous for God to exert his miraculous power in saving a body, the soul of which was in a state of condemnation to eternal death, because of the crimes it had committed against its Maker and Judge. Here then it is God that remits the sin, not in reference to the unction, but in reference to the cure of the body, which he is miraculously to effect.
And the prayer of faith – The prayer offered in faith, or in the exercise of confidence in God. It is not said that the particular form of the faith exercised shall be that the sick man will certainly recover; but there is to be unwavering confidence in God, a belief that he will do what is best, and a cheerful committing of the cause into his hands. We express our earnest wish, and leave the case with him. The prayer of faith is to accompany the use of means, for all means would be ineffectual without the blessing of God.
Shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up – This must be understood, as such promises are everywhere, with this restriction, that they will be restored to health if it shall be the will of God; if he shall deem it for the best. It cannot be taken in the absolute and unconditional sense, for then, if these means were used, the sick person would always recover, no matter how often he might be sick, and he need never die. The design is to encourage them to the use of these means with a strong hope that it would be effectual. It may fairly be inferred from this statement:
(1) that there would be cases in large numbers where these means would be attended with this happy result; and,
(2) that there was so much encouragement to do it that it would be proper in any case of sickness so make use of these means.
It may be added, that no one can demonstrate that this promise has not been in numerous instances fulfilled. There are instances, not a few, where recovery from sickness seems to be in direct answer to prayer, and no one can prove that it is not so. Compare the case of Hezekiah, in Isa_38:1-5.
And if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him – Perhaps there may be a particular allusion here to sins which may have brought on the sickness as a punishment. In that case the removal of the disease in answer to prayer would be an evidence that the sin was pardoned. Compare Mat_9:2. But the promise may be understood in a more general sense as denoting that such sickness would be the means of bringing the sins of the past life to remembrance, especially if the one who was sick had been unfaithful to his Christian vows; and that the sickness in connection with the prayers offered would bring him to true repentance, and would recover him from his wanderings. On backsliding and erring Christians sickness often has this effect; and the subsequent life is so devoted and consistent as to show that the past unfaithfulness of him who has been afflicted is forgiven.
This passage Jam_5:14-15 is important, not only for the counsel which it gives to the sick, but because it has been employed by the Roman Catholic communion as almost the only portion of the Bible referred to to sustain one of the peculiar rites of their religion – that of “extreme unction” – a “sacrament,” as they suppose, to be administered to those who are dying. It is of importance, therefore, to inquire more particularly into its meaning. There can be but three views taken of the passage:
I. That it refers to a miraculous healing by the apostles, or by other early ministers of religion who were endowed with the power of healing diseases in this manner. This is the interpretation of Doddridge, Macknight, Benson, and others. But to this view the objections seem to me to be insuperable.
(a) Nothing of this kind is said by the apostle, and this is not necessary to be supposed in order to a fair interpretation of the passage.
(b) The reference, as already observed, is clearly not to the apostles, but to the ordinary officers of the church – for such a reference would be naturally understood by the word presbyters; and to suppose that this refers to miracles, would be to suppose that this was a common endowment of the ordinary ministers of religion. But there was no promise of this, and there is no evidence that they possessed it. In regard to the extent of the promise, “they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover,” see the notes at Mar_16:17-18.
(c) If this referred to the power of working miracles, and if the promise was absolute, then death would not have occurred at all among the early disciples. It would have been easy to secure a restoration to health in any instance where a minister of religion was at hand,
II. It is supposed by the Roman Catholics to give sanction to the practice of “extreme unction,” and to prove that this was practiced in the primitive church. But the objections to this are still more obvious.
(a) It was not to be performed at death, or in the immediate prospect of death, but in sickness at any time. There is no hint that it was to be only when the patient was past all hope of recovery, or in view of the fact that he was to die. But “extreme unction,” from its very nature, is to be practiced only where the patient is past all hope of recovery.
(b) It was not with a view to his death, but to his living, that it was to be practiced at all. It was not that he might be prepared to die, but that he might be restored to health – “and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.” But “extreme unction” can be with no such reference, and no such hope. It is only with the expectation that the patient is about to die; and if there were any expectation that he would be raised up even by this ordinance, it could not be administered as “extreme unction.”
(c) The ordinance practiced as “extreme unction” is a rite wholly unauthorized in the Scriptures, unless it be by this passage. There are instances indeed of persons being embalmed after death. It was a fact also that the Saviour said of Mary, when she poured ointment on his body, that she “did it for his burial,” or with reference to his burial, (Notes, Mat_26:12) but the Saviour did not say that it was with reference to his death or was designed in any way to prepare him to die, nor is there any instance in the Bible in which such a rite is mentioned. The ceremony of extreme unction has its foundation in two things: first, in superstition, in the desire of something that shall operate as a charm, or that shall possess physical efficiency in calming the apprehensions of a troubled conscience, and in preparing the guilty to die; and, second, in the fact that it gives immense power to the priesthood. Nothing is better adapted to impart such power than a prevalent belief that a minister of religion holds in his hands the ability to alleviate the pangs of the dying, and to furnish a sure passport to a world of bliss. There is deep philosophy in that which has led to the belief of this doctrine – for the dying look around for consolation and support, and they grasp at anything which will promise ease to a troubled conscience, and the hope of heaven. The gospel has made arrangements to meet this state of mind in a better way – in the evidence which the guilty may have that by repentance and faith their sins are blotted out through the blood of the cross.
III. The remaining supposition, therefore, and, as it seems to me, the true one, is, that the anointing with oil was, in accordance with a common custom, regarded as medicinal, and that a blessing was to be invoked on this as a means of restoration to health. Besides what has been already said, the following suggestions may be made in addition:
(a) This was, as we have seen, a common usage in the East, and is to this day.
(b) This interpretation meets all that is demanded to a fair understanding of what is said by the apostle.
(c) Everything thus directed is rational and proper.
It is proper to call in the ministers of religion in time of sickness, and to ask their counsels and their prayers. It is proper to make use of the ordinary means of restoration to health. It was proper then, as it is now, to do this “in the name of the Lord;” that is, believing that it is in accordance with his benevolent arrangements, and making use of means which he has appointed. And it was proper then, as it is now, having made use of those means, to implore the divine blessing on them, and to feel that their efficacy depends wholly on him. Thus used, there was ground of hope and of faith in regard to the recovery of the sufferer; and no one can show that in thousands of instances in the apostles” day, and since, the prayer of faith, accompanying the proper use of means, may not have raised up those who were on the borders of the grave, and who but for these means would have died.
16Confess your faults one to another. In some copies the illative particle is given, nor is it unsuitable; for though when not expressed, it must be understood. He had said, that sins were remitted to the sick over whom the elders prayed: he now reminds them how useful it is to discover our sins to our brethren, even that we may obtain the pardon of them by their intercession.
This passage, I know, is explained by many as referring to the reconciling of offenses; for they who wish to return to favor must necessarily know first their own faults and confess them. For hence it comes, that hatreds take root, yea, and increase and become irreconcilable, because every one perniciously defends his own cause. Many therefore think that James points out here the way of brotherly reconciliation, that is, by mutual acknowledgment of sins. But as it has been said, his object was different; for he connects mutual prayer with mutual confession; by which he intimates that confession avails for this end, that we may be helped as to God by the prayers of our brethren; for they who know our necessities, are stimulated to pray that they may assist us; but they to whom our diseases are unknown are more tardy to bring us help.
Wonderful, indeed, is the folly or the insincerity of the Papists, who strive to build their whispering confession on this passage. For it would be easy to infer from the words of James, that the priests alone ought to confess. For since a mutual, or to speak more plainly, a reciprocal confession is demanded here, no others are bidden to confess their own sins, but those who in their turn are fit to hear the confession of others; but this the priests claim for themselves alone. Then confession is required of them alone. But since their puerilities do not deserve a refutation, let the true and genuine explanation already given be deemed sufficient by us.
For the words clearly mean, that confession is required for no other end, but that those who know our evils may be more solicitous to bring us help.
Availeth much.That no one may think that this is done without fruit, that is, when others pray for us, he expressly mentions the benefit and the effect of prayer. But he names expressly the prayer of a righteousor justman;because God does not hear the ungodly; nor is access to God open, except through a good conscience: not that our prayers are founded on our own worthiness, but because the heart must be cleansed by faith before we can present ourselves before God. Then James testifies that the righteous or the faithful pray for us beneficially and not without fruit.
But what does he mean by adding effectualor efficacious? For this seems superfluous; for if the prayer avails much, it is doubtless effectual. The ancient interpreter has rendered it “assiduous;” but this is too forced. For James uses the Greek participle, ἐνεργούμεναι, which means “working.” And the sentence may be thus explained, “It avails much, because it is effectual.” As it is an argument drawn from this principle, that God will not allow the prayers of the faithful to be void or useless, he does not therefore unjustly conclude that it avails much. But I would rather confine it to the present case: for our prayers may properly be said to be ἐνεργούμεναι, working, when some necessity meets us which excites in us earnest prayer. We pray daily for the whole Church, that God may pardon its sins; but then only is our prayer really in earnest, when we go forth to succor those who are in trouble. But such efficacy cannot be in the prayers of our brethren, except they know that we are in difficulties. Hence the reason given is not general, but must be specially referred to the former sentence.
Confess your faults one to another – This is a good general direction to Christians who endeavor to maintain among themselves the communion of saints. This social confession tends much to humble the soul, and to make it watchful. We naturally wish that our friends in general, and our religious friends in particular, should think well of us; and when we confess to them offenses which, without this confession, they could never have known, we feel humbled, are kept from self-applause, and induced to watch unto prayer, that we may not increase our offenses before God, or be obliged any more to undergo the painful humiliation of acknowledging our weakness, fickleness, or infidelity to our religious brethren.
It is not said, Confess your faults to the Elders that they may forgive them, or prescribe penance in order to forgive them. No; the members of the Church were to confess their faults to each other; therefore auricular confession to a priest, such as is prescribed by the Romish Church, has no foundation in this passage. Indeed, had it any foundation here it would prove more than they wish, for it would require the priest to confess his sins to the people, as well as the people to confess theirs to the priest.
And pray one for another – There is no instance in auricular confession where the penitent and the priest pray together for pardon; but here the people are commanded to pray for each other that they may be healed.
The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much – The words δεησις ενεργουμενη signify energetic supplication, or such a prayer as is suggested to the soul and wrought in it by a Divine energy. When God designs to do some particular work in his Church he pours out on his followers the spirit of grace and supplication; and this he does sometimes when he is about to do some especial work for an individual. When such a power of prayer is granted, faith should be immediately called into exercise, that the blessing may be given: the spirit of prayer is the proof that the power of God is present to heal. Long prayers give no particular evidence of Divine inspiration: the following was a maxim among the ancient Jews, שתפלת צדיקים קצדה the prayers of the righteous are short. This is exemplified in almost every instance in the Old Testament.
Confess your faults one to another – This seems primarily to refer to those who were sick, since it is added, “that ye may be healed.” The fair interpretation is, that it might be supposed that such confession would contribute to a restoration to health. The case supposed all along here (see Jam_5:15) is, that the sickness referred to had been brought upon the patient for his sins, apparently as a punishment for some particular transgressions. Compare the notes at 1Co_11:30. In such a case, it is said that if those who were sick would make confession of their sins, it would, in connection with prayer, be an important means of restoration to health. The duty inculcated, and which is equally binding on all now, is, that if we are sick, and are conscious that we have injured any persons, to make confession to them. This indeed is a duty at all times, but in health it is often neglected, and there is a special propriety that such confession should be made when we are sick. The particular reason for doing it which is here specified is, that it would contribute to a restoration to health – “that ye may be healed.” In the case specified, this might be supposed to contribute to a restoration to health from one of two causes:
(1) If the sickness had been brought upon them as a special act of divine visitation for sin, it might be hoped that when the confession was made the hand of God would be withdrawn; or
(2) in any case, if the mind was troubled by the recollection of guilt, it might be hoped that the calmness and peace resulting from confession would be favorable to a restoration to health.
The former case would of course be more applicable to the times of the apostles; the latter would pertain to all times. Disease is often greatly aggravated by the trouble of mind which arises from conscious guilt; and, in such a case, nothing will contribute more directly to recovery than the restoration of peace to the soul agitated by guilt and by the dread of a judgment to come. This may be secured by confession – confession made first to God, and then to those who are wronged. It may be added, that this is a duty to which we are prompted by the very nature of our feelings when we are sick, and by the fact that no one is willing to die with guilt on his conscience; without having done everything that he can to be at peace with all the world. This passage is one on which Roman Catholics rely to demonstrate the propriety of “auricular confession,” or confession made to a priest with a view to an absolution of sin. The doctrine which is held on that point is, that it is a duty to confess to a priest, at certain seasons, all our sins, secret and open, of which we have been guilty; all our improper thoughts, desires, words, and actions; and that the priest has power to declare on such confession that the sins are forgiven. But never was any text less pertinent to prove a doctrine than this passage to demonstrate that. Because:
(1) The confession here enjoined is not to be made by a person in health, that he may obtain salvation, but by a sick person, that he may be healed.
(2) as mutual confession is here enjoined, a priest would be as much bound to confess to the people as the people to a priest.
(3) no mention is made of a priest at all, or even of a minister of religion, as the one to whom the confession is to be made.
(4) the confession referred to is for “faults” with reference to “one another,” that is, where one has injured another; and nothing is said of confessing faults to those whom we have not injured at all.
(5) there is no mention here of absolution, either by a priest or any other person.
(6) if anything is meant by absolution that is Scriptural, it may as well be pronounced by one person as another; by a layman as a clergyman. All that it can mean is, that God promises pardon to those who are truly penitent, and this fact may as well be stated by one person as another. No priest, no man whatever, is empowered to say to another either that he is truly penitent, or to forgive sin. “Who can forgive sins but God only?” None but he whose law has been violated, or who has been wronged, can pardon an offence. No third person can forgive a sin which a man has committed against a neighbor; no one but a parent can pardon the offences of which his own children have been guilty towards him; and who can put himself in the place of God, and presume to pardon the sins which his creatures have committed against him?
(7) the practice of “auricular confession” is “evil, and only evil, and that continually.” Nothing gives so much power to a priesthood as the supposition that they have the power of absolution. Nothing serves so much to pollute the soul as to keep impure thoughts before the mind long enough to make the confession, and to state them in words. Nothing gives a man so much power over a female as to have it supposed that it is required by religion, and appertains to the sacred office, that all that passes in the mind should be disclosed to him. The thought which but for the necessity of confession would have vanished at once; the image which would have departed as soon as it came before the mind, but for the necessity of retaining it to make confession – these are the things over which a man would seek to have control, and to which he would desire to have access, if he wished to accomplish purposes of villany. The very thing which a seducer would desire would be the power of knowing all the thoughts of his intended victim; and if the thoughts which pass through the soul could be known, virtue would be safe nowhere. Nothing probably under the name of religion has ever done more to corrupt the morals of a community than the practice of auricular confession.
And pray one for another – One for the other; mutually. Those who have done injury, and those who are injured, should pray for each other. The apostle does not seem here, as in Jam_5:14-15, to refer particularly to the prayers of the ministers of religion, or the elders of the church, but refers to it as a duty pertaining to all Christians.
That ye may be healed – Not with reference to death, and therefore not relating to “extreme unction,” but in order that the sick maybe restored again to health. This is said in connection with the duty of confession, as well as prayer; and it seems to be implied that both might contribute to a restoration to health. Of the way in which prayer would do this, there can be no doubt; for all healing comes from God, and it is reasonable to suppose that this might be bestowed in answer to prayer. Of the way in which confession might do this, see the remarks already made. We should be deciding without evidence if we should say that sickness never comes now as a particular judgment for some forms of sin, and that it might not be removed if the suffering offender would make full confession to God, or to him whom he has wronged, and should resolve to offend no more. Perhaps this is, oftener than we suppose, one of the methods which God takes to bring his offending and backsliding children back to himself, or to warn and reclaim the guilty. When, after being laid on a bed of pain, his children are led to reflect on their violated vows and their unfaithfulness, and resolve to sin no more, they are raised up again to health, and made eminently useful to the church. So calamity, by disease or in other forms, often comes upon the vicious and the abandoned. They are led to reflection and to repentance. They resolve to reform, and the natural effects of their sinful course are arrested, and they become examples of virtue and usefulness in the world.
The effectual fervent prayer – The word effectual is not the most happy translation here, since it seems to do little more than to state a truism – that a prayer which is effectual is availing – that is, that it is effectual. The Greek word (ἐνεργουμένη energoumenē) would be better rendered by the word energetic, which indeed is derived from it. The word properly refers to that which has power; which in its own nature is fitted to produce an effect. It is not so much that it actually does produce an effect, as that it is fitted to do it. This is the kind of prayer referred to here. It is not listless, indifferent, cold, lifeless, as if there were no vitality in it, or power, but that which is adapted to be efficient – earnest, sincere, hearty, persevering. There is but a single word in the original to answer to the translation effectual fervent. Macknight and Doddridge suppose that the reference is to a kind of prayer “inwrought by the Spirit,” or the “inwrought prayer;” but the whole force of the original is expressed by the word energetic, or earnest.
Of a righteous man – The quality on which the success of the prayer depends is not the talent, learning, rank, wealth, or office of the man who prays, but the fact that he is a “righteous man,” that is, a good man; and this may be found in the ranks of the poor, as certainly as the rich; among laymen, as well as among the ministers of religion; among slaves, as well as among their masters.
Availeth much – ἰσχύει ischuei. Is strong; has efficacy; prevails. The idea of strength or power is that which enters into the word; strength that overcomes resistance and secures the object. Compare Mat_7:28; Act_19:16; Rev_12:8. It has been said that “prayer moves the arm that moves the world;” and if there is anything that can prevail with God, it is prayer – humble, fervent, earnest petitioning. We have no power to control him; we cannot dictate or prescribe to him; we cannot resist him in the execution of his purposes; but we may asK him for what we desire, and he has graciously said that such asking may effect much for our own good and the good of our fellow-men. Nothing has been more clearly demonstrated in the history of the world than that prayer is effectual in obtaining blessings from God, and in accomplishing great and valuable purposes. It has indeed no intrinsic power; but God has graciously purposed that his favor shall be granted to those who call upon him, and that what no mere human power can effect should be produced by his power in answer to prayer.
17Elias was a man. There are innumerable instances in Scripture of what he meant to prove; but he chose one that is remarkable above all others; for it was a great thing that God should make heaven in a manner subject to the prayers of Elias, so as to obey his wishes. Elias kept heaven shut by his prayers for three years and a half; he again opened it, so that it poured down abundance of rain. Hence appeared the wonderful power of prayer. Well known is this remarkable history, and is found in 1Kg_17:0 and 1Kg_18:0. And though it is not there expressly said, that Elias prayed for drought, it may yet be easily gathered, and that the rain also was given to his prayers.
But we must notice the application of the example. James does not say that drought ought to be sought from the Lord, because Elias obtained it; for we may by inconsiderate zeal presumptuously and foolishly imitate the Prophet. We must then observe the rule of prayer, so that it may be by faith. He, therefore, thus accommodates this example, — that if Elias was heard, so also we shall be heard when we rightly pray. For as the command to pray is common, and as the promise is common, it follows that the effect also will be common.
Lest any one should object and say, that we are far distant from the dignity of Elias, he places him in our own rank, by saying, that he was a mortal man and subject to the same passions with ourselves. For we profit less by the examples of saints, because we imagine them to have been half gods or heroes, who had peculiar intercourse with God; so that because they were heard, we receive no confidence. In order to shake off this heathen and profane superstition, James reminds us that the saints ought to be considered as having the infirmity of the flesh; so that we may learn to ascribe what they obtained from the Lord, not to their merits, but to the efficacy of prayer.
It hence appears how childish the Papists are, who teach men to flee to the protection of saints, because they had been heard by the Lord. For thus they reason, “Because he obtained what he asked as long as he lived in the world, he will be now after death our best patron.” This sort of subtle refinement was altogether unknown to the Holy Spirit. For James on the contrary argues, that as their prayers availed so much, so we ought in like manner to pray at this day according to their example, and that we shall not do so in vain.
Elias – The common way of writing the word “Elijah” in the New Testament, Mat_11:14; Mat_16:14; Mat_17:3, etc.
Was a man subject to like passions as we are – This does not mean that Elijah was passionate in the sense in which that word is now commonly used; that is, that he was excitable or irritable, or that he was the victim of the same corrupt passions and propensities to which other men are subject; but that he was like affected; that he was capable of suffering the same things, or being affected in the same manner. In other words, he was a mere man, subject to the same weaknesses and infirmities as other men. Compare the notes at Act_14:15. The apostle is illustrating the efficacy of prayer. In doing this, he refers to an undoubted case where prayer had such efficacy. But to this it might be objected that Elijah was a distinguished prophet, and that it was reasonable to suppose that his prayer would be heard. It might be said that his example could not be adduced to prove that the prayers of those who were not favored with such advantages would be heard; and especially that it could not be argued from his case that the prayers of the ignorant, and of the weak, and of children and of servants, would be answered. To meet this, the apostle says that he was a mere man, with the same natural propensities and infirmities as other men, and that therefore his case is one which should encourage all to pray. It was an instance of the efficacy of prayer, and not an illustration of the power of a prophet.
And he prayed earnestly – Greek, “He prayed with prayer” – a Hebraism, to denote that he prayed earnestly. Compare Luk_22:15. This manner of speaking is common in Hebrew. Compare 1Sa_26:25; Psa_118:18; Lam_1:2. The reference here is undoubtedly to 1Ki_17:1. In that place, however, it is not said that Elijah prayed, but that he said, “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these three years, but according to my word.” Either James interprets this as a prayer, because it could be accomplished only by prayer, or he states what had been banded down by tradition as the way in which the miracle was effected. There can be no reasonable doubt that prayer was employed in the case, for even the miracles of the Saviour were accomplished in connection with prayer, Joh_11:41-42.
That it might not rain – Not to gratify any private resentment of his, but as a punishment on the land for the idolatry which prevailed in the time of Ahab. Famine was one of the principal methods by which God punished his people for their sins.
And it rained not on the earth – On the land of Palestine, for so the word earth is frequently understood in the Bible. See the notes at Luk_2:1. There is no reason to suppose that the famine extended beyond the country that was subject to Ahab.
By the space – For the time.
Of three years and six months – See this explained in the notes at Luk_4:25. Compare Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae, on Luk_4:25.
And he prayed again – The allusion here seems to be to 1Ki_18:42, 1Ki_18:45, though it is not expressly said there that he prayed. Perhaps it might be fairly gathered from the narrative that he did pray, or at least that would be the presumption, for he put himself into a natural attitude of prayer. “He cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees,” 1Ki_18:42. In such circumstances, it is to be fairly presumed that such a man would pray; but it is remarkable that it is not expressly mentioned, and quite as remarkable that James should have made his argument turn on a thing which is not expressly mentioned, but which seems to have been a matter of inference. It seems probable to me, therefore, that there was some tradition on which he relied, or that it was a common interpretation of the passage in 1 Kings, that Elijah prayed earnestly, and that this was generally believed by those to whom the apostle wrote. Of the fact that Elijah was a man of prayer, no one could doubt; and in these circumstances the tradition and common belief were sufficient to justify the argument which is employed here.
And the heaven gave rain – The clouds gave rain. “The heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain,” 1Ki_18:45.
And the earth brought forth her fruit – The famine ceased, and the land again became productive. The case referred to here was indeed a miracle, but it was a case of the power of prayer, and therefore to the point. If God would work a miracle in answer to prayer, it is reasonable to presume that he will bestow upon us the blessings which we need in the same way.
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth – Either doctrinally and speculatively, by embracing error; or practically, by falling into sinful practices. Either of these may be called “erring from the truth,” because they are contrary to what the truth teaches and requires. What is here said does not appear to have any connection with what precedes, but the apostle seems to have supposed that such a case might occur; and, in the conclusion of the Epistle, he called their attention to the importance of endeavoring to save an erring brother, if such an instance should happen. The exhortation would be proper in addressing a letter to any church, or in publicly addressing any congregation.
And one convert him – This does not mean “convert him as a sinner, or regenerate him,” but turn him from the error of his way; bring him back from his wanderings; re-establish him in the truth, and in the practice of virtue and religion. So far as the word used here is concerned, ἐπιστρέψῃ epistrepsē he who had erred from the truth, and who was to be converted, may have been a true Christian before. The word means simply to turn, sc., from his way of error. See the notes at Luk_22:32.
20Let him know. I doubt whether this ought rather to have been written, γιςώσκετε, “know ye.” Both ways the meaning however is the same. For James recommends to us the correction of our brethren from the effect produced that we may more assiduously attend to this duty. Nothing is better or more desirable than to deliver a soul from eternal death; and this is what he does who restores an erring brother to the right way: therefore a work so excellent ought by no means to be neglected. To give food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, we see how much Christ values such acts; but the salvation of the soul is esteemed by him much more precious than the life of the body. We must therefore take heed lest souls perish through our sloth, whose salvation God puts in a manner in our hands. Not that we can bestow salvation on them; but that God by our ministry delivers and saves those who seem otherwise to be nigh destruction.
Some copies have his soul, which makes no change in the sense. I, however, prefer the other reading, for it has more force in it.
And shall hide a multitude of sins. He makes an allusion to a saying of Solomon, rather than a quotation. (Pro_10:12.) Solomon says that love covers sins, as hatred proclaims them. For they who hate burn with the desire of mutual slander; but they who love are disposed to exercise mutual forbearance. Love, then, buries sins as to men. James teaches here something higher, that is, that sins are blotted out before God; as though he had said, Solomon has declared this as the fruit of love, that it covers sins; but there is no better or more excellent way of covering them than when they are wholly abolished before God. And this is done when the sinner is brought by our admonition to the right way: we ought then especially and more carefully to attend to this duty.
Let him know – Let him duly consider, for his encouragement, that he who is the instrument of converting a sinner shall save a soul from eternal death, and a body from ruin, and shall hide a multitude of sins; for in being the means of his conversion we bring him back to God, who, in his infinite mercy, hides or blots out the numerous sins which he had committed during the time of his backsliding. It is not the man’s sins who is the means of his conversion, but the sins of the backslider, which are here said to be hidden. See more below.
1. Many are of opinion that the hiding a multitude of sins is here to be understood of the person who converts the backslider: this is a dangerous doctrine, and what the Holy Spirit never taught to man. Were this true it would lead many a sinner to endeavor the reformation of his neighbor, that himself might continue under the influence of his own beloved sins and conversion to a particular creed would be put in the place of conversion to God, and thus the substance be lost in the shadow. Bishop Atterbury, (Ser. vol. i. p. 46), and Scott, (Christian Life, vol. i. p. 368), contend “that the covering a multitude of sins includes also, that the pious action of which the apostle speaks engages God to look with greater indulgence on the character of the person that performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss.” See Macknight. This from such authorities may be considered doubly dangerous; it argues however great ignorance of God, of the nature of Divine justice, and of the sinfulness of sin. It is besides completely antievangelical; it teaches in effect that something besides the blood of the covenant will render God propitious to man, and that the performance of a pious action will induce God’s justice to show greater indulgence to the person who performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss. On the ground of this doctrine we might confide that, had he a certain quantum of pious acts, we might have all the sins of our lives forgiven, independently of the sacrifice of Christ; for if one pious act can procure pardon for a multitude of sins, what may not be expected from many?
2. The Jewish doctrine, to which it is possible St. James may allude, was certainly more sound than that taught by these Christian divines. They allowed that the man who was the means of converting another had done a work highly pleasing to God, and which should be rewarded; but they never insinuate that this would atone for sin. I shall produce a few examples: –
In Synopsis Sohzar, p. 47, n. 17, it is said: Great is his excellence who persuades a sick person to turn from his sins. Ibid, p. 92, n. 18: Great is his reward who brings back the pious into the way of the blessed Lord.
Yoma, fol. 87, 1: By his hands iniquity is not committed, who turns many to righteousness; i.e. God does not permit him to fall into sin. What is the reason? Ans. Lest those should be found in paradise, while their instructer is found in hell.
This doctrine is both innocent and godly in comparison of the other. It holds out a motive to diligence and zeal, but nothing farther. In short, if we allow any thing to cover our sins beside the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, We shall err most dangerously from the truth, and add this moreover to the multitude of Our sins, that we maintained that the gift of God could be purchased by our puny acts of comparative righteousness.
3. As one immortal soul is of more worth than all the material creation of God, every man who knows the worth of his own should labor for the salvation of others. To be the means of depriving hell of her expectation, and adding even one soul to the Church triumphant, is a matter of infinite moment; and he who is such an instrument has much reason to thank God that ever he was born. He who lays out his accounts to do good to the souls of men, will ever have the blessing of God in his own. Besides, God will not suffer him to labor in vain, or spend his strength for naught. At first he may see little fruit; but the bread cast upon the waters shall be found after many days: and if he should never see it in this life, he may take for granted that whatsoever he has done for God, in simplicity and godly sincerity, has been less or more effectual.
After the last word of this epistle ἁμαρτιων, of sins, some versions add his, others theirs; and one MS. and the later Syriac have Amen. But these additions are of no authority.
Let him know – Let him who converts the other know for his encouragement.
That he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way – Any sinner; anyone who has done wrong. This is a general principle, applicable to this case and to all others of the same kind. It is a universal truth that he who turns a sinner from a wicked path does a work which is acceptable to God, and which will in some way receive tokens of his approbation. Compare Deu_12:3. No work which man can perform is more acceptable to God; none will be followed with higher rewards. In the language which is used here by the apostle, it is evidently intended not to deny that success in converting a sinner, or in reclaiming one from the error of his ways, is to be traced to the grace of God; but the apostle here refers only to the divine feeling towards the individual who shall attempt it, and the rewards which he may hope to receive. The reward bestowed, the good intended and done, would be the same as if the individual were able to do the work himself. God approves and loves his aims and efforts, though the success is ultimately to be traced to himself.
Shall save a soul from death – It has been doubted whether this refers to his own soul, or to the soul of him who is converted. Several manuscripts, and the Vulgate, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic versions, here read: “his soul.” The most natural interpretation of the passage is to refer it to the soul of the one converted, rather than of him who converts him. This accords better with the uniform teaching of the New Testament, since it is nowhere else taught that the method of saving our souls is by converting others; and this interpretation will meet all that the scope of the passage demands. The object of the apostle is to present a motive for endeavoring to convert one who has wandered away; and assuredly a sufficient motive for that is furnished in the fact, that by this means an immortal soul would be saved from eternal ruin. The word death here must refer to eternal death, or to future punishment. There is no other death which the soul is in danger of dying. The body dies and moulders away, but the soul is immortal. The apostle cannot mean that he would save the soul from annihilation, for it is in no danger of that. This passage proves, then, that there is a death which the soul may die; that there is a condition which may properly be called death as a consequence of sin; and that the soul will suffer that unless it is converted.
And shall hide a multitude of sins – Shall cover them over so that they shall not be seen; that is, they shall not be punished. This must mean either the sins which he has committed who is thus converted and saved, or the sins of him who converts him. Whichever is the meaning, a strong motive is presented for endeavoring to save a sinner from the error of his ways. It is not easy to determine which is the true sense. Expositors have been about equally divided respecting the meaning. Doddridge adopts substantially both interpretations, paraphrasing it, “not only procuring the pardon of those committed by the convert, but also engaging God to look with greater indulgence on his own character, and to be less ready to mark severely what he has done amiss.” The Jews regarded it as a meritorious act to turn a sinner from the error of his ways, and it is possible that James may have had some of their maxims in his eye. Compare Clarke, in loc. Though it may not be possible to determine with certainty whether the apostle here refers to the sins of him who converts another, or of him who is converted, yet it seems to me that the reference is probably to the latter, for the following reasons:
(1) Such an interpretation will meet all that is fairly implied in the language.
(2) this interpretation will furnish a strong motive for what the apostle expects us to do. The motive presented is, according to this, that sin will not be punished. But this is always a good motive for putting forth efforts in the cause of religion, and quite as powerful when drawn from our doing good to others as when applied to ourselves.
(3) this is a safe interpretation; the other is attended with danger. According to this, the effort would be one of pure benevolence, and there would be no danger of depending on what we do as a ground of acceptance with God. The other interpretation would seem to teach that our sins might be forgiven on some other ground than that of the atonement – by virtue of some act of our own.
(4) and there might be danger, if it be supposed that this refers to the fact that our sins are to be covered up by this act, of supposing that by endeavoriug to convert others we may live in sin with impunity; that however we live, we shall be safe if we lead others to repentance and salvation.
If the motive be the simple desire to hide the sins of others – to procure their pardon – to save a soul from death, without any supposition that by that we are making an atonement for our own sins – it is a good one, a safe one. But if the idea is that by this act we are making some atonement for our own offences, and that we may thus work out a righteousness of our own, the idea is one that is every way dangerous to the great doctrine of justification by faith, and is contrary to the whole teaching of the Bible. For these reasons it seems to me that the true interpretation is, that the passage refers to the sins of others, not our own; and that the simple motive here presented is, that in this way we may save a fellow-sinner from being punished for his sins. It may be added, in the conclusion of the notes at this Epistle, that this motive is one which is sufficient to stimulate us to great and constant efforts to save others. Sin is the source of all the evil in the universe: and the great object which a benevolent heart ought to have, should be that its desolating effects may be stayed; that the sinner may be pardoned; and that the guilty soul may be saved from its consequences in the future world. This is the design of God in the plan of redemption; this was the object of the Saviour in giving himself to die; this is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in renewing and sanctifying the soul; and this is the great end of all those acts of Divine Providence by which the sinner is warned and turned to God. When we come to die, as we shall soon, it will give us more pleasure to be able to recollect that we have been the means of saying one soul from death, than to have enjoyed all the pleasures which sense can furnish, or to have gained all the honor and wealth which the world can give.