An Exposition of James 5

G. Lacoste Munn  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 29 - Fall 1986

This final chapter in James is rich in the practical guidance which has characterized the entire book. It begins with a condemnation of the sins of oppressive rich people. Patience until the second coming of Christ is the next emphasis, followed by a prohibition of swearing. Prayer in every circumstance of life, both joy and sorrow, is to characterize the daily walk of the Christian. Itis fitting that the final item is a word of encouragement to reclaim backsliders.

A Condemnation of Rich Oppressors
James 5:1-6

Verse 1

Rich men are directly addressed. This is surprising because these rich persons were not likely to read or hear this message. It is possible that there were a few selfish rich persons among the Christians, but most of these were outside the Christian fellowship. Although in another context these could be persons rich in spiritual values, the obvious reference here is to those rich in earthly possessions. They do not need to work for a living.

Weep and howl does not express a casual grief nor a routine disappointment. This is a shattering tragedy. This grief comes from the very depths of these godless rich persons. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of grief that leads to repentance. It is the unrepenting grief of the godless.

Miseries point to a condition of wretchedness, distress, and trouble. The consequences of sin are always tragic.

Shall come indicates the certainty of the judgment which will come upon the godless rich. The Greek word here is a present participle. It indicates that the miseries are so certain and so close at hand that a present tense appropriately describes them.

Verse 2

Riches are neither good nor evil in itself. The same word could refer to spiritual wealth; however, the reference here is to an abundance of earthly goods. It is obvious that these rich men have counted on their riches to care for all the needs that matter. It is equally clear that they placed their confidence in a totally inadequate object. In the ancient world wealth usually existed in three forms: food, clothing, and precious metal. This is wealth in whatever form it might appear.

Corrupted describes the decay and rot that overtakes the wealth of the godless rich. Their wealth will fail them at the time they need it the most. The treasures of this world have no lasting value. Ropes has concluded “In James it is not the perishability but the worthlessness of wealth that is referred to.”[1]James Hardy Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James in International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916), p. 284.

Garments, point to that part of ancient wealth centered in clothing. Moths constituted a major threat to fine clothing. The Bible frequently speaks of the destructive power of the moth (Job 3:28; Ps. 29:11; Isa. 1:9; 51:8).

Those who have eyes to see and appreciate true values recognize that the treasures of this world have little value. The main idea is not that the treasures of this world are temporary but that they are valueless.

Verse 3

Gold and silver are two of the most precious metals in existence. This can refer to the raw material, to the various vessels made from them, or to coins. There is nothing that better symbolizes the wealth of this world than these two metals.

Cankered means to be covered with rust. The verb is a perfect tense. It is the strong way of saying that this condition exists. There is an interesting question here concerning rust for these two metals. In the strictest sense neither will rust. Silver is only slightly vulnerable to corrosion to the point that it becomes worthless, and gold is totally immune although it can tarnish a bit. Some have felt that James was a poor man and did not know the qualities of these metals. It is far better to assume that James was well acquainted with the qualities of gold and silver and that he did not feel bound by the literal endurance of these precious metals. James declares that gold and silver have rusted because they have so little lasting value. Throughout history these metals have been sought and treasured. Even items prized as these will be just as worthless as the cheapest alloy.

Rust originally meant poison, like that of a snake. It was a natural transition for it to refer to rust. In this passage it is the rusty poison that oozes from ill-gotten wealth.

Shall eat your flesh—judgment coming on these godless rich people will not be a remote event but it will touch their very bodies. This condemnation will contaminate every dimension of life.

Fire emphasizes the severity of the coming judgment. There 1s hardly any thought as repulsive as having one’s own flesh consumed by a hot fire.

Last days gives some insight into what wealth meant to these people. They thought that their possessions would tide them over for all the foreseeable future. They thought they had enough of everything that mattered and that they would never again be in need.

Verse 4

Laborers are those humble persons who toiled the fields for daily wages. They had little or no power to protect themselves. They were at the mercy of unscrupulous land owners.

Kept back by fraud refers to the rightful reward for services rendered. Instead of being paid at the end of the day as was the custom, the pay was delayed and this injustice enough. However there is the implication that the wages have simply been stolen. Poor working people depended on their daily wages for daily food. The embezzlement of pay or even a delay in paying meant that poor people went hungry.

Cries shows that the distress of the deprived laborers is intense. They have toiled in the fields and have every right to anticipate the reward of their labor. Their hunger was even more intense because they knew that they had earned the right to eat.

Into the ears of the Lord shows that God knows when people suffer injustice. He sees the sparrow fall. He knows and cares when people suffer for any reason whatever, but He is especially attentive to the cries of those who suffer due to injustice. God is just. He expects humans to treat each other justly and He is sensitive to the pleas of those whose rights are trampled.

Sahaoth transliterates the Hebrew word for ”hosts” in the expression “the Lord of Hosts.” It refers to the omnipotence of God. The emphasis here is on the power of the eternal God who hears the cries of distress from oppressed laborers. God is infinitely great and concerned with ruling the universe, but at the same time He is concerned with the plight of suffering humans.

Verse 5

Lived in pleasure—at the same time when the godless rich were withholding the rightful wages of poor laborers, the rich were leading a life of luxury and indulgence. This indulgence and carousing would be inappropriate under any circumstances, but it was especially so when many poor persons were in extreme need.

Been wanton heightens and intensifies the scene portrayed with the pervious verb. These rich persons were living in conspicuous luxury and indulgence. No expense was spared in catering to every whim. The only thing they cared about was selfish indulgence.

Nourished your hearts is the picture of animals that have been penned up and fed out for slaughter. They have no responsibility except to eat all they want.

Day of slaughter—without realizing exactly what they were doing, the godless rich have actually prepared themselves for their own slaughter. They have sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

Verse 6

He doth not resist—there are two stages in the failure of the just to resist the oppression of the godless rich. The first is where the just simply do not have the power to resist. There is nothing they can do to protect themselves. The second stage is even more pathetic: It is when the just have lost all will to resist. They have been oppressed and beaten down for so long that they have resigned themselves to their fate. Even if they should discover the means of resistance, they lack the will to do so. Adamson has noted, “The rich are represented, not as bold and fearless champions, defending a cause against dangerous enemies, but as brutal bullies, picking as the victims of their outrages those who either cannot or will not resist.”[2]James Adamson, The Epistle of James in New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), p. 188.


Exercising Patience until the Coming of the Lord
James 5:7-12

Verse 7

Be patient—Patience is an essential ingredient in the Christian life. The Christian is to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. While waiting is involved in patience, it reveals only one dimension. The concept of stamina helps to bring out the full meaning of patience. Stamina is the strength to keep on performing until the end of the race. The Christian must keep on trusting and obeying. Patient waiting and stamina are both essential.

The coming of the Lord is the second coming of Christ. It is the blessed hope of Christians. It is the time when God will complete His plans for the redemption of humans. All Christians eagerly anticipate this event.

The husbandman is basically one who plows the earth; he 1s a farmer. The diligence and patience of the farmer serve as an illustration for all Christians. The farmer invests his time, energy, and money into the enterprise. The harvest is the only motivation for this investment. The farmer cannot afford to throw up his hands and quit just because he is weary.   He must persevere until the harvest comes. Simple waiting is involved, but the farmer must at the same time be alert to do what is needed.

Early and latter rain—The early rain is that which fell in the fall at the start of the rainy season and the latter is that which fell in the spring. The fall rain was necessary for grain to germinate and come up. It grew during the winter and needed the spring rains for a good harvest in May or early June. The farmer had to exercise great patience as he yearned to see the rains come at just the right time. Sometimes they did and sometimes they did not. In a similar way the Christian is to exercise patience in living for God. He is often at the mercy of powerful forces which he can neither control nor understand. Nevertheless, he must patiently keep on trusting and obeying.

Verse 8

Be ye also patientThe Christian needs many of the same qualities displayed by the farmer. Just as the farmer needs to be patient, so does the Christian.

Stablish your hearts—The heart of the Christian must be firmly established. This happens when the Christian learns to look forward to the second coming of Christ and cultivates the patience and stamina needed to remain faithful throughout all the ups and downs of life.

Draweth nigh—The coming of the Lord is described as already near. This was true when James wrote it and it is still true today. Ever since Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, the second coming has been just at hand. Christians down through the centuries have felt that theirs was the very time of Christ’s return. Every age has displayed some of the qualities of the last age. Only after the event will Christians know precisely the time of His coming. In the meantime Christians are to live in eager anticipation of His return.

Verse 9

Grudge not—The idea is that of complaining and groaning against a brother. It carries the force of a loud sigh uttered in complaint. Christians who are consumed with displeasure toward their fellows are vulnerable in the area of patience. The wrath which they call righteous is in danger of consuming them. It is impossible to confine a grudge to a single part of one’s life; It spreads out and pervades one’s entire existence.

Lest ye be condemned—The tragedy of holding a grudge is that it brings condemnation back to the one who harbors the grudge. This is true regardless of the basis for the grudge. The grievance may be based on fact or upon a perverted imagination. Nevertheless, the result is the same; a person who· holds a grudge will be   condemned.

The judge standeth before the door—Judgment is always pictured as near at hand. The consequences of holding a grudge will come swiftly and certainly.

Verse 10

Prophets are defined here. They are those persons who have spoken in the name of the Lord. There are numerous prophets and prophetic personalities in the Old Testament. There are true prophets and false prophets. In the New Testament both John the Baptist and Jesus were called prophets. In this passage it is clear that the reference is to the prophets of the Old Testament. Examples are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Elijah, and Elisha.

Suffering affliction—Christians have suffered and will continue to suffer for their faith. The prophets exerted strenuous effort to endure the suffering that came to them. This is endurance in the face of hardship.

Patience—The noun is used here; the verb from the same root appears in verses 7 and 8. This quality is ascribed to God in Rom. 2:4. The Christian is challenged to show toward others that quality of forbearance that God displays.

Verse 11

Count them happy is a verb which means to consider someone happy. An adjective from the same root is used for the beatitudes. These are persons who are truly well off. The world has a different set of standards; it fails to see that the children of God are the ones who possess the true riches. One of the main objectives of those who preach the gospel is to help people adopt God’s value system. Only then will people recognize that the truly fortunate ones are the children of God.

Which endure—The Christian is to keep on performing in faith and works. Here is an emphasis on keeping on when the pressures would tempt many to flee. It is that quality of standing one’s ground, of holding out, of enduring in trouble.

The end of the Lord is the goal toward which the Lord is working. It is the last part or the conclusion. In the case of Job, it is that outcome toward which the Lord was working throughout the trials.

The Lord is very pitiful—God is more than just compassionate. He is exceedingly compassionate. God is love. He sees the sparrow fall. Even in deepest distress Job was always under the watchful eye of God. Tender mercy simply emphasizes and underscores the compassion which God had for Job. This and the previous expression are similar in meaning. Together they proclaim the grace of God.

Verse 12

Fall into condemnation is the judgment that goes against a person. It includes both condemnation and the punishment which follows.


Praying in Every Circumstance
James 5:13-18

Verse 13

Afflicted refers to various misfortunes which humans experience. It could be a disaster in business or in personal relations. It could even include personal illness except that illness is specifically mentioned in the next verse.

Let him prayThe proper response for a Christian to a crisis is to go to God in prayer. This is a petition that God will give the strength and guidance needed. Vaughan has observed, “Prayer, to be sure, may not always remove the affliction, but in that case it always brings the sufferer grace to bear it.”[3]Curtis Vaughan,James: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Zonder­ van Publishing House, 1969), p. 115.

Is any merry? This is basically a person who is cheerful, one who is keeping up his courage. It is one whose outlook on life is optimistic and positive.

Let him sing psalms-The proper response to good fortune is to sing praises to God. The Christian recognizes that God is the giver of every good gift and praise is the natural response of the grateful heart.

Verse 14

Is any sick refers to weakness and a lack of power. It can be a weakness of any kind, perhaps one caused by fear or caution. It can even refer to an economic weakness, and thus it would be the equivalent of poverty. However, in this passage the weakness is obviously in the body; it is a physical illness.

Elders is a reference to older men. It is actually the comparative form of the adjective which means to be old. Among the Christians, this was one of the words used to designate a pastor. It was expected that he would be a mature person who would command respect. It is likely that there were several pastors or elders in each church. The sick person was to request that all the elders of his local church come to him and pray for his recovery.

Anointing him with oil -This was olive oil. It was frequently used as a household remedy. It was applied directly to wounds or to that area of the body associated with an illness.

Verse 15

Prayer of faith is that prayer which is characterized by faith. The elders are the ones praying. They must have faith in God as the redeemer and sustainer of His children. However, the sick person is also exercising his faith. It was the patient’s faith in God and his desire for healing that prompted him to call for the elders of the church in the first place. The prayer for healing would be of no avail whatever if the sick person were cynical and unbelieving. It is not that God is unable to heal a doubting person but that He does not choose to do so.

Shall save—This word basically means to save from harm, to rescue, to preserve. If the context is one of rescue from sin, then it refers to salvation. However, the rescue can be from a wide variety of dangers. In this instance the danger is illness and the saving is the equivalent of healing.

The Lord shall raise -Even though God permits the faithful prayers of His children to be a factor in healing, it is always God who does the healing.

Sins are those of the sick person. Although it is not specifically spelled out, it is assumed that the sick person joins in the prayer of faith expressed by the elders. A part of this prayer is a request for forgiveness. God responds not only by granting healing, but He grants forgiveness which is even more important. At this point there is a need for some general observations on the subject of faith healing. Both Jesus and His disciples frequently healed sick people. Miracles of healing continue in the book of Acts; however, they do appear to diminish in frequency. Christians today struggle to know the place that faith healing should occupy.

This passage in James 5:15 is surely a strong indicator that faith healing still has a valid place in the lives of contemporary Christians. However, there are substantial reasons for caution at this point. God is certainly free to heal today, and it appears that He does so at times of His own choosing. Nevertheless, God has not given a covenant that He will always heal in the same sense that He has given a covenant that He will always forgive sins when His children repent.

The promise of deliverance from all illness will be fully realized only in heaven. What Christians enjoy today is only a foretaste of future glory. In those cases where God does choose to heal miraculously, there is a preview of the perfect health that all God’s children will someday enjoy.

With the above considerations in mind, what should James 5:15 mean to Christians today? When a believer is ill, he or she should request that the pastor and a few deacons come and pray for God’s healing. It should be done with the understanding that God may choose to grant a miraculous healing, or He may not. Both the sick person and the pastor and deacons should also recognize that all healing is a gift from God. Both medicine and the recuperative powers of the human body are expressions of God’s

care for His children. The prayer of faith is made with confidence that God forever loves His children and that He is able to heal. However, those who pray also know that God may not choose to heal miraculously. Finally, the prayer is made by those who are grateful to God for His goodness regardless of whether there is a miracle.

Verse 16

Confess your faults—This mutual confession must take place only within the fellowship of believers. Within that fellowship the confession should be about as public as the transgression.

Pray one for another -Believers are encouraged to uphold each other in prayer. Healing is a major objective in this praying.

Effectual fervent renders a single Greek participle which means to be at work. Praying is an activity that demands careful attention and persistence. Praying is hard work.

Availetb much -God chooses to bestow many of His choicest blessings in response to the fervent prayers of His children. Diligence in praying does not manipulate God nor cause Him to change His mind, but it makes the Christian receptive to those blessings which God will bestow in no other way.

Verse 17

Subject to like passions renders a rare word which appears in only one place in the New Testament. It indicates a similarity in feelings and circumstances. Elijah faced life with the same nature that others possess. He was not some kind of super person removed from the common pressures and temptations of life.

Prayed   earnestly -The intensity with which Elijah prayed is the key. He poured out his soul in petition. This was not an indifferent prayer which simply put the ball in God’s court; Elijah pled and agonized. Many of our prayers go unanswered simply because we do not care that much about them in the first place. We must care enough to pour out our souls in earnest petition.


Reclaiming a Backslider
James 5:19-20

Verse 19

If any of you do err—This is the act of going astray. It is a wandering away from the truth.

Convert him—This is the act of turning a person around from a path of sin and pointing him in the right direction.

Verse 20

Save a soul from death—The wages of sin is death. This is that spiritual death to which all humans are subject unless they find forgiveness in Christ.

Shall bide a multitude of sins—These are the sins of the wandering brother and not those of the mature Christian who led him to repent.


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