James 5

James 5  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 8
IN THE CLOSING verses of chapter 4, James was addressing those of his own people belonging to the prosperous commercial class, who professed to receive Jesus as their Lord. In the opening of the fifth chapter his thoughts turn to the rich Jews, and these, as we have before mentioned, were almost to a man found amongst the unbelieving majority. In the first six verses he has some severe and even scorching things to say about them, and to them.
The accusation he brings against them is threefold. First he charges them with fraud, and that of the most despicable character. They took advantage of the humblest people who were least able to defend themselves. Second, they were utterly self-indulgent, thinking of little but their own luxuries. Third, they persecuted and even killed their brethren who had embraced the faith of Christ, who are spoken of here as “the just.”
As a consequence, self-enrichment was their pursuit and they were successful in it. They “heaped treasure together” (ch. 5:3). Meanwhile the laborers who could not defend themselves cried out in their poverty, and the Christians, who very possibly might have defended themselves, followed in the footsteps of their Master and did not resist them. The rich men succeeded famously and seemed to have matters all their own way.
Appearances however are deceitful. In reality they were but like brute beasts being fattened for killing. “Ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter,” (ch. 5:5) is how James puts it. If Psa. 73 be read we discover that this is no new thing. Asaph had been greatly troubled observing the prosperity of the wicked, coupled with the chastenings and sorrows of the people of God; and he found no satisfactory solution of the problem until he went into the sanctuary of God.
In the light of the sanctuary everything became clear to him. He saw that the course to both the godless rich and the plagued and downtrodden saints could only be rightly estimated as the end of each came into view. A few moments before he had been near to falling himself because he had been consumed with envy at the prosperity of the wicked: now he exclaims, “How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment!” (Psa. 73:1919How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors. (Psalm 73:19)). Asaph himself was one of the godly, plagued all the day long and “chastened every morning” (Psa. 73:1414For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning. (Psalm 73:14)). Yet in the sanctuary he lifts his eyes to God with joy and confesses, “Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psa. 73:2424Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:24)). The end of the one was, brought into desolation. The end of the other, received to glory. The contrast is complete!
And that contrast is very manifest in our chapter. The amassed wealth of the rich was corrupted and cankered. Utter misery was coming upon them. As for the tried saints they had but to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord; then their glad harvest of blessing would be reaped, as verses 7 and 8 make manifest.
These inspired threatenings of judgment found an almost immediate fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus. History informs us that most Christians took warning and left the city before it was invested by the Roman armies, while the unbelieving mass were entrapped and such miseries came upon them as all their weepings and howlings could not avert. Yet while a fulfillment it was not the fulfillment of these words. “Ye have heaped treasure together,” (ch. 5:3) it says, “for the last days.” That means, not merely the last few years of that sad chapter of Jerusalem’s history, but the days just preceding the coming of the Lord.
You will notice how James corroborates his fellow-apostles, Paul, Peter and John. All four of them present the coming of the Lord as imminent, as the immediate hope of the believer. They say to us such things as, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:1212The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:12)). “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:77But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. (1 Peter 4:7)). “Little children, it is the last time” (1 John 2:1818Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. (1 John 2:18)). “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (ch. 5:8). And yet nearly nineteen centuries have passed since these words were written. Were they mistaken? By no means. Yet it is not easy to get their exact view-point, and so understand their words.
An illustration may help. A drama is being enacted on the stage, and the curtain rises for the last act. It is the first public performance, and someone who has already witnessed it privately whispers to a friend, “Now for the finish! It is the last act.” Yet nothing seems to happen. The minutes pass, and the players appear to be absolutely motionless. Yet there is something transpiring. Very slow, stealthy movements are going on. Something is slowly creeping on to the stage. It needs good opera glasses and a very observant pair of eyes behind them to notice it! The crowd becomes openly impatient, and the man who said, “Now for the finish,” (Ruth 3:1818Then said she, Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day. (Ruth 3:18)) looks a fool. Yet he was perfectly right.
In the days of the Apostles the earth was set for the last act in the great drama of God’s dealings. Yet because God is full of longsuffering, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” (2 Peter 3:99The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)) He has slowed down the working of iniquity. It is a very long time coming to a head-as we count time. It was perfectly true when the Apostles wrote that the next decisive movement in the drama was to be God’s public intervention, in the coming of the Lord; though for His coming we are still waiting today. We shall not wait for it in vain!
His coming is our hope, and these words of exhortation ought to come to us with tenfold force today. Are we tested, our hearts oppressed with the burden of unrighted wrongs? “Be ye also patient,” (ch. 5:8) is the word for us. Do we feel unsettled, everything around and within seemingly insecure and shaking? The message comes to us, “Stablish your hearts” (ch. 5:8). Does it seem as if we are everlastingly sowing without effect? Do we plow and wait, and plow and wait, until we are tempted to think that we are but plowing sands? “Be patient,” is the word for us, “unto the coming of the Lord” (ch. 5:7). Then we shall enjoy our grand “Harvest-home.”
We must remember however that the Lord’s coming will not only mean the judgment of the ungodly and the uplifting of the saints, but it will entail the righting of all that has been wrong in the relations of believers one with another. Verse 9 bears on this. What is more common than grudges or complainings of believers one against another, and what more disastrous in its effects upon the spiritual health of the whole body of saints? Are we inferring that there are no causes of complaint, nothing that might lead to the cherishing of a grudge? There are probably more causes than we have any notion of, but let them not be turned into grudges. He who will sit in judgment, and assess everything—even as between believers— in perfect righteousness, is standing’ with His hand upon the handle of the door ready to enter the court; and he who is readiest to entertain and nurse a grudge will probably be himself the first to be condemned.
In all this we should be encouraged by the example of the prophets who have gone before, and particularly by the case of Job. We see them suffering affliction, enduring patiently and, in many cases, dying as the result of their testimony. Job’s case was special. Satan was not permitted to take his life and so remove him from our observation. He was to live so that we might see “the end of the Lord” (ch. 5:11) in his case. And what a wonderful end it was! We can see the pity and tender mercy of God shining through all his disasters as we view them in the light shed by the finish of his story.
Job’s case was just a sample. What God wrought out for him He is working out for all of us, for He has no favorites. We cannot see to the finish of our own cases, but in the light of Job’s case God invites us to trust Him, and if we do we shall not grudge against our fellows any more than Job bore a grudge against his three friends when God had reached His end with him. Why, Job then was found fervently praying for his friends instead of grumbling at them! Let us trust God and accept His dealings, assured that His end according to His tender mercy will be reached for us at the coming of Jesus, and we shall see it then.
How important it is then that the coming of the Lord should really be our HOPE. If faith be vigorous it will be kept shining brightly before our hearts, and then we shall endure with patience, we shall be lifted above grudges and complaints, and we shall be marked too by that moderation of language to which verse 12 exhorts us. He who lives in an atmosphere of truth has no need to fortify his words with strong oaths. The habitual use of them soon has the contrary effect to that intended. Even men of the world soon doubt the veracity of the man who cannot be content with a plain yes or no. The last words of the verse, “lest ye fall into condemnation” (ch. 5:12) seem to infer this.
While we wait for the coming of the Lord our lives are made up of many and varying experiences. Going through a hostile world there are frequent afflictions. Then again there are times of peculiar happiness. Yet again, seasons of sickness come, and sometimes they come upon us as the direct result of committing sin. From verse 13 to the end these matters are taken up.
The resource of the afflicted saint is prayer. We do not always realize this. So often we merely betake ourselves to kindly friends, who will listen to the recital of our troubles, or to wealthy and influential friends, who perchance may be able to help us in our troubles, and prayer falls into the background, whereas it should be our first thought. It is affliction which adds intensity to our prayers. You attend a meeting which may be described as “our usual prayer-meeting,” and it is, we trust, a profitable occasion. But even so how different it is when a number meet together to pray about a matter which burdens their hearts to the point of positive affliction. In meetings of that sort the heavens seem to bow down to touch the earth.
But here, on the other hand, are believers who are merry indeed, their hearts are full of gladness. It is spiritual gladness, at least to begin with. The danger is however that it will soon degenerate into mere carnal jollification. If spiritual gladness is to be maintained it must have an outlet of a spiritual sort. That spiritual outlet is the singing of psalms, by which we understand any poetical or metrical composition of a spiritual sort which can be set to music. The happy heart sings, and the happy Christian is to be no exception in this.
Just think of the range of song that is within our compass! Earth’s great singers have their portfolios of familiar songs, their repertoire they call it. We read that Solomon’s songs were one thousand and five, but how many are ours? In his days the heights and depths of love divine were not made known as they are in ours. We have the breadth and length and depth and height of divine revelation and the knowledge of the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ as the subject matter for Christian song. There are moments, thank God, when very really we break forth with,
Sing, without ceasing sing,
The Saviour’s present grace.
only let us be careful that our singing is of such a character as may further lift us up, and not let us down.
As to sickness the Apostle’s instructions are equally plain. It is viewed as being God’s chastening hand upon the saint, very possibly in the form of direct retribution for his sins. In this the church would be interested, and the elders of the church should be called in. They, at their discretion, pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Lord’s name and he is healed, his sins being governmentally forgiven. It is evident from such a scripture as 1 John 5:1616If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16) that the elders were to exercise their spiritual discernment as to whether it was, or was not, the will of God that healing should be granted if they discerned it to be His will then they could pray the prayer full of faith and confidence, which would be without fail answered in his recovery.
Is this all valid for today? We believe so. Why then is it so little practiced? For at least two reasons. First, it is not an easy matter to find the elders of THE church though the elders of certain religious bodies may be found easily enough. The church of God has been mined as to its outward manifestation and unity, and we have to pay the penalty of it. Second, assuming the elders of the church are found and that they come in response to the call, the discernment and faith on their part, which are called for if they are to offer such a prayer of faith as is contemplated, are but very rarely found.
The faith, be it observed, is to be on the part of those who pray, that is of the elders. Nothing is said as to the faith of the one who is sick, though we may infer that he has some faith in the matter, sufficient at least to send for the elders in accordance with this scripture. We may infer too from the words that immediately follow in verse 16 that he would confess his sins, if indeed he have committed them. We point this out because this passage has been pressed into service on behalf of practices not warranted by this or any other scripture.
The confession of which verse 16 speaks is however not exactly confession to elders. It is rather “one to another.” This verse has nothing official about it as verses 14 and 15 have. There is no reason why any of us should not practice prayer for healing after this sort.
The case supposed is that of two believers, and one has offended against the other though neither apparently are entirely free from blame, and consequently both are suffering in their health. The main offender comes with heart-felt confession of the wrong he committed. The other is thereby moved to confess anything which may have been wrong on his side, and then melted before God they begin to pray for each other. If they have really forsaken their wrong-doing and are going in the way of righteousness they may expect to be heard of God and healed.
In connection with this Elijah is brought before us. Verse 17 is particularly interesting inasmuch as the Old Testament makes no mention of the fact that he prayed that it might not rain, though we are given very full details of how he prayed for rain at the end of the three and a half years in 1 Kings 18 He is introduced to us very abruptly in the opening verse of 1 Kings 17 as telling Ahab that it would not rain, so this verse in James gives us a peep into scenes before his public appearance-scenes of private and personal dealings with God. Though of like passions to ourselves he was righteous, and burning with the fervency of a passion for the glory of God. Hence he was heard, and he knew that he was heard with an assurance that enabled him to confidently tell Ahab what God was going to do. Would that we resembled him, if only in a small degree!
We may learn in all this what are the conditions of effectual prayer. Confession of sin, not only to God but to one another; practical righteousness in all our ways; fervency of spirit and petition. Fervent prayer is not that which is uttered in loud stentorian tones, but that which springs from a warm and glowing heart.
The closing verses revert to the thought of our praying for one another for healing and restoration. Verse 19 alludes to the conversion or bringing back of an erring brother, and from this we pass almost insensibly to the conversion of a sinner in verse 20. He who is used of God in this blessed work is an instrument in saving souls from death and the covering of many sins. Do we realize what an honor this is? Some people are forever on the tack of uncovering sin, whether of their fellow-believers or of the world. The covering of sins in a righteous way is what God loves. Let us go in for it with all our hearts.
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