Survey of James’ Epistle, Paper 7 James 5. 1-20
Nevil Williams, Llanelli
Wiz may analyse the chapter as follows:
1. The rich and their doom, vv. 1-6.
2. The remnant and their deliverance, vv. 7-12.
3. The restored and their demands, vv. 13-20.
1. The Rich and Their Doom, vv.
1-6. The two classes whom James addresses are marked out clearly in this last chapter. The rich are not saved. Observe how the term "brethren" is omitted here, cf. v. 7. Both parties are faced with the Lord's coming. The condemnation in verses 1-3 is similar to that in 4. 9, and to that expressed by the Lord in Luke 6. 24-26. Indeed, here is another echo of the Beatitudes. Wealth is often associated with the judgment of God. This was true of Tyre, Zech. 9. 1-4, and it will be of Babylon, Rev. 18. We may well contrast the destiny of the unbeliever in verse 3 with that of the believer in 1 Peter 1. 4. The end of the lost has a parallel in Romans 2. 5, "But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God".
The present age of grace which commenced at Pentecost will be succeeded by the millennium, which will be preceded by the Lord's return to the earth to judge it. Then these verses will be fulfilled. The Old Testament gives confirmation of this. In view of that day, James tells them to weep and howl. This received a partial fulfilment in 70 A.D., with the fall of Jerusalem.
The poor were being oppressed by them, too, vv. 4-6. This was common in rich Jewry, as can be seen in the book of Amos. The rich were making gain at the expense of the poor whose cry reached the ears of the Lord of sabaoth, James 5.4. This title conveys the idea of sovereign omnipotence, and is used here to emphasize the fact that, despite the helplessness of the oppressed, they have the Lord God Omnipotent to defend them. Notice the use of human features, such as the "ears", in the presentation of the Almighty God.
This is usual with the writers of Holy Writ. For example, in 1 Peter 3. 12 we read, "the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil". "The just" in James 5. 6 is probably a general term for believers, though the Saviour Himself could be included — He like them did not resist, for "when he was reviled, (he) reviled not again", 1 Pet. 2. 23. This has a future aspect as well, during the reign of the antichrist.
2. The Remnant and Their Deliverance, vv. 7-12. These words are addressed to the godly remnant who were among the unbelieving masses attending the synagogue. They were to be patient, and to suffer in patience. Here the Lord's return is predicted. In 1 Thessalonians 4. 13-18 Christ is seen coming "for" His own; but here we believe that His coming is "with" His own. It should be emphasized that the former, unlike the latter, was unknown in the Old Testament, for it is a New Testament "mystery", i.e., a truth that had not been revealed until the apostolic period, 1 Cor. 15. 51.
James urges them to be as the husbandman who must wait between the sowing and the reaping. Some see another Pentecost in the "latter rain". However, verse 7 should be taken literally, for it points back to God's blessing on Israel in the future, for in Zechariah 10. 1 we read, "Ask ye of the Lord rain in the time of the latter rain; so the Lord shall make bright clouds, and give them showers of rain, to every one grass in the field".
Then comes further encouragement. They were not to grudge one against another, so as not to be judged. For the Judge stands at the door. He alone is omniscient and impartial. His foot is on the threshold, and at His coming no one can prevent His entrance. Thus His return is an admonition as well as a comfort.
They were also to consider the examples in suffering and patience of the prophets, who spoke in the Lord's Name. Indeed, persecution was an experience common to the prophets — the parable of the vineyard emphasizes this, the climax being the killing of the Heir, Luke 20. 9-16; cf. 13. 33-34.
Job is another example, v. 11; this verse recalls the words in 1. 12, which also speak of the blessedness of endurance, and the promise of a crown of life eventually. Similar themes are dealt with by Paul in Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians. Suffering has three purposes: it is a preventative against sin; it is retributive for sin; and it is educative as regards sin. These three aspects can be illustrated from the experiences of Paul, David and Job respectively. Job's trials brought out his vileness, but there was also displayed the compassion of God.
Then James deals with the subject of swearing. As is usual in this Epistle, v. 12 refers back to the Beatitudes, Matt.5.33-37; cf. Matt.23.16-22. The teaching of these passages is that oaths imply the invoking of that which is beyond our power. Thus we can affirm anything only by letting our "yea be yea" and "nay, nay", as in a law court.
3. The Restored and Their Demands, vv. 13-20. This chapter commenced with the prophetic, and it now closes with the practical, i.e., prayer and the exercise of faith. Verse 13 tells us that the sufferers should devote themselves to prayer rather than to mourning. This was true of the psalmists and, like them, James' brethren were to sing their psalms to manifest their joy 1. 2.
Verses 14 and 15 need to be studied carefully because of misinterpretations which have occurred in relation to them. Oil-anointing reminds us of the Jewish background, and is often associated with restoration and service. In the context here, confession for sin alleviates disciplinary affliction that leads to restoration to the norm of Christian experience and service. For example, there was the olive leaf which the dove had when returning to Noah's ark, implying the restored communion between God and man, sin having been judged.
A similar thought is found in Acts where those identified with the national rejection had to be baptized for the remission of sins — baptism being a potent, significant indication of repentance. The truth of this has been explained thus: "there is a remission of guilt pertaining to sins, and also a practical remission. The former is effected only by the blood of the Lamb of God; Peter stressed this in 1 Peter 1. 18-20. This depends upon the purposes and love of God, and is received and recognized by faith. But the second sense deals with the sinner, now a believer, resolving to abandon his previous pathway of sin. Repentance is the actual achievement of this, both inwardly in the heart and outwardly in practice. But baptism in water is the manifestation of the practical resolve to achieve this fruit of repentance". (Acts, page 79, J. Heading). Likewise, proselytes were baptized for admission into the Jewish faith.
The oil was an external expression of a spiritual condition. In James 5 sin is seen again along with the restoration of the backslider: those responsible for this particular act were the elders, and it is the only occasion when the assembly is hinted at in this Epistle.
The emphasis in verses 13-15 is on "the prayer of faith"; it is this which will heal the sick, rather then the oil. No saint denies the power of believing prayer, as long as it is in line with God's will. Here the illness is associated with chastisement; see v. 11. This link is frequent in Scripture, as can be seen from Hebrews 12. Yet this certainty of healing, characteristic as it was of the Jews, need not apply to all Christians, for suffering is often a feature of the believer's experience today. Indeed, several in the New Testament had to bear much ill health when they were free from guilt: for example, there were Timothy and Epaphroditus; compare the notes on chapter 1.
Verse 16 clarifies the above argument. When sins are confessed and judged, God then heals. There is no idea of a "confessional" here. Instead, there is to be a confiding of believers collectively.
The value of prayer is seen next; "The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working" is how some render verse 16. If this is true of one, what of many? James cites Elijah who had his weaknesses as well as his tremendous faith. Elijah's God is with us still, and He has pleasure in answering the fervent prayer of righteous people; the power can never be separated from the character of him who prays.
Seemingly, the letter ends rather abruptly with verses 19 and 20. Faith must be manifested in our love towards those who err. There is a general application, but primarily the text refers to those who know the truth and have backsliden. This is found in the phrase "if any among you", v. 19. Conversion here does not refer to new birth; the Lord told Peter, "when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren", Luke 22. 32. Rather, it is restoration which is meant here: this was realized in Peter's experience in John 21. Thus the sinner will be saved from death which is the final outcome of all sin, Rom. 6. 23. "The covering of sins", v. 20 J.N.D., is from God's sight, so that they are forgiven. That person is not only restored but blessed, Psa. 32. 1. This ought to be done in view of Christ's return, which is dealt with here, James 5. 8-9. That God covers men's sins, and that the believer who brings back the wanderer is being used to further the divine purpose of love, is the high note on which the Epistle ends. Despite its apparent abruptness, this conclusion is very arresting; it has an appeal to which we should cautiously take heed, and to which we should most keenly respond.