James 5:1-20

Submitted by admin on Sun, 2010-08-22 18:34.

Posted in | printer-friendly version »

When pronouncing woe upon the wealthy, James focused on those who exploited the poor. As these rich ones did not use their means to benefit others, they would face divine condemnation. Then they would weep and howl, raising their voices in bitter lamentation over the misery or calamity that would befall them. (5:1)

The wealthy had piled up riches, and so plentiful were their possessions that they had deteriorated from disuse. Their riches had rotted, corroded, or spoiled, and their garments had become moth-eaten. (5:2)

An example from the first century BCE of the kind of wealth certain men in the Greco-Roman world had accumulated can be seen from the comments of the Greek historian Plutarch. In his Lives, he wrote about Lucullus, the Roman general who had gained fabulous wealth from his successful military campaigns and, after his retirement from public and military life, indulged in luxurious living. In Naples, Lucullus had constructed “hills upon vast tunnels,” and had “brought in the sea for moats and fish ponds around his house,” and had “built pleasure houses in the waters.” After seeing this, Tubero the stoic called Lucullus “Xerxes in a gown.” The accommodations of Lucullus in Tusculum featured belvederes, “large open balconies for men’s apartments, and porticos to walk in.” When Pompey came to see him, he criticized him for making a residence that would be “pleasant in summer but uninhabitable in winter.” With a smile, Lucullus replied, “You think me, then, less provident than cranes and storks, not to change my home with the season.”

A praetor, in the process of preparing a lavish performance for the people, asked Lucullus whether he could “lend him some purple robes for the performers in a chorus.” Lucullus responded that he would see whether he had any purple robes and, if he did, “he would let him have them.” The next day he asked the praetor how many purple robes he wanted. “Being told that a hundred would suffice,” Lucullus offered him two hundred. Regarding this incident, the poet Horace reportedly observed, “A house is but a poor one where the unseen and unthought-of valuables do not exceed all those that meet the eye.”

James referred to the gold and silver of the wealthy as having “corroded” (katióo). The Greek verb katióo is understood to apply to rusting, tarnishing, or corroding. In its pure state, gold does not corrode. From ancient times, however, gold has been alloyed with silver, which does corrode, discoloring the gold alloy. (5:3)

The corrosion of the stored-up wealth would prove to be a testimony against the possessors thereof, for the corrosion would prove that these riches had not been put to good use in relieving the distress of the needy. This corrosion or rust would consume their flesh. In their own person, they would experience the bitter consequences from the corrosion that gave evidence of their lack of compassion. No mercy would be extended to them when they faced divine judgment for the record of corrosion that testified against them and which would prove to be their ruin. The words “like fire” could relate to their flesh that would be consumed just like fire consumes combustible materials. (5:3)

Another possibility is that “like fire” is to be linked to the phrase that follows. “It is like a fire which you have stored up for the final days.” (NJB) This would mean that the corrosion is like a fire that they had stored up by their self-indulgent ways and their failure to use their riches aright. This stored-up fire would consume them at the time divine judgment would be executed against them. (5:3)

In the Greek text, the last phrase of verse 3 literally reads, “You have treasured up in [the] last days.” Numerous translations do not include the words “like fire” with this phrase and render the words to indicate that the “last days” had already begun. “You have piled up wealth in an age that is near its close.” (REB) “Yet you keep on storing up wealth in these last days.” (CEV) “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” (NIV) “You have made a fine pile in these last days, haven’t you?” (J. B. Phillips) With the coming of Jesus Christ to the earth, a new age dawned and so the “last days” had their start. These “last days” would culminate upon his return in glory and the execution of divine judgment. From this standpoint, it could be said that the self-indulgent wealthy were piling up treasures in or during the “last days.” (5:3; compare Acts 2:16-21; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.)

Other translations represent the storing up of treasures to be “for the last days,” meaning for the judgment then to be executed. “You saved your treasure for the last days.” (NCV) “This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment.” (NLT)

In their greed for more wealth, the rich had withheld the wages of the laborers who had harvested their fields. These held-back wages are represented as crying out, that is, crying out to be paid. Wages were due at the end of each workday, and the reapers depended on their pay to obtain daily necessities for themselves and their families. When the agricultural workers did not receive their compensation, they, in their distress, cried out to God. Their cries reached “the ears of the Lord Sabaoth.” “Sabaoth” is a transliteration of the Greek term that is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word that means “hosts” or “armies,” and the expression “Lord Sabaoth” identifies God as the Lord who has hosts or armies of angels at his command and service. He heard the cries of the unpaid reapers, and so would act against those who had dealt fraudulently with them. (5:4; see the Notes section.)

Here, on earth, the wealthy lived luxuriously and indulged in pleasures without restraint. They “fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” The fattening of their hearts could apply to indulging their appetites to the full or to making themselves insensitive to the needs and suffering of fellow humans. (5:5; compare 1 Samuel 2:29; Psalm 119:70; Jeremiah 5:27, 28.)

A “day of slaughter” could designate a festive occasion when animals were slaughtered for sumptuous feasting. (Compare Isaiah 22:13.) Another possibility is that, on a day when innocent persons were slaughtered, wealthy oppressors continued to feast. “On earth you have had a life of comfort and luxury; in the time of slaughter you went on eating to your heart’s content.” (5:5, NJB)

Numerous translations render verse 5 to apply to a future day of slaughter, that is, to the time when divine judgment would be executed against the self-indulgent rich. This would mean that, for this future day of slaughter, the rich, like animals to be killed, had fattened their hearts or themselves. “While here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. But now you are like fat cattle on their way to be butchered.” (CEV) “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves — and that on the day appointed for your slaughter.” (REB)

The “righteous one” whom the rich had condemned and then murdered may designate any upright or innocent person. Numerous translations make the general sense explicit, rendering the singular “righteous one” as a plural. “You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” (NIV) “You have judged guilty and then murdered innocent people, who were not against you.” (NCV) “It was you who condemned the upright and killed them; they offered you no resistance.” (NJB) “You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.” (CEV) Through corrupt legal means, the wealthy either brought about the death of innocent victims to attain their base aims or deprived them of their means of livelihood, which would have been tantamount to murder. Because the wealthy had the power, the upright had no recourse. (5:6)

It may be that James also had in mind Jesus Christ, “the righteous one,” in whose judicial murder the rich and influential ones were involved. The Son of God did not resort to violent opposition, but allowed himself to be seized, mistreated, and killed. Moreover, he considers what is done to his disciples as being done to him. (Matthew 25:34-45) So when the rich either brought about the death of any disciples or deprived them of their livelihood, they murdered Jesus Christ, the righteous one. (5:6)

On account of what believers experienced at the hands of influential wealthy persons who persisted in unbelief, they needed to be patient, bearing up under distressing circumstances without bitter complaint or resorting to wrongful means to be relieved of their suffering. Deliverance was certain to come at the time of the Lord’s presence or upon his return as the highly exalted Lord of lords and King of kings. Believers would then be united with him, whereas those who defiantly rejected him would experience eternal ruin. So until the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, believers would have to endure patiently when subjected to trials and hardships. (5:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)

Their patient endurance would assure them of a good outcome. With examples, James illustrated this for his “brothers,” fellow believers in the family of God’s beloved children. A farmer had to wait patiently until the crop matured and he could harvest “the precious fruit of the soil.” Sufficient rainfall is needed for there to be a good harvest. So the farmer had to be patient as he waited for the “early and late” rains. In the land of Israel where James resided, planting was done in the fall, and this was also the season for the early rains. The late rains came in the spring, providing essential water for the maturing crops. (5:7)

Like the farmer, believers needed to be patient. Strengthening their “hearts” could include building an inner resolve not to give up or not to yield to discouragement. Believers were not to allow their hope of future deliverance to grow weak but were to look forward to the glorious arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ. James referred to the Lord’s presence, arrival, or his again being with believers as having “drawn near.” He did not know just when Jesus Christ would return but spoke of his arrival as imminent. At all times, believers were to regard Jesus Christ’s coming again with the kind of certainty associated with an event that was close at hand. (5:8)

In the community of believers, as also in any family, problems and misunderstandings can develop. What others may say and do can at times create friction. James urged his “brothers,” fellow believers, not to complain (literally, “groan”) against one another. They should not make their own standards, views, or scruples the basis for finding fault with their brothers, for this could result in their coming under judgment. God is the Supreme Judge, and he has granted his Son the authority to judge. So the judge to whom James referred could be either the Father or the Son. The previous mention of the arrival of the Lord, however, would indicate that the application is to the Lord Jesus Christ in his capacity as judge. Believers were to keep in mind that the judge was “standing before the doors,” fully aware of what was taking place among them and in a position to judge anyone who wrongly censured his “brother.” This should have restrained them from grumbling about their brothers and making personal judgments concerning them. (5:9)

When it came to distressing experiences, believers should consider the example of the ancient Hebrew prophets, “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” or as representatives of YHWH. Among the people to whom they declared God’s message, they patiently endured suffering, not giving up. Jeremiah, for example, was subjected to mistreatment and imprisonment. Although he at times complained bitterly about his lot, he continued to discharge his commission faithfully and so endured submissively without resorting to sinful acts to free himself from distress. (5:10; Jeremiah 11:18-21; 12:1-4; 15:10-18; 20:1, 2; 37:12-16; 38:1-6)

The record of those who faithfully endured moved James to say, “Look! We call fortunate the ones who have endured. You have heard [about] Job’s endurance, and you have seen the Lord’s end result [télos], that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” All who endured faithfully could be referred to as “fortunate,” or in an enviable or desirable state. They enjoyed God’s approval and, therefore, their relationship with him proved to be secure. Believers knew about what had happened to Job. He lost his flocks and herds, all his children perished, he himself was afflicted with an exceedingly painful disease, and three of his close companions falsely accused him of secret sins because they had wrongly concluded that God was punishing him. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Job also complained about his distressing experience, but he did not deny his God and so endured his trials as one who remained faithful to him. (5:11)

The Greek word télos literally means “end,” but it can also denote that which is the end result, the outcome, the conclusion, or the purpose. In the context of verse 11, translators have variously rendered the term. “You remember how patient Job was and how the Lord finally helped him.” (CEV) “You have heard how Job stood firm, and you have seen how the Lord treated him in the end.” (REB) “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.” (NIV) “You have heard of the perseverance of Job and understood the Lord’s purpose.” (NJB)

In a number of ways, Job came to be the recipient of divine compassion and mercy. He received a revelation that made it clear to him that he could not possibly comprehend God’s activity. (Job 38:1-40:2) While severely afflicted and not understanding the reason for his suffering, Job had spoken rashly. Therefore, in expression of divine mercy, he was forgiven and acknowledged as approved. Once Job came to discern from the divine revelation the great limits of his understanding, he came to have a clearer vision of God, as if actually seeing him. In his dealings with Job thereafter, God greatly blessed him. Job ceased to be alienated from his relatives, acquaintances, and friends. He came to have twice as many sheep, goats, camels, yoke of bovines, and female donkeys than he had lost. Again Job fathered seven sons and three daughters, the daughters being extraordinarily beautiful. He lived a long and contented life, having the joy of seeing the offspring of his children, both grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (5:11; Job 42:1-16)

In their interaction with one another, some believers may not have been altogether truthful. (Compare Ephesians 4:25.) They may have resorted to oaths to make their words appear to be more trustworthy. Possibly for this reason, James, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching, said, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, neither by heaven nor by earth nor with any other oath. But let your “Yes” [mean] “Yes,” and your “No” [mean] “No,” that you may not fall under judgment.” The introductory words, “but above all,” indicate that this was a matter of great importance, although not signifying the most important aspect in the life of believers. Instead of swearing to assure others they were speaking the truth or excusing nonfulfillment of a promise or agreement on the basis that a particular formula used in swearing did not impose a binding obligation, believers should be completely trustworthy in their expressions. Their “Yes” should mean “Yes,” and their “No” should mean “No.” (5:12)

Whenever individuals frequently resorted to oaths in daily life, they exposed themselves as persons whose word could not be trusted. Their choosing to swear by heaven or by earth would have been regarded as having less binding force than swearing by God. So, when failing to live up to their word, even excusing their nonfulfillment of promises because of not having used a particular formula when swearing, believers would have come under condemnation. Others would have judged them as untrustworthy persons or liars, and they would also have become divinely disapproved. (5:12)

Among believers, individuals would find themselves in a variety of circumstances. Some would be experiencing distress, whereas others would be enjoying a state of well-being. James advised the believer who was burdened by difficulties to pray, which would include asking God for aid and strength to be able to endure the affliction. When believers are in good spirits on account of favorable circumstances, they should “sing psalms” or praises, expressing their gratitude to God. (5:13)

Sick believers should call the elders of the congregation, having them pray over them and anoint them “with oil in the name of the Lord.” When ill, individuals are downcast and may begin to have doubts about their relationship to God. They may even find it hard to pray. Therefore, they would benefit from having elders from the community of fellow believers pray over them. The sincere prayer of the elders would be reassuring to the sick, reminding them of their being part of God’s family of beloved children and strengthening their faith in divine power to sustain them. With a renewed focus on divine help and the reassurance of divine love and care, the sick would come to have an inner peace that contributes to recovery. (5:14; see the Notes section.)

Anciently, olive oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes. (Isaiah 1:6; Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34) When the elders anointed the sick with oil, this would have had a soothing or calming effect on the afflicted, contributing to the healing process. The elders would have done the anointing “in the name of the Lord” Jesus Christ, as they would have been acting as his representatives or for him as the congregation’s head who is deeply concerned about the welfare of each individual member. (5:14)

James referred to the “prayer of faith” as “saving” the afflicted one. This “saving” denotes being delivered from the illness and restored to health. In answer to the prayer of the elders who have offered their petitions as an expression of their faith in God and Christ, the holy spirit would operate freely within sick believers. This would result in their having a heightened awareness of divine love for them, producing an inner calm and a trust in divine power to sustain them in their distress. Thus God’s spirit would counteract any negative emotions that would otherwise interfere with recovery. (5:15; see the Notes section.)

Among sick believers, some may additionally have had a troubled conscience because of having sinned. Their spiritual distress could have greatly affected their physical well-being. The psalmist related how miserable he came to feel physically on account of his sin. “My body wasted away with day-long moaning. For day and night your [God’s] hand was heavy upon me; the sap in me dried up as in summer drought.” (Psalm 32:3, 4, REB) Fittingly, therefore, James included the thought that, if the individual had committed sins, it would be forgiven him. The person’s subsequent inward realization that his sins had been forgiven would free him from the emotional burden that otherwise could have seriously interfered with the recovery from sickness. (5:15)

As part of the family of God’s beloved children, believers should not be living secretive lives, presenting a false front about their conduct. Concealment of sin works against healing, for it creates a troubled conscience that is destructive to spiritual and physical well-being. James admonished fellow believers to acknowledge their “sins” (“transgressions,” according to other manuscripts) to one another and to pray for one another, so that they “may be healed.” (5:16)

The essential openness that promotes healing can only exist in an environment where love and trust prevail, for only then will believers feel free to acknowledge their errors, confident that they will not be faced with hateful rejection. In an environment where believers know that they are deeply loved and are not paralyzed by fear of negative consequences from confessing their sins, they are in a position to pray in specific ways for one another because of being aware of the personal struggles others are facing. The prayers of the upright have much power and are effective, for they are favorably heard by God. (5:16)

James focused attention on Elijah to illustrate the power of prayer. Although a prophet with a special commission, he was still a human subject to feelings or emotions “like ours.” As a man, he was no different than any other upright person. Therefore, godly men and women can expect that their prayers will have power and will be effective. So that God’s disapproval of Baal worship might be undeniably revealed, Elijah prayed for it not to rain. In response to this prayer of an upright man, it did not rain for “three years and six months.” (5:17; 1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; see the Notes section.) After this period of drought, Elijah prayed for it to rain, and it did, providing the needed precipitation for the land to yield crops. (5:18; 1 Kings 18:42-45)

Believers should be concerned about one another. When a “brother” or a believer strays from the “truth” (the truth as it relates to Jesus Christ, including his example and teaching), he needs help. If a fellow believer succeeds in turning him back from the wrong course, the sinning or erring “brother” would have “his soul” saved from death, and a multitude of sins would be covered. The “soul” designates the person, and being saved from death would mean being delivered from the condemnation to which sin leads. In many Greek manuscripts, the wording is ambiguous so that the particular “soul” could either be the erring brother or the one who aided him to recover from straying from the truth. The more likely significance is that the “soul” designates the sinner who would be forgiven and so would regain his proper relationship with God and Christ. Likewise, the many sins that would be forgiven or “covered” would be those of the erring brother, not those of the believer who came to his assistance. (5:19, 20)


Instead of a form of aphysteréo (“withhold” or “hold back”) in verse 4, many other manuscripts contain a form of aposteréo. Although the original reading of fourth-century Codex Vaticanus is the same as fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (a form of aphysteréo), a corrector has changed the word to a form of aposteréo, meaning “rob,” “withhold,” “steal,” “defraud,” or “despoil,” or “deprive.” The difference in manuscript readings, however, does not materially affect the understanding of the text.

In verse 14, a few late manuscripts identify the Lord as being Jesus Christ.

Verse 15 is not to be understood that, in each case, believers would recover from illness, but (in answer to prayer) they would always be sustained and strengthened to endure their affliction. James would have known about believers who had died after a period of sickness, but he was also fully aware of the power of prayer. (Compare Acts 9:37.) He, like other believers, understood that all their petitions are governed by the request that God’s will be done. This does not minimize the important role that prayer plays in the recovery from illness. Modern studies have established that the immune system responds to positive thoughts, emotions, and actions, and that persons who come to have a positive outlook because of faith and prayer are more likely to recover from serious illness than are persons without faith.

The account in 1 Kings 17:1 does not say that Elijah prayed for it not to rain, and so James (verse 17) seemingly based his words on another source. Nevertheless, it is reasonable that Elijah would have prayed before he made his declaration to Ahab that there would be neither dew nor rain. First Kings 18:1 mentions the “third year” of the drought, whereas James 5:17 speaks of “three years and six months” without rain. One way this may be understood is that the drought set in after the end of the usual dry season. With no rains coming at the normal close of the dry season, the period without rain proved to be “three years and six months,” whereas the actual time of intense drought was shorter.