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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books

James 5

Verses 1-20

Chapter Five - A Patient And Expectant Faith

The believer in Christ is a stranger and a pilgrim, passing on through a world arrayed in opposition against God. He sees confusion and strife on every hand, all the result of sin and rebellion against the only One who would have brought peace to this troubled scene had men but been ready to receive Him when He came in lowly guise proclaiming the near approach of the kingdom of the heavens. Because of their refusal to accept Him, wars and tumults have prevailed ever since, and factions among men of various callings have embroiled one with another in fierce contentions. The struggle between Capital and Labor is pictured in the first part of the present chapter. Nor will these difficulties ever be settled satisfactorily until the Lord returns again to take His great power and reign. To this glad event faith looks on in patience and expectancy.

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:1-8).

“Money,” we are told, “answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). But no man can be certain that his wealth will abide. It may be swept away in a most unexpected manner. The day comes on apace when those who trusted in their riches will weep and howl in their distress as they face multiplied misery and wretchedness, for “Riches profit not in the day of wrath” (Proverbs 11:4). And “he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool” (Jeremiah 17:11). Those who accumulate wealth by oppressing the poor and under-paying those who are employed by them, will find their riches become corrupted and their costly garments moth-eaten. The gold and silver they have stored up will become cankered, and the rust of them will become a witness against them, testifying to the greed and covetousness that led them to lay up vast stores of useless pelf that might have been used to the glory of God in alleviating human misery; or, if the heart had been right, in furthering the work of the kingdom of God.

Significantly we are told, “Ye have heaped together treasure for (or, in) the last days.” There is surely more than a suggestion here that just such conditions as are described shall prevail to an unusually large extent as the end draws on.

No demagogic labor-leader ever spoke out more strongly against this unfairness to the toilers than James does here, as, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he inveighs against such crass selfishness and cruel callousness concerning the needs of the working-classes. “Behold,” he exclaims, “the hire (or wages) of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth,” that is, of Jehovah of Hosts. Men may think of God as an uninterested spectator, even if He sees at all the wrongs inflicted by one class upon another. But it is not so: on the contrary, He is deeply concerned about all the injustice and oppression which cause such bitter suffering. As of old, He heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt when they sighed and groaned because of their unfair and wicked treatment by the taskmasters of Pharaoh, so He still takes note of every wrong that the privileged and powerful inflict upon the poor and the downtrodden. “When He maketh inquisition for blood, He remembereth them: He forgetteth not the cry of the humble” (Psalms 9:12).

Sternly James rebukes the selfish pleasure-lovers who revel in their luxuries, while those whose toil earned the money thus squandered are living in circumstances of the most distressing character. “Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth and been wanton,” he exclaims; for wantonness which covers every form of lechery and immorality is ever the natural result of such unfeeling callousness concerning the rights of those in less fortunate circumstances. These selfish pleasure-lovers were just like fed cattle nourished for the day of slaughter. The doom is certain in the day of the Lord’s vengeance.

Their attitude toward the poor is the same in character as that of the world toward the Christ of God: “Ye have condemned and killed the Just One; and He doth not resist you.” Had they loved Him they would have loved those for whom He died, but having spurned Him we need not be surprised at their heartless indifference to the woes and griefs of those who, like Him, are despised and contemned.

What, then, is the remedy that James sets forth? What cure is there for all this industrial strife? Does he advocate that Christian workmen should join in association with godless confederations of toilers who know not God? Does he suggest that they should unite together and strike for the proper recognition of their just demands? Not at all, for in this case, as in all others, “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). So James puts before the suffering children of God the blessed hope of the Lord’s return. Not until He takes over the reins of government will conditions ever be put right in this poor world. So he writes exhorting to patient, endurance unto the coming of the Lord. He uses a little parable to show that Christ Himself is the Man of Patience now while He sits upon the Father’s throne. For just as the farmer, having sown the seed, waits in patience for the harvest, knowing there must first be the early and then latter rain ere a good crop can be assured, so our blessed Lord, having commissioned His servants to sow the good seed waits expectantly at God’s right hand until “the precious fruit of the earth” is ready to be garnered. We, too, are exhorted to be patient, with hearts established in grace, looking up in faith as we realize that the very conditions depicted only emphasize the fact that “the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.”

As objects of grace ourselves we can well afford to show grace to others, even though they treat us despitefully. So he adds:

“Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door. Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy. But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation. Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:9-13).

It is not for us to take judgment into our own hands; we are not to endeavor to repay in kind for the evil that unprincipled and wicked men do to us. If we attempt to revenge ourselves we shall fall under condemnation. The only One who can handle aright matters such as these is the Lord Himself; and as the Judge He stands at the door, waiting for the appointed time when He will deal with all who defy the divine law of love.

If any complain of the difficulty that is involved in patiently enduring such wrongs James points them to the prophets of God in all ages, who have left us examples of patience and long-suffering while enduring the afflictions heaped upon them by wicked men.

If our trials seem inexplicable as we reflect on the character of God, and we find ourselves questioning how a good God can permit such pain, and mental as well as physical anguish, as we are called upon to endure, he reminds us of the patriarch Job, who, when distressed beyond measure because of the ills he had to bear, yet endured as seeing Him who is invisible, and cried out, “But He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). The end of the Lord was seen in him when he bowed in humility of spirit before God, exclaiming, “I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Well may we take him as our example, and see too in the Lord’s final dealings with His poor, troubled servant, that He “is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” Our real victory is found in that self-abasement that justifies God and condemns ourselves.

It ill becomes poor, frail mortals such as we to make strong asseverations, bound by oaths in which we use the sacred name of God and His heavenly abode, or even the earth He has created. In verse 12 we have an echo of our Saviour’s words as found in Matthew 5:34-37. Oaths of every kind are forbidden. They not only dishonor God and His creation, but also they are most unbecoming on the lips of those who are but creatures of a day, whose every breath depends, from one moment to another, upon the mercy of the Lord.

So he concludes this section by admonishing the afflicted to seek recourse in prayer, assured that God’s ear is ever open to our cry. If any are merry-that is, cheerful of heart-let them sing, not the frivolous, empty songs of the world, however beautiful the melodies to which they are set, but psalms, sacred songs of praise, the expressions of a soul that finds its joy in God.

The next three verses bring before us faith’s resource in times of illness.

“Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:14-16).

This passage has been the subject of considerable controversy, and is admittedly difficult to understand unless we keep in mind the special character of this Epistle, as a last message to the twelve tribes, as such, before the complete separation of Christianity from Judaism which the Epistle to the Hebrews insists upon. God, in condescending grace, meets people where they are, and this is a case in point.

When the twelve apostles went forth to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, they anointed the sick with oil, and God granted healing in response to their faith (Mark 6:13). This is the only other instance in the New Testament where this method is said to have been employed. It is significant because of its definite connection to the testimony to Israel. There may be some truth in the view some have held that the oil was in itself a healing ointment, and that God blessed the means used, in connection with the recovery of those who were ill. But James specifically declares, “The prayer of faith shall save the sick;” though this would not necessarily mean that any virtue residing in the oil itself was ignored, as God often blesses the means used when prayer also is answered.

The sick were to call for the elders of the church, or the assembly. In the present, broken condition of things in the church it might be difficult to say just where these are to be found. In the beginning it was a simple matter. Elders were appointed in every church, either by direct apostolic authority or by apostolic delegates, as in the instances of Timothy and Titus. It seems that where this special oversight was not available, assemblies appointed their own elders in accordance with the instructions given in the pastoral Epistles. With no direct apostolic authority today this is all that can be done, and is acted upon in many places. But are these recognized brethren actually elders of the Church? One does not want to raise needless questions, but in the endeavor to carry out literally the instruction given here in a day of ruin, they need to be faced honestly.

Throughout Scripture oil is the type or symbol of the Holy Spirit; and in connection with prayer for the sick it would have a beautiful significance. But whether any feel free to use it in this way now or not, it is always right for godly elder brethren to meet with the sick for prayer, and it is just as true now as in the beginning of the dispensation that God answers the prayer of faith.

In the case brought before us here it seems to be taken for granted that the illness is part of divine chastening because of sins committed. Therefore when the sick one called for the elders it would in itself be his acknowledgment of his failure. It is not said, however, as Rome would have us believe, that he confessed his sins to the elders: he confessed to God, and if to man also (as in the next verse), it was not as recognizing any special sacerdotal authority on the part of the elders.

It is important also to observe that two very different Greek words are used for “sick” in this verse. “Is any sick among you?” Here the word means “ill,” as with some disease. But where we read, “The prayer of faith shall save the sick,” the word means “weak,” or “exhausted.” It might refer to mental depression such as often accompanies illness, particularly when one is conscious that he is afflicted because of his own sins and indiscretions.

“If he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” This has to do with the government of God in His own family (see 1 Peter 1:17). The Father judges according to the behavior of His children. When in answer to the prayer of faith the depression of spirit is relieved and the sick one raised up, he may have the assurance of governmental and restorative forgiveness.

In the early days of what is now generally known as “the Brethren Movement,” Mr. J. N. Darby and Mr. J. G. Bellett were called in to many sick rooms in Dublin, where they acted literally upon the directions given here. Many remarkable healings were vouchsafed in answer to the prayer of faith; so much so that attention began to be centered upon these two brethren as special instruments used of God, in a way that troubled them, and they felt it wise to desist from going, but prayed together, or separately for the afflicted in a more private way, acting rather on verse 16 (James 5:16)than on verses 14 and 15 (James 5:14-15); God answered in the same grace as when the formal service was carried out.

This is ever faith’s resource. Burdened hearts can and should confess their sins one to another when conscious that their illness is chastening for wrong done against the Lord. Then we can pray one for another that healing may ensue: for the earnest prayer of a righteous man is ever effective.

A Roman priest pointed to this scripture when insisting that it taught confession to one of his order. His hearer responded, “I will confess my sins to you if you will confess yours to me.” He refused to recognize the mutual confession here enjoined. There is nothing official or priestly about it.

Then again, there is no authority here for the Romanist “sacrament of extreme unction,” which consists in anointing with consecrated oil, one who is about to die. But in these verses the anointing is in view of the sick man’s coming back to health, not preparation for death. So readily do Roman apologists seize on the most unlikely passages to bolster up their unscriptural practices and superstitious theories!

Having spoken of the effectiveness of fervent prayer the case of Elijah is introduced as an illuminating example of what is meant.

“Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and die earth brought forth her fruit” (James 5:17-18).

We are apt to think of prophets and other servants of God mentioned in Holy Writ as men who were of a different fibre than we are, but they were all of the same family of frail humanity, men of like passions with us, but men who dared to believe God and to give Him full control of their lives. In answer to Elijah’s earnest prayer there was no rain in the land of Israel for three-and-a-half years, until godless Ahab was brought to utter despair. Then when the prophet at Carmel prayed, there was “a sound of abundance of rain,” bringing gladness to the hearts of men and refreshment to the parched earth. Comment is needless. The story points its own moral.

The Epistle closes rather abruptly, as we might think, with a word of encouragement for any who might be used of God to help restore an erring brother.

“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

The sinning one here, as in verse 15 above (James 5:15), is a believer who has gone astray from the path of subjection to the truth. To patiently go after such an one and to convert, or turn him again, to obedience to the Lord is to save a soul from death-physical death which is the last act of God in His government of His family-and to cover or hide a multitude of sins. This is to practise that charity which Peter also tells us “shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), not our own sins of course, but those of the erring brother. By leading him to repentance, so that he judges himself and acknowledges his waywardness, he is restored to fellowship with God and preserved from going deeper into sin, so that the heavy hand of the Lord should have to be upon him in further chastening, even to shortening his life on earth as an evidence of the divine displeasure. This is the same as sinning unto death in 1 John 5:16-17. Many a child of God has been taken Home far earlier than he would otherwise have been, because of wilfulness and insubjection of spirit.

In closing our study of this most practical Epistle let us emphasize anew the great importance of a faith that works-a faith that is evidenced by a life of devotion to the Lord, and of concern for the welfare of our brethren in Christ particularly, as well as for all men generally.

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Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on James 5". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.