James reflect a common image from both the Old Testament and philosophy that life is short and no one can know what the future will hold (v. 14) The real problem with making arrogant plans for the future is no one knows the length of their life.
Borrowing a common metaphor from the Old Testament, James describes life as a mist. An early morning fog can seem substantial, but it will be gone as soon as the sun rises.
Hosea 13:3 (ESV) Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window.
Wisdom of Solomon 2:4–5 (NRSV) Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. 5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
Rather than despairing over the brevity of life, James says everything ought to be done in the light of the will of the Lord (v. 15). This sort of phrase is so common to modern Christians we hardly think about saying “if it be your will” during prayer. But as Sophie Laws points out, this phrase does not have any real precedent from the Hebrew Bible. Everything that happens is God’s will, so there is no wishing that God’s will happens (or not).
Rather, Laws says “the lord wills” is “is part of Graeco-Roman idiom from Socrates’s commending of it to Alcibiades (Plato, Alc. i. 135d)… it was a knock on wood phrase in ancient cultures” (Laws, James, 192). A Roman might say deo volente, “God wills” as a kind of “if-all-else-fails” hopeful saying when beginning a task that need some luck (McKnight, James, 37). Paul uses a similar phrase in connection with his travel plans in 1 Corinthians (4:19, “I will come to you if the Lord wills;” 16:7 “I wish to spend some time with you if the Lord permits”) and in Acts 18:21.
The recent secular reaction against the phrase “thoughts and prayers” after a disaster is a sobering reminder that Christians throw out phrases without thinking. So many people say things like “our prayers are with the victims” after a disaster, but I have often wondered if they news reader really prayed for anyone (ever). Aside from a general misunderstanding of prayer and a cynical reduction of one’s piety to the occasional “moment of silence,” the criticism is coveting to me since there have been many times someone has asked me to pray for them about some specific issue and I have failed to pray, or even remember the request. The phrase “I will pray for you “becomes a nice thing to say even if I do not actually pray.
I think most Christians I know really do understand what prayer is about and do in fact pray for victims and their families at the time of a disaster. But too many people use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” like a Roman might use “if god wills.” It is a knock-on-wood phrase with little meaning, This is what James is upset about, people who make their plans and toss a quick “if God wills” into the mix to make it sound spiritual.
The person who believes they are in control of their lives are arrogant, boasting in things they have cannot control. The merchant’s boasts are pretentious. The noun ἀλαζονεία is used to describe the pretentious boasting of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Macc 9:8). The merchants are foolish to boast in their planning, shrew business sense, and amazing profits because it was God who provided it all to them in the first place.
How do we live life guided by the will of God, yet responsibly plan for the future? As modern Americans we always plan for the future (retirement plans, for example, college savings for children, etc.) There is a balance between making wise plans for the future and knowing the future is uncertain. It is important to get a job in order to provide for your family, to save money to provide for yourself when you retire, all the Dave Ramsey things. But the wise person does not hold on to that accumulated wealth too tightly since circumstances may destroy all your saved wealth.
This kind of wise attitude toward preparing for the future has to be balanced with a clear understanding that everything can change in an instant. Some disaster could change everything so that your plans have to change in order to survive. As with Job, our attitude has to be “the Lord blesses, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”