The final lines of this letter address a Christian who has “wandered from the truth.” Does this mean this brother has completely rejected the Gospel? In English, wandering has the sense of random meandering away from where you are supposed to be, perhaps aimlessness. But the Greek word translated “wander” (πλανάω) can have the connotation of deception. This brother could be misled by another, perhaps even a teacher or elder.
But the verb appears in Matthew 18:12-13, a sheep who wanders away from the sheepfold. It is also used consistently in the Old Testament for the apostasy of the nation of Israel. If the nation are the sheep of God’s pasture, then their persistent sin and rebellion is like a sheep wandering out of the safety of the pasture, putting them in danger from predators.
The truth can refer to doctrine and practice, but it is not specific (i.e., the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus as God, etc.) In a contemporary context, this is more than someone leaving our church and attending another, or shifting from a Calvinist to Arminian view of salvation, or any other doctrine within the larger world of Christianity.
Whatever the truth refers to, it is possible for another to restore the wandering brother to fellowship. James is addressing the responsibility of the one who has not wandered to restore those who have wandered,
If the tensions between Jewish Christians and the wealthy aristocracy are in the background of the letter, then perhaps the “wandering” James has in mind is a return to the synagogue, perhaps even a rejection of Jesus as the messiah. Remember the congregations to which James is writing are small Jewish Christian messianic communities which have not gone very far from the synagogue. It is possible pressure from non-Christians Jews have convinced some to worship in the synagogues and keep their belief in Jesus as Messiah secret.
James is speaking hypothetically, but this kind of defection from the faith was always a possibility for Jewish Christians. The grammar of the passage is a third-class condition. Whatever the case, James does not think any have actually wandered away from the truth, but if that should happen, they can be brought back. James says the one who brings back the wandering sinner “saves his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Does this refer to the wanderer, or the one who restores the wanderer?
The problem for the modern reader is how we treat those who have serious questions about their faith or how they live out their faith in the world. It is very easy to write-off a person who has wandered from their faith, those who appear to have rejected the core doctrines or now participate in behaviors we “insiders” consider sinful.
Perhaps it is best to return to the first of the commands in this paragraph, “If someone has wandered away, pray for them to be restored to fellowship.” But we ought to pray four our own sensitivity and grace toward those who have wandered in order to win them back.
James 5:13-18 briefly mentions several kinds of prayers for those who are suffering or rejoicing (5:13). Those who are suffering ought to pray. The verb James used for suffering (κακοπαθέω) is rare in the New Testament. Paul used the word in 1 Tim 2:9 to describe his own suffering, bound in chains like a criminal. In 2 Tim 4:5 it is one of the final commands to Timothy (endure hardship). This is not necessarily that people being oppressed by outsiders (such as the wealthy of the previous section). This word can refer to any sort of affliction (even the sickness in verse 14).
Although the verb is the common word for prayer, James makes a clear parallel with “cheerful singing” in the next line. It is at least possible James wants the one who is suffering to pray a lament Psalms. There are many examples of prayers in the Psalms where the writer is lamenting because of suffering and oppression.
In contrast, the cheerful ought to “sing praise.” The verb “be cheerful” (εὐθυμέω) and the related nouns have the sense of “in good spirits” (BDAG), as in Acts 27:22, 25, 36 where Paul encourages those about to be shipwrecked to “take heart.” This word does not refer to someone who is bubbly and happy, but rather someone who may be suffering but rejoices anyway. In James, the readers all seem to be suffer in some way.
Although there is no organized persecution, there is some harassment at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Since the verb for singing (ψάλλω) is related to noun for a psalm, perhaps James wants the cheerful to respond to the Lord with thanksgiving or praise drawn from the Psalter. The believer is to respond in worship whether they are enduring some suffering or enjoying a time of relative peace.
A second kind of prayer in this paragraph is prayer for the sick (5:14-15). The elders are to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. It is important to understand “elders of the church” in the context of James as a very early letter. This is not the office of elder in the fairly structured church of the Pastoral Epistles. Some scholars see this as a distinctively Christian phrase. Sophie Laws, for example, “This is one phrase which gives a specifically Christian colouring to the epistle” (Laws, James, 225).
An elder (πρεσβύτερος) referred to the older, wise men of a community. For Jews, these were the men who were respected in a town and synagogue. As the church developed certain men were appointed to function as official guardians of faith and practice, but in the earliest Jewish communities, the elders were analogous to the older men of the synagogues. By church (ἐκκλησία), James refers to the Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, more or less equivalent to a synagogue. This is not the universal church, the body of Christ.
The elders also anoint the sick with oil. Although anointing with oil is used for a variety of things, it is associated with treating wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan puts oil on the man’s wounds, for example. But in the ancient world there was nor a clear distinction between a miraculous healing and medical science. “A distinction between remedies based on superstition and remedies based on science would have been foreign even to the practitioners of Greek medicine” (Laws, James, 227).
The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can! Dibelius thought the command to pray “in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to exorcising a demon who was responsible for the sickness. This would reflect the Second Temple view that demons caused illness, but there is little in this text to support an exorcism.
The sick person also confesses their sin. This may reflect the Jewish view that sickness and sin are related. It was common in the Second Temple Period for Jews to connect physical illness and sin. For example, Sirach 18:19-21 and 38:15 makes confession of sin a requirement for healing and good health (Laws, James, 229).
Sirach 18:19–21 (NRSV) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. 20 Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. 21 Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent.
Sirach 38:15 (NRSV) He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.
In John 9, Jesus’s disciples ask of a man who was born blind had sinned, or of his parents had sinned; in Mark 2 the Pharisees considered Jesus’s pronouncement that a lame man’s sins were forgiven to the blasphemous since the man was still lame.
It is surprising James makes no reference to laying on of hands, a common practice in healing. This may imply this is not a “traditional healing.” The impression from the two verses is that a person with an unusual illness can call one or two of the community leaders to their bedside and confess their sins. These elders will pray for them and tend to their illness in some real tangible way.
Like the first two commands of this paragraph, the sick person confessing sin is often found in the Psalms.
Psalm 35:13–14 (ESV) But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.
Psalm 41:1–3 (ESV) Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; 2 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health.
The prayer of these elders can “save them” and the Lord will raise them up. This appears to refer to healing, although this is not necessarily the sort of miracle Jesus did, nor the apostles in Acts. But regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.
By way of application, these two verses are not related to modern healing at all, they reflect Jewish practice in the first century. James is describing a practice which should be as obvious as praying at times of suffering or cheerfulness.
The book of James is quote clear: those who are wealthy now face judgment in the eschatological judgment. They may be living a good life now, but the rich can only expect suffering and judgment in the future. James’s condemnation of the rich certainly resonates with the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the Lukan beatitudes (Luke 6:24-26).
Who are these rich people and what have they done to be attacked as the prophets once attacked Israel? Scot McKnight argues these are the wealthy who oppressed the poor members for the congregation in 1:19-27 and 2:14-17 (McKnight, James, 382, note 74). But these are not necessarily Christians: the prophets often addressed the nations. McKnight points out (rightly) we need to recognize James is not like a Pauline letter (addressed to a Christian community), but a prophetic letter sent to a broad range of Jewish readers, some of whom are not yet Christians.
It is possible the wealthy condemned in this paragraph would never hear James’s prophetic speech. If this is the case, then the function of the condemnation is to encourage the oppressed readers of the letter. But this too is similar to the prophetic literature. Did the nations condemned by Amos actually hear the words addressed to them?
James reflects both the prophetic tradition of Israel and the teaching of Jesus in his relentless attack on the rich who oppress the poor. Condemning the wealthy is one of the most prominent features of the early prophets (Micah 3:1-4; Hos 2:4-7; Isaiah 3:11-5:1) as well as the apocalyptic judgment in 1 Enoch 95.
Micah 3:1–4 (ESV) And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?— 2 you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, 3 who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron. 4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.
1 Enoch 95:6-9 “Woe unto those who build oppression and injustice! Who lay foundations for deceit. They shall soon be demolished; and they shall have no peace. 7 Woe unto those who build their houses with sin! For they shall all be demolished from their foundations; and they shall fall by the sword. Those who amass gold and silver; they shall quickly be destroyed, 8 Woe unto you, O rich people! For you have put your trust in your wealth. You shall ooze out of your riches, for you do not remember the Most High. 9 In the days of your affluence, you committed oppression, you have become ready for death, and for the day of darkness and the day of great judgment.
James attacks the rich in a series of short phrases which sound like apocalyptic judgement.
First, the rich will weep and wail because misery has come upon them. Weeping is a common word in the New Testament and is associated with mourning. Wailing (ὀλολύζω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it is associated with apocalyptic judgment (Isa 13:6; 14:31; Zech 11:2; Amos 8:3). The Greek word sounds like a howl, and the Hebrew word it translates in Isa 13:6 (ילל) refers to an undulating wail or howl (cf., the Arabic walwala). It is often used in parallel to lament and for the wailing of an animal in the desert.
Misery (ταλαιπωρία) sometimes refers to extreme suffering (Job 30:3), but it is also associated violent destruction when the Lord Almighty comes to restore Israel (Joel 1:15). In LXX Ezekiel 45:9 the word is used for oppression by the rich (cf. LXX Psalm 11:6; ET Psalm 12:5). In fact, Ezekiel 45:9 is a possible intertext for James 5:1 “Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people”
Second, their hoarded riches will rot away and the rich will burn. James says money and clothes will corrode and become moth-eaten. This immediately calls to mind Matthew 6:19, Jesus draws a contrast between treasures in heaven were rust cannot destroy and moths cannot destroy (both James and Jesus use the same word, “treasure” (θησαυρίζω). But Job 13:28 has a similar metaphor for the temporary character of material possessions and Isaiah 51:8 is also very close (McKnight, James, 386). Once again, James (and Jesus) stand on the foundation of a prophetic-wisdom tradition.
This should not be a pastor’s house
This hoarded wealth is the result of oppression of the poor (5:4). This verse claims the wealthy have robbed the poor of the proper wages. The verb (ἀποστερέω) refers to frau or embezzlement (BDAG). Leviticus 19:13 specifically forbids defrauding one’s neighbors and the general principle of the Law was paying the laborer at the end of the day (Deut 24:15; Jer 22:13). This is another case where James may know the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:8, but the wisdom tradition regularly condemns the man who withholds wages.
Third, because the wealthy have lived lives of luxury in this life, they are “fattened for the Day of the Slaughter” (v. 5). The “day of slaughter is a vivid image drawn from the prophetic tradition of a great slaughter of God’s enemies when God fights for his people (for example, Zech 11:4-7; Isaiah 30:25, 34:2, Rev 19:17-19; 2 Enoch 50:2-6). Like the animals they fattened to be slaughtered in the Temple, these wealthy elites are about to be slaughtered.
These elites have lived a life of extreme luxury. The first verb (τρυφάω, only here in the New Testament) has the sense of revelry, carousing and the second (σπαταλάω) is “to indulge oneself beyond the bounds of propriety” (cf. 1 Tim 5:6, BDAG). The word is very rare, appearing only in the LXX in Ezekiel 16:49 to describe the indulgences of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is as if these wealthy elites led lives like the Romans!
If James is writing prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then this great fiery judgment likely refers to the slaughter of the rich and powerful in Jerusalem, people who have used the Temple to make themselves wealthy and have “fattened themselves” for the Roman slaughter of Judea and Jerusalem. In fact, this helps explain the next obscure line in verse 6. The rich condemned “the righteous person” (v. 6). If James is attacking the wealthy aristocratic priests who have oppressed the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, then they are the very ones who condemned the righteous Jesus to death.
Both Jesus and James condemn those who have enjoyed wealth at the expense of the poor and use vivid language to describe their fate at the eschatological judgment. Does this mean James condemns all wealth as evil? Does Jesus expect the true disciples to live voluntary lives of poverty?
More chilling is the possible application of this teaching to the contemporary church. There are many examples of people who have enriched themselves through their churches, often harvesting money from the poor to support lavish lifestyles. Much of the American church is obviously under the sway of the “health and wealth” gospel, so are African and Asian churches. What would James have to say to us about our great wealth?
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.”
James offers one final example of the arrogance of the tongue: making plans for the future and the flippant use of the phrase “if the Lord wills.” Even today, this is quite similar to saying “sure, I will pray for you.” Christians tend to add this to prayers as if we are giving the Lord an option out of responding positively to our prayers (“give so-and-so healing, if it be your will.”)
Who is James addressing in this passage? Are they “international business men” who travel the Empire making profits? If so, the problem is not travel or business, but rather their arrogance that they are building up reliable wealth for the future. The arrogance of some business owners is their assumption they can go anywhere and make a profit without giving a thought to the Lord’s will.
Jewish businessmen traveled throughout the Empire managing all sorts of businesses. In the New Testament, Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers in Rome who relocated to Corinth and were active in Ephesus as well. In Acts 16, Lydia is a business woman (a seller of purple) from Thyatira now living in Philippi. Even Paul could be considered a travelling business person since he was able to work in the tent trade any city he happened to visit.
In the Second Temple Period, international business “was seen as a way to obtain the fortune needed to purchase the estates on which the “good life” might be lived” (Davids, James, 172). Ralph Martin says “there is also a fairly well documented background about Jewish traveling merchants in the period, among whom the aristocratic Sadducees, who gained part of their wealth by foreign trade and commercial endeavor” (Martin, James, 169). Jewish entrepreneurs were not the only ones to make huge sums of money. Ralph Martin offers the example of Ananias, the High Priest A.D. 47–55. Josephus called him “a great procurer of money” (Josephus, Ant. 20.205).
The problem these business people plan for the future without acknowledging the Lord. There is nothing unusual or sinful about their business plans, but they are made without any reference to God. “We will go, we will spend time, we will trade and we will make a profit.” McKnight points out this is a claim that they control time (today or tomorrow), place (such and such a city), duration (a year or two), and their goals (profits) (McKnight, James, 370).
The problem is not their planning or the making of profits, but rather the arrogance of claiming control of every aspect of their lives without considering God’s hand in their business activity. Proverbs 27:1 warns against boasting about tomorrow; Job 14:1, a person’s life is short and full of trouble. 1 Enoch 97. 8 has a similar warning:
1 Enoch 97.8 Woe unto you who gain silver and gold by unjust means; you will then say, ‘We have grown rich and accumulated goods, we have acquired everything that we have desired.
Even Stoicism warned against the folly of planning for the future: “no one has any right to draw for himself upon the future” (Seneca, Ep. ci. 5).
James is perhaps aware of Jesus’s parables of the rich fools and the dangers of being anxious over the future. In Luke 12:16-21 a rich fool makes plans to expand his business without any account of the Lord’s will and dies without enjoying his wealth. The parable-like story in Luke 16:19-31 describes a foolish rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus. In Matthew 6:34 Jesus says “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” and in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he
Although there is nothing wrong with doing business and making a profit, it is dangerous to rely on that wealth since the future is uncertain. But how does the modern, western (especially American) Christian live this ideal out in a culture which is completely inundated with relying on one’s own wealth and savings for the future? Can we really plan wisely for the future yet hold loosely to that plan since we cannot really know what will happen tomorrow?
Can we really avoid planning for the future in order to “let go and let God”? Where is the balance?