Friday, November 2
James 3:13—4:7: Perhaps following up his comment about the dangers of teaching (verse 1), James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom, one demonic and the other godly. These two kinds of wisdom are distinguishable in three ways.
First, they may be distinguished by their immediate fruits. Like faith, says James, wisdom is manifest in its works. Demonic wisdom is marked by bitter envy (zelon pikron) and contention in the heart (eritheian en te kardia), boasting, and lying aginst the truth (verse 14). Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is manifest in “good conduct and works in the meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). That is to say, a truly wise man is a humble man, readily distinguished from the arrogant, contentious blusterer that is full of himself. Both the Gospels (Matthew 5:5; 11:29) and the Epistles (2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23) commend the spirit of meekness. Not all meek people are wise, but all wise people are meek.
A second difference between the two kinds of wisdom is found in their differing origins. Evil wisdom is earthly, animal, and diabolical (verse 16). It is the wisdom of death. It comes from below, not from above. Godly wisdom is “from above” (anothen—verses 15,17).
Third, these two types of wisdom are distinguished by where they lead. The wisdom of envy and strife leads to confusion and “every evil work” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Godly wisdom, however, leads to purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, sincerity, and a reluctance to pass judgment (verse 17). We recognize here some of St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
James’ teaching on wisdom, then, is of a piece with his teaching on faith. If a person claims to have faith, let him show his works. If someone claims to be wise, let us see his works. The truth is always in the deeds, not the talk.
Having spoken of the great evils that come from an undisciplined tongue (3:2-12) and having listed the contentions characteristic of demonic wisdom (3:13-16), James comes now to those strifes that destroy peace of soul.
This section breaks into two parts. In the first, James analyzes the source of this spiritual problem (verses 1-6), and in the second he prescribes the proper remedy (verses 7-10).
The source of these strifes, says James, is found in the inordinate passions that dominate the worldly heart. The word he uses for “passion” may more correctly be translated as “pleasures” (heonai, from which the English expression “hedonist,” of pleasure-lover). Strife, says James, is the expression of untamed and unsatisfied desires (verse 2).
Nor can these desires, being inordinate, be satisfied through prayer, because such a prayer is as disordered as the desires themselves (verse 3). The problem is deeper. It is friendship with the world, and the world is the enemy of God (verse 4). We recall that Jesus would not pray Jesus would not pray for the world (John 17:9). Prayer based on friendship with the world, therefore, is of no avail with God.
(We may note that the “scripture” quoted by James in verse 5 is not readily identified. It is possible that he is simply citing some ancient variant of a biblical text that has been lost in the transmission of the manuscripts. It does seem, however, that the “spirit” in this text means man’s natural spirit, not the Holy Spirit.)
The sole resolution to this dilemma, says James, is repentance and the acquisition of humility (verse 6). God is favorable to the humble, whereas He actively resists the proud. This notion from Proverbs 3:34 was apparently a common teaching in early Christian pedagogy. We also find it developed in a passage that closely resembles James here; namely 1 Peter 5:5-7—
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘ God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”
God never resists the approach of someone who desires to draw nigh unto Him. No sigh of repentance goes unheard. No tear of compunction falls unnoticed. On the contrary, He gives His grace to the humble, and mourning and weeping are the activity of the repentant spirit (verse 9).
This is the repentance proper to the foot of the Cross, described by the poet Sidney Lanier in 1882:
“Tell me, sweet burly-bark’d man-bodied Tree
That mine arms in the dark are embracing, dost know
From what fount are these tears at they feet which flow?”
James give two practical applications of his teaching about submission to God. This teaching is opposed to two sins by which man attempts to usurp the place of God—first, with respect to other men, and second, with respect to the future. Both other men and the future lie outside our ability to know for certain, and the man who pretends otherwise is attempting to take the place of God.
Man must know his limits, especially his limits about what he can know. Proper epistemology, then, is simply a form of humility. Now there are two things a man cannot know. First, someone else’s heart. Second, the future.
First, true submission to God is incompatible with passing judgment on, or speaking ill of, our brother or neighbor. The one who does so, sins against the Law, the Law here evidently understood as the law of charity. Therefore, the man who maligns his brother brings the Law into disrepute. The person who does this is not a doer of the Law but a judge thereof (verse 1). The one ultimately offended by such behavior is the Lawgiver and Judge, whose place is usurped by the man that passes judgment on his neighbor (verse 2).
This enormous sin of presumption lies totally at variance with James’ counsel to “submit to God” (verse 7). The judging of one’s neighbor is an expression of pride, which God resists (verse 6).
Saturday, November 3
James 4:7-17: James then goes to a second practical expression of submission to God—namely, reliance on God’s will for the future. Highly presumptuous is the man who imagines himself in control of his future (verses 13-14). His fortunes may change like the air, says James; his life is no more than a vapor.
A proper attitude toward the future prompts a man to treat his plans somewhat hypothetically—namely, with the proviso, “if God wills.” This hypothesis, sometimes called the conditio Jacobaea, places a man’s soul in the correct posture of humility and submission to God (Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). It means that a man does not make his plans like an atheist (as if God did not exist) or a theist (God neither cares nor interferes). Neither the atheist nor the theist can really “submit to God.”
Sunday, November 4
James 5:1-12: His manifest familiarity with the Old Testament prophets prompts James to dwell on the causal relationship of greed to many and grievous social evils. Indeed at the pen of James the word “wealthy” becomes nearly a synonym for “unjust,” and those thus described are sternly warned and summoned to repentance.
Since it is very difficult to believe that many wealthy people were among those who first heard read this epistle of James (2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28), this section of the epistle is reasonably regarded as a warning to those who are not rich but would prefer to be. Perhaps the latter number for a majority of James’ readers. It seems obvious that more people love wealth than have it. This preference for wealth over poverty, because it is nearly universal, prompted the Apostle Peter to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)
It is the love of wealth. after all, not the wealth itself, that is spiritually dangerous, and a preference for wealth opens the door to the love of wealth. The very thought of wealth, then, because it is an attractive thought, is already freighted with moral and spiritual peril.
As we observed earlier, James fear that a preference for wealth over poverty is readily translated into a preference for the wealthy over the poor (2:1-4), and this fear is apparently what inspires the harshness with which James speaks here of the wealthy. From the very beginning of this epistle, in fact, James has emphasized the danger of riches (1:9-11). This danger is found everywhere, because a preference for wealth is widespread among men.
So much is this the case that Christians have long regarded the voluntary renunciation of property a kind of “perfection” of the Gospel life (Matthew 19:21), a regard that gave rise to monastic life. Such a renunciation has at least the effect of rendering less likely the fearful judgments to which James refers in these verses.
For James, as for most people, expensive clothing is the clearest sign of wealth and is worn for precisely that reason (verse 2; Isaiah 4:16-26; Acts 12:21; 20:33; Horace, Letters 1.6.40-44). Alas, this interest has not diminished on the earth. Even today James would lament among Christians the same distressing preoccupation with haberdashery extravagance, fashion clothing, designer labels, and similar vanity. All these things pertain to worldliness, which is the enemy of God (4:4).
Resources spent on fashion clothing are better conferred on the poor, James indicates, because this conferral will clothe the believer himself against God’s final judgment on man’s social history (verses 4-6).
In the section that follows James’ reference to the final judgment, he pursues two lines of thought simultaneously, alternating his attention to two themes that have to do with that judgment. One the one hand, there is an exhortation to patience while we await the final judgment, and on the other hand we ourselves are warned with respect to that judgment. James goes back and forth between these two ideas.
In exhorting believers to the exercise of patience, James appeals to two sources of instruction, nature and history. First, with respect to nature, he holds out the example of the farmer, who must steadfastly await the time of harvest. The farmer does not immediately reap the fruits of his labor but must persevere until the Lord provides the fruit, which will not come until the time is ready (verse 7). Similarly the believer must hold fast in the face of persecutions (verses 4-6), as well as the many other difficulties common to human life (verses 12-14,19).
Second, with respect to history, James appeals to the example of the lives of the biblical prophets, among whom he singles out Job, the classical just man who is tried in faith. “We count them blessed [makarizomen],” he says, “who endure [hypomeinantes].” James is resuming here a theme he introduced earlier, the blessedness of the man who is put to the trial: “Blessed [makarios] is the man who endures [hypomenei] temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (1:12). Job appears, then, as James’ example of the “blessed man” who endured.
The second aspect of the final judgment, for James, is that of a salutary warning to Christians themselves, and in this regard he cautions us in two matters.
First, we must be cautious how we treat one another: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
Second, we must be cautious how we speak of God. All forms of swearing, for example, must be excluded from the Christian’s vocabulary. God’s name must never be taken lightly and irreverently in our speech: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”
In both cases, we observe, James appeals to the coming judgment as a motive for circumspection.
Monday, November 5
James 5:13-20: James speaks of prayer in each of the next six verses (verses 13-18). The link word joining these verses to the preceding section is the verb “to suffer” (kakopathein, literally “to experience evil”—verse 13), which corresponds to the noun kakopathia (verse 9).
A special form of prayer is that offered by the presbyters off the Church whey they anoint the sick in the Lord’s name (verse 14; Mark 6:13). These “presbyters,” from whose name we derive the English word “priests,” were the pastors of the local congregations (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17,19). Prayer for the sick is a Christian practice inherited from Judaism (Sirach 38:9-10). The reference to the sacramental rite of anointing indicates that it is distinct from the charismatic gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9,28,30).
The sacramental rite of healing, inasmuch as it also heals from sins, introduces the subject of the confession of sins (verses 15-16). It is instructive to observe that this text, which is perhaps the New Testament’s clearest reference to auricular confession, is placed in the context of the ministry of local pastors. Like the Old Testament priests, who were obliged to hear confessions in order to offer the appropriate sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), the pastors of the New Testament are also to be “father confessors,” who absolve from sins on behalf of the Church (John 20:22-23; Matthew 9:8).
As James invoked Abraham and Rahab as exemplars of good works (2:21-25), and Job as a model of patience (5:11), so now he appeals to Elijah as a person to be emulated with respect to prayer (verses 17-18; 1 Kings 17:1,7; 18:1,41-45; Sirach 48:2-3).
The author’s recent reference to the forgiveness of sins (verses 15-16) prompts him finally to speak of the conversion of sinners. No greater favor can we do for a man than to bring him back to the path of conversion (verses 19-20).
The epistle thus ends abruptly.
Tuesday, November 6
Psalm 61: Combining petition and confidence, Psalm 61 is one of the simplest and easiest prayers of the entire Psalter.
“Hear my petition, O God,” we begin, “attend to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I called out to you, when my heart was anxious.” Already is introduced here the first part of a contrast between “far” and “near.” In anxiety of heart we cry out to God “from the ends of the earth,” but by the very act of doing so we then find ourselves saying: “I will abide in Your temple forever; I will be protected in the shadow of Your wings.”
The movement from “far” to “near,” which is the whole business of prayer, is a great deal more than a mere psychological experience. It has to do, rather, with the mystery of redemption: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). It is not a matter here of our “feeling far off.” Our feelings on the point are futile and unreliable. It is not a feeling but a fact that without Christ, we are far off, and the anxiety of heart, mentioned here as characteristic of our being far from God, is well founded: “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Now classical paganism did think of itself as hopeful. Even when Pandora opened the jar and released the many plagues that beset the human race, wrote Hesiod, “hope alone yet remained . . . by the will of Zeus the aegis-bearer.” This, said Pindar, is the “hope that principally governs the fickle mind of mortals,” and Aristophanes spoke of “the great hopes stirred within us by longing.” Rome had several temples dedicated to the goddess Hope, and its citizens celebrated her annual feast on August 1. As far as paganism could tell, there was every reason for continuing to hope. A certain healthy kind of hope, after all, is built into the very structure of the rational mind, and the saner sort of paganism, especially on the northern rim of the Mediterranean, paid that hope its proper heed.
Yet, in that text from Ephesians cited above, the Apostle Paul, unwilling to accept paganism’s own assessment of its expectations, described those outside of Christ as “having no hope.” Whatever classical paganism thought of itself, its prospects were really quite hopeless. Having been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” the Christian is keenly aware that such a drawing near is quite beyond his natural ability even to hope.
Our true hope is founded, then, not in the native aspirations of the human spirit but in the redemption wrought by the God to whom we say in our psalm: “For You have become my hope.” Our Christian hope is described as “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (Heb. 7:19), and of the man who has this hope our psalm says: “He will live forever in the presence of God.”
Our drawing near to God in prayer is based on His drawing near to us in Christ, who is the one place where God and man meet: “having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart” (Heb. 10:21, 22). No prayer goes to God except through Christ. It is Christ who gives both foundation and form to our “drawing near” to God, for “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2). In Christ is “the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil” (Heb. 6:18, 19).
Christ is the King, likewise, of whom this psalm says that He “will live forever in the presence of God.” Indeed, this King has entered once into the Holy of holies, now to make intercession on our behalf and “whose years,” our psalm says again, “will endure from generation to generation.”
In one of the more tender sentiments of the Psalter, using an image that appears likewise in Psalms 17 and 91, this psalm tells God: “I will be protected in the shadow of Your wings.” This is indeed “the inheritance of those who fear Your name.” We finish on the resolve of praise: “So I will sing to Your name forever and ever, and pay my devotion day by day.”
Wednesday, November 7
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12: Paul continues to speak of his own conscience in the Holy Spirit–”… we speak, not as pleasing men, but God, who tests our hearts. . . . God is witness” (verses 4-5). Paul’s behavior was, in fact, being challenged by his opponents. He was being likened to other itinerant preachers who made their living by spreading new and interesting ideas.
Such itinerant preachers were much common in the ancient world. One such group was the cynics, criticized by Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-112, and therefore somewhat contemporary with Paul) for their “error, impurity, and deception.” All of these charges were directed at Paul himself (verses 3-6). Dio Chrysostom goes on to say that a true philosopher should be “gentle as a nurse.” This is exactly how Paul describes himself (verse 7). In addition, Paul appeals to the memory of the Thessalonians themselves with respect to his recent ministry in their city (verses 1,2,5,9,10).
The Thessalonians could be witness of Paul only up to a point, however. The real Paul they could not see. Inside Paul was the plerophoria effected by the Holy Spirit. This was his “complete assurance,” known only to God, so it is to God Himself that Paul appealed as the Judge of his conscience, no matter what others might think of him.
The idea of living under God’s scrutiny was important to Paul’s psychology. He was persuaded that a man was not defiled by what entered him from without, but only by what came from inside, from the heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). The Apostle rather frequently appeals to God’s inner witnessing (2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9). His mentality seems dominated by the awareness of God’s inner judgment over him.
Thursday, November 8
2 Chronicles 26: According to the custom of counting both the first and last years of his time on the throne (793-742), Uzziah was Judah’s longest reigning monarch, fifty-two years (2 Chronicles 26:3). During those final years, however, he shared the throne with his son, Jotham (26:21). In spite of this lengthy reign, Uzziah is treated in Second Kings (15:1-7) in a mere seven verses. Clearly the author did not think much of him.
The Chronicler, whose more detailed account gives a better idea of Uzziah’s importance, distinguishes this king in six respects.
First, he mentions the tutelage provided for Uzziah by the priest Zechariah (26:5), whom he sees as a parallel to the ancient Jehoiada, the spiritual father of King Joash (24:2). Each king, then, receives early guidance from a priest.
Second, this feature is part of an obvious and more extensive correspondence, in the Chronicler’s mind, between Joash and Uzziah. Both men began well, a fact that prompted the Bible to say that each man “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (24:2; 26:4). In both of them the moral problem was one of growing arrogance that became manifest only later.
In each case, too, the king’s fall is in some way connected to the Temple. In the instance of Joash, who at the beginning of his career “set his heart on repairing the house of the Lord” (24:4), the royal defection came in the form of admitting idols into the Temple (24:17-18) and then killing the priest who reprimanded him for it (24:19-22). In the case of Uzziah, the offense is also directed to the Temple, where the king attempted to usurp the proper role of the priests (26:16). In this instance as well he is reprimanded by the priest (26:17-18), and, like Joash before him (24:21-22), Uzziah becomes very angry (26:19). This time, however, the Lord intervenes, so the king is unable to act on his wrath.
Third, only the Chronicler spells out all the details of Uzziah’s military interests and exploits (26:6-9,11-15). Archeology has uncovered several of the military installations mentioned in these verses, and from a worldly perspective Uzziah was certainly among Judah’s greatest kings. For this reason it is significant that neither biblical historian has all that much to say about him.
Fourth, only the Chronicler speaks of Uzziah’s pronounced enthusiasm for agriculture and animal husbandry: “He dug many wells, for he had much livestock, both in the lowlands and in the plains; he also had farmers and vinedressers in the mountains and in Carmel, for he loved the soil (26:10). This note strengthens our assessment of the prosperous reign of Uzziah.
Fifth, only the Chronicler gives the reason for Uzziah’s leprosy, which affliction is recorded in 2 Kings (15:5). The Chronicler regards the leprosy as a punishment for the king’s proud usurpation of the priestly ministry (26:16-21), and his inclusion of this story expresses his sustained interest in the ministry and privileges of the authentic priesthood.
In respect to this offense and punishment Uzziah’s rejection by God corresponds to two earlier instances in biblical history. First, his leprosy immediately puts the reader in mind of Miriam, also made a leper for her revolt against the leadership of Moses (Numbers 12:1-10). Second, the king’s illegitimate assumption of priestly rites is a repetition of the sin of Saul, whom the Lord rejected for the same reason (1 Samuel 13:8-14).
Sixth, the Chronicler alone relates King Uzziah to the rise of literary prophecy in the eighth century: “Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz wrote” (26:22). Because Isaiah himself, in the sixth chapter of his book, describes a mystical vision in the Temple “in the year that King Uzziah died,” it is possible that this verse in Chronicles refers to the first five chapters of Isaiah. Both Amos and Hosea also prophesied during the time of Uzziah, albeit in the Northern Kingdom (Amos 1:1; Hosea 1:1).
The Bible’s final word on Uzziah is not encouraging, for he is accused of arrogance and anger (26:16-19). The prophet Isaiah, who probably was not even born when Uzziah came to the throne, seems to intend a contrast between Judah’s longest reigning king and the Lord, the true king of His people: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.” That is to say, Uzziah is at last in his grave, but the Lord is still on the Throne.