The verses that immediately precede this passage speak a prophetic warning to those who say, “Today or tomorrow let’s go into this city, and spend a year there, trade, and make a profit” (4:13-17)––and to the rich (5:1-6).
- Those focused on profits will find that their life is a vapor that will soon vanish (4:14). Their boasting is evil (4:16). If they know what is good and fail to do it, that is to them a sin (4:17).
- The rich will soon “weep and howl for (the) miseries that are coming on (them)” (5:1). They will soon find their riches corrupted and their garments moth-eaten (5:2). Their gold will corrode “and will eat (their) flesh like fire” (5:3). The Lord has heard the cries of the laborers whom the rich have defrauded (5:4).
These warnings to the money-hungry and rich are important background to our text, because the people to whom James speaks on 5:7-10 have surely suffered at the hands of the people to whom James spoke in these earlier verses.
JAMES 5:7-8. BE PATIENT, THEREFORE
7 Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain. 8You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
“Be patient therefore, brothers“ (v. 7a). James emphasizes patience by repetition. He mentions it in this verse (twice) and again in verses 8 and 10. Patience is required, because they have suffered at the hands of the money-grubbers and the rich (4:13 – 5:6).
The alternatives to patience would be to take matters in their own hands in an attempt to wreak vengeance on those who have injured them––or to suffer silently and allow their anger to eat away at their innards. Neither of those alternatives hold much promise. The rich have people at their disposal to protect them––and the first victim of anger is likely to be the angry person.
“until the coming (Greek: parousia) of the Lord“ (v. 7a). The question is whether James intends the parousia mentioned here to mean (1) the Second Coming of Christ or (2) the coming of God’s judgment on those who have oppressed the poor––and the resultant vindication of the poor.
The traditional answer is that parousia equates to Christ’s Second Coming. The problem with that is that Christ’s coming hasn’t occurred yet, so the people to whom James was writing died without receiving the vindication that would come with the Second Coming.
But we need to remember that parousia was an ordinary Greek word that meant “coming” or “arrival” or “presence.” Paul uses it in the New Testament to refer to his own presence in Corinth (2 Corinthians 10:10) and Philippi (Philippians 1:26; 2:12). He also uses it to refer to the presence of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:17)––and Titus (2 Corinthians 7:6)––and to the coming of the lawless one (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
It is easy to lose sight of these ordinary uses of parousia, because the word is so often equated with Christ’s Second Coming. Scholars today often write about the Parousia (capitalized), assuming that readers will understand that they are talking about Christ’s Second Coming. However, as noted above, the word is used in the New Testament in other ways––as well as to refer to Christ’s Second Coming.
Therefore, it is entirely possible that James was telling these Christian brothers and sisters to be patient until God would come to judge the rich and to vindicate faithful people who had been victimized by the rich.
But whether James intends parousia to refer to Christ’s Second Coming or the coming of God in judgment, he is assuring these Christians that God is in charge and that the day will come when they will receive vindication.
“Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it“ (v. 7c). This is the first of three examples that James uses to illustrate the need for patience. Being a farmer requires great patience. A farmer must prepare the ground and sow the seed––and must then wait for the seed to sprout––and must wait even longer for the fruit to ripen. In some cases, such as when planting an orchard, farmers must wait for several years to get their first harvest. If the farmer were to become impatient and to replant too quickly, he/she might never see any fruit from his/her efforts (see Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Luke 13:6-9).
“until it receives the early and late rain“ (v. 7d). The word “rain” doesn’t appear in the original Greek text, but “the early and late” obviously refer to the early and late rains that came in the Fall (October-November) and Spring (March-April) in Palestine (Deuteronomy 11:14). Farmers would plant crops to take advantage of the early (Fall) rain. The late (Spring) rain would bring substantial growth of the crop.
“You also be patient“ (v. 8a). Just as the farmer is patient, so also these Christians must be patient.
“Establish (Greek: sterizo) your hearts“ (v. 8b). The word sterizo means to establish or fix or set firmly, and implies a kind of rock-steadiness. James is telling these Christians to strengthen their hearts to endure present circumstances. If we were writing today, we might say, “Stiffen your spine” or “Plant your feet solidly, and don’t allow anyone to move you.”
“for the coming (parousia) of the Lord is at hand“ (v. 8b). See the comments on verse 7a above for the meaning of “the parousia of the Lord.”
JAMES 5:9-10. DON’T GRUMBLE AGAINST ONE ANOTHER
9 Don’t grumble, brothers, against one another, so that you won’t be judged. Behold, the judge stands at the door. 10 Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
“Don’t grumble, brothers, against one another“ (v. 9a). The word “grumble” brings to mind occasions in the Old Testament where the Israelites complained about God and Moses (Exodus 14:10-14; 15:22-25; 16:1-4, 13-15; 17:1-7; Numbers 11:1-15, 31-35; 14:1-45; 16:12-14; 20:2-13; 21:4-9)––but the concern here is Christians complaining about each other.
When everything is working well, we have no reason to blame anyone? But when we are suffering adversity, we look for a cause––and are tempted to blame those nearest us. That is counter-productive, because in adversity we need to be mutually supportive rather than mutually destructive.
“so that you won’t be judged“ (Greek: krino) (v. 9b). James implies that those who resort to blaming behavior will be subject to judgment. This is consistent with Jesus’ comment in the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).
The word krino can mean either to evaluate or to condemn. Christians are called to evaluate––to assess (Matthew 7:16; 1 John 4:1), but not to condemn. Condemnation is God’s prerogative.
James doesn’t say whether the judgment to be suffered by those who judge will come from God or other people. He implies that it will come from God, and I believe that to be his intent (see also 2:13; 4:11-12). However, I have found that, when I get into a judging mood, I usually incur disapproval from the people around me––so I believe that people who judge others can expect judgment from both God and other people.
“Behold, the judge stands at the door“ (v. 9c). James warns that judgment is nearby––just on the other side of the door––ready to be exercised quickly when we judge others.
But the judge on the other side of the door will also come to vindicate those who have suffered injustice at the hands of the rich––and to condemn the oppressors.
“Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord“ (v. 10). The first example James gave of patience was the farmer (v. 7b). Now he offers the prophets as the second example.
People often persecuted prophets, because prophets delivered God’s message of judgment, a message that people didn’t want to hear (Matthew 5:12).
I am a little surprised to hear James speak of prophets as exemplars of patience. Faithfulness, usually––patience, well, not so much.
- Jonah was the worst of the bunch. Called to carry a prophetic word to Nineveh, he first ran away, and then obeyed reluctantly he had no other choice. He delivered the required word to the Ninevites––one wonders how enthusiastically. When the Ninevites repented, he became angry and asked God to take his life. Patient! Hardly.
- Jeremiah complained that he had become a laughing stock, and that everyone mocked him.
- Elijah was more patient. During a God-given drought, he hid near the brook Cherith where God sustained him with food and water over a period that lasted many months––and perhaps several years––and stood up to the prophets of Baal in a dramatic confrontation. However, faced with threats from Jezebel, he asked God to take his life. He then complained to God about the unfaithfulness of the Israelites––claiming to be the only remaining faithful person.
- Elisha was better––doing what God called him to do without complaint. Likewise Amos and some other prophets.
“Behold, we call them blessed who endured. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the Lord in the outcome, and how the Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (v. 11). This verse isn’t included in the lectionary reading, but one wonders why. In it, James gives a third example of patience––Job––the man who lost everything, but refused to curse God.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan