Notes on James 5:7-12

18 Aug

“Patience is a virtue.” This cliché is true enough, but for most of us, patience is a virtue that is sorely lacking. The connection of faith to patience is the focus of James 5:7-12. The patience the readers of James need is far greater than anything we normally face, because their trials were much deeper and greater than the trials we encounter most of the time. So let’s look together at this passage . . .

7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.
The “therefore” here is referencing James’ previous condemnation of the oppressive rich (5:1-6). James was speaking to rich, oppressive unbelievers in verses 1-6 and now he turns back to his original audience and he calls them “brothers” three times in this section, just to remind them after his harsh words to the rich of his affection for them. James has just told us that the judgment of the oppressive rich by God is sure, so now he urges patience among his readers so that they are not overcome by their oppressors. They are to be patient. The Greek word used here for patience is makrothumeo, not the more common word in James for patience, upomeno. Blomberg says the difference is found in that the word used here is not as passive as the more common word in James. Believers here are called to persevere in spite of persecution and this is not a matter of just enduring but is a matter of both awaiting the Lord’s coming judgment and deliverance and at the same time denouncing injustice in the present world. So we have here a way between the extremes of violence and pacifism. James is urging his readers in this section to wait for the coming of the Lord while also speaking with a prophetic voice (just as he has) to the failings of their culture. We can’t bring complete justice to this world but we can seek a more just world even as we wait for the coming of the one who will put everything to rights and eradicate all injustice.
     Like a good preacher, James illustrates his encouragement to endure through the use of the farmer. The farmer would have been a common illustration for James’ readers and many of them were probably involved in farming. The key principle of this illustration is waiting. The farmer can’t plant the seed and harvest the seed but in the meantime he can’t make the seed grow. There are ties here to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:16-20) and the use of the early and latter rains may have a spiritual significance.
     James’ readers would have been familiar with the early and latter rains, a common weather pattern in the eastern Mediterranean. The early rains came in the fall while the latter rains came in the Spring. Planting and harvesting happened during these rainy seasons. So the farmer would sow and reap in two seasons but in between he would wait not passively, but actively, cultivating the soil to get the best possible harvest. The connection to James’ readers is that are living between the two seasons right now. The early rains of Jesus’ ministry have already happened but a latter rain harvest is still to come at His return. In this meantime, His people are to remain faithful and patient.
    That James calls the fruit here “precious” is unusual because this was normally a term used for jewels and treasures. But I think James uses this word because he recognizes that in contrast to the rich oppressors, whose riches are moth-eaten and rusted and fading, God’s people will enjoy the true riches of spiritual fruit at the second coming which will cause earthly trials and hardships to be seen as passing things. Thus the fruit of God’s renewing work is our true treasure.
8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
    So in this time between the rains, James urges patience for his readers. But this patience again is not inactive. While we wait, it is time to address our hearts. The coming of the Lord is at hand, it is the next thing, but in the meantime we may be tempted to doubt the coming of the Lord, to give up hope. We know James’ stance toward double-mindedness (see 1:7-8) so the focus here on establishing our hearts is important. You can preach to yourself. You can tell yourself the truth. You can remind yourself of God’s promises and His faithfulness. All of this is an important part of establishing your hearts. In this time between Jesus’ two comings, we need strong hearts to endure the many hardships of this life with patience.
9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
    James now returns to the issue of relationships in the church. He started with the individual and now moves out into the church as a whole. If the individual hearts of the church are not directed Godward, the whole group will falter. But having addressed the need for enduring patience and strong, hopeful hearts, James now turns to the issue once again of sinful speech. There is evidently a problem in the church, believers there are at each other’s throats verbally, and in this way their verbal violence is akin to the physical violence of the rich oppressors. Thus James’ readers in practical terms are modelling their lives more after the rich oppressors than their good God who gives every good and perfect gift. Because the believers are aligned in action with sinful people, they are subjecting themselves to God’s judgment. So the judgment of the oppressors by God which had been a source of comfort to these believers could also serve as a sort of warning to them, if they themselves walked in the same ways. There is a strong parallel here to something James has already said. In chapter 4:11, 12, we read . . .

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
     This matter of evil speech is critical to James. He says one of the big things that is undermining the church in his day is believers in the local body verbally slandering one another. In both passages, the element of judgment is featured. The security of the believer is a spiritual truth clear in Scripture but the judgment of works is also clear and it is clear that James believes the slanderous words of his hearers toward one another will not speak well of them in the day of judgment.
     I wonder if pondering the judgment of God might help us today weigh our words more carefully?
10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
     In verse 10, James takes a group of people whose very lives were tied to their words: the prophets, and makes them an illustration of the kind of attitude he is encouraging among his readers. James says his readers should follow the way of the prophets. Jesus had said something similar in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:13). James uses the prophets because their speech was edifying even in the midst of much hardship. The prophets also walked that middle ground between advocating either violence or pacifism. They spoke truth to people in power, they called for justice, but they did not incite riots or violence or the overthrow of governments. They were faithful to their ministries even when their ministries made them deeply unpopular or even brought active opposition. James is saying his readers should have this same spirit. Not the worldly spirit of self-seeking but the godly spirit of the prophets: patient endurance and faithfulness in speaking of Jesus.
11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
     James’ final example in this section is Job, the model of steadfastness under unusual trials. We are glad to call people who remained steadfast under trial blessed. All James’ readers would have admired the prophets and all would have admired Job. We look up to the prophets, we just don’t want their life, we don’t want to suffer like they did. So James turns our attention to Job. To be sure, Job was vexed by his trials yet he did not take his wife’s advice to “curse God and die.” Instead, he spoke from the heart and wrestled with God all without losing hold on the reality of God in his life. In the end, God said Job had spoken truthfully about him (see Job 42:7). Job is the great Old Testament example of patient endurance and in the end he was rewarded by a compassionate and gracious God. The foundation of our hope is a theological one. Without the knowledge of the nature and character of God the ground of our hope is shaky and subject to domination by doubt ultimately leading to despair. But with a firm theological grasp, we can approach life from a God-centered rather than self-centered perspective. This is James’ hope for his readers. He is showing them that as the farmer who waits has a harvest and the prophets who endured were vindicated and as Job through his patience was blessed, so it will be with his readers as they hope in God in the midst of their trials as they await the return of Christ and the making of all things new.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
     This verse forms an odd ending to this passage until you consider the whole story of the book of James. If you start at 3:1, you see in James a consistent focus on speech and severe warnings against ungodly speech. So when we come here and James says in verse 12, “above all,” I see him as summarizing this whole section, from 3:1 forward. And his summary statement is a nearly direct quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Don’t swear, but let your word be true and so escape judgment over your words. Don’t be like the rich oppressors, using words to wield power. Even when shady speech could earn you advantage or give you a feeling of power, don’t give in to its temptation. Instead, let your word be known as reliable. Not double-minded but simple and true. This is James’ hope for his readers. Blomberg brings out the contrast between Herod Antipas from the gospels, with his rash vow that led to John the Baptist’s death, and Job, who was called on by His wife to curse God but refused. We don’t need to swear oaths because that often puts us in a tough spot. Instead, we should be people of integrity in our hearts and in our speech. We endure hardship as the people of God but this is not a cause for doubt or despair. Instead, we lean into God even more fully. The old song by John Michael Talbot speaks to me with regard to these issues . . .

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