The address at the beginning of the Epistle helps not a little to account for the peculiarity of the denunciation of the rich with which our chapter opens, as well as other passages afterwards and before it. If directed to the twelve tribes that are in the dispersion, there is no difficulty; if it contemplated like Peter's two Epistles only such as are saints, not a little would sound harsh, to say the least. But as the inspired writer was led to take wider ground from the start, the true key of interpretation is put into our hands thereby.
"Come then, ye rich, weep, howling over your miseries that are coming on. Your wealth is corrupted, and your garments are become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are rusted through, and their rust shall be for a witness to you, and shall eat your flesh as fire. Ye laid up treasure in [the] last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who reaped your fields, that is kept back of you, [or, from you] calleth out; and the cries of those that reaped entered into the ears of Jehovah of hosts. Ye lived luxuriously on the earth and indulged yourselves; ye nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. Ye condemned, ye slew the just one: he doth not resist you" (vers. 1-6).
The day of the Lord could not but be prominent before a godly Israelite imbued with the reiterated warnings of the prophets; and it is still hanging over man on the earth. The covenant people of old were prone to regard themselves as exceptions; but for their delusion they had no warrant or even excuse from scripture. The more privileged, if faithless, are the more guilty. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." The gospel brings in grace, and through faith deliverance; but the moral principles of divine government are immutable. God's wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men that hold the truth in unrighteousness.
The poor are sinners no less than the rich; each have their special snares and dangers. But it is far harder for a rich man than for a poor one to follow Christ truly. Therefore, said He to His disciples, "Verily I say to you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of the heavens. And again I say to you, It is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."
Here however they in a general and unsparing way are warned solemnly of their miseries that are coming on. The reader may profitably compare Isa_2:7 to the end: only idols are not set forth by the Epistle as in the prophecy. But that day will deal with every one that is proud and lofty, and with every one that is lifted up, with every high tower, and every fenced wall, with all the ships of Tarshish and with all pleasant works of art. God is against their cherished wealth, and their endless store of raiment. To his eye that saw under the surface all was corruption, their gold and silver rusted throughout, the rust a witness to them and to eat their flesh as fire. The selfish unbelief that laid up treasures in closing days was no trifle in God's sight.
But they are charged with wanton cruelty and fraud in their dealings with the labourers who reaped their fields. Their very wealth tempts the rich to withhold payment of wages to the poor; their own things are alone of moment in their eyes, while they postpone to a convenient season the claims of such as live from hand to mouth. But the debt cries aloud to Him Who ever feels for the poor, as He showed Who alone made Him fully known. Yes, the cries of the reapers, which may not have reached the rich, entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts, and His blow would fall when least expected.
The rich are next arraigned for their luxurious living on the earth, as if the God of heaven regarded it not. In a world of wretchedness and want, they indulged themselves, as if they were not stewards and had no account to render; they nourished their hearts in a day of slaughter, as heedless as the beasts slain for food of man.
Another charge follows, still more tremendous: "Ye condemned, ye slew the just one: he doth not resist you." This made their guilt less excusable. "He did no sin, nor was guile found in his mouth; who, when reviled, reviled not again, when suffering, threatened not, but gave [himself] up to him that judgeth justly."
At this point the Holy Spirit brings in the coming of the Lord. It is indeed a truth of the utmost moment and of the largest application practically; and all the inspired were led to interweave it into their communications.
"Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient for (or, over) it, until it receive early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts; for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Murmur (or, groan) not, brethren, one against another, that ye be not judged. Behold, the judge standeth before the door. Take, brethren, for en example of suffering and of patience, the prophets who spoke in the name of [the] Lord. Behold, we call them blessed who endured. Ye heard of the endurance of Job, and saw the Lord's end; for the Lord is full of compassion, and merciful" (vers. 7-11).
What motive to long suffering so powerful as the Lord's coming! Good shall then be at ease, and evil be smitten down all over the earth. He will have the glory to Whom it is due. The heavens and earth shall be united under His head ship Who is Heir of all things. His own, even in the body conformed to His image, as they once suffered with Him, shall then be glorified and reign with Him. Israel no longer idolatrous, the Jew despising no more their Messiah, shall have Him their King, Jehovah's anointed King on His holy hill of Zion. All the nations will bow in willing subjection to His righteous sceptre, envious no more of His choice: all that see the elect people in that day shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which Jehovah hath blessed. In their Father's kingdom on high shall the righteous shine forth as the sun; and, below, the Son of man shall send forth His angels, who shall gather out of His kingdom all stumbling-blocks and those that do iniquity. Then Jehovah will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth; and the earth shall answer the corn, and the wine and the oil; and they shall answer Jezreel. And Jehovah will sow her unto Him in the land, and will have mercy on her that had not obtained mercy; and He will say to them which were not His people, Thou art my people, and they shall say, My God. And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child too shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain. For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea.
Such are the consequences of that glorious event. But His presence is more than all the rest to those that love Himself. Nor is there any truth which has a mightier effect (next to faith in His person, His love, and His death) in detaching from the world and its snares on the one hand, and in sustaining under its hatred and persecution on the other. Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. It is not the providential dealing with Jerusalem and the Jews, any more than death ridding sufferers from the troubles of this life. These are the misinterpretations of fallen Christendom. The truth is the hope of His own coming, which will first act on all the saints dead or living to give them consummated blessedness, and next on the land and people of Israel, as well as on all the earth.
Doubtless we have to await the moment of the Father's will. So does the farmer for the good produce of the earth, till it receive the needed rain from above, both early and later. How much more should we stablish our hearts in patience, whose hope is so much more excellent, till the last believer is called! for the Lord's coming hath drawn nigh. Can we not trust Him Who gave us His Son, and with Him all things?
There is another danger, besides impatience, which it corrects. We are apt to murmur, or groan, one against another. How unwise, ungracious, and unbelieving! With what measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again. To judge is to be judged. How much better to wait in patience, overcoming evil with good! Why should we judge? "Behold, the judge standeth before the door." The time is at hand.
Incredulity says that this was the error of the apostolic church. On the contrary it was the simple strength of their hope; and they reaped the blessing it gave them. If they fell asleep, it was also to wait with Christ, instead of only for Him. It is the true, intended, and constant hope of the Christian, as living now as from the day of Pentecost. Christ Himself is waiting for that moment; so all saints were once, and all ought to be now.
Nor is our Lord the only pattern for us. "Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and of patience, the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord." We tread the same path with yet brighter hope, though in substance the same. Yet another incentive is added, of no slight force. "Behold, we call them blessed which endured. Ye heard of the endurance of Job, and saw the Lord's end; for the Lord is full of compassion and merciful." A whole book of scripture is devoted to this aim. How fully Job was vindicated against the detraction of friends! And how blessed of Jehovah, when self was judged! Let us be of good cheer, not hearing only, but truly profiting.
From the need of patient endurance we are next warned of the danger of light or thoughtless asseverations in ordinary speech: a common habit among both Jews and Greeks, but wholly unworthy of Him Who is the truth, the great exemplar for all who confess Him Lord.
"But before all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and nay nay, lest ye fall under judgment" (ver. 12).
As sinning with the tongue is throughout denounced, so here in particular the lack of reverence. For though the oaths in question refer to the creature rather than to God, though they may affect care for His name by substituting other forms for His; who entitles men to adopt anything of the sort in daily intercourse? He is the Judge, Who has assured us that of every idle word that men speak they shall give account in the day that comes; "for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned."
Indeed on the mount, in the great series of discourses of which the first Gospel gives the summary, the Lord had pronounced on the same wrong. "Again, ye have heard that it was said to those of old time, Thou shalt not perjure thyself, but shalt perform to Jehovah thy vows; but I say to thee, Swear not at all: neither by the heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. No more shalt thou swear by thy head; for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your word be yea, yea; nay, nay; for that which is more cometh of evil" (or, the evil one). The self-same duty is enforced as in this Epistle.
It is a total mistake to conceive that by either a judicial oath is forbidden. The specimens given preclude such an inference. They are not such as the magistrate puts in a court or other occasion; they were, or might be, the common phrases of every day. The sense therefore is clearly given by the A.V. rendering of "your communication." It was not an answer to the demand of one entitled to ask in God's name. This every one is bound to give. So our Lord was silent till the High Priest adjured, or put the oath, with that authority; as the O.T. claims it in Lev_5:1. Here it is only the case of man with man. Even without a magistrate, but on an adequately solemn occasion we have the apostle confirming what he taught the saints by an equivalent as in Rom_1:9; Rom_9:1; 2Co_1:23; Gal_1:20; Php_1:8; 2Th_3:5; so he adjures his brethren in 1Th_5:27.
It is quite enough that in our converse with brethren or other men, our yea should be yea, and our nay nay. "That which is more cometh of evil." The believer is as responsible to speak as to act as in the presence of God. This is his habitual privilege, and safeguard. It may be forgotten by others, or by himself to his loss. The evil one is a liar and the father of it. No small opportunity would it be to him if the Christian were not always watchful to speak truly, and needed such expletives to gain credit for it.
From this earnest exclusion of an approach to profane speech, we are next exhorted to the course that befits in suffering or in joy, as well as sickness.
"Doth any among you suffer trouble? let him pray. Is any happy? let him sing praise. Is any sick among you? let him call to him the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save (heal) the sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him" (vers. 13-15).
We are short in Christian intelligence if we do not know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to those that are called according to purpose. God often sends trouble as chastening for the good of His children. Sometimes as in 1 Cor. 11 it is because of positive sin; but they totally mistake who suppose that it is restricted to that. Heb. 12 puts it on ground quite independent of so sorrowful an occasion, and treats it as flowing from His Fatherly love, and for profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness. It is as much or more to hinder sin as in consequence of its indulgence. It often is a trial of faith and an honour from the Lord, as the apostles so well knew, and many a simple saint in no such prominence. For the disciples as such are called through many tribulations to enter into the kingdom of God.
But in any case "doth any among you suffer trouble? let him pray." God is the resource in trouble; and the saint, instead of only bearing it or sinking under it, is exhorted to "pray." He is encouraged to expect blessing in crying to God about the trouble. It is a practical victory over the enemy who seeks our loss by it, if our mildness or forbearance be made known to all men, and our requests be made known to God. With unbelief it is the contrary: insisting on our rights as and with men, as if God entitled any to such a plea; and making demands or requests on men, instead of looking only thus to God.
Then there is a time when one experiences circumstances of joy. "Is any happy? let him praise." For gladness has its dangers no less, perhaps more, than trouble. It is apt to elate the spirit, throw us off our balance in the Lord, and expose us to levity in feeling, word and deed. The resource is to turn to Him in praise. Singing is not only due to Him Who gives happiness, but a safety-valve for His feeble ones, who easily at such a time slip from dependence. His praise recalls us to Himself.
There may also be the general or special need created by sickness. "Is any sick among you? let him call to him the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of [the] Lord." It is good where any dealing of the Lord leads us to turn to Him, expecting not evil but good. In those days too, elders of the assembly were there, men of moral weight and spiritual judgment, whose place it was to intervene in difficulties of a personal as well as public nature. They might not be evangelists or teachers; but apt to teach they were required to be, men able to take up in love and truth and faithfulness the burdens of their brethren. The sick man is exhorted to summon such as they are to pray for him with that application of oil which Romanism has distorted so wholly from God's mind. Extreme unction is a mere invention of superstition, to smooth the way when hope of recovery is gone.
It is remarkable that the inspired writer, though encouraging honour to the elders, attaches healing virtue, not to their official place or special art, but to prayer, and this of an efficacious sort through faith. He says "And the prayer of faith shall save [or, heal] the sick, and the Lord will raise him up." What a contrast this is with the gloomy superstition which sends "a priest" to absolve him and give extreme unction, because his death is regarded as inevitable! For if he recover, he will need the same hateful parody over again. Yes, unclean and drunken harlot, dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return, with no resurrection as being without life, nothing but a system of darkness and death.
Then comes the special character of the sickness, carefully discriminated from the common, "and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him." It is a nice and notable point in the true rendering of the clause that the sins are in the plural, the forgiveness is in the singular. It is right that each and all should be judged in order; but grace gives the forgiveness in full.
Verses 14, 15, fully present the blessing which rested on the assembly, and the honour God put on the elders. They were encouraged to pray for the sick and assured that the prayer of faith should heal him, and the Lord raise him up. The added clause took notice of sins done, which might trouble the heart, but it assures forgiveness. This leads to a more general statement which follows.
"Confess therefore your sins [or, 'offences' as in the common text] to one another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. A righteous [one's] supplication hath much power if it work. Elijah was a man of like passions with us, and he prayed prayerfully that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again; and the heaven gave rain, and the earth sprouted forth its fruit" (vers. 16-18).
Here we find Christians exhorted, where failure came in, to confess their sins mutually, and so to pray, that healing might be granted. For there is a divine government which has ever thus dealt with the saints here below, as we may see in the Psalms as well as in the history of the ancient people of God. So there was outside Israel, as in the book of Job. Neither the gospel nor the church has changed this. The saving grace of God has appeared, as it did not till Christ and His work; but as surely as we call on a Father, He judges without respect of persons according to each one's work, as the Lord taught the disciples in John 15. Sovereign grace abides in all its efficacy; but God does not fail in faithfulness to deal with us if unfaithful. We are therefore enjoined to pass the time of our sojourning in fear, not as if we doubted, but on the contrary, as knowing consciously that we were redeemed with Christ's precious blood as of an unblemished and spotless lamb.
This is the more consolatory in the present anomalous state of Christendom, where tradition has wrought boundless havoc with the truth, and ecclesiastical order has been swamped with inventions of men to please human activity and hide the ruin which lawlessness has everywhere brought about. Properly, elders needed apostolic authority, direct or indirect. Where this was not, and elders were lacking, or even men not easily found who had the qualities on which the apostle insisted to Timothy, the saints could and ought to confess their sins to one another with prayer; nor would the Lord's grace fail toward the need. A righteous one's supplication avails much, where really at work.
For this Elijah is cited, as one of like nature with ourselves, as indeed his inspired history reveals. But it also reveals how, as a judgment of God, rain should not fall for three years and six months because of a people rebellious and even apostate. Here we have, not the solemn sentence the prophets pronounced from God, but the inner work in the soul which preceded it, for which we are wholly indebted to this Epistle. He prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth sprouted forth its fruit; but we learn this second praying in the history as well as in the Epistle. Miracles it is a proud unbecoming thought to expect in the actual confusion that exists, yet with God and His word acknowledged. But God hears prayers with fatherly pleasure, and never fails to answer that which faith pours into His ears.
It is faith, practical faith, which has been urged, faith exercised in energetic prayer. The Epistle does not close without an earnest pressure of love in a similarly active way, and indeed in manifest connection.
"My* brethren, if any among you should err from† the truth, and one turn him back, let him know‡ that he that turned back a sinner from the error of his way shall save a [or, his||] soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins" (vers. 19, 20).
* The omission of the pronoun, as in the Text. Rec. according to the more modern copies, against the ancient and best authorities, both MSS. and Vv. detracts from the tenderness of the appeal.
† "The way of" the truth seems an enfeebling addition, as in the Sinaitic and good cursives, besides venerable Versions. The weight of testimony is adverse.
‡ The Vatican Uncial, etc., give the plural "Know ye."
|| AP, some good cursives, and ancient Versions give "his."
One of the saddest results of spiritual weakness among Christians is the rarity of restoration. Discipline even in extreme degree is no less due to our Lord, to our sacrificed Lord (1Co_5:7-8), than requisite in the best interests of the saints. For true love of our brethren is inseparable from loving God and keeping His commandments (1Jn_5:1-2). But our God attests often and clearly and strongly His deep concern in the recovery of the straying and fallen; where self-righteousness displays its bitterness and indifference. Zeal for the credit of a sect or party and anxiety to stand well morally are as far as possible from the love we owe to Christ's body and every member of it.
For we are exhorted to forgive (or, show grace to) one another, as God also in Christ forgave us (Eph_4:32); yea, to be imitators of God, as beloved children, and to walk in love, even as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. But this love divine is meant to arm us against fellowship with the ways of darkness, seeing that we are light in the Lord to walk as children of light, the fruit of which is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth (Eph_5:7-9). Hence the spiritual, in a spirit of meekness, are to restore one taken in some fault, "considering thyself lest thou also be tempted." Hardness is unworthy of a Christian. "If thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he should sin against thee seven times in a day, and seven times return to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him" (Luk_17:3-4).
So here, if one brought back him that erred, or was led astray from the truth, let him know that in such a recovery he that brought him back from his way of error should "save a soul from death." Here it is not a striking answer to the prayer of faith, but a rich cheer to the love that sought and won the wanderer. To have the sick healed and raised up as the fruit of prayer may strike the eye more; but how blessed to "save a soul from death"! Thus would our God encourage a spirit of grace in the thankful knowledge that love has its victories in a world of self and hatred and evil; and this, not only in regard of him that erred from the truth and its way, but in furnishing occasion, for that which is so pleasing to God in His government - to "cover a multitude of sins." If love do not flow, wrongs multiply, and God chastens, it may be severely; for where is Christ in such a case? But if love prevail through His grace, God is glorified, and love covers a multitude of sins, which otherwise must draw out His rebukes.