(1) My brethren.—The second chapter opens with some stern rebukes for those unworthy Christians who had “men’s persons in admiration,” and, doubtless, that “because of advantage” to themselves. (Comp. Jude 1:16.) The lesson is distinctly addressed to believers, and its severity appears to be caused by the Apostle’s unhappy consciousness of its need. What were endurable in a heathen, or an alien, or even a Jew, ceased to be so in a professed follower of the lowly Jesus. And this seems to be a further reason for the indignant expostulation and condemnation of James 2:14. Thus the whole chapter may really be considered as dealing with Faith; and it flows naturally from the foregoing thoughts upon Religion—or, as we interpreted their subject-matter, Religious Service.
Have (or, hold) not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with (or, in) respect of persons.—“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote St. Paul to the proud and wealthy men of Corinth (2 Corinthians 8:9), “that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich;” and, with more cogent an appeal, to the Philippians (James 2:4-7), “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves: look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God”—i.e., Very God, and not appearance merely—nevertheless “thought not His equality with God a thing to be always grasped at,” as it were some booty or prize, “but emptied Himself” of His glory, “and took upon Him the shape of a slave.” Were these central, nay initial, facts of the faith believed then; or are they now? If they were in truth, how could there be such folly and shame as “acceptance of persons” according to the dictates of fashionable society and the world? “Honour,” indeed, “to whom honour” is due (Romans 13:7). The Christian religion allows not that contempt for even earthly dignities—affected by some of her followers, but springing more from envy and unruliness than aught besides. True reverence and submission are in no way condemned by this scripture: but their excess and gross extreme, the preference for vulgar wealth, the adulation of success, the worship, in short, of some new golden calf.
A man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel.—Better, a man golden-ringed, in bright apparel. Roman satirists had much to say upon the fops and dandies of their time, with “all their fingers laden with rings”; some, if we may trust the sneer of Martial, having six on each; and others with heavy gold or light, according to the oppressiveness of the season; no doubt, the fashions set in Rome extended to Jerusalem. “Goodly apparel” is, rather, gorgeous—splendid in colour or ornament; the same two words are translated “gay clothing” in the following verse.
And there come in also a poor man in vile raiment.—Squalid, even dirty, as from work and wear—the exact opposite of the idle over-dressed exquisite.
And say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place (or, as margin, well); and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool.—The sidesman or elder in charge of the church finds a stall for the person of substantial presence, while anything does for the poor one; but—most considerate offer—he can stand; or, if he prefer it, sit under the great man’s footstool, lower down, that is, on the floor beneath. We know Christ’s words for those who loved of old “the chief seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6), nor can there be doubt as to their full application now. What is to be urged in excuse for the special pews in churches and chapels, hired and appropriated, furnished luxuriously, and secured by bolt and lock? If in the high places sit the men and women in goodly raiment still, while the poorly clad are crowded into side benches and corners, or beneficently told to stand and wait till room be found somewhere beneath the daintier feet,—how can there be escape from condemnation on the charge which follows?—namely this—
Hath not God chosen . . .?—There is, then, an election on the part of God. It were folly to deny it. But this passage, like so many others, gives the reason for that choice. “The poor of this world” are His chosen; not merely for their poverty, although it may have been the air, so to speak, in which the virtues which endeared them to Him have flourished most. And these are rich for present and for future. They know Him “now by faith,” and “after this life have the fruition of His glorious Godhead.” “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The way thereto for them is nearer and less cumbered than for the rich, if only they fulfil the Scripture (comp. Matthew 6:3), and be poor “in spirit:” then, indeed, are they “heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him.” The world must always measure by its own standard, and consider poverty a curse, just as it looks on pain and trouble as evil. But the teaching of God, declared most eloquently in the life of His blessed Son, is the direct opposite to this. In a worship which demands of its votaries costly gifts and offerings—and every religion tends downwards to such desires—the rich man has a golden pavement to his future bliss. No wonder, therefore, that again and again the voice of the Spirit of God has pointed out the narrow way, and the eternal excellency of truth, and faith, and love, the riches easiest of acquisition by the poor.
Do not rich men oppress you?—Or, lord it over you as a class; not assuredly that this can be said of each wealthy individual. It is the rich man, of the earth earthy, trusting in his riches (comp. Matthew 10:24), who makes them a power for evil and not for good. Here is presented the other side of the argument, used on behalf of the poor, viz., observe first how God regards them (James 2:5), and next, judge their adversaries by their own behaviour.
Draw you before the judgment seats?—Better, Do they not drag you into courts of justice? “Hale” you, as the old English word has it. Summum jus summa injuria—extreme of right is extreme of wrong—a legal maxim oft exemplified. The purse-proud litigious man is the hardest to deal with, and the one who specially will grind the faces of the poor. No body of laws could on the whole be more equitable than the Roman, but their administration in the provinces was frequently in venal hands; and besides, the large fees demanded by the juris-consulti—“the learned in the law”—quite barred the way of the poorer suitors, such as, for the most part, were the Christians to whom this Letter was written.
That worthy name by the which ye are called?—Better, that good, that glorious Name which was invoiced (or, called) over you—viz., at baptism. “Into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19) had all been baptised who were thus addressed; but most probably the Second Person of the Trinity is referred to here. And it was the scorn and contempt visited upon His Name, which changed the mere abuse and ribaldry into a perilous likeness to the deadliest sin. Most commentators thus restrict the Name here to that of Christ. If their view be correct, the blasphemy would probably be linked with that epithet of “Christian”—then so dishonourable—coined, we are told, first in Antioch (Acts 11:26). But there were far more insulting terms found for the poor and struggling believer—“Nazarene,” “Atheist,” and even worse.
“Compound for sins they have a mind to
By damning those they’re not inclined to;”
forgetful that the same Lawgiver has laid His restrictions upon every sort and kind. Not that we can believe all sins are the same in their deadening effect upon the soul, or, further, in their punishment. The point which St. James urges is that sin, as sin, involves the curse of the law; and that “respect of persons,” with its unloving and unlovely results, must bring its deceived possessor into condemnation before God. Just as our Lord referred the Sixth and Seventh Commandments (Matthew 5:21-32) to the first issues of the angry or lustful heart, and by no means confined them as did the Rabbinical teachers to the very act, so now in like manner the Apostle takes his stand upon the guiltiness of any breach whatever of the Law. Love is its complete fulfilment, we are well informed (Romans 13:10), but in that startling briefness lies comprehended all the decalogue, with its utmost ramifications; and men of the world would find a rule of the most minute and rigid ceremony easier to be followed than this simple all-embracing one. “The fulfilling of the Law” is very different from the substitution of a single plain command for a difficult code; this would seem to be the mistake of many, noisily asserting their freedom from the older obligations, who do not so evidently live under the mild bondage of the new.
A curious question may be raised upon the inverted order of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments in this passage, as well as in Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9. (Not so however, observe, in the sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-27.) Professor Plumptre says they are thus placed because “standing first in the second table, the Fifth being classed by most Jewish writers as belonging to the first,” and “there was, probably, a traditional order of the Tenth, varying from that at present found in the Hebrew Pentateuch.” The Greek version, known as the Septuagint, supports this theory, placing “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in James 2:13 of Exodus 20, and “Thou shalt not kill” in James 2:15.
The law of liberty.—The term is only found here and in James 1:25, and seems one of which James the Wise was peculiarly fond. What, however, did he precisely mean? Neither the ceremonial, nor the moral, most certainly; but the spiritual law of One greater than Moses. The idea, however, is in most of the New Testament writings, and particularly St. Paul’s. (Comp. John 8:32; Romans 8:21; 1 Corinthians 10:29; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 2:4; Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13; and 1 Peter 2:16.)
Mercy rejoiceth against judgment.—There can hardly be a fitter comment on this text than that which must be present in every reader’s mind—the speech of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;” &c.
—(Acts 4 scene 1.)
But let the words of the Greek, John the Golden Mouthed, be added, for their exceeding beauty also. “Mercy is dear to God, and intercedes for the sinner, and breaks his chains, and dissipates the darkness, and quenches the fire of hell, and destroys the worm, and rescues from the gnashing of teeth. To her the gates of Heaven are opened. She is the queen of virtues, and makes men like to God, for it is written, ‘Be ye merciful as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). She has silver wings like the dove, and feathers of gold, and soars aloft, and is clothed with divine glory, and stands by the throne of God; when we are in danger of being condemned she rises up and pleads for us, and covers us with her defence, and enfolds us in her wings. God loves mercy more than sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
The old story of the Knights who smote each other to the death upon the question of the gold and silver shield, each looking at it only from his own point of view, may well apply to combatants who cried so lustily for “Paul” or “James.” But, now the dust of conflict has somewhat blown aside, it would be hard to prove that the Apostles themselves were ever at variance, or needed such doughty champions at all.
Truth is, they regarded the same object with a different motive, and aimed at a dissimilar result: just as in medicine, very opposite treatments are required by various sicknesses, and in the several stages of disease. The besetting error of the Jewish Christians to whom St. James appealed was that which we have traced (see Introduction, p. 353) to a foreign source; and, as it wandered but slowly from the furthest East, it had not yet reached the churches of Europe, at least sufficiently to constitute a danger in the mind of St. Paul. No better tonic for the enervating effect of this perverted doctrine of Faith could be found than a consideration of the nobler life of Abraham; and what example could be upheld more likely to win back the hearts of his proud descendants? And, if to point his lesson, the Apostle urged a great and stainless name, even that of the Friend of God, so with it would he join the lowly and, perhaps, aforetime dishonoured one of Rahab, that he might, as it were, plead well with all men of every degree or kind.
Dean Alford, quoting with entire approbation the opinion of the German commentator De Wette, found it “impossible to say” that the ideas of Faith, Works, and Justification in the two Apostles were the same. The summary of his remarks is fairly this:—According to St. James, Faith was moral conviction, trust, and truth; and yet such a theoretical belief only that it might be held by devils. Works are not those of the Law, but an active life of practical morality and well-doing; Justification is used in a proper or moral sense, but not the higher or “forensic,” as we now call it. On the other hand, St. Paul’s idea of Faith presupposes self-abasement, and “consists in trust on the grace of God, revealed in the atoning death of Christ”; Works with him referred chiefly to a dependence on legal observances; Justification assumed a far wider significance, especially in his view “of the inadequacy of a good conscience to give peace and blessedness to men” (1 Corinthians 4:4), such being only to be found by faith in God, who justifies of His free grace, and looks on the accepted penitent as if he were righteous. But even this divergence, small as it is compared with that discerned by some divines, is really overstrained; for in the present Epistle the Church of every age is warned “against the delusive notion that it is enough for men to have religious emotions, to talk religious language, to have religious knowledge, and to profess religious belief, without the habitual practice of religious duties and the daily devotion of a religious life”: while the letters of St. Paul do not, in this way, combat hypocrisy so much as heterodoxy. There is always the double danger, dwelt upon by Augustine somewhat after this manner:—One man will say, “I believe in God, and it will be counted to me for righteousness, therefore I will live as I like.” St. James answers him by showing that “Abraham was justified by Works” (James 2:21). Another says, “I will lead a good life, and keep the commandments; how can it matter precisely what I believe!” St. Paul replies that “Abraham was justified by faith” (Romans 4). But, if the Apostle of the Gentiles be inquired of further, he will say that, although works go not before faith, they certainly come after. (Witness his discourse on Charity, 1 Corinthians 13) And, therefore, concludes Bishop Wordsworth, “the faith described by St. Paul is not any sort of faith by which we believe in God; but it is that healthful evangelical faith whose works spring from love.”
Thus the divine lesson stands forth, clearly written; and he who runs may read. Faith must be embodied in acts: “faith, without acts of faith, is but a dream.” “The two cannot be separated, for they are given in one by God to man, and from him go back in one to God. As by faith we behold the greatness of God, and of His eternal grace, His ineffable holiness, majesty, glory, goodness, love; so we shall know and feel the nothingness of all in ourselves—whether faith or works—save as they are the gift of God. As we probe ourselves, we learn the depth of our own evil; but, as we confess our own evil and God’s good, He will take away from us the evil, and crown us with His goodness: as we own ourselves to be, of ourselves, unprofitable servants, He, owning us in His works, will say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’” (Matthew 25:21).
A deeply learned and interesting excursus on Faith, in its active and passive meanings, and on its Hebrew, Greek, and Latin synonyms, may be read in Bishop Lightfoot’s Notes on the Galatians, pp. 152-162. Admitting that “so long as our range of view is confined to the apostolic writings, it seems scarcely possible to resist the impression that St. James is attacking the teaching, if not of St. Paul himself, at least of those who exaggerated and perverted it,” our profoundest theologian assures us that the passage in Genesis (Genesis 15:6) was a common thesis in the Rabbinical schools, the meaning of faith being variously explained by the disputants, and diverse lessons drawn from it. The supremacy of faith, as the means of salvation, might be maintained by Gentile Apostle and Pharisaic Rabbi: but faith with the former was a very different thing from faith with the latter. With one its prominent idea was a spiritual life, with the other an orthodox creed; with the one the guiding principle was the individual conscience, with the other an external rule of ordinances; with the one faith was allied to liberty, with the other to bondage. “Thus,” he says in conclusion, “it becomes a question whether St. James’s protest against reliance on faith alone has any reference, direct or indirect, to St. Paul’s language and teaching; whether, in fact, it is not aimed against an entirely different type of religious feeling, against the Pharisaic spirit which rested satisfied with a barren orthodoxy, fruitless in works of charity.”
(14) What doth it (or, is the) profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?—Some allusion here is made most probably to the Shema, the Jewish creed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It was the daily protest of the devout Israelite in the midst of idolaters, and the words of his morning and evening of life, as well as of the ordinary day. A similar utterance of faith is held to be the test of the true believer in Islam, when the two inquiring angels put their awful questions to the departed soul. But the idea is much more ancient, for a similar confession was required of the just before Osiris, the Lord of the Egyptian Heaven.
Can faith save him?—The stern inquiry comes like a prophecy of woe upon the wretched man—saved, as he fancied, by covenant with God, and holding a bare assent and not a loving faith in Him.
There would, however, seem to be a worse interpretation of the words, beginning so softly with the Eastern benediction: namely, “Ye are warming and filling yourselves.” It is the rebuke of cool prosperity to importunate adversity: “Why such impatience? God is one, and our Father: He will provide.” No amount of faith could clothe the shivering limbs and still the hunger pangs; what greater mockery than to be taunted with texts and godly precepts, the usual outcome of a spurious and cheap benevolence.
Notwithstanding ye give them not.—The “one of you” in the beginning of the verse, then, was representative of the whole body addressed by St. James; and now by his use of the plural “ye,” we see that no individual was singled out for condemnation: the offence was wider and worse.
The sense is obvious; and whether the speaker be Christian or no, he lays claim to faith in God, the Father of all, as the efficient cause of his good deeds.
The devils also believe, and tremble.—They shudder in the belief which only assures them of their utter misery; literally, their hair stands on end with terror of the God they own. Assent, opinion, knowledge—all are thus shared by demons of the pit; call not your joint possession by the holier name of Faith. “I believe in God,” “I believe in one God”—such is the voice of the Christian; and this is said in the full sense “only by those who love God, and who are not only Christians in name, but in deed and in life.”
Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.—He proved his faith by obedience, when he freely gave back to the Giver his son, the heir of all the promise.
The Friend of God.—Amatus a Deo—beloved of Him, not the friend to God, nor lover of Him, as some have hastily imagined. It is not an exact quotation from the Hebrew Bible, though the substance thereof may be found in Isaiah 41:8. The term was traditional throughout the East, and is used by the Arabs as descriptive of the patriarch to this day.
Sent them out.—Literally, hastened, or thrust them forth, showing her haste and fear.
It may not be out of place to notice that Clement, Bishop of Rome, one of the Apostolic Fathers, in his first letter to the Corinthians, sees in the scarlet thread which Rahab bound in her window a type of our Redeemer’s blood. And it is most remarkable, as showing the mercy of God, that this outcast of society was not only saved alive and brought into the fold of Israel, but became a direct ancestress of her Saviour, by marriage with Salmon, the great-great-grandfather of David (Matthew 1:5).