By E. H. Plumptre
From the Book The General Epistle of St. James
Analysis of the Epistle.
The Structure of the Epistle is, as every reader will feel, altogether informal and unsystematic, and an analysis can hardly aim at more than tracking the succession of topics and indicating, where possible, the latent sequence of thought.
Chap. I. Writing to those of whom he thinks as exposed to trials and temptations, he opens with words of comfort as to the work they are meant to do (1 - 4). That they may accomplish that work men want the wisdom which learns the lessons of experience, and wisdom is given to those who ask for it in faith (5 - 7). In want of faith there is instability, and the secret reason why faith is in most men so weak is that they prefer the false riches to the true. Conquer that temptation, and trials lead straight on to the crown of life (8 - 12).
Nor must men think that they can plead destiny and God's Will as an excuse for yielding to temptation. That Will is absolutely righteous. Evil is found not in circumstances but in man's lust and appetite (13 - 17). From God comes all good and nothing but good, above all, the highest good of the Word of truth which regenerates our life (18 - 21). Well for us, if we receive that Word and do it; woe for us, if we only think we have received it, and substitute a ritual observance for works of pitying love (22 - 27).
Chap. II. How hollow such a ritual religion may be is seen even in the synagogues of believing Jews. They profess faith in Him who was poor Himself and the Friend of the poor, and in the very place where they meet to worship Him they insult the poor and act with base servility towards the rich. Small as men may think this fault, it is a wilful transgression of the law of Christ by which we are to be judged (1 - 13). It will profit such breakers of the Law little to say that they have maintained the faith of Israel in the Unity of the Godhead in the midst of the worshippers of Gods many and Lords many. Faith without works is dead, and the ultimate acquittal and acceptance of a man will depend not so much on what he has believed as on the manner in which belief has influenced practice (14 - 26).
Chap. III. Nor was this the only evil of which the Christian synagogue was the scene. Men were struggling for preeminence as teachers, each with his doctrine and interpretation. Thence came wrangling and debate, and the tongue shot forth the fiery arrows of bitter words (1 - 8). To suppose that a man could be wise or religious while he was uttering curses and anathemas was as monstrous as any natural portent, salt and sweet water gushing from the same spring, figs borne by olive-trees, and the like (9 - 12). Far other than that was the true wisdom that comes from above. Let men look first on this picture and then on that, and so make their choice (13 - 18).
Chap. IV. In strong contrast with the life regulated by such a wisdom is the unwisdom of those who think only of gratifying the promptings of their lower nature. From those promptings comes nothing but discords and confusion. Men must choose once more between the friendship of the world and that of God, between the lower and the higher life (1 - 8). Repentance, humility, the temper that refrains from judging, are the indispensable conditions of all true blessedness (9 - 12). The eagerness that throws its selfish aims and plans into the future, near or far, must be repressed by dwelling on the shortness and uncertainty of life (13 - 17).
Chap. V. As if conscious that he had nearly reached the limit of his Epistle, the writer takes up the more solemn tone of the older prophets in his warnings to the rich. They little know the miseries which he foresees as close at hand, the swift judgment that is coming upon the oppressors and persecutors (1 - 7). What is a thought of terror for them is, however, one of encouragement and comfort for the patient sufferers. The "end of the Lord" for such, will be as full of blessing as that of Job and the prophets who had endured patiently in the days of old (7 - 11). A few more rules of life are needed for men's daily conduct. To abstain from rash and random oaths; to find in prayer and psalmody the true utterance of sorrow or of joy (12, 13); to trust to simple remedies and the prayer of faith in times of sickness (14, 15); to confess faults, one to another, in the belief that the prayer for forgiveness and other spiritual blessings is as mighty now as was Elijah's prayer for drought or rain (17, 18); to think not only or chiefly of saving ourselves, but to aim by prayer and counsel and act, at saving others (19, 20) — this is the true pattern of the life of Christ's disciples. Having said this, the writer has nothing more to say, and the Epistle ends.