The previous section (5:1-6) spoke of the Lord’s return and what that day would mean for rich oppressors. The Christians James is writing to were those being oppressed (2:6), and that harsh word to the rich was really to be heard by his readers as a message to encourage them. In this section, though, James addresses them directly (“brothers”). He continues to point them to the return of Christ, and encourages them to keep that day clearly in the forefront of their minds.
In the light of that day he urges them, positively, to be patient (v.7) and steadfast (v.8 – where “stand firm” more literally means “strengthen your hearts”, implying resolving to hold fast to the faith despite trials and temptations); and negatively, they are not to grumble (v.9), picking up the frequent concern in the letter about sins of speech and quarrelling.
He gives them a number of examples to illustrate and inspire. First the farmer, who is an example of patient waiting for something he is not able to control, ie the coming of the rains for which he depends for there to be a crop. We can’t determine Christ’s return but must similarly wait patiently, knowing it is not in our hands and that it will bring something far more precious. The second example is the prophets, who endured suffering yet stood firm, continuing to speak in the name of the Lord. James probably alludes to the words of Christ (Matt.5:11-12), reminding us that they are to counted blessed, a blessing we share if we too persevere in the face of suffering. The third example is Job, who despite much agonised questioning, stood firm in his faith, and in particular we are reminded how the story ended, which shows God’s “compassion and mercy” and reminds us too to look to the end of the story when Christ returns and the blessing that will then be ours.
Verse 12 again reminds us (again alluding to words of Jesus) that in times of trial we must be careful to guard our tongue and to speak the truth.
There is no explicit reference to the Lord’s return here, but that perspective seems implied in the concern for the wandering brother and the danger of (eternal) death. As we patiently wait, our response to any trial (and nb, as in 1:9-10 trials might be hard times or good times) should be to pray –asking for help (and wisdom, 1:5) or giving thanks.
Verses 14-16 raise a number of questions – do we actually do this? (Yes, occasionally and I think we should do it more); if the sick person is not made well does that imply we didn’t pray “in faith”? (That might sometimes be so, but the answer must be No, rather we might need to maybe think more what James might mean by “made well”); what sort of sickness is he speaking about? The words used in this passage for “sick”, “make well” and “heal” all could be speaking of physical illness and physical healing, but they have a wider range of meaning than just that. Whilst I don’t think it is right to exclude the natural reading of physical sickness and healing, the context certainly encourages one to keep in mind a broader understanding – note the reference to sin in vv.15-16 and the concern to restore the wandering brother in vv.19-20. I think the verses should be applied when someone is ill (it is right to pray for healing, and we know God sometimes does heal, but I don’t think we should think there is a guarantee that God will), but I think too the verses apply to the brother or sister who is weak in their faith or has wandered into sin – they too, if they want to repent or feel in need of an assurance of God’s grace, should get the elders. Anointing with oil might remind of God’s gift of his Spirit, or might symbolise a renewed commitment to God. The wonderful promise here is of restored faith and assurance of salvation.
James uses Elijah as an example to show that prayer is powerful. If physical healing were the primary concern here, the obvious episode from Elijah’s life to remind them of would be the raising to life of the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17. James doesn’t point them to that story, though; he refers them rather to 1 Kings 18. Rain had been withheld because of Israel’s apostasy, but after the showdown on Mount Carmel they returned to the LORD. Elijah then prayed and rain fell, symbolising the return of covenant blessings to Israel. The repentant apostate is restored. Elijah seems to be being used as much more than simply an example of the power of prayer, therefore, but more specifically as an example of the power of prayer for the restoration of the repentant sinner.