The text requires correction. For ὥστε … ἔστω πᾶς of the Textus Receptus, read, ἴστε ἀδελφοί μοι ἀγαπητοι ἔστω δὲ πᾶς , א , A, B, C, Latt. ἴστε is probably indicative, and refers to what has gone before. "Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man," etc. The verse gives us St. James's version of the proverb, "Speech is silver. Silence is golden." Similar maxims were not infrequent among the Jews. So in Ecclesiasticus 5:11, "Be swift to hear; and let thy life be sincere; and with patience give answer;" cf. 4:29, "Be not hasty in thy tongue, and in thy deeds slack and remiss." In the rabbinical work, 'Pirqe Aboth,' 1. 12., we have the following saying of Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel (who must, therefore, have been a contemporary of St. James): "All my days I have grown up amongst the wise, and have not found ought good for a man but silence; not learning but doing is the groundwork; and whoso multiplies words occasions sin." This passage is curiously like the one before us, both in the thoughts and in the expressions used.
Deeds, not words.
1. The right spirit for the Christian is the receptive ; ready to hear, and to receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is to be as the seed falling on the good ground (comp. Matthew 13:3 , etc). A heathen philosopher has noted that man has two ears and only one mouth ; showing that he should be more ready to hear than to speak.
2. A receptive spirit is not alone sufficient. Action must follow. Holy Scripture is a mirror, in which a man may see his own image reflected. The man who merely listens to it sees his own likeness, perhaps, but "goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was." Without doing, what is the good of hearing sermons? Knowledge without obedience only increases condemnation. So our Lord's severest denunciations were for those cities which had known most of his mighty works; and "many stripes" were reserved for that servant who knew his Lord's will and did it not ( Luke 12:47 ). (On the subject of James 1:22 , see a good sermon of Bishop Andrews, 'Sermons,' vol. 5. Serm. 9)
3. Government of tongue may serve as a test of a man's religion, it being "a most material restraint which religion lays us under; without it no man can be truly religious." Sins of the tongue include not only such flagrant ones as lying, swearing, filthy conversation, etc., but what Bishop Butler calls "unrestrained volubility and wantonness of speech," which is the sin more particularly alluded to by St. James, and which is "the occasion of numberless evils and vexations in life." "If people would
The reception of the Word.
"The Word of truth" being within our reach, as the means of conveying to us the great gift of regeneration, it is most important that we cultivate those dispositions which are most favorable to the realization of its saving power. These three verses accordingly contain four counsels, each of which touches a deeper part of our nature than the one preceding. If we would rightly "receive" the Word, we must have—
I. A QUICK EAR . "Swift to hear." This precept refers to the acquisition of religious knowledge, whether in connection with reading or hearing. We should be careful as to the entire matter of our reading, making the staple of it not fugitive literature, far less frivolous books, but such as are solid and improving. For directly spiritual instruction we should go seldomer to books about the Bible, and oftener straight to the Word of God itself, that we may hear him speaking in it. We should also be "swift to hear" the oral proclamation of the gospel. "Belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ" ( Romans 10:17 ). His word appeals to the heart more powerfully when spoken by a living earnest man, than when it is read even from the written page of Scripture. We should, therefore, embrace every opportunity of hearing in the sanctuary, and be attentive and teachable, and follow up our hearing with reflection and obedience.
II. A CAUTIOUS TONGUE . "Slow to speak." This exhortation naturally follows the preceding, for the man who is exceedingly fond of hearing himself speak will never be a ready listener. The precept is good for common use in the conduct of our life; but its specific reference in this passage is to caution in the declaration of "the Word of truth." While we are under a sacred obligation to "exhort one another day by day" ( Hebrews 3:13 ), and to "speak often one to another" ( Malachi 3:16 ), we are to be "slow to speak" in the sense of weighing well our words, and of realizing the responsibility which attaches to them. Ministers should preach only what they have carefully thought out; and they should beware of publishing crude speculations on theological subjects. It is right, too, that candidates for the ministry should be required to undergo a lengthened curriculum of training before they are entrusted with the continuous instruction of a congregation ( James 3:1 , James 3:2 ; 1 Timothy 3:6 ).
III. A CALM TEMPER . "Slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" ( James 1:19 , James 1:20 ). Much speaking tempts to passionate speaking; every one knows what is meant by "the heat of debate." At all times we ought to be "slow to wrath:" to cultivate such a spirit is an important part of the imitation of God. But we should particularly guard against irritation of temper at Church-meetings, and in conversation or conference upon religious subjects. The clergyman must labor to avoid the odium theologicum. The preacher must threaten and warn only in love and tenderness. The hearer must not listen in a captious spirit, or quarrel with the truth when it comes to him in practical form. For an angry heart will destroy edification ( James 1:20 ). Scolding from the pulpit will not "work the righteousness of God" in the hearts of the hearers; and, on the other hand, resentful feelings against the preacher can only hinder regeneration and sanctification.
IV. A PURE HEART . ( James 1:21 ) If "the Word of truth" is to sanctify and save, it must be received in a docile, humble, tractable spirit; and this involves the "putting away" of all malice and impurity. Hasty and passionate speech is just a foul overflow from the deep depravity of the heart; and, if we would prevent the overflow, we must cleanse out the dark pool of corruption itself. If we put away the "filthiness" of the heart by a gracious process of earnest renunciation, that filthiness will no longer soil the tongue or spoil the temper. Those who cultivate the quick ear and the cautious tongue and the calm temper, in connection with the purifying of the heart, prepare themselves as good soil for "the implanted Word" ( Luke 8:15 ). The grandest joy of life is to have the scion of the Word so "implanted" that it shall prove itself to be the power of God to the soul's salvation, by working out visibly in the life "the righteousness of God." And the teaching of this passage, is that if a man would attain that blessing, his own will must co-operate with the grace of God and the power of "the Word of truth."—C.J.
The law of the new life.
"Ye know this, my beloved brethren;" viz. that ye have been begotten again by God. But now, from this vantage-ground, he presses the necessity of a consistent life. They have espoused, by God's grace, a new ideal of character and conduct; let their whole life show forth its power. This is the topic of the whole passage, and it divides itself very naturally into the related subjects of—meekness, self-knowledge, and practical religion (see Punchard, in Bishop Ellicott's 'Commentary').
I. MEEKNESS . There is evidently a reference, in James 1:19-21 , to the deportment of the Jews in their religious gatherings, to which we have more direct reference in James 1:23 and in James 2:1-13 . And the words of warning are aimed at one of their most besetting sins; they were clamorous, accusing, wrathful. What examples we have of this spirit, as manifested at their public gatherings for worship, in the accounts of our Lord's first proclamation of his mission in the synagogue of Nazareth ( Luke 4:28 , Luke 4:29 ), and of the first setting-forth of the gospel by Paul in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia ( Acts 13:45 )! So perhaps it was also at the Jewish-Christian gatherings; they would contradict, and accuse. Yes; they were impatient of hearing, eager to speak, wrathful in speech; rebutting what seemed the blow of the truth against themselves, turning that blow against others, perhaps against the speaker. What a Babel of confusion! And all this in the thought that they were doing God service! As opposed to this spirit of censorious anger, James urges a quiet, gentle humility in the hearing of the Word.
1. For what was this Word? It was God's Word, his message to the heart. Yes, with whatever of human alloy it might sometimes be mixed, through the infirmity of the speaker, there it was, a thing Divine! There should be, then, in its presence, a certain awe of silence: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak." And as this Word was the searching Word of the living God ( Hebrews 4:12 ), there should be the meekness which hears for one's self, not for others—Is there any wrong in me? For this Word was "able to save:" with what solemn gladness should they welcome its healing, cleansing power!
2. Oh, how opposed to all the intended influence of the Word of God was the spirit of passionate assertion and accusation! How it defiled the nature, as with filthiness, making it an utterly unfit receptacle for God's holy truth! And how the " overflowing of wickedness" bore back the living germ of the truth, which being implanted in the heart would save unto the uttermost! Yes, man's wrath, so far from working God's righteousness, utterly hindered that working. The truth was "able to save," but only if the conditions of true humility in the hearer were fulfilled.
II. SELF - KNOWLEDGE . But the very hearing may become a snare: we hear the Word, we "feel" its power, and delude ourselves with the notion that therefore the Word is ours.
1. What is this, but a mere transient sentiment? Like the man with the mirror, beholding a while, then going away and forgetting; so we may gaze into the marvelous mirror of the Word, which shows us so wondrously the fair ideal of truth, the beauty of holiness, and, in contrast, the deformity, the unholiness of our real self. But so likewise, being charmed with the ideal beauty, and equally loathing our sin, we yet may go away and forget what manner of men we are.
2. What is required of us is an abiding practice of the perfect law, that can only result from a continued gazing into its excellence of beauty and consequent knowledge of our own distance kern its perfectness. So Psalms 1:2 , which sets forth the Law of God as the very element of the good man's life. For it is a Law which is a living power, evermore working its perfection into our imperfect life. A Law, therefore, of liberty, making us free from sin, as being a law of holiness; and free from servile fear, as being a law of perfect love. Well may the man who abides in the doing of such a Law be designated blest! For while merely to hear the Word and feel its power, and then to go away and forget, is to be drugged as with an opiate that makes us insensible to our danger; on the other hand, to hear and to do, and to abide in the doing, is to realize the bounding gladness of the full flow of living health (see also the beatitude of Psalms 1:1-6 ).
III. PRACTICAL RELIGION . There is an easy transition, in verses 26 and 27, kern the hearing of the Word to all the cult of worship. For just as some of these Christian Jews might be satisfied with the mere hearing of the truth as distinct from its practical realization in the daily life, so many of them might rest satisfied at least with the ceremonial cleanness and " service " on which their old training had led them to set such exaggerated value. They were "very religious" because of their multiplied religious observances, their θρησκεία , their ritual of service; and this "religion' was pure, undefiled, no taint of ceremonial pollution attaching to its performance. And yet the filthy wickedness (verse 21) of the unbridled tongue? Vain, indeed, is the religiousness of such a one! Nay; the cult of Christianity is the religion of the life, and the ceremonial cleanness is cleanness of conduct and heart.
1. The ritual. Doing good. So Romans 12:1 ; Hebrews 13:16 . A concrete instance is given here, viz. the visiting of the fatherless and widows in their affliction, but only as an instance of the ritual of the law of love. And notice the immense significance of the words," before our God and Father." Such as he is we must be, viz. "pitiful, and of very tender mercy" (see James 5:11 ).
2. The cleanness. "Unspotted from the world." An evil world, the evil of which was so exhibited by these " clean " men in their clamorous evil-speaking. Would they be really clean? There are no works like works of love to hush the anger of the heart. We learn for ourselves, in this age, that no ritual of religion is of any worth as such. Collective " worship " truly is good, as a means to an end, viz. the replenishment of our life-power, and maintenance of loving relationship with the Father. But as for any cult, as such, Christianity knows none, save that of a holy and loving life. Your ritualism, as Christians? Doing good!
In conclusion, the faith that humbly receives God's saving Word, the faith that abides in the knowledge of that Word day and night., the faith that works itself out in the religiousness of a holy love—this is the sum of the whole matter, this is the very essence of the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, evermore give us this faith!—T.F.L.