Notes on James 4:11-17

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

James 4:11 Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of (his) brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. 12 There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

Perhaps this is another reference here to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus spoke clearly about killing. He gave a progression, in Matthew 5:22, of being angry with a brother “without cause”, with that being an offence “in danger of the judgment”; then calling the brother “Raca”, which seems to have a severely bad connotation; ending up with calling a brother a fool. Note the speaker increases his own importance and decreases the other’s importance, as the anger turns into words—and perhaps worse.

James also reminds, if not rebukes, those who tried to either speak evil of the Law or judge the Law. The Pharisees had added to and even tried to change the basic Law through their traditions but this was not really their option. The concept of “a Sabbath Day’s journey” must have come into view after the Exile. According to the text of the Law itself, no Israelite was even supposed to leave his dwelling place on the Sabbath Day (Ex 16:29).

The Law was not a “buffet” or “smorgasbord” where people could pick and choose which parts to obey and which to ignore. The offerings, sacrifices, tithes, dietary laws, and other laws were equally binding on the Israelites as long as the Law was in effect. Oh, thank God for His grace, marvelous grace, where He redeemed us from all of the Law! See Colossians 2:14.

13 Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:

James reserves some of his strongest rebukes to those who have planned for their futures, but left God out of the thought process. Jesus told a parable about a man who struck it rich in farming, planning to even tear down his barns and build greater ones, and figured he had plenty of everything for a long time to come. God spoke to him, according to the parable, and said, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (Luke 12:13-21)”. There is nothing wrong with planning, in and of itself, but failure to include God is never a good idea.

14 Whereas ye know not what (shall be) on the morrow. For what (is) your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

Proverbs 27:1 says, “Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” James may have had any number of figures of speech in mind when he compared life to a vapour [sic}: fog, from either the Mediterranean or the Sea of Galilee; morning fog when the conditions .were right; steam, from boiling water; or clouds on the Sea of Galilee when storms would arise. Any of all of these would appear to be formidable, and seem perhaps permanent, but none of them lasted very long. The same sun that warmed the earth scorched the grass and burned away the fog and vapors (paraphrase of an old saying).

15 For that ye (ought) to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

This statement circles back to the seeming arrogance of some who had made their plans for success and would depend on themselves—God isn’t in their planning at all. Recognizing that God has the ultimate say—His sovereignty—in all things is implied in the statement, “if the Lord wills”. The Latin for that phrase is “deus volante” which gives the initials DV in selected correspondence.

16 But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil.

This is another warning to those who boast in their efforts and successes, and then rejoice in all of this. Incredible! James reminds them that all of that kind of rejoicing is evil. Paul would later write that love didn’t rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in truth (1 Cor 13:6, paraphrased).

17 Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth (it) not, to him it is sin.

This verse is often taken out of its context. As James used this verse, he’s referring to those who should be seeking and asking for the Lord’s will to be done (“if the Lord will . . ., verse 15). Some-many?-were already taking matters into their own hands, relying on their own devices to accomplish their goals. Granted that sometimes, those who do this do achieve success, the best suggestion is to humbly appeal to the Lord by saying, “if the Lord will(s). . ."

And in closing this chapter, James reminds that it is a sin for those who do not seek the Lord’s will in any venture. It would never be a sin to seek the Lord’s will, discern it, and then act upon it.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)

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