The Brevity of Life (James 4:13-17)
“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: 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. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jam. 4:13-15, KJV). What a wealth of information is found in these verses. For sure, we will be challenged to tell the half of it. In these verses, we see a call, a comparison, and a correction.
A CALL - “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” (Jam. 4:13). The expression “Go to now” is found only two times in the New Testament (Jam. 4:13; 5:1). The expression is used as an interjection and is designed to engage attention much as “Come now” was used by the prophet Isaiah to call Israel to reason with him (Isa. 1:18). As was the case in Isaiah’s time, there were those in James’ day who were not thinking correctly. They were thinking that life was going to go on indefinitely. They were making plans for the future without any consideration of the brevity of life or the sovereignty of God. Notice that those that James was referring to in the text chose the when (today or tomorrow), the where (such and such a city), the what (buy & sell), and the why (get gain) without any thought of life’s brevity or God’s sovereignty. They said, "I will..." instead of "If the Lord will" (Jam. 4:15). How haughty! How presumptuous! They did not know what would be on the morrow much less a year down the road. Also, they didn’t know what was going to happen in their own city much less in another city. They were going to THEN, but James told them to "go to NOW!" They were living in the future. In like manner, the writer of Proverbs advised his son, "Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth" (Prov. 27:1). As you know from experience, a day can bring forth wealth or poverty, health or sickness, happiness or sorrow. Perhaps, you recall as well, the rich farmer that Jesus told about (Lk. 12:16-21). He went to bed one night with his field full of grain and his head full of dreams. He was going to tear down his barns and build bigger barns. He was going to take ease, eat, drink, and be merry for many years. Our Lord called him a fool. He was banking on a future that he didn’t have. That very night his soul was going to be required of him. He had gained the world but had lost that which was worth more than the world in the process - his soul (Mt. 16:26).
A COMPARISON - “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” (Jam. 4:14). Notice that James compared life to a vapor that appears for a moment and then disappears. No doubt, we have all seen the steam that rises from a kettle on a stove or the smoke that comes from our mouths on a cold winter morning. As you know, these things are no sooner seen than they are gone. That is life, James says. I am afraid that as human beings we are prone to see the brevity of life as a chance rather than as a certainty. Likely, we all know some young person who died in a car wreck or in some other type of accident. For them, life was certainly brief. However, what we miss is that earthly life for all of us is brief. While it is true that some lives are shorter or briefer than others, all lives on earth are short. In fact, the longest life that was ever lived, the life of Methuselah, which lasted 969 years, wasn’t even a blip on the screen of eternity. Just think of that. Methuselah lived over 9 ½ centuries. Today, we are amazed when a man lives over one century. Routinely, the pictures of those over one hundred appear on morning shows for the whole country to see. We talk about what a good long life they have had and discuss the changes that they have seen within their lifetimes. However, it really doesn’t matter if we are talking about one century or about nine, man’s time on earth is short when it is considered in the light of eternity. James wanted them to realize that life on earth is but "a vapor that appeareth for a little while, and then vanisheth away" (Jam. 4:14). It is important to realize that James was talking earthly life in general when he compared it to a vapor. He was not talking about just a few, unfortunate people who have their lives snuffed out at a young age. He was saying that all earthly life is like a vapor which appears for a little while and then vanishes away (Psa. 103:15-16; 1 Pet. 1:24-25; Job 14:1-2; 9:25-26; 16:22; Psa. 90:10).
A CORRECTION - “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jam. 4:15). As we have already noted, James spoke of some who were presumptuously saying, “I will go into such and such a city….” (Jam. 4:13). James now corrects such thinking. Instead of saying “I will,” they should have said “If the Lord will.” In like manner, God should be in our plans from beginning to end. After all, it is in God that “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Rather than boasting about what we are going to do, as those that James corrected, we ought to commit our way to the Lord (Psa 37:5). The apostle Paul is a great example of someone who did this very thing. In the epistles that he penned, we often find him making his plans in accordances with God’s will (Acts 18:18-21; 1 Cor. 4:19; 16:5-7; Heb. 6:3). Hopefully, those of whom James was speaking humbled themselves and revised their plans in accordance with James’ instructions. If they did not, death likely caught them unprepared.
For sure, James’ words are as applicable today as ever. Every day men strike out on business with no thought about the brevity of life or the sovereignty of God. Let’s make sure that we do not make the same mistake.
The Law of Love and the Tongue
If James’ brethren struggled with any sin more than another, it seems to have been the tongue. It repeatedly comes up in his discussions with them. In our text, he is dealing with the evil things that they are saying about each other and the harsh judgments that they are making towards one another. James wrote, “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (Jam. 4:11-12). As we look into these inspired instructions, we will see three things- the law, the lawgiver, and the lawbreakers.
Four times in the context, James speaks of “the law.” As you recall, the Old Testament law required that individuals love their neighbors as they loved themselves. We read, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:15-18). I believe that you will agree that this was a very high standard. Yet, Jesus raised the bar even higher when He commanded individuals to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; 15:12). This is the highest standard of all. James’ brethren were not only breaking this law of love by speaking evil of one another, they were showing contempt for the law and for the One who gave it.
A law implies a lawgiver. The lawgiver in this case is Jesus. He is the one Lawgiver. He has all authority (Mt. 28:18). He has the power to save and destroy (Mt. 10:28). James wanted His brethren to understand the seriousness of what they were doing. By speaking evil of their brethren and judging one another, they were speaking evil of the law and judging the law. This was showing contempt not only for the law, but for the giver of the law. This was a very serious error. On one occasion, Jesus declared, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).
James’ brethren were breaking the royal law of love given by the King of Kings. They were speaking evil of their brethren, of the law, and of the Lawgiver. They were acting like they were the judge. However, the real judge was going to hold them in contempt. The Judge was standing at the door. In the fifth chapter, James wrote, “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” (Jam. 5:9). It was impossible for them to have the right relationship with God because of the way that they were treating their brethren. Later, John would write, “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
James’ instructions are as needed today as they were when he first penned them. Speaking evil of brethren is as common today as it was then, and it is no more acceptable now than it was then.
The Four Requirements of Answered Prayers
James moved from a discussion of peace (Jam. 3:18) to a discussion of wars and fighting (Jam. 4:1-2). Rather than a new discussion, it is really a continuation of the former discussion of wisdom. Fighting and wars come from earthly wisdom (Jam. 3:14-16) and peace comes from heavenly wisdom (Phil. 4:6); which, in turn, comes from prayer (Jam. 1:5). Now, the connection to the context is clear. In the context, James gives four requirements of answered prayers.
First, to have our prayers answered, we must ask. We read, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask” (Jam. 4:1-2). Some did not have because they did not ask. Someone noted that there are unanswered and unasked prayers. Their prayers were unasked. Because they didn’t ask, they couldn’t receive (Mt. 7:7-8). Instead of asking God for what they needed, they were trying to obtain it their own way.
Second, to have our prayers answered, we must unselfishly. We read, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses!” (Jam. 4:3). Some of James’ brethren didn’t have because they didn’t ask. Others didn’t have because they asked amiss or from evil motives. They were selfish and asked that they might spend it on fleshly pleasures. Clearly, they were guided by worldly wisdom (Jam. 3:14-16).
Third, to have our prayers answered, we must ask purely. We read, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?” (Jam. 4:4-5). A third group didn’t have their prayers answered because they were trying to love God and the world at the same time (Mt. 6:24; 1 John 2:15-17). Be being a friend of the world, they were making God their enemy and closing His ears to their prayers (Isa. 59:1-2; Jam. 5:16).
Fourth, to have our prayers answered, we must ask humbly. We read, “But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” (Jam. 4:6). A final group didn’t have their prayers answered because they were proud. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (Heb. 4:16; Lk. 18:9-14).
To have our prayers answered, we must ask. Furthermore, we must ask unselfishly, purely, and humbly. This is the wisdom that is from above (Jam. 3:17).
Heavenly Wisdom Versus Earthly Wisdom
The third chapter began with James addressing teachers and talking about their words (Jam. 3:1–12). The chapter ends with James still addressing teachers and talking about their wisdom (Jam. 3:13-18). James argues that it will be evident by their conduct whether teachers get their wisdom from above or below, from heaven or from earth, from spiritual things or fleshly things, or from God or Satan. He wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jam. 3:13-18).
Earthly wisdom is characterized by bitterness, jealousy, selfishness, boasting, hypocrisy (lying against the truth), and fleshly pursuits (sensual). Teachers who are guided by this wisdom are bitter and envious of other teachers (Rom. 13:13; 2 Pet. 2:10). They are selfish (Rom. 2:8). They look only on their own things and not on the things of others. They seek their own things and not the things of Christ (Phil. 2:3-4, 21; 1 Cor. 10:24; 13:5). They brag about their accomplishments and pretend to be something that they are not (Rom. 1:30; 2 Tim. 3:1-9). Their focus is on earthly things and not on things above (Phil. 3:19; Col. 3:1-2). They leave division and disorder in their wake. That is the fruit that they produce.
Heavenly wisdom is characterized by purity, peacefulness, gentleness, submissiveness, mercy, goodness, impartiality, and sincerity. Teachers who are guided by this wisdom have pure motives. They are sincere and impartial. Rather than being self-seeking, they are meek, gentle, merciful, and willing to yield. Instead of producing confusion and evil works, they produce peace, order, righteousness, and good works (1 Cor. 14:33).
Whether teachers were guided by heavenly or earthly wisdom could easily be determined by examining their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20). If they were wise and understanding, then it would be evident from their conduct.
The Tiniest Troublemaker (James 3:1-12)
James is a very practical book. No where is it more practical than in the third chapter when it discusses the tongue. While the rest of the book discusses things that many of us struggle with, this chapter deals with a tiny troublemaker with which we all struggle. In simple, picturesque language, James gives warning about the size and strength of the tongue.
The Size of the Tongue
James wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! “ (James 3:1-5). James begins by warning his brethren about being teachers. It was not that James didn’t want them to teach. If they had that talent, he wanted them and expected them to use it. In fact, they would have been condemned otherwise (Heb. 5:12). James was simply warning them of the tremendous responsibility connected with the tongue. The tongue’s size can be deceiving. It is small, but powerful. James makes three comparisons to picture the strength of this little member. The tongue is like a bit in a horses’ mouth, a rudder on a ship, and a match in a forest.
The Strength of the Tongue
James wrote, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (James 3:6-12). The tongue is extremely strong. Sadly, its strength is often exhibited in negative ways. James describes it as more destructive than fire, more dangerous than a wild animal, and more deadly than poison. Perhaps, James’ brethren were discounting the tongue’s destructive power. They may have been minimizing the occasional curse word or lie. They evidently saw this as no big deal. Yet, it was. James compared it to fire or poison. A little of either of these will kill you. James’ brethren also clearly didn’t see their lapses with their tongues as inconsistent with their faith. They were blessing God and at the same time cursing men made in the image of God. These things were as contradictory as a spring giving fresh water and bitter, a fig bearing olives, or a vine bearing figs.
James gives the longest, single discourse on the tongue in Scripture. It is a wealth of information on the tiniest troublemaker in the world.