The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

My Notes On James 1:17-21

Posted by Dim Bulb on April 29, 2010

Background: The body of the letter opens with these words: My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations: Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience And patience hath a perfect work: that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing (James 1:2-4). In order to endure and profit from these temptations one must have wisdom which, if it is lacking, must be prayed for in faith (James 1:5-6), which here means being dependent on God rather than money (James 1:10-11), for to rely on both as equals is to be double-minded (James 1:8).  To be lowly is to be exalted (James 1:9), and the humiliations which a rich believer suffers can, in faith, be for his benefit, for riches, like flowers and grass, will someday wither (James 1:10-11).  Though the temptations that wealth may bring a man are not from the Lord (James 1:13) but, rather, from his own desires (James 1:14-15), “he shall receive the crown of life which God hath promised to them that love him” (James 1:12).  The temptations  are not from God, but the victory over them is.  Thus no one should be deceived (James 1:16).


James 1:17  Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration.

The best and perfect gifts are those which lead to God and salvation and not, like temptations, away from Him.  These come from God who is described as the Father of lights (i.e, the heavenly luminous bodies), with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration.  There is an obvious connection between Father of lights and change, and shadow of alteration, but what is it?  The meaning seems to be that God, as creator of these bodies is above them, and cannot be compared to them.  Perhaps some (the double-minded of 1:8?) were of the opinion that God changed like the luminaries which, with the passage of time and season sometimes appear brighter and in one place, then, sometime, dimmer and in another place.  Just because God willed such “shadows of alteration” for them can not be taken as indicating He is changeable.

Another possible interpretation is that St James has in mind the creation of the luminaries in Genesis 1:14-19.  Though they may seem to change they nonetheless “mark the fixed times, the days and the seasons” (Gen 1:14, NAB).  They are described in Genesis as being seen by God as “good” (Gen 1:18).  There are those who may not see the change of the sun’s position (bringing winter, for example) as good.  Appearances may be deceiving, hiding the reality, hence the need for true wisdom (James 1:5) rather than the false wisdom which brings “factions and confusion” (see James 3:15-16).  Perhaps the double-minded man, not recognizing the limitation he has placed upon his faith, thinks God fickle when he sees the single-minded believer get what he ask, while his own prayer goes unfulfilled (James 1:8).

James 1:18  Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

It was in the word of creation that God made the lights, and however we interpret the previous verse the fact remains that God, who brought us forth by the word of truth (i.e., the Gospel), did so for His own purpose.  St James has placed the Greek word boulethei (“of his own will”) at the beginning of his statement for emphasis. It is a strong statement of God’s freedom in acting.  Just as one needs wisdom to understand His creation, so one needs wisdom to understand His re-creation of believers.

In the Greek, the word translated here as brought us forth (ἀποκυέω, apokueo), is identical to that used on verse 15: “But sin, when it is completed, begetteth (ἀποκυέω) death,” thus establishing a contrast between the double-minded and God.

The first fruits of his creatures.  “First fruits” is a liturgical term in the O.T., where it is stated that the first fruit of the womb, the fields, ect., belonged in a special way to the Lord and had to be redeemed by sacrifice (Ex 13:11-13; Ex 22:28-29).  The Greek structure of this final clause indicates that being the first fruits of His creation is the purpose or end of  His own will wrought by the word of truth.  For other uses of “first fruits” in the N.T. see 1 Cor 15:20; 1 Cor 16:15.

The plurals in the verse should also be noted: “us,” “we,” ‘first frutis,” “creatures.”  The reference is to the Church he is writing to, and, by implication, to the whole Church, rather than to individuals.  This sets the stage for his moral teaching in the letter.  As individuals we are part of a greater whole in the plan of God and as such have obligations towards others.  In light of this it is absurd to show partiality (James 2:1-13), avoid doing good (James 2:14-26);  or curse others (James 3:1-12).  It likewise calls for acting in wisdom (James 3:13-18); subduing passion and submitting to God (James 4:1-12); seeking and doing the will of God with a good conscience (James 4:13-17); and take to heart warnings on how riches are used or abused (James 5:1-6).

James 1:19  You know, my dearest brethren. And let every man be swift to hear, but slow to speak and slow to anger.
James 1:20  For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God.

You know, my dearest brethren.  The Greek of the Textus Receptus followed by the KJV and others reads hoste, (“wherefore”, or “and so, therefore”), but the Western and Alexandrian manuscripts read iste, (“know”).  The change from iste to hoste was probably the result of a copyist trying to provide a smoother transition from the previous verse.   Hoste  is not used elsewhere by St James and it appears that the copyist did not recognize a common feature of his writing: he often starts new thoughts with an imperative.  The Douay-Rheims Bible which I am using takes iste as an indicative (you know) rather than an imperative (know this).  That iste should be taken as an imperative (know this) is suggested by the parallelism between verses 16-18 and 19-21, which is enhanced by the imperative.  “Each begins with an imperative followed by a vocative address (“my beloved brothers [and sisters]“) that culminates in a reference to the salvific role of the word” (Father Patrick Hartin, JAMES, Sacra Pagina Commentary Series, pg. 95).

And let every man be swift to hear, but slow to speak and slow to anger.  These are important biblical injunctions, see Sirach 5:11-14; Mt 5:22; Col 3:8-9; Eph 4:25-31.  Failing to hear (heed) the voice of the needy seems to have been a problem among those St James is writing to (James 1:22-25; James 2:15-16).  Likewise sins of speech (the tongue, see James 1:26James 3:1-12), and anger (James 4:1-12).  It appears that a propensity to anger was the prime cause of these sins:  For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God (vs 20).

James 1:21  Wherefore, casting away all uncleanness and abundance of naughtiness, with meekness receive the ingrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Such sins as mentioned above are incompatible with our having been brought forth by the word of truth (James 1:18), the ingrafted word.  We are to cast away such things as if they were thread-bare clothing.

Catechism References:

On James 1:17

12 Over the centuries, Israel’s faith was able to manifest and deepen realization of the riches contained in the revelation of the divine name. God is unique; there are no other gods besides him.[Isa 44:6]  He transcends the world and history. He made heaven and earth: “They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment….but you are the same, and your years have no end.”[Ps 102:26-27In God “there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[James 1:17] God is “HE WHO IS”, from everlasting to everlasting, and as such remains ever faithful to himself and to his promises.

42 The Revelation of “what must soon take place,” the Apocalypse, is borne along by the songs of the heavenly liturgy[Cf. Rev 4:8-11; Rev 5:9-14; Rev 7:10-12] but also by the intercession of the “witnesses” (martyrs).[Rev 6:10] The prophets and the saints, all those who were slain on earth for their witness to Jesus, the vast throng of those who, having come through the great tribulation, have gone before us into the Kingdom, all sing the praise and glory of him who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb.[Cf. Rev 18:24; Rev 19:1-8] In communion with them, the Church on earth also sings these songs with faith in the midst of trial. By means of petition and intercession, faith hopes against all hope and gives thanks to the “Father of lights,” from whom “every perfect gift” comes down [James 1:17]. Thus faith is pure praise.

4 Responses to “My Notes On James 1:17-21”

  1. […] My Notes On James 1:17-21. […]

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  3. […] In my post on that reading I went into some detail about the background.  One should consult that post-both the background and the […]

  4. […] My Notes on James 1:17-21. […]

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