“Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun in no sooner risen, with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man, fade away in his ways.”
The reader will recall that in the preceding context of these words which we now consider, James had exhorted the church of the living God to pray unto God for wisdom. Wisdom is that divine gift of grace whereby the child of God uses the best means unto the best end and therefore has his eye of faith riveted upon the eternal inheritance. We need wisdom. The way of the Christian unto the city which has foundations is a difficult way. He must therefore let patience have her perfect work, be patient unto the end. Always he must regard the present in the light of the future, what is now in the light of what shall be. Now we also understand the place which verses 9-11 occupy in this context. One of the most grievous of all the afflictions of all the people of God is the ill treatment which they constantly must endure at the hands of those of high degree or estate. James has more to say of these economic conditions in his epistle. Also in regard to this matter let the church of God be truly wise, look to the future, comfort herself with the assurance that the rich shall be made low and that the brother of low degree shall be exalted.
Several questions demand an answer in the consideration of this particular Word of God. Who are the poor and the rich in this text? Do you refer to the people of God? What does the holy writer mean when he tells us that the rich shall be made low? Must the rich rejoice because he is made low? Does verse 11 require a deep, spiritual, allegorical interpretation?
First of all, who are the poor and the rich in this text, and in what sense are they poor and rich? It can certainly be established beyond every doubt that James distinguishes here between the godly poor and the ungodly rich. That he is referring to the godly poor is evident because he speaks of the brother of low degree. It must be equally plain, on the other hand, that he is speaking of the godless rich. It is possible from a grammatical point of view to regard the rich man of verse 10 as a rich brother. The word “brother” does not occur in this verse, then, simply because it already appears in verse 9, and James does not consider it necessary to repeat it. Viewing the rich, then, as a rich brother, the words “he is made low” of verse 10 and the admonition that he rejoice because he is made low are spiritualized. He is made low in the sense that he is humbled in his pride, he has learned to flee his riches, not to set his heart upon them, and to seek his God and the things which are above. Such a man may surely rejoice when in that sense he is made low. This reasoning is based upon the concluding words of verse 11. James declares there that “the rich man shall fade away in his ways.” All emphasis, we understand, is laid upon the words “in his ways.” He shall not fade way, but his ways, his former conduct shall pass away.
This spiritualizing of the words of James is definitely impossible and unwarranted. The text militates against this interpretation. We read of “brother” only in connection with the lowly. And although it is true that the word need not be repeated because it had already been used with respect to the lowly, it is nevertheless a fact that the holy writer speaks only of the lowly brother and then of the rich man. This is further emphasized in the text when James declares that the rich himself shall perish. It is true that in verse 11 we read that “he shall fade away in his ways.” But in verse 10 we read without any reservation, “He shall pass away.” Besides the text itself, the entire epistle is opposed to the above conception, as if the rich also refers to the actual people of the living God. In chapter 2:7 we read: “Do not they blaspheme that worthy Name by the which ye are called?” The reference in these words is to the rich. One would hardly apply this statement to the people of the Lord. And in chapter 5:1-6 the language is such that one need not doubt the meaning of James in that particular Word of God. There the rich are told to weep and howl because of the miseries that shall come upon them, that they have condemned and killed the just who did not resist them.
We conclude, therefore, that the distinction between the godly poor and the ungodly rich must be maintained in this text. We must bear in mind, of course, that James, in this passage of Holy Writ, is not a humanitarian who is deeply concerned merely with earthly economic conditions, and that, therefore, he is writing of generally existing conditions in this world. Such would undoubtedly be the interpretation of this and similar passages in the Word of God by the Modern church of today which simply regards the Scriptures as a book of ethics and as applying only to general conditions among mankind. James is addressing the Church of God. He is referring, to be sure, to economic conditions, to class distinctions between the poor and the rich. However, it is also in this economic field that the people of God are afflicted, that especially the Church of God is afflicted. And he would comfort the Church of God in the midst of the world also in this respect.
In the light of the foregoing, who, then, are these Jowly brethren? We understand, of course, that not all the poor are meant. James, here, is not addressing all the poor people of the world. There are ungodly poor and godly rich in the world. The text addresses the lowly brother. It is also plain that the writer does not refer to the spiritual lowly. It is true that the word “lowly” which appears in this text is commonly used in Scripture as referring to humility, particularly our humble relation to the living God. This applies to a passage such as verse 5 in chapter 4 where we read that God giveth grace to the humble. The humble in chapter 4:6 are contrasted with the proud. However, in verse 9 of chapter 1 James is not addressing the spiritual lowly. This is, first of all, evident from the text. On the one hand, these lowly are contrasted with the rich. It is true that James does not literally speak of the poor but of the lowly. However, he does mention the rich. And the idea of poverty can therefore not be excluded. On the other hand, also according to the text, the idea of their exaltation conflicts with the interpretation of spiritual humility. True spiritual humility will never pass away. However, these lowly will be exalted. Besides this text, does not the entire epistle emphasize the thought that James is continuously contrasting the people of God and the people of the world as worldly poor and worldly rich? Hence, we may conclude that these brethren in this text are poor from a worldly and material point of view.
In the first place, then, the lowly brother of verse 9 is poor according to the standard of this world. In chapter 2:5 James calls the people of God the “poor of this world.” And in chapter 5 the people of God are again contrasted with the rich—there they are the poor laborers who do not receive enough to live and have “too much” to die. Poverty must have characterized to a large extent the condition of the church to whom this epistle is addressed. And it is the oppressed people of God throughout the ages who are comforted by the words of James. The people of God, generally speaking, are poor throughout the ages.
The cause of their poverty is two-fold. On the one hand it must be attributed to the good pleasure of the Lord. We read literally is chapter 2:5 that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the Kingdom of heaven. And this thought is confirmed by the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians in chapter 1, verses 27-28, the first epistle, where we read that God hath chosen the foolish things, the weak things, the base things of this world, and the things which are despised. On the other hand, however, the poverty of the people of God also has a spiritual cause, can also be explained from the people of God themselves. We must notice that James speaks of the lowly brother. God’s people are brethren. They are brethren of each other, and together they are united with Jesus Christ, our Lord. As such the people of God are the party of the living God and separated from the world. This, too, explains their material poverty. God’s people have higher, heavenly interests.
They surely do what their hands find to do. But their heart is set upon the things which are above. They do not seek the earth, they do not crave the things below. Their citizenship is in heaven. Besides, the people of the Lord are God’s party here below. There are indeed many godless poor who would fain become rich. All men are by nature seekers of the things below—the rich possess them and the poor, who are destitute, crave them. In every way these poor of the world would improve their social and financial position. The people of God, however, are the friends of God. They abstain from evil. They are content with the place which God has given them. They testify against sin and trust in the Lord. They do not resort to violence and bloodshed and striking and boycotting and the closed shop. They testify against sin and, for the rest, rest their case with God. Is it surprising that such a people remains poor? One other factor explains their poverty. These lowly brethren have church interests and spiritual obligations. They contribute for the maintenance and the development of God’s Church and covenant in the midst of the world. Their children must receive Christian instruction. And these items must head the list of our necessities. To love the Church of God and the things which are above requires the use of the pocketbook. To be sure, spiritual things are not always first in our lives. Personal conveniences and modern luxuries often engage our attention first. But we must seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and then believe that whatever we need will be added unto us.
Besides being poor the people of God are also lowly. They are lowly as considered by the world. The world views them as of no account. They are on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They simply are not considered, they are “good for nothing.” Such is the “lowly brother” whom James addresses in this ninth verse.
To be continued.