Monday, November 28, 2022

Perishing in Pursuit (James 1:9-11)


Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For when the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. [James 1:9-11, ESV]

    One of the most upsetting things that I hear from Christians is that the book of Ecclesiates is depressing, nihilistic, or discouraging. In the case of Ecclesiastes, the purpose of the book is to tell us how there are many things which seem to matter, but will not matter in the end. Life is meaningless without faith in God, so we should focus on the Lord, on serving Him, and on living according to His commandments. We should receive the blessings that God gives us, we should rejoice, we should enjoy what we have been blessed with, and we should thank the Lord for what He has blessed us with, but we should not lose sight of the purpose of life: serving God.

    The thing is that the book of Ecclesiastes would be incredibly depressing, but only if one’s priorities in life are out of order. As a Christian who seeks to serve God in every aspect of my life, I was actually encouraged by reading through Ecclesiates. Whether or not one desires to serve the Lord in all his ways, in all his days, is what will determine whether or not today’s passage will be encouraging.

    Before we examine the meaning of the passage as a whole, let us go over smaller parts of the passage, understand what each part means, and then step back and examine the full meaning of the passage.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,...

    When James refers to the “lowly brother”, he is not referring to a short man, or to a man who is depressed, or even to a man at all. The word “brother” is used as an endearing term for somebody (the Bible was written for both men and women), while the word “lowly” is used to describe one who is humble in spirit. The word “lowly” is translated from the Greek word “tapeinos” (ταπεινός), which is defined by Strong’s Concordance as “humble, lowly, in position or spirit (in a good sense)”. Lexham Theological Wordbook describes the same word as “...being in a low position socially…being humble.”, while explaining how “the literal meaning of low height does not appear in the NT”. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages defines the meaning of “tapeinos” as, “down-hearted, downcast, timid, lacking in hope”.

    When James addresses the “lowly brother”, he is speaking to those who are humble in spirit, who have put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, choosing to receive with meekness the Word [James 1:21]. It is my belief that James is also addressing those who are downcast, those who are struggling, and those who lack hope. My belief is not founded upon what makes sense to me as I read the passage in question, it is based upon the DBL, as well as my understanding of the way God desires to give hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and peace to the restless. The disciples of Jesus Christ (most likely, James was written by “James the Just”, who was not a disciple, but became a Christian after the resurrection of Christ, receiving the Gospel as it was given to the disciples) were told to continue the ministry that Christ had created while He walked the earth, so it would make sense that James would seek to encourage those who are struggling.

    To the lowly brother, James encourages him to boast in his exaltation. The word “boast” means exactly what it seems to mean, which is fascinating to me. The Bible makes it very clear that we are not to boast. Proverbs 27:2 says to let “another praise you, and not your own mouth”. In fact, James tells us not to boast, saying that we boast in arrogance, and that all such boasting is evil [James 4:16]. How then can the lowly brother boast?

    The lowly brother can boast because he is boasting in God, not in himself. We are not to boast in ourselves, or in our abilities, but we are to give God glory. In 2 Corinthians 11:30, Paul writes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”. When Paul boasts in his weakness, he mocks those who boast in their strength, while drawing attention to the way God has worked powerfully in the life of the apostle. Paul declares how weak he was, how flawed he was, and how he has suffered great hardships while spreading the Gospel.

    We are not to boast in ourselves, but we may boast in God. We may boast that God is above all, that there is none like Him, that He is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

    1 Peter 5:6 tells us that we should humble ourselves, “under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you”. God promises exaltation to those who love Him, to those who serve Him, and to those who trust in Him. Such an exaltation may not be in the form of earthly wealth, but even the lowliest of brothers can boast in the exaltation that they will receive in the form of eternal life through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

…and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of grass he will pass away.

    While the lowly brother is to boast in his exaltation, the rich should boast in his humiliation. My understanding of the meaning behind a rich man boasting in his humiliation is not that he should boast in humiliation itself, but in the pursuit of riches that will lead to his humiliation. This verse is not necessarily condemning wealth, but it is condemning those who spend the entirety of their life in pursuit of it. While the lowly brother can boast in his coming exaltation, the rich can only boast in that which will lead to his humiliation. Just as a blade of grass withers, so too will the rich man when he reaches the end of his life on earth. That which the rich man boasts in will vanish upon his death, but the lowly brother’s death will bring about the gift of eternal life that he has been promised by God.

As with sin in general, it is not the thing itself as much as it is the love of the thing. It is not wealth that is sinful, it is the love of money that is sinful.

For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.

    As wonderful and beautiful as the grass is, there comes a point when the sun rises, its heat withers the grass, and the beauty of that grass perishes. The sun rises every morning, sets every night, and never takes a day off. Unless you live in Antarctica (if you do, you should move), you can count on the sun rising every single day, 365 days a year. We cannot change our clocks and confuse the sun, and we cannot change our appearance in order to confuse God. We cannot confuse death by having an abundance of wealth, nor can we confuse ourselves into believing that a life spent in pursuit of wealth is worth living.

So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

    Just as the grass withers from the scorching heat of the sun, so too will the rich man wither as he pursues wealth and earthly possessions.

    The meaning of this passage is simple. Those who are poor, who are sick, who are low in spirit, should be excited that one day they will be able to experience eternal life in Heaven. Those who seek wealth and other worldly possessions can boast in their wealth, but that wealth will not save them, nor will that wealth hold any meaning when the rich man perishes.



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