I probably shouldn't have spent the time to do this, but here are some notes from this time through James 1 in my General Epistles class.
1:5 And if someone of you lacks wisdom, let [that one] ask from the God who gives to all generously and who does not reproach and it will be given to him.
Because this verse follows right on the heals of endurance in trial, it seems likely that the wisdom in question is wisdom when one is undergoing trial. We can certainly imagine that God offers wisdom freely in general as well, and some do think James gives disconnected proverbs such that we should not necessarily connect this verse with the one that precedes. But all in all, such a connection seems likely.
God does not rebuke a person for asking for such wisdom, but generously provides it to each who asks, that is, given the caveat that follows.
1:6-8 But let [that one] ask in faith, doubting not at all, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea being blown and tossed. For do not let that person think s/he will receive something from the Lord--a "two souled" person, unstable in all his ways.
We should not take doubting here in some modern, highly introspective sense. James is referring to a person of divided loyalties who does not entirely want God's wisdom to endure trial. This person has not fully made up his or her mind to serve the "Lord," which may possibly refer to God rather than Jesus, given that God has been the referrent in the immediately preceding verses and 1:17 will speak of God as the giver of every perfect gift.
God thus does not grant wisdom in trial to those who are not committed to enduring trial for the Lord. This is an unstable person, a person of "two souls," two minds
1:9-10 Now let the humble brother boast in his height and the rich [person] in his humiliation, because as a blade of grass [he] will disappear.
We can debate over whether the rich person pictured here is a brother or not. Certainly the parallel between the first line, where the poor or humble person is a brother might lead in this direction. However, perhaps it is significant that James does not specify what kind of rich individual this is. Perhaps, as in chapter 2, James has in mind a person associated with a believing community but about whom it can be questioned whether they are truly brothers.
James has nothing positive to say about a rich person whatsoever and looks to an eventual reversal of fortune. The lowly person today who is in troubled circumstances and trials, will find themselves eventually find themselves blessed. Meanwhile, the rich person who appears to have power and good circumstances today will find their status and comfort pass away on the day of judgment.
1:11 For the sun rises with heat and it dries the grass and its blade falls off and the beauty of its face perishes--so also the rich person will wither away in his pursuits.
The verbs in this verse are in the aorist tense, which we have long thought of as normally referring to events in the past. Stanley Porter has argued that these aorists show that aorist tense is not about past time but about undefined action. On the other hand, perhaps the influence of Aramaic is in play here.
Such statements seem to fit well a Palestinian agrarian setting and seem very fitting on the lips of a James, whether James directly writes them or they are James tradition being passed along in Greek by someone else. The statement on the rich person withering away in his pursuits reminds us of the indictment of the rich James makes at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. We are also reminded of the parable of Luke about the rich person who has big plans but whose life is taken before he can see them through.
1:12 Blessed is the person who endures trial, because having become approved, [that person] will receive a crown of life which [God] promised to those who love Him.
This verse reveals that the idea of perseverence during trial has never left James' mind. Here we find some of the specifics of what endurance actually leads to. 1:4 had mentioned that trials built to endurance, but it did not say what the reward of endurance was. Here we see that the reward is a crown of life, presumably eternal life. James does not say here exactly where believers will enjoy that life but it is promised to those who love God.
1:13 Let no one say when being tried, "I am being tempted by God." For God is untemptable with evil and He himself tempts no one.
James shifts at some point from talking about trials to talking about temptations, perhaps temptations in particular that are brought on through trials. The previous verse clearly is talking about trials. But the same word can also mean "temptation," and at least by the second use of the word in this verse, James has shifted to the topic of temptation.
When we are speaking in ordinary language, we shift between various meanings of a word with ease, often without even noticing we are doing it. The context usually makes it clear what meaning we have in mind. Good English translations of the Bible do the same for us. They translate the same word differently as appropriate so that we do not even realize we are dealing with the same word in Greek.
We have translated the first instance of peirazo in 1:13 as "being tried" to keep continuity with the previous verse. An audience would as yet have had no reason to think of a different sense of the word. But the second instance begins to blur into "being tempted," a sense that is clear by the end of the verse and in the verse that follows below.
James represents movement in thought from early parts of the Old Testament where God is actually said to send evil spirits on people like Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). But James holds that God does not tempt people to do evil in addition to the fact that God himself is not tempted by evil.
1:14-15 But each person is tempted, being dragged away and enticed by his/her own desire. Then desire, having conceived, bears sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.
Although in other contexts one might speak of Satan tempting a person, in James temptation is discussed in terms of one's desires. One desires something that one should not have. Interestingly, James does not equate this desire with sin. Sin is what results when one pursues that desire or lets that desire take its course. Similarly, when sin has run its full course, it will lead to death. James does not specify whether spiritual or physical death is in view, so it is best to leave the nature of such death unspecified.
1:16-17 Do not err, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every complete gift is from above, descending from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or turning shadow.
If we are to see some continuity in the train of thought, we can connect the trials that were first mentioned in 1:2 with the rich of verse 10 and 11, with the need for wisdom on the part of the troubled and distressed (1:5) and the temptation of 1:13-14. One temptation in such circumstances, as we will see in chapter 2, is to rely on the patronage of the rich. One desires what material resources can offer and is tempted under trial.
But in what is at least a key verse for James, James makes clear who the real and ultimate Patron for the believer is. It is God, the Father, from whom every good and perfect gift truly comes. Such gifts do not come from earthly patrons or the earthly rich. Such individuals not only vary with their own whim and fancy, not only turn like the shadow on a sundial. Such individuals will soon pass away, and those who depend on their patronage will only die.
In some ways, therefore, 1:17 plays itself out in much of the rest of James.
1:18 Having been wanted, He gave birth to us through the word of truth in order that we might might be a certain first fruit of His creations.
Whether James is conscious of it or not, the use of logos or "word" imagery in this verse in the next bears significant Stoic overtones. If so, such Hellenistic imagery generally points away from James himself as the person responsible for the current wording of the book. However, such language would not disprove that James coined these particular words. It is impossible to say what currents in language made their way where and at what time. Language can come from a particular tradition without the user of that language even knowing where it came from.
In Stoic thought, there is a close connection between God's word inside of us and seed imagery. The Stoics believed that we all had word implanted in us, logos seeds. The wise person lived in accordance with that word, for the word inside us was in sync with the divine Word or Reason that governed all things.
The idea that James' audience might be the first fruits of God's creation implies some sort of theology of new creation. The audience would be part of the first generation, in effect, because the word of truth had only of late come and been implanted.
1:19-20 Look, my beloved brothers, even let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of a person does not bring about the righteousness of God.
If 1:17 serves in some ways as a general statement that plays out in the rest of James, 1:19 does as well. Many scholars would suggest that the introduction of James ends with 1:18 and that 1:19 actually begins the body of the letter. The vocative, "my beloved brothers" might thus serve as an indicator that a new section of the letter is beginning. 1:19 does not of course play out neatly in the rest of the letter, and we are reminded that many think that James has no clear literary structure.
The idea of being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger would apply particularly to leaders of Christian gatherings, as is played out especially in chapter 3. It might also apply to the rich, although throughout James such individuals are spoken of as outsiders. The letter is thus directed more at Christian Jewish leaders and the poor.
Anger does not bring about righteousness, the righteousness that typifies God. The phrase, "the righteousness of God" sometimes in Judaism seems to have referred to the fact that God is righteous. This is the sense it primarily seems to have in writings of Paul like Romans. However, its sense here seems to be righteous acts that God expects such as helping those in need such as the poor, orphans, and widows. Anger toward others does not naturally lead to these sorts of righteous acts, a warning perhaps to leaders.
1:21 Therefore, putting off all filth and the abundance of wickedness, with humility, receive the implanted word that is able to save your lives.
In contrast to those who are quick to speak and to anger at the actions of others, James tells Christian leaders and believers in general to put off their own filth and wickedness. To let the word, the logos seed that is implanted within them, to bring forth the appropriate fruit, the righteousness of God. Heeding this word will end in salvation on the Day of Judgment and their lives will be saved.
The word we translate here as "lives" can at times be translated as "souls." However, that word has particular somewhat Platonic connotations for us that are not the prevalent way the word is used in the New Testament. It would seem more appropriate to go with the more Semitic use of the word in reference to a life.
1:22-24 Become doers of the word and not only hearers, deceiving yourselves, because if someone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, this person is like a person looking at his birth face in a mirror, for he observes himself and goes away and immediately forgets of what sort he was.
This theme of being leading to doing will strongly occupy the second half of James 2. The problem James addressed 2000 years ago is somehow strangely familiar, the person who hears God's word but who somehow manages to go forth unaffected, the teacher who is quite good at talking but does not live what they teach, the person who believes the right things but whose beliefs somehow do not make it to life. The imagery of a mirror is not entirely clear, but the overall sense seems once again to be a person who can see what they are--or at least are supposed to be--but who does not live in accordance to their birth.
1:25 But the one who looks into the complete law of freedom and who remains [in it], having become not a hearer of forgetfulness but a doer of work, this person will be blessed in his doing.
The parallel seems to be between the mirror that shows us what we should be according to the word of God and the perfect law of freedom. In other words, the law of freedom is indeed who we are in accordance with the word of God. The next chapter will speak of the "royal law of love," and it is reasonable to think this is what James has in mind here as well.
The doing that we are to do in accordance with who we are is thus love in action, which of course constitutes the righteous acts of God, whose content will become particularly apparent in 1:27.
1:26 If someone seems to be religious while not bridling his tongue but deceiving his heart, the religion of this one is foolish.
This verse returns to the theme of being slow to speak and anticipates James 3. Certainly this "proverb" is true in its own right. But if we are to read it somehow in the context, perhaps we should best take it of someone who is a leader or teacher but whose words do not match his or her actions. This person's talk does not match their walk. Their faith does not match their action.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to look over orphans and widows in their trouble, to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Here is James as it is best known, a letter about the gospel with feet. What is true worship of God? Religion here does not have the sense of a system of faith or belief but more what some used to mean when they talked about "getting religion." True religion takes care of those in need.
Orphans and widows would have especially fit into this category in the ancient world. There was no social security or welfare system to take care of such people, no jobs for a widow to get to support her children. Such groups were entirely dependent on the generosity of others. By contrast, the world here likely has the same connotations of wealth and those comforts an orientation around such things might afford.