“See you tomorrow.” “See you next week.” “See you next time.” We say these things so effortlessly and (sometimes) thoughtlessly. We take for granted that we will be alive to see so-and-so tomorrow, next week, next time. Someone has said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” James addresses the thoughtlessness of first century Christians who assumed too much. Since they made such a grand assumption, they became arrogant and over-confident in self. This section of Scripture “prohibits an arrogant, boastful attitude that neglects to take into account the transitoriness of this life” (Moo 153). James’ typical style is to ask pointed questions. In honor of that, the following outline is presented in question format.
James 4.13-17 (ESV)
13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—
14yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
17So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
What are you saying? (13-14a)
Verse 13 opens in a rather abrupt fashion. First, James begins “come now” which was a “popular” form of address in Greek literature and prose. Second, “you who say” combined with “come now” gives this a rather curt feel. Third, whereas James has addressed his readers as “brothers” throughout this letter (even while in the midst of correcting them, 4.11), here James omits that title with simply “the ones saying.” All this combines into a rather brusque transition. No doubt his readers recognized this; it was designed to arrest their attention.
Based on what these people are saying, it would seem they may be considered at least in part with the rich whom James will address in 5.1ff. These are people who plan to engage in extensive travel for the purpose of carrying on business in order to “make a profit.” This seems to indicate they are at least well off. But James does not condemn their wealth or even their ability to get gain – what is condemned is a haughty and prideful attitude. They do not even know “what tomorrow will bring” and yet they are boasting over what their plans. James is critical of the relative ease in which they leave God in the rear view mirror as they venture forward in life. This world is transitory and insufficient in and of itself. To make plans with only this realm in mind is a crucial mistake. One must always live and act in a manner which demonstrates that life is ordered around the unseen spiritual realm, especially God. Surely James is directing the attention of his readers to a familiar passage of the Old Testament to emphasis this (see Proverbs 27.1).
What is your life? (14b)
Here is James’ pointed question directed squarely at the heart of his readers: what is your life? The answer depends upon which version of the Bible you read. The NASB says it is a “vapor;” the ESV says it is a “mist;” the NET says it is a “puff of smoke.” It seems best to understand this as a vapor or mist caused by steam. Truly the emphasis is on the brevity of the existence of the misty vapor: it is here for a moment and then disappears. The Scriptures are rife with this principle. Indeed, it is all over the Old Testament (2 Sam 14.14; 1 Chron 29.15; Job 7.16; 8.9; Psa 78.33; 102.11; 144.3-4). All of this should have been familiar to this Jewish audience to which James writes and yet they are in need of reminder. “Illness, accidental death, or the return of Christ could cut short our lives just as quickly as the morning sun dissipates the mist or as a shift of wind direction blows away smoke” (Moo 155).
What should you say? (15-16)
Yet again the shepherd heart of James comes to the forefront as he instructs the flock concerning what they ought to say in view of the transient nature of this present realm. Instead of saying what you’re saying, say this – “If the Lord wills…” Typically, especially today, this verse and phrase is boiled down to be somewhat of a charm or magical (mystical) formula. “Lord willing,” we say. However, when James instructs these Christians (and all Christians across time and space), it is significant. Even heathens of antiquity invoked this formulaic phrase. So we must rescue these words from such base usage. Several times this phrase is used by Paul (Acts 18.21; 1 Cor 4.19; 16.7). Our life and our every moment is dependant upon One – the Lord God. If it please Him that we even live another day then we will do thus and such. But only if He permits.
Contrast this with what these arrogant boasters have been saying and we see just how theologically blinded these poor brethren had become. These Christians believed that things continue on as from the beginning which is not Christian thinking (see 2 Pet 3.4). The fact is they had no basis whatsoever for feeling so assured of living into tomorrow. They boasted in this false and baseless pride. Typical of James, he pulls no punches – this kind of bragging is evil! Purely wicked and from the devil, the evil one. To boast in the Lord is a good thing; to boast in self is sinful.
What should you do? (17)
“Therefore” is how verse 17 starts indicating that this principle is clearly connected with the preceding instruction. Here and contextually James has made known “the right thing to do” (“You who say…ought to say…”) and failure to do it “is sin.” So just do it! That is, acknowledge the providential care and continued sustenance of the Lord God. Cease and desist in living as though you are guaranteed tomorrow or even the strength to do what you have planned tomorrow. Depend upon God for all future plans. Deo volente.
Nevertheless, commentators and scholars are in near agreement that this phrase was a principle which was in circulation among Christians. In fact, some suggest that in back of this Christian principle are the words of Jesus from Luke 12.47: “that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.” How often we know the right thing to do and not do it!
Lenski on this verse presents a brief discussion about of the doctrine of probabilism, a Jesuit doctrine which essentially says that if one can find any cause for doubt concerning the moral law, then it is acceptable to follow one’s inclinations. Lenski wraps up the argument: “Not to do when one knows is not sin as long as one can on at least some father’s say-so or on some apparent ground cast some doubt on what one knows one should do. How many Protestants follow the same principle in order to justify their own sins of omission or of commission!”
Brothers, this is sin. And there can be no excuse making. Ignorance is not an excuse. There is no, “yeah, but…” James is clear and emphatic. The principle is clear and emphatic. Herein is the sin of omission:
“It is not only sinful to do wrong; it is also sinful to lose an opportunity of doing good. God means us not only to be harmless, but also to be useful; not only to be innocent, but to be followers of that which is good. How miserable is the satisfied acquiescence in the thought, ‘I never did anybody any harm’ – a thought which is falsely used as a consolation at many a death-bed.The slothful servant who hid the talent in a napkin did no wrong with it, but nevertheless he was condemned. He failed to do good. So God claims from all of us, not merely that we should ‘cease to do evil,’ but also that we should ‘learn to do well;’ for ‘to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin’” (Pulpit Commentary 58).
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, O.: Lutheran book concern, 1938). 643.