James began this epistle with an exhortation concerning prayer (1.5) and in the middle gave a word about prayer (4.2-3). He now closes this epistle with a final word about prayer (5.13-18). Needless to say, this epistle is saturated with prayer. Fitting that James would write concerning prayer so often. History tells us that James was on his bare knees so often praying for the church that his knees became hard and callous, without sensation and like the knees of a camel. James will mention prayer seven (7) times in these six (6) verses. He will use three different words for prayer.
13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,
20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
In the short span of six (6) verses James will mention prayer seven (7) times using three (3) different words (or derivatives of them): proseuchomai (v.13, 14, 17, 18), euche (v. 15, 16a), and deesis (v.16b). There are not many versions which recognize the use of different words for prayer. The subtle distinctions will be identified and connected with the context.
Counsel concerning Supplication (13-16a)
Seasons for Prayer (13). When should we pray? James gives a two very time for God’s people to offer up prayers. First, when a fellow Christian is experiencing trouble it is a good time to pray (13a). “Is anyone among you (pl.) suffering?” Are there any brothers or sisters who are suffering any kind of distress or trouble? This is the same word Paul will use years later near the end of his life concerning his imprisonment (2 Timothy 2.9). Contextually, no doubt these Christians were experiencing all kinds of affliction from their rich masters (5.4-6). The common theme of patience in perseverance in this epistle also seems to point to the fact that these saints have come up against many hardships. So James points his readers back to God – cast the pain and burden upon the Lord. His primarily Jewish audience would no doubt already have an idea of praying when distress comes upon their fellow countrymen. When one was afflicted with leprosy and declared among the people “Unclean, Unclean” in keeping with the ordinance, the rabbi taught that his fellow countrymen were to pray to God on his behalf. Now as fellow countrymen of the heavenly territory, when anyone among them experiences distress and disaster, James says, “let him keep on praying.” In other words, don’t stop praying! In the midst of trials is the prime time to pray.
Second, when a fellow Christian is experiencing triumph is a good time to pray (13b). “Is anyone cheerful?” James asks. The cheerfulness mentioned here is quite general. This is a Christian who is glad, of good cheer, and joyful. Here is a state altogether free from trouble and affliction. If this is the present station of life for a Christian, James emphatically commands them “sing!” This is the force of the present imperative. Further, the root of this imperative is psallo, a word notorious for debate among theologians and church members. The debate centers on one crucial point: Is the instrument of music inherent in the word? Without doubt the Greek word was associated with playing a stringed instrument. Etymologically this is the case because at its most basic definition psallo means to pluck (as one would do with a bow or harp). So Aristotle and Plutarch understood and used the word. Even when the Septuagint was written (3rd century BC), the word was still somewhat connected with the idea of playing a stringed instrument. However, by the time we come to the first century, the word has evolved to a point to where the instrument of music is not inherent. Rather, psallo (with the fellow members of the word group humons and psalmos) means simply to sing unaccompanied by musical instruments. Indeed, James’ primarily Jewish audience would identify that the instrument of music belonged to the shadow of the old covenant out of which they came. But now, since they have obtained the reality found in Christ and the new covenant, those things have passed away. Therefore, sing with the voice a song of praise to God. One writer calls praise “the highest form of prayer” (Pulpit Commentary 70). James and Paul once more agree: whether in trouble or triumph, pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17; cf. Ephesians 6.18).
Reasons for Prayer (14-16a). Why should we pray? Or more precisely why should elders of the church pray? When there are spiritually weak members of the body. Those who are spiritually weak (perhaps in faith due to sin) are commanded by an elder to call upon the elders of the church. A plurality of elders implies that more than one of the presbytery shows up at the house of the spiritually weak, not just one of them and not the preacher. These men pray “over him,” probably indicating the laying on of hands. The laying on of hands would be necessary for anointing this person with oil, a symbol of consecration (Exodus 40.15; Numbers 3.3) and possibly the Holy Spirit. This anointing takes place “in the name of the Lord,” that is by His authority.
It should be noted that a shift takes place in verse 15. Previously, the word translated prayer was from proseuchomai, which is the typical word for prayer in the New Testament for prayers of all kinds. In verse 15, though, James uses a word used on three times in the New Testament, though it ha sa rich history. Euche was the most comprehensive term for the invocation of deity. Thus, in the Septuagint it is regularly used to translate the word for “vow.” Indeed, the other two times this word is used in the New Testament (Acts 18.18; 21.23) it is translated as “vow.” Therefore, what we should understand about euche is that it carries the notion of the vow and that the meaning of vow is more common than prayer. There is a dedicatory aspect to this word. So it is this “vow of faith” which “saves” (or resotres) the soul of this weak Christian. So while the elders of the church offer prayer over this weak Christian, a consecrating vow is made by this weak Christian who is seeking spiritual strength. Also, this person arises from prayer to a life of active devotion to God (cf. Romans 13.11; Ephesians 5.14). And if, in this moment of spiritual weakness, this brother has sinned, there is the hope of forgiveness of those sins.
Confession of Sins (16-18)
Exhortation to Acknowledge Sin (16). “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” In light of the foregoing, that Christians are to pray in times of trouble and triumph and that Christians are to call for the spiritually mature to help in times of spiritual weakness, James commands confession (a public declaration or agreement) and prayer for spiritual healing of the disease of sin. Once more the pastoral heart of James is on display as he recognizes the human condition and how prone even Christians are to sin. So the habitual practice of every Christian to his fellow brethren should be to speak the same word as God about sin (confession), then speak a saving to God for sin (prayer). There seems even to be an indication that public confession to fellow brethren (Gk. exomologeo) should follow the private meeting with the elders of the church. The word used here for prayer carries with it the idea of desire. In this case the desire would be to have spiritually strength and fortitude in the future when faced with weakness. And when sin is committed, the desire for healing from the wounds of sin is expressed in prayer.
The latter part of verse 16 gives still another good reason to pray in conjunction with confession of sin and the spiritual healing bestowed to those who desire such. Just five densely packed words in the Greek translates to: “A righteous person’s supplication has great strength when energized.” Once more the word for prayer is different (deesis), this time indicating an expression of personal need. It is sometimes rendered “supplication” (so reads the margin of NASB). It carries the idea of lacking and being in need so that what is asked for is asked with urgency and pleading. The strength of supplication is that it is energized (Gk. energoumene). There is remarkable power in prayer since the power in back of prayer is God Himself. Prayer is more than just a wholesome spiritual discipline; prayer rouses God to act on behalf of His people. And this power is not reserved for the elites of the faith; “righteous person” is a term used to denote one who is completely committed to God and sincerely seeking to do His will.
One writer (Stulac) sums up what James is saying in the following: “In your trials, you don’t need the power gained by money or favoritism or selfishness or fighting or swearing; use the power of prayer, for which you need righteousness. Commit yourself to doing what is right without compromise; then you may rely on God in prayer for all your needs.”
Example of Appealing Spiritedly (17-18). To demonstrate the truth of the maxim at the end of verse 16, James calls upon a well known example of a righteous man who tapped into the power of God through prayer: Elijah. First, his nature was like ours. In other words, he was human. Literally, he suffered just like us. No doubt James is appealing to the sensitivities of his suffering brethren by calling their attention to a co-sufferer and his prayer life. He felt pain just as they do. Specifically, it would seem he felt the most over sin among his people Israel. What James wants his reads to know is that this kind of powerful prayer is not just for a select few elite saints; it is available for all who sincerely follow God. Nevertheless, “he prayed fervently” or “earnestly” (NASB). James, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, borrows a Hebrew idiom and literally says, “in prayer he prayed.” It is similar construction to what we read with Jesus at the Passover meal with His disciples (Luke 22.15): “in desire I desired this Passover…” John Gill says this is “a praying, not merely externally, or formally, and with the lip only, but with the Spirit, and with the understanding, and with the heart engaged in it, with inwrought prayer. The prophet prayed with much earnestness, with great vehemence and intenseness of Spirit…it was constant, and importune, and was continued till he has an answer.” For what did Elijah pray? It’s deeper than just Elijah asking for no rain for three and a half years (a figure with agrees with our Lord, Luke 4.25) and then praying for rain at the end of the drought. Elijah prays fervently for the judgment of God upon the land of Israel which is manifested in drought (Deut 28.22-24). God promised to bring the curse of drought if His people were faithless in regards to the covenant. Once the judgment of God accomplished its purpose and the people repented, that was when Elijah, no doubt with equal fervency, prayed for the Lord to open the flood gates of the heavens so that the land could bear fruit.
Conversion of Sinners (19-20)
In a final word to his brothers, James connects this illustration with what he has just said about confessing sins and what he now says about the erring person. It should be noted that James for granted that it is possible for a child of God to wander from the truth. In other words, the possibility of apostasy is very real. In fact, Coffman says, “That a Christian can err from the truth is not merely a possibility, but a frequent occurrence.” When it comes to a spiritually weak person veering from God’s truth into the devil’s lies, perhaps God’s people should be praying for God to execute some kind of judgment in time before it is eternally too late. Even as Elijah prayed for God to send the curse of drought on the land in conjunction with the faithlessness of the people of Israel, so too should Christians pray for God to send spiritual drought into the life of one who, having known the truth, has turned from it. Further, when that judgment has executed its purpose (i.e. repentance), then we should pray for God to rain down blessing in the life of the restored person. Even as Elijah prayed for God to remove the curse, likewise Christians unite to beseech God to send forth blessing into the life of the returning brother. Is this not what James is referring to in the conclusion of this letter about those who wander from the truth? They incur the judgment of God and we agree with God to blight their life with spiritual drought to rouse them from spiritual slumber before it is everlasting too late. Should the sinner respond and turn back to God, two results occur: 1) salvation of their soul and 2) the pardon of sins from God. Then, even as the land bore fruit following the drought, so too the returning sinner (who is now called brother) can bear fruit inasmuch as they are engrafted into the Vine (John 15.5). James, who has the Old Testament Scriptures running through his veins, aptly concludes his epistle alluding to Scripture (cf. Proverbs 10.12).