“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13a).
The term suffer could literally be rendered “to suffer evil.” “It is . . . sufficiently comprehensive to embrace every type of affliction, whether of outward bodily character or of inward mental anguish” (Guy Woods, A Commentary on The Epistle of James, p. 295 ). There certainly are external trials which bring suffering in this life (James 2:18-23; 3:13-18; 4:1-2; 4:12-16, 19; 5:1, 10 cf. 1:2-3). However, since the term is set in contrast with being “cheerful,” especially in view may be one’s inward anguish.
Let him pray. The literal language is “let him keep on praying” (Present middle imperative). Prayer is mentioned five times in this book (James 1:1-7; 4:1-3; 5:13; 5:14-15; 5:17-18). God’s people are to be people of prayer (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). When one is facing trials, and is having trouble seeing how any good can come from such, such is especially a time that one should pray (James 1:2-5).
“Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13b).
The term “cheerful” could literally be rendered “well (or good) passion (or spirit).” It refers to one in “good mood”.
Let him sing psalms. The literal language is “let him keep on singing” (present active imperative). Just as one can and should pray outside the church assembly (Matthew 6:6; Acts 10:9; 16:25, etc.), even so, one can and should sing outside of the assembly (Acts 16:25). It is good to express praise and adoration to God by song.
Brother Guy Woods set forth the following suggestion. “It is not improbable that the ‘suffering’ one and the ‘cheerful’ one of this passage are the same person. That is, he who is suffering is to pray to the Father to lift his burden; and when it is gone, to be cheerful, and to express such in praise and worship” (ibid, p. 297).
“Is 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. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).
The word sick means “to be weak, feeble” (Vine’s). The most literal meaning is “without strength” (“a” = negative; “sthenos” = strength).
First issue: How is the term “sick” being used? Does it refer to physical sickness? (See – Mattew 10:8; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; 7:10; John 7:7; Acts 9:37; 19:12; Philippians 2:26-27). Or, does it refer to spiritual sickness? (See – Mark 2:17; Romans 5:6). It seems most natural to understand this as physical sickness, because: (a) This is the primary or general usage of the term, and words should be thus understood unless there is evidence that such is not how the word is being used; (b) There is nothing in the context which will not allow the primary meaning.
Second Issue: What role does the oil play? Here are some common views.
(1) Some have suggested that the oil has reference to a substance used in miraculous healings. (a) Oil was used by the twelve in miraculous healings (Mark 3:13-15 cf. Mark 6:7, 12-13). (b) Other materials were also used [spit (Mark 8:23), clay/water (John 9:6-7), water (2 Kings 5; John 9)]. Brother Guy Woods, “Evidently, for a limited time, and for special purposes, God ordained that the foregoing instructions should be followed, and in every case the promise was realized. That it was not widely followed, or intended to be a universal practice during the apostolic age, follows from the fact that not infrequently saints were sick and often died (Acts 9:32-43; Philippians 2:19-30; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:1-8) … It seems quite clear … that the elders contemplated here were miraculously endowed … and were thus able to participate in miraculous acts of healing in the manner described” (ibid).
(2) Others have suggested that the anointing was done to refresh the ill. Brother Marion Fox, “The Jews would refrain from anointing themselves when they mourned or were fasting (2 Samuel 12:20; Matthew 6:16-17). This is probably the reason for the anointing in Jam. 5:14” (Fox, The Work of the Holy Spirit, vol. 1, p. 280). This view holds that the healing, whether miraculous or providential, came by prayer. The anointing was for refreshing (cf. Lk. 7:44-46). Note: “The phrase ‘anointing him’ is past tense, and stresses the fact that prayer follows anointing” (J.J. turner, The Book of James, p. 159).
(3) Oil was at times used as a common “home remedy” or medicine (Luke 10:34; Isaiah 1:6; Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11). Brother Goebel Music writes, “prayers of righteous men with the anointing with medical purpose . . . The medical properties of oil are extolled by Philo, Pliny, the great ancient natural historian, and Galen, one of the great ancient physicians. This word represents, as A.T. Robertson says in his word pictures, simply God and medicine” (Goebel Music, Book of James, Class Study Notes 1984). What about the universal sounding language? Brother Music replies, “As brother Lipscomb says on this, ‘I think he only meant to say that if the sick would send for the elders, and they would pray for them and anoint them with oil, those who could be cured at all would be cured in this way.’ Not all will be cured regardless of prayer or medical treatment. Yet prayer plus medical treatment may cure many as then” (ibid). Rubel Shelly writes, “Is this passage applicable today? Certainly. Elders in the Lord’s church are to pray over (I.E. in behalf of) the sick and do what they can in administering to the patient’s needs” (Shelly, What Christian Living is All About: Studies in James, p. 114). This view understands the anointing to refer to medicine or physical care, and the prayer to refer to providential reliance on God. I, personally, lean toward this view.
Looking again at verse 15b. Not all sickness is a result of personal sins. However, if there be sin in one’s life this is a great time to deal with such. One brother wrote, “In times of sickness one may be led to reflect on the fact that he has rejected God in his healthier times, and cause him to confess those sins and seek forgiveness” (Rubel Shelly, What Christian Living is All About: Studies in James, p. 114).
In life we should not forget to —
1. Pray to God.
2. Sing to God.
3. Let your brethren know you need help.