You are herePsalm 39 and James' Epistle

Psalm 39 and James' Epistle

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By large-hammer - Posted on 19 January 2004

by Marcus Booker
When singing Psalm 39 awhile back, I took note of remarkable similarities between it and James' Epistle. Upon further investigation, the comparisons grew even more pronounced. To help confirm my suspicions, I consulted my commentaries to see how they related James to Psalm 39. To my complete surprise, none of them even mentioned the psalm! Nevertheless, this article will show you how "obvious" and thorough the connection is. It's unmistakeable! Yet in noticing this glaring omission, I wonder "What else have commentators missed?" Preterism? When singing Psalm 39 awhile back, I took note of remarkable similarities between it and James' Epistle. Upon further investigation, the comparisons grew even more pronounced. To help confirm my suspicions, I consulted my commentaries to see how they related James to Psalm 39. To my complete surprise, none of them even mentioned the psalm! Nevertheless, this article will show you how "obvious" and thorough the connection is. It's unmistakeable! Yet in noticing this glaring omission, I wonder "What else have commentators missed?" Preterism? Of course, I don't mean to claim that there are no commentaries on James' Epistle that emphasize the importance of Psalm 39 as a backdrop. I simply have not come across any yet. [If anybody finds a commentary that brings out this connection, please let me know]. The connections will stare you right in the face!

Once you see the connections, you will share my amazement that there are *any* serious commentaries that omit reference to Psalm 39, when treating James. It makes me think that the Scriptures are partly an uncharted frontier, an unexplored turf and an unknown landscape. It causes me to reconsider the extent to which we, by modern scholarship, have advanced in uncovering the meaning of the text. It is humbling to the modern man. Of itself, this connection is relatively insignificant, yet it is just one of many general omissions that have caused me to wonder. I am shocked by what is left out and missed.

As I go through the similarities, you too will be shocked. You likewise might share my curiousity as to what else the experts may have overlooked, misunderstood, bypassed and botched! It's a little disconcerting!

Psalm 39:1-3 says, "I said, 'I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle while the wicked are in my presence.' I was mute and silent. I kept silence from good, and my sorrow grew worse. My heart was hot within me. While I was musing the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue."

James 3 says, "Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well...And the tongue is a fire, the very word of iniquity."

Both passages here share the idea of controlling the tongue/mouth as with a bridle. They also speak of the tongue in terms of fire. Yet this similarity, alone, could quite conceivably be coincidental. It is only the very tip of the iceberg.

Psalm 39:4-5 says, "LORD, make me to know my end and what is the entent of my days; let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Surely every man walks about as a phantom; Surely they make an uproar for nothing; He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them." Here is an emphasis on how fleeting man's life is. Also, the psalm speaks of this passing life in terms of the rich man who amasses riches.

Along strikingly parallel lines, James 4:14 says, "You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away." Compare James' "vapor" to the psalm's "phantom" and "mere breath." Moreover, James 1 says, "And the rich man [is to glory] in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away." [James 5 also speaks along similar lines].

Note here in James 1 that James employs multiple streams of background in his specific choice of words, yet his thoughts concerning the transient nature of life are along the same basic lines as Psalm 39. His "grass" symbolizes the law, and the "flower" represents the glory of the law (as embodied in the "rich man"). Yet James uses Psalm 39 as a springboard to show that the flesh was passing away. In the fifth chapter, James speaks against the rich hoarders by saying, "It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure." As per a common Scriptural theme, James hints that the laborers who mowed the rich man's fields without just compensation would be avenged by God; he affirms that they would inherit the rich man's wealth, wages that had been withheld from them(5:4). Notice how this line relates to Psalm 39's "He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them."

Psalm 39:11 then says, "With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity; You consume as a moth what is precious to him; Surely every man is a mere breath."

James 5 1-3 says, "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted...."

Wow. Notice how, in Psalm 39, God Himself is compared to a "moth", consuming the precious treasure [presumably garments] of the rich. Yet in James, the rich man's garments are "moth-eaten." His other treasures are likewise caused to perish. God is the agent of their destruction!

These similarities are simply too compelling to be coincidental. And there is more.

Psalm 39:7 asks, "And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you."

James likewise talks about waiting. He says, in chapter 5 verse 7, "Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near."

Psalm 39:2, in the LXX version translated into English reads, "I was dumb, and humbled myself."

James 4:6 reminds the reader that "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Moreover, but less compelling, both James and Psalm 39 speak of prayer, sorrow, and deliverance from sin.

It seems as if James, in his letter, expounds upon Psalm 39 and uses it as a framework for his message. Indeed, James takes up every part of the psalm into his letters; he works it in.

The full, overall breadth of common ground between the two writings is too substantial to be mere coincidence. And such an observation may not necessarily greatly change your understanding of James. Really, it shouldn't. Nevertheless, it should change your perceptions as to how far biblical scholarship has advanced. Whether this particular connection is truly new or not (within the realm of commentary), you should still recognize that there are indeed new things in the pages of the Scriptures waiting there to be discovered. In other words, our work is not done. We cannot rely upon the vast summation of ancient commentary and say, "Everything that could and should be said is here!" Of course, we don't want to completely invent something that never was and innovate beyond the confines of acceptable orthodoxy (as per the text). Yet there are still many claims to stake; truth is not settled. With this understanding, we can view Preterism not as an illegitimate land but as a new and unexplored world, an America. Let us explore and develop our new frontier.

Marcus Booker

spiritualmechanic's picture

Really interesting article. It also points up how much we need to read the law, and the prophets, and the psalms.

Thanks,
Steve

Roderick's picture

Marcus,
I'm glad to be reading your articles once again. They have always been so insightful. I agree fully that there are many more regions to be explored via INductive and DEductive analysis.

I would be curious if Luther has any commentary on Ps 39, especially since he advocated dropping James from the canon. Hey, that is a point -- Did you check the commentaries on Ps 39 and see if any of them reference James?

Great work!!!
Roderick

large-hammer's picture

Roderick,

Like you, I would imagine it to be more likely for a Psalm 39 commentary to mention James than a James commentary to reference Psalm 39.

But...it is really the burden of the commentator on James (not the commentator on Psalm 39) to bring out the James/Psalm 39 connection. Indeed, the psalmist knew nothing of James' [future] writing and does not borrow its thought from it. Yet James makes full and liberal use of Psalm 39.

Of course, there's nothing wrong in bringing out connections to subsequent writings (i.e. writings that did not exist at the time of composition). Yet that effort is (or should be) of secondary consideration. The primary concern should be to bring out the texts that served as past (or contemporary) background.

What I would suspect is that there are some commentaries that show some of the connections between Psalm 39 and James, such as the tongue/bridle similarity. Yet it is more doubtful that many commentaries observe the full-fledged reliance of James upon the *entire* psalm. There's probably some scholarly paper out there somewhere, maybe buried away hundreds of years ago, that shows the connection. Or...maybe it's a connection that some men have noticed themselves but never were able to record in writing.

The point isn't whether it was ever before seen. It may indeed have been. The point is whether it has been seen and acknowledged and added to the general map as an established, indisputable fact. By analogy, many people *saw* Virginia before a map (showing the common consenses concerning the landscape) could be produced.

I, for one, am excited to see exploration and discovery in the works. Some roads are dead ends. Early explorers in the Americas had some odd theories and speculations. Most of these were hopes. Many sought a passage to the Pacific, a full water route. Only later was it (and could it) be determined that there was no such route. Hudson thought that the bay (now named after him) was the Pacific Ocean. This mistake by an able navigator makes it clear that there was definitely still a lot of mapping to do. We, as Preterists, are in a world without maps. We know some basic geographical principles from Europe, but our new landscape is uncharted territory. Preterism's seeming lack of unity is not too problematic nor disheartening. Many of us are explorers, and we are going our separate ways throughout a vast new continent. Yet we are of one mind, one bond, one blood and share the same thirst for discovery. It will be our collective effort that'll produce the clear map for a settled and secure posterity.

Marcus

IKE's picture

MEANWHILE, THOSE OF US WHO ARE NEW TO THE PRETERIST VIEW ARE GETTING SOMEWHAT CONFUSED WHEN READING ALL THE WANDERING SPECULATIONS. HOWEVER, I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THE PERSONAL RELEVANCE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. I MEAN THAT I BELIEVE PRETERISM TO BE TRUE DUE TO THE TIME REFERENCES IN THE HISTORICAL SENSE, BUT HOW DO I UNDERSTAND THE RESURRECTION? I KNOW THAT AS A BELIEVER I HAVE BEEN RAISED UP IN A SPIRITUAL SENSE TO WALK IN NEWNESS OF LIFE, BUT WHAT ABOUT AFTER THIS LIFE IN THE PHYSICAL? SOME TEACH THAT WE ALREADY HAVE THE RESURRECTION BODY.IF SO WHAT IS IT? WHERE IS IT? WHEN WE DIE PHYSICALLY DO WE JUST THEN GO INTO THE PRESENCE OF GOD OR ARE WE ALREADY THERE?

Sam's picture

Marcus,

Thank you for a wonderful comparison. Your other article on the Dtrnmc. comparison is also clear. You may want to read Richard Pratt's He Gave Us Stories, it follows the same line of reasoning (reading Moses in light of the audience).

Samuel Frost

large-hammer's picture

I'll have to get my hands on a copy of that book, Sam. Thanks for the reference.

It's hard to place too much emphasis on audience relevance, so anything that claims to be audience-centered is worthy of great consideration.

Marcus

judge's picture

Nice article.
You may find the translation of James 4;14 found here of interest.
www.v-a.com.

And they know not what tomorrow brings. For what are these lives that we live, except for a warm breath of air that is visible in the cold for a moment, which disappears and is swallowed up?

large-hammer's picture

Judge,

Thanks for the insight here. I admit that it is interesting. And it would be tempting to use that translation, and it certainly would bolster my case.

Nevertheless, when I wrote this article, I consulted the Greek of the LXX and of James. The word used is not the same; it wasn't breath/breath. Because of that disparity, I didn't want to create a false impression in English that the words were identical when, in fact, they were not.

On the other hand, that a translator can take James 4:14 and come up with the word "breath," which happens to be the same word in Psalm 39, is noteworthy. It does indeed show the fine line between the two separate words used.

Of course, the case doesn't at all require identical word-choice, only a striking similarity in thought pattern. Thanks again for that tidbit.

Marcus

judge's picture

No worries...as we say here!

The translator is using the Aramaic text of the letter of james as used by the Assyrian Church of the east.
This church believes that the greek texts we use are in fact translated from the aramaic texts.
I have come around to agreeing with them, but this is not widely held amongst western believers.
The aramaic word means steam or vapour from what I have gathered. I suspect the translator may be aware that it is used of breath as well.

large-hammer's picture

Oh...I didn't realize that it came from the Aramaic. Well then, that IS interesting!

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