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Psalm 39 and James' Epistle
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.