3. Instructions on hearing and doing, 1:19-27

Be doers of the Word

James' second set of instructions/sayings is built around an introductory three part saying in 1:19: "i] be quick to listen (hear), ii] slow to speak and iii] slow to become angry (to anger)." Each of these three parts is developed in the passage, with particular focus on "quick to hear": i] quick to hear, v22-25, ; ii] slow to speak, v26 -27; iii] slow to anger, v20. The central thematic idea seems to be covered by the saying in v22, "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers", NRSV. James will later deal with the tongue in 3:1-12 and anger in 3:13-18.


As covered in the introductory notes on James, commentators divide on whether James is a collection of unrelated sayings, or sayings carefully arranged within a highly developed thematic work. The notes on this site opt for the middle ground. James, like Proverbs, is a collection of independent sayings arranged thematically. The saying must speak for itself, but its thematic context, along with related sayings, all play a part in interpretation. Verse 21 serves as a good example. Other than the dio, "therefore", there seems little in this saying to link it to v20 concerning anger, but it does fall into the general theme "be doers of the word, not merely hearers." Of course, when it comes to the division of the individual instructions/sayings, there is little unanimity amongst commentators.


The first half of this verse may conclude v18, cf. Moffatt.

adelfoi mou agaphtoi "my dear brothers" - my beloved brothers. Often used to introduce a new unit of teaching.

iste (oida) perf. imp. "take note of this" - know. Possibly read as indicative, so Mayor, RV. The variant wJste, "therefore", is sometimes followed, eg. AV, REB, NASB. "You must understand this my beloved", NRSV.


Instruction #1, v19b. "Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger."

de "-" - but, and. Obviously here a connective which may support the argument that v19a is attached to v18, but it properly moves us from the introduction, v19a, to the saying, v19b. Variant kai before the verb to-be is not read. Possibly "now let every person", Johnson.

paV anqrwpoV "everyone" - all men. Instruction for all believers.

estw (eimi) pres. imp. "should be" - Verb to-be.

tacuV adj. "quick" - swift, quick. Describing "ready listening", Laws.

eiV to akousai (akouw) aor. inf. "be [quick] to listen" - heed, listen, obey. Ropes suggests that the preposition here with the articular infinitive expresses "with reference to hearing", a form not attested in secular Greek. Certainly the normal translation of this construction as a purpose/result clause does not work. Wallace suggests the infinitive is epexegetic, ie. explaining "quick". It does seem likely that the construction simply limits the adjective "quick", so Turner (cf. Phil.1:23). Listen to what? Commentators tend to agree that the injunction is that we listen to, take on board, God's word, "the word of truth", v18, so Martin, Adamson, Mitton. Some extend this to all truth, particularly wisdom, cf. Dibelius. It seems likely that general listening is in mind, given that James is simply giving practical advice that enables a believer to survive through the vagaries of life with one foot in heaven and one on earth, ie. wisdom, cf. Proverbs 17:28, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent and discerning if he holds his tongue". Moo, Johnson, Davids, Laws, ... all take this line. Moo argues for a similar approach to the other qualities; so "A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even tempered", Prov17:27.

braduV adj. "slow" - "Think before you speak and count to ten before you react in anger."


Instruction #2, v20. "What is right in God's eyes, what is fair and just to our fellowman, is never likely to be achieved by anger", Mitton.

gar "for" - Expressing cause/reason and linking to the third part of the first saying, "slow to anger".

androV (hr droV) "man's" - [anger] of man. The genitive is adjectival, possessive. The "man" is again a believer, but taken generally, so "human anger", Cassirer, or better, "your anger", TH.

orgh (h) "anger" - "Petty passion", Adamson; "a bad temper does not ....."

ouk ergazetai (ergazomai) pres. "does not bring about" - does not work. Usually taken to mean "produce / accomplish / achieve / bring about / ...", even though not the usual use of the word. Probably better understood in the sense of "do / work / practice", so Ropes.

dikaiosunhn (h) "the righteous life" - righteousness. Probably in a moral sense; "justice", "uprightness", Cassirer.

qeou (oV) "that God desires" - of God. The genitive here causes its usual problems and promotes numerous interpretations. i] As a subjective genitive where the genitive substantive, "God", produces the action of the verbal noun "righteousness"; "for men's temper is never the means of achieving God's true goodness (justice)", Phillips. ii] As an objective genitive where the genitive substantive, "God", receives the action of the verbal noun "righteousness", so NIV and most translations, cf. Dibelius. iii] As an ablative genitive, expressing source/origin; "the righteousness that comes from God", ie. his vindication, or his verdict of acquittal (justification). This option is very unlikely. iv] As an adjectival genitive, limiting "righteousness", either possessive or partitive; "human anger does not match God's measure of righteousness", cf. Johnson. This last option seems best and certainly aligns with the OT understanding of this key phrase which serves as a definitive description of God's person. He is a morally pure being, reliable and faithful to his covenant promises and this is exhibited in his righteous reign, in his setting all things right, cf. Moo. Thus, the being/character of God rightly serves as a gauge for human behavior and so James can confidently say that "human anger does not match God's measure of righteousness."


Instruction #3, v21. Believers must "put away, as one would take off clothing, all filthiness, all that defiles, all sin", Hamann. As already noted, this instruction is most likely an independent saying which James has linked to the present context. Some commentators tie it with "anger" in v20, so "get rid of all moral filth" = "get rid of all nasty rancorous argumentation." This is probably pushing the contextual influence too far since the only obvious link is grammatical gar, "therefore, ....", with the mention of humility/meekness serving as a contrast to anger. Others link it with v22 since it deals with hearing "the word" and doing it. Translations, therefore, have the paragraph division either before or after v21. James is probably using v21 as an independent saying which serves to introduce his instruction on hearing and doing, v22-25.

apoqemenoi (apotiqhmi) aor. mid. part. "get rid of" - having put away, put off, stripped off. The participle is adverbial, most likely imperatival, as NIV. Technically, participles that are obviously imperatival are usually attendant on an imperative verb, here the imperative verb to-be, e[stw, "let [every man] be [quick ...], v19. Often of putting off clothing, but here metaphorically of casting off sin. "You must strip off everything that would soil life", Barclay.

rJuparian (a) "impurity" - dirtiness, filthiness. Here "impurity", Ropes.

kai "and" - The function of the particle here is unclear. Does it connect two distinctive ideas, or does it form a single compound idea, or does it introduce an explanation of the first idea. The first option is the one followed by most translations, but the point is simple enough; "you must stop doing anything immoral or evil", CEV.

kakiaV (a) gen. "the evil" - of evil, wickedness. The genitive is adjectival, probably appositional, "the abundance which consists of wickedness."

perisseian (a) "that is so prevalent" - abundance, profusion, overflowing / excess. The function of this noun is unclear. James may be referring to the remaining wickedness in a person's life, the "remnants of evil", NJB, although he is more likely referring to an abundance of wickedness, "wicked excess", REB.

en + dat. "[humbly]" - in [gentleness, gentleness, mildness, meekness]. Probably instrumental; "with humility". Possibly the antecedent is "get rid of"; "put away ...... with humility", but usually taken with "accept"; "receive with humility." The sense is not obvious, but probably "in a teachable spirit you must receive", Barclay.

dexasqe (decomai) aor. imp. "accept" - receive, accept. Possibly "obey", but better "accept".

ton emfuton logon "the word planted in you" - the implanted word. "Implanted" in the sense of "sown" (James is now adopting an agricultural metaphor), but what is "the word"? Often interpreted as "the preached word of the gospel", Laws. Yet, if we allow the context to dictate it is likely that the word, as defined in v18, is intended, therefore, "the word of truth", "the message of God", Junkins. In simple terms the "word" entails the totality of God's instructions to believers; his manuel for life: "And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us", 1Jn.3:23. The content of "love" is filled out in the ethical instruction throughout the scriptures. Without the guidance of the context we could argue that James is speaking about an implanted moral dimension that is unique to a created human in God's image, although how this could "save" us is unclear. So, "the implanted word of God", not "the innate divine ethic".

ton dunamenon (dunami) pres. pas. part. "which can" - being able. The participle is adjectival, "the word which is able."

swsai (sozw) aor. inf. "save" - to save. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of "is able". "Save" in what sense. Many commentators see "save" in the terms of "eternal salvation", but the wisdom sense of "set free to live a full life" seems more likely. Such an interpretation does not imply that James is unaware of the gospel and of its promise of eternal life, just that James is addressing the practical business of living as a believer in a world now limited by sin.

taV yucaV uJmwn "you" - the soul of you. Again, James may have in mind "the sowing of the seed, that is, the gospel message, [which] will yield as its fruit salvation", TH. Yet, the more common sense for the word, "life / being / existence / inner self ....", linked with "save", probably means little more than living a full and happy life.


Instruction #4, v22-25. James now warns his readers "against sentimental and unpractical religion. There is a kind of religious person who can enjoy listening to a preacher, and being present at a public act of prayer, but who fails to translate their faith into effective action in daily life", Mitton. Unlike the NIV which reverses the wording we are better served with the Gk. order; "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves", NRSV. The wording and order of the NRSV is followed in this verse.

de "but" - but, and. Here transitional and so best untranslated as NIV, although James sometimes uses de to introduce an imperative as here.

ginesqe (ginomai) pres. imp. "be" - become. Here used instead of eimi, "be", and therefore properly used to commence the sentence. The present tense is durative expressing ongoing action, "make sure that you continue to be", TH.

poihtai (hV ou) "doers" - [be] doers, makers [of the word]. The issue here for James concerns the living out of faith, of practicing our profession. "Who live by the word [of God]", Knox.

logou (oV) gen. "of the word" - of word. This genitive is usually classified as verbal, objective. In Hebrew circles it would be "makers of the Law" = "obedient to the Law", but James has a wider view of "the word" than just the law of Moses. "The gospel" is a possibility, as noted above, but it seems more likely that James has in mind the totality of God's guidelines that properly apply to disciples of Christ. See below, "the perfect law that gives freedom."

mh monon akroatai "not merely hearers" - not only hearers. "Act on what you hear rather than letting it go in one ear and out the other", cf. Peterson.

paralogizomenoi (paralogizomai) pres. mid. part. "who deceive [themselves]" - deceiving / misjudging, miscalculating [yourselves]. Here "deceiving", of fooling ourselves that profession is enough, cf. Johnson. The participle may be adverbial, consecutive, expressing result, as NIV, "with the result that you deceive yourselves", or adjectival modifying "hearers", "hearers who deceive [delude] themselves", NRSV, although "themselves" is actually "yourselves", indicating that it modifies the subject "you" of "you be doers ...", so "you ...... who deceive yourselves", Dibelius.


The illustration (simile = "like a ..") in v23b-24 lends itself to a deeper spiritual meaning (so Adamson, Mitton, as against Blackman, Dibelius), but James is simply saying that a person who hears the word, but fails to follow it through (in one ear and out the other), is like a person who views his face in a mirror, but then forgets what it look like, eg. they see they are a mess, but then wonder off forgetting that they look like a mess. "He is like a man who looks in a mirror and who sees the smuts which disfigure his face, the dishevelment of his hair, and who goes away and forgets what he looks like, and so omits to do anything about it", Barclay/James.

oJti "-" - that. Here probably causal (ie. use instead of gar, "because", in the terms of a supportive argument, explanatory (missing in some manuscripts); "for whoever listens and does nothing ...", Moffatt.

ei + ind. "-" - if. Forming a 1st class conditional clause where the condition is assumed a reality, "if, as is the case, ..... then ...." "If anyone is simply a hearer of the word of God and not a doer ....", Johnson.

eoiken (eoika) perf. "is like" - is like, resembles. " ...... then they (he) are like a person (man)"

katanoounti (katanoew) dat. pres. part. "who looks at [his face]" - observing [the face of him]. Dative agreeing with "man", dative of reference/respect. The participle is adjectival modifying "man". Nicely expressed as a glancing look, "like a person catching the reflection of their face in a mirror", cf. Phillips, although the present tense would imply "looking" rather than "glancing" (the aorist verbs in v24 would then be gnomic); "he is not unlike a man who examines" his own face in a mirror, Cassirer.

thV genesewV (iV ewV) gen. "-" - [his] natural [face]. The genitive is adjectival, attributive, limiting "face", cf., Ropes). As of a family likeness, the visage that a person takes with them throughout life, so "natural face" = "face". "The face that nature gave him", Ropes; "his natural appearance", Dibelius.

en + dat. "in [a mirror]" - Expressing space/sphere. The mirror referred to is one of polished metal.


katenohsen (katanoew) aor. "after looking [at himself]" - he observed [himself]. The aorist is best treated as gnomic; "he looks at himself", Barclay.

apelhluqen (apercomai) perf. "goes away" - has gone away.

epelaqeto (epilanqanomai) aor. "[immediately] forgets" - The aorist is gnomic, as above. "We touch here on a pervasive and important biblical theme. The Lord constantly warned the people of Israel not to `forget' his mighty acts on their behalf but to `remember' his mercies and his law", Moo.


James now describes the believer who takes in God's word and applies it. Such a person "is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action", Peterson.

de "but" - but, and. Here adversative/contrastive. James contrasts the forgetful hearer with the work doer.

oJ ... parakuyaV (parakuptw) aor. part. "the man who looks intently" - the one having looked, looked closely, examined, peered. The participle functions as a substantive. The word is used of careful examination, eg. the disciples bending over and looking intently into Jesus' tomb, Jn.20:5, 11.

eiV "into" - to, into. Spacial.

nomon teleion "the perfect law" - complete, perfect law. What is this complete / whole / all-encompassing law? Some commentators argue that James still has in mind law in the terms of divine truth, that complete/perfect revelation that is ours in Christ and which sets us free, ie. "the word of truth" = the gospel. If, as seems likely, James is working in the wisdom tradition, the law is God's ground-rules for a successful life, the operating manual, the guidelines for discipleship. Such includes the Mosaic ethic, along with the whole of NT ethics, particularly the law of Christ - the law of love. The lack of an article doesn't prove much, although if it were present it would support the argument that "the law" = "Torah".

ton "that" - "The perfect law which...."

thV eleuqeriaV (a) gen. "gives freedom" - the freedom, liberty. What is the function of the genitive articular substantive "freedom"? It does seem to produce an adjectival clause describing law, "a law of liberty", a "law characterized by freedom", Ropes. So, not any old law, but the law which produces freedom, it releases rather than enslaves, it makes for a happy life; "the perfect law that sets you free", CEV.

parameinaV (paramenw) aor. part. "continues to do this" - having remained, abided, continued. The participle functions as a substantive, "the one looking intently ...... and continuing". Describing a person who perseveres in his attention to the law. The following participial clause defines "the one having continued." "Keep on paying attention to it", TEV.

ouk ... genomenoV aor. mid. part. "not" - not having become. The participle forms a substantival clause in apposition to "the one having continued", "namely, the one not having become a forgetful hearer but an active doer."

epilhsmonhV (h) gen. "forgetting [what he has heard]" - [a hearer] of forgetful. The genitive is obviously adjectival, limiting "hearer", the "forgetful" type of hearer, as described in the illustration, v23-24. "Forgetful listener", Moffatt.

alla "but" - but, and. Adversative.

ergou (on) gen. "[doing] it" - [a doer] of work. Again the genitive is adjectival, describing the believer who, having examined closely the law, sets out to apply it in their life rather than put it aside for some more opportune time in the never-never. Possibly objective, cf. Mayor; "one who does work". "An active agent", Moffatt.

makarioV adj. "[he will be] blessed" - [this one/man will be] blessed, happy. As with the use of this word in 1:12, we are unsure whether it is just "happy/contented", or whether James is referring to a "spiritual blessing / true happiness / God blessed", with the stress on a future divine blessing, eg. eternal life. There is certainly going to be a spiritual element to the blessing and such derives from God, but James is still probably working in the wisdom tradition and simply making the point that on the whole, life will go well for us if we apply God's ground-rules for successful living.

en + dat. "in [what he does]" - in [the doing of him]. Expressing space/sphere - he is blessed within the sphere of his behavior. The believer is blessed, not because he does the law/word, so Moo, but in the actual doing of it; "will be blessed in every undertaking", NJB.


Instruction #5, v26-27. "Scrupulous observance of religious practices cannot be regarded as a substitute for personal purity of life", Mitton. The ethical failure identified by James picks up on "be slow to speak", v19, ie. an unwillingness to bridle the tongue. So, James' point is simple, a person may value their Christian walk ("religion"), but if all it produces is a nasty mouth and a self-indulgent life, then it is next to useless. The walk ("religion") that God values considers others and is not self-indulgent.

ei + ind. "if" - if. Forming a conditional sentence, 1st class, "if, as is the case, .... then ..."

dokei (dokew) pres. "[anyone] considers" - [a certain man] thinks, supposes. "Seemeth to himself", Ropes.

"himself" - It could read "if anyone seems religious", ie. in the eyes of others; "if anyone appears to be religious", Phillips.

einai (eimi) inf. "-" - to be. The infinitive forms an object clause / dependent statement of perception expressing what he considers; "considers [himself] to be religious."

qrhskoV adj. "religious" - Not just the scrupulous attention to religious observance in public worship, so Dibelius, but piety in general, so Mayor. The adj. appears only here in the NT (a hapax legomenon). Probably covering the totality of a person's "relationship with the divine", Johnson.

mh calinagwgwn (calinagwgew) pres. part. "does not keep a tight reign on" - not bridling [tongue of him]. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying "considers". As of leading with a bridle. Sometimes interpreted in terms of restricting intemperate preaching, but this is far too limiting. "Controls what he says", TH.

alla "-" - but. We might have expected kai, "and", or no linking particle, such that the clause serves to introduce the apodosis of the conditional sentence, "if he does not control the tongue, then he deceives himself and his religion is vain", cf. Mayor. Johnson solves the problem in his translation of "deceives", such that "his religion is worthless" becomes the apodosis. See below.

apatwn (apataw) pres. part. "he deceives" - deceiving. The participle is adverbial, possibly temporal. Johnson notes that the word can also mean "give pleasure to", so his translation is: "if anyone considers himself religious without bridling his tongue and while indulging his heart [then] this person's religion is worthless." "If ..... doesn't bridle the tongue, but rather is self-indulgent, then ......."

kardian (a) "himself" - heart [of him]. The "heart" being the seat of personality, rationality, being, so "himself", as NIV.

hJ qrhskeia (a) "[his] religion" - [this ones] religion, piety, religious worship. In the sense of "piety", which word expresses the practice of a person's religion, but the word "religion" to the modern ear probably means just that.

mataioV adj. "[is] worthless" - worthless. In a wisdom context, foolish as opposed to wise, therefore of no practical value in the business of living with one foot in heaven and one on earth; "Futile", Barclay; "useless", Phillips.


tw/ qew/ kai patri "God our Father" - God and Father. Another example of a hendiadys, ie. a single idea expressed by two separate ideas joined by "and". So, not "God and Father", but "God the Father", Cassirer, etc., or "God our Father", NJB, etc.

para + dat. "accepts as" - [religion pure and undefiled] with [God ....]. "With God" = "in the judgment of God", Moffatt; "what God the Father considers (judges) to be pure and genuine religion", TEV.

kaqara kai amiantoV adj. "pure and faultless" - pure and undefiled. These descriptors often stand together, "pure", positive, "undefiled", negative. They virtually means the same, and together probably serve to define the genuine article, rather than the "completely pure" (Phillips) article. "Real religion", Peterson.

episkeptesqai (episkeptomai) pres. inf. "to look after" - to visit, provide for, help. The infinitive, which introduces an infinitival clause, as with "to keep", is epexegetic, explaining/clarifying the substantive "religion", which noun is qualified by the adjectival clause "which is pure and undefiled with God and Father." "To provide for", TH.

en + dat. "in [their distress]" - in [the distress, trouble, affliction of them]. Expressing space/sphere. In the ancient world widows and orphans faced extreme hardships, although in Western societies, certainly widows are usually very well off, so better "the homeless and loveless", Peterson. "In their hardships", NJB.

threin (threw) pres. inf. "to keep" - to keep, guard [oneself unspotted from the world]. The infinitive, as above; "in keeping oneself from being contaminated by the world", Barclay.


James Introduction


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