The ESV begins a new section in James 1:19 and marks it off with a new heading entitled, “Hearing and Doing the Word.” The NIV and NKJV and other versions follow suit. By adding the heading, these translations give the impression that James is no longer talking about trials in the verses that follow but is instead shifting gears to focus on the topic of devotion to God’s Word.
But I don’t actually believe that James is shifting gears at this point in his epistle. I think he is still talking about trials and how it is that we are to remain standing in and through them. I say this for two main reasons. One, we need to remember that the headings, the verse numbers, the paragraphing, the punctuation, and even the spacing that exists between the words are all human additions to the original Greek, which contains none of these things.
That is simply to say that there is no clear break in the original text after verse 18 (or anywhere else, for that matter).
Two, there is an evident link between James 1:16 and 1:19. The phrase “my beloved brothers” occurs only 3 times in the book of James—one of these occurrences is in James 2:5, which is many verses removed from the section we are studying beginning in 1:19. The other two instances occur in 1:16 and 19. And, interestingly, on both occasions, the phrase is preceded by an exhortation. In verse 16, James says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” and, in verse 19, he says, “Know this, my beloved brothers.” The point is that the connection in verses, that are so closely situated in the text, would suggest that James is seeing them as parallel.
If verse 16 is still dealing with the topic of trials, then it would make sense to take verse 19 in the same way. Both verses seem to be addressing the topic of how we can endure or remain standing in the midst of trials, even debilitating ones. In vv. 16-18, James points to who God is and what God has done as one of the practical ways we can keep on going during a trial. In vv. 19-21, he points to the Word of God and the priority we assign it in difficult circumstances. And there are two main things that James is highlighting here: (1) the means of our endurance and (2) the mindset of our endurance. We will look at the first of these in more detail in the current article, and we will explore the second one in the next post.
The means of our endurance
What follows the exhortation at the beginning of verse 19 is the admonition to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Every time I have heard someone talk about this admonition, it has always been in reference to how Christians are to interact with other people: we are to be quick to hear others and, therefore, slow to speak and slow to get angry with them. And no doubt this is true. But I want to suggest that it is true second. The first thing I think James is saying here is that these things apply primarily to God and His Word. We are to be quick to hear God and slow to speak to get angry with Him. Let me explain.
The context in which verse 19 occurs is one that is dealing with the Word of God. Thus in v. 18, James says that God has “brought us forth by the word of truth,” and in v. 21, he mentions the fact that we are to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” But maybe most helpful of all in seeing this idea is v. 22. Here James reminds us that as important as it is to be quick to hear, we are go above and beyond this by actually putting the Word into practice in our lives: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” It would seem obvious that in the immediate context, James is calling us, in the first place, to be quick to hear God speaking in His Word.
If, as I argued previously, James is still talking about trials and about how we endure in the midst of them, then this call is to be quick to hear the Word of God whenever we find ourselves facing difficulties of any kind. This means that we need to be sitting under the Word—in church as well as in our private study—more when we experience hardship than at any other time. Rather than staying home from church when circumstances get tough, which is the first response for so many of us, James is reminding us that we need to be with the Lord’s people hearing, reading, singing, and praying the Word of God more in trials than ever before.
This interpretation of v. 19 as a call for us to be quick to hear the Word of God during hardship is confirmed by v. 21, which beckons us to “receive…the implanted word.” Rather than running to sin to help us cope with difficult circumstances, James challenges us to turn instead to God and to His Word. This again is incredibly practical. James understands that our tendency is not only to ignore what God says when we suffer but also to turn aside to sin—he calls it embracing “filthiness and rampant wickedness” in v. 21. We turn to alcohol or drugs or we jump into relationships or give ourselves to online activities that are unhealthy. We embrace this kind of reckless and risky behavior either because we feel entitled (because of the trials we are experiencing) or because we need help coping with our losses. James reminds us to be quick to hear the Word of God as our first priority. That is the primary means God uses to sustain us and to grow us in the midst of our trials.