Sick or Depressed? - James 5:14f. (Monday with Mounce 179)
Every once in a while I am asked a question that surprises me because it alerts me to an exegetical option I have never thought of or read. (I am surprised quite often.)
The question is whether James 5:14 could be speaking of a person who is weary in their Christian walk (struggling, flagging in faith or courage); when this depressed person calls for the elders, their prayer will most assuredly help restore him to spiritual health and dedication to the Lord.
The verse is generally understood as being about a person who is “sick” (ἀσθενεῖ τις). The elders pray and anoint the person, and “the prayer (εὐχή) offered in faith will restore (σώσει) the one who is sick (τὸν κάμνοντα) and the Lord will raise him up (ἐγερεῖ).”
As far as I can tell the commentaries are unanimous that this is the right interpretation. But semantic range of several words raises its beautiful head and asks if this time-honored interpretation is correct.
ἀσθενέω can certainly mean “to be sick.” But it can also mean “to experience some personal incapacity or limitation, be weak” (BDAG):
- “of weakness in general 2 Cor 12:10”
- “of weakness caused by fear or caution 2 Cor 11:21”
- “Gener. of faint-heartedness and timidity 2 Cor 11:29.”
- “Of the law’s weakness: ἐν ᾧ ἠσθένει because it was weakened Ro 8:3.”
- It is perhaps most famously used of the person who is “weak in faith” and hence is subject to food laws (Ro 14:2; 1 Cor 8:11f).
Secondly, εὐχή can refer to prayer (according to BDAG, Jam 5:14 is the only reference in the NT), but its more common usage is as a “vow” (Ac 18:18; 21:23; cf. 1 Cl 41:2; Ps 49:14). This is the topic of the earlier v 12, although there the advice is to not take a vow at all, and in our verse it is the elders who would make the vow.
Thirdly, while κάμνω can mean “to be ill” (again, this is the only NT reference in this category according to BDAG), its dominate meaning is “to be weary, fatigued.” “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary (κάμητε) and lose heart” (NIV; Hb 12:3). “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Rev 2:3; cf. frequent usage outside the NT in BDAG).
Finally, while ἐγείρω in this context is generally seen as raising a person from sickness to complete health, the word has a wide range of usage that could indicate a metaphorical meaning.
As I look at the commentaries, I am not seeing a lot of strong argumentation that the topic actually is healing, especially not why James would use εὐχή of a prayer. Blomberg/Kamell argue that “the other sufferings mentioned in his letter have referred to concrete physical problems” (242), but the topic of faith and the difficulties of living the Christian life also loom large in the epistle.
Davids emphasizes that this is the third in a sequence — suffering; cheerful; sick — and argues that the conjunction with “suffering” argues for “sick” (see Martin), but I would think just the opposite. If there is a connection, then a word that primarily means “weary” would not naturally suggest the idea of being sick. There are many ways to suffer (κακοπαθέω; “to suffer misfortune, to bear hardship patiently,” BDAG), and physical pain is only one.
Anointing with oil does not necessitate the idea of physical healing, especially since the NT does not necessarily connect the two; and certainly elders visiting a brother or sister should be for reasons in addition to sickness.
I am not ready to take what appears to be a minority position on this passage. The use of εὐχή is the strongest argument for this position, although it is somewhat negated by the previous verse’s instruction not to make a vow, and I am not sure how the elders would take a vow.
But I must say that I am surprised at how weak the argument is for healing (did you catch the pun?) and how strong it is for spiritual depression.
What do you think?
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.
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