“But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.”
God does not exempt any believer, rich or poor, from trials and suffering.
There is a basic principle of life that we all know to be true—namely, that trials and sufferings do not exclude privileged people. This is a humbling truth that we don’t always like to acknowledge, yet it operates before us regularly in such things as natural disasters. No one can deny that large–scale floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes affect both rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated; all races and classes are susceptible to pain, hardship, and even death during such events. After a major earthquake, for example, nearly everyone feels the effects of disruptions in transportation and communication. And the ground’s violent shaking can damage or destroy both modest bungalows and expensive mansions.
The realization that God does not show favoritism in sending trials and difficulties is also quite sobering and humbling for those in the Body of Christ. As today’s first verse suggests, the challenge for poor believers is in realizing that they can rejoice in their exalted spiritual position as Christians (1 Peter 1:3–6), no matter how lowly their earthly status might be. Current economic hardship does not diminish the glories of our future inheritance (see Eph. 1:11–14).
The challenge for wealthier believers is to accept the “humiliation” that trials bring, remembering that such tests will make them more dependent on God and His grace rather than on earthly riches. Such wealth is only temporary, and it fades away like the grass of the field.
Once we grasp the truth of this equalizing factor, we will be more inclined to declare with sincerity, “My resources are in God.” The divine impartiality revealed through trials also has a wonderful unifying effect on the church. The commentator R.C.H. Lenski summarized it this way: “As the poor brother forgets all his earthly poverty, so the rich brother forgets all his earthly riches. The two are equals by faith in Christ.”
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord to give you a better appreciation for His evenhandedness in bringing trials our way.
For Further Study: Read Hebrews 12:3–13. What are some parallels between this passage and what we have been studying about trials? ✧ Does God exempt any believer from correction?
A Humble Spirit
But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 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. (1:9–11)
A fifth means to perseverance in trials is a humble spirit.
James first addresses the brother of humble circumstances, that is, the saint who was economically poor and who represented most of the scattered and persecuted Jewish believers to whom he wrote. Many of them, no doubt, had once been at least somewhat well-off financially but had their homes and other possessions confiscated or had to leave them behind when fleeing their persecutors. At this time, their most common lot was poverty.
Despite that circumstance, however, such a believer was to glory in his high position. Kauchaomai (glory) is often translated “rejoice” or “boast.” James is speaking of a legitimate form of pride that even the most destitute Christian can have in his high position as a child of God and in the countless blessings that position brings. He may be considered “the scum of the world, the dregs of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13) in the eyes of the world, but in God’s eyes he is exalted. He may be hungry, but he has the bread of life. He may be thirsty, but he has the water of life. He may be poor, but he has eternal riches. He may be cast aside by men, but he has been eternally received by God. He may have no home on earth, but he has a glorious abode in heaven. When God, in His wisdom and sovereignty, takes away physical possessions from some of His children, it is for the purpose of making them spiritually mature, a blessing infinitely more valuable than anything they have lost or have wanted but never possessed. The believer who is deprived in this life can accept that temporary and insignificant deprivation because he has a future divine inheritance that is both eternal and secure.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter exults,
who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials. (1 Pet. 1:3–6)
John gives similar encouragement and cause for rejoicing. “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are,” he says.
For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:1–3)
In His incarnation, the Lord promised, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:3, 5).
It is for all those reasons that Paul could say, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:16–18).
James then presents the other side of the principle. Just as a materially poor believer should rejoice in his spiritual riches, the materially rich man [should] glory in his humiliation. The idea is that a believer who is materially well-off, healthy, and otherwise physically blessed should rejoice when trials come, for they teach him the transitory nature of those material things and their inability to give inner and lasting satisfaction or help, especially spiritual help. Both he and his possessions are like flowering grass and will pass away. “All flesh is like grass,” Peter reminds us, quoting Isaiah, “and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off” (1 Pet. 1:24; cf. Isa. 40:6–7).
Because men, including believers, have a natural tendency to trust in material things, James gives special attention to the dangers of wealth. Expanding on the temporariness of physical things and emphasizing the danger of trusting in them, he adds, 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. This is a picture of the flowers and grasses of Israel, which flourish in February and dry up by May. James borrows this imagery from Isaiah 40:6–8 (cf. Pss. 102:4, 11; 103:15).
The loss of material things is meant to drive the rich person to the Lord and to greater spiritual maturity, blessing, and satisfaction. And at that point, the rich and poor are exactly alike. Neither material possessions nor lack of them is of any ultimate consequence. What is of significance is a trusting relationship to the Lord, who showers all of His children with spiritual wealth that will never diminish or fail to satisfy.
Faith in Christ to supply his needs lifts the lowly believer beyond his trials to the great height of a position in the eternal kingdom of Christ, where, as God’s child, he is rich and may rejoice and boast. Faith in Christ does an equally blessed thing for the rich believer, whose riches are temporary; it fills him with the spirit of lowliness and true humility. As the poor brother forgets all his earthly poverty, so the rich brother forgets all his earthly riches. The two are equals by faith in Christ.
When you lose a daughter, son, wife, husband, or other loved one, wealth is no comfort. When you lose your health, are betrayed by a friend, or are wrongfully maligned, money cannot buy peace of mind or decrease the pain. Trials are the great equalizer, bringing all of God’s children to dependence on Him. Wealth does not bring God closer, nor does poverty keep Him further away. In light of that truth and the present text, the beautiful, well-known passage from Hebrews could be modified: “Therefore let us draw near with [equal] confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may [equally] receive mercy and [equally] find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16; cf. Phil. 4:19).
- The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.
These two verses reveal parallelism and contrast common in the Psalms and the Proverbs. The parallel lies in the expression take pride. The phrases brother in humble circumstances and one who is rich show contrast. Also the adjectives high and low stand in opposition to each other.
Note that although James refrains from using the word poor in this verse, the intent to depict poverty is evident (compare 2:2, 3, 5, 6). The man in humble circumstances he designates “brother.”
- “The brother.” Pastor James writes a letter to the Christians “scattered among the nations.” He knows that many of them live in grinding poverty and fill the lowest-paying positions in society. These people need words of encouragement, for economic conditions are oppressive and perplexing. Thus, James exhorts the Christian brother “to take pride in his high position.”
Although the brother lives “in humble circumstances,” he should not only know his exalted position; he is even encouraged to take pride in it. The contrast is striking. How can an economically deprived Christian understand that he is highly exalted? Before he can boast of an honorable position, he must learn first to appreciate the significance of his status. That is, he should look not at material possessions, but at spiritual treasures. He must have an entirely different outlook on life. He views life not from the aspect of materialism but rather in relation to spiritual values. He knows that God himself has elevated the believer to a high rank.27 He sees himself as a child of the King—a son or daughter of God.
As a member of God’s royal family, the brother “ought to take pride” in his family tree. Proudly he points to his heavenly Father and to his brother Jesus Christ. The Christian has royal blood in his veins. Says James, “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (2:5). No wonder the Christian ought to take pride in his high position. He is heir of God’s kingdom.
- “The one who is rich.” The counterpart to the “brother in humble circumstances” is the “one who is rich.” James exhorts both to take pride in their respective positions.
Who is this rich person? This is an open question. Some interpreters wish to complete the parallel in verses 9 and 10 by inserting the word brother: “But the brother who is rich should take pride in his low position.” Then both the poor and the rich are Christians.
We note a few objections, however. First, although James explicitly calls the man in lowly circumstances a brother, he omits this term when he introduces the rich man. Next, James compares the rich man to a plant that withers and dies—he will fade away (v. 11). He adds no word of admonition and no call to repentance. Then, in other parts of his epistle, James leaves the impression that the rich do not belong to the Christian fellowship (see 2:6–9; 5:1–6). And last, James addresses Christians who were persecuted and dispersed. They had lost their possessions and now lived in economically depressed conditions. They were oppressed by the rich in the areas where they had settled.
Moreover, we note that James speaks about the rich man but not about riches. He does not repudiate earthly possessions in order to rejoice in poverty. No, he teaches that God is the giver of “every good and perfect gift” (1:17). James is not concerned about riches but about the person who possesses them. I conclude, then, that the rich man is not a Christian.
How can the rich person “take pride in his low position”? The poor man boasts about his spiritual riches, but the rich man who has rejected God is spiritually blind and unable to see his “low position.” He boasts about his material wealth, but earthly riches “pass away like a wild flower.”
James resorts to irony. He is saying, “The rich man should take pride in his low position,” viewed by the spiritually discerning brother. Earthly goods can be compared to the tides of the sea; they come and they go. James, however, uses an illustration taken from climate and landscape.
9 The first exhortation is addressed to “the brother” of “humble circumstances.” The use of adelphos (“brother,” GK 81) makes it clear a fellow believer is in view. The term translated “humble circumstances” (ho tapeinos, GK 5424) can refer to a person’s status, resources, opportunities, or attitude and often is rendered as “humble” or “lowly.” Here the situation of being poor materially seems to be in view, because this brother is contrasted with “the rich” in the next verse. In the biblical literature, the “lowly” or “poor” person is of special concern to God (Johnson, 184–85; e.g., LXX Pss 9:39; 17:28; 33:19; 81:3; 101:18; Isa 11:4; 14:32), and James, here and with the quotation of Proverbs 3:34 in 4:6, picks up on this biblical theme. This affirmation of the person who struggles with a humble situation in life also connects very directly to the teachings of Jesus, in which there often is a reversal of status—the exalted are brought lower and the lowly are raised up (Edgar, 68–70; e.g., Mt 23:12/Lk 14:11; Lk 6:24–25; 12:16–21; 16:19–31; 18:4).
So the humble brother “ought to take pride in his high position.” The special favor of God makes for a situation in which “boasting” is appropriate. The term rendered “take pride in” (kauchasthō, GK 3016) by the NIV can be used to speak of boasting or glorying in something or someone and in the wisdom tradition of the OT is often seen as a very appropriate action, the basis of the boasting being the key (Johnson, 185). The concept in the NT is especially found in Paul’s writings. Paul can speak, for instance, of boasting in God (Ro 2:17), in the Lord (2 Co 10:17), or in Christ Jesus (Php 3:3), but he can also speak of taking pride in weaknesses (2 Co 12:9) and in afflictions (Ro 5:3) because these have spiritual value in God’s economy. So James exhorts the poor Christian to “take pride in his high position,” that is his high status as a member of the community of God’s people. Here again we are challenged to see our experiences from the perspective of God’s values rather than those of the world.
10 Commentators are fairly evenly divided as to whether the “rich” person of v. 10 is also a Christian brother or one of the rich oppressors outside the church, and it is difficult to come to a firm conclusion. Those who hold the latter position take the exhortation as highly ironic, since an unbeliever would not “take pride in” his humiliation. Elsewhere in James (e.g., 2:7; 5:1–6) the “rich” seem clearly to be unbelievers, and in strands of Jewish tradition the rich are set in contrast to the “poor” people of God. Further, the rich person of 1:10–11 is offered no future hope, so it is difficult to conceive of this person being a believer (Davids, 77; Laws, 63–64; Martin, 23; Dibelius, 87).
On the other hand, those who understand the rich person here as a Christian brother point out that grammatically both the subject and verb must be supplied to the main clause at the beginning of v. 10, and these flow naturally from the previous verse. The verb in v. 9, translated “to take pride in,” carries over to this clause, and so should the subject, “the brother” (ho adelphos, GK 81). The parallelism between the two clauses strengthens this conclusion. Further, these commentators suggest, the irony required by the “unbeliever” position is excessive. The exhortation for a rich Christian to glory in the tentative nature of his economic strength makes more sense (Nystrom, 54; Adamson, 61; Motyer, 43).
It may be pointed out also that the Christian communities to whom James writes seem to have the wealthy in their midst (2:1–2), and the exhortation of 4:13–17 can be understood to be addressed to Christians involved in business. The thought of the latter passage parallels our passage under consideration. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the “trials” of dealing with the rich come on various levels for the church. On one level, navigating the relationships between the poor and rich within the congregation is challenging. On another, the poor would struggle with the oppression of the rich outside the church, and the brother of financial resources would struggle against falling into the cultural patterns of rich unbelievers with whom they would have had some association. On balance, therefore, that here we are dealing with a rich believer may have the upper hand, though the case is far from clear.
What is clear is the principle encapsulated in the balance of v. 10 and v. 11. Oecumenius asserts, “James calls the rich man both proud and humble at the same time, because what puffs him up also brings him down” (cited in Bray, 10). The impermanent, fleeting nature of material possessions should be a cause for pause for the rich and should spur the wealthy person to glory in the “low position” of being spiritually dependent on God. The proverbial analogy that the rich person’s passing away is like a wildflower is taken from Isaiah 40:7 (LXX): “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of our God remains forever” (1 Pe 1:24; cf. Ps 103:15–16). In Palestine were wildflowers, such as the anemone and the cyclamen, that wither before the burning heat of the sun (Davids, 77).
1:9 At first glance, verses 9–11 seem to introduce a completely new subject, or at least a parenthesis. James, however, is continuing with the subject of holy trials by giving specific illustrations. Whether a man is poor or rich, he can derive lasting spiritual benefits from the calamities and crises of life. For instance, when a lowly brother finds himself dissatisfied and discouraged, he can always rejoice that he is an heir of God, and a joint heir with Jesus Christ. He can find consolation in the truth that all things are his, and he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The lowly brother probably has no control over his humble circumstances. There is no reason to believe he is lazy or careless. But God has seen fit to place him in a low income bracket and that is where he has been ever since. Perhaps if he had been rich, he never would have accepted Christ. Now that he is in Christ, he is blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies. What should he do? Should he rebel against his station in life? Should he become bitter and jealous? No, he should accept from God the circumstances over which he has no control and rejoice in his spiritual blessings.
Too many Christians go through life rebelling against their sex, their age, their height, and even against life itself. Girls with a flair for baseball wish they were boys. Young people wish they were older, and old people want to be younger. Short people envy those who are tall, and tall ones wish they weren’t so conspicuous. Some people even say, “I wish I were dead!” All this is absurd! The Christian attitude is to accept from God things which we cannot change. They are God’s destiny for us, and we should make the most of them for His glory and for the blessing of others. We should say with the Apostle Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). As we forget our disabilities and lose ourselves in service for others, we will come to realize that spiritual people love us for what we are, not for our appearance, for instance.
1:10, 11 Next James turns to the rich. But strangely enough he does not say, “Let the rich man rejoice in his riches.” Rather he says that the rich can rejoice that he is made low. He agrees with Jeremiah 9:23, 24:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.
The rich man may actually find real cause for rejoicing should he be stripped of his material possessions. Perhaps business reverses would bring him to the Lord. Or if he is already a Christian, then he could take joyfully the spoiling of his goods knowing he has in heaven a better and more enduring possession (Heb. 10:34). Earthly riches are destined to pass away, like the flower of the field (Isa. 40:6, 7). If a man has nothing but material wealth, then all his plans will end at the grave. James dwells on the transiency of grass as an illustration of the fleeting life of a rich man and the limited value of his riches. He will fade away in the midst of his pursuits. The point is, of course, that neither sun nor scorching wind can affect spiritual values. Any trial that weans us away from the love of passing things and sets our affections on things above is a blessing in disguise. Thus the same grace that exalts the lowly humbles the rich. Both are cause for rejoicing.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 39–41). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 42–43). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 217–218). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2219–2220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.