The Foolishness of Ignoring God’s Will
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. (4:13–14)
The first negative response to God’s will is foolishly ignoring it, living as if God did not exist or was indifferent to and benign toward human behavior. James addressed such people in familiar Old Testament prophetic style (cf. Isa. 1:18); his words come now are an insistent, even brash call for attention. They also indicate disapproval for the conduct they address. James is in effect saying “Listen up!” or “Get this!” The phrase come now appears in the New Testament only here and in 5:1.
The targets of James’s rebuke are those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” The Greek text literally reads “the ones who are saying,” indicating people who habitually live without regard for God’s will. The underlying Greek verb, legō, means to say something based on reason or logic. James rebuked those who habitually think through and articulate their plans as if God did not exist or care (cf. 4:11–12).
The specific illustration James chose was one that would have been familiar to his readers. Many Jewish people dispersed throughout the ancient world were successful businessmen, itinerant merchants who naturally sought out the flourishing trade centers in which to do business. Wise planning and strategizing in business is not, of course, sinful in and of itself but commendable. No spiritual principles are violated by anything the businessmen said. The problem lies in what they did not do. They did extensive planning, but in the course of their planning, they totally ignored God; God was not part of their agenda.
Like Satan’s five self-centered “I wills” (Isa. 14:13–14) that caused his fall, the businessmen’s statement contains five presumptuous elements indicating their ill-advised confidence. First, they chose their own time, today or tomorrow. Second, they chose their own location for doing business, such and such a city. Third, they chose their own duration, deciding to spend a year there. Fourth, they chose their own enterprise, to engage in business (literally, “to travel into an area for trade”). Finally, they chose their own goal or objective, to make a profit. James is not attacking their profit motive, but their exclusion of God. Allowing for no contingencies, they planned as if they were omniscient, omnipotent, and invulnerable.
In Luke 12:16–21 the Lord Jesus Christ told a parable illustrating the folly of presumptuously leaving God out of one’s planning:
And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
In verse 14, James gives two important reasons those who presumptuously leave God out of their planning are foolish. First, James says to such people, You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. Like the rich fool in our Lord’s parable, they were ignorant of the future. Proverbs 27:1 expresses the same principle: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” Life is far from simple. It is a complex matrix of forces, events, people, contingencies, and circumstances over which we have little or no control, making it impossible for anyone to ascertain, design, or assure any specific future. Despite that, some people foolishly imagine that they are in charge of their lives. Sadly, such people ignore not only the existence of God’s will, but also its benefit. Christians have the comfort of knowing that the sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent God of the universe controls every event and circumstance of their lives and weaves them all into His perfect plan for them (Rom. 8:28). David wrote, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will do it” (Ps. 37:3–5). In a similar vein, Solomon wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5–6).
James gave those tempted to do so a second reason that leaving God out of one’s planning is foolish: the brevity of life. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while, James reminded them, and then vanishes away. Life is as transitory as a puff of smoke from a fire; the steam that rises from a cup of coffee; or one’s breath, briefly visible on a cold day. How foolish, in light of the brevity and frailty of earthly life, to plan and live it without consideration for God’s will.
The Bible repeatedly stresses the shortness of human life. Job, possibly the first book of Scripture to be written, says much about life’s ephemeral nature. In 7:6 Job lamented, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to an end without hope,” while in 7:9 he added, “When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, so he who goes down to Sheol [the abode of the dead] does not come up.” “We are only of yesterday and know nothing,” said Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite, “because our days on earth are as a shadow” (8:9). Continuing his lament, Job said, “Now my days are swifter than a runner; they flee away, they see no good. They slip by like reed boats, like an eagle that swoops on its prey” (9:25–26). Job’s complaint to God in 14:1–2 aptly summarizes the frailty and brevity of human existence: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.”
The Psalms also stress the transitory nature of human life. “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,” wrote Moses, “or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). “My days are like a lengthened shadow,” the psalmist mourned, “and I wither away like grass” (Ps. 102:11). Summing up the Bible’s teaching on the brevity of human life, David wrote, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer” (Ps. 103:15–16; cf. Isa. 40:6–8; 1 Pet. 1:24).
Their ignorance of the future and the frailty and brevity of human life should give pause to those who foolishly ignore God’s will.
14 The key concern for James is the presumptuousness inherent in the boast. They brag about the future, over which they have no control, and in effect place themselves in the seat of God. James expresses the presumption with, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.” Only God knows what each day will hold. He further challenges this presumption with a common biblical word picture for the brevity and uncertainty of life: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The businessperson who feels at the top of the world, who sees himself as a mover whose significance is measured by the scale of his enterprises, has lost perspective on the limited nature of human existence. Rather than a being of grand significance, the braggart is but a mist, a vapor that hangs for a moment in the air before vanishing.
14 In essence this verse means: The steam or smoke, which appears for a little and then vanishes, graphically depicts the transience of life—a common idea even among pagans,80 and here used parenthetically to point the folly of planning without God. In his journal John Wesley wrote of his uncertainty while waiting at Chester for a favorable wind to sail to Ireland. “James would have approved the spirit of this entry,” observes Coutts, “contrasting as it does with the presumption of those he rebuked who planned the future without regard to the will of God or the uncertainties of life. What James urges is not a morbid preoccupation with possible disaster, but a realistic attitude to the future made possible by faith in God.… Realizing the future is uncertain not only teaches us trust in God, it helps us properly to value the present. To be obsessed with future plans may mark our failure to appreciate present blessings or our evasion of present duties.” Literature is full of references to the brevity of life: e.g., Bede’s parable of the sparrow; Sir Walter Scott’s “Till foam-globes on her eddies ride …”;82 Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds.” For Bible references, see, e.g., Prov. 27:1; Sir. 11:8f.; Luke 12:16ff.
The Greek has its common tinge of generic meaning, “since you are such as can know nothing of tomorrow,” i.e., not because they are conceited but simply because, like the rest of us, they are only human.85 The qualitative force is further expounded in “For what is …?” literally “Of what nature is …?”
The Greek can mean either vapor or smoke; but it seems that here the term is used for mist, perhaps of the Mediterranean mountains especially familiar to the seafaring merchants.87
The Brevity of Life (4:14)
The merchants presume upon God for travel, safety, business, and profits. James counters their presumption with a stern reminder of the brevity of life, a reminder that evokes what he said in 1:9–11. Rhetorically James opens up with a word that leads to a suddenly incomplete thought, but the translations struggle to make it clear and readable English. The NRSV reads “Yet” and the TNIV “Why.” The Greek sentence, however, begins with the indefinite personal pronoun (masculine) “whoever.” But a verb does not follow—instead, James moves to “you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” One might translate, “I don’t care who you are” or “Whoever you might be, it doesn’t matter …” because “you do not even know.…” C. F. D. Moule suggested the “whoever” functions here as a mild adversative: “whereas actually.”29
The merchants, in spite of their presumption, “do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” This translation is clear and is probably an accurate rendering of the Greek, but the Greek itself is messy. It begins with “you do not even know,” and this is the clear part. The verb is one of mental apprehension (epistamai, related to our word “epistemology”). Abraham trusted God “not knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8), but the presumptuous merchants were not trusting God and still thought they knew where they were going, what they would do, and that they would profit. The grammar next becomes elliptical, and it is even possible that we are to read two clauses together: “You do not even know what your life will be tomorrow.” But, because so many early manuscripts add a “for” between “will bring” and “What is your life?” and because this early instinctual reading of the text functions at least as commentary, it is most likely that “What is your life?” is a separate sentence. That means we have to deal with “You do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” And the problem here is the Greek:
The “that” is an article that appears to be the object of “know,” but the “of” (tēs, the feminine genitive article) sends us looking for a feminine noun, and one is not to be found. So, we are left to infer the word “day” (hēmeras), leaving us with “you do not even know that, or what [will occur] on the day on the morrow.” The ambiguity of this English translation matches the ambiguity of the Greek. The wisdom tradition routinely reflected on the transitoriness of life in terms not unlike James (cf. Wis 2:1–9). James’s saying is rooted in Proverbs 27:1, which in some ways clears up our verse: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” Jesus, too, made a similar statement (Matt 6:34). It seems safe to conclude that James asserts the brevity of life by asserting the merchants’ ignorance even of what will happen tomorrow, let alone what they think will happen in their business accomplishments over the next year.
James now restates his point, perhaps knowing that some of his readers will have been confused by his ellipsis: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The question deals with the merchants’ ignorance of what kind of life they may have: is it a long life? a profitable life? They do not know. Why? Because the life of a human being is “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Once again, James’s focus is the transitoriness of life and he draws on a stock image—a mist or vapor36 in the sky that under the heat of the day dissipates and disappears. When Abraham looked down the plain toward Sodom he saw a dense smoke, like “smoke [LXX atmis] from a furnace” (Gen 19:28). The sacrificial incense gave off a “smoke [atmis]” (Lev 16:13). But we are closer to James’s sense of transitoriness with Hosea 13:3:
Therefore they will be like the morning mist,
like the early dew that disappears,
like chaff swirling from a threshing floor,
like smoke escaping through a window.
And Wisdom 2:4–5:
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
Acts 2:19 refers to portents in the sky, one of which is “smoky mist.” Agrarian cultures watch the weather, and few things are as noticeable as vaporous clouds that bring no rain. These puffs of mist appear for awhile and then disappear.
4:14 / In contrast to the secure rationality of their plans stands the insecurity of life: Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. In fact, life is utterly ephemeral: You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Their projections are made; their plans are laid. But it all hinges on a will higher than theirs, a God unconsulted in their planning. That very night disease might strike; suddenly their plans evaporate, their only trip being one on a bier to a cold grave. They are like the rich fool of Jesus’ parable, who had made a large honest profit through the chance occurrences of farming. Feeling secure, he makes rational plans for a comfortable retirement. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you’ ” (Luke 12:16–21). By thinking on the worldly plane, James’ Christian business people have gained a false sense of security. They need to look death in the face and realize their lack of control over life.
4:14 You are a mist. This is the idea from Ecclesiastes that life (apart from God) is not only meaningless but also a vapor or a mist (see the sidebar). The basic sense of “vapor, mist” is that life cannot be controlled, grasped, possessed, or extended. James is saying to his readers, “You cannot control your lives any more than you can control what happens to the vapor you breathe out on a cold winter’s morning. You make plans, but whether those plans will come to fruition is not within your power to control.”
appears for a little while and then vanishes. Although James is using the metaphor of a mist, we are to see reference to our birth (“appears”) and death (“vanishes” = disappears). These are the two events in our lives that most demonstrate our lack of control over our own lives. We cannot control when our lives begin or when they end, or under what circumstances they do so. The two events in our lives that we often most strongly desire to control are clearly beyond our control. Jesus made this same point about death in a related passage: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25).
14. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
If we have no idea what the immediate future will bring us, then what is the purpose of life? The writer of Ecclesiastes repeatedly mentions life’s brevity and characteristically comments on the meaninglessness of man’s pursuit of material possessions. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of his book he states the purpose of life: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). Seventeenth-century British theologians asked, “What is the chief end of man?” And they answered, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The merchants James addresses have not asked about the meaning and duration of life. They have neglected the counsel of Solomon: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1). They talk about the future with absolute certainty. Yet they have no control over it. They live their life but fail to inquire into its purpose. They are blind and ignorant.
James compares human life to a mist that quickly appears and then disappears. What is a mist? Nothing but vapor that vanishes before the rising sun. It is frail and lacks durability (compare Ps. 39:6, 11; 102:3; Hos. 13:3). Moses, who lived to be 120 years old, wrote a prayer in which he said,
The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away. [Ps. 90:10]
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 231–233). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 259). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Adamson, J. B. (1976). The Epistle of James (pp. 179–180). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James (pp. 371–373). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (p. 112). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Samra, J. (2016). James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 65). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Publishing Group.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 147–148). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.