9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation,
10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away.
11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
Today’s passage comes with a play on words for both those in humbling circumstances as well as those who are in quite favorable positions. The word pictures throughout the book of James are quite thick in volume; it seems that nearly every couple of verses has some kind of illustration being used to describe biblical truth. James would have been a great model for preaching as he was good at giving visual references in explaining practical theology to make his point. With that being said, let’s look at the text.
“Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation.” BDAG describes “lowly” here as “pertaining to being of low social status or to relative inability to cope.” (BDAG, Bibleworks) Poverty can be in its most thought of form, financial need, but that isn’t the only way it could be understood. In this passage, we will soon see from verse 10 that it most likely does have wealth or possessions in mind. However a person became “high status” or “low status” in a social context, there are often accompanying traits that go with the territory.
The lowly brother should “glory in his exaltation.” The term for glory refers to boasting, essentially bragging or taking pride in something. What is that something, specifically? BDAG defines exaltation here as, “a position of high status.” What a strange play on words. It’s basically saying, “Let the brother of low status brag about his high status.” This can only be understood by further context.
“But the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away.” Rich is referring to “having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience.” (BDAG, Bibleworks) It’s funny, because “rich” always seems relative to each person defining what that looks like. What should the rich boast about? The word for humiliation means, “to experience a reversal of fortunes.” (BDAG, Bibleworks) Drawing those two definitions together, it is telling us that those with wealth should brag about losing their wealth and therefore, status.
What on earth is the writer getting at? This is all spoken in irony to make a point. The rest of these verses (10-11) speak only of the rich person, not the poor one. It compares the rich man to a flower of the field which will wither away, the flower falling off of the plant and the beauty perishing. Does this mean that the poor man doesn’t also have a fleeting life? No, it absolutely is the poor man’s end, too, except for the fact that all of the luster of the rich man’s life fades with his life. It’s not if they perish, but how they perish. The poor man has little if any luster to lose and therefore is not diminished so much by fading away. Both are humans, weak and dependent upon the mercy and grace of God when seen at the grave, and it is mortality that brings us all back to the same place. In Job 1:21, he is recorded as saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
It would be a mistake to look at these verses and to behold wealth with a jaundiced eye or to promote the power of poverty as though it were more noble. In reality, both riches and poverty leave the soul’s greatest need unmet, which is salvation from the wrath of God through justification in His sight. Poverty doesn’t lead to salvation, and wealth doesn’t lead to it, either. Wealth can be deceiving, though, in that it does pose the potential of fooling a person into a false sense of security when eternity is at stake. The preacher Jonathan Edwards from the First Great Awakening said long ago: “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotted covering.” (Jonathan Edwards, from his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) What he’s saying is that there is a great ignorance towards a very precarious position to be in for all of those who have not found salvation in Jesus Christ; social status has no bearing on that.
If “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” as we see in the Old Testament (Ps. 111:10, Prov. 1:7), then both those who are poor and those who are rich must start with God or there is no hope. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, period. Acts 4:12 states, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Do poor people brag about being poor? Not if they’re sensible; nor would rich people brag about losing all that they possess. Perhaps we should look at a somewhat parallel passage in Philippians 4:11-13:
11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:
12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul is glorying neither in prosperity nor poverty, but in Jesus Christ as he writes to the Philippians. Foolishness boasts in positions and circumstances like trophies on a wall, but wisdom boasts in He who can both build up and tear down, the Sovereign Lord. Yes, we are probably all guilty of putting too much stock in status at times, but it’s something God is working to draw out of us as He changes us (and if you’re like me, we both need a lot of help and polishing). The lots God gives us are for His purposes, and they put us in the paths of others that we might not meet had we been in different circumstances.
James 1 speaks deeply into temptation and trials. From verse 2 until verse 18, the primary emphasis is this very subject. Wisdom (see vv. 5-8) is to look at our lives, whether prosperous or impoverished, and to recognize that this does not speak volumes of our character per se, and especially not of our salvation. Contextually, wealthy people must avoid the temptation to think too highly of themselves because of the possessions they have, as though this informed them of their worth. Rich or poor, our worth comes from the value God has placed upon us and the love He has shown to us in offering His Son to die on the cross for our sins. Don’t let your bank account, the kind of car you drive, the people you know or the achievements you’ve accomplished inform you of your worth; relish the truth that God has mad every believer equally worthy of His forgiveness, faithfulness, blessings and eternal hope. Without God’s justification, it won’t matter how much we have or how many people think we’re wildly amazing.
“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
May God bless you in the reading of today’s devotional.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.