Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sick or Depressed? (James 5:14f.)

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?


This is another interesting passage that for years I thought I understood, but again, when you really start looking at it my preconceived ideas crumble :) I don't have a lot of time to comment, but I feel your tension. It does seem though that the context of the letter, if we take this to mean physical sickness and healing, would be disrupted. It would seem that “is any among you weak?” fits the context better since this is a letter written to encourage, exhort, and strengthen a people who were spiritually weak as faced with trials...perseverance is at stake for the readers. As far as healing and how that fits, I wonder if an alternative, to the oil being a physical remedy, is that James was simply using a metaphor. The anointing with oil is part of the picture that James presents. Just as he uses the physical concepts and vocabulary of sickness, death, healing and raising up to describe a spiritual state, he uses the picture of anointing with oil to describe the spiritual medicine that elders will supply as they strengthen those who have called them for help. In Jeremiah 30.12-17, God speaks to Judah. Because of her multitude of sins, she had no one to apply healing medicines or to help strengthen her. However, God would heal her. This is a picture of a spiritual problem and the spiritual prescription, but it is described as a physical illness, with physical medicine. Just so, James provides a similar picture for the weak Christian. Just some thoughts to add to the discussion... Thanks so much for your Monday blog!!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this passage. It has intrigued me for years. In addition to the range of meanings for the words that you focused on I have found that the term for "anointing" also can imply everything from medicinal applications as used in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to cultural practices which are non-medicinal as when Simon the Pharisee failed to "anoint" Jesus as his guest. Is it possible that James was deliberately vague in his choice of terms in this passage? From a pastoral perspective I have also found (and I'm sure you have too) that people who are "suffering" physically often (though not always) will also "suffer" spiritually. Is it possible that James wrote this section in such a way to cover the whole gamut? I'm inclined to think so.

Given the fact that marijuana does induce a high that reduces on depression, and that the anointing oil was prepared with “kaneh bosem”, which we now seem to identify as cannabis, is it possible that James meant that such treatment should be taken for depressed people?

Where did you read that this is really cannabis?

I have actually thought for a long time already that this passage is speaking of emotional, psychological or spiritual issues--and while I did my best to dig into it without having studied any Greek years ago, this notion just seemed to fit better--and to follow more logically (to me). I'm glad to see that someone knowledgeable in the language sees the possibility! (I am in the process of studying Greek now, and look forward to the day when I can investigate this passage in detail and do it justice!)