James 4:14: Curing Arrogant Presumption, Part 2

Verse 14:[1] Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? (Job 7:7; Ps. 102:3; Jam. 1:10; 1 Pet. 1:24; 1 John 2:17) It is even (or, for it is[2]) a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

[Ye know not what, etc., τὸ τῆς αὔριον] That of tomorrow (Montanus). It is an elliptical expression, in the place of τὸ ἐκβὰν τῆς αὔριον ἡμέρας, the outcome of the next day (Piscator, similarly Grotius). What is going to be tomorrow, or the following day (Erasmus, Beza, Piscator, Drusius, etc.). What is going to happen tomorrow (Grotius). It is taken from Proverbs 27:1. Similar things are found in Favorinus,[3] Horace,[4] and Seneca[5] (Grotius) [whose words see in Grotius]. Ye boast, says he, concerning years, in whose power is not a single year. Τὸ δ᾽ αὔριον τις οἶδεν, does anyone know what belongs to tomorrow: Anacreon.[6] Nothing is promised concerning the present day. I have granted too great a space: nothing is promised concerning this hour: Seneca to Martia. Avoid asking what is going to be tomorrow: Horace[7] (Gataker).

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow; whether ye yourselves shall continue till then, or what else shall then be, or not be. In vain do ye boast of whole years, when ye cannot command the events of one day.

[For what (or, what sort [Dieu out of the Syriac], or, of what condition [Piscator, Estius], of what sort [Estius]) is your life?] That is to say, To what shall I compare it? as in Matthew 11:16; Mark 4:30; or, It is the question of one expressing contempt, as in 1 Samuel 25:10; Psalm 144:3, 4: τί δ᾽ ἀνὴρ, what is a man?: Pindar[8] (Gataker). How unsteady a thing, says he, is this our life (Grotius, similarly Piscator). I rightly say that ye know not what is going to happen to you tomorrow, since life itself, which is the foundation of all human actions, is uncertain to you (Estius).

[A vapor, etc., ἀτμὶς γάρ ἐστιν, etc.] In some codices it is ἔσται, it shall be, but it is more correctly ἐστιν, it is,[9] as the Syriac, Arabic, and Latin read it (Grotius). For a vapor (that is, a vapor, as it were [Piscator, similarly Grotius]: or, smoke: Ἀτμὶς in the place of smoke, Leviticus 16:13;[10] Ezekiel 8:11;[11] Ecclesiasticus 22:24;[12] 24:15[13] [Grotius]) it is, for a little time appearing, and then disappearing (Beza), or, vanishing (Erasmus, thus Vatablus, Piscator, Dieu out of the Syriac and Arabic). Ἀτμὶς is a certain thin draught, and a most fine vapor (Menochius); or a slight, fine, and airy substance, drawn by the heat of the sun from the earth or water, lifted on high, endued with various forms, for example, of cloud, storm, comet, etc., cast this way and that (Gataker); which is most readily dissipated and vanishes away (Menochius, Gataker), Job 7:9; 24:24, and descends to the earth from which it arose. Such is our life, and it is fragile, brief, uncertain, and subject to a thousand accidents (Gataker). A vapor or fume appears for a short time, then it disappears. So also human life is compared to a Shadow, Job 8:9; Psalm 102:11; 144:4, and in Sophocles;[14] to a Shadow of smoke in Æschylus (Grotius): and also to a Bubble, to a Flower, to Wind, etc. (Gataker). Now, this verse is to be enclosed in parentheses (Grotius, Zegers on verse 15).

For what is your life? This question implies contempt, as 1 Samuel 25:10; Psalm 144:3, 4. It is even a vapour; like a vapour, frail, uncertain, and of short continuance; and then how vain are those counsels and purposes that are built upon no more sure a foundation than your own lives.

[1] Greek: οἵτινες οὐκ ἐπίστασθε τὸ τῆς αὔριον. ποία γὰρ ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν; ἀτμὶς γάρ ἐστιν ἡ πρὸς ὀλίγον φαινομένη, ἔπειτα δὲ ἀφανιζομένη.

[2] Greek: γάρ ἐστιν.

[3] Favorinus of Arelate (c. 80-c. 160) was a Roman philosopher and sophist.  He was on familiar terms with some of the most eminent men of his age, including the Emperor Hadrian.  His works survive only in fragments.

[4] Carmina 1:19:3.

[5] Thyestes 3:619.

[6] Anacreon (570-488 BC) was a Greek poet.

[7] Odes 1:9.

[8] Pythian 8:95.  Pindar (522 BC-443 BC) was a lyric poet of Greece, esteemed by some to be the greatest.

[9] The Byzantine tradition is divided over this reading.

[10] Leviticus 16:13:  “And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud (עֲנַן; ἡ ἀτμὶς, in the Septuagint) of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not…”

[11] Ezekiel 8:11:  “And there stood before them seventy men of the ancients of the house of Israel, and in the midst of them stood Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan, with every man his censer in his hand; and a thick cloud of incense (וַעֲתַ֥ר עֲנַֽן־הַקְּטֹ֖רֶת; καὶ ἡ ἀτμὶς τοῦ θυμιάματος, in the Septuagint) went up.”

[12] Ecclesiasticus 22:24:  “As the vapour and smoke of a furnace (ἀτμὶς καμίνου καὶ καπνός) goeth before the fire; so reviling before blood.”

[13] Ecclesiasticus 24:15:  “I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and aspalathus, and I yielded a pleasant odour like the best myrrh, as galbanum, and onyx, and sweet storax, and as the fume (ἀτμὶς) of frankincense in the tabernacle.”

[14] Ajax 1:13.

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