Grumble and die? (James 5:9)


If you went to Sunday School you probably know that the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness. And you may know what God did to them when they grumbled. He slaughtered them (see Ps 106:25-26)!

“So let this be a lesson to you, children,” says the historically-minded teacher. “You grumble, you die.”

What a frightening thing to hear, especially if you are a child.

Will God really kill us if we grumble? “Oh, no Paul. That’s so old covenant.”

Okay. So how do we read this verse which is found in the New Testament?

Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9)

Is James saying we set ourselves up for God’s divine judgment when we grumble? According to Matthew Henry, that is exactly what James is saying:

Fretfulness and discontent expose us to the just judgment of God, and we bring more calamities upon ourselves by our murmuring, distrustful, envious groans and grudgings against one another, than we are aware of.

Adam Clarke agrees:

By giving way to a (grumbling) spirit of this kind, you will get under the condemnation of the wicked.

According to these Victorian gents, if you grumble or murmur against your brothers, you can undo the work of the cross. Although there is “no condemnation” to those in Christ, you can fall under “the condemnation of the wicked” merely by grumbling.

Flip. Talk about your bad news.

But wait – it gets worse

The Greek word for grumble in James 5:9 actually means to groan or sigh. We’re not even talking about the sort of grumbling the Israelites did when dragging their weary selves around the wilderness. A mere groan or sigh is enough to “expose us to the just judgment of God” and bring “calamities upon ourselves.”

Sidebar: And we wonder why nobody wants to go to church when they hear messages like that!

It seems we have three options:

1.    Aim for balance. Obviously this radical grace message is too good to be true. I mean, who were we kidding? God never changes. If he slaughtered the grumbling Israelites he may slaughter you. The cross changed nothing. You have been warned.

2.    Keep grace but dismiss James. Unlike Paul, James didn’t have a clue. His book is only in the Bible to show us what mixture looks like. Now, where are my scissors?

I hope you can detect my sarcasm here. Obviously, I would never call for balance because grace is unbalanceable.

(Sidebar: I was recently accused of over-emphasizing grace. Since grace = Jesus, that’s like saying I was preaching too much Jesus!)

And although many dismiss James as the black sheep of the New Testament, I don’t. James was an apostle of grace, so put those scissors down. It seems we are left with only one alternative.

3.    Read the scripture in context and find out what James was actually saying before jumping to ridiculous conclusions.

That sounds good. Let’s try that.

What James is really saying

Read James 5:9 in context and you will see that he talking about folk who make us groan and sigh!

I’m not kidding.

Sidebar: The church is full of people who, God bless ‘em, exasperate us and make us sigh. I received a message a few minutes ago from a brother who said I was dangerous since I am leading people astray. Sigh. Now that I’ve told you about him, does that make me a grumbler? Better stand back. Lightning’s coming my way for sure!

Anyway, back to the text.

Who are these groan-inducers James is writing about? Who are the people who make us sigh?

They are the big shots in fine suits who love to take the best seats in our meetings (2:3). They are the rich men who exploit us and drag us into court when they don’t get what they want (2:6). By their evil actions they slander the name of Jesus (2:7). They exploit their workers (5:4), while living in luxurious, self-indulgence (5:5). They condemn and kill the innocent (5:6). Frankly, these greedy fools should be weeping and wailing on account of the misery coming their way (5:1-3).

These are strong words but James was telling it like it is. The early church was troubled by wicked men. “But don’t worry about them,” says James. “When Jesus returns they will get their comeuppance.”

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. (Jas 5:7)

We are living in the collision of kingdoms. In the kingdoms of this world power comes from the barrel of a gun. Worldly power is also exercised through lawsuits and market-based exploitation. But we are citizens of another kingdom, one that has nothing to do with guns and greed. When faced with injustice, the temptation is to fight with the weapons of this world. But James exhorts us to be patient.

See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (Jas 5:7-8)

James is saying, “Hang in there – justice is coming.”

We in the West lead sheltered lives. We don’t face imprisonment and death like our brothers and sisters in other countries. It’s hard for us to relate to James’ words. But if you are a victim of corruption and oppression, his words are encouraging. “Look for Jesus,” says James, for Jesus knew what it was like to suffer injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful.

Let justice roll down

When Jesus comes with a sword he’ll right every wrong and heal every hurt. He’ll demolish the corrupt government of Herod and end the religion of the Pharisees. On the day he returns, the justice of heaven will prevail over the injustice of earth.

“Well, that’s great James. But we have to live with wicked men here and now. Any advice on how to do that?”

Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. (Jas 5:9a)

In other words, be patient and don’t pick fights you can’t win. If you let these turkeys get to you, they’ll ruin your life. They’ll haul you before the courts and bleed you with lawsuits you can’t afford. That’s how these fat-cats operate (see 2:6). They’ll haul you before judges with a little “j.” But fear not, because in your corner is a Judge with a big “J.”

The Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9b)

These guys will drag you before the magistrate at the slightest provocation, but be encouraged. The Judge of all judges is standing at the door! The One who justifies you will soon execute his righteous judgment on those-who-make-you-sigh.

And when he does, gladness and joy will overtake you. Sorrow and sighing will flee away.

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26 Comments on Grumble and die? (James 5:9)

  1. So…don’t grumble.

  2. Great post.
    Moses, David, Paul and James all exhort us not to grumble. The idea, I believe, is fourfold:
    1) Fret not unto death (Moses)—do not complain against God
    2) Fret not unto evil (David)—do not complain to the point of doing evil yourself
    3) Fret not unto discontent (Paul)—do not complain to the point that you surrender the peace and contentment of Christ, which surpasses all understanding
    4) Fret not unto Judgement (James)—see all of the above, plus what he said.

  3. Paul, Your right about some of these people in churches concerning grumbling. I seen churches Split over the most smallest matters you can imagine. Complain about nothing. It’s almost like teams on sporting games. Us against them! They seem to compete against each other. Who tries to get the ball. When I finally found Grace it teaches you to grow up and come to the knowledge of the Truth. For 26 years I’ve been to churches with a little bit of Grace and a lot of laws. I wrestled with who’s right and who’s wrong. Finding Grace I realized, I need more Grace and Grace more abundantly. I’ve been to churches and I saw these people act like the world. Grace teaching you, ministers to you and it makes you what God wants you to become. Like his Son. Let stop Grumbling and find out about our father.

  4. Excellent article, Paul. I have been confused by these verses preached out of context for some time now. Thanks for the insight into what James was saying. Thank you.
    Yours truly | Clifford Nathan • 克里夫 • 纳丹

  5. thank you Paul, In my situation lately,I have to keep remembering [We fight not flesh],however i to suffer from [ sarcasm/smart-a##yness] [new word],the other day i got stop by a state trooper, got a ticket for something i didnt even get stopped for,I got a warning for that, long story short, I swear, I heard the holy spirit say [its time to shut up] the YOUNG lady said [ have a nice day sir]….so its bit your tongue. growing is not a easy thing sometimes, I’ve grown a lot lately,and HUMBLY feel promotion in the Lord coming,[ fear and trembling ] in the good way,working through my own fears,its a little scary. I feel a responsibility coming on……but I know he loves me and will not forsake me, and finish the work he started…………….ps: its hard enough to standfast in knowing how saved your are………but when the good intentioned say “You grumble, you die.” its like [for me] when a atheist gets in your face,it takes a few minutes to re cope.

  6. Whew! I almost always read James while putting on the full armor of God. The way James is writing it here is very much like Jesus when he speaks in parables. Your clarification is very helpful in clearing up this passage, among a huge number of other difficult ones. Thank you.

  7. I came to a point where, after I got hold of the Gospel of Grace, I could no longer read the book of James, & I told the Lord this, as I could not understand it. It had been taught as a legalistic tool, full of condemnation, in the church that I used to attend.

    Each time I read through the New Testament, I would simply skip James but one day whilst I was praying & meditating, I heard in my spirit, “Read James, chapter One, Verse One”. This, I did immediately & it was a revelation to me.

    When James is being preached, in my experience, the starting point is verse2 of chapter1; “Count it all joy my brethren when you fall into various trials…..”, but when we understand who James is speaking to we can interpret the whole book in a different light!

    Why not give it a try, with an open mind, remembering that, as Paul says, “James is a teacher of Grace”, & be blessed?

    We live under the Dispensation of Grace &, if what we read in the Bible does not seem like grace, we have not understood & must seek God to make it clear by revelation of the Holy Spirit. There is no other way for His light to shine on, apparent, contradictions!

    God had told me on a previous occasion, in answer to another question, “It’s all about the way you have been programmed, it’s about the way you have been conditioned, it’s about attitude & I want to give you another way of thinking.”. He has been good to His promise!

  8. What does the word “grumble” really mean though? The Bible has been translated to almost all the languages of the world; I was born and raised with Vietnamese as my mother tongue, I’m not sure I understand grumble the same way others do.

    I’m sure there is a grumbling that is of great concern, but I feel the real danger is in what a Christian of a “bruised reed” type, of a spirit gentle to a fault, who is so worried that every negative feeling or emotion is considered a grumbling. This over generalization of what constitutes grumbling can take a way the joy of salvation, to a point there creeps in a doubt whether one is saved at all.

    There was a time when we lived under the law that says “the soul that sins must die,” then there is now a time when we must trust in the indwelling Holy Spirit, who will not let us be ripped from his mighty hand, who will gently work in our hearts.

    Who is a great grumbler than Jonah?

  9. Paul, interesting take on James 5(9). What do you make of verse 12: ‘Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.’

  10. Robert McIntosh // October 4, 2013 at 3:53 am // Reply

    Brilliant! I have been struggling with the love your neighbour etc. only to have so many people I know, including people who call themselves Christians, frustrate and annoy me to the point my earthly self cannot help but grumble. I know I have been forgiven, but know I know I don’t have to worry about James pulling the rug out from under me on the day of judgement. He is warning me not to be too rash in my grumbling others the earthly judges might get me. I should hold my peace as best I can, content in the knowledge my heavenly Judge will give them what for when the time comes!

  11. [​Yes, Paul! Especially when you mix law with Grace! .. for selfish purposes – then the judge/Judge will step in because Jesus becomes nowhere visible. THE LAW DEMANDS A JUDGE, BUT GRACE DEMANDS REST, PEACE, FREEDOM, RELATIONSHIP …LOVE. Jesus says in Mar 7:13 “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered…”​]

  12. Excellent. Thank you Paul. I was pondering this verse a short time back . . . along with other verses on judgment. I was pondering the rewards side of judgment. The Parable of Work of the Hired Laborers (Matt 20:1-16) would suggest that all receive the same. What are your thoughts?

    • I’m glad you brought up this parable (Matt 20:1-16) that I love. Not only that the idea of rewards seems conflicting with this parable, there are other parables that also makes us question whether there are rewards other than the amazing gift of righteousness and eternal life (what can be greater than these?)

      In Luke 14:1-14, Jesus told us not to invite those that can repay, but instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, because they won’t be able to repay us. This is exactly what Jesus did for us who are totally wretched in our fallen condition. Now if we cannot repay God in any way, what is he expecting us in terms of what we can do to get rewards?

      And then there is a parable in Luke 7:36-50 of the two debtors. What kind of debtors are we that we expect rewards?

      And then there is the parable of The Mustard Seed in Luke 17:1-19, when Jesus said this “Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”

      Maybe the size of the reward is proportional to our realizing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” It’s the heart so overwhelmed by the matchless grace bestowed upon the one whose great debt was forgiven.

      • Thanks Nick. His grace is amazing indeed!

      • Hi JD. The idea of rewards had given me much misgivings ever since I was still a babe in Christ. This parable of the vineyard workers, and another that Jesus spoke in Luke 17:7-10 (a servant is only doing what he’s commanded to do, what reward is he expecting?), and the parable of the two debtors in Luke 7:36-50 where the one who is relieved of more debt appreciates more—then how does reward fit in? What reward greater than Christ himself?

        Sorry JD I’m replying to you so late. I just discovered the meaning of a little message icon next to my sign in button.

        Yes, let there be not a single bit of yeast to spoil God’s amazing grace.

    • nickllambert // October 9, 2013 at 5:51 am // Reply

      Hi JD,

      Something I just realised about the parable that you mention above. Yes, they/we all receive the same but for the few, it was for a lot less effort! The others then complained/grumbled about them receiving rather than working for their reward-Salvation. The GRUMBLERS were just as saved & accepted as the others. Interesting!

      As believers, we have BEEN justified, we will NOT be judged EVER again (we ARE ACCEPTED in the Beloved)!

      In Romans it says, “We will all (believers) STAND before the judgement seat of Christ”

      This means STAND, as opposed to FALL. Elsewhere it says, “We will (all people) APPEAR before the judgement seat…” But ONLY believers will STAND, then He will say, “Well done good & faithful servant”

      It is necessary for us to interpret all the scriptures through the eyes of grace, with the help of the Holy Spirit!

      The Holy Spirit said to me, “Read James, chapter one, verse one.”, I did, then it made sense!

      God Bless.

      • Excellent thoughts. Thank you Nick.

      • good one nick L,never quite looked at it that way.

      • nickllambert // October 10, 2013 at 10:32 pm //

        Thanks for the comment Earl but that is the whole point. We all need a new way of thinking, hearts & minds always open to the Holy Spirit.

        A Christian friend of mine once said to me, “We need to mix with like-minded people”. This did not sit right with me, although I had heard it before, then, I believe, I heard this from the Holy Spirit, “Not like-minded people but Open-Minded people!”.

        James also says, “Receive, with meekness, the implanted Word……..” & “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble”. I believe, humility is the key to receiving from God. We need to learn to receive or miss out on so many blessings that are rightfully ours!

        God Bless mate.

  13. So nice to someone who knows how to read in context! James is one of the most grace-filled letters!

  14. nickllambert // October 11, 2013 at 9:34 pm // Reply

    I heard in my spirit, “Read James, chapter One, Verse One”. This, I did immediately & it was a revelation to me.

    James 1:1 …………..To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.

    Believers HAVE BEEN justified & WILL NOT be judged again! Therefore, James cannot be talking to SAVED people!

    This is why the whole book is talking about getting SAVED!

    Try reading James through, with this in mind, & see what the Lord says to you.

    Please don’t call me a fool until you have done so.

    The Holy Spirit is the only teacher!

  15. This reminded me of a Sermon I heard from Joesph Price about how the Israelites moaned and complained the whole time during the Exodus from Egypt. They escape bondage to be trapped between the sea and Pharaoh and complain, so God parts the waters. They run out of food and complain, God gives Manna and Quail. They run out of water and complain, God gives them a gushing spring from a rock. Everytime they need, they receive and still they show little faith in the Lord. Finally, they come to Sinai and once again choose not to show faith in God but instead ask for rules to please Him. It is at this point that Complaining and Grumbling become a curse. What should this tell us? I believe that it shows us that God has always wanted to Give and Give, wanting and expecting nothing in return. It is Man that cursed himself, trying to live up to the holiness of God, trying to earn His love. When we realize that we cannot earn it and cannot be worthy of it we can receive it as it was meant to be given, unconditionally.

    I realize this is a little off topic, but the Good News is always a good to hear.

  16. “The One who justifies you will soon execute his righteous judgment on those-who-make-you-sigh.”

    Okay. So honest question here. If I don’t grumble, and just wait for justice to be done, where is the grace for the other person that makes me grumble? Because it’s the people in the “church” that tend to make me grumble, not the people in the world.

  17. The more Jesus becomes my reality, the less I grumble and the more I realize that their un Christ like responses don’t matter.

  18. In point 2 under the sub title “but wait – it gets worse” it seems you are missing the word “what”. It’s in the sentence that says, “His book is only in the Bible to show us _. mixture looks like.”

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