Is "the rich" in this passage also a "brother" like the lowly?

James 1:9-10 (ESV)
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

It seems like it could be read as if James is writing to two types of brothers - one lowly and one rich - and telling each that he should boast in an way appropriate to his current state. Yet there is other evidence in the letter (e.g. James 5:1) where James seems to characterize the rich as wicked.

  • Do you read Greek? – Heath Hunnicutt Sep 17 '13 at 18:43
  • @HeathHunnicutt I don't know much Greek, but I can read it, yes. – Soldarnal Sep 17 '13 at 18:48
  • I don't know anything about the ESV. Based on the Greek, I think your hypothesis is correct -- that the rich-one in 1:10 may also be a brother. The reading you propose is consistent with 4:13-17, which conclude Ch 4, and immediately precede 5:1-6. In 5:1-6 I am confident that James is not addressing his brothers, but a specific local group. Clearly by 5:7, he was not addressing his brothers, but "the rich." In 1:10, we have a "rich one" which could be a brother. In 2:2, we also have rich people showing up to worship Jesus Christ. It was a local phenomenon James was coping with. – Heath Hunnicutt Sep 17 '13 at 18:57

I believe that "brother" in this sense represents fellow believers - specifically he was writing to some Jewish believers. I understand this from "James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. " (Jas 1:1)

The Church as a whole can apply this epistle to itself and it's members because we are also believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

It is said that this is one of the earliest epistles, and we know that the earliest Christians were almost exclusively Jewish.

Apart from that - looking at the epistle as a whole - it looks like James is creating two "characters" that are opposites that he will use throughout the book to teach the truth about faith, endurance and the testing thereof (a big part of this teaching is the source of power, the proper object of our faith). The brother of humble circumstances and the rich man probably represent a typical situation of the believing Christian and the unbelieving rich man.

Christ said in other places that it would be especially hard for rich men to enter the kingdom of heaven - and this is most likely because they are more of "the world" in which to rest and from which to establish foundations of faith that are not on Christ. Whereas a poor fellow has less reason to have faith in the world - yet is still susceptible to placing faith in himself instead of Christ.

I do not think we need to take it that James is talking about all rich men, or all poor men, as classes that are destined to glory or failure.

I am studying the Epistle of James right now and will probably publish things I learn on my blog. I hope this helps, and I would appreciate feedback - especially critiques.

  • 3
    Hi Zorro, welcome to this site and thanks for the answer here. The two "characters" idea is interesting; there certainly are a lot of dichotomies in James. I'll have to go back and examine that; though it might make your answer more helpful if you developed that a little more here. – Soldarnal Nov 30 '12 at 20:26

Is he a brother?


However, he's not a brother in the sense of a "fellow believer", but merely in the sense of a "fellow man". Let me explain in full:

Word choice

There does seem to be some confusion with the wording here:

James 1:9-10 (ESV)Emphasis added
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

It can be seen that the "lowly" one is a brother. However, it's not clear that the "rich" one is a brother. However, given that these two concepts are presented, in sequence and in the same thought, we can be sure that this "rich" person is a brother.

For comparison, if I said:

Pick up the red ball and the white as well.

Would you think that I was implying anything other than a white ball? It's clear that the intention of the James in this letter was to say that there was a lowly brother and rich brother.


While it is clear that the rich man was a "brother", what exactly is being meant here by calling him a brother?

The original Greek word for this is adelphos. Strong's shows that this word was as flexible back then as it is now.

The word could have implied either a physical brother (from the same parent(s)), countryman, a fellow believer, someone having the same national/racial ancestry, etc. The word is quite pliable.

To show how far this word can stretch, another definition (from Strong's) is any fellow or man. Quite simply, the "lowly brother" could have easily just been a "man".

Fellow Believer?

If we take a look at the context of the verse, it seems quite clear that the rich man, while being a "brother", is doomed to perish:

James 1:9-11 (NASB)Emphasis added
9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.


The wording here shows that the rich man is a brother. However, this usage of the word "brother" is not meant to imply "fellow believer", but merely another person, such as a countryman or a fellow man. The context of the passage (along with the later reference to James 5) supports this argument.

  • Sub-note: I checked the Greek on this and it's just as (un)clear as the English translation. :\ Go figure. – Richard Oct 12 '11 at 22:23
  • It seems likely to me that αδελφος in 1:9 is for a believer since James uses αδελφοι μου for believers in 1:2 and 1:16 but ανθρωπος for person in 1:7. – Soldarnal Oct 12 '11 at 23:19
  • @Soldarnal Well, that is an interest possibility. However, I think we have to discount 1:7 entirely, since the point of that statement isn't to say "a man" but rather "mankind". (In fact, if I were writing a translation, I would use "mankind" there.) It's more of the generic concept of "man". However, In 1:9, he's using the word to indicate a person rather than a concept. So, he's talking here about a low "brother" and a rich one (rather than a low concept of man). Because of that, I still believe that "brother" here is more of a "countryman" or "fellow man". But you make a great point! – Richard Oct 13 '11 at 12:04
  • Then do you consistently interpret αδελφοι across the book only as merely "fellow man" and not believers? Or is it just in this one instance that James uses it that way? – Soldarnal Oct 13 '11 at 18:08
  • No, I consistently translate it as "brother". But brother has many definitions. "fellow man" or "countryman" is just as valid an interpretation of "brother" as "believer" is. It's all about context, my brother. – Richard Oct 13 '11 at 18:14

Having given this a good deal of thought, I've currently concluded that no, the rich man is not a brother. (Elsewhere I have essentially argued that when James uses "brother", he means a fellow believer. So this is what I mean, when I say he is not a brother.)

When we look at verses 9-11 in isolation, one interpretation that seems to emerge is that James is encouraging the rich man to boast in his lowly position in Christ (e.g. as a servant) rather than in his worldly wealth since who they are as a rich man is bound to pass away.

However, when I consider the wider immediate context, it seems to me that James expects the rich man to fade under trials, rather than for merely his wealth to prove transitory. James opens his letter, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds." The next verse after the verses about the rich man passing away like a plant under the scorching heat states: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12 NIV)

Therefore, I think what James has in mind when he pictures the sun rising with scorching heat, similar to in the parable of the soils, is persecution and suffering: trials of many kinds. He does not anticipate the rich man to persevere under these trials like the man in verse 12, and therefore does not anticipate that he will receive the crown of life promised to those who love God.

This then, too, seems consistent with verses like 2:7 where the rich are those who are slandering the noble name of God/Jesus and also the section at the beginning of chapter 5, which I mentioned in my question.

If this is true, it seems would should understand James's admonition for the rich man to boast in his humiliation to be a form of scathing irony.

  • 2
    Not sure how I missed it the first time around, but this is a fine answer. (+1) I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion, however. It seems like James is acknowledging that some brothers will be rich and encourages them to boast of the humiliation that will surely come rather than in riches, which are not theirs in a permanent sense. – Jon Ericson Nov 30 '12 at 23:04
  • PS, despite my answer, I upvoted this answer :) – Dan Jan 23 '18 at 5:14

It doesn't matter. In fact, I believe it's a question that only later Christians (anachronistically) bring to the text. The original audience would not have thought of being a believer (or not) in such a binary fashion. But I'll first indulge an argument for the rich man being a brother.

The rich brother

"The brother" ("ὁ ἀδελφὸς" / ho adelphos) is a nominative singular noun and "the rich [man]" ("ὁ πλούσιος"1 / ho plousios) is a nominative singular adjective, and both share the same verb, "let [him] boast" ("Καυχάσθω" / Kauchasthō). Thus "the rich" ("ὁ πλούσιος") appears to be a modifier of "the brother" ("ὁ ἀδελφὸς") which would be implied in v. 10. According to Davids, this has been the majority position of scholars:

Is ὁ πλούσιος a modifier of an understood ὁ ἀδελφός in parallel with v 9, or does one encounter a poor/humble brother and a rich non-Christian? Structurally the former alternative appears most likely, for the sentence demands that καυχάσθω be understood as the verb of v 10. In this case the wealthy Christian is instructed to take no pride in possessions or position, but rather to think on his self-abasement in identifying with Christ (i.e. repenting) and Christ’s poor people. This is how most scholars have interpreted the phrase (e.g. Adamson, Cantinat, Mayor, Mussner, Ropes).2

The rich man (regardless of whether or not he identifies as a brother)

Despite this being the majority position, other scholars note the frequent contrast of the poor remnant of Israel with the rich who oppress them in Jewish literature.3 I see such Jewish themes throughout James' letter. In fact, the only other use of "the rich [men]" ("οἱ πλούσιοι" / hoi plousioi) in James occurs in 2:6 where the rich are portrayed as oppressors of the poor man, and such polemics occur frequently. Perhaps more importantly, the Christian author of this text states that the rich man "will wither away" (μαρανθήσεται / maranthēsetai)—a dismal fate. Dibelius states:

Which interpretation does our saying demand? ... It seems to me that only the conclusion of the saying provides a decisive argument with regard to this question: the coming fate of the rich man is depicted with great elaboration, and not without satisfaction; and in fact it is only his downfall which is depicted! Nothing is mentioned which would compensate for this loss, no coming of the Kingdom is portrayed. Without any consolation for the rich man, the saying ends with “he will wither” (μαρανθήσεται). Downfall is the final prospect which Jas holds up to the rich man, and therefore he can only be speaking to him ironically when he refers to “boasting.” Hence, from v. 10 on the saying is intended ironically, and Bede is correct in his interpretation: “[The saying] is certainly spoken in derision, which in Greek is called ‘irony’ ”.... If, for the most part, commentators have been unwilling to have anything to do with this interpretation, this has usually been due to the fact that their interpretation has been based upon an understanding of “rich man” to mean a rich Christian. But the question “Christian or non-Christian?” is imposed upon this verse from the outside; Jas himself does not have it in mind. Consequently, this problem, which cannot be quickly resolved, can be postponed until the conclusion, and the meaning of the saying need not be made dependent upon its resolution. But furthermore, it has frequently been left out of account in the interpretation of this passage that the antithesis between poor and rich had a history already within Judaism, and that this history does not allow the interpretation of “humiliation” (ταπείνωσις) to mean some inner condition, such as the lowly status of being a Christian. Here the fate of the rich man at the great cosmic transformation is spoken of without any sentimentality, and it is precisely such harsh words about and against the rich to which we are accustomed in the “literature of the Poor” in Judaism....

[T]he much discussed question of whether the rich man is a Christian or a non-Christian ... can scarcely be solved by an exegetical route, for here one argument stands opposed to another: reading the passage without any preconceptions, one at first thinks that “brother” (ἀδελφός) must be supplied, but no trace of any allusion to a brotherly relationship can be found in the harsh words of vv. 10f. Therefore, it is by no means clear from the outset whether Jas has in mind a rich Christian or non-Christian. The history of the concepts poor and rich in Judaism indicates the reason for this lack of clarity: that portion of the people who called themselves “the Poor” viewed the powerful rich man as the lawless “transgressor.” It made no difference whether this transgressor belonged to the Jewish faith externally or not—in any case, he no longer belonged to it inwardly. Jas has taken over this model, and consequently he has said nothing about whether his “rich man” is to be sought within Christianity or not. Whom does he have in mind? In any event, it must be people who are spiritually alien to the pious community, for otherwise the conclusion of the saying could not read as it does. Therefore, he may have had in mind primarily non-Christians; but if he was thinking here of Christians as well, then these are people whom he considers no longer to be included in a proper sense within Christendom.4

Keeping "the main thing" the main thing

Davids wisely concludes his discussion of this issue in his commentary by stating,

Whether the rich person is a brother or not, the following proverbial statement [(i.e, v. 11)] invites us to consider the meaninglessness of wealth in the face of death.5

1 I've intentionally omitted the postpositive δὲ.

2 Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 76–7.

3 For instance, cf. Sirach 10:21—11:1.

4 Martin Dibelius and Heinrich Greeven, James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 85, 87-8.

5 Davids, 77.


James 1:10 NET But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow.

The requirement is very clear. To possess eternal life, one must sell all, give to the poor and follow Jesus.

This is impossible for the rich person, but possible with God. The rich man must fall at God's feet for mercy (depend on God, ”I believe, help my unbelief!”), and He will make it possible.

What will the dependence on God do for the rich believer? It will lead to his being blessed, being given the Holy Spirit, receiving faith, receiving the impetus to make friends using unrighteous mammon, supporting those who are gathering, so that when that which he cannot surrender is removed, he will find shelter in Jesus.

His humiliation is the removal of that which he finds impossible to surrender.

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