Journeying through James 1:21 – Better Listening

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. James 1:19‑21 (NIV)

James is a master of metaphor, and James 1:21 is a real gem. He uses a kind of unpleasant, bodily thing, literally ‘earwax’ * for the word that can also be translated “moral filth.” In a passage dedicated to hearing and doing the word (James 1:19-27), language that relates specifically to the ear is not surprising.

It would be a mistake to assume that James is just talking about some physical filth that one can wash off. Keep in mind, James is speaking to people who are committed to following the word. He’s sharing insight on how to stand firmly on the promises of God.

In verses 19-20, for example, he has cautioned us: “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Preceding devotions in this series may give you some Fuel for Thought regarding the issue of anger and sound faith in Christ. Now in verse 21, James focuses on following a moral path that’s clearly laid out in the Word of God. The point is that as an abundance of earwax hinders hearing; immorality encumbers sincere faith. Lustful passion impairs our ability to hear and do what the Spirit of Christ would lead us to do.

James’ concern is with getting rid of all moral filth, all the ugly crud that one should want to get rid of. Good spiritual hygiene implies hearing and doing what is good and right. James is asking metaphorically, “How’s your hearing?” The implication is that moral impurity makes it harder and harder to hear God, but the good news is that Christ can wash us clean (See Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5, Hebrews 10:22 and Revelation 1:5). James, having been Jesus’ brother * , probably heard the Lord say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” *
Lord Jesus, give us ears to hear.

Artimedorus (second century A.D.) a medical term (ῥύπος) for earwax that must be washed away to give good hearing in Martin, Ralph P. 1988, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 48: James (WBC). Dallas: Word.

“Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55, NKJV).

Matthew 11:15 (NKJV); Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 13:9, Matthew 13:43, Mark 4:9, Mark 4:23, Mark 7:16, Luke 8:8 and Luke 14:35. See also Revelation 2:7, Revelation 2:11, Revelation 2:17, Revelation 2:29, Revelation 3:6, Revelation 3:13, Revelation 3:22 and Revelation 13:9.