So here (below) we have three men's commentary on this passage. Adam Clarke has a different take on the anointing oil than the other two. He says it was meant for medicinal purposes. John Calvin disagrees with this and John Gill doesn't seem to have an opinion either way.
I once heard a sermon that agreed with Adam Clarke's opinion on the use of the oil and went on to say the passage makes more sense if the word sick meant weak or weary in a spiritual sense. However that makes the anointing with oil seem out of place if it was used for medicinal purposes. We may never know the purpose of the oil.
This is one of those passages that causes a lot of confusion among Christians. We know that God does not physically heal everyone that prays in faith for healing. He did not heal the Apostle Paul! Yet the verse says, And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. (James 5:13-15 KJV)
13Is any among you afflicted? he means that there is no time in which God does not invite us to himself. For afflictions ought to stimulate us to pray; prosperity supplies us with an occasion to praise God. But such is the perverseness of men, that they cannot rejoice without forgetting God, and that when afflicted they are disheartened and driven to despair. We ought, then, to keep within due bounds, so that the joy, which usually makes us to forget God, may induce us to set forth the goodness of God, and that our sorrow may teach us to pray. For he has set thesinging of psalms in opposition to profane and unbridled joy; and thus they express their joy who are led, as they ought to be, by prosperity to God.
14Is any sick among you. As the gift of healing as yet continued, he directs the sick to have recourse to that remedy. It is, indeed, certain that they were not all healed; but the Lord granted this favor as often and as far as he knew it would be expedient; nor is it probable that the oil was indiscriminately applied, but only when there was some hope of restoration. For, together with the power there was given also discretion to the ministers, lest they should by abuse profane the symbol. The design of James was no other than to commend the grace of God which the faithful might then enjoy, lest the benefit of it should be lost through contempt or neglect.
For this purpose he ordered the presbyters to be sent for, but the use of the anointing must have been confined to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Papists boast mightily of this passage, when they seek to pass off their extreme unction. But how different their corruption is from the ancient ordinance mentioned by James I will not at present undertake to shew. Let readers learn this from my Institutes. I will only say this, that this passage is wickedly and ignorantly perverted; when extreme unction is established by it, and is called a sacrament, to be perpetually observed in the Church. I indeed allow that it was used as a sacrament by the disciples of Christ, (for I cannot agree with those who think that it was medicine;) but as the reality of this sign continued only for a time in the Church, the symbol also must have been only for a time. And it is quite evident, that nothing is more absurd than to call that a sacrament which is void and does not really present to us that which it signifies. That the gift of healing was temporary, all are constrained to allow, and events clearly prove: then the sign of it ought not to be deemed perpetual. It hence follows, that they who at this day set anointing among the sacraments, are not the true followers, but the apes of the Apostles, except they restore the effect produced by it, which God has taken away from the world for more than fourteen hundred years. So we have no dispute, whether anointing was once a sacrament; but whether it has been given to be so perpetually. This latter we deny, because it is evident that the thing signified has long ago ceased.
The presbyters, or elders, of the church. I include here generally all those who presided over the Church; for pastors were not alone called presbyters or elders, but also those who were chosen from the people to be as it were censors to protect discipline. For every Church had, as it were, its own senate, chosen from men of weight and of proved integrity. But as it was customary to choose especially those who were endued with gifts more than ordinary, he ordered them to send for the elders, as being those in whom the power and grace of the Holy Spirit more particularly appeared.
Let them pray over him. This custom of praying over one was intended to shew, that they stood as it were before God; for when we come as it were to the very scene itself, we utter prayers with more feeling; and not only Elisha and Paul, but Christ himself, roused the ardor of prayer and commended the grace of God by thus praying over persons. (2 Kings 4:32; Acts 20:10; John 11:41.)
15. But it must be observed, that he connects a promise with the prayer, lest it should be made without faith. For he who doubts, as one who does not rightly call on God, is unworthy to obtain anything, as we have seen in James 1:5. Whosoever then really seeks to be heard, must be fully persuaded that he does not pray in vain.
As James brings before us this special gift, to which the external rite was but an addition, we hence learn, that the oil could not have been rightly used without faith. But since it appears that the Papists have no certainty as to their anointing, as it is manifest that they have not the gift, it is evident that their anointing is spurious.
And if he have committed sins. This is not added only for the sake of amplifying, as though he had said, that God would give something more to the sick than health of body; but because diseases were very often inflicted on account of sins; and by speaking of their remission he intimates that the cause of the evil would be removed. And we indeed see that David, when afflicted with disease and seeking relief, was wholly engaged in seeking the pardon of his sins. Why did he do this, except that while he acknowledged the effect of his faults in his punishment, he deemed that there was no other remedy, but that the Lord should cease to impute to him his sins?
The prophets are full of this doctrine, that men are relieved from their evils when they are loosed from the guilt of their iniquities. Let us then know that it is the only fit remedy for our diseases and other calamities, when we carefully examine ourselves, being solicitous to be reconciled to God, and to obtain the pardon of our sins.
Is any among you afflicted?.... As the people of God generally are; they are commonly a poor, and an afflicted people; at least there are many among them that are so, and many are their afflictions: those whom Christ loves, as he did Lazarus, are not free from sicknesses and diseases; and these are rather signs of love than arguments against it; and when this is the case of any of the saints, what is to be done?
let him pray; to God that can save him; in the name of Christ; under the influence of the Spirit; believing in the word of promise. Times of afflictions are proper times for prayer; there is then more especially need of it; and God sometimes lays his afflicting hand upon his people, when they have been negligent of their duty, and he has not heard of them for some time, in order to bring them near to him, to seek his face, pay him a visit, and pour out a prayer before him; seePsalm 50:15.
Is any merry? in good heart and spirit, in a good frame of mind, as well as in prosperous circumstances, in soul, body and estate:
let him sing psalms; let him not only be inwardly joyful, as he should be in prosperity, and be thankful to God for his many mercies, temporal and spiritual, he enjoys; but let him express it vocally, and melodiously, by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs: not that these are the only persons that are to sing psalms, or this the only time, any more than that afflicted persons are the only ones that are to pray, or the time of affliction the only time of prayer; but as affliction more especially calls for prayer, so spiritual joy, and rejoicing in prosperous seasons, for singing of psalms: weeping, and singing of psalms, were thought, by the Jews, inconsistent. Kimchi, on the title of the third psalm, observes, that their Rabbins say, that when David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, he wept; and if he wept, why is this called a psalm? and if a psalm, למה בכה, "why did he weep?"
Is any sick among you?.... Which is often the case; the bodies of the saints, as well as others, are liable to a variety of diseases; they are sick, and sometimes nigh unto death, as Epaphroditus was: and then,
let him call for the elders of the church; in allusion to the elders of the congregation of Israel, Leviticus 4:15. By these may be meant, either the elder members of the church, men of gravity and soundness in the faith, persons of long standing and experience; who have the gift and grace of prayer, and are not only capable of performing that duty, but of giving a word of counsel and advice to the sick. It was a kind of proverbial saying of Aristophanes the grammarian;
"the works of young men, the counsels of middle aged persons, and ευχαι γεροντων, "the prayers of ancient men"
or rather officers of churches are meant, particularly pastors, who are so called in Scripture; these should be sent for in times of sickness, as well as physicians; and rather than they, since their prayers may be the means of healing both soul and body: so in former times, the prophets of God were sent to in times of sickness, for advice and assistance. It is a saying of R. Phinehas ben Chama
"whoever has a sick person in his house, let him go to a wise man, and he will seek mercy for him.'
And it follows here,
and let them pray over him; or for him, for the recovery of his health:
anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord; which some think was only done in a common medicinal way, oil being used much in the eastern countries for most disorders; and so these elders used ordinary medicine, as well as prayer: or rather this refers to an extraordinary gift, which some elders had of healing diseases, as sometimes by touching, and by laying on of hands, or by expressing some words, and so by anointing with oil; see Mark 6:13 which extraordinary gifts being now ceased, the rite or ceremony of anointing with oil ceases in course: however, this passage gives no countenance to the extreme unction of the Papists; that of theirs being attended with many customs and ceremonies, which are not here made mention of; that being used, as is pretended, for the healing of the souls of men, whereas this was used for corporeal healing; that is only performed when life is despaired of, and persons are just going out of the world; whereas this was made use of to restore men to health, and that they might continue longer in it, as follows.
And the prayer of faith shall save the sick,.... That is, the prayer of the elders, being put up in faith by them, and in which the sick person joins by faith; such a prayer is a means of bringing down from God a blessing on the sick man, and of restoring him to his former health:
and the Lord shall raise him up; from his bed of sickness, on which he is laid, and bring him forth to praise his name, and to fear and glorify him.
And if he have committed sins; not that it is a question whether he has or not, for no man lives without sin, nor the commission of it; but the sense is, if he has been guilty of any sins, which God in particular has taken notice of, and on account of which he has laid his chastising hand upon him, in order to bring him to a sense of them, and to acknowledge them; which is sometimes the case, though not always, at the same time that his bodily health is restored:
they shall be forgiven him; he shall have a discovery, and an application of pardoning grace to him: and indeed the removing the sickness or disease may be called the forgiveness of his sins, which is sometimes the sense of this phrase in Scripture, as in 1 Kings 8:34.
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray - The Jews taught that the meaning of the ordinance, Leviticus 13:45, which required the leper to cry, Unclean! unclean! was, “that thus making known his calamity, the people might be led to offer up prayers to God in his behalf,” Sota, page 685, ed. Wagens. They taught also, that when any sickness or affliction entered a family, they should go to the wise men, and implore their prayers. Bava bathra, fol. 116, 1.
In Nedarim, fol. 40, 1, we have this relation: “Rabba, as often as he fell sick, forbade his domestics to mention it for the first day; if he did not then begin to get well, he told his family to go and publish it in the highways, that they who hated him might rejoice, and they that loved him might intercede with God for him.”
Is any merry? let him sing psalms - These are all general but very useful directions. It is natural for a man to sing when he is cheerful and happy. Now no subject can be more noble than that which is Divine: and as God alone is the author of all that good which makes a man happy, then his praise should be the subject of the song of him who is merry. But where persons rejoice in iniquity, and not in the truth, God and sacred things can never be the subject of their song.
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders - This was also a Jewish maxim. Rabbi Simeon, in Sepher Hachaiyim, said: “What should a man do who goes to visit the sick? Ans. He who studies to restore the health of the body, should first lay the foundation in the health of the soul. The wise men have said, No healing is equal to that which comes from the word of God and prayer. Rabbi Phineas, the son of Chamma, hath said, ‹When sickness or disease enters into a man‘s family, let him apply to a wise man, who will implore mercy in his behalf.‘“ See Schoettgen.
St. James very properly sends all such to the elders of the Church, who had power with God through the great Mediator, that they might pray for them.
Anointing him with oil - That St. James neither means any kind of incantation, any kind of miracle, or such extreme unction as the Romish Church prescribes, will be sufficiently evident from these considerations:
1.Be was a holy man, and could prescribe nothing but what was holy.
2.If a miracle was intended, it could have been as well wrought without the oil, as with it.
3.It is not intimated that even this unction is to save the sick man, but the prayer of faith, James 5:15.
4.What is here recommended was to be done as a natural means of restoring health, which, while they used prayer and supplication to God, they were not to neglect.
5.Oil in Judea was celebrated for its sanative qualities; so that they scarcely ever took a journey without carrying oil with them, (see in the case of the Samaritan), with which they anointed their bodies, healed their wounds, bruises, etc.
6.Oil was and in frequently used in the east as a means of cure in very dangerous diseases; and in Egypt it is often used in the cure of the plague. Even in Europe it has been tried with great success in the cure of dropsy. And pure olive oil is excellent for recent wounds and bruises; and I have seen it tried in this way with the best effects.
7.But that it was the custom of the Jews to apply it as a means of healing, and that St. James refers to this custom, is not only evident from the case of the wounded man ministered to by the good Samaritan, Luke 10:34, but from the practice of the Jewish rabbins. In Midrash Koheleth, fol. 73, 1, it is said: “Chanina, son of the brother of the Rabbi Joshua, went to visit his uncle at Capernaum; he was taken ill; and Rabbi Joshua went to him and anointed him with oil, and he was restored.” They had, therefore, recourse to this as a natural remedy; and we find that the disciples used it also in this way to heal the sick, not exerting the miraculous power but in cases where natural means were ineffectual. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them; Mark 6:13. On this latter place I have supposed that it might have been done symbolically, in order to prepare the way for a miraculous cure: this is the opinion of many commentators; but I am led, on more mature consideration, to doubt its propriety, yet dare not decide. In short, anointing the sick with oil, in order to their recovery, was a constant practice among the Jews. See Lightfoot and Wetstein on Mark 6:13. And here I am satisfied that it has no other meaning than as a natural means of restoring health; and that St. James desires them to use natural means while looking to God for an especial blessing. And no wise man would direct otherwise.
8.That the anointing recommended here by St. James cannot be such as the Romish Church prescribes, and it is on this passage principally that they found their sacrament of extreme unction, is evident from these considerations:
1.St. James orders the sick person to be anointed in reference to his cure; but they anoint the sick in the agonies of death, when there is no prospect of his recovery; and never administer that sacrament, as it is called, while there is any hope of life.
2.St James orders this anointing for the cure of the body, but they apply it for the cure of the soul; in reference to which use of it St. James gives no directions: and what is said of the forgiveness of sins, in James 5:15, is rather to be referred to faith and prayer, which are often the means of restoring lost health, and preventing premature death, when natural means, the most skillfully used, have been useless.
3.The anointing with oil, if ever used as a means or symbol in working miraculous cures, was only applied in some cases, perhaps very few, if any; but the Romish Church uses it in every case; and makes it necessary to the salvation of every departing soul. Therefore, St. James‘ unction, and the extreme unction of the Romish Church, are essentially different. See below.
And the prayer of faith; shall save the sick - That is, God will often make these the means of a sick man‘s recovery; but there often are cases where faith and prayer are both ineffectual, because God sees it will be prejudicial to the patient‘s salvation to be restored; and therefore all faith and prayer on such occasions should be exerted on this ground: “If it be most for thy glory, and the eternal good of this man‘s soul, let him be restored; if otherwise, Lord, pardon, purify him, and take him to thy glory.”
The Lord shall raise him up - Not the elders, how faithfully and fervently soever they have prayed.
And if he have committed sins - So as to have occasioned his present malady, they shall be forgiven him; for being the cause of the affliction it is natural to conclude that, if the effect be to cease, the cause must be removed. We find that in the miraculous restoration to health, under the powerful hand of Christ, the sin of the party is generally said to be forgiven, and this also before the miracle was wrought on the body: hence there was a maxim among the Jews, and it seems to be founded in common sense and reason, that God never restores a man miraculously to health till he has pardoned his sins; because it would be incongruous for God to exert his miraculous power in saving a body, the soul of which was in a state of condemnation to eternal death, because of the crimes it had committed against its Maker and Judge. Here then it is God that remits the sin, not in reference to the unction, but in reference to the cure of the body, which he is miraculously to effect.