This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (NASB)
James addresses his “brothers and sisters” for the third time in this chapter (vv. 2, 16), and as “beloved” for the second time (v. 16). It is also the second time that he refers to his hearers “knowing” something, although the word here (iste) differs from that used in verse 3. The two translations above show that the word could be translated as an indicative (NASB) indicating something that James’ hearers already know, and so referring back to the truths just enumerated in verses 16-18. Or it could be understood as an imperative as in most English translations, and thus as a command to his hearers to know this particular truth which James will now go on to declare. The usual translation is to be preferred, although the NASB has the advantage of translating the tiny particle de (“but”). It is likely that the decision to translate the particle forces the change of translation in the first phrase.
What is it James wants his hearers to know? He begins with a brief aphorism that “everyone” (pas anthrōpos) “must be” (estō) “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (taxys eis to akousai, bradys eis to lalēsai, bradys eis orgēn). The aphorism itself plays on the metaphor of speed: quick—slow—slow. “Quick to listen” and “slow to speak” would provide a balanced and parallel saying. The addition of “slow to anger” slows the saying and hearer, emphasising James’ focus on speech and highlighting especially his main concern—angry speech, and, more to the point, human anger itself.
Thus, James’ main concern is the pithy point given in verse 20: human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (orgē gar andros dikaiosynēn theou ou katergazetai; note that this text follows the fifth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, and so reads ou katergazetai instead of ouk ergazetai (fourth edition). See the discussion in Vlachos, 53-54). The NRSV reads “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” suggesting that at least some members of the community itself are angry. Although this is possible, it obscures the more specific thrust of the verse provided by the contrast between human anger and God’s righteousness. Further, katergazetai here, recalls its earlier use in verse 3, where the trial of our faith “produces” (katergazetai) endurance. If in the midst of trial, James’ hearers resort to anger instead of practising endurance, the result will not be the attainment of divine righteousness; they will not be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verse 4). The phrase “God’s righteousness” (dikaiosyne theou) here thus carries an ethical rather than salvific sense. James is not saying that one’s anger does not bring a person into a saving relation with God, but that human anger does not bear the kind of righteous fruit that God desires or approves. James is concerned here, therefore, not with one’s standing before God, but with practical righteousness, the kind of life lived in accordance with that which is right and good in God’s sight.
On first glance these verses appear to be a stand-alone aphorism intended as practical parenesis and admonition, presaging the larger treatment on human speech and the power of the tongue in chapter 3. There is no doubt that speech is a major issue in James with 29 imperatives in the letter devoted to speech ethics (Vlachos, 52). It is not surprising, therefore, that pastors and preachers read the verse like this, using homely examples such as “God has given us two ears but only one mouth, obviously intending that we should listen twice as much as we should speak!”
Nevertheless, this reading disconnects the verses from what has gone before. It is, however, possible, and I think preferable, to read verses 19-20 as part of James’ ongoing argument. In times of trial and temptation believers are to stand firm in faith, rejoicing in God and praying for wisdom. They are not to accuse or blame God for their temptations for such temptations arise from their own lusts. Therefore God’s people would do well to be slow to speak such words and make such claims (cf. verse 13 “let no one say…”). Instead, believers are to be “quick to hear”—the Word of God. That this is James’ intent becomes clear in verses 21-25 where he goes on to instruct his listeners how they should hear. The primary meaning of this brief aphorism is, therefore, a renewed call for humble submission to God in the midst of trial. That it may also have wider application as a piece of relational and moral wisdom is apparent but secondary to this primary interpretation. James will, of course, develop his instruction on believers’ use of the tongue in interpersonal relations in chapter 3, but that is not the primary content of his exhortation here.