Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Certainly James does not want his congregation to misunderstand the serious ramifications of sin which lead to death. Nevertheless, his warning in verse 16 is perhaps more directed to the positive truth which now comes into view in this verse: he especially does not want them to be deceived about the constant, consistent and unchanging goodness of God. We have already noted that some among his listeners have been deceived about God’s goodness, including assigning evil intention and temptation to God. In this verse James counters this view with a firm declaration that God is always and only good, and that God never changes. Therefore God is not the one who tempts them, nor does God send evil upon his people. Rather, God is the source of every good gift, the giver of “perfect” gifts, single-mindedly good and generous (v. 5).
The opening phrase of the verse is thought by many commentators to be an ancient proverb because it forms a hexameter, a series of words whose syllables form six rhythmic sections (Vlachos, 47). Davids suggests that the original saying could have been something like “every gift is good and every present perfect” (86). Applied in this context, it affirms the divine goodness in simple and homely terms.
The NRSV translates the phrase as “every generous act of giving (pasa dosis agathē), with every perfect gift” (kai pan dōrēma teleion; cf. NASB, Holman, and others). While it is correct that dosis may be translated in terms of an act, it is more likely that James is using the two terms dosis and dōrēma as synonyms and as such does not intend any distinction of meaning between them. McKnight (124) also suggests that given the poetic nature of the phrase, neither should we seek to draw distinction between “good” (agathē) and “perfect” (teleion); in the whole phrase James has one thought and one intent, which is to declare the goodness of God.
These good and perfect gifts are from above (anōthen estin), “coming down” (katabainon) from the “Father of lights” (apo tou patros tōv phōtōv). The phrase indicates the heavenly origin of these gifts, and the present tense suggests that such gifts are continually descending from above. What are these gifts which continually descend from above? James does not say. However, he has already spoken of God giving wisdom to those who ask in faith (v. 5). In chapter three he will speak of the wisdom which is “from above” (3:15, 17). We might readily, therefore, consider wisdom as one of the gifts that God gives. But we need not limit God to this gift; every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Not only the blessing of wisdom, but salvation, healing and forgiveness (5:15), answers to prayer (5:16-18), eschatological redemption and reward (1:4, 12)—all these and more besides are the generous gifts that the Father of lights gives to his children.
While the overall thrust of the verse is quite simple and clear, the details are less so. The term “Father of lights” appears only here in Scripture, and probably intends to designate God as the creator (“Father”) of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars, recalling Genesis 1:3, 14-18. That God is associated with light rather than darkness adds to the emphasis that he is not the source of temptation. The final phrase adds to our picture of God’s character by insisting that with respect to God there is “no variation” (par’ hō ouk eni parallagē) “or shadow due to change” (ē tropēs aposkiasma). Not only is God good, he never changes; that is, God is only and always good. Although none of the terms used here are technical astronomical terms, parallagē and tropēs are commonly used in astronomical contexts. This adds support to the idea that “Father of lights” refers to God the creator of the heavenly bodies (Moo, 76).
How the phrase is to be interpreted, however, is less clear. James could be simply likening God’s goodness to the regular and dependable movements of the heavenly bodies, or he could be saying that God is unlike the heavenly bodies, for they are ever shifting in their course, subject to change and shadows during the lunar cycle or eclipses. The final phrase of the verse, “shadow due to change” suggests that the latter interpretation is best. Thus God never changes nor is he changed. Does he therefore send tests and temptations? No, he sends that which is good, and, since he is unchanging, he could never send evil (Davids, 88).