Life is a Vapor James 4:13-17

The Fleeting Nature of Life

James 4:13-17




One day, in answer to a question about wealth from someone in the crowd, Jesus replied with a sobering parable. It is recorded in Luke 12:16-21: NAU” …The land of a rich man was very productive. 17 "And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?' 18 "Then he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."' 20 "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?' 21 "So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

There are a number of clear lessons from this passage, not the least of which is that life is extremely transitory; here one moment, gone the next.

When the three 15-year old local students hoped in the car one evening a few weeks ago, I doubt that the possibility that two of them would be dead before the night was over crossed their minds. These were real live persons known by other real live persons..

I doubt that any of us dreamed that on that same day one xxx would be ushered into glory without notice. We assumed she would return home with stories to share of her visit with grandkids. Instead she returns in a casket.

Make no mistake. Life is fleeting. In fact, the Bible calls it a vapor.

James 4:13-17 - let’s look a little more closely at this profound passage.

  • Tomorrow is unknowable v 14 

In both flow of thought and grammar, the passage is controlled by vs 14. The teaching turns on the fleeting nature of tomorrow. And this is a universal truism for all human beings – no matter what the unique circumstances for any one person.

And yet, presuming that life will carry on about the same way as today tomorrow is almost foundational to our American culture. Who doesn’t have a credit card; or a mortgage; or an event and appointment calendar? We hardly give it a second thought, do we?

  • On the one hand, tomorrow is uncertain. The simple truth is that we cannot “know” (NAU) tomorrow. The term (epistami) literally means to “stand upon”; thus to “bank on” tomorrow’s events. Thus, no one can bank on tomorrow. Compare Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
  • On the other hand, tomorrow is certain. We can be certain about the uncertain tomorrow. The verse really asks, “What sort is your life?” Another way to say it is, “what quality (poioj) is your life. Similar to 1 Cor 3 advising the minister to be careful re: the “quality” of his ministry. That is the issue. What is the nature of your life?
  • The verse also gives the answer. Your life is like a vapor. A textual variant may read either “you are a vapor…” or “it is a vapor” referring to your life. This is probably preferred, but either way this is disconcerting assertion. Your life, like the morning fog defused by the heat and sun, can be here one moment and gone the next. A play on words – it “appears” (faino) and “disappears” (afaino). (compare Psa 144:4)
  • This picture is based on Palestine geography and is picked up by Hosea 6:4, “Israel’s goodness is like “a morning cloud, and like the early dew that goes away.” (Only other NT use of “vapor” is Acts 2:19 quoting Joel 2:30). The underlying notions are suddenness – it happens quickly; seemingly arbitrary – it is beyond our control. And it is intangible – how do you get your hands around a vapor?
  • So the point is that we don’t know when our lives will come to an end nor do we know under what circumstances.
  • Before we look at the rest of the passage and discover some ways to respond to the temporary nature of life, here are some initial “so whats”:
  • Grab today’s opportunities. You may not have the same chances tomorrow. “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not, only today is ours.” (source unknown).
  • Turn to Christ today. Now is the day of salvation. Many who plan to repent at the 11th hour die at 10:30. You may not have tomorrow!
  • Open your mouth now. That person you have delayed speaking to regarding spiritual things may not be around tomorrow.
  • Do first things first. The fact that you only have “a little while” (oligon) should give you a sense of urgency in life. Not panic; but priority.
  • Don’t worry about tomorrow. You can’t control it and it may not arrive anyway! Besides, worry is sin.
  • Relax and smell the roses. They and you may both be gone tomorrow.
  • Do what you need to do now. What have you put off? Get moving.
  • Live in light of two days. Of course I refer to this day and the last day.
  • Maintain short accounts. I refer to relations with people and God not creditors. Make it right, right now!

Now for the remainder of the passage…

  • Use a pencil with a good eraser when planning tomorrow 13

Build in the possibility of change when you plan for tomorrow. Be flexible. Nothing should be etched in stone.

  •  The picture is business men standing before a city map laying their plans for profit making – a typical company sales meeting. The problem is that they didn’t understand the uncertainty of tomorrow. For them, today and tomorrow and the next day are equally real
  • These are carefully laid plans (“you who say”). Not haphazard. “We will go” indicates a statement of intention. Probably they considered economic indicators, demographics, competition, and etc. But they failed to seek God’s direction. And they surely didn’t even consider the possibility of failure.
  • Making money was the only reason for their travel to the city. It was the passion in their lives.
  • The phrase ‘engage in business and make a profit” is innocent enough. Nothing wrong with “engineering” a business in order to make money (this was probably a trading business emporium). They were focusing on three important steps – relocate…sell…make a profit!
  • However, the primary goal of any business person ought to be to make a living so that he/she can serve others (including family) and God. Profit must not be the “god.”
  • So these men had a marketing plan. They planned to go to the city and continue there for one year. They were confident of success based on all known factors and past experience. Now, there is nothing wrong with planning per se.  In fact, I would argue that God expects us to plan. I encourage families to plan budgets, family devotions, family activities, and etc. God plainly tells us to plan our giving.
  • So, planning is not the problem. As we see in v 15, the problem is that they left out God.
  • Always defer to God when planning tomorrow 15
  • Here is the deal – God may have other plans for tomorrow about which you are clueless! There is a popular abbreviation from the Latin which is D.V. (Divine Volition). When we use it we mean what James says here, “if the Lord wills.”
  • Illust: One person says he has a sign on the mirror of his room that he sees every morning when he first wakes up: WHAT HAVE YOU GOT GOING TODAY, LORD? I'D LIKE TO BE A PART OF IT.
  • “We have to find our place in God's plans, rather than make our own little plans and then ask God to support them: "Come on, God, give me this account. Come on, God, do this for me." Instead pray, "What have you got going today, God? .... You created this world. We're all yours. What's my part in the drama? What part do you want me to play? I will play any part you say. Want me to be a success? I'll be a success for you. Want me to be a failure? I'll fail for you. Whatever you want." Citation: John Powell, "Prayer as Surrender," Preaching Today, Tape No. 108
  • He is saying in no uncertain terms that we must include God in our plans like Paul when he said, “I will return unto you again if God wills…” (Acts 18:21) as he bid farewell to the Ephesians. This doesn’t mean we must audibly say this at the end of every intentional statement. It does mean that utter dependency upon God must be our attitude.
  • The greater point is that all of life, not just the end of life, depends on the Lord for completion. We call this divine providence. You must believe it. If you don’t, you can’t possible live it! Simply put, we acknowledge that we are not autonomous or independent.
  • When a man leaves God out of his plans it can truly be said, “Man is born to aspire at everything and enjoy nothing; to go always forward, but to arrive nowhere.” (source unknown). Drawing up blueprints for tomorrow without God is tantamount to drawing up blueprints for sorrow.
  •  Excluding God from planning for tomorrow is utter foolishness 16-17
  • Boasting about tomorrow is presumption 16. We learn that these business planners were boasting about the future. They were trusting in themselves and their surroundings. Arrogance is “an empty presumption which trusts in the stability of earthly things.” (Thayer 219) So they were really boasting that they were the master of their fate. Pride is another apt description.
  • Why do you suppose they thought this way? Probably it was because they enjoyed past successes. In fact, we might surmise that one of them suggested holding “how to make money” seminars for the locals! But alas, the past is not a guaranteed indicator of the future. God might change the future! Therefore never plan without God.
  • Knowingly leaving God out of tomorrow is open rebellion 17. This verse tells us that failure to include God in our plans for tomorrow is not a mere oversight that will cause us inconvenience. It is blatant sin!
  • Here is the reality: there are Christians who do know what God’s wishes are and yet don’t do them. Micah 6:8, He hath shown thee, O man, what is good.”
  • In context this statement is spoken to the merchants in this particular situation. They know better than to plan without God, yet they do it anyway. The conclusion – they are guilty of sin. However, we easily realize that this is applicable to us all.


In the March 2004 Readers Digest, Ray Charles gave this advice: ”Live every day like it’s your last, because one day you’re gonna be right.” On June 10th, Ray Charles was right. (Robert Grove, Manteno, Illinois; source: Reader's Digest March 2004, p. 63)

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.