That the demons both (a) believe and (b) shudder seems to indicate the demoniacs healed by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. The word for shudder used by James (Greek frisso) is not otherwise used in the New Testament but is fairly common in Greek to mean ‘bristle’ or ‘shudder in fear’.

4 Maccabees 14:9 Even now, we ourselves shudder (Greek frisso) as we hear of the suffering of these young men; they not only saw what was happening, not only heard the direct word of threat, but also bore the sufferings patiently, and in agonies of fire at that.

In addition the the healing of demoniacs in the ministry of Jesus, James could also be including healings in Acts or other healings in the early church of which we do not have record. But the main thing to note here is the context – James is not teaching a lesson that mental illness and disability are caused by the offspring of fallen angels as the Pharisees believed (and many evangelicals today likewise), but simply making a point about belief not translating to action.

 

Read James 2:19 in the full context:

Faith Without Works Is Dead

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[b] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

In the context James point is nothing more than saying that belief without works is no more use than the shuddering of the demoniacs healed by Christ. Most of whom (Christ noted) did not actually follow Christ after being healed.  Compare the case of the ten lepers healed of whom only one returned (Luke 17:11-19). Believing and shuddering did not translate into works of faith.

1.From The Agora Bible Commentary by George Booker

James 2:19

YOU BELIEVE THAT THERE IS ONE GOD. GOOD! EVEN THE DEMONS BELIEVE THAT — AND SHUDDER: This alludes to the sick often trembling at the time of their cures. It may refer to the many incidents of curing of “demoniacs” (those possessed by “demons”) in the Gospels (cp Mat 8:29, where “demons” express fear). More significantly, James is referring to the fact that many people during Christ’s ministry had had the faith to be cured (ie, they believed and trembled), but only a handful had responded with the works which a word-based faith should have produced — as opposed to the intense hope and belief in personal betterment which the people had (DH).

Or, alternatively, a reference to the idols — sometimes called “demons” (1Co 10:20; Rev 9:20; cp Deu 32:17; Psa 96:5; 106:37) — who, figuratively, “tremble” when in the presence of the One True God. Examples: (1) the God of Israel showing His plain superiority to all the “gods” of Egypt with the outpouring of various plagues through Moses — until even Pharaoh (himself a “god”, or “demon”) had to acknowledge Yahweh’s power; (2) Samson bringing down the great temple at Gaza (Jdg 16:23-31); and (3) Dagon, the Philistine idol, falling down broken before the ark of the Yahweh (1Sa 5:1-4). These idols, or “demons”, tremble and fall before the face of the One True God, but they — and their devoted followers — cannot go on to truly believe in Him.

SHUDDER: “Trembling”, or “toppling”, or “tottering”, is a real problem for idols! see Isa 40:20; 41:7; Jer 10:4.

“Shudder” is Gr “phrisso”, only once in NT. Occurs 3 times in LXX: Job 4:15; Dan 7:15; and esp Jer 2:11,12: ” ‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, O heavens, and SHUDDER with great horror,’ declares the LORD.”

The two ideas are very naturally connected — along these lines: Those who believe in “demons” (that is, all the little “devils” who do all sorts of mean and hurtful things, under the direction of the BIG “Devil”) are — in effect — believing in false “gods”. And the belief in such “little gods” is basically incompatible with a meaningful belief in the One True God: hence Jer 2:11,12.

So, when Jesus and the apostles set out to cure folks of the diseases which they (the sufferers) attribute to “demons”, they are actually mounting a two-pronged attack: (1) they are, first of all, simply curing diseases and disorders, called “demons”, and (2) in a more complex or subtle vein, they are demonstrating that such “demons” (ie, false gods) are not real or powerful — this is similar to what Moses and Aaron did in Egypt with the whole Egyptian pantheon.

So the “demons” (meaning, here, the “demoniacs”, or the ones suffering from what they imagine to be “demons”) tremble when they encounter a greater power… because they imagine, at first, these little “demons” (meaning, to their minds, the “gods” or “devils” afflicting them) are now trembling in fear at a greater power!

And then, finally, as (or when) they understand what has actually happened, they realize that these “demons” (meaning the “false gods”) do not exist at all — they are what Paul calls “no-gods”… nothing at all (1Co 8:4; Acts 19:26)!

So, in Jam 2:19, the question is: Does the initial “trembling” of the “demons”, when confronted with a greater Power, lead (a) to the sufferer’s recognition that the God of Israel, or of Jesus, is simply greater than the little “demons”? OR does it lead (b) to a greater and more lasting realization, by the one cured or by witnesses, that such “demons” do not exist at all, and therefore that Yahweh is — truly and absolutely — the one and only LORD and God?

The above comments blend together two related ideas: (a) that “demons” may mean those who suffer otherwise unexplained illnesses, as well as (b) those demonic “gods” whom they acknowledge or worship. The close connection between these two concepts is verified by certain Bible passages, which draw close parallels between idols and those who worship them: “But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psa 115:4-8; cp Psa 135:15-18; Jer 10:8).

2.
From Wrested Scriptures by Ron Abel:

James 2:19
“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils {Grk, daimonia, ‘demons’, R.S.V.} also believe, and tremble.”
Problem:
This passage is quoted by J.W.’s to prove the existence of demons – as emissaries of Satan.
Solution:
  1. This passage appears to be an allusion by James to the demons cast out by Christ and the disciples. (Mark 3:11; Luke 4:34, 41).
  2. The context of this passage in James indicates a concern for the relationship between faith and works. (vs. 14-18). The demoniacs or demon possessed persons had sufficient sanity to acknowledge “trembling”, that Jesus was the Son of God, but this faith was not demonstrated in acceptable works. The Gadarene demoniacs were, for example, “exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way”. (Matt. 8:28). Unless believers to whom James addressed his epistle, demonstrated their faith in appropriate works, their professions of faith were in effect no better than those of a demoniac.
  3. There is no indication elsewhere in Scripture that demons literally believed and trembled. It was the individual “possessed with demons” who did the speaking. (See Mark 5:9 – “And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.”) To be “possessed of demons” is equivalent to madness. (John 8:48; 10:20). Similarly, “demon possession” described infirmities of the body. (E.g. blindness – Matt. 12:22; epilepsy – Mark 9:17-22; dumbness – Matt. 9:32, 33).

Footnotes:

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