Adam Clarke Commentary
The origin of wars and contentions, and the wretched lot of those who are engaged in them, James 4:1, James 4:2. Why so little heavenly good is obtained, James 4:3. The friendship of the world is enmity with God, James 4:4, James 4:5. God resists the proud, James 4:6. Men should submit to God, and pray, James 4:7, James 4:8. Should humble themselves, James 4:9, James 4:10. And not speak evil of each other, James 4:11, James 4:12. The impiety of those who consult not the will of God, and depend not on his providence, James 4:13-15. The sin of him who knows the will of God, and does not do it, James 4:16, James 4:17.
From whence come wars and fightings - About the time in which St. James wrote, whether we follow the earlier or the later date of this epistle, we find, according to the accounts given by Josephus, Bell. Jud. lib. ii. c. 17, etc., that the Jews, under pretense of defending their religion, and procuring that liberty to which they believed themselves entitled, made various insurrections in Judea against the Romans, which occasioned much bloodshed and misery to their nation. The factions also, into which the Jews were split, had violent contentions among themselves, in which they massacred and plundered each other. In the provinces, likewise, the Jews became very turbulent; particularly in Alexandria, and different other parts of Egypt, of Syria, and other places, where they made war against the heathens, killing many, and being massacred in their turn. They were led to these outrages by the opinion that they were bound by their law to extirpate idolatry, and to kill all those who would not become proselytes to Judaism. These are probably the wars and fightings to which St. James alludes; and which they undertook rather from a principle of covetousness than from any sincere desire to convert the heathen. See Macknight.
Come they not hence - of your lusts - This was the principle from which these Jewish contentions and predatory wars proceeded, and the principle from which all the wars that have afflicted and desolated the world have proceeded. One nation or king covets another's territory or property; and, as conquest is supposed to give right to all the possessions gained by it, they kill, slay, burn, and destroy, till one is overcome or exhausted, and then the other makes his own terms; or, several neighboring potentates fall upon one that is weak; and, after murdering one half of the people, partition among themselves the fallen king's territory; just as the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians have done with the kingdom of Poland! - a stain upon their justice and policy which no lapse of time can ever wash out.
These wars and fightings could not be attributed to the Christians in that time; for, howsoever fallen or degenerate, they had no power to raise contentions; and no political consequence to enable them to resist their enemies by the edge of the sword, or resistance of any kind.
Ye lust, and have not - Ye are ever covetous, and ever poor.
Ye kill, and, desire to have - Ye are constantly engaged in insurrections and predatory wars, and never gain any advantage.
Ye have not, because ye ask not - Ye get no especial blessing from God as your fathers did, because ye do not pray. Worldly good is your god; ye leave no stone unturned in order to get it; and as ye ask nothing from God but to consume it upon your evil desires and propensities, your prayers are not heard.
Ye ask, and receive not - Some think that this refers to their prayers for the conversion of the heathen; and on the pretense that they were not converted thus; they thought it lawful to extirpate them and possess their goods.
Ye ask amiss - Κακως αιτεισθε· Ye ask evilly, wickedly. Ye have not the proper dispositions of prayer, and ye have an improper object. Ye ask for worldly prosperity, that ye may employ it in riotous living. This is properly the meaning of the original, ἱνα εν ταις ἡδοναις ὑμων δαπανησητε, That ye may expend it upon your pleasures. The rabbins have many good observations on asking amiss or asking improperly, and give examples of different kinds of this sort of prayer; the phrase is Jewish and would naturally occur to St. James in writing on this subject. Whether the lusting of which St. James speaks were their desire to make proselytes, in order that they might increase their power and influence by means of such, or whether it were a desire to cast off the Roman yoke, and become independent; the motive and the object were the same, and the prayers were such as God could not hear.
Ye adulterers and adulteresses - The Jews, because of their covenant with God, are represented as being espoused to him; and hence their idolatry, and their iniquity in general, are represented under the notion of adultery. And although they had not since the Babylonish captivity been guilty of idolatry; according to the letter; yet what is intended by idolatry, having their hearts estranged from God, and seeking their portion in this life and out of God, is that of which the Jews were then notoriously guilty. And I rather think that it is in this sense especially that St. James uses the words. "Lo! they that are far from thee shall perish; thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee." But perhaps something more than spiritual adultery is intended. See James 4:9.
The friendship of the world - The world was their god; here they committed their spiritual adultery; and they cultivated this friendship in order that they might gain this end.
The word μοιχαλιδες, adulteresses, is wanting in the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Vulgate, and one copy of the Itala.
Whosoever - will be a friend of the world - How strange it is that people professing Christianity can suppose that with a worldly spirit, worldly companions, and their lives governed by worldly maxims, they can be in the favor of God, or ever get to the kingdom of heaven! When the world gets into the Church, the Church becomes a painted sepulchre; its spiritual vitality being extinct.
Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain - This verse is exceedingly obscure. We cannot tell what scripture St. James refers to; many have been produced by learned men as that which he had particularly in view. Some think Genesis 6:5; : "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Genesis 8:21; : "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." Numbers 11:29; : "Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake?" and Proverbs 21:10; : "The soul of the wicked desireth evil." None of these scriptures, nor any others, contain the precise words in this verse; and therefore St. James may probably refer, not to any particular portion, but to the spirit and design of the Scripture in those various places where it speaks against envying, covetousness, worldly associations, etc., etc.
Perhaps the word in this and the two succeeding verses may be well paraphrased thus: "Do ye think that concerning these things the Scripture speaks falsely, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us can excite us to envy others instead of being contented with the state in which the providence of God has placed us? Nay, far otherwise; for He gives us more grace to enable us to bear the ills of life, and to lie in deep humility at his feet, knowing that his Holy Spirit has said, Proverbs 3:34; : God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Seeing these things are so, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil, who would tempt you to envy, and he will flee from you; draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you."
I must leave this sense as the best I can give, without asserting that I have hit the true meaning. There is not a critic in Europe who has considered the passage that has not been puzzled with it. I think the 5th verse should be understood as giving a contrary sense to that in our translation. Every genuine Christian is a habitation of the Holy Ghost, and that Spirit προς φθονον επιποθει, excites strong desires against envy; a man must not suppose that he is a Christian if he have an envious or covetous heart.
But he giveth more grace - Μειζονα χαριν, A greater benefit, than all the goods that the world can bestow; for he gives genuine happiness, and this the world cannot confer. May this be St. James' meaning?
God resisteth the proud - Αντιτασσεται· Sets himself in battle array against him.
Giveth grace unto the humble - The sure way to please God is to submit to the dispensation of his grace and providence; and when a man acknowledges him in all his ways, he will direct all his steps. The covetous man grasps at the shadow, and loses the substance.
Submit - to God - Continue to bow to all his decisions, and to all his dispensations.
Resist the devil - He cannot conquer you if you continue to resist. Strong as he is, God never permits him to conquer the man who continues to resist him; he cannot force the human will. He who, in the terrible name of Jesus, opposes even the devil himself, is sure to have a speedy and glorious conquest. He flees from that name, and from his conquering blood.
Draw nigh to God - Approach Him, in the name of Jesus, by faith and prayer, and he will draw nigh to you - he will meet you at your coming. When a soul sets out to seek God, God sets out to meet that soul; so that while we are drawing near to him, he is drawing near to us. The delicacy and beauty of these expressions are, I think, but seldom noted.
Cleanse your hands, ye sinners - This I think to be the beginning of a new address, and to different persons; and should have formed the commencement of a new verse. Let your whole conduct be changed; cease to do evil learn to do well. Washing or cleansing the hands was a token of innocence and purity.
Purify your hearts - Separate yourselves from the world, and consecrate yourselves to God: this is the true notion of sanctification. We have often seen that to sanctify signifies to separate a thing or person from profane or common use, and consecrate it or him to God. This is the true notion of קדש kadash, in Hebrew, and ἁγιαζω in Greek. The person or thing thus consecrated or separated is considered to be holy, and to be God's property; and then God hallows it to himself. There are, therefore, two things implied in a man's sanctification:
Be afflicted, and mourn - Without true and deep repentance ye cannot expect the mercy of God.
Let your laughter be turned to mourning - It appears most evidently that many of those to whom St. James addressed this epistle had lived a very irregular and dissolute life. He had already spoken of their lust, and pleasures, and he had called them adulterers and adulteresses; and perhaps they were so in the grossest sense of the words. He speaks here of their laughter and their joy; and all the terms taken together show that a dissolute life is intended. What a strange view must he have of the nature of primitive Christianity, who can suppose that these words can possibly have been addressed to people professing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who were few in number, without wealth or consequence, and were persecuted and oppressed both by their brethren the Jews and by the Romans!
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord - In James 4:7; they were exhorted to submit to God; here they are exhorted to humble themselves in his sight. Submission to God's authority will precede humiliation of soul, and genuine repentance is performed as in the sight of God; for when a sinner is truly awakened to a sense of his guilt and danger, he seems to see, whithersoever he turns, the face of a justly incensed God turned against him.
He shall lift you up - Mourners and penitents lay on the ground, and rolled themselves in the dust. When comforted and pardoned, they arose from the earth, shook themselves from the dust, and clothed themselves in their better garments. God promises to raise these from the dust, when sufficiently humbled.
Speak not evil one of another - Perhaps this exhortation refers to evil speaking, slander, and backbiting in general, the writer having no particular persons in view. It may, however, refer to the contentions among the zealots, and different factions then prevailing among this wretched people, or to their calumnies against those of their brethren who had embraced the Christian faith.
He that speaketh evil of his brother - It was an avowed and very general maxim among the rabbins, that "no one could speak evil of his brother without denying God, and becoming an atheist." They consider detraction as the devil's crime originally: he calumniated God Almighty in the words, "He doth know that in the day in which ye eat of it, your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be like God, knowing good and evil;" and therefore insinuated that it was through envy God had prohibited the tree of knowledge.
Speaketh evil of the law - The law condemns all evil speaking and detraction. He who is guilty of these, and allows himself in these vices, in effect judges and condemns the law; i.e. he considers it unworthy to be kept, and that it is no sin to break it.
Thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge - Thou rejectest the law of God, and settest up thy own mischievous conduct as a rule of life; or, by allowing this evil speaking and detraction, dost intimate that the law that condemns them is improper, imperfect, or unjust.
There is one lawgiver - Και κριτης, And judge, is added here by AB, about thirty others, with both the Syriac, Erpen's Arabic, the Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, Vulgate, two copies of the Itala, Cyril of Antioch, Euthalius, Theophylact, and Cassiodorus. On this evidence Griesbach has received it into the text.
The man who breaks the law, and teaches others so to do, thus in effect set himself up as a lawgiver and judge. But there is only one such lawgiver and judge - God Almighty, who is able to save all those who obey him, and able to destroy all those who trample under feet his testimonies.
Who art thou that judgest another? - Who art thou who darest to usurp the office and prerogative of the supreme Judge? But what is that law of which St. James speaks? and who is this lawgiver and judge? Most critics think that the law mentioned here is the same as that which he elsewhere calls the royal law and the law of liberty, thereby meaning the Gospel; and that Christ is the person who is called the lawgiver and judge. This, however, is not clear to me. I believe James means the Jewish law; and by the lawgiver and judge, God Almighty, as acknowledged by the Jewish people. I find, or think I find, from the closest examination of this epistle, but few references to Jesus Christ or his Gospel. His Jewish creed, forms, and maxims, this writer keeps constantly in view; and it is proper he should, considering the persons to whom he wrote. Some of them were, doubtless, Christians; some of them certainly no Christians; and some of them half Christians and half Jews. The two latter descriptions are those most frequently addressed.
Go to now - Αγε νυν· Come now, the same in meaning as the Hebrew הבה habah, come, Genesis 11:3, Genesis 11:4, Genesis 11:7. Come, and hear what I have to say, ye that say, etc.
To-day, or to-morrow, we will go - This presumption on a precarious life is here well reproved; and the ancient Jewish rabbins have some things on the subject which probably St. James had in view. In Debarim Rabba, sec. 9, fol. 261, 1, we have the following little story; "Our rabbins tell us a story which happened in the days of Rabbi Simeon, the son of Chelpatha. He was present at the circumcision of a child, and stayed with its father to the entertainment. The father brought out wine for his guests that was seven years old, saying, With this wine will I continue for a long time to celebrate the birth of my new-born son. They continued supper till midnight. At that time Rabbi Simeon arose and went out, that he might return to the city in which he dwelt. On the way he saw the angel of death walking up and down. He said to him, Who art thou? He answered, I am the messenger of God. The rabbin said, Why wanderest thou about thus? He answered, I slay those persons who say, We will do this, or that, and think not how soon death may overpower them: that man with whom thou hast supped, and who said to his guests, With this wine will I continue for a long time to celebrate the birth of my new-born son, behold the end of his life is at hand, for he shall die within thirty days." By this parable they teach the necessity of considering the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and that God is particularly displeased with those ...
"Who, counting on long years of pleasure here,
Are quite unfurnished for a world to come."
And continue there a year, and buy and sell - This was the custom of those ancient times; they traded from city to city, carrying their goods on the backs of camels. The Jews traded thus to Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea, Crete, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome, etc. And it is to this kind of itinerant mercantile life that St. James alludes. See at the end of this chapter, ( James 4:17; (note)).
Whereas ye know not - This verse should be read in a parenthesis. It is not only impious, but grossly absurd, to speak thus concerning futurity, when ye know not what a day may bring forth. Life is utterly precarious; and God has not put it within the power of all the creatures he has made to command one moment of what is future.
It is even a vapour - Ατμις γαρ εστιν· It is a smoke, always fleeting, uncertain, evanescent, and obscured with various trials and afflictions. This is a frequent metaphor with the Hebrews; see Psalm 102:11; My days are like a shadow: Job 8:9; Our days upon earth are a shadow: 1 Chronicles 29:15; Our days on the earth are a shadow, and there is no abiding. Quid tam circumcisum, tam breve, quam hominis vita longissima? Plin. l. iii., Ep. 7. "What is so circumscribed, or so short, as the longest life of man?" "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, and the flower fadeth, because the breath of the Lord bloweth upon it. Surely the people is like grass." St. James had produced the same figure, James 1:10, James 1:11. But there is a very remarkable saying in the book of Ecclesiasticus, which should be quoted: "As of the green leaves of a thick tree, some fall and some grow; so is the generation of flesh and blood: one cometh to an end, and another is born." Ecclus. 14:18.
We find precisely the same image in Homer as that quoted above. Did the apocryphal writer borrow it from the Greek poet?
Οἱη περ φυλλων γενεη, τοιηδε και ανδρων·
Φυλλα τα μεν τ 'ανεμος χαμαδις χεει, αλλα δε θ 'ὑληπ
Τηλεθοωσα φυει, εσρος δ 'επιγιγνεται ὡρη·
Ὡς ανδρων γενεη, ἡ μεν φυει, ἡ δ 'αποληγει .
Il. l. vi., ver. 146.
Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now withering on the ground
Another race the following spring supplies;
They fall successive, and successive rise.
So generations in their course decay;
So flourish these, when those are pass'd away.
For that ye ought to say - Αντι τοι λεγειν ὑμας· Instead of saying, or instead of which ye should say,
If the Lord will, we shall live - I think St. James had another example from the rabbins in view, which is produced by Drusius, Gregory, Cartwright, and Schoettgen, on this clause: "The bride went up to her chamber, not knowing what was to befall her there." On which there is this comment: "No man should ever say that he will do this or that, without the condition If God Will. A certain man said, 'To-morrow shall I sit with my bride in my chamber, and there shall rejoice with her.' To which some standing by said, השם גוזר אם im gozer hashshem, 'If the Lord will.' To which he answered, 'Whether the Lord will or not, to-morrow will I sit with my bride in my chamber.' He did so; he went with his bride into his chamber, and at night they lay down; but they both died, antequam illam cognosceret." It is not improbable that St. James refers to this case, as he uses the same phraseology.
On this subject I shall quote another passage which I read when a schoolboy, and which even then taught me a lesson of caution and of respect for the providence of God. It may be found in Lucian, in the piece entitled, Χαρων, η επισκοπουντες, c. 6: Επι δειπνον, οιμαι, κληθεις ὑπο τινος των φιλων ες την ὑστεραιαν, μαλιστα ἡξω, εφη· και μεταξυ λεγοντος, απο του τεγους κεραμις επιπεσουσα, ουκ οιδ ' ὁτου κινησαντος, απεκτεινεν αυτον· εγελασα ουν, ουκ επιτελεσαντος την ὑποσχεσιν . "A man was invited by one of his friends to come the next day to supper. I will certainly come, said he. In the mean time a tile fell from a house, I knew not who threw it, and killed him. I therefore laughed at him for not fulfilling his engagement." It is often said Fas est et ab hoste doceri, " we should learn even from our enemies." Take heed, Christian, that this heathen buffoon laugh thee not out of countenance.
But now ye rejoice in your boastings - Ye glory in your proud and self-sufficient conduct, exulting that ye are free from the trammels of superstition, and that ye can live independently of God Almighty. All such boasting is wicked, πονηρα εστιν, is impious. In an old English work, entitled, The godly man's picture drawn by a Scripture pencil, there are these words: "Some of those who despise religion say, Thank God we are not of this holy number! They who thank God for their unholiness had best go ring the bells for joy that they shall never see God."
To him that knoweth to do good - As if he had said: After this warning none of you can plead ignorance; if, therefore, any of you shall be found to act their ungodly part, not acknowledging the Divine providence, the uncertainty of life, and the necessity of standing every moment prepared to meet God - as you will have the greater sin, you will infallibly get the greater punishment. This may be applied to all who know better than they act. He who does not the Master's will because he does not know it, will be beaten with few stripes; but he who knows it and does not do it, shall be beaten with many; Luke 12:47, Luke 12:48. St. James may have the Christians in view who were converted from Judaism to Christianity. They had much more light and religious knowledge than the Jews had; and God would require a proportionable improvement from them.
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