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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

James 4

Verses 1-99

Ch. 4:1 7. God’s giving and the World’s getting

1 . whence come wars and fightings among you? …] One source of discord had been touched in the “Be not many masters” of Chap. 3:1. Sectarianism and all its kindred evils were destructive of peace, and therefore of all true wisdom. Another besetting sin of the race which St James addressed, from which indeed no race or nation is exempt, now comes in view. “Wars,” protracted or wide-spread disputes: “fighting,” the conflicts and skirmishes of daily life, which make up the campaign, “What do they come from?” the writer asks, and then makes answer to himself. A question so like in form to this as to suggest the thought that it must be a conscious reproduction, is found in the Epistle of Clement of Rome (c. 45).

even of your lusts that war in your members? Literally, from your pleasures . The noun is used as nearly equivalent to “desires.” Common as the word “pleasure” was in all Greek ethical writers, it is comparatively rare in the New Testament. In the Gospels it meets us in Luke 8:14 , and with much the same sense as in this passage. These “lusts” or “pleasures” are, the next word tells us, the hosts that carry on the conflict and perpetuate the warfare. They make our “members,” each organ of sense or action, their camping ground and field of battle. Hence, to extend the metaphor one step further, as St Peter extends it, they “war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11 ).

2 . Ye lust and have not …] The genesis of evil is traced somewhat in the same way as in ch. 1:15. The germ is found in desire for what we have not, as e. g. in the sins of David (2 Samuel 11:1 ) and Ahab (1 Kings 21:2-11.21.4 ). That desire becomes the master-passion of a man’s soul, and hurries him on to crimes from which he would, at first, have shrunk.

ye kill, and desire to have …] The order strikes us as inverted, putting the last and deadliest sin at the beginning. The marginal alternative of “envy” would doubtless give an easier sense, but this cannot possibly be the meaning of the Greek word as it stands, and comes from a conjectural reading, suggested, without any MS. authority, by Erasmus and Beza. If we remember, however, the state of Jewish society, the bands of robber-outlaws of whom Barabbas was a type (Mark 15:7 ; John 18:39 ), the “four thousand men that were murderers” of Acts 21:38 , the bands of Zealots and Sicarii who were prominent in the tumults that preceded the final war with Rome, it will not seem so startling that St James should emphasise his warning by beginning with the words “ Ye murder .” In such a state of society, murder is often the first thing that a man thinks of as a means to gratify his desires, not, as with us, a last resource when other means have failed. Comp. the picture of a like social condition in which “men make haste to shed blood” in Proverbs 1:16 . There was, perhaps, a grim truth in the picture which St James draws. It was after the deed was done that the murderers began to quarrel over the division of the spoil, and found themselves as unsatisfied as before, still not able to obtain that on which they had set their hearts, and so plunging into fresh quarrels, ending as they began, in bloodshed. There seems, at first, something almost incredible in the thought, that the believers to whom St James wrote could be guilty of such crimes, but Jewish society was at that time rife with atrocities of like nature, and men, nominally disciples of Christ, might then, as in later times, sink to its level. See note on next verse.

ye have not, because ye ask not ] This then was the secret of the restless cravings and the ever-returning disappointments. They had never once made their wants the subject of a true and earnest prayer. Here again we note the fundamental unity of teaching in St James and St Paul. Comp. Philippians 4:6 . Prayer is with each of them the condition of content or joy.

3 . Ye ask, and receive not …] The words are obviously written as in answer to an implied objection: “Not ask,” a man might say; “come and listen to our prayers; no one can accuse us of neglecting our devotions.” Incredible as it might seem that men plundering and murdering, as the previous verses represent them, should have held such language, or been in any sense, men who prayed, the history of Christendom presents but too many instances of like anomalies. Cornish wreckers going from church to their accursed work, Italian brigands propitiating their patron Saint before attacking a company of travellers, slave-traders, such as John Newton once was, recording piously God’s blessing on their traffic of the year; these may serve to shew how soon conscience may be seared, and its warning voice come to give but an uncertain sound.

that ye may consume it upon your lusts ] Better, that ye may spend it in your pleasures . This then was that which vitiated all their prayers. They prayed not for the good of others, nor even for their own true good, but for the satisfaction of that which was basest in their nature, and which they, as disciples of Christ, were specially called on to repress.

4 . Ye adulterers and adulteresses …] The better MSS. give ye adulteresses only. The use of the feminine alone in this connexion, where the persons referred to are primarily men, is at first startling. It has a partial parallel in our Lord’s words “ an evil and adulterous generation ” (Matthew 12:39 ), but it finds its best explanation in the thought, not without its bearing on what follows, that the soul’s unfaithfulness towards God is like that of a wife towards her husband. It is as though St James said “ Ye adulterous souls .” There is, it may be, in the use of such a term, a touch of indignant scorn not unlike that in Homer, Ἀχαιΐδες, οὐκετʼ Ἀχαιοί . “Women, not men of Achæa” ( Il. ii. 235), or Virgil’s “O vere Phrygiæ, neque enim Phryges” ( Æn . ix. 617). In this subserviency to pleasures, St James sees that which, though united with crimes of violence, is yet essentially effeminate.

the friendship of the world is enmity with God? ] Once more we have a distinct echo from the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 6:24 ; Luke 16:13 ). Here, also, as in chap. 1:8, stress is laid on the fact that the neutrality of a divided allegiance is impossible. In that warfare, therefore, we must choose our side. We take it, even if we think that we do not choose it.

whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world …] Literally, Whosoever wishes to be a friend . The inference is not a mere repetition, but lays stress on the fact that the mere wish and inclination to be on one side involves, ipso facto , antagonism to the other.

5 . the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? ] The words present a two-fold difficulty: (1) They are quoted as Scripture, and yet no such words are found either in the Canonical or even in the Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament. (2) It is by no means clear what they mean in themselves, or what is their relation to the context. If we can determine the latter point, it may, perhaps, help us in dealing with the former, ( a ) The better MSS., it may be noted, to begin with, give a different reading of the first words: The Spirit which he planted (or made to dwell) in us . If we adopt this reading, it makes it all but absolutely certain that what is predicated of the Spirit must be good, and not, as the English version suggests, evil. ( b ) The Greek word for “lusteth” conveys commonly a higher meaning than the English, and is rendered elsewhere by “longing after” (Romans 1:11 ; Philippians 1:8 , Philippians 1:2 :26; 2 Corinthians 9:14 ), or “earnestly desiring” (2 Corinthians 5:2 ), or “greatly desiring” (2 Timothy 1:4 ). New Testament usage is accordingly in favour of giving the word such a meaning here. The verb has no object, but it is natural to supply the pronoun “us.” Taking these data we get as the true meaning of the words, The Spirit which He implanted yearns tenderly over us . ( c ) The words that remain, “to envy,” admit of being taken as with an adverbial force. “In a manner tending to envy,” enviously . The fact that “envy” is elsewhere in the New Testament and elsewhere condemned as simply evil, makes its use here somewhat startling. But the thought implied is that the strongest human affection shews itself in a jealousy which is scarcely distinguishable from “envy.” We grudge the transfer to another of the affection which we claim as ours. We envy the happiness of that other. In that sense St James says that the Spirit, implanted in us, yearns to make us wholly His and is satisfied with no divided allegiance. He simply treats the Greek word for “envy” as other writers treated the word “jealousy,” which though commonly viewed as evil, was yet treated at times as a parable of the purest spiritual affection (2 Corinthians 11:2 ; Galatians 4:17 , Galatians 4:18 ). The root-idea of the passage is accordingly identical with that of the jealousy of God over Israel as His bride (Jeremiah 3:1-24.3.11 ; Ezekiel 16:0 , Hosea 2:3 ), of His wrath when the bride proved faithless. Those who had been addressed as “adulteresses” (verse 4), were forgetting this. All that they read of the love or jealousy of God was to them as an idle tale. For “in vain” read idly, emptily .

There remains the question, in what sense does St James give these words as a quotation from “the Scripture”? No words at all like them in form are found anywhere in the Old Testament, and we have to suppose either (1) that they were cited from some lost book that never found a place in the Hebrew Canon, a supposition, which, though not absolutely impossible, is yet in a very high degree unlikely; or, which seems the more probable explanation, that St James having in his mind the passages above referred to, and many others like them, and finding them too long for quotation, condensed them into one brief pregnant form, which gave the essence of their meaning. A like manner of quoting as Scripture what we do not find in any extant book, is found in Clement of Rome (c. 46), “It has been written, ‘Cleave to the saints, for they who cleave to them shall be sanctified.’ ” As points of detail it may be noted (1) that the Greek word for “yearning” or “longing” occurs in the LXX. version of Deuteronomy 32:11 , and is followed in verses 13 19 by an account of the manner in which the love so shewn had been turned to jealousy by the sins of Israel; and (2) that Genesis 6:5 , as in the LXX., “My spirit shall not abide for ever with men,” may have suggested the “indwelling” of which the first member of the sentence speaks.

I have given, what seems on the whole, the most tenable explanation of a passage which is admitted on all hands to be one of extreme difficulty. It does not seem desirable to discuss other interpretations at any length, but two or three may be very briefly noticed. (1) The words have been rendered “The Spirit (i. e. the Holy Spirit) that dwelleth in us lusteth against envy,” the contrast being assumed to be parallel to that between the works of the Spirit and those of the flesh in Galatians 5:17 . There is no sufficient authority, however, for giving this meaning to the preposition. (2) The “spirit” has been referred to man’s corrupt will, as “lusting to envy,” in its bad sense, but the description of the Spirit as “implanted” or “dwelling” in us, is against this view. (3) In concurrence with the last interpretation, the question “Do ye think that the Scripture speaks in vain?” has been referred to what precedes the statement, that the friendship of the world is enmity with God; but this is at variance with the usual way in which quotations from the Old Testament are introduced in the New.

6 . But he giveth more grace ] Following the explanation already given, the sequence of thought seems to run thus: God loves us with a feeling analogous to the strongest form of jealousy, or even envy, but that jealousy does not lead Him, as it leads men, to be grudging in His gifts; rather does He bestow, as its result, a greater measure of His grace than before, or than He would do, were His attitude towards us one of strict unimpassioned Justice.

Wherefore he saith …] The nominative to the verb is not expressed, and we may, with almost equal fitness, supply the Scripture, the Spirit, or God.

God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble ] The point of the quotation lies in the last clause, as containing the proof of what St James had just asserted, that God gave His grace freely to those who thought themselves least worthy of it. It is to be noticed (1) that we again find St James quoting from one of the great sapiential books of the Old Testament (Proverbs 3:34 ), and (2) that St Peter also quotes it (1 Peter 5:5 ). That maxim of the wise of old had become, as it were, a law of life for the Community at Jerusalem. Clement of Rome follows their example (c. 30).

7 . Submit yourselves therefore to God ] The forms of the Greek verbs express a somewhat sharper antithesis than the English. God setteth himself against the proud, therefore, set yourselves as under God.

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you ] The rule seems to point to the true field for the exercise of the combative element which enters into man’s nature. Not in strife and bitterness against each other, not in setting themselves against the will of God, but in taking their stand against the Enemy of God and man were the disciples of Christ to shew that they were indeed men. We may, perhaps, trace in the form of the precept an indirect reference to the history of the Temptation in Matthew 4:1-40.4.11 .

8 10. The Call to Repentance

8 . Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you ] The “nearness to God,” to which the promise is attached, is primarily that which is involved in all true and earnest prayer, but it should not be forgotten that it includes also the approximation of character and life. We are to walk with God as Enoch walked (Genesis 5:24 ). The former sense is prominent in the LXX. use of the verb employed by St James, as in Hosea 12:6 , where in the English we have “ wait on thy God continually,” and Psalms 119:169 . An illustration of its meaning in the second clause is found in Job 19:21 , where it answers to the English “have pity on me.”

Cleanse your hands, ye sinners …] The words contrast, with an implied reference to our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 15:1-40.15.9 , the true cleanness of hands, which consists in abstinence from the evil that defiles (Psalms 24:4 ; 1 Timothy 2:8 ), with the merely ceremonial cleanness on which the Pharisees laid stress. Comp. Ch. 1:27.

purify your hearts …] The verb implies the same kind of purity as the adjective used in Ch. 3:17, primarily, that is, chastity of heart and life. It has here a special emphasis as contrasted with the “adulteresses” in verse 4, and with the special aspect of the “double-mindedness” which that word implied. See note on Ch. 1:8.

9 . Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep …] The words are nearly synonymous, the first pointing to the sense of misery (as in “O wretched man that I am” in Romans 7:24 ), the second to its general effect on demeanour, the last to its special outflow in tears. The two last verbs are frequently joined together, as in Mark 16:10 ; Luke 6:25 ; Revelation 18:15 . The words are an emphatic call to repentance, and the blessedness which follows on repentance. Here, as so often in the Epistle, we trace the direct influence of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4 ). The contrast between the “laughter” and the “mourning” in the clause that follows, makes the connexion all but absolutely certain. The “laughter” is that of the careless, selfish, luxurious rejoicing of the world, the “sport” of the fool in Proverbs 10:23 .

your joy to heaviness ] The Greek for the latter word expresses literally the downcast look of sorrow, and is as old in this sense as Homer,

“Joy to thy foes, but heavy shame to thee.”

Iliad iii. 51.

It exactly describes the attitude of the publican, who would not “lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven” (Luke 18:13 ).

10 . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up ] Better, he shall exalt , so as to preserve the manifest allusion to our Lord’s words as recorded in Matt, 23:12; Luke 14:12 , Luke 18:14 . Here again we have another striking parallel with St Peter’s language (1 Peter 5:6 ). There is, however, a difference as well as an agreement to be noticed. While the other passages speak mainly of humility in its relation to man, this dwells emphatically on its being manifested in relation to God.

11, 12. Rebuke of Evil-speaking

11 . Speak not evil one of another, brethren ] The last word indicates the commencement of a new section. It scarcely, however, introduces a new topic. The writer dwells with an iteration, needful for others, and not grievous to himself, (Philippians 3:1 ) on the ever-besetting sin of his time and people, against which he had warned his readers in Ch. 1:19, 20, 26, and throughout Ch. 3.

speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law …] The logical train of thought seems to run thus. To speak against a brother is to condemn him; to condemn, when no duty calls us to it, is to usurp the function of a judge. One who so usurps becomes ipso facto a transgressor of the law, the royal law, of Christ, which forbids judging (Matthew 7:1-40.7.5 ). The “brother” who is judged is not necessarily such as a member of the Christian society. The superscription of the Epistle includes under that title every one of the family of Abraham, perhaps, every child of Adam .

12 . There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy …] Here again we have to trace a latent sequence of thought. The Giver of the Law is, St James implies, the only true and ultimate Judge (comp. 1 Corinthians 4:4 , 1 Corinthians 4:5 ), able to award in perfect equity the sentence of salvation or destruction. Men who are called by His appointment to exercise the office of a judge do so as His delegates. Those who are not so called do well to abstain altogether from the work of judging. The description of God as “able to destroy” presents a striking parallel to Matthew 10:28 ; the question “Who art thou that judgest another?” to Romans 14:4 . On this point at least St Paul and St James were of one heart and mind. The word “destroy” does not necessarily either include or exclude the idea of annihilation.

13 17. Man proposing, God disposing

13 . Go to now, ye that say …] The warnings pass on to another form of the worldliness of the double-minded; the far-reaching plans for the future such as our Lord had condemned in the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16 ). It is significant that that parable follows in close sequence upon our Lord’s disclaimer of the office of a Judge. The opening formula, “Go to,” which meets us again in ch. 5:1, is peculiar to St James in the New Testament. It appears in the LXX. in Judges 19:6 ; 2 Kings 4:24 . It is obvious that the warning is addressed to Christians as well as Jews, so far as they were infected by the taint of worldliness. The MSS. vary between “to-day or to-morrow” and “to-day and to-morrow,” the latter implying the contemplation of a two days’ journey.

into such a city ] Literally, into this city , that which was present to the mind of the speaker.

14 . Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow ] Literally, the thing , or the event of to-morrow , the phrase, being parallel to “the things of the morrow” in Matthew 6:34 . St James partly reproduces that teaching, partly that of Proverbs 27:1 .

what is your life? …] Literally, of what nature your life is . The comparison that follows was one familiar to all the wise of heart who had meditated on the littleness of man’s life. It meets us in Job 7:7 ; Psalms 102:3 . A yet more striking parallel is found in Wisd. 5:9 14, with which St James may well have been familiar. The word for “vanishing away” occurs, it may be noted, in Wisd. 3:16. It is not without interest to note at once the agreement and the difference between St James’ counsel and that of the popular Epicureanism.

“Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quærere; et

Quem Fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro Appone.”

Horace, Od . i. 9.

“Strive not the morrow’s chance to know,

And count whate’er the Fates bestow,

As given thee for thy gain.”

It was not strange that those who thought only of this littleness, should deem that their only wisdom lay in making the most of that little in and by itself, and take “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32 ) as their law of life. St James had been taught to connect man’s life with a Will higher than his own, and so to take the measure of its greatness as well as of its littleness.

15 . For that ye ought to say …] Literally, Instead of saying , but the English may be admitted as a fair paraphrase.

If the Lord will, we shall live …] This is the reading of the better MSS. The Received Text gives “If the Lord will, and we live, we will do this or that.” The sense is substantially the same with either, but it is perhaps, more expressive to refer both life and action to the one Supreme Will. It is better here to refer the word “Lord” to God in His Absolute Unity, without any thought of the distinction of the Persons. The reference of all the contingencies of the future to one supremely wise and loving Will has been in all ages of Christendom the stay and strength of devout souls. It has left its mark, even where it has not always been received as a reality, in familiar formulæ, such as “God willing,” Deo Volente , or even the abbreviated D. V. There is, perhaps, a special interest in noting that St Paul uses the self-same formula as St James in reference to his plans for the future (1 Corinthians 4:19 ).

16 . But now ye rejoice in your boastings ] Better, ye exult in your vain glories . If the words were not too familiar, ye glory in your braggings would, perhaps, be a still nearer equivalent. The noun is found in 1 John 2:16 (“the pride of life”), and not elsewhere in the New Testament. It is defined by Aristotle ( Eth. Nicom . iv. 13) as the character of the man who lays claim to what will bring him credit when the claim is either altogether false or grossly exaggerated. He contrasts it with the “irony” which deliberately, with good or bad motive, understates its claims. The “now” is more or less emphatic, = “as things are.”

17 . Therefore to him that knoweth to do good …] The law of conscience is here enforced in its utmost width. To leave undone what we know we ought to do, is sin, even though there be no outward act of what men call crime or vice. The bearing of the general axiom on the immediate context is obviously that though men assented then, as we too often assent, to the abstract truth of the shortness of life and the uncertainty of the future, they went on practically as before with far-stretching calculations. Such men need to be reminded that this inconsistency is of the very essence of sin.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on James 4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/james-4.html. 1896.