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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

James 4

Verses 1-17

James 4:1

At the coiner of old maps of the world, of the fifteenth century, may be noted a large, blank space, without form and without name, whereon these three words are inscribed: Hic sunt leones . This sombre corner exists also in man. The passions prowl around and mutter, somewhere within us, and it may be said also of one dark spot in our souls: 'Here are lions'.

Victor Hugo.

'Politics, domestic and foreign, are very discouraging,' wrote Sydney Smith in a letter in 1827. 'Jesuits abroad, Turks in Greece, No-Poperists in England! A panting to burn B; B fuming to roast C; C miserable that he cannot reduce D to ashes; and D consigning to eternal perdition the three first letters of the alphabet.'

References. IV. 1. E. W. Attwood, Sermons for Clergy and Laity, p. 488. IV. 1-6. R. W. Dale, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 193. IV. 1-16. R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James, p. 121. IV. 2, 3. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1682. IV. 3. Preacher's Magazine, vol. xviii. p. 370. C. G. Finney, Penny Pulpit, No. 1559, pp. 105, 113. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 178.

James 4:4

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice.

Thoreau, Walden.

James 4:4

The friendship of the world ought to be a 'pearl of great price,' for its cost is very serious.

John Foster, On the Aversion of Men of Taste to Evangelical Religion (VII.).

It is as possible for a man to worship a crocodile, and yet be a pious man, as to have his affections set upon this world, and yet be a good Christian.' William Law.

References. IV. 4. H. Bonar, Short Sermons for Family Reading, p. 263.

James 4:6

'Sometimes of late,' wrote Carlyle to his mother, 'I have bethought me of some of your old maxims about pride and vanity. I do see this same vanity to be the root of half the evil men are subject to in life. Examples of it stare me in the face every day. The pitiful passion, under any of the thousand forms which it assumes, never fails to wither out the good and worthy part of a man's character, and leave him poor and spiteful, an enemy to his own peace and that of all about him. There never was a wiser doctrine than that of Christian humility, considered as a corrective for the coarse, unruly selfishness of man's nature.'

Satan suggested today that I could never have a high place in heaven: and this proud imagination vexed me till the Lord showed me reason to be contented if I got to heaven at all.

Dr. A. A. Bonar, Diary, p. 16.

James 4:6

Pride and humility are the two master-powers, the two kingdoms in strife for the eternal possession of man.

William Law.

References. IV. 6. W. R. Inge, All Saints' Sermons, 1905-07, p. 143. Bishop Winnington Ingrain, A Mission of the Spirit, p. 178. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 101.

James 4:7

Speaking in Mark Rutherford's Deliverance (ch. VI.) of the 'duty of duties to suppress revolt and to submit sometimes calmly and cheerfully to the Creator,' the writer adds: 'This surely, under a thousand disguises, has been the meaning of all the forms of worship which we have seen in the world. Pain and death are nothing new, and men have been driven into perplexed scepticism and even insurrection by them, ever since men came into being.'

Perfect reverence, or willing submission, implies love mere deference to power is quite another thing, and not religion at all.

W. B. Rands, Memoirs of Henry Holbeach , II. p. 66.

James 4:7

As it is said that ferocious animals are disarmed by the eye of man, and will dare no violence if he but steadily look at them, so is it when right looks upon wrong. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you; offer him a bold front, and he runs away. He goes, it may be, uttering threats of rage, but yet he goes! So is it that all the great, efficient men of the world are made.


Rich, indeed, in moral instruction was the life of Charles Lamb; and perhaps in one chief result it offers to the thoughtful observer a lesson of consolation that is awful, and of hope that ought to be immortal, viz. in the record which it furnishes, that by meekness of submission, and by earnest conflict with evil, in the spirit of cheerfulness, it is possible ultimately to disarm or to blunt the very heaviest of curses even the curse of lunacy.

De Quincey, Charles Lamb.

References. IV. 7. J. E. Wakerley, Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1276. J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. i. p. 151. IV. 7, 8. G. Bellett, Parochial, Sermons, p. 124. IV. 7-10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiv. No. 1408.

James 4:8

Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open.


James 4:8

So high as a tree aspires to grow, so high it will find an atmosphere suited to it.


Reference. IV. 8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlviii. No. 2795.

James 4:9

'Our sadness,' wrote Thoreau in one of his letters,' is not sad, but our cheap joys. Let us be sad about all we see and are, for so we demand and pray for better.'

James 4:11

Those who themselves need the charitable judgment of other people should above all things be lenient in their own judgments. For my part I consider the best and most finished type of man to be the person who is always ready to make allowances for others, on the ground that never a day passes without his being in fault himself, yet who keeps us clear of faults as if he never pardoned them in others.'

Pliny the Younger.

Reference. IV. 11. J. Weller, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 356.

James 4:12 ; James 5:16

I wonder what proportion our secret intercession bears to our open criticism. 1 should fear it was very little; for I cannot help fancying that if we prayed more we should feel that we prayed so little, that we should not dare, for shame's sake, to talk at all.

F. W. Faber, All for Jesus, p. 124.

James 4:12

Listen to an hour of conversation in any Christian company. How much of it turns almost of necessity, as it would seem, on the action and characters of others! The meaning of judging others appears to be this: the judgment-seat of our Divine Lord is, as it were, already set upon the earth. But it is empty. It is waiting for Him. We meanwhile, unmannerly and unbidden, keep ascending the steps, enthroning ourselves upon the seat, and anticipating and mimicking His judgment of our brethren.

F. W. Faber, Growth in Holiness, pp. 91, 92.

References. IV. 12. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 5. IV. 13, 14. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. i. p. 302. IV. 13-15. C. M. Betts ( Eight Sermons ), p. 26. IV. 13-17. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxviii. No. 2242.

The Two Agnosticisms

James 4:14

Here is an instance of real agnosticism. We find that instance in the period of time which we glibly talk of as tomorrow. No man has seen tomorrow, no man can see tomorrow, tomorrow is not within the visual line, and is not within the line of calculation unless the line be approached religiously. We have no right to speak about tomorrow as if we had any lien upon it or any right to its possession and enjoyment. We can only enter the sanctuary called tomorrow by the gate Beautiful, the gate of God's temple, the portal of the sanctuary of the Eternal. When we speak of tomorrow we should speak in an undertone; when we speak of the coming time we should whisper to ourselves lest we disturb some avenging ghost who is jealous of being spoken about without the customary and established sanctions. This is to change the whole range and tenor of conversation. We have to be religious even in making appointments.

I. Let us personalise the morrow; let us no longer think of it as some mere grade or shadow of time, let us rather regard it as a personality, a presence, looking at us though we cannot look at it; and the contention of the religious thinker is that tomorrow is in its own way and degree as great a mystery as God. That is the reflection which rebukes me when I want to settle down upon the swamp which by a falsification of realities I call the rock of agnosticism. I will take you away from the metaphysical and the supposedly distant and transcendental, and. I will shut you up with your own days; you have today and yesterday and tomorrow, I will bring you into the court and ask you, Have you seen tomorrow? do you know what shall be on the morrow? are you sure there will be a tomorrow? are you sure you will live to see it? Let us no longer have the drivel talk about not being able to know God even if there is a God until we are prepared to apply our own foolish reasoning to the spirit, the spectre, called tomorrow, unseen, invisible. It may come so may God!

II. If I reject God upon the grounds which have been indicated I shall also reject the next harvest that is supposed to be coming. I want to show by these simple illustrations how vast an area is covered by the not-knowing and the supposed not-knowableness of God. Has any man seen next harvest? Yesterday has not pledged tomorrow; ten million harvests have not pledged the next harvest, and even if it were bound by a written and sealed oath, so far as men are concerned nobody can say that by some operation of socalled nature the whole world may not be blown away in white ashes, so that there shall be neither husbandman nor farmer, neither sower of seed nor swinger of scythe and sickle.

III. Even suppose that we do not know tomorrow, it is unwise to exclude it from our thought. Even suppose that we do not know God, and cannot know God unto perfection, we are not therefore made wise by extruding Him from the temple of our thought. The not-knowable may be the true wisdom, and we are not able to know what we do know until we properly appreciate the not-knowable.

I believe that God has revealed Himself to the mind and heart of man; I do not believe that man has found out God, but I believe that God has found out man.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. I. p. 20.

What Is Your Life?

James 4:14

These may be said to be two ways of looking at life, each of which finds favour just now with a wide circle of people. First, the theory that life is everything and eternity nothing, and secondly, The theory that life is nothing and eternity everything. Now, those who hold the first of these, object to the time-view of life altogether. The strength of this school is in their great view of life: their weakness and error, in their little view of time. The second view is the more antiquated, perhaps the more illiterate. Life, with it, is nothing at all. Eternity is the great thing. The strength of this school is that it recognises eternity: its weakness, and its great error, that it refuses to think of life and spoils the thought of eternity for those who do. The man who is really concerned to live well must possess himself continually of the thought that he is not to live long.

If we were to go over the conceptions of life which have been held by great men in succeeding ages of the world, we should find scarce anything new, scarce anything which the Bible had not used before. There lie scattered throughout this Book no fewer than eighteen of these answers, and all in metaphor, to the question, 'What is your life?' It is.

A tale that is told.

A pilgrimage.

A swift post.

A swift ship.

A handbreadth.

A shepherd's tent removed.

A thread cut by the weaver.

A dream.

A sleep.

A vapour.

A shadow.

A flower.

A weaver's shuttle.

Water spilt on the ground.




Generally speaking, the first thing to strike one about these images is that they are all quick things there is a suggestion of brevity and evanescence about them, and this feeling is so strong that we might fancy there was only one answer to the question, What is your life? namely, Your life is short. But if we look closer at them for a moment, shades of difference will begin to appear, and we shall find the hints of other meanings as great and striking and quite as necessary to complete the conception of 'your life'. Three of these metaphors give this answer:

I. Your life is a very little thing. (1) A shadow. It is unreal, it is illusory. (2) A shepherd's tent removed. (3) A tale that is told.

II. There is next another set of metaphors which bring out the more common answer that life is a short thing. It is a handbreadth: a weaver's shuttle; nothing; an eagle hasting to the prey; a swift post; a swift ship.

III. The next thought is so closely allied to this that one can scarcely separate it but for convenience. It suggests the idea of transitoriness.

IV. Life is an irrevocable thing. Our book has a wonderful metaphor for this 'water spilt upon the ground which cannot be gathered up again'.

V. Life is an uncertain thing.

Henry Drummond. The Ideal Life and other Addresses, p. 235.

Human Life, Perishing and Immortal

James 4:14 ; 1 John 2:17

These passages indicate the solemn and arresting paradox which is presented by every child of man. On the one hand, he is a fragile and transient phenomenon; on the other he may be the co-worker with his Creator, and sharer of His immortality. That paradox, thus stated, only exists, of course, for those who regard humanity from the religious point of view; but, though in less awful form, it must needs present itself to every reflective observer of human life. Religion does but offer an explanation of an enigma which itself admits of no dispute. For the contrast between the grandeur of man's designs and the permanence of his achievements, on the one hand, and his physical weakness and the pitiful shortness and insecurity of his life on the other, cannot be avoided or explained away. Very powerfully, yet with characteristic quaintness, the certainty of death was pressed on his hearers by the most eloquent of Deans of St Paul's, in a sermon which was preached in Whitehall on the first Friday in Lent, 1630. It was the last sermon which Donne preached, and men afterwards commented on the singular fitness of the subject, and the extraordinary solemnity of the preacher: 'This whole world is but an universal churchyard, but one common grave, and the life and motion, that the greatest persons have in it, is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their graves by an earthquake. That which we call life is but a week of deaths, seven days, seven periods of our life spent in dying; a dying seven times over, and there is an end. Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age; and age also dies, and determines all.'

I. This note of sombre severity is now rarely heard. The modern preacher has caught so much of the secularist tendency of the time as to avoid everything which might seem to suggest some belittlement of the urgent claims of the present. Yet I must needs think there is an element of weakness in this avoidance of those solemn and elementary facts, which are, when all is said, the grand determining postulates of the religious life. For indeed, the claims of the present are not likely to be appraised rightly until they are seen in connection with a vivid and abiding consciousness of the transiency of all terrestrial things, nor is the real importance of the present perceived until it is seen in relation to a future which stretches illimitably beyond the grave. Forgotten myriads who have lived on this earth before us seem to offer their piteous and unavailing protest; and we perforce make our own their melancholy words: 'Our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall remember our works; and our life shall pass away as the traces of a cloud, and shall be scattered as a mist, when it is chased by the beams of the sun, and overcome by the heat thereof. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and our end retreateth not.'

II. Turn to the more inspiring message of St John. He, perhaps, is also living in a great city; but, unlike St James, he has been carried far from the scenes of his youth, and is ending his life among men of alien speech, and strange worship. Ephesus, as he knows it, is one of the most famous cities of the Empire. It is a flourishing seat of world-wide commerce: an important political centre; above all, one of the sacred places of paganism to which from far and near pilgrims gather for worship. Wealth abounds and the culture which wealth enables. Ephesus is glorious with buildings and statues. A magnificent and sensual superstition utters itself in the great temple of Artemis and excites the minds, while it pollutes the lives of a numerous and fanatical population. In Ephesus also, scarcely regarded amid so many larger and more arresting features, there is a Christian Church in which Apostles have preached and saints have lived and died. St. John is the last of the comrades of Christ; and, ere he in turn passes from sight, he sets his pen to paper in order to give a final message to his brethren in the Faith. He feels the strange power of the mighty moving city; he fears the attraction of its crowded various life; he sees through its pompous and confident prosperity; and he points his children in Christ to the veiled and greater life which has been brought to them through the Gospel.

III. 'Follow Me.' These are words that shatter all our pessimism as we stand amid dead and dying things. So much is the mark of decay upon it. So much of what once was vigorous and vital is now felt to be decadent. There is so much to regret in what is slowly and inevitably vanishing. The backward currents drag at our feet. They suck us down towards the melancholy seas that moan out their sorrow for all that has been lost. We might so easily surrender ourselves to the sad refrain of the preacher: 'All go to one place. Nothing stays. All are of the dust. And all turn to dust. As the one dieth so dieth the other. Vanity of vanities.'

If our hopes were limited by earthly horizons we could hardly fail to yield to the cold clutch of death. We should lose heart. We should go under with that which perishes. We should have the sentence of death in ourselves.

But through it all a voice rings like a trumpet, 'Follow Me'. 'Follow on.' There is more to come than has ever yet been seen. There is a new task to open on us, a new race to be run, a new day to dawn, a new victory to be won. Christ holds in Himself the potency of a better and fairer earth than all that we are losing. He can bring into being a purer humanity than we have yet dreamed of. There shall be cities built free from ancient wrongs, and sweet and clean and wholesome boys and girls shall be playing in their streets without a fear. There shall be a day when they shall not hurt or slay in all God's Holy Mountain. There are golden years ahead and a new heaven and a new earth. Let the past go, there is better to come.

This is no vague fancy without reason or support. For Christ is already King and Lord. Already He is on the throne and holds the keys of death and hell. Already He possesses the powers that can achieve what He promises. He is sufficient for it all. We have our grounds for trusting Him. We know His redeeming efficiency in our bodies and in our souls. He can do all things; for He can do for others what He has done for us.

H. Hensley Henson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXXIX. p. 22.

James 4:14

Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future.

Emerson, on Experience.

'It is one of the most solemn things I do,' he said to one of his children, who asked him why, in the title-page of his MS. volume of sermons, he always wrote the date only of its commencement, and left a blank for that of its completion, 'to write the beginning of that sentence and think that I may perhaps not live to finish it.'

Stanley's Life of Dr. Arnold, II. 269.

It costs me many a pang when I reflect that I shall probably never have resolution enough to take another journey to see this best and sincerest of friends, who loves me as much as my mother did! but it is idle to look forward what is next year a bubble that may burst for her or for me before even the flying year can hurry to the end of its almanack!

Horace Walpole's Letters (7th September, 1769).

Compare the abrupt close of Sir Walter Scott's Journal, which breaks off suddenly at the moment of his illness in 1832, with the unfinished sentence: 'We slept reasonably, but on the next morning '

James 4:14

I cannot laud this life, it looks so dark; Σκιᾶς ὄναρ dream of a shadow, go:

God bless you, I shall join you in a day.

Tennyson, 'To Rev. W. H. Brookfield'.

James 4:14

All that belongs to the body is a stream, and what pertains to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion.

Marcus Aurelius.

In looking back, it sometimes appears to me as if I had in a manner slept out my life in a dream or shadow on the side of the hill of knowledge, where I have fed on books, on thoughts, on pictures, and only heard in half-murmurs the trampling of busy feet, or the noises of the throng below.

Hazlitt, on The Fear of Death.

References. IV. 14. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1773. J. Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. i. p. 20. W. J. Knox-Little, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 201. L. D. Bevan, Sermons to Students, p. 187. Reuen Thomas, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 211. F. St. John Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 112. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 237. J. N. Friend, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xviii. p. 220. J. Aspinall, Parish Sermons (2nd Series), p. 199. H. H. Henson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxii. p. 1.

James 4:15

Lord, when in any writing I have occasion to insert these passages, God willing, God lending me life, etc., I observe, Lord, that I can scarce hold my hand from encircling these words in a parenthesis, as if they were not essential to the sentence, but may as well be left out as put in. Whereas, indeed, without them all the rest is nothing; wherefore hereafter I will write these words full and fairly, without any enclosure about them. Let critics censure it for bad grammar, I am sure it is good divinity.

Thomas Fuller.

James 4:17

'This year,' wrote Dr. Andrew Bonar once in his Diary, 'omissions have distressed me more than anything.'

Reference. IV. 17. G. W. Brameld, Practical Sermons (2nd Series), p. 267.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on James 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.