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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books

James 4

Verses 1-17

Chapter Four - A Submissive Faith

Faith is hindered by strife and contention, by prayerlessness and by worldliness. Of these James treats in Chapter 4 and shows that submission to the will of God enables one to overcome all these tendencies and so to walk in faith, looking to God for His guidance from day to day.

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:1-59.4.3).

Nothing is sadder than grievous misunderstandings among saints. How often whole churches are in uproar over the self-will of one or two who are quarreling over some question of precedence or of manner of service! Wars and fightings (or, brawlings, as the margin has it) arise from the lusts which war in our members-that is, unrestrained and unlawful desires struggling for fulfilment in our very being.

“Ye lust, and have not.” The natural heart is never contented. As brought out so vividly in the book of Ecclesiastes, nothing under the sun can satisfy the heart of the man who is made for eternity. “Ye envy (see margin), and desire to have.” The seemingly better fortune of others, instead of leading us to congratulate our brethren in sincerity because of what it has pleased God to bestow upon them, fills us with envy and jealousy if we are not walking in faith and in the Spirit. Thus comes that unholy restlessness which produces strife and confusion. Like spoiled children we become fretful and quarrelsome; nothing pleases. We are continually looking for something new in order that we may obtain the satisfaction which ever seems to elude us. We try everything else before we go to God, forgetting that He alone can meet our needs. Job’s friends falsely accused him of restraining prayer (Job 15:4), but the accusation could justly be brought against us. Our Lord has bidden us ask that we might receive. We have not, because we ask not. How true this is of many of us. While God our Father has vast stores of grace and mercy which He is waiting to bestow upon us, we fail to ask, and so we do not receive. We complain of living on at a “poor dying rate;” but the fault is entirely our own. We do not stir ourselves up to pray unto God. And by this very spirit of prayerlessness we give evidence of the low state into which we have fallen.

When at last we do attempt to avail ourselves of the privilege of prayer our petitions are so self-centered and so concerned about the gratification of our own desires that God cannot in faithfulness grant our requests. True prayer is not asking’ God to do what we want, but first of all it is asking Him to enable us to do that which He would have us do. Too often we endeavor by prayer to control God instead of taking the place of submission to His holy will. Thus we ask and receive not; because if God answered by giving what we desire we would but consume it on our lusts, or pleasures. To pray aright there must be a separated life, with God Himself before our souls as the supreme object of our affections.

“Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:4-59.4.5).

Some manuscripts omit the first term “adulterers” and read, “Ye adulteresses.” It is as though the Lord were charging us with being like a wife who has proven herself unfaithful to her husband. It is God Himself, revealed in Christ, to whom we owe our fullest affection and allegiance. Worldliness is spiritual adultery. “The friendship of the world is enmity with God.” “The world” refers of course, not to the material universe, but to that ordered system which has rejected Christ. It consists of men and women under the domination of Satan, who is both the prince and the god of this world. Whosoever attempts to go on with the world in any measure is guilty of disloyalty to Him whom it has spurned and crucified, and he who determines to be a friend of it, constitutes himself an enemy of God.

Many are the warnings in Scripture against this unholy alliance of the children of God with the children of the devil. Through the history of God’s dealings with His people He has always called them to holy separation to Himself. It has ever been the effort of the devil to break down this wall of separation and to lead the two groups to become so intermingled that all vital testimony for God is destroyed. It is impossible to go on in fellowship with the world and yet to walk in fellowship with God. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).

Verse 5 (James 4:5) is perhaps a bit obscure as we have it in our Authorized Version. “Do ye think that the scripture speaketh in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” Some have thought the reference was to a part of Genesis 8:21, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” But this appears to be very far-fetched. Might we not rather read the verse as a question and an assertion? First, “Do ye think that the scripture speaketh in vain?” That is, can we imagine that the many warnings against worldliness found throughout Scripture are all merely empty phrases? Surely not. The Scripture speaks solemnly and definitely against this evil, and we refuse obedience at our peril. Then the last half of the verse refers to the gracious work of the Holy Spirit rather than to the restless cravings of our human spirits. “The Spirit who dwelleth in us yearns enviously.” He is grieved and distressed when we prove unfaithful to the Christ who has redeemed us and to the Father who has blessed us so richly. He yearns over us with a holy envy or jealousy, for our God is a jealous God. He would have us wholly for Himself. A divided allegiance means disaster in our own experience and dishonors Him who rightfully claims us as His own. We may shrink from complete surrender to His will, involving utter separation from the world, but as Augustine said, “God’s commandings are God’s enablings.” What He requests He gives us ability to do.

“But He giveth more grace. Wherefore He saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up” (James 4:6-59.4.10).

Elsewhere we are bidden to come boldly to a throne of grace, that we may find grace for seasonable help. That grace is given freely to all who come to God in the spirit of self-judgment, seeking the needed strength to so behave ourselves as to glorify Him. He, whose we are and whom we should ever serve, is ready always to supply the needed strength that we may rise above the allurements of the world. But we must approach His throne in lowliness of spirit, for “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the lowly,” as David witnesses in Psalms 138:6, and Solomon likewise in Proverbs 3:34.

As with repentant hearts we bow in submission to the will of God we obtain the grace needed to triumph over every foe. We need not even fear the great arch-enemy of God and men, the devil. We need not run in terror from his assaults or faint in fear when he seeks to overcome us. All we need to do is to stand firmly on the ground of redemption, resisting Satan in the power of faith. Notice how both James and Peter agree in this as they write under the guidance of the overruling Holy Spirit. Here James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you/’ Peter declares: “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-60.5.9). By the use of the Word and in dependence on God in prayer we become impregnable against the assaults of the evil one. The old saying is true,

“Satan trembles when he sees, The weakest saint upon his knees.”

It was at “Forgetful Green” where he was taken off-guard that Christian was on the point of being defeated by Apollyon, but when he regained the sword of the Spirit, the foe fled.

Several intensely practical admonitions follow in the next three verses. “Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.” He never refuses to meet the one who sincerely seeks His face. Surely we can each say with David, “It is good for me to draw near to God” (Psalms 73:28). To fail to avail ourselves of this privilege is to wrong our own souls as well as to dishonor Him who invites us to draw nigh. But if we would thus approach Him we must come with clean hands and pure hearts, for He detests hypocrisy and double-mindedness. We must come, too, with chastened spirits; so we read, “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.”

Far too long have we been careless and unconcerned. The place of repentance and sorrow for our many sins, becomes us. God has been dishonored by our levity and worldliness; but as we take the place of confession and self-judgment before Him, He is ready to grant us forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for the conflict before us.

His promise is definite, and He will never retract it. He says, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up.” He will not upbraid us for our past failures, for when we judge ourselves we shall not be judged (1 Corinthians 11:31).

He is ever ready to reach out the hand of help when we come to the end of ourselves.

“Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth die law: but if thou judge die law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” (James 4:11-59.4.12).

If saints are to walk together in mutual respect and fellowship there must be no indulgence in evil-speaking. So we read, “Speak not evil one of another, brethren.” To do so is to reflect on God Himself, who in His infinite love and mercy has received us all and put us into this place of holy fellowship one with another. He is the supreme Lawgiver to whom each one is accountable. If I pass judgment on my brethren I am speaking evil of the law and therefore reflecting upon Him who gave it. Each is to answer for himself before God. I cannot answer for my brother, nor he for me. We are all alike called to be doers of the law-that is, to render obedience to the Word. Evil-speaking is in itself disobedience. So if I indulge in and speak disparagingly of my brother, condemning him for disobedience, I am utterly inconsistent, because I am disobedient also. Each must give account directly to God “who is able to save and to destroy.” What right then have I to judge another? Paul’s words are apropos here, “Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Our Lord Jesus Himself has commanded us, saying, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). How easily we forget such admonitions!

The life of faith is one of daily dependence on the Lord, as emphasized in the closing verses of this chapter.

“Go to now, ye that say, To-day or to-morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:13-59.4.17).

Although we know that no man can be sure of even another hour of life, let alone of days, months, and years, yet we make our plans and arrangements as though we were sure of being here for years to come. It is not wrong to do this if all is held as in subjection to the divine will. Manifestly we must look ahead and so seek to order our affairs that we can do what is right and necessary as the time goes by. But we are here warned against making such plans in independence of God. In Proverbs 27:1 we read, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” And here we are told. “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow.” It would seem hardly necessary to be reminded of this, and yet we forget it so readily.

Our life is but as a breath. It is ours for a little time-at the most a few score years-then it vanishes away. We are the creatures of a day; yet we act as though we were going to be here forever!

God would have us dependent on Himself from day to day. In looking forward to the future we should seek to know His will. This involves, not merely writing “D. V.” (Deo Volente, “God willing”), when we suggest a date for a certain purpose, but also it implies seeking the mind of God before making any such arrangements at all. All should be subject to His will, and if He be pleased to preserve us in life here on earth. To act otherwise is to take an attitude of independence which ill becomes those whose existence here may be terminated at any moment. To forget this and to act in pride, rejoicing in our boastings, is to dishonor God. “All such rejoicing is evil.”

James brings this section to a close with the serious reminder, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Sin is any want of conformity to the will of God. When He makes known that will our responsibility is to act accordingly. Otherwise we miss the mark and incur the divine displeasure. The more clearly God has revealed His mind and the better we understand it, the greater is our responsibility.

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Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on James 4". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.