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Bible Commentaries

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

James 4



James 4:1-6 Our evil lusts and passions tend to breed quarrels among ourselves, and to set us at enmity with God.

James 4:7-10 The way to overcome them, and recover God’s favour.

James 4:11,James 4:12 Against detraction and censoriousness.

James 4:13-17 We must not presume on the future, but commit ourselves to God’s providence.

Verse 1

Wars and fightings; either it may be understood properly of insurrections, and tumults, in which, possibly, some carnal professors might be engaged; or rather, strife and contention about outward things, wranglings among themselves, and going to law, especially before unbelieving judges, 1 Corinthians 6:1.

Your lusts; Greek, pleasures, i.e. those lusts whereof pleasure is the end, which is therefore put for the lusts themselves: he means the over eager desire of riches, worldly greatness, carnal delights, Titus 3:3, where lusts and pleasures go together.

That war; oppose and tumultuate against reason, conscience, grace, Romans 7:23; 1 Peter 2:11.

In your members; not only the members of the body, but faculties of the soul, exercised by them; all the parts of man unrenewed, Colossians 3:5, which are used as weapons of unrighteousness, Romans 6:13.

Verse 2

Ye lust; passionately and greedily desire.

And have not; either soon lose, or rather cannot get, what ye so lust after.

Ye kill; some copies have it, ye envy, and many suppose that to be the better reading, as agreeing with the context, and with James 3:14; envy being the cause of strife there, and joined with emulation, or a desire of having, here. We read it according to other copies, ye kill, which, if he speaketh of wars in a proper sense, James 4:1, was, no doubt, the effect of them; and if he speak only of strife and contentions, yet they might proceed so far, that the death of some (though not intended) might be the consequent of them, and occasioned by them. Or, he may mean their murderous desires, killing men in their hearts, wishing for and gaping after their death, that they might gain by it; and this agrees with what he speaks of the frustration of their greedy desires, none being more frequently disappointed of their hopes than they that hope to be gainers by other men’s deaths.

And disire to have; or, emulate, i.e. ambitiously affect to have what ye see others have, grieving that they should have more than you.

And cannot obtain; viz; that which ye envy others’ having.

Ye fight and war: you wrangle and quarrel with your neighbours for what they have, that ye may get it for yourselves.

Yet ye have not; ye are still needy, though still craving; your lusts are infinite and insatiable in themselves, and no way helpful to you.

Because ye ask not; viz. of God by prayer, who hath promised to give to them that ask, Matthew 7:7, not to them that war and fight. Instead of humble seeking to God for what ye want, ye would extort it by force or fraud from one another.

Verse 3

Ye ask; he prevents an objection; q.d. Admit you do pray for the good things you want, or, though you pray for them.

Ye ask amiss; though you pray for good things, yet you do not pray well, or in a right manner, not according to God’s will, 1 John 5:14, and therefore ye are not to complain of not being heard.

That ye may consume it upon your lusts; you pray for the things of this life only, that you may have wherewith to please the flesh, and gratify your carnal appetites, and so an evil end spoils good means; and while you would have God serve your lusts you lose your prayers.

Verse 4

Ye adulterers and adulteresses; he means adulterers and adulteresses in a spiritual sense, i.e. worldly-minded Christians, who being, by profession, married to the Lord, yet gave up those affections to the things of the world which were due to God only. The like expression is used, Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4.

Know ye not; ye ought to know, and cannot but know.

That the friendship of the world; inordinate affection to the world, addictedness or devotedness to the things or men of the world.

Is enmity with God; alienates the sole from God, and God from it, 1 John 2:15.

Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world; if it be the purpose and resolution of a man’s heart to get in with the world, though perhaps he cannot obtain its favour; he courts it, though it be coy to him.

Is the enemy of God; exerciseth hostility against God, by adhering to an interest so contrary to him.

Verse 5

Do ye think that the Scripture saith in vain? Greek, emptily, or vainly, i.e. to no purpose. This question hath the force of a negation, q.d. It doth not speak in vain.

Question. What is it which the Scripture doth not speak in vain?

Answer. Either those truths he had been speaking of before, particularly in the former verse, that the friendship of the world is enmity with God; or, that which follows in this verse, the spirit that dwelleth in us, & c.

The spirit that dwelleth in us; either the Spirit of God, who is said to dwell in believers, 1 Corinthians 3:16,1 Corinthians 3:17; or the spirit of men, viz. as defiled by sin, and acted by the devil, who works in men while children of disobedience; and then it is the same as corrupt nature.

Lusteth to envy; either is vehemently carried out to envy, or makes us lust, and carrieth us out to it; or lusteth against envy: so the Greek preposition is often used, as Luke 20:19; Ephesians 6:11; Hebrews 12:4. Under envy he comprehends all other fleshly lusts, but instanceth in this particularly, as having been speaking of it before, James 3:14,James 3:16; and because it hath so near a connection with other lusts, whereof it is the cause, or concomitant, and so is a principal member of the old man. This latter clause may either be read interrogatively or affirmatively; and then according as we take spirit, either for the Spirit of God, or the human spirit, the sense of the words may be either:

1. Doth the Spirit of God, that dwelleth in us, lust unto envy, i.e. incline and dispose us to so base an affection? The answer is understood: No, and confirmed by the next words, he giveth more grace, gives freely, liberally, and therefore doth not make us envy others any good they have. Nothing is more contrary to the Spirit of God, who abounds in his gifts to us, than to make us envy others theirs. Or:

2. We may understand it without any interrogation, taking the preposition to signify, against; and then the sense is: That good Spirit which is in us teacheth us better things than strife and envy, &c., for it lusteth against envy, i.e. makes us lust against it, carries out our hearts to hate and resist it. And this well agrees with what follows; The Spirit, &c., lusts against envy, but he gives more grace, viz. than to envy the good f others. Or:

3. If spirit here be understood of the spirit of man, corrupt nature, the sense is plain, as the words lie; man’s spirit (especially by the instigation of the devil) lusts, or strongly inclines, to envy, and consequently to other wickednesses, but he (that is, God, James 4:4) gives more grace.

Question. Where is any such sentence to be found in the Scripture?

Answer. No where in so many words; but which soever of these ways we take the words, we find the sense in the Scripture. Joshua’s envying Eldad and Medad’s prophesying, for Moses’s sake, seems to be an instance of this lust, Numbers 11:29, (compared with Genesis 6:5; Genesis 8:21, where the general inclination of man’s heart by nature is said to be evil), and Moses’s not envying them an instance of the two former.

Verse 6

But he; either the Spirit of God, if spirit in the former verse be understood of the Spirit of God; or God, if spirit be there taken for the spirit of man.

Giveth more grace; either, though we, according to our natural inclination, be envious, yet God (or his Spirit) is bountiful and liberal; or God gives to those that are renewed, more grace than to be hurried on by their own old spirit, to envy, strife, and suchlike lusts.

Wherefore he saith; God saith, viz. in the Spripture: or it may be taken indefinitely, and impersonally, for, it is said. The particular place he refers to, is Proverbs 3:34, according to the translation of the LXX., which not only James, but other New Testament writers, frequently follow.

God resisteth; it is a military term: God sets himself, as in battle, against the proud, defying, beating down, exposing to contempt, and destroying them; he is so far from giving them more gifts, that he rather spoils them, as sworn enemies, of what they have.

The proud; those that by reason of the gifts God hath given them, lift themselves above others: Solomon, in the parallel place, calls them scorners; it being the usual guise of those that think over-well of themselves, to despise others, and even contemn the warnings and judgments of God himself, which may well draw him out to fight against them.

But giveth grace unto the humble; not only gives favour and honour in the sight of men to those that are lowly in their own eyes, but especially furnisheth them with grace for the overcoming and mortifying their carnal desires and remaining corruptions.

Verse 7

Submit yourselves therefore to God; viz. voluntarily and freely, and that not only in a way of obedience to all his commands, but (which is chiefly meant here) in a way of humility, and sense of your weakness, and emptiness, and need of his grace.

Therefore; both because of the danger of pride, (opposed in the former verse to humility), he resisteth the proud; and because of the benefit that comes by humility, he giveth grace to the humble.

Resist, by faith, and the rest of the spiritual armour, Ephesians 6:13,Ephesians 6:14, &c. Or, resist, i.e. comply not with his motions and temptations.

The devil; the head and leader of fleshly lusts. These likewise are military terms. Having spoken before of strife and contention, he directs here with whom we may, and with whom we may not, contend. He had commended modesty toward men, they are our equals, we must not lift ourselves above them, nor envy nor strive with them; here he adviseth to submission to God as our supreme Governor, we must not contend with him; and to open war with the devil as our great enemy, our contention must be with him.

And he will flee from you; as to that particular assault in which you resist him; and though he return again, and tempt you again, yet you still resisting, he will still be overcome; ye are never conquered so long as you do not consent.

Verse 8

Draw nigh to God; by faith, which is a coming to God, Hebrews 7:25; by true repentance, which is a returning to God, Hosea 14:1; Malachi 3:7; and by fervent prayer to him for the help of his grace, Psalms 25:1.

And he will draw nigh to you; by the manifestation of his grace and favour to you, particularly giving you strength against the devil and your lusts.

Cleanse your hands; reform your actions, amend your lives. Hands, the principal instruments of bodily actions, being put for the actions themselves; cleanness of hands signifies the innocency of the outward conversation, Job 22:30; Psalms 24:4; Psalms 26:6; Isaiah 33:15,Isaiah 33:16.

Ye sinners; you that are openly and notoriously vicious, whose wickedness appears in your ordinary practices: so such are called, Matthew 11:19; Mark 2:15; Luke 7:37; Luke 15:2; John 9:31.

And purify your hearts; your thoughts and inward affections, from whence the evils of your outward actions proceed, Isaiah 60:7; see 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:3.

Ye double minded; either by the former he understands the profane, and by these, hypocrites, or the same by both, viz. such as had wicked hearts, and led wicked lives; only he shows wherein true repentance consists, viz. in the reformation both of the inward and outward man.

Verse 9

Be afflicted; humble yourselves for your sins, before mentioned, and in the sense of wrath approaching, if ye do not.

And mourn, with inward sorrow of heart.

And weep; show your inward grief by weeping, the usual expression and sign of it.

Let your laughter; your carnal rejoicing in what you get by sinful courses, James 4:1,James 4:2, lusting, warring, fighting.

Be turned into mourning; exchange your carnal joy for godly sorrow.

And your joy; to the same purpose as laughter, before: by it he means their pleasing themselves in the success of their unrighteousness, the gain of their rapine and violence.

Into heaviness; the same as mourning, or an outward expression of it in the dejection of the countenance, which usually proceeds from shame or sorrow, (and the Greek word signifies both), whereas joy and confidence make men lift up their heads or faces, Ezra 9:6; Job 10:15; Job 11:15; Job 22:26; Luke 21:28.

Verse 10

Humble yourselves: the same duty pressed again, only with respect to the more internal part of it, the debasement of the heart, lest they should rest too much in the outward exercises before mentioned. They did lift up themselves through pride and emulation, and he shows them the best way to the truest exaltation, viz. humility, Matthew 23:12; Proverbs 15:33; Proverbs 18:12.

In the sight of the Lord; sincerely, as in the presence of the Searcher of hearts.

And he shall lift you up; as to your outward state and enjoyments, so far as God sees good for you; but, however, in grace here, and glory hereafter, Luke 14:11.

Verse 11

Speak not evil one of another; viz. unless in the way of an ordinance, by reproof, admonition, &c., Leviticus 5:1; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 11:18; 2 Corinthians 11:13; 2 Timothy 4:14,2 Timothy 4:15.

He forbids all detraction, rigid censuring, and rash judging the hearts and lives of others, when men condemn whatever doth not suit with their notions or humours, and make their own moroseness the rule of other men’s manners.

Judgeth his brother; finds fault with and condemns him for those things which the law doth not condemn in him, or forbid to him, Romans 14:3,Romans 14:4.

Judgeth the law; viz. either:

1. By his practising and approving what the law condemns, i.e. this very censoriousness and detraction: or:

2. By condemning that which the law allows; he condemns the law for allowing it, taxing it as too short and imperfect.

But if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge; if thou not only judgest thy brother, and therein invadest the law’s office, (whose part it is to judge him), but judgest him for what the law doth not forbid him, and therein judgest the law itself, as insufficient, and not strict enough; thou dost cast off the law’s government, disown its superiority, exempt thyself from any subjection to it, and make thyself merely a judge of it.

Verse 12

There is one lawgiver; one absolute, supreme, universal and spiritual Lawgiver, and who can simply and directly bind men’s consciences, and make laws for their souls, Proverbs 8:15,Proverbs 8:16; Isaiah 33:22; Acts 4:19. By this he intimates, that they did invade God’s right, who took upon them a legislative power in prescribing to other men’s consciences, and making their own will the rule of the others’ duty.

Who is able to save and to destroy, both temporally and eternally, Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Isaiah 43:13; whereas other lawgivers cannot save or destroy men’s souls, nor so much as their lives, without God’s concurrence.

Who art thou; what a sorry creature, a man, a worm, that thou shouldst lift up thyself into God’s place, and make thyself a judge of one not subject to thee!

That judgest another; the servant of another Master, Romans 14:4. It is a fond thing for thee to take upon thee the power of a judge, when thou hast no power of saving or destroying, rewarding or punishing.

Verse 13

Go to now; either this is a note of transition, or of command to inferiors, or rather of admonition to such as are stupid or rash, and tends to the awakening their attention, and stirring them up to the consideration of their duty, danger, &c.

Ye that say; either with your mouths, or in your hearts.

To-day or to-morrow we will go into such a city; not, let us go, but, we will go, in the indicative mood; noting the peremptoriness of their purposes, and their presuming upon future times and things, which were not in their power.

And continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: he doth not condemn merchants travelling into other countries, nor trading there, nor designing gain by their trade, nor forecasting their business; but their promising themselves the continuance of their life, the accomplishing their designs, and the success of their labours, without respect to God’s providence and direction, as if their times and their works were in their own hands, not in his.

Verse 14

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow; whether ye yourselves shall continue till then, or what else shall then be, or not be. In vain do ye boast of whole years, when ye cannot command the events of one day.

For what is your life? This question implies contempt, as 1 Samuel 25:10; Psalms 144:3,Psalms 144:4.

It is even a vapour; like a vapour, frail, uncertain, and of short continuance; and then how vain are those counsels and purposes that are built upon no more sure a foundation than your own lives.

Verse 15

For that ye ought to say: it is the real acknowledgment of God’s providence, and the dependence of all our affairs upon him, which is here required; and this is to be done, either expressly with the mouth in such like forms of speech as this is, so far as is needful for our glorifying God, and distinguishing ourselves from those that are profane, as hath been customary with the saints in Scripture, Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10, and other places, but always inwardly, and in the heart.

If the Lord will; i.e. with his providential or directive will, which as yet we do not know, and therefore we say: If the Lord will: for all our counsels and determinations must be regulated by his preceptive or directive will, which we do know; and therefore, with respect to that will, we are not to say: We will do this, or that, if God will, i.e. commands it, but we must first see that it be commanded, and then resolve to do it if God will, that is, if in his providence he shall permit us.

If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that; some read the words: If the Lord will, and we shall live, we will do this, or that; and then the latter copulative and is redundant, and the sense is, that all our actions depend not only upon our living, but upon God’s willing; God may permit us to live, and yet not permit us to do this or that. But if we take the words according to our reading: If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that, the meaning is, that both our life and actions depend upon the will of God, nor the one, nor the other, is in our power. And so here is a double check to the vain boasts of those that were so peremptory in their resolutions, without considering the frailty of their own lives, or the dependence of their actions upon God’s will, when both the one and the other are at his disposal.

Verse 16

But now ye rejoice, or, glory; ye please yourselves with them.

In your boastings; viz. of your carnal projects, and hopes of what you intend to do, and expect to get: q.d. You vainly boast of your designs and successes, without taking notice of God’s providence, under the government of which you and your affairs all are.

All such rejoicing is evil; both as being contrary to the word, which assures us so often that it is vain to promise ourselves long life, or prosperity in our worldly business, without God’s leave and blessing, Psalms 127:1; Proverbs 16:9,Proverbs 16:33; and likewise as proceeding from pride and security.

Verse 17

Either this may relate to all that the apostle had been before speaking of; q.d. I have admonished you of your duty, and now ye know what ye are to do, and therefore if you do it not it will be your sin: or, it may refer to what he was immediately before discoursing of, and may be spoken to prevent an objection. They might say, he taught them no more than what they knew already; and that they acknowledged God’s providence in all things. To this he replies, that if they knew their duty, they ought to practise it, and so actually submit themselves and their affairs to the conduct of that providence; and their not doing it, now that they knew it, would the rather be their sin.

To him it is sin; i.e. sin indeed, or (as we say) sin with a witness; a greater sin, and which hath more of the nature of sin in it, or is more highly aggravated, by being against knowledge, and so is punishable with severer vengeance, than if done out of ignorance, Luke 12:47. See the like expression, John 9:41; John 15:22,John 15:24.

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Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on James 4". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. 1685.