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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

James 4

Verse 1

‘From where come wars and from where come squabblings among you? Do they not come from there, even from your pleasures that war in your members?’

He considers their wars and their squabbling and their belligerence with each other. From where, he asks, do they come? And then he answers his own question. They are the consequence of the wars within themselves, their wanting more and more of the pleasures and desires of the world, which, once having tasted, they cannot bear to be without. For those very pleasures are at war within every part of their bodies (‘their members’) pressing them on into further conflict. We can compare here the fleshly desires that war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11). They want satisfaction at all costs as the battle rages within them. The picture is of people in turmoil within because of their determination to have their pleasures, as each one battles with everyone else in order to get what he himself wants. The language is that of the battlefield, but in most cases what is in mind is probably the local ‘battlefield’ at work and in the household. For those who live like this there can be no peace.

The pleasures were no doubt of various kinds, for James does not specify them. They would include gaining the pleasure of recognition for its own sake, gaining pleasure in achieving status for reasons of personal vanity, gaining pleasure in getting their own way, gaining pleasure by getting revenge for imagined, or even real, slights, to say nothing of the more openly ‘sinful’ pleasures of engaging in sex or seeking monetary enhancement by improper methods. All these could cause ‘wars and battles’ among members of the congregation. And they are simply a few among many possibilities.

Verses 1-5

In Contrast To Those Who Have Received The Wisdom That Is From Above Are Those Who Yield To The Desires Of The Flesh And Seek To Be Friends Of A World Which Ignores Christ (James 4:1-5 ).

Having spoken of those who have received the wisdom from above, and through it have found peace, and a message of peace, James now turns to look at those who have refused the wisdom that is from above and are living by their own wisdom, following the endless search for pleasure. And he does it with powerful illustrations which, like many of those of Jesus, are deliberately exaggerated. He speaks of wars and battles, of murder and of adultery, but all as exaggerated pictures of their situation. The point is that they are gross sinners, and are to recognise the fact. He declares that the consequences for them of their false attitudes are ‘wars’, and ‘battles’, both nationally, locally and personally, together with an adulterous attitude towards God and the world which brings them into condemnation (compare Ezekiel 16:0). James is here using the strongest language possible in order to bring out their full involvement in bringing displeasure to God. They are willing to ‘go to war and murder’, even if for the most part what they actually do is only quarrel and squabble and fight verbally and spit hate, for war and murder is truly in their hearts. The passage is expanding on the idea of the desires that cause temptation and result in sin and death (James 1:13-15). It is a picture of those in the church who have lost their first love.

The ‘natural man’ in each failing church member longs for the pleasures that he desires, and then is ready to fight and quarrel for them. He is filled with desire for pleasure and then yields to the temptation (compare James 1:13-15). But in spite of the fact that he squabbles and hates and ‘kills’, being filled with envy at others and coveting what they have, he does not obtain what he is looking for. For what he is looking for is elusive. It is not to be found in the world. Yet, if only he could see it, it is actually there waiting for him, for it is available from above. But the fact is that he does not have it because he does not ask for it from the One Who could give it to him (James 1:5). Indeed the last thing he thinks of is looking to God, for he does not consider that God can give him what he wants. And then if he does decide to ask for it from God he does not receive it, because he asks for it for the wrong reasons. He should thus pause and recognise that his problem is that what he wants is not what God wants, but what the world wants, and thus to want that is to be contrary to God. He should therefore ask himself, ‘Has God put my spirit within me so that I might just go on being filled with desires that simply result in envy of others, or has He done it in order that I might seek after Him?’


o From where come wars and from where come battles among you? Do they not come from there, even from your pleasures that war in your members? (James 4:1).

o You desire, and have not. You kill, and envy, and cannot obtain. You fight and war; you have not, because you ask not (James 4:2).

o You ask, and do not receive, because you ask for the wrong reasons, that you may spend it in your pleasures (James 4:3).

o You adulteresses. Do you not know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore would be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).

o Or do you think that the Scripture speaks in vain? Does the spirit which He made to dwell in us go on longing until it envies (‘unto envying)? (James 4:5).

Note that in ‘a’ men’s pleasures are responsible for his wars and for his battles. And in the parallel his longings are contrary to the spirit that God has put within him. In ‘b’ the concentration and efforts of some of his readers are expended in order to obtain the things of this world, and in the parallel they are seeking to be friends with the world, which involves being at enmity with God. Central is the thought that if they do not look to God for His will then all their prayers will be in vain.

James is now probably speaking mainly to those in the churches who are mere enquirers, or onlookers, or hangers on, although there may even at this stage be more genuine believers who had become complacent in their faith, and thus lukewarm (as in Revelation 2-3 where it is even more apparent). These are the opposite of the genuine seekers after wisdom of James 3:13; James 3:15; James 3:17. And he points out that because their spirits are not looking to God, they fail to receive what in their hearts they are looking for. The consequence is that they fight and squabble with each other, or even go to war, in order to obtain what they think will give them pleasure and satisfy their desires. But in fact they never receive it, because they are looking in the wrong direction.

Verse 2

‘You desire, and have not. You kill, and envy, and cannot obtain. You fight and war; you have not, because you ask not.’

He then builds up a picture which reveals how they go about obtaining what they want, for it is clear that they will do anything rather than ask God for it and fulfil His conditions. And yet in the end they desire in vain because they do not get what they want. They will even ‘kill’, with the mind even if not in reality, because they are green with envy, with their covetous eyes on what others have, or on other people’s positions, but they still do not really find what they are looking for, for they are never satisfied. So then they fight and ‘go to war’ in order to obtain what they think their enemies have. But all the time what they are looking for is elusive. They do not find it because they do not ask God for it. Notice the parallels, ‘you are at war -- and you desire, you kill and you covet’. The picture is of a continual activity. The need for pleasure leads on to squabbling, leads on to desire, leads on to murder, leads on to further coveting, leads on to further war, and so on in an endless sequence.

It should be clear by now that James is depicting this in deliberately strong language (note the fact that there is war in their members, hardly something intended literally). Most do not literally ‘go to war’ for what they want, they simply ‘battle’ with one another, or with those on another strata of their group. Most do not literally kill, although in the volatile world of the Middle East at that time some probably did. Rather they are murderers at heart. They hate and they threaten and they plot and they purpose harm (see Matthew 5:22; 1 John 3:15). After Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount most Christians would see hating and revealing contempt as being the equivalent of murder. (Recognising this takes away the difficulty of coveting following murder, even for those who find it a difficulty. For hatred and coveting go hand in hand).

Some find it difficult to have the envying following the killing and therefore punctuate differently (there is no punctuation in the Greek).

You desire and do not have, you kill.

And you envy and cannot obtain, so you wage war,

You have not because you ask not.’

This is not so obvious a translation in view of where the conjunctions lie (although it is a possibility), but whichever way we take it the end result is the same, the endless cycle of pleasure, ‘war’, desire, ‘killing’, envying, ‘war’. And this goes on from the top downwards, whether it be by a would be ‘Caesar’ desirous of great position, or by a slave desirous of a more favoured position or a sinecure.

‘You have not, because you ask not.’ And all the time they fail to obtain their hearts desire because they do not go to the One Who alone can satisfy the heart. They do not ask God for it (contrast James 1:5), or if they do it is with the wrong aims and the wrong motives. All their thoughts are on pleasure and desire and warring among themselves, and not on pleasing God. Here in practical terms is the working out of James 1:13-15. Those who fall, having failed to be spiritually strengthened by the testings and trials that they have faced, are tempted by their own desires, are enticed and allured, and this gives birth to sin which finally results in death.

Verse 3

‘You ask, and do not receive, because you ask for the wrong reasons, that you may spend (dissipate) it in your pleasures.’

And even when they do sometimes ask God for it they still do not receive satisfaction of heart. And that is because their motives are wrong. The failure is due to the fact that they ask for the wrong reasons, because their motives are totally selfish. Their sole aim is simply to enjoy the fulfilment of their earthy desires and aims. They want to dissipate whatever benefit that they obtain on pleasure. They reason that they want what they are asking for because it will enable them to use it up for their own worldly satisfaction. They are caught up in the vortex of the world. Their heart is not really on God.

There is an important lesson for us all here concerning prayer. It reminds us that God is not there just to give us whatever we decide that we want. His promises with respect to prayer are not open-ended but are given to those who are seeking to fulfil His will, and in order to help them in the fulfilment of that will. Thus, if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me (Psalms 66:18), for the eyes of the Lord are towards the righteous, and His ear is open to their cry, while the face of the Lord is against evildoers (Psalms 34:15-16). For the fact is that He is only near to those who call on Him in truth (Psalms 145:18). It is if we ‘ask anything in accordance with His will’ that He hears us, so that we can know then that we will receive an answer to our prayers (1 John 5:14). For the promise ‘ask and you will receive, seek and you will find’ is not with regard to anything we choose, but has in mind the seeking of the good things of God, and especially the Holy Spirit (Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13). Thus when we dare to pray ‘for Jesus’ sake’ we must ensure that we are praying for what Jesus would want us to have. We cannot ask in His Name for what is contrary to His will.

Verse 4

‘You adulteresses. Do you not know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore would be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.’

Thus they are also like adulteresses craving what will satisfy their thirst for pleasure. For adulteresses as a vivid metaphor see Matthew 12:39, and the vivid pictures in Ezekiel 16:0. They have turned from God Who gives to all men liberally, and are looking to the world for their pleasure. And they like what they see in the world, and so they concentrate their attention on it. The world is their friend, and they crave after it like a woman craves for a man and will do anything to get him, and they fail to realise that such things and such attitudes put them at loggerheads with God. For what the world is after is not what God is after. All that is in the world, the desires of the flesh, the desires of the mind, and the search to be ‘someone’, is not of the Father but is of the world (1 John 2:16). Thus each one who makes himself a friend of the world, and its aims and ambitions, also thereby makes himself an enemy of God. The point is that we cannot always choose the environment in which we find ourselves, but we can always choose what we will set our hearts on, and James makes clear that to choose the way that the world chooses is to take up a position of opposition towards God. There is no question of having both God and the world. We cannot serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24).

‘You adulteresses.’ The lack of ‘adulterers’ (later introduced by copyists), confirms that this is mainly metaphorical, for James was no doubt familiar with Jesus’ similar use of the term (Matthew 12:39). It goes along with the strong language about wars which was intended to cover all belligerence, and killing which was to include killing in the mind. Nevertheless Paul also gives the impression of ‘silly women’ connected with the church who indulged their passions with wayward preachers (2 Timothy 3:6), and James may have known of such cases. However, we must certainly see his term as going wider than that, for this is a general letter. The change from the male to the female sinner is deliberate in order to bring out that not all the fault lies with the men. While the women may not ‘go to war’ so much, they are equally likely to be ‘friends of worldliness’. But in the end both men and women are involved throughout.

‘A friend of the world.’ This is in stark contrast with Abraham who was the friend of God (James 2:23). All must choose whom they will serve. Abraham had his eyes on God. These ‘adulteresses’ have their eyes on the world. The question, therefore, for us is, Where are our eyes fixed?

Verse 5

‘Or do you think that the scripture speaks in vain? Does the spirit which he made to dwell in us go on enviously longing (or ‘longing until it envies )?’

The second part of this verse can be translated variously, and it can be either a question or a statement. To give but five examples:

o ‘Does the spirit which He has made to dwell within us long unto envying (or ‘go on yearning enviously’)?’ (RV).

o ‘The spirit which dwells within us lusts to envy’ (AV).

o ‘Does the Spirit Whom He has made to dwell within us yearn enviously?’ e.g. after the friendship of the world, expecting the answer ‘no’, or yearn jealously for us expecting the answer ‘yes’.

o ‘The Spirit which He made to dwell in us jealously yearns for the entire devotion of the heart"

o ‘He (God) yearns jealously over the spirit which He has made to dwell within us?’ (RSV)

In the first and second cases the idea could be that the spirit that God has put within man was never intended to have these envious longings which have been described in James 4:1-4, or there may be the hint of the danger that they are in because they are like the people in the days of Noah (see below). In the third case the idea is that the Holy Spirit Whom He has made to dwell within us would never yearn enviously like they have been doing (and it therefore raises the question as to whether they are indwelt by the Spirit). In the fourth case it refers to the fact of the Spirit’s yearning over us because of God’s love for us (which is why He can be ‘grieved’ - Ephesians 4:30). In the fifth case it is an expression of God’s love for us in that He yearns enviously after our spirit which He has put within us from the beginning (Genesis 2:7 - i.e. made to dwell within us), His offer of friendship being over against that of the world as it was to Abraham (James 2:23).

But we then have to ask how these descriptions relate to Scripture, for while in a similar way to Matthew 2:23 (note the plural ‘prophets’) James may be saying that it is the gist of these words that is in Scripture, the question still arises as to where that might be.

The main Scripture that may be in mind here is, ‘My spirit (Spirit) will not abide in man for ever’ (Genesis 6:3 RSV). Here we have the thought either of ‘God’s spirit (breath) dwelling in man’ or of ‘God’s Spirit dwelling in man.’ If we take the first and second cases the idea is that God’s spirit abides in them because He had breathed into them ‘the breath (spirit) of life (Genesis 2:7) and there may be a comparison with the people of Noah’s day who were desiring enviously (longing after ‘the sons of God’) and overflowing with sin. ‘Every imagination of the thoughts of his (man’s) heart was evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5) being interpreted in the context of what James has been saying. (There may well in fact have been a Targum (Jewish commentary) of Genesis 6:0 which had this phrase as used by James in it, for some consider that there is a parallel to it in the Manual of Discipline from Qumran column 4 line 9 ff which would also be from the Targum). In the case of the third and fourth cases it is a reminder of God’s Spirit dwelling in man.

But if James is referring to the Spirit or to God, how can it be said that He ‘yearns jealously’? The answer to that lies in the references in the Old Testament which speak of God’s jealousy over those who He has chosen as His own (e.g. Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:14; Zechariah 8:2). It is a jealousy of love. He will not give up His own to others, neither to other gods nor to the world. In the same way Deuteronomy 32:11 LXX likens God to an eagle ‘yearning (same Greek verb) over its young’.

So the ‘citation’ is either demonstrating how contrary friendship with the world is to the spirit God has put within us, or indicating the strength of God’s love for us.

Note On The Jealousy Of God.

Some find it difficult to understand how God can be described as jealous. And if we mean by that upset because others who are His equal are being treated better than He is we would be right. But that is the point. God has no equal but Himself. The Father is not jealous of the Son. The Son is not jealous of the Father, or the Spirit. The Spirit is not jealous of Father and Son. But when any other seeks to receive the worship and praise that is due to God alone then God has to be concerned, for it would shortly result in the bringing of instability into the Universe as happened in the Garden of Eden. The whole of existence can only be stable if God is in His rightful place as its Lord and Creator.

For while jealousy can be a bad thing when it eats into people and makes them behave wrongly in cases where it is unjustified, it can also be a good thing. When a man is jealous for his marriage he is jealous for what is good. He is jealous to maintain one of the props of the Universe. When a man is jealous over the Name of God lest it be brought into disrepute he is thinking rightly. We should all be jealous over maintaining the good Name of God. And when God is jealous over His Name and status He is equally right.

And when God is jealous over His people lest harm or snares come upon them we can only applaud. It is indeed His responsibility as the Creator and Redeemer to so act towards those who have accepted His offer of salvation. He is therefore right to set His heart against all that could cause them harm, and all who are His can only rejoice in the fact.

End of note.

Verse 6

‘But he gives more grace. Which is why the scripture says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.’

‘He gives more grace.’ The One Who jealously yearns over their spirits, offers them more than the world can ever do. If they humble themselves He promises that He will cause His grace, His undeserved love and favour, to overflow towards them. For while those who remain proud (having a sense of arrogant superiority over others) and continue to hold to the world will be resisted, He will give His undeserved favour to the humble in overflowing measure, as the Scripture has promised (see Proverbs 3:34 LXX; compare Psalms 138:6; 1 Peter 5:5). ‘More grace’ may indicate grace over and above His grace active in their initial conversion, or it may simply be saying that ‘He gives more and more grace as it is needed’.

The need for humility is regularly stressed in the Old Testament, especially when His people have sinned against Him. God dwells in the high and holy place, but it is with him who is of a humble and a contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15). Compare 2 Kings 22:19; 2 Chronicles 7:14; 2Ch 12:7 ; 2 Chronicles 34:27; Daniel 5:22. The word used here indicates those who are humbled and trodden down by others who think that they are superior.

Verses 6-10

As A Consequence They Are To Subject Themselves to God, Resist the Devil, And Draw Near to God By Purifying Themselves And Truly Repenting (James 4:6-10 ).

The condition of some of God’s professed people having been revealed somewhat emphatically, James now calls on them to get back to God, responding to His jealous love which seeks to bring their spirit back to Him. It is a question of humbling themselves, submitting themselves to God, resisting the Devil, and then drawing near to God so that He can draw near to them. We can compare here how in Zechariah 3:0 Joshua the High Priest came humbly to God and was subject to Him (James 3:1, compare James 4:6-7 a) and was accused by Satan because of the sins of Jerusalem. On his behalf YHWH rebuked Satan, (James 3:2, compare James 4:7 b) had Joshua’s filthy clothing removed (James 3:3, compare James 4:8 b) and then clothed him in pure garments (James 3:4-5, compare James 4:8 b). Then he was called on to walk in God’s ways, so that he would have right of access to God, and could draw near to Him (James 3:7, compare James 4:8 a). And the result was that he was exalted (compare James 4:10). Now James is calling on God’s professed people who have failed Him to follow a similar path.


a But he gives more grace. Which is why the scripture says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

b Be subject therefore to God (James 4:7 a).

c And resist the Devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7 b).

d Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8 a).

c Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you doubleminded (James 4:8 b).

b Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. (James 4:9).

a Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:10).

Note that in ‘a’ God gives grace to the humble, and in the parallel they are to humble themselves that they might be exalted. In ‘b’ they are to be subject to God, and in the parallel this involves true repentance. In ‘c’ they are to resist the Devil, and in the parallel they do this by cleansing their hands and purifying their hearts (compare Zechariah 3:0 where Joshua’s resistance to Satan is accompanied by his being cleansed). Centrally in ‘d’ they are to draw near to God, Who will draw near to them.

We regularly discern in James’ letter that he has in mind quotations that he has heard, although he incorporates them into his text. There are indications in what we find in these verses that he is doing precisely that here. Alternately it might be himself who is the poet. For we note the couplets that now follow,

a ‘Be subject therefore to God,

b Resist the Devil and he will flee from you’

b Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.

c Cleanse your hands, you sinners,

c And purify your hearts, you doubleminded,

a Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep.

d Let your laughter be turned to mourning,

d And your joy to heaviness,

e Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord,

e And he will exalt you.’

Verse 7

‘And resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.’

As a consequence of this submission they will be resisting the Devil and he will flee from them, as Satan fled from before Joshua (after Zechariah 3:3 Satan drops out of sight and is heard of no more). Notice that the way in which we are always to resist Satan when it is a question of dealing with the pride of life and the friendship of the world is by submission to God. Then all Satan can do is run. While for His people all the glories of the world will seem as nothing when their eyes are on God.

Verse 8

‘Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you doubleminded.’

And now the way by which they can submit to God and draw near to him is explained. It is first of all by being cleansed. They are to cleanse their hands by letting go of all that has defiled them and walking in the will of the Father (compare Isaiah 1:16; Psalms 26:6), and purify their hearts by fixing them firmly on God (see 1 John 3:3) and obeying the truth (1 Peter 1:22), no longer being doubleminded. For a doubleminded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

‘Cleanse your hands.’ The hands were the means by which men performed their actions. They were thus to make them clean by doing good and eschewing evil (Isaiah 1:16-17). The cleansing of the hands therefore indicates the cleansing of their personal, practical behaviour.

‘Purify your hearts.’ This emphasises the need for them to be cleansed within, in the inner man, which is responsible for men’s thoughts (Mark 7:21-23). The time for ceremonies is past. What is required now is genuineness of action and heart.

Alternately it might be saying, ‘do not just wash your hands, make sure that you wash your hearts as well’, but that weakens the statement and does not really fit in with the pattern which is of continual positive action in response to God’s commands.

Verse 9

‘Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.’

Included within the way of cleansing is true repentance in tears. They are, as it were, to have their own Day of Atonement. The word for ‘affliction’ indicates ‘experiencing hardship’ (as a good soldier of Christ - 2 Timothy 2:3), thus connecting up with the purifying effects of the trials in James 1:1-12. Note that the verb indicates that it is something done to them to which they are now to respond. And in response to that affliction (James 1:10) they are to mourn and weep over their sin and failure. All the pleasures and joys that so long they had sought for are to be mourned over and seen for what they are. He is not recommending a life lived like this continually, but an initial genuine repentance so as to clear the sin that has been besetting them out of their lives.

It will especially be noted that James makes no reference to the use of ritual. In spite of his being himself very much involved in Jewish ritual, he made no attempt to enforce it on others, especially the ex-Gentiles.

Verse 10

‘Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.’

And the result of their humbling themselves before God is that ‘the Lord will exalt you.’ He will lift them up to share His glory (Isaiah 57:15). It is left open as to whether ‘the Lord’ is the Father (James 3:9) or ‘the Lord, Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1; James 2:1; James 5:7; James 5:14). Jesus Himself repeatedly declared that it was the man who humbled himself who alone would be exalted (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11).

Verse 11

‘He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.’

And one reason why no man should speak against another and set himself up as judge is because by doing so they are speaking against the Law and judging the Law. But we might ask, why should that be so? And the answer is, because of what the Law teaches which by their activities they are refuting. He has told us, for example, that we should not be ‘talebearers’ (Leviticus 19:10). If we then disobey this we are passing judgment on the Law that it is wrong and does not apply to us. The same applies to passing judgment on all those parts of the Law which stress love and mercy, such as, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). We would not like to be judged by others ourselves, and so we should also avoid judging others. And thus by judging others we are passing a verdict against that Law. We are saying that it is unworkable and not to be observed. But rather than doing that we should approach all with love and sympathy. (Of course if they are blatantly and unrepentantly openly scorning the Law that will be a different matter. Then it will be God Who is passing judgment. But that is not the question that is being dealt with here).

‘But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.’ The point here is that those who are doers of the Law and those who are judges of the Law take up a totally different attitude. The judge is concerned with judging, not with doing. But they have to be concerned with doing. Thus they exclude themselves from being judges. They are no longer impartial.

Verses 11-12

A Warning Against Being Judges Of Others And Thus Pre-empting God (James 4:11-12 a).

The passage commences with a warning. Aware that his strong words and his appeal to repentance could now result in some members of the church judging others James issues a strong warning against their doing so. We can compare here Matthew 7:1-6. As Jesus says there it is one thing to seek to help one another, as they should, but it will be quite another to issue harsh and hypocritical judgments. For the one who so judges sets himself up in God’s place as lawgiver and judge, which ill accords with his cry for humility (James 4:6; James 4:10).

Note how these particular verses (James 4:11-12 a) continue the thought of the previous verses, both in terms of the need to control the tongue, and the need to be humble, and within the whole pattern of the letter parallel James 1:12, with its emphasis on those who, on being judged, will receive the crown of life.


a Do not speak one against another, brothers (James 4:11 a).

b He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law (James 4:11 b).

b But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge (James 4:11 c).’

a One only is the lawgiver and judge, even he who is able to save and to destroy (James 4:12 a).

Note that in ‘a’ he argues against brothers speaking against one another, and in the parallel only One is qualified to judge. In ‘b’ to speak against or judge a brother is to speak against and judge the Law, and in the parallel those who judge the Law are not doers of the Law. They rather set themselves up on the other side of the dock and become judges.

Verses 11-17

He Now Reminds Them That They Need To See Life In Terms Of The Last Day (James 4:11 to James 5:12 ).

From this point on until James 5:12 there will be an emphasis on judgment, and on seeing life in the light of it. The passage parallels James 1:9-12, with its references to judgment, to the rich and poor and to the frailty of the rich. It proceeds in four stages:

o First he gives a warning against judging others in view of the fact that it is God and not them Who is Lawgiver and Judge. They need therefore to recognise their humble position and control their tongues accordingly, and leave judgment to God (James 4:11-12 a).

o That is then followed by the question as to how they can possibly judge others, both in view of the difference between them and God which has previously been described (James 4:11-12 a), and in view of their own brevity of life which is like a vapour that rapidly dissipates and is gone, this being something that should especially be considered by those who live to seek gain. They need to recognise that their whole life is subject to the will of God. And he concludes by pointing out that, knowing that they ought to be doing good, for them not to do so is sin. The suggestion is therefore that in the light of their frailty they would do better by concentrating on doing good rather than on making profits (James 4:12-17).

o He then exposes those who exploit others in order to build up wealth that is in the final analysis temporary and corruptible, reminding them that they too have to face the Last Day and that the cries of those whom they exploit reach up to God (James 5:1-6).

o After that He points ahead to the Lord’s coming as Judge, and advises all God’s people in the light of it to wait with patience and meanwhile not to judge others (James 5:7-12).

o And finally he stresses that if they are open and honest, avoiding the devious use of oaths, they will not fall under judgment (James 5:12).

There is also another interesting pattern. Commencing with the need not to judge others because it is God Who is the Lawgiver and Judge, and ending with the reminder that He will in His own time come to judge, he sandwiches in between them what the behaviour of the rich should be in the light of it. Those who go about seeking gain rather than doing good, and those who seek to exploit others and destroy the unresisting righteous, need to consider their ways. For life is uncertain, and riches corrupt. Neither can be relied on.

Verse 12

‘But who are you who judge your neighbour?’

Now James finally faces them (and us) up with the truth about themselves. They are not important enough or sophisticated enough to behave like God and judge their neighbour. Indeed they are so frail that with all their big ideas they do not even know whether they will last another day (James 4:13). What they should therefore do is recognise that all are in the same situation together, and should do what the Law says, and that is that they should love their neighbours as they love themselves (compare James 2:8, where it is also linked with judgment), and therefore seek to do them good (James 4:17). That is far more in accord with what they are than the idea that they have a right to pass judgment.

Verses 12-17

Christians Need To Face Up To The Frailty Of Their Lives (James 4:12-17 ).

The contrast between man in his inability to act as judge in contrast with the great Judge Himself, now leads up to the question of the frailty of life and the need to recognise that our lives are at God’s disposal. For men should recognise, especially those who are running round with the aim of building up wealth, that not only must they not judge each other, but that they are unable even to judge how long they will be here on the earth carrying on with their normal occupations. Rather then they should look to themselves and recognise that, being aware of the need to do good, if they fail to do so it is sin (which will, of course, be brought into judgment).


a But who are you who judge your neighbour? (James 4:12 b).

b Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and make gains for ourselves” (James 4:13).

c Whereas you do not know what will be on the morrow (James 4:14 a).

d What is your life? For you are a vapour, which appears for a little time, and then vanishes away (James 4:14 b).

c Because you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will both live, and do this or that” (James 4:15).

b But now you glory in your arrogant words. All such glorying is evil (James 4:16).

a To him therefore who knows to do good, and does not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:17).

Note that in ‘a’ they are asked who they think they are to be able to judge their neighbour, and in the parallel they are reminded that rather they should judge themselves. In ‘b’ they airily declare what they are going to do, and in the parallel they are condemned for their arrogant words. In ‘c’ they do not know what will happen on the morrow, and in the parallel they are to recognise this and say ‘if the lord wills we will do this or that’. Centrally in ‘d’ they are to recognise that their live is a vapour which is brief and then vanishes away.

Verses 13-14

‘Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and make ourselves gains”, whereas you do not know what will be on the morrow.’

‘Come now.’ This is the first of two ‘come now’s which introduce two scenarios, both of which are intended to make them face up to serious facts. The first of these reveals the frailty of businessmen whose main concern is monetary gain, in view of the fact that how long they go on living is in God’s hands, and the second reveals the frailty of businessmen’s riches, and the fact that God knows how they are behaving. What they should therefore rather be doing is concentrating on doing what they know to be right (James 4:17).

This first case is of those who are so sure of how their lives will turn out that they make plans accordingly. They say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and gain wealth”. James would appear to have a special concern for those who travelled around and had no settled church home. It was easy for such men to lose touch with their faith. But they also provided a lesson for all.

Notice their arrogance as far as God is concerned. They believe that they can regulate their time as they wish (‘today or tomorrow’). They believe that they can choose their destination (‘into this city’). They believe that they have all the time in the world (‘spend a year there’). And they believe that they can do what they want without regard to God’s requirements (‘trade and gain wealth’), whereas what they should be doing is recognise the frailty of their lives, and that what they will be able to participate in depends totally on the will of God, thus recognising that the most important thing that they should do is what is good (James 4:17). They should therefore ask themselves, ‘what is His will?’ But they do not do so. They forget that they are mortal, and the result is that they have big ideas about themselves. They forget the words of Proverbs 27:1, ‘do not boast yourself of tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth’. Compare also the rich fool who forgot that ‘tomorrow we die’ (Luke 12:16-21). That is why they think that they can judge their neighbour (James 4:12 b). It is also why they think that they can run their own lives just as they please (James 4:13-14). But they are wrong on both counts.

Verse 14

‘What is your life? For you are a vapour, which appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.’

For what they should remember is what their lives are. They are not substantial. They are rather like a puff of smoke which appears for a short while and then disappears. They are like an early morning mist that soon clears away (Hosea 13:3). For life is brief, and in the midst of life we are in death. So in view of that it is in this light that they should measure how they ought to live, both with regard to judging others (in the face of the fact that we might ourselves face judgment at any time), and with regard to doing good (James 4:17). It is in this light that they should determine what they (or rather God) consider to be important. And if they truly recognise that their lives might disintegrate like a puff of smoke at any moment, they will undoubtedly put more consideration into looking at the things that are unseen, and building up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:17-18), for they will recognise that the things that are seen are temporal, and will soon pass away, while the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Verse 15

‘Because you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will both live, and do this or that”.’

They should therefore live each day as though it might be their last, and recognise that every day that they have after that, is a gift from God, (for the truth is that every day someone somewhere falls dead, with medical experts not knowing why it happened). They ought then to say, “If the Lord wills, we will both live, and do this or that.” And if they do that they will not consider making gains so important. Note that he does not say, ‘if the Lord wills we will get gain’. For if they live in the light of eternity their perspectives will change. They will be more concerned with spiritual gain and with the Lord’s will, and with doing good to those in need (James 4:17), because they will recognise that they may shortly have to give account.

(Paul writes to the Corinthians, "I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills" (1 Corinthians 4:19). "I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits" (1 Corinthians 16:7). On the other hand we must beware of simply saying, if the Lord wills’ or ‘DV’ in a way that results in it becoming a platitude. There is nothing wrong in it if it is sincere, but we must make sure that we really are taking it into account in what we do, otherwise it will lead to our own condemnation).

Verse 16

‘But now you glory in your arrogant words. All such glorying is evil.’

But instead of doing that they glory in their arrogant words. They say ‘we will do this and that’ regardless of their mortality, and of God and eternity. But to glory in that way is evil. It is to be casual over what is very important. It is to follow the way of the world, and be a friend of the world. It is to indicate that their minds are not set on things above. It is to live in the light of this world, and not of eternity. It is to be earthly minded and not heavenly minded. It is to overlook the requirements of God, and His concern for their daily lives.

Verse 17

‘To him therefore who knows to do good, and does not do it, to him it is sin.’

So there is really only one conclusion that they should come to. They should recognise their mortality and put their efforts into what they know that God wants them to do, and that is to ‘do good’. For if they know what He wants of them and do not do it, for them it is sin.

Thus the stress is on the fact that we should be putting our efforts into doing real good in the world, which is, after all, what we know that we ought to be doing. And for us also, knowing that this is what we ought to do means that it is sin if we do not do it. We should note that the emphasis here, as throughout his letter, is on what we should be doing, not on a negative ‘what we should not do’. For when anyone knows what they ought to do, (such as 1. Avoiding the judgment of others; 2. Being aware of frailty, and therefore looking at things that are unseen rather than having gain as their first concern, because they and it will soon pass away and they will leave it all behind, and especially 3. Doing good wherever possible), and yet does not do it, then that is sin. So he is bringing out that we can sin by what we do, by the attitude that we take up towards life, and by what we do not do, doing genuine good towards others. And it is that that should be our first consideration.

This was one of the stresses of Jesus. The good Samaritan did what was required for a person in need, while the Priest and Levite passed by on the other side (Luke 10:30-37). The rich man saw Lazarus at his gate and did nothing for him (Luke 16:19-31). The people brought before Jesus for judgment had failed in their responsibility to do good to His ‘brothers’, while those who were accepted had done so (Matthew 25:31-46). Thus He laid a similar stress on the need for positive goodness, and in the Last Day He will say, ‘inasmuch as you did not do if for the least of these My brothers, you did not do it for Me.’

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on James 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.