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Bible Commentaries
James 4

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Verses 1-4



James 4:1. Lusts.—Pleasures, but viewed on their evil side. Desires that are ill regulated. Compare 1 Peter 2:11; Romans 7:23. Evidently James was much distressed by the strife of parties, and the personal quarrellings, in the Jewish communities. Disputing was a besetting sin of the Jewish race. Members.—Organs of sense and action. “The conflict within, in which the evil passion gets the mastery, causes a predisposition to contention, and produces aggression on the well-being and property of others” (Webster).

James 4:2. Desire to have.—Covet. Ask not.—They grasped at things themselves, and did not wait on God for them, or ask His guidance and help in the endeavour to obtain them.

James 4:3. Consume it.—“Spend it in the midst of your [selfish] pleasures.” To pray for that which is but to satisfy our lower, baser nature can never be Christian prayer.

James 4:4.—Omit the word “adulterers.” The term is probably used metaphorically, to describe idolatry and apostasy from the worship of Jehovah. But sins of sensuality in the Christian Church caused much anxiety to the apostles. Compare Matthew 12:39. Plumptre explains the feminine form thus, “In this subserviency to pleasures St. James sees that which, though united with crimes of violence, is yet essentially effeminate.” Will be.—Willeth to be; wisheth to be. Is the enemy.—“Makes himself the.”


The Secret Causes of Social Contentions.—St. James closes the previous chapter with a description of the characteristic features of practical religious wisdom, the spirit which alone can enable a man to shape his conduct and order his relationships aright. It is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be intreated.” And he adds that “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace.” But when he turns from things as they should be to things as they are, he becomes sadly distressed and anxious. Contentions, heart-burnings, enmities, sectarian rivalries, distinguished the Hebrew Christian communities to whom he wrote. Men were struggling for pre-eminence as teachers, each with his doctrine and interpretation. Thence came wranglings and debates, in which men easily lost their temper and self-control. St. James is very severe on the wranglers, intimating that their spirit was unworthy of regenerate persons. They could be thinking only of gratifying their lower natures. By “wars” here we are not to understand the conflicts of nations, but protracted, violent, widespread, social contentions and disputes; the conflicts caused by sectarian rivalries and disputatious characters. We can form some idea of the condition of the Hebrew Christian Churches by remembering what commotions were made in the Churches St. Paul founded by the visits of the bigoted Jewish teachers. The element of contention is one in which the Christian spirit cannot flourish; and the mischief of it may clearly be seen in the roots out of which it usually springs, and by which it is sustained. According to St. James, the secret causes of failing to gain and keep the spirit of peace in Christian communities are three:

(1) selfish desires;
(2) selfish efforts;
(3) selfish prayers.

I. One secret of contention is our selfish desires.—“Whence come wars and whence come fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your pleasures that war in your members?” The Revised Version makes a useful alteration in putting “pleasures” in place of “lusts,” because the word “lusts” has come to have almost exclusive reference to sensual passions, and St. James intended to include all forms of self-pleasing. St. Peter writes of the “fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” And St. Paul saw “another law” in his members, “warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which was in his members.” And our Divine Lord taught that “out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings: these are the things which defile the man.” It is not wrong to have desires. It is wrong not to have them in proper control. Man is a being of desires. In the restlessness of his wantings lies the possibility of his improvements. But we need to distinguish carefully between the natural desires which, when duly met, bring to men healthy, satisfying, and educating pleasures, and those unnatural, morbid, exaggerated desires which follow upon men’s loss of self-restraint through giving way to self-willedness and sin. But St. James only hints at these general considerations. In relation to quarrellings, contentions, and wars, he points out that it is not so much the unrestrainedness of the desires, as the selfishness of the desires, that is the root and cause of evil. The very essence of Christianity is seen in its Founder, who never, in any sense, got, or tried to get, anything for Himself: who “was rich, yet for our sakes became poor”; who “gave His life a ransom for us”; “who thought it not a thing to be held fast, the being equal with God; but emptied Himself, and made Himself of no reputation, that He might serve and save others.” Or to express it in the forms of our text, His desires were wholly unselfish, and so never did cause contentions, and never could. No matter where you may find disputings and conflicts—in families, businesses, society, churches, or nations—you will almost always discover that somebody wants something altogether for himself, and persists in pressing his want against the interests of everybody else. That spirit may be met and rebuked from the merely moral and social standpoints; but we meet and rebuke it from the Christian standpoint. It is essentially un-Christian—altogether unworthy of any one who bears the Christ-name. It is well, however, for us to clearly understand that becoming a Christian never crushes down a man’s desires, unless they are postively wrong. It turns them into a new direction, but keeps, and even augments, their force. This consideration comes in to tone all personal wishes—“Will my gaining these things limit or hinder or injure any one else? It is more important that others should be helped and cheered and blessed than that I should be.” When that unselfish spirit is upon all our longings and desires, it is absolutely certain that we shall not be in any sphere of life the cause of contention and conflict. When even our natural and proper desires, even for personal pleasure, are put into the holy restraints of a Christ-like unselfishness, we become peacemakers wherever we go. Or as St. James puts it, so long as there is a war of desires within us, we shall be a cause of war in the spheres around us. Subdue the warfare within us, bring the desires into the obedience of Christ, tone them with the spirit of Christ, and they may not only shut the doors of the temple of Janus, they may wall them up for ever. The world’s peace will have come.

II. Another secret of contention is our selfish efforts.—Not only the wants are selfish, but there is a wrong and self-trusting character about the ways in which we seek to supply the wants. There is a self-reliant pushing and striving and overriding or driving aside of others which is a most fruitful source of bickerings and disputes. When a man wants something, means to get it by his own efforts, and to master everybody and everything that stands in his way, he is sure to make commotion and heart-burning wherever he goes. St. James expresses this selfish effort of men to force through their inordinate, unrestrained, and self-interested desires in very strong language. “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and covet [are jealous], and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not.” “When desire becomes the master-passion of a man’s soul, it hurries him on to crimes from which he would at first have shrunk,” as may be illustrated in the cases of David, Judas Iscariot, and Ananias with Sapphira. In saying, “Ye kill,” St. James may mean only, “Ye would even go so far as that to gain your ends.” And we can but be reminded how true it is that in the zeal of the sectarian bigot and the heresy-monger (persons whom St. James has in mind) reputations have often been killed, lives embittered, and worse than death endured. Dean Plumptre says, “There seems, at first, something almost incredible in the thought, that the believers to whom St. James wrote could be guilty of such crimes; but Jewish society was at that time rife with atrocities of like nature, and men, nominally disciples of Christ, might then, as in later times, sink to its level.” According to tradition, St. James himself fell a victim to the passions he thus assails, probably at the hands of a zealot mob. Readers of Josephus are familiar with the bands of zealots and sicarii, who were prominent in the tumults preceding the final siege of Jerusalem. Endeavouring to gain the application of St. James’s teaching to those who live in quieter times, yet are in peril of the same temptations, we may see that he reproves our striving to get what we want in our own self-strength, without any reference of the matter to God, and without dependence for help upon God. He pictures the man of unrestrained desires pushing about, and pushing other people about, but failing to gain what he wants. “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” Striving as earnest endeavour is quite right. We ought to do what we do “with both hands earnestly.” But it must not be self-reliant striving, if we mean it to be Christian. It must be energy, enterprise, perseverance, resoluteness after prayer, and in the spirit of prayer, which keeps us dependent on God, and within His holy restrainings and inspirings.

III. Yet another secret of contention is our selfish prayers.—“Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures.” A self-centred purpose spoils prayer. We may ask for things that we need, but we may not ask for the supply of our mere self-indulgences. The desire must be right, and in right restraint, if we present it in prayer at all. The desire must be right in a wide and not in a narrow, selfish sense, if God is to answer it at all.


James 4:1. The Soldiers of the Devil’s Army.—The desires of various sorts of pleasures are, like soldiers of the devil’s army, posted and picketed all over us, in the hope of winning our members, and so ourselves, back to his allegiance, which we have renounced in our baptism.—Bishop Moberly.

The Sources of War.—One great source of war is the love of excitement, of emotion, of strong interests. Illustrate from love of the chase. Another is the passion for superiority, for triumph, for power. There is a predominance of this passion in rulers. Another is admiration of the brilliant qualities displayed in war. This prevents our receiving a due impression of its crimes and miseries. Another is false patriotism. And another is the impressions we receive in early life. The community possesses indisputable right to resort to war of defence, when all other means have failed for securing its continued existence. The earth holds not a more abandoned monster than the sovereign who, entrusted with the dearest interests of a people, commits them to the dreadful hazards of war, that he may extend his prostituted power, and fill the earth with his worthless name. Therefore we should teach true sentiments as to the honour of kings and the glory of nations.—W. E. Charming, D.D.

The Christian View of Public War.—The text does not directly refer to national wars, but to the conflicts and contentions that arise among Christians and in Christian Churches. Yet it expresses a principle which is operating in every sphere—the small spheres of the individual, the family, the Church, and the larger sphere of nations. War can never on both sides be right. In the terrible scenes of war we may see the workings of human lust, and thereby learn to trace aright the evil workings of lust everywhere. War usually is the expression of one man’s sin. It is the truly awful result of some human lust, some self-pleasing, some self-aggrandisement. A fuller discernment of the causes out of which all wars and fightings spring prepares the way for the working of the Christian spirit, which, dethroning lust, and enthroning God, and in Him goodness, moral excellence, and brotherhood, hastens on the time when nations shall learn war no more. It is important that there should be given to men vivid, forcible illustrations of the fearful majesty of power lying in human sin. God writes the evil of sin in famine, earthquake, disease, and death, But it seems as though man would not read God’s writing; so he writes for himself in soldiers’ blood, and widows’ wail, and orphans’ tear, and wasted lands, and rifled treasuries, and ruined commerce, and trodden harvests, and broken hearts, the evil of sin. Let those who watch man writing read correctly, and learn the abominableness of human lust and sin, and hail the coming of Him who kills sin at its root—kills the lust—and kills with it every leaf and flower and fruit of war—social, ecclesiastical, national—and reigns at last as “Prince of peace.”

James 4:1-2. The Root-cause of War.—St. James wrote his epistle during those years of national decline and social anarchy that immediately preceded the final destruction of the Holy City. There was much sectarian strife, bitter party feeling, and there was even murderous violence, and the spirit of the times seems to have seriously affected the Christian communities. Internal conflicts and sectarian rivalries seriously threatened the integrity of the Jewish nation. Self-seeking and personal strife were imperilling the Christian Churches. The first bishop of Jerusalem puts his hand to the work of staying this strife. He arrests the men that love and seek war, and bids them think—bids them see the essential evil of war—all kinds of war—in the vileness of the root out of which it all springs. He lifts off and puts away at once all the false glamour of war; he does not even stop to impress his readers with details of the shuddering horrors of battle-fields and soldiers’ hospitals; he goes right to the very heart of the matter; compels us to see the root-wrong, the lusting, the coveting, out of which all contention, all war, comes. A great modern writer says: “That man, born of woman, bound by ties of brotherhood to man, and commanded by an inward law and the voice of God to love and to do good, should, through selfishness, pride, revenge, inflict these agonies, shed these torrents of blood—here is an evil which combines with exquisite suffering, fiendish guilt. All other evils fade before it.”

I. The root-principle of war stated.—It is lusting. It is covetousness. It is the desire—the violent, unrestrained desire—to have for self. It is the exclusion of all love for, all thought of, or care concerning, others. It is the determination to get, whoever may have to suffer through our getting; to push roughly aside all who stand in the way of our acquisition. It is the wilful forgetfulness that other people have their rights as well as we. Surely all this spirit is of the earth, earthy. It is the foul blossoming of human corruption. All such lustings are of their father the devil. His stamp is on them all. St. James strikes right home, past all men’s delusions and excuses, to the inmost source of all contentions and bickerings and wars. He is true if his principle be applied to family life. What broke up Isaac’s home, in the olden days, and set brothers at enmity, but Jacob’s desire to have for self? What broke up David’s family life but the envy of his sons? Try all cases of family warfare that have come within your observation. Down at the bottom there is always found to lie somebody’s grasping for self. He is true if his principle be applied to Church life. These bad contentions that distress Churches always follow upon some one’s pressing his own will, his own interests, his own party, before the general well-being. Nobody ever fights in a Christian Church who really wants to obtain the greatest good for the whole. It is always a class, a section, or an individual, seeking its own things. What makes business life so full of struggle in our day? The same thing—the desire to have. Aggravation at the prosperity of another, if in any sense it can be supposed to cross and check our own.

II. The root-principle of war is absolutely opposed to the root-principle of Christianity.—The one principle is—Lusting to possess; the other principle is—Longing to give away. And you can never make these two principles dwell together in peace. The one is—Get for self, no matter who goes down through the getting; the other is—“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Which is the corrupt and devilish principle? Which is radiant with the sweet light of God, and Christ, and heaven, and peace? The unselfish, Christ-like care for others carries its healing balm, its peace-preserving virtues, into every family, stilling all tumult, knitting heart to heart, and life to life, until the earth-home bears a suggestion of the many-mansioned home above, where all is peace, because each serves the other. It is the care for the whole that settles the stormy strife of Churches, and ensures that atmosphere of peace in which alone noble Christian work can ever be done.

James 4:3. Our Failures in Prayer.—R.V. “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures.” St. James gives, sharply and suggestively, the explanation of much that is lacking in Christian life. We fail to obtain so many things that we ask for. We fret over the lack; but we often fail to see the reasons for the lack, and fail to see that the reasons may lie altogether in ourselves. Even when we do not err by failing to ask, we may err, and make such answer as we wish to obtain impossible, by asking amiss. What then may possibly be wrong about even our Christian prayers, which may suffice to explain our failure to receive Divine benedictions?

1. They are wrong if offered in the mere routine of habit. We have prayed morning and night ever since we prayed at our mother’s knee, and we may have come to utter a mere formula; to go through a routine of words which mean nothing in particular, and which there is no particular reason for God to take notice of. The daily prayer habit is not indeed without a value of its own; but it has no precise value as request that calls for Divine attention. All it wants, and all it asks, from God is just a smile as He passes. When daily prayer is at its best, it is little more than a daily committing of ourselves to the Divine keeping and care. But if it ceased to be a mere routine of habit, if it came to be a reality of supplication and intercession, might we not get free of one form of “asking amiss,” and find that, asking aright, we received, and life became altogether fuller of precise daily Divine benedictions?

2. They are wrong if offered insincerely. Prayers are always made worthless and ineffective, when there is self-consciousness in them; when our real aim is to make a show of our piety, or to be seen of men. Our Lord severely reproved all prayer that had in it the characteristic Pharisaic taint. When a man prays in order to show his piety, that is what God hears him pray, and not the things he seems to ask for; and the answer to his prayer is only this—praise and reward for his show of piety; and God never can give that, so the insincere man “asks and receives not, because he asks amiss.” Beware then of all “beautiful prayers”! Beware of your own “beautiful prayers”; for they only mean that you want God to praise you, and it would be no blessing to you if He did. Beware of other people’s beautiful prayers; for they only mean that they want you and God together to praise and admire them. And they who pray them, and you who hear them, are best blessed when, asking in that style, you receive not.

3. They are wrong if offered conventionally. This is very different from insincerely. There is grave danger of our asking for things so often that we cease to put any mind into the asking. They become the proper things to say, so they are said, but have no practical inspiring power in them; they have become no more than pious sentiments conventionally uttered. Mark Guy Pearse, in his Dan’l Quorm, puts this peril of our praying in such a crisp and suggestive way, that the passage may be given by way of illustration. Quaint Dan’l Quorm is represented as saying: “I happened once to be stayin’ with a gentleman—a long way from here—a very religious kind of a man he was, and in the mornin’ he began the day with a long family prayer that we might be kep’ from sin, and might have a Christ-like spirit, and the ‘mind that was also in Christ Jesus,’ and that we might have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us. A beautiful prayer it was, and thinks I, What a good kind of man you must be! But about an hour after I happened to be comin’ along the farm, and I heard him hollerin’, and scoldin’, and goin’ on, findin’ fault with everybody and everythin’. And when I came into the house with ’en he began again. Nothing was right, and he was so impatient and so quick-tempered. ‘’Tis very provokin’ to be annoyed in this way, Dan’l. I don’t know what servants in these days be good for but to worry and vex one, with their idle, slovenly ways.’ I didn’t say nothing for a minute or two. And then I says, ‘You must be very much disappointed, sir.’ ‘How so, Dan’l? Disappointed?’ ‘I thought you were expecting to receive a very valuable present this morning, sir, and I see it hasn’t come.’ ‘Present, Dan’l’; and he scratched his head, as much as to say, ‘Whatever can the man be talkin’ about?’ ‘I certainly heard you speakin’ of it, sir,’ I says, quite coolly. ‘Heard me speak of a valuable present. Why, Dan’l, you must be dreamin’. I’ve never thought of such a thing.’ ‘Perhaps not, sir; but you’ve talked about it; and I hoped it would come whilst I was here, for I should dearly like to see it.’ He was gettin’ angry with me now, so I thought I would explain. ‘You know, sir, this mornin’ you prayed for a Christ-like spirit, and the mind that was in Jesus, and the love of God shed abroad in your heart.’ ‘Oh, that’s what you mean, is it!’ And he spoke as if that weren’t anything at all. ‘Now, sir, wouldn’t you rather be surprised if your prayer was to be answered? If you were to feel a nice, gentle, lovin’ kind of a spirit comin’ down upon you, all patient and forgivin’ and kind? Why, sir, wouldn’t you come to be quite frightened like; and you’d come in, and sit down all in a faint, and reckon you must be a-goin’ to die, because you felt so heavenly-minded?’ He didn’t like it very much,” said Dan’l, “but I delivered my testimony, and learnt a lesson for myself too. We should stare very often if the Lord was to answer our prayers.”

4. Our prayers are also wrong if they are offered with ulterior aims. St. James was evidently thinking of cases in which men asked for what was very necessary in the endeavour to live the Christian life, meet the Christian obligations, and render the Christian service; but they did not intend to use what they might gain in answer in these spheres. They purposed to spend it on their own pleasures. The great Heart-Searcher, to whom our prayers are addressed, is in no way deceived, and makes no mistakes. We cannot have from Him what we intend to use for other things than those we ask them for. The prodigal son asked for his portion, and the father supposed he was going to set up in business for himself. That prodigal had an ulterior aim; he meant to see a bit of life, and enjoy himself in the indulgence of his youthful passions; and his prayer to his father had better not have been answered. God never answers, save in judgment, the prayer of a divided purpose.
5. It is but dealing with a familiar point, which gains full treatment elsewhere, to add that prayer is wrong if offered without attendant watching for the answers. Nothing could be more humiliating to a Christian man than for him to be shown the record of the many petitions that he had offered, of which he had thought no more after they were offered. He does not know whether God answered them or not; he never took the trouble to notice. Very possibly he has had many and many a blessing in his life, which he never thought of as being what it really was, a gracious answer to his prayers. We have not. We wish we had. But why do we lack? Why do we fail to obtain the temporal and spiritual blessings that would be the enrichment of our lives? It is all explained. St. James says that two things will sufficiently explain it all. “We ask not”; or else, “We ask amiss.” If the lack and failure are explained, the remedy is suggested in the explanation. It also is twofold. Pray; and pray aright. “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”

James 4:4. The Marriage Figure of Unfaithfulness to God.—The prophetical books make constant use of the marriage figure. The nation of Israel is thought of as bound to Jehovah with bonds as close as those with which a wife is bound to her husband. The bond is so suitable to represent the union of the nation with Jehovah, because it rests upon mutual affection; upon the love of the husband for the wife as well as that of the wife for the husband. In the East there is an almost exaggerated jealousy characteristic of husbands, which is illustrated in the case of an Eastern merchant who, on return after a six months’ absence from home, offered public thanksgivings because his wife had never once left the house while he was away.

I. The tie binding the soul to God is like that binding wife to husband.—It implies a gracious selection and calling on the part of God. A loving response on the part of the soul. Mutual pledges taken; a lifelong covenant entered into. A tie which should become closer day by day as each discovers the worth and goodness of the other.

II. The peril of breaking the tie binding the soul to God is like the peril of breaking the tie binding the wife to the husband.—It is the attraction of some other love. In the case of man and woman, either may be drawn aside into heart, or life, unfaithfulness. We can only think of man as possibly unfaithful to God; never of God as unfaithful to man. The world is the comprehensive term that gathers up the things that draw men away from God. And we can think of the various forms in which the world presents its attractions. Friendship, implying the going out of our heart to the world, is enmity with God, just as when a wife takes up with another love her own husband becomes distasteful to her.

III. The consequences of breaking the tie binding us to God are like the consequences of breaking the tie binding the wife to the husband.—The husband is dishonoured. The home is broken up. The wife is ruined. There are natural penalties that fall on the unfaithful; and the just judgments of God are added to the natural penalties.

Verses 5-10


James 4:5.—The precise rendering is doubtful. There is no passage either in the Canonical or Apocryphal Scriptures that is here referred to. The Revised Version gives in the text, “Doth the spirit which He made to dwell in us long unto envying? But He giveth more grace.” And in the margin two renderings: “The spirit which He made to dwell in us He yearneth for even unto jealousy”; “That spirit which He made to dwell in us yearneth for us even unto jealous envy.” In Ellicott’s Commentary Punchard gives two possible renderings: “Suppose ye that the Scripture saith in vain, The [Holy] Spirit that dwelleth in us jealously regards us as His own?” “Suppose ye that the Scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the Spirit, which took up His abode in you, lust to envy?” Fausset suggests, “Does the [Holy] Spirit that God hath placed in us lust to [towards] envy?” (viz. as ye do in your worldly “wars and fightings”). Alford makes “to envy” mean “jealously”: “The Spirit jealously desires us for His own.” Plumptre suggests, “The Spirit which He implanted yearns tenderly over us.” Enviously may be used in a good sense. “The strongest human affection shows itself in a jealousy which is scarcely distinguishable from envy. We grudge the transfer to another of the affection which we claim as ours.”

James 4:6. Giveth more grace.—The ordered thought of this and the previous verse has been given thus: “God loves us with a feeling analogous to the strongest form of jealousy, or even envy, but that jealousy does not lead Him, as it leads men, to be grudging in His gifts; rather does He bestow, as its result, a greater measure of His grace than before, or than He would do, were His attitude towards us one of strict unimpassioned justice.” R.V. margin, “greater,” i.e. than if He did not desire us jealously.

James 4:7. The devil.—This is one of the texts used as proof of the personality of the devil. Illustrate by Matthew 4:1-11.

James 4:10. Lift you up.—Exalt (Isaiah 57:15).


Self-humbling a Secret of Right Living.—Self-assurance nourishes all sorts of evil in us, and gives its chance to every kind of temptation that assails us. Take off our allegiance from God, fix it on self, and in St. James’s language we become spiritual adulterers and adulteresses. (The prophet Hosea uses similar figures: see chap. 2) Then if that over-magnifying of the self is the cause of wrong relations with God, and wrong relations with our fellow-men, clearly what is necessary, and what for ourselves may be the duty of the hour, is humbling the self, “mortifying our members which are upon the earth”; or as St. Peter puts it, “Humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt us in due time.”

I. Humbling self may be our present duty.—In a general sense it is the Christian’s duty at all times; but it also becomes a special duty at particular times and seasons, such as

(1) accession of power to our bodily passions;
(2) opportunity of self-aggrandisement;
(3) prevailing sentiments unduly exalting man;
(4) influence of public teachings that tend to nourish man’s pride;
(5) circumstances specially exciting unworthy and perilous feelings. It is said that “a man’s self is his greatest enemy.” He who has conquered himself need fear no other foe. But this humbling the self is precisely the duty which men shrink from recognising, and which, when they recognise, they fail to fulfil. Even those who call themselves Christians are often singularly weak in this respect. Getting the self to take and keep its right place has never come to them as a first demand made by Him whom they call Lord and Master.

II. In humbling self we have a most serious work to do.—St. James gives us some idea of the things which it may involve, and so impresses its seriousness.

1. It may require a resolute mastery of our wills, a forcible compelling ourselves to yield to God’s ordering of life for us. That seems to be suggested by the expression, “Be subject therefore unto God.”
2. It may include determinedly putting aside self-interests in order to secure time for communion with God and soul-culture. This seems to be indicated in the counsel, “Draw nigh to God.”
3. It is almost certain to require some resolute dealing with our conduct in life. There may be self-seeking things in the actual doing which must at once be given up, or changed in their characters. This seems to be suggested by the strong demand, “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners.” And—
4. It may very possibly be necessary to secure outward and bodily helps to self-humbling, self-mortification. Because men have gone to extremes of abusing themselves in misdirected efforts to secure self-abasement, we need not fear to look at the reasonable and practical demand of St. James. Through the body, and well-ordered discipline of the body, we can get at, and wisely influence, the self of passion and lust and temper and habit. If we are to purify our hearts from their self-trustings, it may greatly help us to “be afflicted, and mourn, and weep; to let our laughter be turned to mourning, and our joy to heaviness.”

III. In humbling self we have a great foe to resist.—It is as if there was a spirit in this self. As if it was not ourself that we had to fight, but a separate and outward foe. Whatever view may be taken of the personality of the evil spirit, the evil self is personified, thought of as active, and as a foe to be resisted. Compare St. Paul’s expression, “the motions of sins in our members.” The devil may also be taken as personifying all those conditions and relationships of life which appeal to, influence, and strengthen the self. Then St. James’s advice, “Resist the devil,” will be seen to mean this—Do not mistake by assuming that the struggle with self is to be carried on only in the range of feeling and thought, the sphere of the inner life. There is also an outward sphere, a conflict with forces of evil that are ever at work strengthening the self. He then who would humble himself must fight against “principalities and powers.”

IV. In humbling self we have a great Helper to rely on.—“But He giveth more grace.” “He will draw nigh to you. “He shall exalt you.” The idea is this—You are trying to exalt yourselves in your self-confidence. Better “humble yourselves,” and let God exalt you, make you stand, in the strength of His grace. He can. He does. He will. What you win in God’s exalting you is altogether better than anything you can win by exalting the self.


James 4:5. Thinking Enviously.—“Doth the spirit which He made to dwell in us long unto envying?” There is a remarkable difference in the rendering of this passage given in the R.V. margin—“The spirit which He made to dwell in us He yearneth for even unto jealous envy.” This rendering connects the passage with the previous reference to the marriage tie. The two ideas suggested by the different renderings are:

1. There is grave danger to the soul when it longs for worldly pleasures even unto envying those who are allowed to enjoy them.

2. God, regarding the soul of man as bound to Him with the closest ties, is profoundly jealous of the relation—“yearneth for us even unto jealous envy,” lest any one, or anything, should take our love from Him. For the Old Testament figures, see Jeremiah 3:1-11; Ezekiel 16:0; Hosea 2:3. The spirit is the spirit in man, not the Holy Spirit.

James 4:6. Grace unto Sufficiency.—“But He giveth more grace”—greater grace. Dean Plumptre brings out effectively the point of this sentence: “Following the explanation already given, the sequence of thought seems to run thus: God loves us with a feeling analogous to the strongest form of jealousy, or even envy, but that jealousy does not lead Him, as it leads men, to be grudging in His gifts; rather does He bestow, as its result, a greater measure of His grace than before, or than He would do, were His attitude towards us one of strict, impassioned justice.” The term “more grace” suggests how inexhaustible the stores of grace are, so that we never can lack any good thing. There is always more available. And it further suggests that no limitations are put upon the supply of the grace by God. He never wearies of giving. He is always ready to bestow more; “to make all grace abound unto all sufficiency.”


I. Humility has been well termed “the cradle of all other graces.”—In humility they are born. All attainment has been achieved by the acknowledgment that we have not yet attained. The sense of need is the mother of discovery. Nothing is so barren as self-satisfaction. Our Lord’s teaching is full of the need of humility. In various terms He insists upon it, as the elementary stage in the life of Christian experience. God giveth grace to the humble, because the humble are a receptacle for His presence.

II. Some considerations which ought to excite humility.

1. The fact that we are God’s creatures, that all we possess is from Him, and held by us only for a time.—Riches, intellect, bodily strength, social status, are God’s gifts. May be soon taken from us. Only benefit us if rightly used.

2. The fact that we are sinful. Whatsoever good qualities we may possess, by the bounty of God, are more than counterbalanced by the evil which is our own.

3. The exceeding foolishness of pride, and the serious consequences which may result from it. How often, because of some fancied slight, or severe remark, will people nurture in their hearts feelings which must eventually cut them off from intercourse with God.

III. The more prevalent forms of sin which are opposed to humility are

1. A refusal to accept a rebuke when we are perfectly conscious that we have deserved it. If honestly seeking to grow in grace, we ought to welcome rebuke if it has the effect of checking some fault of which we are guilty.

2. Exaggerated estimate of our own powers. This is seen in the scornful look, the contemptuous expression, the constant talking about oneself, in the apparent belief in the infallibility of one’s own opinion. How does God view such pride?

3. A habit of judging the character and conduct of others. The secret motive of this habit is a craving after praise and flattery. It hinders spiritual progress.

IV. In cultivating humility beware of false humility and undue self-depreciation.—It is not humility to profess not to be what we are, or not to possess that which we know that we do possess. Humility does not consist in refusing to acknowledge that we have talents, but in refusing to boast of such talents as if they were self-derived.

V. Consider the blessings which accompany humility.

1. Through humility comes exaltation, real and abiding—exaltation by the mighty hand of God. “In due time.” The depth of our Lord’s humiliation was the measure of the height to which He was exalted.

2. It is through humility that we find strength in God. “Casting all care upon Him.”

3. If humility be the cradle of the graces, it is also their preservation. The more we grow in grace, the more humble we shall become, because the more we shall feel that all things are of God.

VI. As a practical lesson learn to be humble.—Receive with cheerfulness and readiness, even if not with joy, the humiliations which come to you in every-day life. Cease to resent injuries, to stand upon your rights, to obtrude yourself. Let the cross unite you to the Crucified.—Canon Vernon Hutton.

James 4:7. The Foe, the Fight, and the Flight.—“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The soul is a citadel which no enemy can storm, a stronghold which cannot be entered but by its own consent. Through the tremendous power of volition it can waive even incarnate Deity from its threshold, and spurn the salvation which He brings. Christian life is a contest, a fight.

I. The foe.—“The devil.” My conception of the devil is a great, unconscienced intellect under the sway of a moral nature thoroughly unholy. He was once an archangel, but fell, and from the beginning has been the deadly foe of our race.

1. He is a personal foe. We must not allow the audacious cavillings of scepticism to neutralise the solemn asseverations of inspiration upon this point. The devil “tempted” Jesus Christ; the devil “entered into” Judas; the devil “desired to have” Peter; the devil “hindered” Paul. Not only Jesus Christ and His apostles, but all the noble and heroic spirits of the past, who have done most to elevate and bless the world, have been firm believers in the personality of the devil. And it is a singular fact that the Churches which most firmly believe and teach that doctrine are not only the most prosperous and aggressive, but the only ones that are doing anything worth speaking of for the evangelisation of the world. The fact is, you cannot run a gospel Church without a devil, and the bad place to which the old fellow belongs. Show me a man who does not believe in the devil, and I will show you a man who has but little knowledge of God so far as saving faith and the blessings of salvation are concerned.

2. He is a powerful foe. Indicated in Scripture:

(1) By his names. He is called “Apollyon,” “Prince of this world,” “Beelzebub,” “Prince of the power of the air,” “God of this world.”
(2) By the creatures used to represent him. The serpent, whose deadly fangs poison, and whose dreadful coil means death. The roaring lion, the terror and king of the forest. The old dragon, which, to the Oriental mind, was an incarnation of almost superhuman strength.

(3) By the works attributed to him. He early accomplished the moral ruin of the race, brought death into the world with all our woe, bound man helplessly to his degrading service, blotting out every ray of light and hope of self-recovery. He is the arch-rebel in God’s kingdom—the leader of the hosts of sin, in earth and hell.

(4) By the Divine intervention which was necessary to break his power and rescue man from his grasp, etc. His power is all the more dreadful and dangerous because of His vast experience. He is an old foe. He was here before man came, and here, perhaps, because he saw him coming. His malice and deception. He secretes the sorrow and fetters he carries for his victims under the winsome drapery of some pleasure or profit. He uses “wiles,” “depths,” “darts,” “snares,” “all deceivableness of unrighteousness,” frequently putting on the dissembling gloss of an angel of light.

II. The fight.—“Resist the devil.” You may plead with man, you may “reason” with God, but you must “resist the devil.” Jesus Christ, our elder Brother, has fought and conquered this foe; and in clearing the way for our fight, Jesus tells him, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.” “No farther.” That is, “those that fight under My banner shall whip you too.” But in order to triumph in this great conflict, we must fight according to the prize rules of our great Captain.

1. Negative. Quit the enemy’s service. The fight cannot even begin until you reach this point.

2. Positive. Enlist in God’s service. God’s veterans are all volunteers. No conscript ever drew blood on this foe; nor was any man ever scolded into this fight, or thrown into it on the horns of a dilemma. The pressure of consciousness and environment through Divine grace must make us willing.

3. Preparative. “Put on the whole armour of God.” God’s veterans not only enlist, they also get ready for battle. Spiritual cripples are never pitted against this foe. All who face him stand and dress for the fight. “Put on.” “And having done all” (that is, completely routed the foe, they are not even weary enough to sit down, but prefer), “to stand.” They are “more than conquerors.”

III. The flight.—He will flee from you.

1. When will he “flee”? When he sees you ready for battle and full of fight. The devil laughs in his sleeve when he sees the livery of heaven on a coward, or on a person who professes to “resist” him, but who at heart is in sympathy with him and his work. But nothing so completely routs him as heroic resistance. “He will flee from you.” Attack a courageous foe, and “he will flee” at you, not “from you.” Herein is seen the devil’s cowardice. Only cowards run. Manly resistance routs the old deceiver so quickly that he is obliged to drop some of the fetters wherewith he had hoped to bind his victim, until finally in his approaches he will leave his fetters behind; and though he may still continue to annoy us, he will have little hope of bringing usinto serious bondage.

2. How often will he “flee”? Every time he is manfully “resisted.” He knows we are creatures of varying moods, and that his defeat to-day may end in ours to-morrow. The promise, “He will flee,” has two glorious meanings:

1. Temporary flight. “He will flee,” to return again, to annoy, vex, trouble. But in spite of his return the Christian may still retain the victory, and every time force him to “flee.”

2. Eternal flight. This takes place in the valley of the shadow of death, and, blessed be God! involves a double flight. The enemy will “flee” from the departing spirit as a hopeless case, and the emancipated soul shall soar and mount upward to the society of the redeemed and the mansions of the blessed, “and so shall ever be with the Lord.”—Thomas Kelly, D.D.

James 4:8. On the Reality of Man’s Intercourse with his Maker.—There is one sense in which God cannot draw more “nigh” to any man than He is already. The fact of the omnipresence of Deity lies at the foundation of all religion. It is impossible to express by language the closeness of the relation existing between the Creator and the creation. His power gives energy to every cause, to every force. Yet how remarkable is the unbroken silence in which God the Lord dwells among men. In the sphere of sense there is no personal revelation—not to the wicked, not even to the good. Neither in the world, nor in the sanctuary, nor in solitude is the silence ever broken to the suppliant. How then can we “draw nigh to God,” so that He will “draw nigh to us”?

I. In the study and belief of His revelation.

1. The condition of God’s spiritual action in the souls of men is honest attention to truth. The causes which render it difficult to attend earnestly to the study of the word of God are such as, earthly interests, the cares of business, love of pleasure, love of excitement, pleasures of the imagination, idle reading, moral repulsion. Much of God’s providence has for its object to produce the attention necessary for salvation.
2. To bring the mind into earnest contact with those writings which express His mind is to “draw nigh to God.” It is not, however, essential to master the whole breadth of the revelation in order to attain the assurance that in the Bible we are conversing with the living God.

II. In prayer and thanksgiving.—God can communicate without words. A quiet secrecy marks God’s revelations to men. He diffuses over the soul a spiritual sense of His presence. There is no intercourse so real as that of mind with mind, and heart with heart.

III. In the practice of obedience.—When the soul has received the blessing of acceptance with God in Christ, it also receives into itself the principle of a loving and healthful obedience which brings it into conscious union with the Most High.—Edward White.

James 4:10. Humility before God.—The expression used here, and also in 1 Peter 5:6, is “Humble yourselves,” and not merely “Be humble.” It is in harmony with the passage that the meaning should be—Deal resolutely with yourselves, so as to keep down all risings of pride and self-confidence. The suggestion is—Be watchful and determined in all necessary self-discipline. But it is the resolute effort to keep ourselves in right attitudes before God, and right relations with Him, which secures a humility which is not humiliation, and which puts us into right relations with our fellow-men. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord.” Two things may be illustrated and enforced:

1. The effect of an attitude of humility before God on our daily life. Humility before men too easily degenerates into weakness. It may became such humility as is caricatured in Uriah Heep. But humility before God is found to put a gracious tone upon the relationships of life. It prevents our manifesting the restlessness and self-assertion which so greatly disturb ordinary relations. It gives us a principle for life-guidance; it keeps near us the sense of a Presence; and it provides us with a consciousness of a strength and efficiency, which make us master of circumstances. The humble man before God is the strong, wise man before life’s duties and claims.

2. The influence of humility before God in securing Divine benedictions. “He shall exalt you.” It is not merely that God rewards the trustfulness of humility with actual blessings; it is also that to the humble soul God gives Himself, and the man is no longer mere man, but exalted to be, what Christ was (yet within human limitations), man and God with him.

God’s Ways with Humble Souls.—God protects the humble and delivers him; He loves and consoles him; He inclines Himself towards the humble man, He bestows on him exceeding grace, and after his humiliation he lifts him up to glory; He reveals His secrets to the humble, and sweetly draws and leads him to Himself.—Thomas à Kempis.


James 4:7. Temptation.—When the devil tempts a man to commit any wickedness, he does, as it were, lay a long train of sins; and if the first temptation take, they give fire one to another. Let us, then, resist the beginning of sin; because then we have the most power, and sin hath the least.—Tillotson.

Two Great Proverbs.—There are two great proverbs, one among the Turks, and the other among the Spaniards, both of which contain much that is true. “A busy man is troubled with but one devil; but the idle man with a thousand.” “Men are usually tempted by the devil; but the idle man positively tempts the devil.” How much corrupting company, how many temptations to do wrong, how many seasons of danger to your character, and danger to the peace of your friends, may you escape by regarding the admonition, “Resist the devil, and he shall flee from you.”

Verses 11-12


James 4:11. Speak not evil.—Backbite (Romans 1:30; 2 Corinthians 12:20). Omit “and” before “judgeth.”

James 4:12.—Read, “There is one lawgiver and judge.”


Criticising Persons.—Again and again we are reminded how thoroughly St. James was imbued with the spirit and the teachings of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. This paragraph presents a fresh instance. It is an evident echo of our Lord’s familiar words, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you.” St. James does not, however, take precisely the same point of view. To him the habit of thinking and speaking evil of brethren is a sign of triumphant self-conceit, which sets a man above everybody else, and even above the law.

I. Criticism is a power of human nature with a mission of blessing.—If everybody was merely receptive, the world would make no progress, and evil would have unchecked facilities. There must be those among us who can see the other side, take things to pieces, discover and show up faults. They may not be pleasant people; but they are most necessary ones. Art, science, and religion would fare ill without them.

II. Criticism can be exercised rightly about things, and about the actions of persons.—We can criticise a picture, a statue, an animal. And we may criticise the actions of corporate bodies, societies, churches, nations. It may even come to be our immediate duty to criticise the actions of individuals, and to say stern and severe things about them. And when it is our duty, we may not, under any plea, hesitate to say the seemingly evil things that have to be said.

III. Criticism must be put into the strictest limitations when it is exercised about persons.—And especially about fellow-Christians, over whose reputations we ought ever to be most jealous. The distinction between criticising the actions of persons and criticising persons is not usually set forth. It may be right to say, “The man has done a wrong thing”; but we have no right to say, “The man is a bad man.” It is that evil-speaking of persons that both our Lord and St. James reprove. Judging persons is God’s reserved and exclusive right. It is breaking the law to exercise a power which we are forbidden to exercise.


James 4:11. The Mischief wrought by Evil-speaking.—“Speak not one against another, brethren.” One of the most painful signs of human depravity is the almost universal disposition to think evil and to speak evil of others. There is indeed something worse than that—we actually find pleasure in thinking and speaking the evil. It is often a most humbling self-revelation to find ourselves actually pleased at hearing something to the detriment of another. The bad spirit in us is sadly nourished by the daily reading in the newspapers of men’s wrong-doings. Our minds are degraded by being constantly filled with stories of the vices and crimes of men. We become interested in evil rather than in good.

I. Mischief is wrought by evil-speaking in the evil-speaker.—Our Lord put this among the things that coming out of a man defile the man. It is always a moral mischief to allow an evil disposition to gain expression. It strengthens itself by expression. What we have to do with all sinful motions in our members, and all evil tendencies, is to stifle and silence them. This is emphatically the case with the disposition to see evil in our brother, and to speak of the evil. It is far better to say nothing about our brother if we cannot say something good. The habit of seeing and dwelling on the evil so grows on a man that by-and-by he gets a jaundiced vision, and can see nothing but the evil; and then he finds his spirit soured, and his power of enjoying human friendship taken away. Nobody wants the disagreeable man, for he sees good in nobody.

II. Mischief is wrought by evil-speaking for those evil spoken of.—Here the way in which the ill word starts reports that grow into ruinous slanders needs to be considered. But this is very familiar. It is fresher to trace the mischief done to the heart of the man who is spoken evil of. If the evil is true, reporting it only hardens the man, and puts hindrances in the way of his recovery. If the evil is untrue, the man is embittered by the sense of injury done to him, and broken off from helpful human fellowships. It may be added that too often an evil report has actually ruined a man’s life-prospects.

Verses 13-17


James 4:13. Such a city.—“This city”; the one the speaker is supposed to have in mind.

James 4:14. What shall be.—“What your life shall be on the morrow.” Vanisheth away.Alford, “vanisheth as it appeared.”

James 4:15. Ought to say.—Lit. “instead of saying.”

James 4:16. Boastings.—Same word as translated “pride of life” in 1 John 2:16. The undue self-confidence of the ungodly. “Ye glory in your braggings.” Aristotle defines the term as indicating the character of the man who lays claim to what will bring him credit, when the claim is altogether false or grossly exaggerated.

James 4:17. Doeth it not.—“Inconsistency is of the very essence of sin.” “Supposing him not to do it.” Illustrate by Pollok’s figure of the sentence ever in the vision of lost souls—“Ye knew your duty, and ye did it not.”


Self-confidence in Our Life-plans.—St. James has still in mind the same wrong mood of self-reliance and self-assertion. It is altogether unbecoming to those who have professed to make full surrender of their hearts and wills and lives to Christ. Its evil influence is seen in the relations and associations of Christians. This St. James has already shown. Now he shows that it will make the Christian professor look wrongly at his own life, take it out of the hand of God, and try to manage it himself. It leads him to say what he will do, and what he will not do, without any acts of loving dependence upon God—without any thought that his “times are altogether in God’s hands,” and that he has no “to-morrow” until God gives it to him, and then he must call it “to-day.” St. James’s teaching recalls to mind our Lord’s parable of the rich fool, who made his plans for many a year, and died the very night after he had made his resolves (Luke 12:16).

I. Human life is in a sense in human control.—“The earth hath He given to the sons of men.” Every man has a right to anticipate that he will live through to old age; and every man ought to look upon the life given to him as the scene on which he is to put his impress, and in which he is to show his energy, ministering to his generation. Every man ought to have

(1) a consciousness of power;
(2) a noble aim;
(3) a well-formed plan; and
(4) a persistent energy in carrying through his plan. Life is, to every man, very much what he chooses to make of it. It is true that he is surrounded by forces that are wholly beyond his control, and that keep him in limitations; but it is also true that he is entrusted with forces, which he is able to control and use in order to carry through plans and purposes which he may form. To each individual whom God sets forth in His world, He repeats the command given to the first man whom He made.—“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” It does not honour God to detract from the dignity and independence of the creature that He was pleased to make in His own image. And we may be sure that all advanced truths of revelation are perfectly consistent with the primary truths of nature. To a great extent, then, human life is in human control. A man may properly think over and decide what he shall do with it, where he shall bestow all his fruits and his goods. The business man is doing quite right when he anticipates the markets, and plans his productions accordingly—when he says to himself, “To-day or to-morrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain.” The thing planned is not wrong. The spirit of the planning may be altogether wrong. And it is the self-seeking, self-confident spirit in the planning with which St. James alone has to deal in this passage.

II. Human life is, in a sense, not in human control.—There is an overruling plan for every life which God makes, and holds as His own secret, so that it shall not, unnecessarily, interfere with man’s free experiment. It includes the length, the spheres, the bodily and mental powers, the circumstances, and the issues. Every life that has ever been lived was a Divinely shaped “puzzle-piece,” and fitted in precisely to its place in the making of the great picture of humanity. All true life has a Divine plan, does God’s work, and submits to His leading. As Dr. Bushnell so skilfully puts it, “God has a definite life-plan for every human person, girding him, visibly or invisibly, for some exact thing, which it will be the true significance and glory of his life to have accomplished.” “There is a definite and proper end, or issue, for every man’s existence,—an end which, to the heart of God, is the good intended for him, or for which he was intended; that which he is privileged to become, called to become, ought to become; that which God will assist him to become, and which he cannot miss, save by his own fault. Every human soul has a complete and perfect plan cherished for it in the heart of God—a Divine biography marked out, which it enters into life to live. This life, rightly unfolded, will be a complete and beautiful whole, an experience led on by God and unfolded by His secret nurture, as the trees and the flowers, by the secret nurture of the world; a drama cast in the mould of a perfect art, with no part wanting; a Divine study for the man himself, and for others; a study that shall for ever unfold, in wondrous beauty, the love and faithfulness of God; great in its conception, great in the Divine skill with which it is shaped; above all, great in the momentous and glorious issues it prepares.” How human life can thus be, in a sense, within our own control, and, in a sense, altogether beyond our control, we may learn from family life. Parents fashion life-plans for their children, and move steadily towards their outworking, overcoming, within the limits of their power, all hindrances that come in their way. But under the parental control the children move to and fro quite freely, working out their own little plans, so mysteriously influenced by the parents that their little plans all bear towards the working out of the parents’ great ones. Lives go wrong when strong wilfulness in children forces their plan against the parental. So long as man keeps the child-spirit towards God, he is fully content that thus his life should be, and yet should not be, in his own control.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”

III. Human life is in the Divine control.—“It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” “I girded thee, though thou hast not known Me.” “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that.” St. James puts this truth into one particular: the uncertainty of the length of life to man; the control of the length of life which God has. There is always this reminder of God whenever man tries to plan the future. He cannot be sure that he will live to carry out his plan. “Thou fool, this night thy soul is required of thee.” Let any man sit down to make a plan for to-morrow, for next year, and there must come into his soul this reminder of the Divine control over our “morrows.” “What is your life? For ye are a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”

“To-morrow, Lord, is Thine,

Lodged in Thy sovereign hand;

And if its sun arise and shine,

It shines by Thy command.”

IV. Within Divine control life is within human control.—And this is the precise attitude and relation in which the Christian stands. The Divine control he is fully assured of, and in it he greatly rejoices. But it in no way interferes with his sense of personal responsibility, with his energy and enterprise. He plans, as other men plan; he looks forward, as other men look forward; he works toward an aim, as other men work toward an aim. But there is a cherished mood of humility, submission, and dependence in him which the worldly man knows nothing of. When that mood finds expression in words, it says, “If the Lord will, we shall both live and do this or that.” What is wrong is

(1) the vauntings of self-confidence, as if we had full control of our lives, which we have not; and, on the other hand
(2) the fatalism—whatever pietistic form it may take—which leads us to think or to say we have no control of our lives, and therefore it is of no use to plan, or to anticipate and provide for the future. True religion ennobles a man’s manliness—it never enfeebles or crushes it. In everything that is manly the Christian’s sense of God should make him more manly. And it is manly and Christian to grip life with a strong hand. Life is entrusted to us that we may spend it in working out God’s plan, through working out our own; and “man is immortal till his work is done.” “Find out the plan of God in your generation, and then beware lest you cross that plan, or fail to find your own place in it” (Prince Albert). “Our work is but a segment in the great sphere of God’s eternal work; and if we have eyes to see, we may read in that portion of His work which belongs to us our name and the date of the present year” (Pastor Monod).


James 4:13. Over-confidence a Sign of Selfishness.—“We will.” The man says “I will” who is determined to get for himself. It is that getting for self which puts all the strength into the “I will.” Notice how differently men speak when the matter concerns some one else. If they are asked to do a kind deed, how cautious they become, what qualifications they put upon their promises: they will try; they will see if they can find the means and opportunity; but there never is the “We will” of self-centredness. It is true that there must be more strength and energy put into our own concerns, and it is the excess of confidence, not the confidence within wise limitations, which St. James reproves. What is called “success in life” is often the response to self-willed energy.

I. The over-confident man chiefly thinks about himself.—He would never be over-confident if he did not. It is just that circling of all his interests about himself, just that self-satisfaction, which makes him so confident. The man may be best seen in the boy. The boasting, bragging boy is self-centred, conceited, always talking about himself, and telling what he is going to do. And such a boy is usually left alone by his comrades, to enjoy the self of which he makes so much.

II. The over-confident man chiefly plans for himself.—The particular impulse to undue confidence is self-interest. This man is going to buy and sell and get gain for himself, and that accounts for the determination, the decided resolve, the “I will.” See what other considerations come in when a man plans for others. The best for them puts limitations on his positiveness. He knows what he would like, but he is not so sure what they would like. And he is strangely alive to hindrances and difficulties when he plans for others, which he never allows to disturb him when he plans for himself.

III. The over-confident man does not take God into his thought.—To do so at once puts limits on self-will; because if God is taken into account, our will must be ever kept in harmony with His will.

Plan-making.—With that absolute confidence in every truth that was true, though it might seem to conflict with some other truth, which was characteristic of the great Teacher, He both commended and condemned “forethought.” Wise attention to the responsibilities of the future, and careful preparation to meet them worthily, our Lord commended, when He spoke of the king taking serious counsel as to his ability to meet the advancing enemy. Worryful restlessness and fear, that people the future with nothing but ghostly shapes of disaster and woe, He condemned in His paradoxical way, by bidding His disciples even “take no thought for the morrow.”

I. The duty of making plans.—We cannot be intelligent and moral beings without recognising the duty of making plans. It is essential to developed manhood that it should have an aim in life. A man, to be a man, must have something to live for—something that he means to attain, or means to win. If he has, he cannot but order and shape his life so as to secure his aim; and that is making a plan. The duty is seen if we realise what the human life is that has no plan. What sort of a man is that who never makes any—who never sees beyond the place of his next footfall—who is satisfied if he is fed, and clothed, and gets a little pocket-money for his self-indulgences? Do you call that a man made in the image of God? There are very many around us who are in that way simply drifting down into eternity. They need to be shaken and aroused. They need to be told that they have a future. The uncertainty of life is not the supreme thing for them to take into account. They need to say to themselves, and in a very resolute way, “I have got to live, and I must plan to make the very best of my life.” Let no man think it is pious to imagine that he is going to die, and then let the imagination relax his moral muscles, and make his hands hang down. It is the duty of every man to make plans, to cover his life with plans—to use his judgment and his business ability, and so to make the best of both worlds, but first of this. If a man has not done nobly and well with the trust of this life which God has committed to him, how can he expect, or how can he be fitted for, the higher trusts of the life to come?

II. The revelation of men’s characters in their plan-making.—When imagination overmasters judgment, a man’s plans are but baseless, dreamy, hopeless “castles in the air.” When a man has gained but little self-restraint or skill in self-management, he plans so foolishly, and has so little power to carry out his plans, that he is constantly making plans, each new one as practically hopeless as those he made before. When a man is over-confident of himself, his plans are so absurdly big that no giant could ever carry them through. Men can always be searched through and through, if you can only get them to tell you their idea and hope for the future. Religion, because it tones and harmonises all a man’s faculties, and because it cultures the noblest elements of human character, helps a man to make sober, wise, reasonable, and workable life-plans. Religion does not crush the ambition that aims at high things. It inspires to really higher things than the man of the world can imagine, but it delivers from the self-interest and self-seeking and self-confidence which make the ambition seek unreasonable things, unworthy things, and things that can only be attained at the disadvantage and suffering of others. It is a matter worth taking into serious account that we are all disclosed to men, and to God, by the plans we have made for our lives.

III. The cherished spirit that ought to be behind all plan-making.—St. James tells us what that spirit should be. He does not mean that always and everywhere we should be qualifying our speech by inserting the sentence, “If the Lord will.” The man he introduces is making his plans by himself, he is talking them over to himself; he is not telling other people about them. He speaks thus in his heart; and “as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” And the advice given is for the same private sphere. When a man is making his plans, he should be saying to himself, “If the Lord will.” This should represent the spirit that he cherishes—the spirit which gives character and tone to all his schemes. Is such a spirit in any sense at all unmanly? Nay, it is essential to truest manliness, if man is a creature, if man is a son, if man is a servant. To take life masterfully into our own hands, and say, “It shall be just as I wish,” is not to be a man at all; it is to make claim to be an independent being—a god—which man is not. But that spirit which ought to be behind all our plan-making is not easy to gain or easy to maintain. It has its rootage in right relations with God. It gains its support in our constantly keeping up those right relations.

IV. The influence of that spirit on the outworking and the issue of our life-plans.—When a man’s self-will is in his plans, he will put forth a tremendous energy, and resolutely persevere. Does not the spirit of dependence on God pluck away a man’s energy, and make his efforts fitful and uncertain? Such a question may be asked, and with some reasonableness, for Christians are sometimes very inefficient in the business of life, and in its battle. “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” But this is a matter of weakness of natural disposition, and is not to be charged to the influence of Christian principle. What is true is, that the cherished spirit of dependence at once inspires energy and tones it. It does give a man a calmness and a self-restraint which qualify the intensities and extravagances of human energy; but it knits the whole forces of a man’s nature together in such a way as to give the man the highest power for the life-struggle.

James 4:13-15. Negative and Positive Christian Duties.—The instruction here lies before us in a twofold form—the persuasive and the hortatory, the negative and the positive, what we are not to think and feel and do, and what we are to think and feel and do.

1. Here is dissuasion from presumption—from thoughtless, reckless confidence in the immediate future, in the year that is thought about, and in the self that is to make it so and so. The whole spirit of the persons here instructed and warned is full of presumptuousness, inconsiderateness, headstrong wilfulness. It is as if they had absolute control over events, over other men, over themselves, almost over God. It is not the self that is objected to, but the self alone—the self self-poised, self-nourished, self-directed, self-sustained: let it have direction from heaven, and inspiration of God, and secret nourishment from the fountain of His all-sufficiency, and the self is then the best thing in the world.

2. The spirit here condemned is a spirit of worldliness. What is worldliness? It is buying and selling and getting gain, and spending the strength of life and its years in that. But it is not the act; it is the motive in the act, the principle that rules it, the end that is sought by it, that makes it evil. To be unworldly is to be unsordid, unslippery, unselfish. It is to be honest, true, tender, generous, spiritual, devout. Look now at the positive side.

1. A distinct realisation and acknowledgment of God. “If the Lord will,” we ought to say—then of course there is a Lord God to will, and work, direct, watch, and keep.

2. The Lord has a will in everything that enters into a man’s life. There is no difficulty in understanding the will of God in the greatest things; there is in the smaller and seemingly unimportant things. What are we to do? Acknowledge God; ascertain His will concerning yourself, as far as you can; walk in the light of it, do it faithfully, and all else will unfold. Keep and cultivate the spirit of devoutness, of dependence, of submissiveness, of obedience, of godliness.—Alexander Raleigh, D.D.

James 4:14. “What is your life?”—Various answers are given to this question by men according to their disposition, experience, state of mind at the time, and degree of faith. The Bible images and conceptions of life are “sleep,” “flood,” “grass,” “tale told,” “flower,” “vapour.” The materialist, the philosopher, Voltaire, man who has lost and wept, man who has sinned deeply, and the Christian, would each give a different answer to this question. Our views of life change with changing time. Two mistakes are often made: the one in making too much of life, as if it were everything; the other in making too little of life, as if it were nothing.

I. Some considerations which make us think that life is small and mean.

1. Common and valueless thing, because it seems to exist in such quantities. Valuable things are rare. Look at multitudes in great cities, in China—the infant mortality which seems to imply that life is a very cheap thing.

2. Its shortness. Things that do not last long are not regarded as worth much. Life is done before almost anything is completed.

3. The way it deceives men. Its appearances and promises are fallacious. An illusion, if not a delusion. The whole of life seems to be constructed on the principle of luring men on by the hope of one thing, and then giving them either nothing or something else.

4. For the great mass of people life escapes being an illusion only because it is so complete a drudgery. They wear harness almost without intermission. They are in the track, and round they must go.

5. If life were of value, surely men would have found out by this time that it is so. Yes; but life is allowed to slip through the impassive hands of men.

II. Some considerations which compel us to feel that life is great.—To triflers only is life a trifle.

1. Life is great in its moral significance. Even the confusion of his nature, his self-contradiction, his waywardness, his resolute set towards evil, do not take from the greatness of the nature and the significance of the life.

2. Can human life be small when God once passed through it? A thing is sacred by its associations. The Almighty once wore this human life as a garment.

3. Think of the Holy Ghost’s mission. A really Divine personal force in the place of human life transfigured; it gives infinite meaning.

4. Life is much to me, because it is mine. The only thing that is. My section cut out of the mass of ages. My handwriting on the huge scroll of time. My probation. This makes it of supreme value to me.

5. Life is great when we realise that it is passed on the edge of eternity. We have now all the significance that belongs to the spiritual and everlasting sphere, because we are, even now, all our life touching it. Surely this makes life an awful thing. “We should not always be thinking of death.” It depends entirely how we think of it. We should think of it, not to unman us, but to force us to be real. The sense of the possible nearness of death should make us collected and awed. What is my life? What do I wish it to be? Is Christ in it? is God in it? is hope in it? Is there eternal power in it? It is a vapour, a cloud. But there are different kinds of clouds. Let our life not be like those clouds which are chilled and fall to earth, but like those which soar upwards in the glory of the everlasting sun.—John F. Ewing, M.A.

An Emblem of the Uncertainty of Life.—“For ye are a vapour.” The point of the illustration lies in the transient character of vapour, steam, or mist—the breath of the mouth, the smoke from the chimney, the steam from the engine. It is palpable, but only for a while, and even while it is with us it is going, and soon it is gone. Uncertain in its going, for it is entirely dependent on the state of the atmosphere around. Life is like a vapour. It is here; but you cannot imprison and keep it. It is going even while it is here, and its time of going depends on so many things over which we have no control. If a man duly estimates the transient and uncertain character of human life, he cannot presume on any future, and make any absolute decisions as to what he will do and what he will not. For the figure see Job 7:7; Psalms 102:3; Wis. 5:9-16.

Life a Vapour.—We are not sure of life itself, since it is but as a vapour, something in appearance, but nothing solid or certain; it is easily scattered and gone. We can fix the hour and minute of the sun’s rising and setting to-morrow, but we cannot fix the certain time of a vapour’s being scattered. Such is our life: “it appear but for a little time, and then vanisheth away”; it vanisheth as to this world, but there is a life that will continue in the other world; and since this life is so uncertain, it concerns us all to prepare and lay up in store for that to come.—Matthew Henry.

Human Life transitory.

I. How men make the mistake of regarding their life as something solid and stable.

1. They calculate upon the certain continuance of their strength.
2. They reckon on an indefinite prolonging of life. They think the next life will much resemble this.

II. The fact that human life is but a vapour.

1. The uncertainty of life.
2. The universal certainty of death.

III. How we may rectify these errors in ourselves.—We should—

1. Understand the reality of the case.
2. Become entirely reconciled to it.
3. Accommodate all our views, feelings, and plans to it.—Dr. Kirk.

Lessons from Mist or Vapour.

I. Our first lesson is drawn from the ephemeral nature of vapour.

“Like mist on the mountain, like waves of of the sea,
So quickly the years of our pilgrimage flee.”

The time allotted to us here is none too long to fulfil the duties assigned us, and make preparation for the life which lies beyond. It is strange, indeed, that men should be so careless of the fact, even while they are profoundly convinced that there is a future for the soul, and that beyond the mists of this life there shall open an eternal day. It is not strange that those who are overwhelmed with the cares and pressing engagements and hard conflicts of this life should at times permit these things to dim their views of God, of coming judgment, and the heaven of the redeemed. But certain it is that the fact of these obscuring earth-born mists does not blot out the more substantial facts of God and eternity. This life hides heaven, but it comes out again with the vanishing mist. The vapour vanishes, but the day remains. Let us so live that we shall remain within the precincts of eternal day. It is the duty of man to think of his life in this its larger outlook. Our life is a vapour, but there are possibilities within it of which we never yet have dreamed.

II. The mist teaches that our brief life should be a life of blessing. The mist is one of the nutritive forces of nature. Our life may be a vapour in the benevolent phase of the figure of the text. Life is brief, but it may be a benediction. And God is best glorified by an honest endeavour on the part of every man to bring and keep a blessing within the world.

III. Our third lesson comes to us from the obedience of the mist to the will and law of the Creator. See Job 37:7-8; Psalms 135:7; Psalms 148:7-8. We may well be shamed into our duty by the obedience to Divine law which is stamped everywhere upon the creatures of inanimate nature. From cloud, rain, and dew, from vapour of water, from mist, we expect, always expect, expect without deviation, qualification, or delay, most implicit discharge of the functions which the almighty Creator has imposed upon them. They never fail the hand that made them. They never go counter to the will whose force set them originally in play.

IV. Our last lesson comes from the use of mist as a symbol of judgment upon the wicked. See Acts 13:11; 2 Peter 2:17. In the one of these cases the judgment appears to have been a physical, in the other a spiritual one. The figurative expression “mist” is an apt symbol of that soul out of whose horizon the vision of the Sun of righteousness with healing in His wings has been permitted to drop away. If it be but a momentary mist—“a vapour that appeareth for a little while”—even thus it is sad enough, for a life without the presence of Christ to brighten and bless it must be a hopeless one. The rejection of Christ, the doubt of unbelief, is a mist of darkness which can only deepen the misery of man’s estate. It brings to him in this life restlessness, hopelessness, and despair. Let us devoutly hope that upon none of us shall this mist of darkness settle in the coming eternity. It is sometimes the case in Christian experience that there comes a glimpse of the horror of this mist of darkness in the form of spiritual fears and doubts. These do not cover the fundamental points of faith, but simply obscure the individual’s hope as to his own interest in these great facts. Such may take this comfort. Mists love the lowlands. Forsake the lowlands of unbelief. Go higher! on wings of faith mount nearer to the throne, nearer to that hill whose healing cross is the central point of human hopes. As you draw near in reverent trust, there shall fall for you the light that, if it do not disperse all mists in this weary and wicked world of ours, shall at least lift your spirit out of them, and give you that sunshine which God appoints for His own.—H. C. McCook, D.D.

James 4:15. The Saying, “If God will.” “Deo Volente.”—In the same way as Jews, with an over-literalness, put little boxes, containing the words of the law, on their foreheads and on their arms, so have Christians, with an over-literalness, put D.V. into their writings, and even into bills of services and meetings. No such formal obedience of St. James’s injunction is either necessary or expected. And that over-literalness is in peril of nourishing a hypocritical or a pietistic sensationalism. Too often it comes to represent the “Stand by, I am holier than thou” kind of feeling, which most seriously injures our Christian relations. The spirit of dependence on God, and of entire submission to His will, is a spirit which must be cherished, but which, if cherished, will find its fitting expression in the tone and temper of all our words and intercourse, and never need gain any forced and precise utterance in a mere sentence. When it is the mood of the soul, all who have to do with us feel it; and that is better for them than merely hearing it; and certainly far better for us.

Acknowledging God’s Will.—The Jews began nothing without an if God or if THE NAME (meaning God) will. And it was a saying of Ben Syra, a distinguished Jew, “Let a man never say he will do anything before he says, ‘If God will.’ ” So Cyrus, king of Persia, when, under the pretence of hunting, he designed an expedition into Armenia, upon which a hare started and was seized by an eagle, said to his friends, “This will be a good or prosperous hunting to us, if God will.” So Socrates says, “But I will do this, and come unto thee tomorrow, if God will” (Xenophon’s Cyropedia, lib. ii., cap. 25; Plato in Alcibiade, p. 135). And it is reported of the Turks that they submit everything to the Divine will, as the success of war, or a journey, or anything of the least moment they desire to be done; and never promise themselves or others anything but under this condition, Inshallah, that is, “If God will.”—Ingram Cobbin, M.A.

James 4:17. The Responsibility of Knowledge.—It is a noble saying of Lotze, “We do not honour God by elaborating proofs of His existence.” We are still elaborating the proofs. Preaching is apologetic rather than declarative. The best way of honouring Jesus Christ is to believe His word, trust His grace, mark the triumphs of His saving power, and, for ourselves, to act on the facts we know. The text has two things—an exhortation and a statement.

I. The exhortation.Act on what you know. We all know more than we live up to. We see Christianity very much more clearly in our intelligence than others witness it in our lives. We understand Jesus Christ better than we live Him. Our practice lags lumberingly behind our knowledge. Conscience is always ahead of conduct; knowing, of doing. In almost no respect do we practise, in morals, all we know. Now it is remarkable that, notwithstanding this state of things, our efforts are bent on increasing our knowledge rather than on improving our conduct. Men want to know all about Christianity before practising the A B C’S. I find myself seeking to expound Christianity to your intelligence, when, just now, the far more urgent matter is to get the elements of Christianity, which all understand, into your conduct. It is just so that the wide discrepancy between our knowledge and our practice has obtained. We have pushed, and are still pushing, our knowledge of Christian teaching at the expense of our practice of Christian teaching. It is far more important to a well-rounded character to blot out this discrepancy than to push our intellectual comprehension of Jesus. The greater need is to practise, to act on what we know, not to know more. Besides, our present course ignores two important facts:

(1) The very end of knowledge is to be enacted; and
(2) to practise what we know is the very best way of extending our knowledge. He “that willeth to do … shall understand.” Those people who insist on understanding all of Christian teaching before practising any of it never understand any of it profoundly. Jesus said His teaching had to be lived before it could fully certify itself. The exhortation of the text is a ringing one, and comes to our time with peculiar aptness and force—Act on what you know! It is an exhortation to Churches, as well as to individuals, and to the Church at large. Churches are still busy at work purging and elaborating and refining their creeds. Thus is Christianity of the head continually refined, while Christianity of the heart and conduct remains, on an average, below par. The demand of the hour upon the Church is, Bring up the rear; bring conduct up to conscience, practice up to profession; bring deeds up to knowledge. It is safe to say that if the Church should devote a generation to the effort to bring its life up to present statements of belief and knowledge, we might bring in the millennium.

II. There is here not only the exhortation, Act on what you know—but the statement, If you do not, it is sin. Knowledge entails immediate responsibility, failure to meet which is sin. A man whose conduct falls short of his knowledge of what is right is a sinner. So a Church. To defer the doing of what we know of Christian teaching—a right thing—is to do a wrong thing; and, moreover, our omissions of known duty unfit us more and more for new duties—indeed, for all duties: the movements of the soul are clogged by disuse. “Ignorance of the law excuseth no man.” The text refers only to those who know to do good, but who do it not. These are sinners, whether they are unsaved and neglect the salvation of which they are well informed, or Christians whose profession is one thing and whose practice is another, or Churches who spend their time expelling heretics while the poor and vicious and godless surge past their doors unpitied and unsought.—E. M. Poteat.

Knowing with Doing.—In the Beautiful Legend there is a strife between the call of duty to give out a dole of bread to the hungry, and the temptation to linger in religious ecstasy over a vision of Christ. But the true brother knew “to do good,” and did it; and, returning at the end of his work, found his cell full of the radiant presence of the Lord, and heard the words of gracious approval—

“Hadst thou stayed, I must have fled.”


James 4:14-15.—Providence acknowledged.—With all our wish to inquire into the future, a thoughtful mind will not fail to acknowledge the wisdom and love of God in keeping it back from us. “What little child,” says the author of Recreations of a Country Parson, in an essay on the “Art of Putting Things”—“what little child would have heart to begin the alphabet, if, before he did so, you put clearly before him all the school and college work of which it is the beginning? The poor little thing would knock up at once, wearied out by your want of skill in putting things. And so it is that Providence, kindly and gradually putting things, wiles us onward, still keeping hope and heart through the trials and cares of life. Ah! if we had had it put to us at the outset how much we should have to go through to reach even our present stage of life, we should have been ready to think it the best plan to sit down and die at once; but, in compassion for human weakness, the great Director and Shower of events practises the art of putting things.”

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on James 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/james-4.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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