For 10¢ a day you can enjoy ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament

James 4

Verse 1

The Jews, to whom St. James directed this epistle, had at that time great wars and fightings, not only with their neighbours, but even among themselves: in every city there were wars and fightings among them.

Now, the apostle here puts it to their consciences to tell and declare whence these animosities and contentions, those wars and fightings, did proceed; come they not hence, even from your lusts?

Plainly intimating, that the cause of all civil dissentions are men's corruptions: War stirs first within, before it breaks forth without; were there not a fight in ourselves, there would be no fighting with others. Lust within is the make-bait in all societies and communities without. Pride and covetousness, envy and ambition, make men injurious to one another; worldly and sensual lusts first war in ourselves, before they disturb the common peace.

Verse 2

The Jews, at the writing of this epistle to them, did vehemently lust after liberty, and freedom from the Roman yoke, and for dominion and government over other nations; believing that their Messiah was to be a temporal prince, who should enable them to lord it over the Heathen world: "Now, says our apostle, though you lust for liberty and dominion, yet you have it not: and though, in an eager pursuit after these things, ye kill and slay, yet you do but lose your blood and labour, for ye cannot obtain what you thus inordinately seek, and irregularly covet; you should go to God in prayer for what you desire: but if at any time you do pray, it is not in a right manner, with a right intention and for a right end. It is to consume it upon your lusts; namely, that having the liberty you desire, you may possess the good things of this world you lust after, and may lord it over the Heathen world."

Learn hence, that we pray amiss, when our aims and ends are not right in prayer.

Learn, 2. That then our aims and ends are not right in a prayer, when we ask blessings for the use and encouragement of our lusts.

Learn, 3. That prayers so framed are usually successless; what we ask amiss we are sure to miss, if the Almighty has any kindness for us. In prayer we must consider three things, the object, the manner, and the end: We must not only guard our affections, but secure our intentions; for prayers that want a good aim, do also want a good issue; Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss.

Verse 4

It is spiritual, not corporal adultery, which these words take notice of: the inordinate love of this world is called spiritual adultery; because it draws away the love of the soul from God, and dissolves the spiritual marriage between God and the soul; Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world, which stands in competition with, and indisposes you from the doing of God's will, is enmity with God? and that whosoever will be thus a friend of the world, is the enemy of God? To love the world as God's competitor, is enmity to God, and he is God's enemy that loveth it predominantly. Learn we to love every creature with a creature love: for God reckons we love him not at all, if we love him not above all.

Verse 5

Some by the spirit here understand the holy Spirit of God, and make the words run in the form of an interrogation, thus, "The Spirit, that dwelleth in us Christians, lusteth he to envy as your's doth? Nay, rather is he not the Spirit of love and goodness?" Others understand our own spirit; our corrupt nature is mightily carried forth this way, even to envy the good of others; it is usual in scripture to call the bent and propensions of the soul, either to good or evil, by the name of a Spirit.

Note hence, that God's own people have much, too much, of a spirit of envy remaining in them, unmortified and unsubdued by them: The spirit that is in us lusteth to envy.

Verse 6

The sin of envy being censured before, our apostle next condemns the sin of pride; he uses a military term when he tells us, the God resisted the proud; it signifies, that he sees himself as in battle array against the proud, in a direct oppositon to him; there are no sort of sinners whom God sets himself so much against to punish and plague as proud sinners: such are wholly out of his favour; he beholdeth them afar off, and they are the subjects of his high displeasure; like naked men in an army, they stand exposed to his wrath, they have no shelter, nothing to keep off the threatening from them: for there can be no shelter from divine wrath, but in divine love.

There are two eminent works of divine providence in the world, the one is to lift us and exalt the humble, the other is to abase and pull down the proud; some pride themselves in their natural parts, others in their acquired parts; some in their moral virues and evangelical graces, others in their holy duties and spiritual performances; we seldom do well, but we think too well of ourselves.

Learn hence, that pride is a common sin, and provoking; yea, a very provoking sin, and so must needs be, because it is an usurpation of the place and power of God, and sets itself against all the commands and threatenings of God: God resisteth the proud, but he giveth grace to the humble:

grace, that is,

1. Favour; the humble shall have his favour, and the proud his frowns.

2. God giveth grace, that is, more grace, farther measures of grace, to the humble: as we lay up our richest wines in the lowest cellars so does God lodge his choicest graces in humble and lowly hearts; he giveth not only grace, but more grace, to the humble; such as are low in their own eyes, are under the special protection and direction of the Most High God.

Verse 7

That is, "Submit to his government and authority, to his preceptive and commanding will, and to his providential and disposing will: submit yourselves to the guidance of his word, to the direction of his Spirit, to the conduct of his providence; submit your whole selves to the whole law and will of God; let all your thoughts, affections, words, and actions, be guided according to the strict rules of the word of God; but resist the devil, by no means do not submit or yield an inch to him: the only way to overcome Satan is, not by yielding to him, but by resisting and opposing of him; Satan is both a conquered enemy and a cowardly enemy, though he has a bold face, yet a faint heart; resist him, and he will flee from you."

Observe here, 1. The devil's active enmity and continual hostility against man, implied and supposed: Satan is continually busy with us, that is, the apostate spirit, and the spirit of apostacy lodged in our natures: wherever we see malice, revenge, envy, hatred, pride, and self-love, there is that evil spirit which is so inimical and injurous to us, that is, Venenum serpentis diabolici, "The sting and poison, the very soul and spirit of the apostate nature."

Observe, 2. The Christian's duty discovered, and that is, not to yield but resist and oppose; we must either resist him, or be taken captive by him; if we do not resist him, we shall never get rid of him: if once we parley and treat with him, we must expect to be triumphed over, and trampled upon by him.

Observe, 3. The certainty of success declared, he will flee from you; every denial is a discouragement to Satan, the strength of his temptations lie in our treachery and falseness; we are false within ourselves, otherwise all his power and malice could not hurt us; however, if we continue our resistance, the holy Spirit will come in with his assistance, he will be our second in the field, and we shall find, that stronger is he that is in us, than he that is in the world; the God of peace will bruise Satan under our feet shortly.

Verse 8

Observe here, 1. Man by nature, since his fall, is afar off from God, not barely by a natural distance as a creature, but also by a moral distance as a sinner; God made man near him, but when man sinned, he departed from him; now we draw nigh to God by conversion, and in all the actings of repentance; there is a first and a second coversion; a first conversion from a sinful state, a second conversion from sinful acts, by both we draw nigh to God; but the drawing nigh to God here principally intended, is by approaching to him in prayer, and in the use of every holy ordinance: and humbling of the soul before God, is a drawing nigh unto him; hence it is that good men delight so much in prayer, and other holy duties; they meet with God in them, and draw near to God by them; and they that meet with God, meet with all delights.

Observe, 2. As the duty required, draw nigh to God, so the encouragement annexed, he will draw nigh to you: God will certainly draw nigh to that Christian, in a way of mercy, who prepareth his heart to approach and draw near to him in a way of duty; the Lord is nigh to all them that call upon him; nigh to comfort, nigh to quicken, nigh to guide, nigh to support.

Mark! to signify to us our deep pollution, and universal pollution; we are called upon both to cleanse and to purify, and that both our hands and our hearts.

Quest. But why is cleansing of the hands set before purifying the heart? Must we sweeten the streams before the fountain?

Ans. It is not unusual in scripture to put that first which is visible first, as calling before election, 2 Peter 1:10. And because grace (having once entered the heart) discovers itself by an immediate cleansing of the hands; so that if we would have a holy life, we must get a clean heart.

Learn, 1. That unclean persons can have no communion with God.

2. That they who draw nigh to God, must cleanse their hands; because the sins of our hands do keep us at a distance from God, and God at a distance from us. Commerce with God in an ordinance is one thing, and communion with him is another; a man may have a commerce or trade with an enemy for profit sake, whilst he refuses to hold communion with him in a way of friendship and intimacy of acquaintance.

Learn, 3. That double-minded men have corrupt hearts: double- mindedness is a dividing of the heart between God and something else: whereas God calls for the whole heart, the whole mind, the whole soul, the whole strength.

Learn, 4. That this double-mindedness hinders both our drawing nigh to God, and God's drawing nigh to us; a heart divided between God and the world, between conscience and lust, between religion and self interest, will hinder all intercourse and sweet communion betwixt God and us in the duty of prayer. Cleanse therefore your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded.

Verse 9

The next duty we are exhorted to by the apostle, is a deep humiliation, and a voluntary affliction of our souls before God for sin, and upon the account of any calamity, either on ourselves or others.

Learn hence, that as the afflicting hand of God does increase upon a person, a family, or a people, so ought the humiliation and mourning of that person, family, or people, to increase; we ought not only to be humbled when God afflicts, but also to be humbled in proportion to what God inflicts; great afflictions call for great humiliations; woe to that person, that family, or that people, who will not afflicted when God afflicts them, nor humble themselves, when God humbles them; who, when God casts them down, will hold up their heads in mirth and jollity: God loves to see us bear our cross, but he cannot endure to see us make sport with it, or slight of it. If God once perceives us driving away our sorrow with harp and viol, or drowning it with wine, he can quickly turn our wine into water, and our laughter into the voice of weeping.

Now is it not better to turn our mirth into mourning, than to have God turn it into mourning? They who turn their mirth into mourning, shall find comfort after their mourning; but they shall know nothing but mourning, whose mirth God turns into mourning: be afflicted, therefore, and mourn and weep.

Quest. But how comes the apostle to make use of so many words to one purpose, be afflicted, mourn, weep, humble yourselves, &c.?

Ans. All these heaps of expressions do import and imply,

1. The necessity of the duty.

2. The difficulty of the duty.

3. The continuance of the duty,

and accordingly much enforcement is necessary; flesh and blood loves pleasure, but declines sorrow and heaviness; nature loves no bitter draughts, though bitter things are sometimes the best things; therefore the apostle's call to afflict our souls, and humble ourselves in the sight of God, is repeated; and mark the encouragement given thus to do, humble yourselves in the sight of God, and he shall lift you up:

Submission and humility is the true way to exaltation and glory; the way to rise is to fall: he that humbleth himself shall be exalted, Luke 14:11.

He shall lift thee up in due time, 1 Peter 5:6. Wait God's leisure, and the promise shall surely be fulfilled; the world looketh upon humility as the way to contempt, but God pronounces it the way to honour; before honour is humility.

Verse 11

These words, as generally delivered by our apostle, are a disuasive from the sin of detraction, or speaking evil of one another, either by secret whispering, or open backbiting; a very common but most unbecoming sin amongst Christians. What pleasure do some persons take in divulging the faults of others, in aggravating their faults, in defrauding them of their necessary excuse and mitigation, though at the same time they are conscious of it, by lessening their good actions through the suppostion of their false aims and ends? It is an injurious and unworthy jealousy, when a person's actions are fair, to suspect his intentions, by mentioning his failings, but suppressing his worth and excellencies. It becomes Christians neither to give way to this growing evil themselves, nor give ear to it in others.

But there seems to be something special and particular in these words, which respects the Jews, to whom this epistle is directed; as if the apostle had said, "Give over your reproach and censoriousness against the Gentile Christians, who do not observe your ceremonial law, your feasts, your sabbath, your circumcision; for both the law of Christ, and the law of Moses, which you profess to own, do bind you to love your neighbour as yourself, and forbids such uncharitalbe censures; So that by condemning your brethren, you condemn the law, and set yourselves above it; and all this in contempt of the law, and the lawgiver, who is one, and is able both to save and to destroy."

There are some that are neither able to save nor to destroy; there are others able to destroy, but cannot save. Satan is a destroyer, but he cannot save any, nor can he destroy all; if he could, none should be saved. But there is a lawgiver, who can save and destroy, who can give life, and take it away, and both as often as he will. He can save those that obey his laws, and destroy all those that transgress them: therefore, seeing Christ and none but Christ, has authority to five laws, it is not for you to impose ceremonial observances upon your brethren, and to censure and judge them for not observing them, when Christ has set them at liberty from the observation of them.

Verse 13

For the clear understanding of these words,

consider, 1. What is not here forbidden or condemned by our apostle; namely, prudential resolutions for a right management of human affairs: It is lawful for men to take up a purpose to go to such a place, and follow their trade there, to buy, and sell, and get gain in an honest way; but no man must be peremptory in this, because we know not what shall be on the morrow, such determinations must be made with submission to divine providence: If the Lord will, we shall do this or that, referring all to his pleasure, who alone doth whatsoever pleaseth him.

Consider, 2. What is hereby intimated to us, and what is the duty incumbent upon us, namely,

1. That we have no assurance of our lives, nor any of the comforts of our lives, for one day, and therefore ought to refer all our actions, our enterprises, and undertakings to the will of God. What is your life? It is but a vapour; therefore ye ought to say, If the Lord will we shall do this or that.

2. That in regard of the great frailty of our lives, and the great uncertainty of issues and events, it is the height of presumption to promise ourselves great things, without the leave of God's providence; as our times are in God's hand, so are our actions also in God's power, both as to the performance of them, and as to the success of them: Say not then, today, or tomorrow, we will go into such a city; for that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall do this, or that.

Verse 17

Observe here, 1. That sins of ignorance are sins, and render men greatly culpable, though ignorance will in some degree lessen their punishment.

Observe here, 2. That to sin against light and knowledge is a very heinous aggravation of sin; because the knowlege of our duty lays us under the greatest obligation to do it.

3. That the greater advantages and opportunities any man has of knowing his duty; and the more knowlege he sins against in not doing of it, the greater is his sin, and the more grievous will be his condemnation.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on James 4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. 1700-1703.