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Bible Commentaries
James 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

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Verse 1


1. Wars and public commotions Whence come they? What the remedy? James 4:1-10.

1. Whence… wars Passing beyond the synagogue, Christian or Jewish, our apostle extends his address to the people of the twelve tribes. The great body of modern commentators, such as Stier, Bengel, De Wette, Huther, and Alford have interpreted these wars as strifes in Churches, or even between Christian teachers! This has arisen from their not discriminating the various classes addressed by the epistle. Limiting all the epistle to the Christian body, they are obliged either to impute to the apostolic Church enormities of which it was not supposably guilty, or else very arbitrarily to give a figurative meaning to the terms. The class plainly enough addressed is the Jews who, in those troublous times, acted the part of brigands robbed, murdered, skirmished in armed bands, and yet held themselves as the people of God, doing him service. The passage is a picture of the times described in our vol. iii, pp. 233-235.

Huther thus approvingly quotes Laurentius as saying: “The apostle speaks, not concerning wars and slaughters;” which are precisely what he does speak about; “but concerning mutual dissensions, lawsuits, scoldings, and contentions.” From such an exegesis we are obliged to dissent, and fall back, with Grotius, and recognise a clear view of the Jewish age.

First, it seems entirely inadmissible to interpret such a series of terms as wars, battles, kill, fight, cleanse hands, sinners, doubleminded, of the Christian body. These phrases, also, stand in strong contrast with the terms of James 4:11-12, where brethren are directly addressed, and where the faults corrected are not blood and murder, but censorious speaking.

Second, even these interpreters admit that the dread apostrophe to the oppressive rich in first paragraph of next chapter is not addressed to Christians. But the two passages are precisely parallel. One addresses the disturbers of public peace, the other the oppressors of the poor, especially poor Christians. It would be just as easy, by a forced transformation of the strong terms into figures, to make the latter passage an address to the Church as the former.

Third, the two passages are also parallel in the fact that each is followed by a passage in a very different tone addressed to the Church. As the denunciations James 4:1-10 are parallel to the denunciations of James 5:6, so is the gentle address to the Church in James 4:11-12, parallel to the gentle address to the Church in James 5:7-10, and following. In both cases there is a bold appeal to the wicked world, followed by a fraternal appeal to the holy, yet not faultless, Church.

Fightings Battles, specific acts of war. The preferred reading repeats the whence for vividness; whence come wars? whence battles?

Lusts Not the usual Greek word for lusts, but the word for pleasures, or delights. The term alludes to that bad delight or gratification, existing in the fierceness of strife, prompting to repetition.

That war There is an inward war, prompting to outward. The bloody public contests were deeply based upon the inward depravities, the cupidities, ambitions, revenges, lusts, mingled with the fiery patriotisms and religions kindled to fanaticism. Thence came assassinations, rapines, conflagrations, finally resulting in the dissolution of society, and the desolation of the land swept of its inhabitants.

Verse 2

2. Ye lust Ye desire, crave. The objects of most of the verbs in the passage are to be supplied, the apostle leaving our minds to conceive how varied they are.

Have not In spite of your craving and violent efforts to obtain. They desired wealth, but poverty was the order of the day. They desired domination, but were enslaved by the Romans. They desired emancipation, but every bloody effort led to a bloodier destruction.

Kill In predatory assaults and political insurrections.

Desire to have It is a great puzzle with even such commentators as Huther and Alford to tell why St. James should commit such an anticlimax as to place so feeble a term as desire after kill. Alford discusses four solutions of previous commentators, rejecting them all, and gives a fifth little better than the four. The true solution is very simple. The three verbs, kill, desire, cannot obtain, are to be taken in close connexion: Ye kill and desire to have, (namely, the avails of your killing,) and cannot obtain, (those avails;) so that your bloodshed is bootless. You obtain neither wealth, nor emancipation, nor domination.

Ask not They were monotheists, hereditary covenant people of God, went through rituals, and yet their prayer was no prayer. For, as the next verse shows, they were lustful ejaculations.

Verse 3

3. Ask amiss A sort of correction of his phrase ask not in last verse. The amiss consists in the sensual nature of their prayers. The asking for the gratification of our unholy natures is a prayer which is not a prayer.

Consume Or expend it, not upon, but in, your lusts. In your lusts expresses the moral condition in which they offered their prayerless prayers. A Greek brigand at the present day can unite robbery and murder with the most devout adoration of the virgin.

Thus far in this chapter (1-3) our apostle has pictured the depraved and disturbed state of the world, especially in his own age. Next (4-10) he draws the antithesis between God and the world, between which his readers must make their choice, as the two are incompatible.

Verse 4

4. Adulterers is probably a spurious reading prefixed to adulteresses, which is alone genuine. We also prefer Tischendorf’s punctuation, which would read, “that you may expend it in your lusts, ye adulteresses.” Israel is often termed in the Old Testament the spouse of Jehovah, and apostate Israel is pronounced an adulteress. Said Isaiah, (Isaiah 54:5,) “Thy Maker is thine husband:” and Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 2:2,) “I remember… the love of thine espousals.” Said Ezekiel, (Ezekiel 16:32,) “But as a wife that committeth adultery.” Our Lord pronounced the Jews an “adulterous generation.” (Matthew 12:29; Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:38.) In all probability the copyist, not perceiving this figurative sense, thought that adulterers should be added in order to include both sexes in the charge of literal adultery.

Know ye not Parallel with think ye, do ye think, in next verse, with an or between the two. These two parallel questions start, first, the antithesis between the friendship of the world and the friendship of God; and, second, the contrast made by God against envy and the proud in favour of the humble. This drift of the thought is important as key to the difficulty found by commentators in the interpretation of James 4:5. Friendship (rather, love) of the world What is meant by world when it is thus condemned in lump? Not merely the secular business of the world, or human society, or the State, or the organic system of human things as such. The existence of such things is right. To say otherwise is to introduce a most disastrous and demoralizing monasticism. And this organic structure of human things is largely at the present age fused over with Christian influences. The living world of our present Christendom is not as bad as the world of the apostolic age.

Enmity with God For he who loves the world as ruled by Satan is at war with God and his kingdom.

Verse 5

5. This second question suggests that (in accordance with all Scripture) the proud human spirit burns with envy, while God in his grace is on the side of the humble.

Saith Quotation of no particular passage, but a sentiment everywhere assumed or expressed by Scripture.

The spirit that dwelleth in us The unholy temper. But a reading preferred by good scholars is, The spirit that he (God) hath caused to dwell in us. Alford adopts this reading, and by it makes the spirit to be the divine spirit bestowed upon the Church. But from that he gets what we think a very perplexed meaning of the verse: “The spirit that he (God) has placed within us jealously desireth us (for its own.”) But he fails to find any Scripture which uses the Greek word for envy to designate the divine jealousy of God for his Church. And the supplying as object for the word lusteth (or, more properly, desireth) “us for his own” is arbitrary. By this new, and doubtless correct, reading, we understand our own spirit, not as a temper, but as the highest part of our nature, as body, soul, and spirit. Note, James 3:15. It is the high human spirit which lusteth, intensely desires, to (in the direction towards) envy; an envy of which pride is the element, desirous of attaining a superiority over all envied rivalry. It is an aggravation that this envy is the sin of the spirit which God has made to dwell within us, in order that we might be truly angel like.

Verse 6

6. More grace Literally, But a greater grace he bestows; namely, as the next sentence shows, the grace of God to the humble. Greater than what is this grace? It is given greater to the humble (next verse) than it otherwise would be given in view of the antithesis of the humble against the proud, that is, the high spirit of envy. The question then amounts to this: Say not rightly the Scriptures that man’s proud yet God-bestowed spirit tends to envy, and to overcome the superiority of rivals? But a greater grace, therefore, does He give, namely, to the humble, and he resists the overriding attempts of the proud.

He saith Quoted freely from Psalms 138:6, or Proverbs 3:34.

The proud Whose spirit lusteth to envy.

Verse 7

7. The same antithesis as that mentioned in James 4:4 is carried through the paragraph. It is between the proud and the humble, between God, to be submitted and approached, and the devil, to be resisted; between cleanse and sinners, between purify and doubleminded, between laughter and mourning, and, finally, between penitent humiliation and a divine exaltation.

Therefore In view of the fact that the proud spirit is resisted by Jehovah. But while there is One to whom we must submit, there is one whom we should resist the devil.

Will flee Temptations repelled disappear, and when habitually kept at a distance, cease to exist. The firmly formed habit of virtue comparatively places the soul out of the normal reach of temptation. The apostolic father, Hermas, said, “The devil is able to wrestle, but not to wrestle us down; for if we struggle firmly he is conquered, and slinks away in shame.”

Verse 8

8. Draw nigh The reverse of resist. The former should be done to God, the latter to the devil the two sides of the great battle for possession of the human soul. The drawing nigh to God was ritually symbolized by the approach of the people, and especially the priests, to Jehovah in the holy of holies. But under the new dispensation, the holy of holies is wherever God’s omnipresence is, and the penitent heart is its own priest, able to offer an acceptable incense.

Cleanse… hands… sinners The sinner is the actual transgressor; his hands are stained with blood or other blot of sin; he must cleanse by reformation that he may spread clean hands in prayer to God. In vain does the wild guerilla imagine that his sanguinary deeds are done in the divine behalf and winning the divine favour.

Hearts Imply a deeper change, that the doubleminded, no longer serving the world, may have a single heart for God.

Verse 9

9. Be afflicted Penitence is the way to repentance and reformation; penitence in view of past sin and future judgment. The ring of revelry and laughter should give way to the voice of mourning.

Verse 10

10. Humble yourselves… lift you up To pardon, holiness, and heaven.

Verse 11

2. Christian avoidance of even bitter and hostile speech, James 4:11-12.

11. Brethren It did not need this tender word to show us that a different class is now addressed from the sinners of the last terrible paragraph. If they were the same, we do not well see how the brethren could speak evil of each other any more keenly than he speaks of them.

Of his brother One who, it may be assumed, tries to be, and believes he is, right.

Judgeth his brother Arraigns him and pronounces sentence upon him, like an authoritative superior.

Judge the law Decides upon the exact nature and force of the law, and its absolute bearing on the particular case of the brother. We may have our opinion, and the brother may have his; what is condemned is our overriding his judgment, as if he were a culprit who had no right to an opinion.

Not a doer… but a judge You leave your proper position on the common level with your brother, of obedience to the law, and mount a tribunal in which you pronounce upon both the law and the brother. This does not forbid just criticism, but does forbid a reckless overbearing towards one whom we have reason to believe conscientious, in which our own pride of decision is involved.

Verse 12

12. Who art thou A usurper of the right of the supreme One.

Verse 13

3. And of arrogant conversational ignoring of God, James 4:13-17.

13. Go to now An interjection to excite attention. The modern phrase would be, Come now. The old phrase is, perhaps, the more accurate, as it aims to incite to right procedure. The number of precise particulars, to-morrow, such a city, a year, buy, sell, get gain, presumes upon many contingent points in which there is probability of failure, especially the closing one, which is the real aim of all the rest.

It is A preferred reading is, ye are. It is not our life, but even ourselves, that is an appearing and then vanishing vapour or mist.

Verse 15

15. To say In word or in heart. The precise and perfunctory utterance of the formula is of far less value than the deep consciousness of our own evanescent nature, and our deep dependence on God, consummated in a complete committal, ever renewed daily and hourly, of ourselves into his hand.

Verse 16

16. Now As your present habit is.

Rejoice Rather, glory are proud of.

Your boastings Your presumptuous proclaiming what you will do to be cut off, perhaps, by failure and by death.

Verse 17

17. Therefore As a summing up.

To do good Rather, to do well, in opposition to the evil of the last verse. The doing well is the ceasing from such boasting, and the trusting ourselves to the divine hand. It is not the purpose of the text to condemn sins of omission.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on James 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/james-4.html. 1874-1909.
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