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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
James 4

 

 

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Introduction

CHAP IV.

We are to strive against covetousness, intemperance, pride, detraction, and rash judgment of others; and not to be confident in the good success of worldly business; but, mindful ever of the uncertainty of this life, to commit ourselves and all our affairs to God's providence.

Anno Domini 60.

IN the conclusion of the foregoing chapter, the apostle had recommended the wisdom from above, as producing the happiest effects, and particularly peace and love: upon which he takes occasion to ask them, whence sprung their contentions, and other extravagant and wicked desires, which they harboured in their breasts?—Not from heaven, but from their own lusts; which, when indulged, produced very unhappy effects, such as quarrelling, envy, pride, and covetousness, a neglect of prayer, or a praying with wrong views, an inordinate love of the present world, and a disregard of the favour of God, and the happiness of another world. All these vices therefore he very strongly condemns, and recommends the contrary virtues and graces, James 4:1-10. After which he cautions them, James 4:11-12 against censure and detraction; letting them know, that it was taking too much upon them, and was in effect a censuring of the Christian law which forbade such things, as well as displeasing to Christ, who is our only Lawgiver and Judge. Herein he seems to have had a particular reference to the censorious spirit of the zealous Jewish Christians, who thought and spoke very hard things of such of their Christian brethren as did not continue strictly to observe the ceremonial law. After this the sacred writer reproves those who presumed too much upon the present life, and had not a due regard to their own frailty and mortality, and to their being constantly at the disposal of the providence of God, James 4:13-17.


Verse 1

James 4:1. Whence come wars and fightings among you? Dr. Benson is of opinion, that St. James could here intend no reference to the unbelieving Jews at this time in theirdispersions; but that what he condemned was the quarrels and contentions which too frequently happened among the Jewish Christians, and which are very unbecomingthe meek and pacific religion that they had embraced. What may confirm this is, that in the verses which immediately precede, the apostle had mentioned the wisdom from above, which brought forth nothing but peace and harmony; and upon that he inquires, "Whence then must your quarrels and contentions proceed, as the wisdom from above brings forth such different fruits?" To which he himself replies, "Not from the Spiritof God, but from your lusts;" the very principle which, ch. James 3:15 he had called the wisdom from beneath, which was sensual, or proceeding from the criminal indulgence of the lower appetites. If the apostle's sense had been carried on without any division into chapters and verses, this connection would more clearly have appeared. The words rendered wars and fightings, are very often used for strife and contention.


Verse 2

James 4:2. Ye kill, and desire to have,— We must take the word φονευετε, ye kill, in a softer sense than the common meaning of the word. As wars and fightings, in the first verse, are interpreted quarrels and contentions; so here, ye kill, and desire to have, may be interpreted, "Ye are ready to murder and use violence, like the Jewish zealots, that you may satisfy your covetous desires." The thought or inclination to murder, may possibly here be called murder; in the same sense as St. John says, Whoever hateth his brother, is a murderer, 1 John 3:15. And in this sense Dr. Heylin understands and renders the verse, You are full of desires, but you have not what you desire: you destroy with hatred and envy, but cannot get what you would have: you contend and strive, but without success, because you ask not.


Verse 4

James 4:4. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, Great wickedness, and especially idolatry, among the Jews, is often represented as adultery. What follows in this verse shews, that by adultery St. James meant spiritual idolatry, or a love of the world more than of God. See Matthew 6:24; Matthew 12:30. Luke 12:15; Luke 12:59. The word καθισταται signifies properly is adjudged; and there is a considerable emphasis in the expression: "It is declared and adjudged beyond controversy, that he is an enemy of God."


Verse 5-6

James 4:5-6. Do ye think, &c.— Dr. Benson paraphrases the passage as follows: "Do you think that the scripture speaketh in vain, or without a very good reason, when it condemns such a worldly temper?—No, that you cannot rationally suppose. Do you imagine that the Spirit of God, which dwells in us Christians, leadeth us to covetousness, pride, or envy? No, by no means. On the contrary, (James 4:6.) unto such as follow his guidance and direction, and excel in love, humility, and moderation as to the things of this world, he sheweth greater favour. Wherefore the scripture faith,God setteth himself, as it were, in battle-array, to oppose the proud and envious, but sheweth favour unto such as are humble and obedient, (see Proverbs 3:34.)" And this interpretation he would support in the following manner: The apostle had asked one question, James 4:4. Know ye not that the law of this world it enmity to God? To that question he himself gave no answer, but left it to them to supply the answer, as most plain and obvious: and in James 4:5 we suppose him to ask two questions,—giving no express answer to either; but, as is very usual with poets and orators, leaving his readers to supply the answer themselves. In the first question there seems to be an ellipsis, which, if it was supplied, would run thus: "Do you think that the scripture speaketh in vain, or without reason, when it condemns this worldly temper?" — The answer, if expressed, would have been ουδαμως, by no means. The second question is, "Doth the Spirit which dwelleth in us, lust to envy?" The answer, if expressed, would be the same again; by no means.


Verse 7

James 4:7. Submit yourselves "Subject yourselves therefore to God, and, being listed in his army, keep the rank which he hath assigned you." Thus much is implied by the word υποταγητε .


Verse 8

James 4:8. Draw nigh to God, This seems to be an allusion to the manner in which the Jews in general, or rather the priests, drew nigh to God, by going to the temple, while the Shechinah, the glorious emblem of the divine presence, was there. Christians may all of them now draw nigh to God, as a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. 1 Peter 2:9. By clean hands the scriptures generally mean "hands not polluted with any vice or wickedness." The ancient Jews used to wash their hands before they went to sacrifice, or to religious worship, as the Jews do to this day, before they go into the synagogue to worship: and to this custom the apostle seems to allude in this verse. See Psalms 24:4. Matthew 27:24. 1 Timothy 2:8.


Verse 9

James 4:9. Be afflicted, and mourn, We may and ought to rejoice in the Lord, that is, in the consciousness of his favour, and in the prospect of the happiness which is promised in the gospel; but in pride and envy, voluptuousness, or covetousness, we may not rejoice. The having been guilty of such things ought to humble us, and make us mourn. This is the apostle's advice in this place; and it seems to have been given with a particular regard to the vices condemned, James 4:3, &c. See also ch. James 5:1, &c. The word Κατηφειαν, rendered heaviness, signifies that dejected look which is observable in persons overwhelmed with shame, and confusion of face; when their countenance is cast down, their eyes are fixed on the ground, and both their face and posture express the most exquisite shame and sorrow. See Parkhurst on the word, and Luke 18:13.


Verse 10

James 4:10. Humble yourselves, &c.— "In this manner lay yourselves at the foot of God with the lowest prostration and self-abasement, as offenders against his sacred Majesty, and with an affecting conviction that he knows your hearts and principally looks at them, and observes all the secret workings of corruption, on the one hand, and of contrite sorrow, on the other, that pass within them; and he will revive your drooping souls with a sense of his pardoning and recovering grace; will raise you up above all your fears and troubles, temporal and spiritual; and will exalt you to honour among his people in this world, and, if faithful unto death, to immortal glory in the world to come."


Verse 11

James 4:11. Speak not evil, &c.— St. James here returns to what he had touched upon, ch. James 3:9-16. By the law in this place we understand the law of Christ, which is so called, Galatians 6:2. St. James calls it the perfect law of liberty (ch. James 1:25, James 2:12.); and in the next verse Christ is called our Lawgiver; see also Romans 13:8. What it is to judge or condemn a divine law, see Genesis 3:4-5. Ezekiel 18:25. Romans 7:7. That the Christian law condemns all censure and reviling, is plain from Matthew 7:1; Matthew 7:29. Luke 6:37 and various other places.


Verse 12

James 4:12. There is one Lawgiver, Dr. Bentley would close the last verse with the words, Thou art not a doer of the law, and begin the present, But there is one Judge—the Lawgiver. Christ is here called the Lawgiver, most probably in opposition to those who were so fond of the law given by Moses, and so severe in censuring those who did not observe that law. Neither the bishop of Rome, nor any single man or synod, have any power to make religious laws which shall be binding upon the consciences of Christians; to assure such of salvation as shall observe them, or to sentence such as will not observe them to everlasting perdition. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge; that is, Christ; who is himself invested with all sufficient power, and who has not delegated that power to any weak, passionate, or fallible man. His laws are in the New Testament; and whoever adds to them, or takes from them, does so far detract from the only Lawgiver in the Christian church. Dr. Heylin renders this verse, There is but one Legislator who hath power to absolve or condemn. Who are you, that usurp his office by judging your neighbour?


Verse 13

James 4:13. We will go into such a city, That is, to Rome or Alexandria, Tyre or Sidon, Corinth or Ephesus; according to the countries into which the Jewish Christians were dispersed, or the trades they carried on. The next verse ought to be read in a parenthesis, as an important piece of advice which might be obviously inferred, when he was reproving them for building too much upon this precarious life. Without the parenthesis, the 13th and 15th verses join very well: "You say so and so;—Instead of which you ought to say, &c."


Verse 15

James 4:15. For that ye ought to say, Instead of which you ought to say, If the Lord will, and we shall live, we will do this, or that. Pious men have such a tacit sense of their dependance upon God, when they do not express it in words; so ought we to understand Romans 15:28. 1 Corinthians 16:5. Indeed, the having in our minds such a constant regard to the providence of God, and such a due sense of our own frailty and mortality, is of much more moment than the outwardly expressing it; though, no doubt, the outward expression is highly proper, as it may put us in mind not to extend our views in this world too far, lest the grave lie between us and our distant hopes, and because we are continually in the hands of the Most High.


Verse 16

James 4:16. But now ye rejoice, &c.— But you, on the contrary, glory in your boasting projects,—(respecting the gain they were to make by their traffic, James 4:13.)—you take pleasure in this confident and arrogant manner of talking. See 1 John 2:16.


Verse 17

James 4:17. Therefore, to him that knoweth to do good, &c.— "Perhaps some of you, who so much value yourselves for your uncommon wisdom and knowledge, may object and say, These are plain obvious truths, and what we knew so well before, that there was no occasion to speak of them. But, in answer to such an objection, I would observe, that I have now carefully put you in mind of these things; and therefore, if you do not practise accordingly, you will be the more criminal. For he who knows what is good and excellent, and at the same time does not practise accordingly, his sin is aggravated, and his punishment will be the greater." See Matthew 11:20; Matthew 11:30. Luke 12:47. John 9:41; John 13:17; John 15:22; John 15:24.

Inferences.—Alas! What dreadful work do the lusts of pride, covetousness, and envy make in the world! Hence proceed wars, and all manner of discords that are destructive to civil and religious society, and to a man's own soul: they carry him into wicked desires and attempts, which can turn to no good account; and either make him cast off prayer, or pervert its ends in asking temporal advantages, that he may gratify his own corruptions, instead of glorifying God and doing good with them. No wonder that such carnal prayers are not answered.—O what an enemy to God, what an adulterous disaffection to him in professors of his name, is an excessive fondness for any thing of this world! How justly does the scripture condemn this sensual temper, which naturally works in man! And how contrary is it to the suggestions and influences of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in true believers, and freely gives grace, with all needful increases of it, to humble souls; but rejects the proud with abhorrence and disdain! How unsuitable to our creaturely dependance and Christian character is it, to form and prosecute schemes for this world, without a religious sense of, and dependance on the providence of God; as if our times and the success of our affairs lay in our own hands, though life itself is but as a vapour that soon vanishes away! Surely every thing ought to be undertaken with an eye to God, and submission to his will. A contrary way of thinking and talking is a vain-glorious boast, dishonourable to God, and injurious to ourselves and others. It is indeed a scandal to the Christian name, that all or any of the forementioned impieties should be found among gospel professors; and it is a high aggravation of their sin to go against the light of their own consciences in practising them. O how earnest should we be in our addresses to God for his grace, to enable us to submit to his commanding and disposing will, and in bewailing our iniquities, and humbling ourselves before him for them! And what encouragement have we, in this way, to hope for his reviving presence and liftings up! And if, in a dependance on divine strength, we resist the temptations of the devil, he will find us too hard for him, and flee, like a conquered enemy, before us. But how cautious should we be, never to imitate his temper, and give him an advantage over us, by slandering, censuring, and condemning our Christian brethren for little things, or things that may be allowable in them! This is to set up for judges, instead of obeyers of the law; and is a violation of its requirements to love them as ourselves; yea, is an invasion of God's prerogative, who alone is able effectually to vindicate its authority: O may it be unto our salvation, and not to our destruction!

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Inordinate desire after earthly things, is the usual ground of contention; against this therefore the apostle warns them.

1. He ascribes to this the wars or contentions which then were notorious among them. From whence come wars and fightings among you? which some suppose has reference to the many seditions of the Jewish people against the Roman government; but rather refers to the contentions of law-suits which were maintained by those who made a profession of Christianity, and which were so unbecoming the name they bore; come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Yes: to the pride and covetousness of your hearts do these owe their origin, and tend to the ruin of religion, and the peace of the church, provoking God to withdraw his Spirit from you. Ye lust, and long to gratify your criminal passions, and have not what you grasp after: ye kill, impatient to inherit, and wishing those dead whom you expect to succeed; and desire to have, grasping covetously after abundance, and cannot obtain; disappointment blasts your pursuits: ye fight and war, contending fiercely for superiority, wealth, and victory; yet ye have not, your schemes and designs are defeated, because ye ask not, neglecting to seek counsel of God in your enterprizes, and not desiring his direction and blessing. And ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss: neither praying for right things, nor with a right view, but eager after earthly gain; that ye may consume it upon your lusts, not to employ it for God's glory and the good of mankind. Note; (1.) Nothing is more contrary to the spirit of Christianity, than covetousness and fierce disputes. (2.) They who do not seek God's blessing, justly meet with disappointment in one way or other in all their enterprizes. (3.) To ask amiss is as bad as not to ask at all; nor may we expect an answer to those prayers which worldly-mindedness and selfishness, not God's glory, dictates.

2. He solemnly warns them against intimate connection with the world that lieth in wickedness. Ye adulterers and adulterers, whose affections are alienated from Christ, to whom ye were once espoused; know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? all undue attachment to the pleasures, interests, honours of the world, and delight in the company of the worldly-minded, are utterly inconsistent with fidelity to God, and real friendship with him; nay, are virtually a profession of enmity against him. Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world, and at all events is resolved to keep fair with the men of the world, he is, and must be, the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, in many passages describing the deadly corruption of the natural heart, The spirit that dwelleth in us, lusteth to envy? and, till renewed by grace, is ever with a longing eye regarding the superior prosperity and influence of others, and grasping after the like abundance: this spirit must therefore be mortified, or we must be condemned with the world.

3. He directs them how to overcome the world. But he, even God, giveth more grace than the world can give snares, and hath infinitely greater riches to bestow than this poor earth can proffer. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, who make flesh their arm, and place their happiness and confidence in worldly things, vain of their own wisdom, riches, or attainments; these he fights against, blasts their designs, and ruins their confidences: but he giveth grace unto the humble, who, sensible of their own wants and weakness, bow down at his feet for relief. Submit yourselves therefore to God, to his guidance and government, obedient to his will and word, resigned to his providence, and content with the portion which he allots you, whatever it be. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you, as a vanquished foe, unable to contend with those who have put on the whole armour of God, and appear resolved to fight manfully under Christ's banner. Draw nigh to God, in fervent prayer for help, and he will draw nigh to you, with comfort, strength, and salvation, in every time of need, and will make you more than conquerors.

4. He exhorts them to put away every evil thing, and with real penitence to return to God. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners, in the atoning blood of Jesus, that you may lift them up with acceptance before the throne of grace; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded, from pride, envy, covetousness, and hypocrisy; seeking that grace which can alone be effectual for this blessed purpose. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep over the deep corruption and sinfulness of your hearts, and under a sense of your past grievous departures from God. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness, ashamed and confounded at your past baseness, ingratitude, and unfaithfulness to a dying Redeemer. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, acknowledging your vileness, and imploring his pardoning grace and help; and he shall lift you up with the arms of his love, and recover you from your backslidings, and restore you to his favour. Note; (1.) They who would find acceptance with God must approach him as cleansed, or desiring to be cleansed, with atoning blood, and without hypocrisy desiring indeed to be received into the arms of his mercy. (2.) They who have unfaithfully departed from God, need with shame, remorse, and mourning, return to him, humbling their souls before him, that he may lift them up. (3.) None perish, who cast themselves at the footstool of divine mercy, and continue to cleave to the Divine Redeemer: it is God's delight to revive the spirit of the humble, and to heal the broken-hearted.

2nd, The former subject is resumed, concerning the right government of the tongue; and we are,

1. Warned against all reviling and rash censure. Speak not evil one of another, brethren; inventing falsehoods, exposing the infirmities, publishing the failings, divulging the secrets, aggravating the offences, or detracting from the excellencies, one of another. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, in things which God hath left indifferent, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law; arraigning the wisdom, equity, and goodness of the Lawgiver, as if he permitted what he ought to condemn: but if thou arrogantly judge the law, and pretend to decide what is fit to be enjoined, and what not, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy; invested with supreme authority to enact laws, able to reward the faithful, and punish the disobedient. This is his prerogative; to invade it, is the highest insolence. Who art thou, a poor, despicable, perishing worm, that judgest another, and darest thus to usurp the throne of God? Note; (1.) Where we cannot in conscience speak well of a person, it is our duty at least to be silent. (2.) Since God hath reserved for himself to determine concerning men's everlasting state, and has given us his law as our only rule of duty, it becomes us to make nothing sin, which he has not declared to be evil; nor ought we to erect another court of judicature over our brethren, where men's opinions, not the word of God, are to decide.

2. He inculcates constant dependance upon divine Providence. Go to now, ye who forget your entire dependance upon God's disposal of you, and that say, with self-sufficiency and disregard of him, To-day or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy, and sell, and get gain; as if your time, and the success of your enterprizes, were in your own hands, and dependent upon your own wisdom and diligence. Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow, or whether you shall live to the rising of another sun. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away; so fleeting, so transitory is it, and every hour in jeopardy; the consideration of which should teach you to speak less confidently. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that; adding this humble proviso, and owning your dependance for life, ability, or success in every enterprize, upon him, in whose hands your breath is, and whose are all your ways. But now ye rejoice in your boastings, and talk as if you were ceasing to be creatures under the care and keeping of your great Creator. All such rejoicing in your own self-sufficiency is evil, very offensive to God, and bringing great guilt upon your souls. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doth it not, to him it is sin; highly aggravated, as he wilfully opposes the dictates of his own conscience, and treasures up wrath against the day of wrath. Note; (1.) In all our ways we should consider God, and in every undertaking beg his blessing, and commit ourselves to his guidance. (2.) When we know better, and do worse, we are most inexcusable, and shall lie down under peculiar condemnation.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on James 4:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/james-4.html. 1801-1803.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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