Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At the end of what has been considered the second portion of this Epistle, there is a last series of rebukes. suggested apparently by those already given. James 4 is included in this fourth subdivision. (See Analysis of Contents.) The lust of the eye and the pride of life are at the root of all the wrong-doing.
From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?(1) From whence come wars . . .?—More correctly thus. Whence are wars, and whence fightings among you? The perfect peace above, capable, moreover, in some ways, of commencement here below, dwelt upon at the close of James 3, has by inevitable reaction led the Apostle to speak suddenly, almost fiercely, of the existing state of things. He traces the conflict raging around him to the fount and origin of evil within.
Come they not . . .—Translate, come they not hence, even from your lusts warring in your members? The term is really pleasures, but in an evil sense, and therefore “lusts.” “The desires of various sorts of pleasures are,” says Bishop Moberly, “like soldiers in 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.” St. Peter (1Peter 2:11) thus writes in the same strain of “fleshly lusts, which war against the soul”; and St. Paul knew also of this bitter strife in man, if not actually in himself, and could “see another law” in his members—the natural tendency of the flesh—“warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which is in his members” (Romans 7:23). See also Note on 2Corinthians 12:7.
Happily the Christian philosopher understands this; and with the very cry of wretchedness, “Who shall deliver me?” can answer, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). But the burden of this hateful depravity drove of old men like Lucretius to suicide rather than endurance; and its mantle of despair is on all the religions of India at the present time—matter itself being held to be evil, and eternal.
Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.(2, 3) Ye lust, and have not . . .—Better thus: Ye desire, and have not; ye kill, and envy, and cannot obtain; ye fight and make war; ye have not, because ye ask not; ye ask and receive not, because ye ask that ye may spend it on your lusts. It is interesting to notice the sharp crisp sentences, recollecting at the same time that St. James himself fell a victim to the passions he thus assails, probably at the hands of a zealot mob. The marginal note to the second of the above paragraphs gives envy as an alternative reading for “kill”: but this is an error. “Ye kill and play the zealot” would be still nearer the original: for, as with Jedburgh justice in the old Border wars, hanging preceded the trial, so with these factions in Jerusalem death went first, almost before the desire to deal it. Lust, envy, strife, and murder:—like the tale of human passion in all ages, the dreadful end draws on. It is written in every national epic; its elements abound in the life of each individual: the slaughter in Etzel’s halls overshadows the first lines of the Nibelungen-lied; the curse of Medea hangs like a gathering cloud around Jason and his Argonauts. Is it objected (James 4:3) that prayer is made but not answered? The reply is obvious; Ye ask not in the true sense; when ye do ask ye receive not, because God is too loving, even in His anger. Nevertheless, remember, He gave the Israelites “their desire, and sent leanness withal into their soul” (Psalm 106:15). “I,” said He by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:4), “will answer him that cometh to Me, according to his idols.” What greater curse could fall than an eternity of avarice to the miser, of pollution to the sensual, of murder to the violent? Many a man of quiet Christian life will thank God by-and-by, when he knows even as he is known (1Corinthians 13:12), that not a few of his prayers were unanswered, or at least that they were not granted in the way which he had desired. Safety is only to be found in our Lord’s own manner of petition, “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Alas! in shameful contrast to this we read of many an evil-hearted prayer offered up to the Lord our Righteousness; invocations of saints for help in unholy deeds; of angels, for acts rather befitting devils of the pit; and can hardly have the conscience to reproach the heathen for supplicating their gods in no worse a manner for no better cause.
Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.(4) Ye adulterers and adulteresses.—The phrase may seem to flow naturally after the former ones, but the Received text, from which our version was made, is wrong. It should be, ye adulteresses! as accusing those who have broken their marriage vow to God. The sense is familiar to us from many passages in the Old Testament, in which God speaks of Israel in a similar manner, e.g., Psalm 73:27; Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16 passim; Ezekiel 23:37-43; Hosea 2:2. Again in the New Testament: Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:38; Revelation 2:20-22; Revelation 17:1; Revelation 17:5; Revelation 17:15, &c.; St. Paul’s description of the church (2Corinthians 11:2), espoused “as a chaste virgin to Christ;” and comp. 2Peter 2:14, specially the margin. “God is the Lord and husband of every soul that is His;” and in her revolt from Him, and love for sin, her acts are those of an adulterous woman.
Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?—i.e., the state of being an enemy to God, not one of simpler enmity with Him. There cannot be a passive condition to the faith of Christ: “he that is not with Me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30). Renunciation of the world, in the Christian promise, is not forsaking it when tired and clogged with its delights, but the earliest severance from it; to break this vow, or not to have made it, is to belong to the foes of God, and not merely to be out of covenant with Him. The forces of good and evil divide the land so sharply that there is no debatable ground, nor even halting-place between. And if God be just, so also is He jealous (Exodus 20:5).
“Let us not weakly slide into the treason:
Yielding another what we owe to Him.”
Whosoever therefore will be (or, wills to be) a friend of the world is the enemy of God.—The choice is open; here is no iron fate, no dread necessity: but the wrong determination of the soul constitutes it henceforth as an ally of Satan. “Woe unto you, when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26), for the world, as our Lord has taught us, must “love its own” (John 15:19). And the sooner the soldier of Christ learns to expect its animosity, the better will he give himself up to the battle. (Comp. Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13.)
Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?(5) Do ye think . . .?—The tone of the Apostle is changed to one of appeal, which, perhaps (but see below), may be rendered thus: Suppose ye that the Scripture saith in vain, The (Holy) Spirit that dwelleth in us jealously regards us as His own? Our Authorised version does not allow of this apparent reference to the Spirit of God indwelling His human temples (1Corinthians 3:16; 1Corinthians 6:19, et seq.) for “lusteth to envy,” or enviously, would imply evil and not good. It were well that the unfaithful, addressed in James 4:4, should bear the general sentiment of this verse in mind, and not fancy such warnings of holy writ were uttered emptily, in vain.
Many commentators have been puzzled to say whence the words came which are quoted as authoritative by St. James. Surely the substance was sufficient for him, as for other inspired writers, without a slavish adherence to the form: comp. Genesis 2:7 for the inbreathing of the Spirit, with any such chapter as Deuteronomy 32 for His jealous inquisition. It must, however, be noted that a slightly varied punctuation of the verse will give quite another sense to its questioning. (See Wordsworth.) Suppose ye that the Scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the Spirit, which took up His abode in you, lust to envy? And defensible or not as this translation may be, at least it escapes some of the difficulties of the foregoing. (Exhaustive notes, with references to most authorities, are in Alford; or an easy summary of the matter may be read in Plumptre’s St. James.)
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.(6) But he giveth more grace—i.e., because of this very presence of the Holy Ghost within us. He, as the author and conveyer of all good gifts, in their mystic seven-fold order (Isaiah 11:2) adds to the wasted treasure, and so aids the weakest in his strife with sin, resisting the proud, lest he be led to destruction (Proverbs 16:18), and helping the humble, lest he be “wearied and faint in his mind” (Hebrews 12:3).
God resisteth the proud . . .—Excepting “God,” instead of “Lord,” this is an exact quotation from the LXX. version of Proverbs 3:34, which reads in our Bibles, “Surely He scorneth the scorners, but He giveth grace unto the lowly.” It is again brought forward by St. Peter (1Peter 5:5), and seems to have been a common saying—“a maxim of the wise that had become, as it were, a law of life.”
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.(7) Submit yourselves therefore to God. (But) resist the devil.—The hardest advice of all, to a man reliant on himself, is submission to any, more especially to the Unknown. But, as a correlative to this, the Apostle shows where pride may become a stimulant for good, viz., in contest with the Evil One.
He will flee.—Or, he shall flee. “The Devil,” says the strange old book called The Shepherd of Hermas, “can tight, but he cannot conquer; if, therefore, thou dost withstand him, he will flee from thee, beaten and ashamed.”
The text is another proof of the personality of Satan; no amount of figures of speech could otherwise interpret it.
Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.(8) Draw nigh to God . . .—God waiteth to be gracious (Isaiah 30:18). Like the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15), He beholds us while we are “yet a great way off,” and runs, as it were, to hasten our return. He has “no pleasure in the death of him that dieth” (Ezekiel 18:32). But who shall come “into the tabernacle of God, or rest upon His holy hill” (Psalm 15:1), except the man “of uncorrupt life”? Surely, the penitent as well; the murderous hands “which all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten,” the hearts polluted with the most abominable lusts, may and must be cleansed; sinners and double-minded (refer to James 1:8) though they be, and both in one, the Lord of mercy will “draw nigh” to them, if they to Him: all their “transgressions shall not be mentioned,” they “shall live and not die” (Ezekiel 18:21-22).
Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.(9) Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep.—For wretchedness, sorrow, and tears are the three steps of the homeward way to peace and God. And in proof of real conversion there must be the outward lamentation, as well as the inward contrition. Grieve, therefore, with a “godly sorrow not to be repented of” (2Corinthians 7:10)—the remorseful anguish of a Peter, and not a Judas. Let the foolish laughter at sin, which was “as the crackling of thorns” before the avenging fire (Ecclesiastes 7:6), be turned to mourning; banish the joyous smile for the face cast down to heaviness, and so await the blessedness of those that mourn (Matt. v, 4), even the promised comfort of God.
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.(10) Humble yourselves . . .—Read, Humble yourselves therefore before the Lord, and He shall lift you up. “For thus saith the high and lofty One” (Isaiah 57:15), “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Comp. 1Peter 5:6.) “God,” says Thomas à Kempis, “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.”
Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.(11) Speak not evil . . .—Do not “back-bite,” as the same word is translated in Romans 1:30, and 2Corinthians 12:20. The good reason why not is given in the graceful interjection “brothers.” Omit the conjunction in the next phrase, and read as follows:—
He that speaketh evil . . .—Punctuate thus: He that speaketh evil of his brother, judgeth his brother; speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law. In this way the cumulative force of St. James’s remarks is best preserved. Hearken to the echo of his Master’s words. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). But the apostolic condemnation is in no way meant to condone a vicious life, and leave it unalarmed and self-contented; for boldness in rebuke thereof we have the example of John the Baptist. All that he reproves is the setting up of our own tribunals, in which we are at once prosecutor, witness, law, lawgiver, and judge; not to say executioner as well. Prœjudicium was a merciful provision under Roman law, and often spared the innocent a lengthier after trial; but prejudice—our word taken from it—is its most unhappy opposite. Many worthy people have much sympathy with David, in their effort to hold their tongue and keep “silence, yea even from good words;” truly it is “pain and grief” to them (Psalm 39:3). But “to take the law into one’s own hands” is to break it, and administer inequitably.
There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?(12) There is one lawgiver . . . .—Better thus: One is the Law-giver and Judge, Who is able to save and to destroy: but thou—who art thou that judgest a neighbour? As a king is the fountain of honour, so the ultimate source of law is God; and all judgment really is delegated by Him, just as ordinary courts represent the royal majesty: to usurp such functions is to provoke the offended sovereign—whether of earth or heaven. “It is not our part,” said Bengel, “to judge, since we cannot carry out our sentence.” (Comp. a parallel scripture, Romans 14:4.)
Able to save and to destroy.—Life and death, salvation and utter destruction, seem to be placed in intentional contrast here. (Comp. Matthew 10:28.) The thought of annihilation meets us with awful suggestiveness, yet let us leave the mystery for awhile in happier thought—
“That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete.”
Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:(13) Ye that say . . . .—The Apostle would reason next with the worldly; not merely those abandoned to pleasure, but any and all absorbed in the quest of gain or advancement. The original is represented a little more closely, thus: Today and tomorrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade and get gain. “Mortals think all men mortal but themselves;” yet who does not boast himself of tomorrow (Proverbs 27:1), in spite of a thousand proverbs; and reckon on the wondrous chance of
“That untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever as he roams?”
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.(14) Whereas ye know not . . . .—Read, Whereas ye know not aught of the morrow—what, i.e., the event may be. The hopeless misery of the unfaithful servant comes into mind at this; he has left the greater business to perform the less; or, it may be, said in heart, “My lord delayeth his coming,” and so has begun “to smite his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken.” And lo! the thunder of the chariot wheels, the flash of the avenging sword, the “portion with the hypocrites,” the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Read Matthew 24:42-51.)
For what is your life? It is even a vapour.—The rebuke is stronger still, the home-thrust more sharp and piercing—Ye are even a vapour: ye yourselves, and all belonging to you; not merely life itself, for that confessedly is a breath; and many a man, acknowledging so much, counts of the morrow that he may lay up in store for other wants besides his own.
A vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away (or, disappeareth).—There is a play upon words to mark the sad antithesis. The vision of life vanisheth as it came; and thus even a heathen poet says—
“Dust we are, and a shadow.”
(Comp. Wisdom Of Solomon 5:9-14.)
For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.(15) For that ye ought to say . . . .—Referring to James 4:13, in some such a continuation of reproof as this: Woe unto you that say, . . . . instead of saying, “If the Lord will”. . . . In fact, it is a thing of the past, not of time, but completed action on the part of God—“If the Lord have willed it, we shall both live and do this or that.” Such is far, be it noted, from Fatalism, in even its best form, as under the teaching of Islam. The sovereignty of God is acknowledged, but with it is plainly recognised the existence of man’s free will, dependent, however, on the permission of the Most High for its fleeting duration and power. St. Paul speaks in similar tone of coming to Corinth, “if the Lord will” (1Corinthians 4:19); and “God willing” (D.V.), “the reference of all the contingencies of the future to One supremely wise and loving Will, has been in all ages of Christendom the stay and strength of devout souls.”
But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil.(16) But now . . . .—How different is the case with you, cries St. James; you actually glory and delight in your own self-confidence and presumption, and every such rejoicing is evil. The word for “boastings” is the same as that translated “the pride of life” in 1John 2:16—i.e., its braggart boastfulness, not the innocent gladness of living. It is the trust of the “ungodly” (Psalm 10:6, “There shall no harm happen unto me”), and the mistaken confidence of even such godly men as Job (Job 29:18, “shall die in my nest”), before the Almighty instructs them by trouble, and loss, and pain.
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.(17) Therefore . . . .—A difficulty presents itself in this verse—whether the application be general, or a particular comment on the words preceding. Probably both ideas are correct. We learn the converse to the evil of vainglory in life, namely, the good which may be wrought by every one. Occasions of well-doing lie in the abject at our doors, and the pleadings of pity in our very hearts. And thus it is that omission is at times worse than commission; and more souls are in jeopardy for things left undone than for things done. 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 rich approval—
“Hadst thou stayed, I must have fled.”
And again, in another succession of thoughts on the text, God has no need of human knowledge; no, nor of our ignorance; “and it is a sin to shut the ears to instruction: it is a duty to get knowledge, to increase in knowledge, to abound in knowledge.” Nor must we rest therein, but (2Peter 1:6-7) “add to knowledge temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity.”