James 4:1-17

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James appears to have been informed about serious cases of disunity existing in the communities of believers to whom he directed his letter. He raised the question as to why conflicts and fighting existed among them. To identify the source, he raised another rhetorical question, “[Is it] not from here, from your lusts [hedoné] that battle in your members?” (4:1)

The Greek word hedoné basically means “pleasure.” In this context, the term may be understood to signify “selfish desire,” “passion,” or “lust.” Within the individuals, the improper desires carry on a conflict, exerting increasing pressure to be satisfied. These desires are like an occupying army that seeks to command and control the members of the body. When individuals yield to the desires, the welfare of others is ignored, with the focus being on self-interest or on what is presumed to bring personal pleasure. Whenever this happens in a community of believers, unity is destroyed. Distrust, suspicion, exploitation, and hurt feelings ruin what may at one time have been an environment where exemplary love prevailed. As a result, individuals begin to quarrel and fight with one another. (4:1)

Even though certain ones had wrong desires and yielded to them, they still did “not have” or did not obtain what they wanted, leaving them empty-handed. Seemingly, regarding the lengths to which they went in efforts to satisfy their cravings, James continued, “You murder and are jealous [zelóo].” Their murdering may be understood to apply to their manifesting a hateful disposition and a callous disregard for others, which would have been tantamount to murder. Another possibility is that the rich withheld the rightful wages from workers or deprived them of life’s necessities by means of judicial proceedings, robbing them of their livelihood and so, in effect, murdering them. (4:2; compare 1 Corinthians 6:5-9 and see the Notes section.)

The Greek verb zelóo can also mean “to envy” or “to covet.” Certain ones were apparently filled with ill-will toward those who possessed what they themselves did not have but strongly desired. Their actions and their desires, however, did not result in obtaining what they wanted. (4:2)

The lusts and the base means to which individuals resorted to attain their selfish objectives led to fights and conflicts. Those who came to be embroiled in fighting and warring did not come to have or possess because they did not ask. They did not pray to God and, in view of their conduct, could not have done so in an acceptable manner. (4:2)

Those who did ask, or pray, did “not receive.” Their petitions did not receive God’s favorable hearing because of their asking wrongly. When praying, they had neither the right disposition nor the proper motive. All they really wanted was to satisfy their selfish desires (literally, “that you might spend [the things asked for] on your lusts”). (4:3)

Believers are parties in the new covenant and, on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, have been reconciled to his Father. Their relationship to God, however, depends on continuing to live in a manner that accords with their having been forgiven of their sins and on being faithful to him. A failure to do so constitutes a violation of the covenant relationship with him and, therefore, is “adultery.” James addressed those who engaged in “fighting and warring” as “adulteresses” or, according to other manuscripts, as “adulterers and adulteresses.” By means of a rhetorical question, he reminded them (literally, “do you not know,” or do you not recognize) that friendship with the world means enmity with God. Therefore, anyone desiring to be the world’s friend would be choosing to have God as his enemy. (4:4)

Conflicts and quarreling, envy or jealousy, and selfish desires are common in the world of mankind that is in a state of alienation from God. Individuals make themselves friends of the world when they think, plan, speak, and act like persons who are alienated from God and have no regard for his ways. Whenever individuals reject the course of selfless love and compassion, and then manifest selfishness, callousness, or hatred, or fight, quarrel, slander, and speak abusively, they incur God’s enmity or displeasure. They reveal themselves to be friends of the world, refusing to reject its hateful ways but, instead, choosing to be like it in its state of alienation from God. (4:4)

No scripture corresponding to the quotation in verse 5 is found in the extant recognized “holy writings.” If the original reading of James 4:5 relates to the condition of sinful humans, possibly Genesis 8:21 may be regarded as expressing a similar thought (“the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”).

The “scripture” is introduced with the words, “Or do you think that, for nothing [for no reason or purpose], the scripture says.” How this “scripture” is to be understood depends on which manuscript reading is followed. According to the oldest extant manuscripts, the verb for “dwell” or “reside” is katókisen (form of katoikízo). As the third-person singular indicative verb form in the aorist tense and the active voice, katókisen can be rendered “he made to dwell.” Literally, the passage could be translated, “Toward envy [phthónos] the spirit that he made to dwell in us is longing.” Many have concluded that the word phthónos here denotes “jealousy,” but this is by no means certain. Translators have either retained the meaning “envy” or have used “jealousy” or a related expression, and some (based on the third-person singular verb) have made an explicit application to God. “The spirit that he has made to dwell in us tends toward jealousy.” (NAB) “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.” (NIV) “The spirit which God implanted in us is filled with envious longings.” (REB) “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” (NRSV) Earlier, James pointed out that God does not try or tempt anyone (1:13), and so the passage could not mean that God is the active agent in implanting a spirit that “longs” or is inclined to envy. Possibly the thought is that the spirit (the activating or motivating principle) that God permitted to take up residence within sinful humans is inclined to envy. (4:5; see the Notes section.)

Many later manuscripts contain an intransitive form of the verb for “dwell” (katókesen, from katoikéo) not the causative form katókisen (from katoikízo) that is spelled with the iota [i], not the eta [e], after kappa [k] and so, in relation to “spirit,” could mean “the spirit which has taken up dwelling in us.” Based on this significance of the verb, the words of the “scripture” could be rendered, “Toward envy is the longing of the spirit which has taken up residence in us.” This could be understood to signify that the longing, yearning, or strong inclination of the spirit or motivating principle in humans is to envy what others may have or enjoy. Although divinely approved by reason of their faith in Christ and his sacrifice for them, believers are not sinless or liberated from the tendency to envy. (4:5)

If verse 5 relates to the sinful human tendency to envy, the next verse shows why believers can resist succumbing to the improper longing to which the human spirit in its fallen state gives rise. “But the favor God gives us is greater.” In expression of his gracious favor or unmerited kindness, God gives his spirit to believers and strengthens them to resist the inclination to sin. Accordingly, the power that God’s gracious favor exerts is far greater than the strong inclination or longing of the human spirit to envy. That believers will be granted divine favor, provided they maintain the right disposition, is confirmed by the quotation from Proverbs 3:34 (LXX), “God opposes the haughty, but gives favor to the humble.” To be a recipient of God’s favor calls for one to submit willingly to his pure ways, not arrogantly resisting or fighting against his permissive or express will. Humble persons acknowledge their need for God’s help, whereas the arrogant trust in themselves and fail to recognize their helpless condition. (4:6)

Because God grants his gracious favor to the humble, believers should seek to subject themselves to him. This requires being responsive to his ways, which are summed up in the commands to love him and fellow humans. It is also essential to submit to whatever trials he may permit one to face, never resorting to base means to gain relief but always relying on him to grant the needed strength to endure. The devil’s objective would be for one, when undergoing distress, to give up or to endeavor to escape by committing sinful acts. Therefore, believers must oppose the devil, relying on divine aid to resist becoming his victim. Believers who take a firm stand for what is right, continuing to look to their heavenly Father and his Son to aid them, can be assured that the devil “will flee from [them].” The adversary would not succeed and so would suffer defeat like that of an enemy who takes to flight. (4:7)

To be able to approach God acceptably, certain believers needed to make changes in their lives. James admonished them, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify [your] hearts, double-minded ones [literally, double-souled ones].” (Compare Psalm 24:3, 4.) Cleansing the hands would have meant repenting and abandoning divinely disapproved conduct. The “heart” denotes the inmost self, and to purify the heart would signify to cease being divided in affection and loyalty. Among the believers whom James addressed were “double-minded” or “double-souled” ones. Individually, they were like two persons, clinging to the world and, at the same time, professing to be devoted to God and Christ. Therefore, they needed to exert themselves to be exclusively devoted to God and his Son, ceasing to be tainted by a love for the world and its God-dishonoring ways. (4:8)

Believers who had defiled themselves by failing to display love in attitude, word, or deed needed to give serious consideration to their standing before God. This should have made it possible for them to recognize their miserable state and to mourn and weep on account of their having strayed from his ways. Their laughter associated with self-indulgent conduct should have been replaced by mourning. They had reason to be sad about having failed to conduct themselves in a manner that honored God and Christ. The joy they may have had as they pursued their own selfish desires needed to be recognized as having been improper. Their joy or the elated state should have been changed to dejection, a sense of bitter disappointment, shame, and regret. (4:9)

Believers who had sinned needed to humble themselves “before the Lord” (“God,” according to numerous later manuscripts). Their approach to him should have been like destitute beggars, acknowledging their sins and supplicating him for his forgiveness. Upon thus humbling themselves before him as helpless sinners in need of being shown compassion, they could rest assured that they would be granted forgiveness and thus exalted as persons who would be acceptable to him. (4:10)

As members of God’s family of children (“brothers”), believers should not be speaking ill of one another. A believer who speaks evil of his “brother,” demeaning him, blatantly exposing his faults, or raising doubts about his motives, or who “judges” him would make himself guilty of speaking against law and judging law. (4:11)

To “judge” a brother would mean to condemn him on the basis of personal standards, scruples, or biases. This kind of judging would stem from an overly critical and censorious disposition. (4:11)

Divine law requires that love be shown to one’s fellow, but the person who speaks against his “brother” and condemns him violates this law. Acting as if the law did not apply to him, he treats it contemptuously and so speaks against it. He judges law as not deserving to be obeyed. One who thus judges law is not a “doer of law,” for he does not live in harmony with it. In not doing what the law requires, he makes himself a “judge,” a person who has the right to decide his own course or to make his own rules and regulations. When setting up his own standards for judgment, he judges divine law as inadequate. (4:11)

Persons who thus assume the role of judges of divine law are acting presumptuously. “One is lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.” God alone is the rightful lawgiver, for he knows what is best for his creation. He is also the one who flawlessly discerns the hidden motives, is not fooled by outward appearances, and can weigh all the factors when rendering his impartial decisions. Jesus Christ, as the divinely appointed judge, is in position to conform perfectly to his Father’s way of judging. Whereas the Father has committed judging to his Son, he continues to be the Supreme Judge. He is “able to save and destroy,” delivering individuals from condemnation and granting them his approval or destroying them, cutting them off as disapproved without the possibility of any future relationship with him. No human can save or destroy in this manner. Fittingly, James raised the rhetorical question, “You, however [, omitted in a number of manuscripts], who are you to judge [your] neighbor?” For believers to presume to be judges would mean to overstep their boundaries as persons who are obligated to love fellow humans, especially their own “brothers” in the faith. (4:12)

Some believers appear to have relied on their own abilities and resources, giving no consideration to their dependence on God when formulating their plans. “Today or tomorrow,” they would say, “we will go to this [particular] city,” remaining there for a year and doing business and making money. (4:13)

They ignored the fact that they did not know what their life would be the next day, let alone a year from then. Human life is transitory. As persons, therefore, people are like a vapor or puff of smoke that appears and then quickly disappears. (4:14)

Instead of arrogantly speaking and planning as if success were sure, believers needed to keep in mind that life has its uncertainties. At all times they should take into consideration God’s will. James gave the admonition, “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we shall live and do this or that.’” Whatever God wishes includes both his express will and what he may permit. So when making plans, believers should recognize that they are subject to God’s will. Though not necessarily each time saying, “If the Lord wishes,” they should always plan with an awareness of his will. If he permits that our life continue or he so wills it, then we will live and be able to do “this or that.” (4:15)

Among those to whom James wrote were believers who did not conduct their affairs of life in a manner that reflected an awareness of God’s will. They trusted in themselves and their abilities, resorting to boasting in their arrogance. Their haughty reliance on themselves and their own resources was “evil,” for it ignored God. (4:16)

“If, therefore,” James continued, “one knows the right thing to do and does not, it is sin to him.” In this context, the right thing is to live life according to God’s will. Any failure to do so would be a reflection of haughty self-reliance. This would be sin, for one’s uprightness is demonstrated by one’s recognition of and submission to God’s will. (4:17)


Translators vary in the way they punctuate verse 2, which has a bearing on the meaning that is conveyed. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.” (NRSV) “You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask.” (NAB) “You want things, but you do not have them. So you are ready to kill and are jealous of other people, but you still cannot get what you want. So you argue and fight. You do not get what you want, because you do not ask God.” (NCV) “You want what you cannot have, so you murder; you are envious, and cannot attain your ambition, so you quarrel and fight. You do not get what you want, because you do not pray for it.” (REB)

For verse 5, translations vary considerably in their interpretive renderings. Many consider the reference to be to God’s spirit. A footnote in the German Neue Genfer Übersetzung presents the following as a possible rendering, Mit leidenschaftlichem Eifer sehnt sich der Geist, den Gott in uns hat Wohnung nehmen lassen, danach, dass wir Gott allein ergeben sind. (With passionate zeal, the Spirit that God permitted to take up residence in us longs that we be exclusively devoted to God.) J. B. Phillips omitted words found in the Greek text, and his paraphrase is more of a rewrite than a translation. “Or do you imagine that this spirit of passionate jealousy is the Spirit he has caused to live in us?”