From:  Over 50 Interpreters Explain the Book of James                Return to Home 

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.  © 2017



List of All Sources Quoted At End of File










4:1                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     What causes wars and contentions among you? Is it not the cravings which are ever at war within you for various pleasures?

WEB:              Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don't they come from your pleasures that war in your members?

Young’s:         Whence are wars and fightings among you? not thence -- out of your passions, that are as soldiers in your members?

Conte (RC):    Where do wars and contentions among you come from? Is it not from this: from your own desires, which battle within your members?


4:1                   From whence come.  This section is in close connection with what precedes.  “A painful transition from the ideal to the actual, all the more striking from its abruptness” (Scott).  [40]

wars and fightings.  “Wars,” protracted or wide-spread disputes: “fighting,” the conflicts and skirmishes of daily life, which make up the campaign,—“What do they come from?” the writer asks, and then makes answer to himself.  A question so like in form to this as to suggest the thought that it must be a conscious reproduction, is found in the Epistle of Clement of Rome (c. 45).  [38]

                        The real cause of your quarrels is not any devotion to truth, but the craving for personal gratification.  You seek this not by prayer, but by strife; even if you pray, your prayers are vain, because they are inspired by selfish greed.  [45]

among you?  James raises this question not in regard to humans in general—whether nations or individuals—but Christians in particular.  His challenge carries the unspoken freight of:  “You like to think you are really better than outsiders, but in regard to this matter you are just as bad as those you would feel superior to!”  At the very minimum:  “You are tempted to be just as bad as these folk for they are the type of people (like the rich in an earlier chapter) that can easily be looked upon as role models due to their very ‘success.’ It has brought them reputation and prestige and it can for you too—though at the loss of your soul.”  [rw]

Or:  James warns against the danger of their behavior becoming compromised due to loyalties to nation or ethnic heritage [31]:  Some have supposed that the apostle refers here to the contests and seditions existing among the Jews, which afterwards broke out in rebellion against the Roman authority, and which led to the overthrow of the Jewish nation.  But the more probable reference is to the strifes of sects and parties; to the disputes which were carried on among the Jewish people; to popular outbreaks among themselves.  When the apostle says “among you,” it is not necessary to suppose that he refers to those who were members of the Christian church as actually engaged in these strifes, but he speaks of them as a part of the Jewish people--contentions in which those who were Christian converts were in great danger of participating, by being drawn into their controversies, and partaking of the spirit of strife which existed.  [31] 

come they not hence, even of your lusts [desires for pleasure, NKJV].  Have their seat in your members, and impel you to fight and war for their gratification.  [14]

“Lust” is not to be taken in the limited sense of sensuality, but in the broader sense of worldly pleasure or gratification of any kind.  [32] 

[“Pleasures”] used here, as usual, in a bad sense, to mean the sinful gratification of selfish or wrong cravings.  As these “pleasures” were the cause of dissension, the lust for power, pre-eminence and revenge, and for the humiliation of rivals would be conspicuous.  Cf. 1 Peter 2:11.  [45] 

that war.  The thought of wars and fighting’s is carried into the figurative description of the sensuality which arrays its forces and carries on its campaign in the members.  The verb does not imply mere fighting, but all that is included in military service.  A remarkable parallel occurs in Plato, “Phaedo,” 66:  “For whence come wars and fightings and faction?  Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?”  Compare 1 Pet. 2:11; Rom. 7:23.  [2]

in your members?  Interpreted as a reference to directly applicable to “wars” with other church members rather than within the individual.  This question appears to indicate that the writer had certain local conditions in mind, with which he was familiar.  The character of the “fightings” cannot be determined from the text.  They may have been over questions of doctrine or of property.  By the form of the succeeding question the writer implies that they originated in the “pleasures” of his readers.  “Pleasures” is probably used by metonomy for desires.  [16]

More properly interpreted as references to waring conflicts within ourselves; any conflict with others is the in direct result of these internal conflicting priorities.  The internal reason of all this strife lies in the fleshly lusts that dwell and rage in their bodies (Galatians 5:19-20), which war not only against the soul (1 Peter 2:11), and against the inner law of the mind (Romans 8:23), but also against everything which hinders the gratification of the desire of earthly riches (4:3).  [50]

These “lusts” or “pleasures” make our “members,” each organ of sense or action, their camping ground and field of battle.  Hence, to extend the metaphor one step further, as St Peter extends it, they “war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).  [38]


                        In depth:  The case that outsiders are being addressed [39].  (If one accepts the validity of the following argumentation one might well wish to add this interpretive gloss:  they are theoretically being addressed just as in the Old Testament prophetic literature words are addressed to such folk even though they were the last people likely to read or listen to that literature!  The words function as a warning to Christians—and in the OT to truly religious Jews--not to let their own behavior similarly degenerate.  [rw])  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.

                        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 recognize 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.


            In depth:  The denunciatory language is used because the early church was far from perfect—that such attitudes would exist speak to the negative side of human nature and is used because the description was just as applicable to Christians as traditionalist Jews of the era . . . and even less excusable [51].  St. James had been reproving his readers for envy and party-strife, which was the occasion of contentions among them (James 3:16); and he now proceeds to trace those mischiefs to their origin in their sinful lusts.  The sudden transition from the fruit of righteousness sown by the peacemakers to the prevalence of wars and fightings, is startling. 

Indeed, the expressions used in this passage, wherein the readers are accused of wars and fightings, are said to kill, and are called adulterers, are so strong, that at first sight one might suppose the Epistle to be addressed to the unbelieving Jews, to whose state and character these expressions literally applied, and not to Jewish Christians, to whom they could be only figuratively applicable; but the whole spirit and structure of the Epistle prove that it was written to believers.

We must make allowance for the vehement style of the writer.  Besides, we are not to suppose an ideal excellence as existing in the primitive Church; we learn, especially from the two Epistles to the Corinthians, that it had its faults and blemishes; the converts carried with them into Christianity many of the vices of their unconverted state.  This is the case with our modern missions; the vices which are prevalent among their unconverted countrymen are those to which the converts are most exposed and most inclined.

Wars and fightings were at this time the condition of the Jewish nation; indeed, it was this contentious spirit that was the cause of their ruin.  The Jewish Christians had not emancipated themselves from this national character. 

The terms ‘wars’ and ‘fightings’ express the bitter contentions which prevailed among them; ‘wars’ denoting a state of contention generally, and ‘fightings’ particular outbreaks of it.  These contentions are not to be limited to disputes among teachers or to religious controversies, but are to be understood generally—all those quarrels which arise from our sinful passions and selfish desires.  More than eighteen centuries ago the Prince of Peace visited this earth, and the Gospel announcing ‘peace on earth’ was proclaimed; and yet there are still wars and fightings in the Church and in the world.



4:2                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     You covet things and yet cannot get them; you commit murder; you have passionate desires and yet cannot gain your end; you begin to fight and make war. You have not, because you do not pray.

WEB:              You lust, and don't have. You kill, covet, and can't obtain. You fight and make war. You don't have, because you don't ask.

Young’s:         ye desire, and ye have not; ye murder, and are zealous, and are not able to attain; ye fight and war, and ye have not, because of your not asking.

Conte (RC):    You desire, and you do not have. You envy and you kill, and you are unable to obtain. You argue and you fight, and you do not have, because you do not ask.


4:2                   Ye lust, and have not.  The objects of the “lust” are left to be conjectured.  “Have not,” that is, do not obtain.  [16]

Or:  [Have] real satisfying enjoyment, because you do not seek it in the right things or in the right way.  [14]

The genesis of evil is traced somewhat in the same way as in James 1:15.  The germ is found in desire for what we have not, as e. g. in the sins of David (2 Samuel 11:1) and Ahab (1 Kings 21:2-4).  That desire becomes the master-passion of a man’s soul, and hurries him on to crimes from which he would, at first, have shrunk.  [38]

ye kill [murder, NKJV].  The word “kill” is to be taken in the sense of the hatred proceeding from envy, as in 1 John 3:15:  “whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.”  [1]

Consistency makes it necessary to suppose that James is here addressing Christians as throughout the epistle, and yet how incongruous to think of Christians committing murder to gratify their desires!  Luther translated “kill” by “hate,” and doubtless expressed the real meaning by so doing, although James used the stronger expression in order to designate with the utmost precision the nature of that evil which, whatever may be the outward form of manifestation, is still the same.  [32]

and desire to have [covet, NKJV].  Indulge in a resentful and envious spirit toward others.  [51]

and cannot obtain.  On account of which you indulge in hatred and envy.  [51]

ye fight and war.  Have repeated conflicts for no good reason.  [rw]

yet ye have not.  In spite of your most vigorous and even dishonorable words and behavior, you still fail to fulfill your wishes.  [rw]

Of literal physical conflicts:  In spite of your craving and violent efforts to obtain.  They [= the Jewish people] 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.  [39] 

because ye ask not.  In other words God is left entirely out of the picture.  You want it.  You “deserve” it—at least in your own twisted mind.  Therefore you should have it as a matter of inherent right.  But the world doesn’t always work that way—for anyone—does it?  [rw] 

Here again we note the fundamental unity of teaching in St James and St Paul.  Compare Philippians 4:6.  Prayer is with each of them the condition of content[ment] or joy.  [38]

There seems here a reference to our Lord’s declaration:  Ask, and it shall be given you.’  And it is also here implied that we are permitted to ask for temporal blessings, only we must not ask wrongly.  [51]

Argument that this implies that at least some of their prayers were for legitimate and valid purposes (presented from the standpoint that traditional non-Christian Jews are under consideration) [47]:  Since, as appears by this, the persons to whom the apostle is speaking failed of their purpose, because they did not pray to God, it shows, says Macknight, “that some of their purposes, at least, were laudable, and might have been accomplished with the blessing of God.  Now this will not apply to the Judaizing teachers in the church, who strongly desired to subject the converted Gentiles to the law of Moses.  As little will it apply to those who coveted riches.  The apostle’s declaration agrees only to such of the unconverted Jews as endeavoured to bring the heathen to the knowledge and worship of the true God.  So far their attempt was commendable, because, by converting the Gentiles to Judaism, they prepared them for receiving the gospel; and if for this they had asked the blessing of God sincerely, they might have been successful in their purpose.”


                        In depth:  “Ye kill [murder, NKJV] and desire to have [covet, NKJV]” as possibly reflecting cultural conditions in Palestine [38].  The order strikes us as inverted, putting the last and deadliest sin at the beginning.  The marginal alternative of “envy” would doubtless give an easier sense, but this cannot possibly be the meaning of the Greek word as it stands, and comes from a conjectural reading, suggested, without any MS authority, by Erasmus and Beza.

If we remember, however, the state of Jewish society, the bands of robber-outlaws of whom Barabbas was a type (Mark 15:7; John 18:39), the “four thousand men that were murderers” of Acts 21:38, the bands of Zealots and Sicarii who were prominent in the tumults that preceded the final war with Rome, it will not seem so startling that St James should emphasize his warning by beginning with the words “Ye murder.”  In such a state of society, murder is often the first thing that a man thinks of as a means to gratify his desires, not, as with us, a last resource when other means have failed.  Compare the picture of a like social condition in which “men make haste to shed blood” in Proverbs 1:16.

There was, perhaps, a grim truth in the picture which St James draws.  It was after the deed was done that the murderers began to quarrel over the division of the spoil, and found themselves as unsatisfied as before, still not able to obtain that on which they had set their hearts, and so plunging into fresh quarrels, ending as they began, in bloodshed.  There seems, at first, something almost incredible in the thought, that the believers to whom St James wrote could be guilty of such crimes, but Jewish society was at that time rife with atrocities of like nature, and men, nominally disciples of Christ, might then, as in later times, sink to its level.

Or be tempted to do so.  After all, none of us is completely free of the impact of the culture of our day!  [rw]


In depth:  “Ye kill [murder, NKJV] and desire to have [covet, NKJV]:”   Josephus on this mind frame during the Great Revolt against Rome (66-70 A.D.) [41].  Thus Josephus, Antiquities, xx.5-8, especially 8:  “And now arose a sedition between the high priests and the principal men of the multitude of Jerusalem, each of which got them a company of the boldest sort of men, and of those that loved innovations, about them, and became leaders to them; and when they struggled together, they did it by casting reproachful words against one another, and by throwing stones also.  And there was nobody to reprove them; but these disorders were done in the city as if it had no government over it.  And such was the imprudence and boldness that had seized on the high priests, that they had the hardiness to send their servants into the threshing floors to take away those tithes which were due to the priests, insomuch that it so fell out that the poorer sort of the priests died for want.  To this degree did the violence of the seditious prevail over all right and justice.


In depth:  Restructuring the punctuation of the verse in order to remove the oddity of the “coveting” being mentioned after the killing [50].  This is a general statement founded on Old Testament history, showing to what sins a desire for earthly riches will lead.  The extraordinary anti-climax “ye kill and covet” has long exercised the minds of commentators.  It is probably best to punctuate:  “Ye lust, and have not:  ye kill.  Also ye covet, and cannot obtain:  ye fight and war.”  Two leading sins are referred to; the first may be illustrated by the sin of David (2 Samuel 11), the second by the sin of Ahab (1 Kings 21).  [50]        



4:3                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     or you pray and yet do not receive, because you pray wrongly, your object being to waste what you get on some pleasure or another.

WEB:              You ask, and don't receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

Young’s:         ye ask, and ye receive not, because evilly ye ask, that in your pleasures ye may spend it.

Conte (RC):    You ask and you do not receive, because you ask badly, so that you may use it toward your own desires.


4:3                   Ye ask.  Will all prayer be answered with a “yes”?  Well, it depends . . . some prayers are so self-centered and for the benefit of one’s ego or “victory” over another that God fully well recognizes that “no” is the only responsible answer to such a prayer.  [rw]

                        Nor let it be thought strange that such persons should be referred to as engaging in prayer, for nothing is more common than for worldly minded Christians to supplicate heaven for the gratification of desires entirely selfish, giving no consideration either to God’s pleasure, or the well-being of their neighbors.  [32]

and receive not.  As if to anticipate the reply of his readers that they did ask, but still did not receive the object of their desires.  [51]

because ye ask amiss [with wrong motives, NASB, NIV].  Or wrongly, wickedly; either in an improper spirit, without faith in God as the Hearer of prayer; or rather for improper objects, for worldly things which are pernicious in themselves or prejudicial to the petitioner—for the sole purpose of self-gratification, without any thought of the glory of God.  Such asking is equivalent to not asking.  [51]

A comparatively innocent example of this:  A man may not only ask for wealth, but also for health of body—intending all the while if it were granted him to enjoy this life the more and to make no preparation for a future.  [41]

that ye may consume it upon your lusts.  It is of course proper to pray for personal benefits, if these are innocent, and for material blessings if these are needed; but to ask for help in gratifying impure or sinful or selfish impulses is an insult to God.  [7]               



4:4                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     You unfaithful women, do you not know that friendship with the world means enmity to God? Therefore whoever is bent on being friendly with the world makes himself an enemy to God.

WEB:              You adulterers and adulteresses, don't you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.          

Young’s:         Adulterers and adulteresses! have ye not known that friendship of the world is enmity with God? whoever, then, may counsel to be a friend of the world, an enemy of God he is set.

Conte (RC):    You adulterers! Do you not know that the friendship of this world is hostile to God? Therefore, whoever has chosen to be a friend of this world has been made into an enemy of God.


4:4                   Ye adulterers.  Modern “critical” texts typically omit this term.  [rw]

                        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.  [39]

and adulteresses.  The feminine term is the general designation of all whom James here rebukes.  The apostate members of the church are figuratively regarded as unfaithful spouses; according to the common Old-Testament figure, in which God is the bridegroom or husband to whom his people are wedded.  See Jer. iii.; Hos. ii., iii., iv.; Isa. liv. 5; lxii. 4, 5.  Also, Matt. xii. 39; 2 Cor. xi. 2; Apoc. xix. 7; xxi. 9.  [2]

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, 16:4; Mark 8:38).  [39]

In the interpretation of these words Commentators (as on many other occasions) run into two extremes.  Some take them in a strictly literal sense; others altogether in a figurative one, namely, of “spiritual idolatry,” base worldly             mindedness, which would make no sacrifice for religion; and some understand, persons who were neither Christians nor Jews, and who brought disgrace on both.  See 2 Pet. 2, 1 & 2.  But, assuredly, we must not fail to “include” the “literal” sense; since immorality, in the then corrupt state of society, was sure to be found every where, for which alas, the propensities of our corrupt nature furnish, in all ages, sufficient fuel.  [11] 

know ye not.  Implying that they have good reason to know this already; that their religious and moral understanding is seriously deficient if they have not recognized this.  [rw]

Probably with reference to the words of Christ (Matthew 6:24).  [50]

that the friendship of the world.  The “world” must be understood in its largest sense, as comprehending not only the people, but also the pleasures, riches, and honors of the world (1 John ii. 15, 16).  [10]

The men of the world, with all the worldly objects to which they devote themselves, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”  Compare 1 John 2:15, 16.  [14]

He calls it the friendship of the world when men surrender themselves to the corruptions of the world, and become slaves to them.  For such and so great is the disagreement between the world and God, that as much as any one inclines to the world, so much he alienates himself from God.  [35]

This is not to be restricted to the indulgence of sinful lusts, or to an eager pursuit after the carnal pleasures of the world; but by this is meant an over-attachment to worldly objects, an eager craving after the riches or influence of the world; in short, worldly desires without any thought of God, a preference of the world to Him.  [51]

is enmity with God?  Once more we have a distinct echo from the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).  Here, also, as in James 1:8, stress is laid on the fact that the neutrality of a divided allegiance is impossible.  In that warfare, therefore, we must choose our side.  We take it, even if we think that we do not choose it.  [38]

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.  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).  [46]

whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world.  “Whoever” he may be, whether in the church or out of it.  The fact of being a member of the church makes no difference in this respect, for it is as easy to be a friend of the world in the church as out of it.  The phrase “whosoever will” (βούληθῇ boulēthē) implies “purpose, intention, design.”  It supposes that the heart is set on it; or that there is a deliberate purpose to seek the friendship of the world.  Wherever there is a greater desire to enjoy the smiles and approbation of the world than there is to enjoy the approbation of God and the blessings of a good conscience; and wherever there is more conscious pain because we have failed to win the applause of the world, or have offended its votaries [= worshippers], there is the clearest proof that the heart wills or desires to be the “friend of the world.”  [31]

is the enemy of God.  On the principle that no man can serve two masters:  and on the assumption that we have received a different spirit, not the spirit of the world, but “the Spirit which is of God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).  Paul puts it still more broadly, “If I pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).  [41]



4:5                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     Or do you suppose that it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "The Spirit which He has caused to dwell in our hearts yearns jealously over us"?

WEB:              Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously"?

Young’s:         Do ye think that emptily the Writing saith, 'To envy earnestly desireth the spirit that did dwell in us,'

Conte (RC):    Or do you think that Scripture says in vain: “The spirit which lives within you desires unto envy?”


4:5                   Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain.  Greek, emptily, or vainly, i.e. to no purpose.  This question hath the force of a negation, q.d. It doth not speak in vain.  [28]


The scenario that TWO sentences are to be made out of this verse.  Some prefer to read this passage as two questions, thus:  “Do ye think that the Scripture speaketh in vain?  Doth the Spirit that hath dwelt in us”--the Holy Spirit whom God has given to dwell in our hearts--“lust to envy?”--excite lusts that lead to envy?  [14]

This view of the passage which is that of Bede in ancient times, has been adopted by Whiby (A.D. 1700) and Bishop Wordsworth.  It avoids the difficulty of attributing to the Old Testament a sentence which is not now found in it:  and no objection can be raised to the rendering of “speaketh,” instead of “saith,” as in the next verse; for it is so used in 2 Corinthians 6:13.  [44]

                        The scenario that the second half of the verse is a “quotation” or direct allusion to some specific Old Testament text.  They who make this whole verse one sentence, are obliged to show where the Scripture hath these words, “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy;” which no interpreter hath yet successfully attempted.  So then the sense runs thus, Doth the Scripture speak without cause against this worldly-mindedness? [4]       

                        Efforts to identify a specific text(s).  The various O.T. passages which have been conjectured are as follows:  Gen. iv. 7 (Rauch); Gen. vi. 3, 5 (Grotius); Gen. viii. 21 (Beza, Ernest Schmid); Num. xi. 29 (Witsius) Ps. xxxvii. 1 and lxxiii. 3 (Lange); Ps. cxix. 20 ff. (Clericus); Prov. xxi. 10 (Michaelis); Song of Solomon viii. 6 (Coccejus); from the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon vi. 12 (Wetstein), and others.  Benson supposes that James has in view the N.T. passage, Matt. vi. 24; Staudlin, that he has in view that passage and also Gal. v. 17; Storr, the latter passage only; and Bengel, 1 Pet. ii. 1 ff.  Semler thinks that the passage is here cited from the “Testimony of the Twelve Patriarchs;” and Gabler, that the words are borrowed from a lost prophetical book.  In recent times, Engelhardt has expressed the opinion that Isa. lxiii. 8-11, Ps. cxxxii.12,13, and Hos. i. 2, 15, form the groundwork of these words of James.  Wolf, Heinsius, and Zachariae refer the words to the thoughts contained in what follows; Theile, De Wette, Bruckner (also first edition of this commentary), to the thoughts contained in what precedes,--that the friendship of the world is enmity with God.  [8]

                        Are Pauline and Petrine New Testament texts the specific frame of reference?  The words of James are near enough to Galatians 5:17, and following verses; where φθόνοι, envyings, are placed among the works of the flesh, and the spirit is said to have desires contrary to the flesh, and they who are led by this spirit are not under the law, but under grace. But this passage agrees especially with 1 Peter 2:1-2, 2:5.  Laying aside—ENVYINGS, DESIRE the milk of the word—a SPIRITUAL HOUSE. And that which here follows.  But He giveth more grace, agrees with that, the Lord is gracious, James 4:3.  He who has this passage of St Peter well impressed upon his mind, will altogether recognize the reference of St James to it.  Nor does the chronological order of the epistles stand in the way.  Thus James not only concurs with St Peter, but also with St Paul.  [26]

                        Efforts to make the “quote” to be a SUMMARY of what Scripture had said.  Verse 5 should be rendered as follows: “Or think ye that the Scripture speaketh in vain?  Doth the Spirit, who dwelleth in us, long unto envying?”  All the Scriptures testify that worldliness and godliness cannot exist together; think ye then that these Scriptures speak in vain?  [23]

                        The only solution of the difficulty which seems to me to be at all satisfactory, is to suppose that the apostle, in the remark made here in the form of a quotation, refers to the Old Testament, but that he had not his eye on any particular passage, and did not mean to quote the words literally, but meant to refer to what was the current teaching or general spirit of the Old Testament; or that he meant to say that this sentiment was found there, and designed himself to embody the sentiment in words, and to put it into a condensed form.  This general truth, that man is prone to envy, or that there is much in our nature which inclines us to it, is abundantly taught in the Old Testament.  Ecclesiastes 4:4, “I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor.”  Job 5:2, “wrath killeth, and envy slayeth the silly one.”  Proverbs 14:30, “envy is the rottenness of the bones.”  Proverbs 27:4, “who is able to stand before envy?”  For particular instances of this, and the effects, see Genesis 26:14, 30:1, 37:11; Psalm 106:16, 73:3.  [31]


                        The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy [yearns jealously, NKJV].  The conduct of men in all ages has shown this doctrine to be true.  You therefore ought to take warning, and earnestly strive against its power.  [14]

                        Making the “spirit” here the Holy Spirit [46]:  That is, as many understand the words, our natural corruption, excited and influenced by Satan, strongly inclines us to unkind and envious dispositions toward our fellow-creatures. Some, however, suppose that the Spirit of God is intended by the apostle in this clause, and that the sense is, The Spirit of love, that dwelleth in all believers, lusteth against envy (Galatians 5:17), is directly opposite to all those unloving tempers which necessarily flow from the friendship of the world.  Nearly to the same purpose is Doddridge’s paraphrase of the verse:  “Do you think the Scripture speaks in vain in all the passages in which it guards us against such a temper as this, and leads the mind directly to God as the supreme good, teaching us to abandon every thing for him?  Or does the Holy Spirit, that dwells in us Christians, lust to envy?  Does it encourage these worldly affections, this strife and envying which we have reproved?  Or can it be imagined that we, who appear to have so much of the Spirit, have any interested views in the cautions we give, and would persuade you from the pursuit of the world, because we should envy you the enjoyment of it?  No.”  [47]

                        Problems with making the “spirit” the Holy Spirit [31]:  Many have supposed that the word “spirit” here refers to the Holy Spirit, or the Christian spirit; but in adopting this interpretation they are obliged to render the passage, “the spirit that dwells in us lusteth against envy,” or tends to check and suppress it.  But this interpretation is forced and unnatural, and one which the Greek will not well bear.  The more obvious interpretation is to refer it to our spirit or disposition as we are by nature, and it is equivalent to saying that we are naturally prone to envy.  [31]



4:6                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     But He gives more abundant grace, as is implied in His saying, "God sets Himself against the haughty, but to the lowly He gives grace."

WEB:              But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Young’s:         and greater grace he doth give, wherefore he saith, 'God against proud ones doth set Himself up, and to lowly ones He doth give grace?'

Conte (RC):    But he gives a greater grace. Therefore he says: “God resists the arrogant, but he gives grace to the humble.”


4:6                   But he giveth more grace.  Encouragement to resist the worldly spirit.  If you have the Spirit of God, the proof of it will be seen in your continual growth in grace.  [50]

                        Here also there is a difficulty in determining what ‘more’ refers to:  this depends on the meaning given to the former clause.  Some render it ‘greater than the world gives:’ others, ‘greater than the strength of depravity that exists within us.’  Perhaps the most correct meaning is:  Just because the Spirit does not lust to envy; and yet there is a lust to envy in man: therefore, to overcome this lust, He giveth more grace.  [51]

           Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud.  This is represented as the language of Scripture in the Old Testament; for so it is declared in the book of Psalms that God will save the afflicted people (if their spirits be suited to their condition), but will bring down high looks (Ps. 18:27); and in the book of Proverbs it is said, He scorneth the scorners, and giveth grace unto the lowly, Prov. 3:34.  [5]

            The reference here is to Proverbs 3:34, “Surely he scorneth the scorners; but he giveth grace unto the lowly.”  The quotation is made exactly from the Septuagint, which, though not entirely literal, expresses the sense of the Hebrew without essential inaccuracy.  This passage is also quoted in 1 Peter 5:5.  [31]

            the proud.  The proud are those who have an inordinate self-esteem; who have a high and unreasonable conceit of their own excellence or importance.  This may extend to anything; to beauty, or strength, or attainments, or family, or country, or equipage, or rank, or even religion.  A man may be proud of anything that belongs to him, or which can in any way be construed as a part of himself, or as pertaining to him. This does not, of course, apply to a correct estimate of ourselves, or to the mere knowledge that we may excel others.  One may know that he has more strength, or higher attainments in learning, or greater wealth than others, and yet have properly no pride in the case.  He has only a correct estimate of himself, and he attaches no undue importance to himself on account of it.  His heart is not lifted up; he claims no undue deference to himself; he concedes to all others what is their due; and he is humble before God, feeling that all that he has, and is, is nothing in his sight.  He is willing to occupy his appropriate place in the sight of God and men, and to be esteemed just as he is.  [31]

but giveth grace.  Favor and blessings.  [rw]

unto the humble.  Those who have overcome their worldly desires and govern their passions.  [51]



4:7                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     Submit therefore to God: resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.

WEB:              Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Young’s:         be subject, then, to God; stand up against the devil, and he will flee from you.

Conte (RC):    Therefore, be subject to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.


4:7                   Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Do not presume upon his goodness; do not weakly yield to temptation; do not expect him to keep you from falling unless you are resolute in your determination and are bravely fighting against sin.  All theories of Christian experience which suggest the inactivity of the human will, and prescribe mere submission and dependence on the part of the believer, are dangerous.  [7]

Resist the devil.  -- By refusing to do wrong, for the accomplishment of any object.  [14]

You can’t stop the Devil from being present, but that doesn’t mean you have to greet him as if he were a long lost friend!  [rw]

and he will flee from you.  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.”  [39]

                        This clause should probably be connected with the first in the next verse[:]  “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you.”  [41]

                        ‘We may,’ says Benson, ‘chase away the devil not by holy water, nor by the sign of the cross, but by steady virtue and resolute goodness.’  [51]



4:8                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you who are half-hearted towards God.

WEB:              Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Young’s:         draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you; cleanse hands, ye sinners! and purify hearts, ye two-souled!

Conte (RC):    Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners! And purify your hearts, you duplicitous souls!


4:8                   Draw nigh to God.  In prayer for all needed wisdom and strength to resist temptation and to persevere, whatever be the consequences, in doing right.  [14]

                        Those who are here admonished are considered, notwithstanding their religious profession, as being far from God, having no real communion with him in their religious duties, possessing the form of godliness but not the power.  [30]

and He will draw nigh to you.  To sustain, comfort, and provide for you.  [14]

He will come to you and fill you with His grace and strength.  [41]

Compare the words of Zechariah:  ‘Turn ye unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 1:3).  [51]

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” (Psalms 15:1), except the man “of uncorrupt life”? Surely, the penitent as well; the hearts polluted with 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).  [46]

Cleanse your hands.  Cease from doing evil.  [15]

Reform your actions, amend your lives.  Hands, the principal instruments of bodily actions, being put for the actions themselves; cleanness of hands signifies the innocence of the outward conversation [=behavior], Job 22:30, Psalms 24:4, 26:6, Isaiah 33:15-16.  [28]

The priests before they ministered at the altar, and the people before they prayed, always washed their hands, thus intimating the purity with which we ought to approach God.  The hands are specially mentioned as being the instruments of wickedness.  [51]

ye sinners.  Especially relevant to those who have been making major rebellions against the Lord’s will, but also a warning to all of us that if we stumble into sin we still need to set our lives right.  Past righteousness won’t excuse current refusal.  [51]

and purify your hearts.  Be outwardly and inwardly pure.  [14]

One of the three instances in the New Testament in which the word is not used of ceremonial purification.  The others are 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 John 3:3.  [2]

ye double minded.  Having, as it were, two souls—the one professing to be attached to God, and the other really attached to the world.  The epithets ‘sinners’ and ‘double-minded’ refer not to different, but to the same class of persons.  [51]

Ye who allow your thoughts to dwell on forbidden objects and yet have not given up thoughts of God.  [41]

Example:  When conscience is awakened under the word, or by some alarming providence [= event], or when they are in company with good people, they appear to be well-affected towards religion, and to be on the Lord’s side; but when they are in the world and amongst worldly men, they appear to be on the other side.  “Double-minded” men, now this, and now that, having no decided character or principle of action.  [30]



4:9                                                       Translations

Weymouth:     Afflict yourselves and mourn and weep aloud; let your laughter be turned into grief, and your gladness into shame.

WEB:              Lament, mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to gloom.

Young’s:         be exceeding afflicted, and mourn, and weep, let your laughter to mourning be turned, and the joy to heaviness.

Conte (RC):    Be afflicted: mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your gladness into sorrow.


4:9                   Be afflicted [Lament, NKJV] and mourn, and weep.  The words are nearly synonymous, the first pointing to the sense of misery (as in “O wretched man that I am” in Romans 7:24), the second to its general effect on demeanor, the last to its special outflow in tears.  The two last verbs are frequently joined together, as in Mark 16:10; Luke 6:25; Revelation 18:15.  The words are an emphatic call to repentance, and the blessedness which follows on repentance.  Here, as so often in the Epistle, we trace the direct influence of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4).  [38] 

Be afflicted [Lament, NKJV].  In view of your sins, and the judgments of God that are hanging over you.  See chap. 5:1.  [14]

                        The sins to which the apostle refers are those which he had specified in the previous part of the chapter, and which he had spoken of as so evil in their nature, and so dangerous in their tendency.  [31]

and mourn, and weep.   “For godly sorrow worketh repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10).  See also Luke 18:13.  [16]

Not because religion is a matter of gloom and sadness, but because we are too far tempted to miss its real joy by treating our sins lightly and failing to surrender our whole hearts to God.  [7]

           let your laughter be turned to mourning.  It would seem that the persons referred to, instead of suitable sorrow and humiliation on account of sin, gave themselves to joyousness, mirth, and revelry.  See a similar instance in Isaiah 22:12-13.  [31]

and your joy to heaviness [gloom, NKJV].     The Greek for the latter word expresses literally the downcast look of sorrow, and is as old in this sense as Homer, “Joy to thy foes, but heavy shame to thee.”  Iliad iii. 51.  It exactly describes the attitude of the publican, who would not “lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven” (Luke 18:13).  [38]

James is speaking of “the godly sorrow which worketh repentance unto salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).  Genuine repentance consists in this, that a man suffering from the stings of conscience allows himself to be rebuked and condemned by the [Divine] law, and acknowledges the justice of this condemnation with his whole heart.  It is a deep internal pain, a contrition and sorrow, not for this or for that single sin simply, but it is a deep grief for his whole sinful and guilty state, and for his separation from God.  [50]



4:10                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

WEB:              Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Young’s:         be made low before the Lord, and He shall exalt you.

Conte (RC):    Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.


4:10                 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord.  Literally, “be low before the Lord.”  [3] 

                        Considering the variety of the ways in which it is commended to us by the Lord—by blessing (Matthew 5:3-4), precept (Matthew 23:8, &c), and parable (Luke 19:10), it will indeed bear repetition.  [41]

Humble yourselves.  No one can do it for you; it has to be done by you personally or what is essential won't be accomplished.  [rw]

in the sight of the Lord.  That is, before the Lord, as in His presence.  The Lord is, as is usual in the Epistle of St. James, not Christ, but God.  [51]

and He shall lift you up.  He shall lift you up to true honor in His own time and way.  [14]

This appears to indicate an acquaintance with Matt. 23:12, or Luke 14:11, or at least with the saying of Jesus recorded in these places.  See also 1 Pet. 5:6.  In the apocryphal book of Sirach it is said, “They that fear the Lord will humble their souls before Him” (2:17).  [16]

“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.” (Compare 1 Peter 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.”  [46]



4:11                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. The man who speaks evil of a brother-man or judges his brother-man speaks evil of the Law and judges the Law. But if you judge the Law, you are no longer one who obeys the Law, but one who judges it.

WEB:              Don't speak against one another, brothers. He who speaks against a brother and judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.

Young’s:         Speak not one against another, brethren; he who is speaking against a brother, and is judging his brother, doth speak against law, and doth judge law, and if law thou dost judge, thou art not a doer of law but a judge

Conte (RC):    Brothers, do not choose to slander one another. Whoever slanders his brother, or whoever judges his brother, slanders the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.


4:11                 Speak not evil one of another.  We cannot avoid forming opinions of our fellow men, but these should not be unjust or unkind; and, whether good or bad, opinions need not always be expressed.  It is the love of finding fault which James here rebukes.  [7]

                        There is also another disease innate in human nature, that every one would have all others to live according to his own will or fancy.  This presumption James suitably condemns in this passage, that is, because we dare to impose on our brethren our rule of life.  He then takes detraction as including all the calumnies and suspicious works which flow from a malignant and perverted judgment.  The evil of slandering takes a wide range; but here he properly refers to that kind of slandering which I have mentioned, that is, when we superciliously determine respecting the deeds and sayings of others, as though our own morosity were the law, when we confidently condemn whatever does not please us. [35]

brethren.  It’s bad enough if you do so of outsiders, but surely you know that acting this way toward your own spiritual kin is unquestionably wrong!  [rw]

He that speaketh evil of his brother.  Insults; lies; misrepresents; distorts the views, actions, and behavior of fellow church members.  [rw]

and judgeth his brother.  Arraigns him and pronounces sentence upon him, like an authoritative superior.  [39]

Judging here is used, as it is often in Scripture, in the sense of condemning. Compare with this the prohibition of our Lord:  ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged’ (Matthew 7:1).  [51]

speaketh evil of the law.  Whether implicitly or explicitly, either way you manifest clear evidence that you are convinced the Divine law is wrong or inadequate on the matter.  [rw]

                        The idea seems to be that judgment is provided for by law, and not left to individual caprice.  Irresponsible fault-finding implies that the judgments of the law are inadequate.  Another interpretation is that “the law of liberty” (1:25) forbids judging (Matthew 7:1-2), therefore judging breaks the law, and so “speaks against” and “judges” it.  [45]  

No connection with the foregoing is here discernible, and the writer appears to begin a new theme.  The law is probably that referred to in 1:25 and 2:9, the Christian law.  [16]

Or, more specifically:  Of course the law to which James refers is the law of love, “the royal law,” “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  One who is unkind in his criticisms not only breaks this law, but he condemns it as too high in its requirements or as unwise or unnecessary; he says in effect that he is superior to the law of love; he seems to argue that while it may be a good law for some people at some times, a superior person like himself cannot be bound by it, particularly in this imperfect world where some people need to be disciplined by his severe rebukes and punished by his stinging tongue.  James intimates that, to say the least, it is better to keep the law of love than to try to find exceptions to its universal obligation.  [7]

and judgeth the law.  viz. either:  1. By his practicing and approving what the law condemns, or:  2. By condemning that which the law allows; he condemns the law for allowing it, taxing [= treating] it as too short and imperfect.  [28]

Or:  Some suppose that by this is meant that he who judges his brother, judges the law by setting himself above it, pronouncing on its observance or non-observance by another (Alford).  But it rather appears to mean:  He that speaketh evil of his brother condemneth his brother; and in doing so, without necessary occasion, usurpeth the authority of the judge; a meaning, however, which is not essentially different.  [51]

but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.  The logical train of thought seems to run thus.  To speak against a brother is to condemn him; to condemn, when no duty calls us to it, is to usurp the function of a judge.  One who so usurps becomes ipso facto a transgressor of the law, the royal law, of Christ, which forbids judging (Matthew 7:1-5).  [38]

Or:  By condemning thy fellow-men, thou steppest out of thy province, which is not to judge the law, but to obey it.  Judgment is the province of God, the one Lawgiver, not of the [one] subject to the law, and far less of the transgressor of the law.  [51]



4:12                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     The only real Lawgiver and Judge is He who is able to save or to destroy. Who are you to sit in judgement on your fellow man?

WEB:              Only one is the lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge another?

Young’s:         one is the lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy; thou -- who art thou that dost judge the other?

Conte (RC):    There is one lawgiver and one judge. He is able to destroy, and he is able to set free.  (4:13a:)  But who are you to judge your neighbor?


4:12                 There is one lawgiver.  Such an attitude toward the law and toward other persons is invading the rights and prerogatives of God; He alone is the source of law, He alone is qualified to condemn men:  “One only is the lawgiver and judge”; He allows no one to cancel his laws or to debate His decisions.  The right is based upon His unique power; He “is able to save and to destroy”; He who can determine the fate of immortal souls is qualified to pronounce sentence upon them.  [7]

                        [and judge – added in ESV, NASB, NIV etc.].  Most manuscripts read, ‘There is one Lawgiver and Judge:’ and this is more suitable to the context, as it is the province of a judge that is adverted [= referred] to.  These are not many, but one:  one pre-eminently and exclusively.  All human lawgivers and judges derive their authority from God, and are only to be obeyed when their commands are not opposed to His.  God is the source of all authority, the fountain of justice.  [51]

who is able.  Who has both the authority to command and the power to execute.  [51]

to save.  To rescue; help; redeem from danger and harm.  [rw]

and to destroy.  The same Person who can save the soul both spiritually and from temporal disaster as well, is the same Person who can invoke His power against you if you defy His will.  God loves—but He never intends to permit that to be an excuse to ignore Him either.  [rw]

who art thou that judgest another?  What superior virtue, power, holiness, wisdom do you possess?  A humble searching of our own hearts removes all eagerness to criticize and condemn others.   [7] 

[Words] expressing the insignificance of man:  thou, who art so ignorant and so erring, so sinful and so liable to fall; thou, who hast no power and no authority; thou, who art thyself guilty and as a sinner obnoxious to the judgment of God:  how darest thou invade the office of this supreme and universal Lawgiver and Judge, and expose thyself to His condemnation?  [51]

In reading these words we are at once reminded of the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. . . .  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”; or we recall the Epistle to the Romans:  “But thou, why dost thou judge thy brother? . . . for we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God.”  But not only do they reflect the teachings of Jesus and of Paul; they are also vitally related to what has been said by James.  [7]

Traditional Jewish thought on the subject:  In Pirqe Aboth, i. 7, we read, “Judge every man in the scale of merit,” i.e., Give every man the benefit of the doubt (Taylor); cf. Shabbath, 127b, “He who thus judges others will thus himself be judged”.  [36]

judgest another?  Judgment here is in the sense of condemnation.  The people of this world do not belong to us but to God, hence they are in no way responsible to us for their behavior, but to God alone, who will certainly deal justly with every human being.  Hence we are happily relieved of the arduous responsibility of punishing people for their maltreatment of us or others.  It is God’s prerogative.  He will certainly attend to them.  So rest in perfect peace, turning over all your enemies eternally to Him who says, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.” Lord, save us all from criticism, controversy, fault-finding, calumniation and litigation!  [48]

Compare the words of Paul:  Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant?’ (Romans 14:4).  [51]



4:13                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     Come, you who say, "To-day or to-morrow we will go to this or that city, and spend a year there and carry on a successful business,"

WEB:              Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow let's go into this city, and spend a year there, trade, and make a profit."

Young’s:         Go, now, ye who are saying, 'To-day and to-morrow we will go on to such a city, and will pass there one year, and traffic, and make gain.'

Conte (RC):    But who are you to judge your neighbor? Consider this, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into that city, and certainly we will spend a year there, and we will do business, and we will make our profit.”


4:13                 Go to now [Come to now, NKJV].  An obsolete Elizabethan phrase, explained, “ ‘Come, come, take the right course’; spoken sometimes sarcastically (as here), sometimes encouragingly.”  [45]

                        [A] call to attention, found only here and in the beginning of the next chapter.  [51]

ye that say.  Out loud or in the privacy of your mind.  Most likely in both ways since it is human nature to want to share one’s pride and confidence.  [rw]

Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain.  Every step is detailed with absolute assurance, no suggestion is made of divine providence, no thought is entertained as to the will of God.  “To-day or to-morrow” are regarded as alike completely within their power; the journey to the city selected is certain to be safe; the year is quite at their disposal; neither sickness nor disaster can possibly come; the business venture is sure to be prosperous; such seem to be the thoughts of these confident merchants.  [7]

“The practice to which the apostle here alludes,” says the editor of the Pictorial Bible, “is very common in the East to this day [i.e., the 1800s], among a very respectable and intelligent class of merchants.  They convey the products of one place to some distant city, where they remain until they have disposed of their own goods and have purchased others suitable for another distant market; and thus the operation is repeated, until, after a number of years, the trader is enabled to return prosperously to his home.  Or again, a shopkeeper or a merchant takes only the first step in this process--conveying to a distant town, where the best purchases of his own line are to be made, such goods as are likely to realize a profit, and returning, without any farther stop, with a stock for his own concern.  These operations are seldom very rapid, as the adventurer likes to wait opportunities for making advantageous bargains; and sometimes opens a shop in the place to which he comes, to sell by retail the goods which he has bought.”  [31]

continue there a year.  Literally, “make a year,” as in Acts 15:23.  The Greek vividly suggests the idea that the time was their own to “make out,” and do with, as they pleased.  [44]

Buy and sell.  The Greek, which does not occur again in the New Testament, is a general term for acting as a merchant.  [44]

                        Today or tomorrow.  Note the immediacy in the words—how they are short term.  It is imminent that their project will begin and they are full of unbridled enthusiasm at both it and its “inevitable” success.  [rw]             

                        such a city.  Some have said that by “this city” he hints at Jerusalem, of which the desolation was impending, but the allusion is perfectly general.  [41]


                        In depth:  The argument that James has shifted from criticizing believers to criticizing unbelievers [51].  It is a matter of dispute and considerable difficulty to whom this passage is addressed; whether James is here addressing unworthy members of the Christian Church, who had not yet laid aside the vices of their unconverted state; or whether he admonishes the oppressors of the Jewish Christians, the unbelieving Jews, the ungodly and rich in this world.  Three reasons have been assigned in support of the opinion that unbelievers are here addressed.

1.  The address ‘Go to,’ again repeated (James 5:1), seems to indicate that the words in the two apostrophes are addressed to those without the Church.

2.  Those addressed are not designated as ‘brethren,’ as is the usual custom of St. James, nor are any marks given to indicate that they are Christians.

3.  Their ungodly conduct is so described that it can only be applicable to those without the church, and their doom is pronounced without any call to repentance.

Others affirm that we are ignorant of the extent of moral corruption in the early Church, and that it was not the practice of the sacred writers to address those who were outside of the Christian community.  Perhaps the most correct opinion is to assume that the first part of the passage, to the end of the fourth chapter, is an admonition to the worldly members of the Church; and that the second part, commencing at the beginning of the fifth chapter, is an apostrophe to the rich and the ungodly in the world.

The passage is divided into two distinct portions, each beginning with the address ‘Go to;’ and there is no reason to conclude that the persons thus similarly addressed in both paragraphs were the same.  We consider, then, that those here addressed in the first paragraph were members of the Christian Church.



4:14                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     when, all the while, you do not even know what will happen to-morrow. For what is the nature of your life? Why, it is but a mist, which appears for a short time and then is seen no more.

WEB:              Whereas you don't know what your life will be like tomorrow. For what is your life? For you are a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.

Young’s:         who do not know the thing of the morrow; for what is your life? for it is a vapour that is appearing for a little, and then is vanishing.

Conte (RC):    consider that you do not know what will be tomorrow.  (4:15a:)  For what is your life? It is a mist that appears for a brief time, and afterwards will vanish away.


4:14                 Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  All our plans should be made in view of the uncertainty of human life.  [14]

                        You are ignorant of what shall happen to you; your health and lives are not at your own disposal.  Compare the similar thought in Proverbs:  ‘Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth’ (Proverbs 27:1).  [51]

For what is your life? This verse vividly describes the evanescence of all things earthly, and the transcendent folly of living for this world.  It is said that an inhabitant of one of God’s innumerable, immortal, unfallen worlds came down and became a citizen of the earth.  He was utterly unacquainted with all things terrestrial. On arrival, responsive to his inquiry, “What is the chief good?” all answered, “Money making and money getting.”  Acquiescing in their response, and falling into line with the people of this world, himself entering upon the pursuit of wealth.  One day he happens to see a graveyard.  As death was unknown in the country whence he came, he interrogates a passerby, “What is this?”  When the man gave him a candid answer, observing that all the people in this world live but a few years and then die, he said “Oh, I have been deceived; if what you tell me is true, not money, but a preparation for never-ending eternity, is the chief good in this world.”  [48]

            It is even a vapour.  The word “vapor” (ἀτμὶς atmis) means a mist, an exhalation, a smoke; such a vapor as we see ascending from a stream, or as lies on the mountain side on the morning, or as floats for a little time in the air, but which is dissipated by the rising sun, leaving not a trace behind.  [31]

that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.  It is even a vapour An unsubstantial, uncertain, and fleeting vapour that appeareth in this visible world; and then suddenly vanisheth away — And is seen here no more.  Thus Isaiah, All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof as a flower of the field; a similitude used also by David, Psalms 103:15-16, As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field so he flourisheth; for the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more.  And still more striking is the metaphor used by Asaph, Psalms 78:39, where he terms men, even a generation of them, A wind that passeth away and cometh not again.  [47]

                        A somewhat similar image is employed in the Book of Wisdom:  ‘Our names shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist that is driven away with the beams of the sun, and overcome with the heat thereof' (Wisdom 2:4).  Elsewhere in Scripture the brevity of human life is compared to a shadow that declineth, or to the fading of the flowers.  Such is the vanity of life; we appear as a flash, and then are swallowed up in darkness.  [51]



4:15                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     Instead of that you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we shall live and do this or that."

WEB:              For you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will both live, and do this or that."

Young’s:         instead of your saying, 'If the Lord may will, we shall live, and do this or that;'

Conte (RC):    For what is your life? It is a mist that appears for a brief time, and afterwards will vanish away. So what you ought to say is: “If the Lord wills,” or, “If we live,” we will do this or that.


4:15                 For that ye ought to say.  To feel your dependence on God for the continuance of life and for every blessing, and to act accordingly.  [14]

                        Literal Greek, Instead of your saying.  [50]

If the Lord will.  James does not mean that every time we say anything in public that we are to say, “If the Lord will.”  Some people use too much pious talk.  He means we should feel that way—in making our plans that we should take the Lord into account, take him in as senior partner.  [43]

The reverent conviction that the future is wholly within His power, should so mold all our thinking that self-confidence and presumption would be impossible.  [7]  

Compare with this expression of dependence the words of St. Paul:  ‘I will return again to you, if God will’ (Acts 18:21); ‘I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will’ (1 Corinthians 4:19); ‘I trust to tarry a while with you, if the Lord permit’ (1 Corinthians 16:7).  [51]

In Pirqe Aboth, ii. 4 occur the words of Rabban Gamliel (middle of third century A.D.), “Do His will as if it were thy will, that He may do thy will as if it were His will.  Annul thy will before His will, that He may annul the will of others before thy will” (Taylor).  [36]

we shall live and do this, or that.  That is, the accomplishment of whatever central goal we are attempting to achieve.  It will vary from person to person, region to region, our age, and our ability level.  Each of these goals is important to you and I, but none of them are “written in concrete.”  They might be ill-advised, short sighted, or actually undermine our survival.  I had hoped to spend the last 15 or 20 years before retiring teaching in some junior college, but was unable to accomplish the goal of obtaining my Master’s Degree.  If I had accomplished that interim step, I would certainly have landed up teaching “in the middle of nowhere” (which was utterly unimportant in my mind) but when I had my first massive heart attack I would also have been a fatally long distance from the kind of hospital I would need quickly.  Yes, there are failed dreams that can keep you alive.  I speak from personal experience. [rw]



4:16                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     But, as the case stands, it is in mere self-confidence that you boast: all such boasting is evil.

WEB:  But now you glory in your boasting. All such boasting is evil.     

Young’s:         and now ye glory in your pride; all such glorying is evil.

Conte (RC):    But now you exult in your arrogance. All such exultation is wicked.


4:16                 But now ye rejoice [boast, NKJV] in your boastings [vauntings, ASV; arrogance, NKJV].  Of what great things you will do, as if you were able of yourselves to accomplish [every one of] your plans.  [14]

                        It implies confidence in one’s cleverness, skill, strength—self-reliance on the duration of earthly prosperity.  [50]

Better, ye exult in your vain glories.  If the words were not too familiar, ye glory in your braggings would, perhaps, be a still nearer equivalent.  The noun is found in 1 John 2:16 (“the pride of life”), and not elsewhere in the New Testament.  It is defined by Aristotle (Eth. Nicom. iv. 13) as the character of the man who lays claim to what will bring him credit when the claim is either altogether false or grossly exaggerated.  He contrasts it with the “irony” which deliberately, with good or bad motive, understates its claims.  [38]

all such rejoicing [boasting, NKJV] is evil.  Because it is treating God and yourselves contrary to truth.  [14]

It is founded on a wrong view of yourselves and of what may occur.  It shows a spirit forgetful of our dependence on God; forgetful of the uncertainty of life; forgetful of the many ways by which the best-laid plans may be defeated.  A day, an hour may defeat our best-concerted plans, and show us that we have not the slightest power to control coming events.  [31]


4:17                                                     Translations

Weymouth:     If, however, a man knows what it is right to do and yet does not do it, he commits a sin.

WEB:              To him therefore who knows to do good, and doesn't do it, to him it is sin.

Young’s:         to him, then, knowing to do good, and not doing, sin it is to him.

Conte (RC):    Therefore, he who knows that he ought to do a good thing, and does not do it, for him it is a sin.


4:17                 Therefore to him that knoweth to do good.  It isn’t a matter of ignorance; it’s a matter of refusing to pay attention to what you already know.  [rw]

                        His knowledge does not prevent, but increase his condemnation.  [15]

                        [This is] not to be limited to mere benevolent actions, ‘knoweth to do good works,’ but to embrace our whole moral conduct—‘knoweth to do what is right:’ ‘good’ here is opposed to what is sinful and wrong.  [51]

and doeth it not.  These are not sins of ignorance—for it can’t be that for they “know” what they need to do—but sins of “laziness,” not willing to take the time and effort to do the right thing.  Admittedly, this is often understandable:  it can be painfully discomforting to reorientate our behavior from what is pleasant and enjoyable to do to what we know we should do.  Rationalizations can be endless, but the stain of sin still remains.  [rw]   

to him it is sin.  Because it is neglect of known duty.  [14]

The meaning is, that now, after receiving the plain instructions which James had given above, if any still persisted in the sin which he had condemned, they would be doubly guilty.  [34]

“Because this is true with respect to all who act contrary to knowledge and conscience.”Macknight.  [47]

An application of this to the Final Judgment that some have suggested:  This verse teaches that our responsibility to God is commensurate with our knowledge.  When the whole world shall stand before the great white throne there will be an infinitesimal diversity of judgments.  The people who lived and died under the Mosaic dispensation will be judged by the Old Testament only; those who have lived in the Christian era will be judged by the Old and New Testaments, while the heathen millions will be judged by neither, but only by the laws of nature.  Hence myriads who have lived and died in pagan darkness and superstition will be acquitted, because they walked in all the light they had, while multiplied thousands who have lived in Christian lands and shown better moral characters, will go down under condemnation because they did not walk in all the light God gave them.   1 John 1:7, “If we walk in light . . . the blood . . . cleanseth us from all sin,” applies to all nations indiscriminately — Jews, Mohammedans, pagans, Catholics and Protestants, having an infinite diversity of light, but only responsible for what they have.  [48]


In depth:  Sins of omission as sin [36].  It is, however, quite possible that we have in these words the enunciation of the principle that sins of omission are as sinful as those of commission; when our Lord says, “… these things ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23), it is clear that the sins of omission are regarded as willful sin equally with those of commission, cf. Matthew 25:41-45.

There is always a tendency to reckon the things which are left undone as less serious than actually committed sin; this was certainly, though not wholly so, in Judaism.  It is exceptional when we read, for example, in 1 Samuel 12:23, “God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you”; as a rule sins of omission are regarded as venial, according to the Jewish doctrine, and are not punishable.

The conception of sin according to Rabbinical ideas is well seen in what is called the ‘Al Chêt (i.e., “For the sin,” from the opening words of each sentence in the great Widdui [“Confession”] said on Yom Kippur [“the Day of Atonement”]); in the long list of sins here, mention is made only of committed sins.  In the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma, viii. 6) it is said that the Day of Atonement brings atonement, even without repentance, for sins of omission; in Pesikta, 7b the words in Zephaniah 1:12, “I will search Jerusalem with candles, and I will punish the men . . . ,” are commented on by saying, “not by daylight, nor with the torch, but with candles, so as not to detect venial sins,” among these being, of course, included sins of omission.  Although this is, in the main, the traditional teaching, there are some exceptions to be found, e.g., Shabbath, 54b; “ ‘Whosoever is in a position to prevent sins being committed by the members of his household, but refrains from doing so, becomes liable for their sins.’ The same rule applies to the governor of a town, or even of a whole country” (see Jewish Encycl., xi. 378).


In depth:  What is the connection of verse 17 to what has already been said [8]?   With regard to the connection in which this sentence stands with the preceding, most expositors understand it as enforcing that to which James has formerly exhorted his readers, and refer [him that knoweth], to the knowledge which they have now received by the word of James.  But against this is the objection, that if this expression be referred to all the previous exhortations (Estius), this would not be its proper place, because later on more exhortations follow; but if it is only referred to the last remark (Grotius; so also Pott, Theile, De Wette, Wiesinger), we cannot see why James should have added such a remark to this exhortation, as it would be equally suitable to any other.  It is accordingly treated of:  namely, the uncertainty of human life is something so manifest, that those who notwithstanding talk in their presumption as if it did not exist, [add that] much the more sin unto them[selves].

                        A variant of the last thought [41].  It is as if he said:  no religious truth is so commonly known as that of the uncertainty of life.  The most profane and worldly men have it on their lips; and yet there is no truth which is more wantonly disregarded.  But such disregard is sin and it is not the less sin because the glib acknowledgment of life’s uncertainty is to trite and so familiar.  [41]







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