From:  A Torah Commentary on James 3-5                         Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2014




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Chapter 4B:

Old Testament Precedents





Invoking of Explicit Old Testament

Quotations to Justify His Teaching:


            4:5:  “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?”—The source of the text.  There are four other scriptural quotations in James besides the one currently of interest to us.   Two are explicitly introduced as a statement of “scripture” (2:8; 2:23)  Two are also introduced by a reference to their supernatural origin (2:11; 4:6).  In 2:11 the “He who said” is identified as the revealer of the Ten Commandments, i.e., Yahweh.  The adage “God resists the proud” is introduced by the statement, “He says” (4:6), again making the intended speaker God. 

[Page 228]                  All  four of the quotations in James identified as from “scripture” or from “God” come from the Old Testament.  Hence the Old Testament is the most natural location for the text being cited in 4:5 as well.  The four other quotes are all derived from the Septuagint (Greek, LXX) Old Testament[1] and we would naturally expect this one to be as well.  But the problem is that we can’t tie the quote in 5b into any such LXX passage.  Hence it is reasonably alleged that if the old Torah or prophets are being quoted at all, then James is utilizing “a lost variant from a Greek Old Testament version.”[2] 

Not impossible, of course, but far from reassuring.  Nor is it comforting to note that there is no relevant Hebrew language OT text to appeal to either.  


A New Testament allusion?  Others suspect an allusion to New Testament texts.  To be likely, this requires a late first-early second century date for James—itself highly questionable.  Nor are the suggested text allusions (an intermingling of Matthew 6:24, Romans 8:7, and 1 John 2:15) any more obvious choices than those we will examine in regard to the Old Testament:[3] 


                        James 4:5:  Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The

Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

            Matthew 6:24:  No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate

the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the

other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

            Romans 8:7:  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is

not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.

            [Page 229]                  1 John 2:15: Do not love the world or the things

in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.



The paraphrase/summation option of explaining the “quotation”—a reference to a specific text.  James D. Yoder suggests that we are dealing here not with a quotation but, rather, “a paraphrase from Scripture.”[4]  But that still leaves us with the problem of what scripture James has in mind—whether as a paraphrase or translation.  A number have been suggested.

            Exodus 20:5 (on Yahweh being a “jealous God”) is considered the likely source by some, though one such commentator concedes that it is “a free and somewhat poetic rendering of the thought. . . .”[5] 

Exodus 34:14 makes the same assertion that Yahweh is a “jealous God” and this text,[6] quite naturally, has been introduced by some who appeal to Exodus 20:5 as well.[7] 

            Genesis 6:5 (on the depravity of antediluvian civilization) has been one suspected source,[8] but there is nothing even verbally similar with the James text. 

            Genesis 6:3:[9]  “And the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ ”  One could easily imagine the first part of the verse being paraphrased as, “God resists the proud;” the second half about “giving grace to the humble” would, presumably, be James’ interpretive deduction from that premise.  

            Deuteronomy 32:11, 19 use the image of God’s love (verse 11) and refers to how God “spurn[s]” those who reject His will (verse 19).  The Septuagint version, which refers to God’s “jealousy,” is cited as evidence of a possible intended reference by James.[10]

[Page 230]                 Job 27:4 makes the challenge,[11] “Who is able to stand before jealousy?”  The context is human jealousy, rather than Divine, however.

            Zechariah 1:14:  Here the jealousy is for “Jerusalem” and for “Zion” rather than for the individual, which is the case in James.  Zechariah 8:2 expresses a similar jealousy or “zealous[ness]” for Zion.  Of course James could have “individualized” the texts, i.e., if true of the collectivity of God’s people it would also be true of the individuals within that group.


            The cumulative paraphrase/summation option of explaining the “quotation”—a summation of multiple texts.[12]  As one scholar words it:  It “refers to a theme rather than to a specific quotation (e.g., John 7:37-39; possibly Matthew 2:23).  So, most likely, here:  The God of the Bible is a jealous God, a point established not only in the Decalogue but also in many passages.”[13]    

Steven J. Cole concurs, “The best solution is probably that James is referring generally to the many the Old Testament references to God’s jealousy for the undivided devotion of His people. For example, in the second commandment forbidding idolatry, God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God …” (Exodus 20:5; also, Exodus 34:14; Zechariah 8:2).”[14]


[Page 231]                  Making verse 5a refer to the scripture in verse 6.  A few translations—accidentally or on purpose—encourage this approach.  For example, the ASV puts question marks in two places, “Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain?  Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?”  This would certainly permit both to refer to verse 6.  Rotherham does the same, “Or think ye that, in vain, the scripture speaketh?  Is it, for envying, that the spirit which hath taken an abode within us doth crave?”  Virtually all others word the text in a manner to require that 5b is the text referred to in 5a.

In this approach (adapting the NKJV) you create a modified context something like this, “4b  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  5  Or do you think that the Scripture says [speaks] in vain?  The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously!  6  But [Hence] He gives more grace.  Therefore He says:  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ ”  Alternatively one might substitute an exclamation point for the question mark since James is surely stressing this point.

Having done this, one could reasonably argue that the scripture under consideration is Proverbs 3:34, the one introduced at the end of verse 6.  Verse 5a does not function to introduce a quote but to make more emphatic the point being emphasized—that God rejects the proud and gives favor to the humble.[15] 

In this approach, 5:5b is a paraphrase (or summary) of the truth that will be directly quoted in the next verse.[16]  Hence all of verse 5 is only intended as an interpretive lead-in to the quotation of verse 6 and not an independent scriptural citation.[17] 

In other words . . .  

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·                          We have the challenge:  “Or do you think the Scripture says in vain?” (4:5a).

·                          Then we have the summary that since “the Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously” (4:5b) . . .

·                          As a result God “gives more grace” (4:6a). 

·                          Then we have the quote of the scriptural proof text to vindicate that assertion in 4:6b. 

·                          Which provides us with the exact wording of what “Scripture says [not] in vain” (4:5a).     



Alternative approach:  Making verse 4 the reference point of 5a.  When we read in verse 4 that, “Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God,” we certainly recognize what “the Scripture says” in implication time and again.  Hence “do you think that the Scripture says in vain” could refer to this--as a Scriptural summary rather than direct quote. 

John Calvin thought along this line when he contended that the “Scripture” referred to was the doctrine of enmity between the world and God referred to in verse 4.  Since this has clear Old Testament precedent (as to underlying concept) he embraced this approach as the best explanation of the text.[18]  In this scenario, verse 5 is an assertion that God’s word is neither empty nor futile--in regard to teaching “the friendship of the world [being] enmity against God etc.”[19]  It explains further the asserted point.     

[Page 233]                  Just as making 5b the text referred to in 5a has the advantage of the two being immediately adjoining, so does this approach.  I would develop such a reconstruction along this line--5b begins a new thought:  Because “the Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously,” therefore “God gives more grace”--as is proved by the fact that the Scripture testifies that He gives “grace to the humble” and rejects the proud.


A non-Biblical source?  Some have theorized the possibility that James is quoting from “an apocryphal work”[20] or from the writings that guided the Dead Sea community at Qumran.[21]  The use of the term “scripture” as a description of such a source would be totally unexpected in such a case, especially in regard to Qumran. 

            Others  have suggested that some lost Christian work is quoted as “scripture.”[22]   If the term “scripture” is equated with the concept of supreme written authority--and that certainly is the normal Biblical connotation of the term--one is perplexed by how a volume with that recognized a status managed to disappear. 

An orally preserved “scripture?”  That something might be regarded as inspired (think the prophetic messages at Corinth, for example), yet not written, that is quite understandable.  But one would still be surprised at the usage in the current passage since how would it be generally circulated enough to become cited as authoritative outside the community where it was given? 

And why would it be labeled “scripture” as well?  As Corinth surely shows, something could be regarded as Divinely controlled but still not rise to this high a level (i.e., worthy of permanent preservation, general importance or usefulness and what we today would call “canonical.”)  

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Having searched for specific Old Testament sources for the text of the quotation, we will leave the matter of Old Testament precedents for what is being taught to the next chapter.  This is because which passages are relevant hinge upon the specific interpretation place on the quotation—whatever its source.



            4:6:   “But He gives more grace.  Therefore He says:  ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ ”  The apparent text under consideration is normally identified as Proverbs 3:34.[23]  The Hebrew is rendered in English, “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.”  The second half of the verse is explicitly the same; in the first half the target is changed from “scornful” to “proud.”  Yet the two concepts go so hand in hand, it seems fair to say that they represent little more than a different way of saying the same thing.  Apparently the translators of the Septuagint reasoned similarly, since their Greek translation of the Hebrew renders it the way James quotes.[24]

            The text, in its original setting, constitutes part of the writer’s argument against “envy[ing]” the unjust “oppressor” (3:31).  This and any other “perverse person is an abomination to the Lord” (3:32).  The “curse of the Lord” is upon such a person (3:32 and 3:33) and he is “scorn[ed]” by God (3:34--the text we are interest in).  To cap it all off, such a person is nothing short of being a “fool” (3:35).

            The scorn is not, contextually, targeted at God—at least not directly.  (Though by showing contempt for God’s law through violating its moral demands, it is certainly showing indirect scorn for the Lawgiver as well.)  Indeed since the second half of the verse discusses the “humble,” the scorn—it has reasonably been argued--has as its direct target other humans whom they can mock as inferior while they themselves are manifestly “superior or greater than others.”[25]

[Page 235]                  The scorner receives back exactly what he gave out, however—scorn.  Worst, it comes from God.  To dismiss the resentment of one’s fellow mortals may be unwise, but to live in a manner that it brings forth the Creator’s condemnation is suicidal.  The only question is how soon it will be.  Imagine an annoyed earthly King, but with countless greater power. 

No information is provided as to how sinful the “humble” person may be, only the assurance that “grace” will be the reward instead of contempt.[26]  At the worst, he is assumed to be a sinner who acknowledges the fact and humbly seeks Divine mercy while the scorner is content doing whatever he/she wishes and acknowledging no responsibility to anyone else.  


            Allusions to the teaching of Proverbs are scattered throughout the book of James.  Daniel J. Treierer documents well the fact that the teaching of Proverbs 3 is embraced repeatedly in the book of James.  Although this is not the only OT root of James’ teaching, of course, this fact is worthy of recognition on its own merits,[27] 


                        Proverbs 3 indicates that wisdom focuses on our money and our

mouths.  Do we honor the Lord by giving back what we have received?  Do

we give to others in need?  Or do we attack those God loves, especially with

our speech?  Those are the diagnostic questions by which to recognize

whether we are wise.

            [Page 236]                  Resonances with the book of James are therefore

obvious.  The vocabulary of blessing appears in both (James 1:12; Proverbs

3:13, 33),

as do the theme of trusting God wholeheartedly instead of leaning on one’s own understanding (James 1:1-8; Proverbs 3:5-8);

the requirement of wisdom to triumph over desire (James 1:13-21; Proverbs 3:14-15);

wise people being known by good deeds, especially regarding uses of words and wealth (James 1:22-27; 2:1-3:18; 4:11-5:11; Proverbs 3:9-10, 27-31);

exhortations that people must be generous when able to help their neighbors, instead of dismissing them with well-wishing platitudes (James 2:14-26; Proverbs 3:27-28);

and prohibitions of self-interested quarreling (James 3-4; Proverbs 3:29-30) along with envy (James 2:1-7; Proverbs 3:31) of those on whom the Lord’s curse rests (James 5:1-6; Proverbs 3:32-35). 

James even quotes the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Proverbs 3:34:  “God opposes the proud, / but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  Augustine rightly suggests that “there is hardly a page in the holy books” in which this truth about humility does not appear. 

The conclusion of this chapter (Proverbs 3:32-35) provides a fitting summary of why Wisdom consists in the fear of the Lord, and why finding the way to true life consists in the pursuit of Wisdom.

[Page 237]                  The unity of theological depiction and social-ethical
exhortation in Proverbs, like two sides of a coin, is evident and important.  Words such as “grace” are not only present (e.g.,
3:34) but also do ethical work.       



            His last remark is especially useful:  It is very easy to fall into the trap of Old Testament equals rigid Law and New Testament equals abundant Grace.  The truth of the matter is that grace was given even in the times of the Torah and obligatory Divine law remains embedded in the New Testament of grace as well.  

Without grace there was no way out of the tragedy of sin in any age; without authoritative and required rules of behavior, we would have carte blanche to do any evil we wished without the fear of any consequences.  However God has never taken kindly to mortals trying to take advantage of His love, tolerance, and forgiveness.  Within the velvet glove of kindness remains a fist of the hardest steel for when and where it is needed.     





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How Old Testament Concepts Are

Repeatedly Introduced and Woven

 into the Heart of His Argument




            4:1-2:  Conflicts among Christians arise from making the fulfillment of our own desires more important than anything else.  The term “wars” may be used to stress the element of “protracted or widespread disputes,” while “fighting” refers to the constituent parts of the larger war, “the conflicts and skirmishes” that occur periodically or daily.[28]   In Greek language ethical literature, this kind of terminology was used “to refer to quarrels and disputes.”[29] 

            The “wars and fights” are described not as those with outsiders but “among you,” i.e., with other Christians.  Their root is the desire for the “pleasure” that most satisfies us.  Here the “pleasures” (and the “lust” in the following verse) virtually have to emphasize things of a nonsexual nature since they involve something that causes us to be locked in conflict with others.  It could be their position, their prestige--even their possessions.  Whatever it is that we have desire for but do not have.


            The desires that motivate unneeded conflict with fellow believers include the desire to preserve one’s own status.  This may be on inconsequential matters or because we do not want to compromise our pride by admitting that the other man is teaching a truth  we do not want to accept:  This motivation can be seen in the protracted rebelliousness of Israel against her prophets.  Because there were far more priests than prophets, one would expect them to be especially honored but that was usually not the case.  (Unless they sold out the truth of course.)

[Page 239]                  Those who remained loyal to their mission were to be rejected, scorned, undermined, and even punished unjustly to discredit or silence them.  God warned Jeremiah, for example, “ ‘And I will make you to this people a fortified bronze wall; and they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you; for I am with you to save you and deliver you,’ says the Lord” (15:20).

            It injured the egos of the priests and leaders that they were supposed to change behavior or teaching.  (It challenged the self-importance of the masses as well for they, too, would have had to admit major error.)  For many it would mean the admission that in spite of their titular position in organized religion or society, they had fundamentally misjudged a matter.  This would be intolerable to their sense of pride and entitlement.

            And this did not end with the coming of Jesus.  A Bible teaching would require us to act differently in our position of leadership?  Or change a conviction that is shaky however well intentioned?  You know I—as elder, preacher, influential member--have only the best in mind for everyone.  Out with you—you troublemaking church-divider!

Sound familiar?  (It will to many)  And no matter how flagrant the challenged behavior, many would prefer peace and quiet and noninvolvement while those who are openly questioning get rolled over.  “Going along to get along” may be the policy of prudence but not of spiritual commitment. 

(This is not to deny that the situation can be reversed, in which the “reformer” actually has his or her private “axe to grind” and the challenge serves as “cover” for similar intentions!  In other words, for some specific personal gain in status or influence.  Truth becomes the tool rather than the motive for action.)

[Page 240]                  Sometimes, even in the more petty ante and nonreligious conflicts within the church, its often just egotistical head butting to prove who is the most important “goat” on the mountain.  Personal “preference” winning is the issue and “truth” was never envolved in the first place.  Hence status preservation (or its increase) can become a major motivating factor in virtually any type of intra-church disagreement on everything from doctrine to the new type of church carpet.


On the other hand, reckless combativeness may represent a fundamental psychological discontent that no outcome ever resolves:   For example, the proud discontented drunk is described in Habakkuk 2:5 as being “like death and cannot be satisfied.”  He is an aggressive empire builder that rolls over one and all, “He gathers to himself all nations and heaps up for himself all peoples.”  There is nothing that can stop him—he thinks. 

Such broad discontent is described as a case where “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8).  Or as the TEV puts verse 8, “Everything leads to weariness--a weariness too great for words.  Our eyes can never see enough to be satisfied; our ears can never hear enough.”  The person finds contentment impossible to obtain and will repeatedly find himself in conflict with others as the result.  It won’t really matter, in the long term, for the world has a strange way of always remaining the same (verses 9-10). 

This is so common a phenomena, that the writer pictures it as a species wide characteristic.  “Hell and Destruction are never full,” warns the Proverbist; “so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Proverbs 27:20).

[Page 241]                  Wealth can be used as an example.  No matter how much one gains, there are those to whom it is never enough, “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase.  This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).  Today’s English Version hits the point quite well in its rendering, “If you love money, you will never be satisfied; if you long to be rich, you will never get all you want.  It is useless.”



            4:3:  Unanswered prayers because of praying out of the wrong reasons:  “You ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:3).  In other words unanswered prayer was caused by wrong motives and intents.

The same individuals are described in the following verse as adulterers.  This may suggest a shift from seeking sinful desires in general to seeking sinful sexual ones in particular.  At the least, they would have to be desires that can harm others or envolving folk who simply  do not care what the impact is on others.   

That there are situations where God will simply ignore an individual’s prayer is a well attested Old Testament teaching (Job 27:9; Psalms 18:41; Proverbs 1:28-31).  James’ description of those facing unanswered prayer as being individuals locked in war and conflict with others applies on a metaphorical level the warning in Isaiah that literal needless bloodshed will produce such a result, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear.  Your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).  Only if they altered their way of life, would the situation be changed (verses 16-17).

[Page 242]                  Normally—and we find it quite common in the Old Testament—the emphasis explaining unanswered prayer is on how evil actions cause that result.  For example, Micah 3:4:  Then they will cry to the Lord, but He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, because they have been evil in their deeds” (“were so wicked in what they were doing,” ISV).  Hence a general “evil” lifestyle would produce the result of rejected prayer.     

Since evil actions flow out of evil or morally warped intentions, it is not surprising that later in the same chapter those are mentioned in passing, “Now hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (verse 9; “despise justice and distort all that is right,” NIV).  They did wrong because they thought wrong. 

Yet we outside witnesses can’t prove that the inward motivations are impure; we can only prove that the outward actions are.  (Though in really extreme cases it is hard to imagine any other alternative.)  Hence it is far from surprising that the emphasis in explaining rejected prayer should be so much on the external results that bear the clear condemnation of Divine revelation.   

            Zechariah 7 also slides into its condemnation of the Israelites’ evil behavior, mention of how their underlying motivations had also been corrupted—and how it caused Yahweh to turn His back on their pleas,

[Page 243]

                        8 Then the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying,  9 Thus says

the Lord of hosts:  Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion

everyone to his brother.  10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the

alien or the poor.  Let none of you plan evil in his heart [“plot evil in your

hearts,” Holman; “secretly plot evil,” NET] against his brother.

            11 But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped

their ears so that they could not hear.  12 Yes, they made their hearts like

flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent

by His Spirit through the former prophets.  Thus great wrath came from the

Lord of hosts.  13 Therefore it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they

would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen,” says the Lord of

hosts.  14 “But I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations

which they had not known.  Thus the land became desolate after them, so

that no one passed through or returned; for they made the pleasant land



            In “non-religious” language, God warned in Malachi that they would never dare treat earthly authorities the way they were treating Him.  Disobeying reflected disrespect and the examples He gives make no sense unless their hearts had decided that going through rituals stripped of their honor was all that was necessary to keep their God happy.  In other words a callous heart lay behind their callous and unconcerned outward actions—even when it concerned not their fellow mortal, but even the Mighty One Himself!

[Page 244]

                        7 “You offer defiled food on My altar, but say, ‘In what way have we

defiled You?’  By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’  8 And

when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil?  And when you offer the

lame and sick, is it not evil?  Offer it then to your governor!  Would he be

pleased with you?  Would he accept you favorably?” Says the Lord of hosts

(Malachi 1).


            The outward form was all that was counted as necessary.  In other words twisted thinking led to disrespectful behavior.  Action again reflects inward mind frame.     

They had their own form of what today we would call “situation ethics” in which one could justify any and all evils while maintaining an acceptable Jewish religious veneer.  To God it wasn’t enough.  They were only fooling themselves.  Not even intercessory prayer by others would do any good:


Jeremiah 7: 8 "Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit.  9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, 10 and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered to do all these abominations'?  11 Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes?  Behold, I, even I, have seen it," says the Lord.  16  Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, nor make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you.


[Page 245]                  They were pious—just enough—to where they thought they had a “legitimate” claim on God’s generosity.  Unfortunately, “just enough” can easily be like a family that prepares for a food shortage only to discover that most of it has been eaten by rats.

            But this did not spring up overnight.  It did not occur without them becoming accustomed to thinking there was nothing wrong with their attitude and behavior.  Thought and action were intertwined and interlocked.  Each reinforced the other.  And grew more and more out of alignment with the Divine standard as time passed. 

Hence it is not surprising that the Psalmist speaks of the source of human actions and how God will reject prayers if that source has been defiled, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Psalms 66:18).  If we embrace the evil; cherish it.  As NET has it, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”  And the GW is even more emphatic, “If I had thought about doing anything sinful, the Lord would not have listened to me.”



4:4:  Spiritually and morally adulterous “friendship with the world” guarantees “enmity” with God.  Adultery as envolving the non-physical.  It is unlikely that any would deny that “world” stands for anything in creation--whatever its nature or form--that diverts one from being whole-heartedly in service to God.  Normally this means that we have embraced as our own the standards the world works by and have blotted out much of the distinction that should exist between our behavior and that of unbelievers. 

[Page 246]                  However “friendship” with the world can carry with it, not necessarily participation in its evils but--at a minimum—moral acceptance of, sympathy with, non-condemnatory “understanding” of their behavior, condolence of those evils even if one does not personally participate in them.  (The thin line between this mind frame and actual participation is extraordinarily thin and presumably due to opportunity, interest, and personal preference rather than any fundamental opposition.)

What the world demands you be is not “tolerant”—that word got bent all out of shape years ago—but to be “endorsingly tolerant,” being “supportive” of the individual in his or her personally preferred moral blight.  Never, ever to mention that there is a better and objectively superior lifestyle out there.  To be convinced that there is such a “gold standard” for behavior makes you a “bigot” in their morally twisted minds and guilty of being “hateful” if you dare openly reject their “anything goes” mind frame.  And, of course, the term “sin” must never, ever be applied to their behavior while they are free to use all the four letter obscenities they wish to mock and demean you.

On the other hand, they are the ones who will have an extremely hostile reception in eternity.  What “goes around, comes around”—even if it isn’t until the judgment day.  And God will remember every single action and insult they’ve inflicted in their hateful animosity toward His will and those who are faithful to it.   


            It is well known that in the Old Testament a large number of specific evils are pointed to as earning the enmity of God:  lies, false witness, dishonesty in business, etc.  It is but a step from specific evils antagonizing Yahweh to all evils (the “world”) doing the same.  From this standpoint, James’ assertion is a natural development--the creation of a broad principle based upon the fact that so many specific condemnations are found. 

[Page 247]                  The mind frame of finding the evils of pagan society acceptable is denounced by James under the image of adultery:  “Adulterers and adulteresses!” he begins his rebuke and then gives the warning that this attitude makes one an “enemy of God” (4:4).  The image of adultery is used in the Old Testament both in its literal sense as well as a symbolic description of engaging in idolatry.  Both are identified as antagonizing God.  Literal adultery in such texts as Jeremiah 5:7-9.  Idolatrous adultery in passages like Psalms 73:27 and Ezekiel 6:9.  Ezekiel 16:35-43 is a powerful extended example of this usage. 

            Although the references to spiritual adultery are typically in a collective sense—to the entire people--this “collective” degradation occurred as many individuals became guilty.  When it reached a certain level of pervasiveness, how else could the situation be described than the collectivity of a nation or a city itself committing the adultery?

Isaiah 54:5 sums up the reason such metaphors are used:  “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth.” 

The intended image is that the nation specifically--and, by analogy, all the individuals within the nation--have been married to God, so to speak, in a solemn covenant and that by entering into an intimate relationship with the polytheistic gods one has as assuredly violated that covenant as if a married person had bedded someone else’s spouse. 

Nick Nowalk suggests additional evidence why the physical and the spiritual forms of adultery were inevitably linked,[30]

[Page 248]

                        Consider now how frequently idolatry and sexual immorality appear in

tandem throughout the biblical narrative (see Exodus 32, Isaiah 57:7-8,

Hosea 4:12-14, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5,

Colossians 3:5, Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25).  An obvious logic justifies their



                                    “The link between idolatry and sexual immorality is

                        established by the frequent use of ‘prostituting themselves’ or

‘adultery’ to describe Hebrew idolatry [in the Old Testament]. 

Israel’s unfaithfulness to God was not only a form of spiritual

prostitution or adultery, but it also led to the physical acts

themselves.”  (Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex:

Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, pp. 64-65).

Indeed, these particular sins are the only two that always occur in the many vice lists in Paul’s letters, which otherwise tend to vary considerably. . . .      

Nowalk then points out how Paul in Romans 1:18-32 argues that the rejecting of God as our central point of reverence and respect inevitably leads to a diseased and decayed “morality” as well; self-deprived as we are of what would lift us up and make us truly honorable men and women, God throws us to the “wolves” of our worst instincts. 


James seems to expand the imagery of physical and spiritual adultery from those two acts in particular to an improper fraternization with the world’s evil in general when he speaks of the “friendship of the world.”  Or has he expanded the use--or have we too narrowly restricted the Old Testament’s meaning of the image of adultery to the physical act and idolatry? 

[Page 249]                  It should be remembered that the mores of the people condemned for idolatry were inevitably described or assumed to be morally corrupt as well.  Indeed, if one has removed the inhibition of monotheism in order to embrace various other religions simultaneously, are the moral restrictions going to be held to either? 

After all the same God and code of revelation that instructed one not to worship idols, also instructed not to commit physical adultery, lie, murder, and other grievous acts.  How could the original moral code be upheld under such circumstances?

Remember that that idolatry included the sexual evils sometimes associated with it and, in certain cases, even the offering of one’s children in human sacrifice.  Was it feasible to act to such extremes without coming to at least a friendly acceptance of the polytheistic concept of morality in general?  (Immorality, as viewed from the standpoint of strict Yahwehistic monotheism.)  Indeed how could that avoid, over time, becoming precedent for even wider breaches of God’s moral code?

            Hence buying into polytheism and idolatry meant buying into the mind frame and value system that went with it.  If not overt participation in all its excesses, at least an understanding acceptance of it when practiced by others.  In short a “friendship” not just with idols in the strict sense but of the entire world view that accompanied it. 

And this was the dominant “world” as the ancients knew it for monotheism was a distinct minority movement.  Is there not latent, therefore, in the Old Testament rebuke of polytheism as adultery an implicit critique of everything that went with it, of “the world” to use the rhetoric of James?

[Page 250]     

            Passages intermingling spiritual and idolatrous adultery with embracing the spectrum of moral evils of the world (“friendship with the world”).  Jeremiah 3:1-13 speaks of the spiritual adultery of the people.  Yet as the chapters roll by we read that it went hand in hand with physical adultery (5:7-9).  They engaged in acts of violence (5:26), “deceit” (5:27), and ignored the cause of the fatherless (5:28).  “ ‘Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord.  ‘Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?’ ”  (5:29).  Furthermore, the prophets and priests abused their positions (5:30-31).  Hence, the Old Testament itself viewed the adultery of idolatry as part and parcel of a wider, degenerated lifestyle and this would seem to verify our line of reasoning.

            In the condemnation of an apostate people the polytheistic element is occasionally almost secondary in the criticism.  In Isaiah 1:21, the prophet is horrified at the fact, “How the faithful city has become a harlot!”  Yet the wider moral condemnation pours out immediately:  the city has substituted the search for “justice” with opening its doors to “murderers” (verse 21).

            Its leaders are “companions of thieves,” “bribes” were not limited to the usual and inevitable hardcore but “everyone loves” them.  The most exposed elements of society (the “fatherless” and the “widow”) are to be pushed out of the mind as unimportant (verse 23).  For such things God will act punitively against the people and use His justice to bring about their repentance (verses 24-28).  It is only after all this, that He introduces the condemnation of their places of idol worship (verse 29)!     


[Page 251]                  James’ immediate concerns.  We have provided the above analysis according to the way the passage is normally approached for James certainly intends to include such matters.  But it is not the core point he is driving at:  he is talking about how those with every outward appearance of being loyal to God and no one else, can use attitudes and behavioral norms of the world in behalf of what they deceive themselves into believing are spiritually desirable outcomes.  It is carefully disguised worldliness masquerading as “true faith.”   

An Australian preacher reminds us of this reality in these words,[31]


"Friendship with the world. " The phrase makes us think of doing worldly things, things quite acceptable in the world but forbidden by God. . . .  As it turns out, brothers and sisters, this understanding is not how James uses that phrase friendship with the world’.  That James does not refer to the weak and straying is evident from the fact that in the entire passage before us James keeps on addressing "you", in other words, his addressees in general.  And those addressees are not unbelievers or Christians who are consciously straying from the Lord.  Rather, James addresses this letter to "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad," i.e., to the New Testament people of God as they live scattered throughout the world. . . .

In the context of James 4, the term ‘friendship with the world’ does not imply that one has drifted from the Lord, that one condones blatant worldliness.  But the term means here that the twelve tribes of the dispersion served God and loved the brethren with a worldly attitude.  They served God alright, and they gathered in prayer around the kitchen table and in church too, but the way they treated each other was not at all Christian; it was worldly, the product of having earthly wisdom.

[Page 252]                  That attitude, says James, produces fights, wars amongst the brethren. . . .  bickering and squabbling, fighting with words.  But why, then, does James use this heavy terminology?  The reason, beloved, is simply to point up the deadly consequences of this bickering and squabbling. 

War: that’s destruction, it’s death. War makes misery out of life, it destroys, annihilates, kills.  And there’s the point the apostle wants to make: the self-centered desires of these Christians, the desire to have things go their own way, the wish to be personally vindicated, produces on the surface only bickering and disputing over words, but underneath it leads to death in the church of Jesus Christ, it chokes the spiritual life out of God’s people; it fills spiritual body-bags as fast as bombs do.


In other words quite “respectable worldliness.”  The kind of worldliness that, at its extreme, turns an individual into the type of person rebuked by Jesus: 


27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.  28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.  (Matthew 23)  


[Page 253]

            4:8:  Reconciliation with God requires “draw[ing] near” to Him and personal purification.   The warning of this verse is that reconciliation will not be arbitrarily granted by God.  He will meet us, if you will, “half-way.”  Or, as our text puts it, God drawing near to us has the prerequisite of our willingness to “draw near” to Him as well. 

The picture of mutual action is one utilized in the warning to King Asa in 2 Chronicles 15:2, “The Lord is with you while you are with Him.  If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.”  The mutual forsaking is explicit; for the parallel to be perfect, the finding also had to be by mutual action though that is only implied rather than directly asserted.

            In Zechariah 1:3 the action of both parties is made explicit however, “Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts:  Return to Me,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  That “return” is defined in the following verse as that of a moral transformation, “Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds” (verse 4).  ISV:  “It's time to turn from your evil lifestyles and from your evil actions.”

            The last book of the Old Testament includes the hope for a mutual “return[ing]” of God and His people (Malachi 3:7).  In this case the people were blind as to the fact of what their transgressions were (verses 8-10); they simply had no idea that they existed.  Not because God’s law didn’t exist or had somehow disappeared; they simply weren’t paying attention to its admonitions. 

However it remained fully authoritative whether they did so or not.  Let us not think of them too harshly, though:  In this age in which so many millions have one or more copies of the Bible, how many actually pay attention to what it has to say today?

[Page 254]                  In Hosea 6:1 the plea that his listeners “return to the Lord” is balanced by the promise in verse 3 that God is also willing to “come to us” as well. 

            Of course the texts that embrace drawing near to God carry with it the implicit baggage of “in sincerity” and “in reality.”  Pretense does no good; going through empty forms provides no benefit.  God can see through it all. 

As Isaiah 29:13 puts the criticism, “Therefore the Lord said:  ‘Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,” i.e., they say the right words but only because they are repeating what they’ve been taught by figures they regarded as authoritative.  It’s not the “real them.”  They have little or no interest in doing what they’ve been told.  Just knowing the right things to say.

            However these words can have a more extreme connotation as well.  It may not be God’s real words that they are repeating at all.  Today’s English Version has it this way, “Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized.”     



4:8:  The need to“cleanse your hands” and “purify your hearts.”  The former refers to outward behavior while the other “refers to inner motives and desires.”[32]  Inward attitude and mind frame were to walk hand-in-hand with outward lifestyle.

The Psalmist speaks of how this combination must be present for the individual to acceptably enter God’s presence (in other words, to acceptably worship Him), “Who may [Page 255]   ascend into the hill of the Lord?  Or who may stand in His holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul, to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalms 24:3-4).  

            The demand to “cleanse” and “purify” are very reminiscent of the admonition of Isaiah, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil” (1:16).  If the evils were to be “washed” away, they were to be removed by one’s actions for that is what literal “washing” envolves. 

Or as verse 17 puts their new course, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”  It may not come “naturally,” but it can develop if one consciously sets out to live the right kind of life.   One “learns” that new lifestyle by regular repetition.  Like one learns and masters a new skill.  

This washing imagery is a vivid one used to express the injunction, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts . . .” (Isaiah 55:7).  In a bath we wash away the dirt.  In our moral transformation, we similarly remove the moral dirt.  

            Jeremiah 4:14 has the admonition, “O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved.  How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?”  Thoughts motivate and justify behavior and shape the moral code the heart adopts.  Hence without a change in the inner person, the outward actions will never change either.  Likewise, unless there is an ongoing change of behavior the inward person will not receive the necessary reinforcement to maintain the new standards.  It is a two way street:  behavior shaping heart; heart shaping behavior.

[Page 256]                  Note that the admonition is not addressed to individuals per se, but to the entire city—“O Jerusalem!”  In other words this type of disregard for God had become the societal norm.  How often the ancients sound like modern society!



            4:9:  Setting one’s life right by “cleans[ing] your hands” and “purify[ing] your hearts” (4:8) requires sorrow and guilt over our past behavior.  Life reversal does not begin with a laugh; it begins with a tear, “Lament and mourn and weep!  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”    

            These are intense words, “lament, mourn and weep.”  The first isn’t quite identical with “be sad” (CEV), “be troubled” (BBE), and “be sorrowful” (TEV).  The word more easily carries the overtones of “be miserable” (Holman, ISV, NASB) and “be wretched” (RSV), which reveal the intensity of what one is going through.

            “Mourn” and “weep” are retained in the bulk of translations for the other two.  A few will go with alternatives—in particular, “be . . . sorry” (CEV) for the first and “cry” (Holman) for the second.  The ATP opts for “grieve and cry in sorrow over it.”

            Hitting the reader with one after the other of these is clearly intended to remind the reader that true guilt isn’t superficial; it penetrates to the very essence and requires an admission that we have fundamentally erred.  It isn’t a mere “mistake;” it has been a “sin.”

            In Jeremiah, the exiles are pictured as going through such a radical period of rage at their own infidelity to their God, that it has caused Jehovah to be willing to return them to their original homeland,

[Page 257]

Jeremiah 31:18 " I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself:  'You have chastised me, and I was chastised, like an untrained bull; restore me, and I will return, for You are the Lord my God.  19 Surely, after my turning, I repented; and after I was instructed, I struck myself on the thigh; I was ashamed, yes, even humiliated, because I bore the reproach of my youth.'  20 Is Ephraim My dear son?  Is he a pleasant child?  For though I spoke against him, I earnestly remember him still; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.  21  Set up signposts, Make landmarks; set your heart toward the highway, the way in which you went.  Turn back, O virgin of Israel, turn back to these your cities.


            In Ezekiel the self-loathing comes after the return from captivity as the people recognize how good God has been to them when they were totally undeserving of it,


Ezekiel 20:41 "I will accept you as a sweet aroma when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will be hallowed in you before the Gentiles.  42 Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for which I raised My hand in an oath to give to your fathers.  43 And there you shall remember your ways and all your doings with which you were defiled; and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight because of all the evils that you have committed.  44 Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have dealt with you for My name's sake, not according to your wicked ways nor according to your corrupt doings, O house of Israel," says the Lord God.


[Page 258]


            4:11:  To speak “evil” of a brother (or sister) in Christ is to speak evil of the Divine law itself.  Although some translations specify a specific type of “evil” speaking (the NIV selects “slander”), the term is far more comprehensive than that type of insult alone.[33]  It has been suggested that the term is broad enough not only to refer to the content, but also to the manner of presentation.  Hence, a valid point expressed in a venomous and insulting manner would also come under its condemnation.[34]  This alone, with or without the preceding option, may well be behind the Contemporary English Version’s “don't say cruel things about others!”

            Can we responsibly speculate on the specific nature of the “evil” in James’ mind?   In chapter two it was a matter of economic/class prejudice and we examined in that context the Old Testament rebuke of making unfair judgments based upon such factors.   That could be the allusion here.  In verses 13-15 the image is of a successful businessman planning on business journeys that would last years and which seemed sure to reap a nice profit.  Such individuals could easily have been looking down upon the poorer coreligionists who were not able to launch such endeavors themselves.

            On the other hand, the idea of “speak[ing] evil”--barring some clear-cut textual indication--would more naturally refer to unjust censure of others for any reason.  Hence the text is more likely to be censuring unjust condemnation and censure of anyone rather than emphasizing the economic status of the person being criticized. 

[Page 259]                  In this vein, Psalms 50 quotes God as delivering to “the wicked” (verse 16) a stern rebuke that they had acted in this manner, “You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit.  You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son” (verses 19-20).  In this case, it wasn’t just the poorer they slandered, but their own close kin.

            This was but an application of the demand not to go around belittling one’s spiritual brothers in the Jewish people.  “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16).  “Talebearer,” of course, describes conveying something highly (and unjustifiably?) critical—perhaps with only the slightest connection to the truth.  “Don’t be a gossip” (Contemporary English Version) conveys the sentiment well.  “Lies” (Today’s English Version) and “slander” (Revised Standard Version) sum up well two of the forms it may take.

Some suggest we seek the root of James’ point in the broad principle of love of one’s neighbor found in Leviticus 19:18,[35] which is part of the context of the above verse.  In favor of this is the fact that 19:18 is quoted in James 2:8 and is clearly presented as definitive in establishing the proper root attitude in all our relations with others.     

            Leviticus 19:18’s commandment to love comes in a context of rebuking the mind frame that would lead to “speak[ing] evil of” others:  Verse 17 rebukes “hate” of one’s coreligionist.  Verse 18 itself condemns “bear[ing] any grudge against the the children of your people” and contrasts the need to love them with this type of behavior.  Going back to verse 16, we find a rebuke of being a “talebearer,” which directly describes--at least in part--what James is rebuking.

[Page 260]

            The Psalmist echoed a similar sentiment against unjustly attacking one’s neighbors / spiritual brethren, “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous” (31:18).

            The person who acts in such a self-centered manner looks with contempt upon others.  And if they in any way get in his or her way, they “deserve” the harsh words that are thrown their way.  Their feelings and pains don’t count. 

Psalms 101:5 parallels their lies with their arrogance, showing that they are but two faces of a self-centeredness that has no interest in justice toward others, “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy; the one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, Him I will not endure.”

The old adage is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can’t hurt me.”  This is often true.  Unfortunately when there are enough of such lies and misrepresentations, they wear a person down into the ground.  The Psalmist was well aware of this, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us!  For we are exceedingly filled with contempt.  Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorn of those who are at ease, with the contempt of the proud” (Psalms 123:3-4).

Note the plural throughout—“us” and “our.”  It wasn’t just happening to one person; everyone they could treat this way was being treated this way.  God was fully aware of what was happening.  And what happens when He has decided:  Enough is enough?  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31)—then or today.  Raw power may triumph on the earth; but it is crushed under heel by the powers of eternity.


[Page 261]

            4:12:  There is only one ultimate “lawgiver” and He can both reward and punish—“to save and to destroy.”  Patrick J. Hartin notes that the expression “to save and to destroy” is not found in the Old Testament but that the equivalent concept is expressed in different words.  He suggests these (in a different translation) in particular:[36]    


            Deuteronomy 32:39:  Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.”  (Paul A. Cedar goes even further than finding an allusion, asserting that this is a “direct quotation.”)[37]

1 Samuel 2:6:  The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up.”

2 Kings 5:7:  “And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy?  Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me.’ ” 


Note here how “make alive” is extended to including “making a better and happier life possible” through miraculous healing.  From this example we can reasonably conclude that the expression “make alive” was readily understood as including far more than just rescue from physical death.

From there it is but a modest step to Hosea 6:1:  “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up.”  The healing and recuperation we need, He will be sure to provide.

[Page 262]

There are three additional elements that are of special interest to us.  (1)  The first is the expression “lawgiver.”  In the narrowest sense this could refer to Yahweh but since this epistle refers to Jesus as “Lord” it probably has Him in mind (exclusively—or in addition), either as an authority figure in His own right (Matthew 28:18-20) or as spokesman for God (John 16:13-15).  Having an inherent shared supernatural nature and speaking in full unity on all things, they are de facto “one lawgiver.”  The Old Testament speaks of the God of Israel as exercising this law-giving prerogative (repeatedly in Psalms 119, for example) as well as being “judge” over creation (Psalms 9:7-8; Psalms 50:4-6; Psalms 58:11; etc.). 


            (2)  Joining together the two elements of giving law and enforcing it.  James 4:12 links together the concepts of “lawgiver” and “judge” and that is quite natural:  who better to judge the meaning and intent of law and whether it has been defied or observed than the person who wrote it?  (In constitutional law disputes, we call this idea “original intent”.)  As the lawgiver, He is in the unique position of undoubtedly knowing exactly what the law was given to cover and what is a violation of that law.  Isaiah 33:22 also links the two concepts, “For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King; He will save us.” 


[Page 263]                  (3)  The judge’s ability to punish.  The ability to reward and penalize—as a judge does--are described in James 4:12 as the two extremes of being “able to save” and yet, if deemed appropriate and desirable, even “to destroy.  God put the options “out front” in both Testaments.  It was never kept a secret that His threats are not idle and that He will act against those who live a life of defiance.  Yet repeatedly the masses refused to listen. 

When admission of transgression finally comes from the guilty in the Old Testament, it is usually only after they’ve been through the “meat grinder” of Divine wrath and have been shaken to their senses.  (Like by being sent into exile.)  In normal times they take for granted Divine assistance—they are Abraham’s descendants, aren’t they?—or believe that God is somehow oblivious or unconcerned with their actions. 

Could this be because there is part of us as mere mortals that cringes at the thought of Divine fury and pushes it aside, preferring to act and think as if only “good” can come from the God who has actually laid both possibilities before us? 

            Of course, the hostile judgments don’t have to remain negative.  “And in that day you will say:  ‘O Lord, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me’” (Isaiah 12:1).  “The Lord has taken away your judgments, He has cast out your enemy.  The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You shall see disaster no more” (Zephaniah 3:15). 

What makes the difference between wrath and forgiveness is repentance, a change of priorities and behaviors.  Unfortunately, having to endure the consequences of our excess is often the prerequisite for the truth to finally dawn upon us.  Just as it was with them.

[Page 264]

On this final point James, in part, departs from the human parallel for human justice—as outlined in the Old Testament it simply did not cover all the things that God will judge for.  It only covered a relatively limited minority of sins.  Ron McKenzie makes the point in this manner,[38]


Biblical law distinguishes between crime and sin.  Judges do not deal with all sin. They are limited to dealing with crimes

According to the Old Testament, only a few sins are also crimes.  For example, coveting is listed as a sin in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:17), but there is no punishment specified for coveting.  Although coveting is a sin, it is not a crime.  The obvious reason for this is that it would be impossible to prove to a judge that a person is coveting. No one can testify that another person is coveting, because we cannot see into another person's mind. . . .

Theft is specified as a sin in the Ten Commandments, but in this case the Bible also specifies a punishment.  This means that theft is both a sin and a crime (Exodus 22:1-4).  Once a man acts on his coveting and steals from his neighbour, judges have authority to act against him.  His actions are visible, so witnesses can observe and testify against him.  This provides judges with a basis for dealing with theft.

Crimes are a small subset of all of sins.  They can be identified by determining whether biblical law specifies a remedy or penalty.  If a sanction is specified, the sin is the crime.  If there is no sanction, the sin is not a crime.

[Page 265]

When God starts warning of how a judge is both able to save and to punish that covers that frighteningly wide set of behaviors that human law is incapable—by its very nature—of setting in punitive judgment upon.  But Jehovah, is able to do so.  By right because of creation.  By obligation because He promised to do it.  By competency because He can see the intertwining of motives and behaviors that no mortal can.  He can competently judge what no human or angel can even fully grasp.

The human judge who does not punish when guilt is established has betrayed his responsibilities.  That we take for granted and the Old Testament is full of rebukes of biased justice and omitted justice.  But that is of the limited spectrum of acts that fall under human jurisdiction.  Do we really believe that God will abandon His warnings of Divine justice and count everyone “innocent” when He vigorously demanded that even human justice not neglect its responsibilities?  Will God really demand more of human justice than He does of Divine justice?    



4:13-14:  Confidence that tomorrow will continue just like today—that one will be even better off economically in the future than at present.   The illustration James utilized is that of a businessperson planning a trip to some other city, where he will reside for a year or so and turn a profit (verse 13).  He rebukes the mentality since “you do not know what will happen tomorrow” (verse 14).  He even labels this blind confidence as evil “boasting” (verse 16).

            The image of perpetual prosperity is referred to in Isaiah 56:12, not in the context of morally neutral business dealing—as in James--but of clear-cut excess:  “ ‘Come,’ one says, ‘I will bring wine, and we will fill ourselves with intoxicating drink; tomorrow will be as today, and much more abundant.’ ”  “Tomorrow will be even better than today!” (TEV)  

[Page 266]      This is often taken to mean that they will be able to get drunk just as good tomorrow; indeed, even better.  They are going to have a joyous two day drunk.  What more could they possibly ask for?  Unless one of them dies.  Or the king discovers some chicanery of theirs and interrupts their feast. 

Even when one is confident that the excesses will “roll on and on,” there is no absolute certainty of that.  Nor that one will be able to participate in the next anticipated get together.  Not to mention the more recent disaster scenarios that modern technology makes possible—like finding an uncut video of our drunken [orgy?] landing up on the internet where it may not look so great in retrospect.        

            Sometimes prosperity is so long-lasting the confidence that extravagant pleasure seeking will always be available even seems justified.  Psalms 10:5 speaks of those who “are always prospering” and how “he has said in his heart, ‘I shall not be moved; I shall never be in adversity’ ” (verse 6).  They have long going precedent on their side. 

In all candor we must admit that in a way this is a quite natural way of thinking.  Barring grievous external crisis, we all work from the assumption that tomorrow will pretty much duplicate today.   And it does, of course—until it doesn’t.  Yet a grain of caution should always be present since there is a profound difference between “probability” and “certainty.”  And what the Lord will tolerate for the moment and finally have no more patience with.

[Page 267]                  Note that “he has said in his heart,” not necessarily aloud.  (Even friends might laugh at such blind optimism—or be so drunk not to notice he even said it.)  This is his inner frame of mind, the way he’s constructed reality.  Since the present situation has brought him prosperity and the opportunity for excess, surely there isn’t anything that could possibly change it—is there?  Neither the continued joys of the current gathering nor the continued happiness after one returns home to one’s “everyday life.”


            Even the God-fearing can fall into that trap of assuming permanent success.  The Psalmist speaks of how “in my prosperity I said, ‘I shall never be moved” (Psalms 30:6).  But he did (verse 7), causing him to seek God’s assistance (verses 8-10), which he was provided (verses 11-12).

            The two ideas of uncertainty about the future (James 4:14) and boasting about it (4:16) are run together in one text, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1).  Closely related is the warning in Proverbs 19:21, “There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel--that will stand.”  Everything, no matter how carefully thought out, is subject to change whether we want to admit it or not; what God has willed to happen is the only thing irrevocable.   



            4:14:  Life is like a “vapor [ATP:  mist]” that quickly disappears.  “My life is a breath” cries out Job (7:6); “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” (7:6).  Likewise the Psalmist, “Indeed, you have made my days as handbreadths [i.e., short], and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor” (39:5).  Both the important and the unimportant of society are equally nothing more than “vapor” (62:9) that is here for the moment and then gone quickly. 

[Page 268]                  The same idea of brevity is portrayed by a different image in Psalms 102:3.  In that text life is pictured like “smoke” that quickly vanishes.  In Psalms 90:9, the shortness is depicted as being as brief as a mere “sigh.”

Although this is true of the human race in general, it is a fact that unrepentant sinners should especially keep in mind (Hosea 13:1-2):  Therefore they shall be like the morning cloud and like the early dew that passes away, like chaff blown off from a threshing floor and like smoke from a chimney” (13:13). 

As we get older that is the way we look back on things.  The Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember it vividly.  (Being five miles from a prime nuclear target in Florida—I measured it on the map—does concentrate one’s attention even beyond the normal!)  By the time this volume appears it will be more than fifty years.  Fifty years.  Yet the memory seems fresh and only weeks old at the most.


Turning the brevity of life into an excuse for sin.  From God’s viewpoint, the brevity of human life is also true.  We appear—and then vanish, while He’s been here literally forever.  As the Psalmist said, “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night” (90:3).  This does much to explain why God doesn’t always act “now” to remedy injustice aimed at His people.  To Him the time is little more than the blinking of an eye.  Yet act He ultimately does, on His own time schedule and when, where, and how He has determined it will do the most good.  (Some or none of which may agree with our own preferences.)  

[Page 269]                  James’ emphasis on the shortness of life is, in part, to encourage the cultivation of a proper lifestyle since we do not know how long our life will be.  The time for correction is all too short. 

Ironically, the deuterocanonical  Wisdom of Solomon 2:1-11 points out how the fact could be twisted into an excuse to live a life of abuse of others since we do not have but so much life in us!  And then it will be all gone:  “But let our strength be our norm of justice; for weakness proves itself useless.  Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training” (2:11-12, New American Bible). 

            Hence he strikes out at those who are trying to walk the right way, “To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like other men's, and different are his ways.  He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father” (2:14-16, New American Bible).

            This illustrates how even the most profound truth can be twisted into an excuse for the most evil behavior.


            The brevity of life in pagan thought.  Polytheists were also aware of the brevity of life though most no more wished to face up to it than we do.  When Seneca did, he wrote about it this way,[39]


What am I to do?  Death is on my trail, and life is fleeting away; teach me something with which to face these troubles. 

[Page 270]                  Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me.  Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable.  Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me.  Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life's length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. 

Say to me when I lie down to sleep:  "You may not wake again!"  And when I have waked: "You may not go to sleep again!" Say to me when I go forth from my house: "You may not return!"  And when I return:  "You may never go forth again!"

You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death.  No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere.  It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand.  (Letter XLIX). 


            Or to use the Biblical phrase, life is “like a vapor” that quickly dissipates.

            Oddly enough Seneca also tells us of a merchant--the subject of James’ own cautionary remarks, but James leaves the actual economic status of his extremely vague.  (Beyond the fact that he can afford to undertake a year or longer business journey.)  In contrast, that of Seneca already is well established and faces the question of what comes next.  Though the quote is rather long, it is especially useful in showing the awareness the ancients had of how quickly death could sneak upon the unsuspecting,[40]

[Page 271]     

Every day and every hour reveal to us what a nothing we are, and remind us with some fresh evidence that we have forgotten our weakness; then, as we plan for eternity, they compel us to look over our shoulders at Death.  Do you ask me what this preamble means? 

It refers to Cornelius Senecio, a distinguished and capable Roman knight, whom you knew: from humble beginnings he had advanced himself to fortune. . . .  Senecio was already bordering upon wealth, helped in that direction by two very powerful assets--knowing how to make money and how to keep it also; either one of these gifts might have made him a rich man.  Here was a person who lived most simply, careful of health and wealth alike.

He had, as usual, called upon me early in the morning, and had then spent the whole day, even up to nightfall, at the bedside of a friend who was seriously and hopelessly ill.  After a comfortable dinner, he was suddenly seized with an acute attack of quinsy, and, with the breath clogged tightly in his swollen throat, barely lived until daybreak.  So within a very few hours after the time when he had been performing all the duties of a sound and healthy man, he passed away.

He who was venturing investments by land and sea, who had also entered public life and left no type of business untried, during the very realization of financial success and during the very onrush of the money that flowed into his coffers, was snatched from the world!

. . . But how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow!  O what madness it is to plot out far-reaching hopes!  To say:  “I will buy and build, loan and call in money, win titles of honour, and then, old and full of years, I will surrender myself to a life of ease.”  Believe me when I say that everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous. 

[Page 272]                  . . . We plan distant voyages and long-postponed home-comings after roaming over foreign shores, we plan for military service and the slow rewards of hard campaigns, we canvass for governorships and the promotions of one office after another--and all the while death stands at our side; but since we never think of it except as it affects our neighbour, instances of mortality press upon us day by day, to remain in our minds only as long as they stir our wonder. 

Yet what is more foolish than to wonder that something which may happen every day has happened on any one day?  There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit.  Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. . . .  One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. 

He who has thus prepared himself, he whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind; but those who live for hope alone find that the immediate future always slips from their grasp. . . . (Epistle CI).




[Page 273]                  4:15:  Making plans and intentions subject to “if the Lord wills [ATP:  if the Lord thinks it best].”  This is a recognition that God’s purpose is ultimately definitive and event shaping and not our own preferences.  As Proverbs 19:21 cautions, “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel--that will stand.”  “The Lord will do what He has decided” —period (Contemporary English Version).  Anything we plan to do to work around it, to do different from it, or to destroy it from becoming a reality will be frustrated.  What “the Lord wills”—will be. 

            “If the Lord wills” recognizes the contingency that without God’s approval—or at least tolerance—what we want to obtain won’t get accomplished.  Antagonizing Him is the quickest step to assure that our hopes turn to ashes.  Perhaps the closest to this as a general principle can be found in Number 14:8, “If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ ”

Time and again in the prophets we read of the determination of people and rulers to undertake one course or another--and the rebuke that God will bring it all to nought.  Psalms 33:10 sums up that theme in a few words, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect.”  Or as the God’s Word translation renders it, “The Lord blocks the plans of the nations. He frustrates the schemes of the people of the world.”

            On an individual basis, the reminder is, “A man's heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).  Note the contrast between what an individual intends to do with what the Lord will ultimately assure happens.   

            In Psalms 127:1 the warning is given, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”  What we mortals--in our enthusiasm, power, and even arrogance--plan out to do may or may not come to fruition; God reserves the power to abort our best laid endeavors.  Indeed, God will even take the plans of our enemies and use them to accomplish the Divine will (Isaiah 44:28)

[Page 274]                  The grim reality is that our predictions of the future are at best only educated guesses and nothing more.  As the Proverbist said, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”  It might be the brilliant success you’ve worked so hard for.  Or it might be your death.  If the latter, then your dreams have disappeared as quickly as—if you are a smoker—the vapors that disappeared from your cigarette last night.               



            4:16:  Arrogance based bragging is inherently evil.   James piles on the negative language:  boasting of what a great future is inevitably awaiting . . . is a mere “boast” . . . resting on nothing more certain than “your arrogance” . . . and, as if that weren’t enough, “all such boasting is evil.”  Is there anything more he could possibly have said to get the point across?  Confidence is one thing; arrogance is another.  One’s reasonable expectations are one thing; turning it into a guaranteed certainty is delusion.  (Although he’s talking about business success, the principle is obviously applicable to other areas of life as well.)

            Using a feminine image Isaiah, speaks at length of those bragging that their self-centered pleasures are just as inescapably coming in the future as in the past.  To him, it is clearly arrogance of the same brazen, delusional nature as that which James rebukes,

[Page 275]

Isaiah 47:7 And you said, 'I shall be a lady forever,' So that you did not take these things to heart, nor remember the latter end of them.  8  Therefore hear this now, you who are given to pleasures, who dwell securely, who say in your heart, 'I am, and there is no one else besides me; I shall not sit as a widow, nor shall I know the loss of children' [= everything will remain just as perfect as it is right now, RW].  

9 But these two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day: the loss of children, and widowhood.  They shall come upon you in their fullness because of the multitude of your sorceries, for the great abundance of your enchantments.  10 For you have trusted in your wickedness; you have said, 'No one sees me'; your wisdom and your knowledge have warped you [“deluded you,” NASB]; and you have said in your heart, 'I am, and there is no one else besides me' [= I am the only one who matters since no one can do anything about it, RW]  11 Therefore evil shall come upon you; you shall not know from where it arises.  And trouble shall fall upon you; you will not be able to put it off.  And desolation shall come upon you suddenly, which you shall not know.


            Nothing is guaranteed in the future.  Especially not the triumph of the oppressor, as these folk were, over those who follow God’s will.

            Going to the deuterocanonical work of Wisdom we have a text specifically on bragging by the type of people under discussion by James—merchants.  In it, they come to recognize their foolishness, but only too late, when they are confronted by the triumph of the oppressed (bringing in James’ theme of oppression by the rich in his immediately following verses, 5:1-6).  It is a long reading, but well worth the time because its sentiments are clearly very much those of James,

[Page 276]

1  Then shall the just one with great assurance confront his oppressors who set at nought his labors.  2 Seeing this, they shall be shaken with dreadful fear, and amazed at the unlooked-for salvation.  3 They shall say among themselves, rueful and groaning through anguish of spirit:  “This is he whom once we held as a laughingstock and as a type for mockery,  4 fools that we were!  His life we accounted madness, and his death dishonored.  5 See how he is accounted among the sons of God; how his lot is with the saints!

6 We, then, have strayed from the way of truth, and the light of justice did not shine for us, and the sun did not rise for us.  7 We had our fill of the ways of mischief and of ruin; we journeyed through impassable deserts, but the way of the Lord we knew not.

8 What did our pride avail us?  What have wealth and its boastfulness afforded us?  9 All of them passed like a shadow and like a fleeting rumor;  10 like a ship traversing the heaving water, of which, when it has passed, no trace can be found, no path of its keel in the waves.

11 Or like a bird flying through the air; no evidence of its course is to be found--But the fluid air, lashed by the beat of pinions, and cleft by the rushing force of speeding wings, is traversed: and afterward no mark of passage can be found in it.  12 Or as, when an arrow has been shot at a mark, the parted air straightway flows together again so that none discerns the way it went through--  13 Even so we, once born, abruptly came to nought and held no sign of virtue to display, but were consumed in our wickedness.”

[Page 277]                  14 Yes, the hope of the wicked is like thistledown borne on the wind, and like fine, tempest-driven foam; like smoke scattered by the wind, and like the passing memory of the nomad camping for a single day.  15 But the just live forever, and in the Lord is their recompense, and the thought of them is with the Most High.  16 Therefore shall they receive the splendid crown, the beauteous diadem, from the hand of the Lord--For he shall shelter them with his right hand, and protect them with his arm (New American Bible).


            We have no idea of how much (if any) acquaintance James had with the book of Wisdom, but it is clear that—on this point at least—the two authors thought very, very much alike.



            4:17: Knowing “to do good” but declining to do it is counted as “sin.”   The Old Testament is also well aware of the evil of omitting or outright refusing to fulfill the duties God has revealed for His people through the Torah and prophets.  In a very real sense the resulting sin of omission(s) underlies the almost constant rebuke of transgression found throughout the prophets.  Rarely are the listeners/readers spoken to as if what they are hearing is something new or unheard of; rather, the repeated stress is that they are omitting to do the right thing by doing that which they knew full well was evil--however much they might rationalize their way around the fact.  Omission/commission:  two sides of the same coin. 

[Page 278]                  Ezekiel 20 is a good example of the explicit correlation of how, in everyday life, sins of omission went hand-in-hand with to sins of commission.  Verse 8 begins with the words “But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me.”  In verse 16 it is stressed that, “Because they despised My judgments and did not walk in My statutes, but profaned My Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols.” 

This did not mean that they did not have a set of standards to live by, but that they were either incomplete or the wrong standards that led them to omit the right ones.  Because they omitted loyalty to God and His law, they committed the sin of idolatry and Sabbath desecration—surely intended as illustrations rather than a complete list of the transgressions they had stumbled into by not having the right set of priorities.  

Sins of omission were wrong, but sins of substituting something else were wrong as well.  Leviticus 20:23 warned the Israelites against the sin of omission by substitution--“walk[ing] in the statues of the nation which I am casting out” rather than in Yahweh’s statues.  Such sins of omission and substitution of something else were even punishable in the current life through affliction and temporal disaster (Leviticus 26:21-26; 2 Kings 10:31-32; Psalms 89:30-32; Isaiah 42:24-25).  Whatever moral code they produced by melding elements of Jehovahism with polytheism was an insufficient moral code; whatever altered religious practices they endorsed were a substitution for the ones God had ordained.

            The most obvious example of the sin of omission recorded in the Old Testament lay in the area of circumcision, the initiatory action that symbolized one being cut off from the world at large and becoming part of God’s people.  Although many readers of the chronicles of the Old Testament often do not grasp its significance, Joshua 5:2-9 [Page 279]   bluntly admits that no one was circumcised during the entire decades of wilderness wandering.  In spite of the fact that it was the basic initiatory rite into the Jewish people, it had been abandoned for several decades. 

            It is intriguing that James goes immediately from the sin of omission (4:17) to the abuses of the poor by the rich (5:1-5).[41]  Yet he also begins his admonition against transgression by omission with the word “therefore,” linking it to the preceding admonition to those with wealth enough to contemplate business trips far and near (4:13-16).  Hence, the specific omissions he has in mind are those of the well-to-do.  Not that those of other classes are somehow “right,” but that these omissions are far more likely to have a greater effect on the hearts and even survival of those less prosperous.   






Historical Allusions to the Old Testament:





[Page 280]



[1] Laws, 177.


[2] Leahy, 375.  For some specific possibilities where a different Greek reading of the Hebrew might yield something approaching what is found in verse 5, see Davids, James:  A Commentary, 162.


[3] See Adamson, Epistle of James, 171, who does not embrace the approach.  


[4] Yoder, 1180. 


[5] Morris, 87. 


[6] Nystrom, 227.


[7] Burdick, 194.


[8] Williams, 127.


[9] Suggested as a second choice possibility by John Stevenson, “Quarrels and Conflicts:  Sources & Solutions – James 4:1-12.”  At: theology/js4-01.html.  [July 2012.]


[10] T. Carson, 579.


[11] Woods, 214.


[12]  Woods, 214.


[13] D. A. Carson, “James,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Beale, G. K., and D. A. Carson, editors (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Academic, 2007), 1007.


[14] Steven J. Cole.  “Spiritual Adultery.”    


[15] McCartney, 216, endorses a form of this scenario.    


[Page 281]   [16] McKnight, James, 343.


[17] The first of two possibilities by Stevenson, “Quarrels and Conflicts.”


[18] Mitton, 153.


[19] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, Ohio:  Wartburg Press, 1946), 631. 


[20] Leahy, 375.


[21] 1 QS 4:9ff (Qumran Rule of the Community) has been suggested as the source of the allusion.  See Adamson, Epistle of James, 171, who does not embrace the theory.  


[22] Cf. Davids, James:  A Commentary,  62. 


[23] Batten, Friendship, goes so far as to call it “an obvious reference.”


[24] Bratcher, 45, says the translation matches the LXX.  McCartney, 21, however, insists  that James “differ[s]” from the text as rendered by the Septuagint.  


[25] William D. Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Proverbs, in the United Bible Societies Handbook series (New York:  United Bible Societies, 2000), 94.


[26] Barry Bowen, Proverbs:  An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs (Houston, Texas:  Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Company, 2012), 55.


[27] Daniel J. Treierer, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes, in the “Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible”series (Grand Rapids, Illinois:  Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011), 28.


[28] Plumptre, 89.  Cf. Songer, 127.


[29] Songer, 127.


[30] Nick Nowalk, “Idolatry and Sexual Immorality (1):  Cause and Effect.”  Posted January 6, 2012.  Part of the Strange Triumph of the Lamb website.  At:  [May 2014.] 


[31] Clarence Bouwman, “Friendship with the World Is Enmity with God.”  Sermon dated October 13, 2002.  At: ship_with_the_world_is_enmity_with_God.shtml.  [June 2014.] 


[Page 282]   [32] Bratcher, 46. 


[33] Burdick, 196.


[34] Ibid.  Cf. Songer, 129.


[35] Burdick, 196.


[36] Hartin, James, 218.  He also refers to Psalms 68:20 as an example (“Our God is the God of salvation; and to God the Lord belong escapes from death”) but this only mentions one of the two elements in James.


[37] Paul A. Cedar, James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, in the Communicator’s Commentary series (Waco, Texas:  Word Books, Publisher, 1984), 87.  This seems an overstatement of the case.


[38]Ron McKenzie, “Sin and Crime.”   At: ment/crime_and_punishment.htm.  [June 2014.]  This article is well worth at least scanning through. 


[39] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, Moral Epistles, translated by Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge, Massachussetts:  Harvard University Press, 1917), part of the Loeb Classical Library series.  Reprinted on the internet as Seneca’s Epistles, Volume 1.  Part of the Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance web site.  At: seneca _epistles_book_1.html.  [January 2013.]


[40] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, Moral Epistles, translated by Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge, Massachussetts:  Harvard University Press, 1917), part of the Loeb Classical Library series.  Reprinted on the internet as Seneca’s Epistles, Volume 3.  Part of the Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance web site.  At: seneca_epistles_book_3.html.  [January 2013.] 


[41] McDonnell, 34.