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

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2014




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Chapter 4C:

Problem Texts



The nature of the “murder” that was committed.



[Page 284]                  The reference to “murder” (or “killing” in some translations) seems so startling in a Christian context, that scribal error has been suggested.  As far back as the 1519 Greek text compiled by Erasmus[1] some have advocated substituting the word envy (phthoneite) for murder (phoneuete).  The two words are sufficiently close that one can imagine how handwritten manuscripts could make the mistake.  More difficult to imagine is how such a surprising substitution as “murder” for “envy” would become universal since there is no manuscript evidence in which the proposed alternate reading is actually found.[2] 

            In the sixteenth century, Luther accepted the substitution as the basis of his German rendition of the verse.  The twentieth century translations of Moffat and, later, that of Phillips also adopt the conjecture.[3]

            If the lack of positive evidence is insufficient to cause one to lay aside such reconstructions, it should also be remembered that “this is not the only time James warns his readers about the sin of murder; he mentions it (with the same verb) in 2:11 and 5:6.”[4]  Is its presence there any less startling than in the current context?  Indeed, its presence in any context concerning the behavior of first century Christians is unexpected. 

Furthermore, as George M. Stulac suggests, “The frequent parallels we have found with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount make it not at all improbable for James to be thinking with Jesus’ categories, as in Matthew 5:21-22 where sins of hatred and insult are treated in the same category as murder.  It is very likely, then, that ‘murder’ did not strike James as incongruous at all.”[5]

            To these passages might be added 1 John 3:15, which also equates murder with extreme hate—either because they are on a moral plane with each other or as a logical outcome of uncontrolled hate.[6]  When one has three different people use the same imagery in a parallel fashion (James, Jesus, and John), is there any reason to interject a scenario of textual alteration?

[Page 285]                  Finally, the linking of “covet” and “murder” together in James 4:2 would also suggest a contrast between inward attitude and outward behavior.  Hence it can’t be just a misrendering of “envy.”  “Envy” is internal just as much as “coveting.”  As an external manifestation of coveting, “murder” fits quite well, but “envy” falls short because that is also within us.             


            A figurative sense is clearly intended since the “fight and war” of the same verse makes no sense “literally”--barring a civil war or international war situation, of which there is no indication.  Not to mention the improbability that members of the same receiving congregation(s) would find themselves on opposing sides in such a situation. 

Likewise the ethical connotation is reinforced by the fact that the term “murder” is joined to their overwhelming desire to possess what others have, “You murder and covet.”  The idea then is that they stop short of nothing they can get away with in order to gain that which the other person possesses.  They “covet” it so much that they will “destroy” anyone who gets in the way. 

            Hence murder here is at least a “hyperbole for hatred.”[7]  But hatred that leads to the most extreme of actions, limited only by convenience and opportunity.  “Murder” is surely a highly appropriate idiom to describe the outer limits of what can occur.


[Page 286]                  We use a similar image to “murder” in modern English:  “stabbing in the back”--which when done literally means to kill or murder.[8]  But we use the imagery far more commonly with the idea of destroying, removing, exterminating.  Sometimes it is their reputation.  Sometimes it is their influence.  Sometimes it is their hopes and dreams or what they wish to accomplish.  For excuses minor or large, we simply can’t permit it:  we show our “superiority” by diminishing and belittling them, even by sabotaging their efforts—by “killing” them. 

Belittling language, distortions, misrepresentations, turning others against them.  “Subtle manipulation” of third parties to drag them into the turmoil and to use as additional tools to obtain our goal.[9]  Such are some of the “daggers” of murder that are too often found in the corporate work place and, far more horribly, within churches. 

            You “go to church” to be with ones who share your convictions and goals.  When you feel like you go in spite of the people who are there, you are carrying a burden that you should not have to carry.

            Nor does doctrinal controversy justify using “any tool available.”  Defending the “truth” is just cause for careful argumentation against what is wrong.  It is never carte blanche for saying anything and everything and laying aside the obligation to be truthful and fair.  Because a person may have a major conceptual flaw in their beliefs provides no justification for denying those strengths and virtues they continue to possess.  (It’s called intellectual honesty.)  

            Anyone who has been through an intrachurch bloodbath—especially if as the intended sacrificial victim—should have no great problem accepting the validity of James’ language.  They may not be ready to bury you “six feet under the ground,” but they have done their best to leave you “dead”—stripped of position and respect. So why should it be surprising if the behavior is labeled what it is at its heart—murder?

[Page 287]                  Hence the language makes a great deal of sense—hyperbolic though it is, because it is so very relevant to their extreme behavior.  Indeed “hyperbolic” is arguably itself an exaggeration.  Is the effective murder of another person’s reputation and spirituality any less a real murder?



Other approaches:


The hostility is coming from non-Christians rather than believers.   The unbelievers “are thought of as driving Christians to martyrdom and death through their aggressive or provocative behavior.”[10]  Though this fits nicely with the theory that James intends to have both a Christian and a nonchristian readership, it falters because James refers to how they “murder and covet.”  What is it that Christians would have that would be so “coveted” that nonbelievers would stoop at nothing to obtain it?   


Participation in literal wars is under discussion.  Perhaps a better way to express this (unless we are to date the epistle as describing the Great Jewish Revolt which began in 66 A.D.), would be to acts of insurrection not quite rising to the level of open war, but destabilizing varying parts of geographic Palestine due to the excesses Rome either perpetuated or turned a blind eye toward.

            You always have some people who prefer this route, if they think they can get away with it.  But you have a broader group who will encourage, cheer, hide, and support such individuals.  Especially when circumstances are so unstable that the bands of troublemakers actually offer an element of local stability compared to the chaos caused by officialdom virtually capitulating on its duty to preserve law, order, and justice.

[Page 288]                  In this theoretical setting for the epistle, Christians are either being the victims of the unrest or are actively participating in it.

            It is wise not to lose sight of what the initial verses of this chapter actually say, however,


1 Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  2 You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war.  Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.


            The Christians are not merely the victims, they are also the instigators:  “You lust . . . You murder . . . You fight and war.”  Not a hint of outsiders being envolved.

            Note also what their root motivation is:  They wish to gain things so “that you may spend it on your pleasures.”  Survival is not an issue here.  Oppression is not an issue—personal happiness (however defined) is the goal.  Hence this is no radical, oppressed individual(s) rising up in fury at injustice. 

            Finally these are “wars and fights” that come about “from among you”—not with or originating among outsiders.  These involve things “that war in your members” (= “within you,” ESV, Holman, NIV, NLT, Weymouth; “in your bodies,” ISV).  Hence these have no need to be interpreted literally—nor the “murder” in verse 2 or the adultery in verse 4.[11]  These might be literal future dangers if one allowed the emotions to continue out of control, but their present plague was from the metaphorical equivalent of such things.             

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            False teaching and oppression of the poor are under consideration.  This rather startling scenario is embraced by S. H. Ong as he attempts to bind chapter 2’s rebuke of the doctrinal error of separating faith from works with our current text, “Murder is mentioned in 4:2 as another result of envy.  This law also applies to the errant teachers who ‘poison’ the church body, thus committing metaphorical murder.”[12]

            Yet our passage says, “You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war.  Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:2-3).  How does one possibly get from seeking what one should not have to being a false teacher?  How does one get from unanswered prayers and its goal of obtaining self-serving pleasures, to being a heretic?  

            Presumably Ong means that this would be one valid application of the same language—taken metaphorically.  As sermonic illustration and application of the word “murder,” certainly.  But as genuine intended purpose behind James 4:2?  Of course not!  You have a text that clearly does not have “murder” in the sense of poisoning doctrinal purity in mind at all. 

            Even in the context of chapter 2, the critique is seemingly not aimed at teachers per se, but those many individual believers who fall into the trap of reasoning this way.  No one has to “teach” this line of reasoning to them.  It is an instinctive self-defense or their attitude and failure to act.            

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            Ong immediately and without interruption then throws this additional interpretation of the intended meaning at us, “Taking the view that murder is a metaphor for the oppression of the poor, the author is saying that even if favoritism is not a sin that one practices, oppression of the poor in other ways is still a sin.”[13]  A useful sermonic tie-in, I would admit. 

But it’s still not what James is driving at in 4:1-2.  For that matter, murder is not mentioned in chapter 2, just neglect.  (Yes, that could lead to death, but James does not choose to make that application.  Why should we impose it on the text?)  And when murder is mentioned in chapter 2, it is literal murder not symbolic (2:22, quoting from the Ten Commandments in regard to both murder and adultery).     






Is “selfish prayer” being condemned as well?


It is quite easy to put the interpretive gloss on James that he is prohibiting “selfish” prayer.  At the extreme, it is easy to understand the logic:  If our prayer is always about me—me—me and everything else gets dropped out, how in the world can we expect such prayers to be granted from a God who sent His only Son into this world to obtain our forgiveness rather than anything for Himself? 

[Page 291]                  Indeed the “me only” style of prayer neglects or omits the many other things both testaments tell us is proper to pray for.  Why should God pay attention to our prayer when so much is omitted from it?   

This truth needs to be “flipped over” however:  Just as the Bible instructs us to pray about other matters, it just as strictly enjoins us to pray about our own needs and wants.  Troy Hillman wisely cautions us that “selfish” (if it can be called that) is not always the same as evil or to obtain something evil,[14]


There are no specific verses in Scripture that teach that selfish prayers are not answered.  Actually, Christians are highly encouraged to pray for what they want--forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from Satan, etc. descendants.  These prayers are for things that people want for themselves, so you may say that they are selfish, and you may not.  Think of this.  A child may be selfish in asking for food and drink, but it is not wrong.

However, if your desires are not pleasing to God, that's when the prayer might not be answered [citing James 4:3] . . . So to answer your question, “Are Selfish Prayers Answered,” the answer is:  It depends on the motives.

            This analysis certainly fits well with what James actually says.     The prayers specifically under consideration are ones that are motivated out of the desire to hurt or injure others and to further and advance our own sinful preferences regardless of their impact on others.  “You ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:3) argues not so much that it was the “self-centeredness” of the prayer that was wrong or even that it was for enjoyable “pleasures.”  Rather it was because they “ask[ed] amiss,” i.e. for wrong or evil “pleasures” instead of honorable and just ones.

[Page 292]                  This is confirmed by the context that refers to how their wishes and behavior to accomplish their goals envolved “murder and covet(ing).”  These are evils in and of themselves and the tools to accomplish yet other evils.  Having established their lack of scruples requires us to put the most hostile reading on the “fight and war” that is mentioned next in the same verse (4:2):  There seems nothing—that they can get away with—that will stop them doing the most outrageous and harmful acts. 

Then there is the labeling of them as “adulterers and adulteresses,” which, again, makes no interpretive sense unless outright evil was envolved.  Not merely innocent pleasures and honorable personal preferences.


            Of the positive kind of “self-centered” prayer, Philippians 4:6 would surely be germane, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”  Weymouth:  “Do not be over-anxious about anything, but by prayer and earnest pleading, together with thanksgiving, let your request be unreservedly made known in the presence of God.”

            This kind of prayer is a recognition that none of us has super powers and can do everything for ourselves.  It expresses the kind of realistic humility God expects and demands from all believers.  Some things are beyond our certainty of accomplishing and far many more things beyond our capacity to accomplish:  none of us can be certain of what tomorrow will bring, what our health will be, or what events will occur that might have a major impact upon us.  To pour out our “self-centered”—but honorable—goals and desires is, simultaneously, both a plea that they might occur and an honest admission of just how much we rely upon God’s help.


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“Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain,

‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?”

—The point of the text.



The text can be read in three different ways.  If it is God feeling jealous for the Spirit/spirit, then the emphasis is on God’s protectiveness of that which has been placed within us.   If it be the Holy Spirit being jealous, then the intense interest would grow out of the shared deityship of the Father and Spirit.  If it be the human spirit, the fervent concern would be the result of it being part of God’s creation, placed within us to function as our inner watchdog and conscience.


First, it could refer to the inner “spirit” (nature/soul) being inherently “jealous” or, at least, inclined to “jealousy.”  This would be because our inner essence yearns for full and total commitment and rejects a divided one.   The rendering of the New American Bible goes in this direction, “The spirit that he has made to dwell in us tends toward jealousy.” 

[Page 294]      `           Hence we yield our inner spirit either to the “world” (4:4) or God (4:6)--but either way, our inner nature makes a fundamental commitment to one and a rejection of the other.  It simply can’t provide full dedication to both at the same time.  Implicit here is the idea of Jesus that ultimate loyalty cannot be divided, “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” (Matthew 6:24). 

In a positive sense, the spirit is jealous for God when facing the temptations of the world.  That’s where its “heart” is at.  In a negative sense, it would be that the spirit is jealous for the things of the world and wishes it could participate in them.  Which leads to finding a way (excuse) to do so.  In the first case, it is a sign of strength and in the second a sign of weakness.  In either case it reflects the yearning of our spirit to get its priorities aligned in one direction.

The Old Testament teaching on the inner person “jealously” desiring either service to God or evil.[15]  The Old Testament refers to how outward conduct grows out of the thinking and decisions of the inner person.  Psalms 77:6 refers to how “I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search.”  The spirit is also the source of our will to live (Proverbs 18:14).  Isaiah roots the desire to serve God to “my spirit within me” (26:9). 

[Page 295]                  Without using either “heart” or “spirit” other texts refer to that inward drive that strives for understanding and obedience.  “I long for Your salvation, O Lord, and Your law is my delight” (Psalms 119:174)  That inner compulsion is like an animal panting for water to drink, “I opened my mouth and panted, for I longed for Your commandments” (Psalms 119:131).

            A good number of commentators on the meaning of our text contend that the second century Shepherd of Hermas constitutes the earliest commentary on James 4:5.[16]  It speaks of the importance of the state in which we return this spirit to God who gave it,[17]


Again he said to me, “Love the truth, and let nothing but truth proceed from your mouth, that the spirit which God has placed in your flesh may be found truthful before all men; and the Lord, who dwelleth in you, will be glorified, because the Lord is truthful in every word, and in Him is no falsehood.  They therefore who lie deny the Lord, and rob Him, not giving back to Him the deposit which they have received.  For they received from Him a spirit free from falsehood.  If they give him back this spirit untruthful, they pollute the commandment of the Lord, and become robbers.”



            Second, the text could refer to God’s Holy Spirit within us being inherently “jealous” of all competitors.[18]  Those translations that capitalize references to deity carry this concept when they capitalize the “s” in “spirit.”   

[Page 296]                  The New Testament repeatedly refers to an indwelling of the Spirit in the heart of the Christian (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:8).  The Father is repeatedly spoken of in terms of being “jealous” of all rivals (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:13-14; Deuteronomy 32:16).  If one considers the Holy Spirit to be deity as well, such language would be natural to apply to Him as well.              Furthermore, the idea of Divine “jealousy” over one’s moral bad choices is explicitly stated (Deuteronomy 29:18-20).  It would be but a logical step for one believing in the deityship of the Spirit to attribute similar indignation to the Spirit as well.  Indeed, how could there not be on His part?    

            Hence what fits the context best:  If it is the Holy Spirit doing the desiring, it would likely be a desire for our complete and full loyalty.  James had just warned that the “world” wishes to subvert our loyalty (4:4) and the Spirit has no room for a split loyalty between that world and Yahweh.  The Spirit wants us to be wholly and exclusively the Father’s.  To gain that commitment and break the ties of the world, God will give “grace” (4:6); to refuse to do so brands us as “proud” and assures that God will “resist” us (4:6).
            Direct Old Testament teaching on the Holy Spirit in particular being “jealously” desiring full loyalty from God’s people.  Genesis 6:3 in those versions that follow the KJV precedent, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever. . . .”   “Strive:”  “contend,” NIV; “struggle with,” GW.  That would seemingly carry with it the idea that the Holy Spirit has a special interest in human individuals and securing conformity to God’s will. 

            In a similar vein in Isaiah 63:10 (cf. verse 12) we read of how the people of Israel “rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit” which would fit well this interpretive possibility.  Yet Isaiah 63:10 continues how God, in reaction, “turned Himself against them as an enemy, and He fought against them,” and that wording would fit better with the interpretation that follows.


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Third:  The passage refers to the Father being jealous for either the Divine Spirit or the human spirit He has placed within us.   The reading of the NRSV embraces this approach, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that He has made to dwell in us.”  The idea would be that God has a protective interest in His Spirit--either Holy Spirit or individual spirit, depending upon which construction one places on the author’s intent.  (The NRSV, like a goodly percentage of other modern translations, avoids capitalization of deityship references, leaving it to the reader / interpreter whether to mentally do so.)  

The Spirit / spirit has been placed within us for a purpose; to frustrate that purpose would naturally anger the Lord and He would be “jealous” that we have allowed anything to hinder its proper function.

The Old Testament teaching on God being interested in the Spirit / spirit within us.  This could be taken in terms of either the Holy Spirit or of our personal spirit.  As to the first possibility:  Since God, according to 2 Samuel 23:1-2, spoke to Israel through “the Spirit of the Lord” inside David, it would be natural for Him to retain an interest in that Divine spirit.  In a similar vein, Nehemiah 9:30 speaks of how God’s Spirit spoke through the prophets of that age.     

Of the human spirit, Ecclesiastes 3:21 notes that no human being is capable of fully knowing it.  In other words only God alone had the ability.   It would seem to be a natural step from that to God having a special interest in that human spirit.  Since God is repeatedly pictured as having an interest in outward behavior, it seems inescapable that He would also have an intense concern about the inward human spirit that controls that behavior .


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            James attributes this teaching to “Scripture” (4:4).  The problem always has been where is that Scripture?  There is no such explicit text, but a number have been suggested as conveying a good part of the idea.  Approached this way, James is presenting a deduction from “scripture” rather than an explicit quotation.  (See the Old Testament precedents chapter for a detailed discussion of the options.) 

The same core idea is presented if we argue that James is summing up in his own words the central thrust of Old Testament teaching rather than directly quoting or paraphrasing it.  The lack of any clearly intended text makes this approach a very appealing one. 

For more on this passage see the Old Testament Precedents chapter. 






Is there any real significance intended

in the specific gender reference of the verse?



[Page 299]                  Following differing Greek underlying texts, most renderings speak of people throwing moral restraint aside in pursuit of their temporal goals as “adulteresses” while others like the minority Greek tradition of “adulterers and adulteresses” (4:4).  If the latter is valid, then this would be driving home to any overly gendered centered individuals that such foolishness knows absolutely no sexual boundaries—it isn’t any more acceptable if the male does it than if the female.  Just as being either shows that one has been unfaithful to the marital covenant, undue friendship with the world shows that one has been unfaithful to their religious covenant with God as well.[19]  

The use of the feminine form alone (“adulteresses”) strikes one as odd since it seems impossible to read the text without concluding that the males are the primary target or, at worst, are assuredly included in the condemnation.  Although some have gone so far as to argue that here James does, indeed, shift to the female members of the congregation and is censuring them in particular, the male fondness for such behavior makes this seem more than a little implausible!

In the unlikely case that this was his intent, however, the thrust of the term would be:  “You act just like those unfaithful women you are so ready to condemn!”  Which would make the males, implicitly, adulterers regardless of whether the term is directly used of them.

Furthermore Philip W. Comfort stresses the firm Old Testament precedent of describing male violators of God’s covenant with such language.  He cites in particular Isaiah 50:1, Jeremiah 13:27, and Ezekiel 16:38.[20]  Indeed, any text in which the people at large are clearly targeted, virtually has to be considered as inherently including both for how could the same sin be called adulterous of one and not of the other?  Did the evil suddenly become acceptable to God because the gender was changed?     

[Page 300]

The use of sexual terminology in James makes one suspect their desire for sexual affairs was high on the list of the “pleasures” they were seeking and which has produced James’ condemnation.  Yet the author has far more than just this in mind for the adultery seems clearly adultery with the world, as shown by the immediately following words, “Do you not 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” (4:4). 

Hence their internal desires for “pleasure” in its varied forms—specifically here, it seems, in forms that the world could grant and favor—and true faith would not--is what concerns him.  In our technological world, we speak in terms of “an actor willing to sell his (or her!) soul for a choice leading role.”  Actually they aren’t selling their soul in the mundane fictional form—why should the Devil negotiate for your soul when you are already giving it to him for free?—but in the equally dangerous sense of being willing to give up every scruple, bend every fact, destroy every relationship to assure that role goes to no one else.  You get what the world can give at the cost of the soul that God gave you. 

In their own way, these ancients were doing the same thing.



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Are those merchants addressed in this section

non-Christians or believers?



In our discussion of chapter two, we saw that there is a significant contingent of interpreters who believe that the rich man who comes into the assembly is a non-believer and that the setting is even a kind of church judicial hearing.  Here we again face the insistence that those being discussed are not Christians as well. 

            Patrick J. Hartin makes this case for a theoretical outsider audience being addressed even though they aren’t actually present at all,[21]


It is hard to imagine the Christian community of that early stage being made up of business people.  This address would correspond more to the way the prophets singled out nations around Israel for condemnation.  The prophet did not expect the nation addressed to hear the oracle.  The rhetorical purpose was for Israelites to hear the message and change their actions accordingly.  In a similar way James addresses merchants with the intention that his own community would hear the message and respond. 


            Yet the condemnation of other nations was for sins that either tempted or were already duplicated among Israelites.  Hence the words might be addressed externally, but their targets were internal. 

[Page 302]                  Now if you have a particular sin of outsiders targeted in order to get the message across to insiders to avoid it, aren’t you doing so because you either have insiders in exactly that situation already or anticipate that such will be the case not far down the road?  To use Hartin’s own words:  “The rhetorical purpose was for Israelites to hear the message and change their actions accordingly.”  How could this be so unless merchants were already among them or regarded as certain to become so in a matter of time as the church grew?

            Now one could argue that James’ illustration refers to big time merchants, but the warning would still be relevant to smaller and presently existing Christian merchants as well, who only differed in regard to their scale of operations.  Furthermore, they are pictured as going “to such and such a city.”  Note the singular “city;” they are not explicitly depicted as wide-ranging merchants who will visit various communities over a large geographic territory—though the principles of the message would obviously apply to them as well.  (In all fairness, the wording would also fit them having one city as their primary destination, permitting varied stops going there and returning.)

            The most that can be convincingly challenged is whether they had such traveling merchants in the upper range of the category rather than in the more modest and lower range.  Yet James has carefully crafted his language to cover far more than just the narrowest category; he has laid down language of general and wide application in “real life” circumstances—laying down a principle applicable to all of them.

            And we are to believe they had none in that category?

            In an epistle consciously written to Jewish Christians throughout the world? 

            Is that credible?  How could there avoid being such in a letter written to such a wide area?

[Page 303]                  Furthermore, consider chapter 2 and the alleged non-Christian there:  “If there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes” (2:2).  Whether you wish to consider this a worship service or a church trial setting, it was still “in your assembly.” 

If that rich person is “in your assembly” why would we expect the prosperous—but not necessarily extremely rich--merchant being addressed in chapter 4 as being anywhere else?  Christian or not, would not the parallel argue that the words are written to be read to / taught to the merchants who are members of or visiting in the assembly?  In other words, the construct of a totally alien, outside, “theoretical” audience need not exist at all for the text to make full sense.         






The propriety of business planning.



“If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that;” ATP:  “if the Lord thinks it best, we will survive and carry out this or that plan.”   These should be the words on our lips, insists James, instead of bravado about our future endeavors.  The importance is not that the words are there (they easily become mere ritual); instead, “the important thing is not a formula but the dependent attitude of mind.”[22]  We can properly make any and all plans we wish, but it is vital that we recognize them as tentative, rather than things guaranteed or prepared in unbreakable concrete.

[Page 304]                  We find this mind frame exhibited in Paul.  He consciously planned (and told others) ahead of time of his intention to attend one of the important annual “feasts” held in Jerusalem (Acts 18:21) and afterwards travel to Rome (Acts 19:21).  Likewise he planned an eventual trip to Spain (Romans 15:28). 

Yet he recognized the limits of human power to assure that one’s preferences become reality when he told the Ephesians of his intention to travel to Jerusalem.  He emphasized  that he intended to “return again to you, God willing” (Acts 18:21).  Likewise, he wrote the Corinthians that he hoped to come there “shortly, if the Lord will” (1 Corinthians 4:19) or “if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7).  The writer of Hebrews speaks of how he will also do certain things “if God permits’ (Hebrews 6:3).  

            Paul also utilizes a different type of language that carries the same import.  The apostle prayed that “in the will of God” there would come a way for him to carry out his desired trip to Rome (Romans 1:10).  The apostle referred to how he “trust[ed] in the Lord” to enable him to send Timothy to them in the near future (Philippians 2:19) and to come there himself as well (2:24).  The Proverbist had worded the need for such caution in this manner, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (27:1).

            James has in mind business travelers,[23] who intend to make a profit by their journey (5:13).  (The principle would have applied to local merchants as well, but would have been worded considerably differently since they were not normally involved, as these, in journeys to other cities and nations.) 

[Page 305]                  Such travel was not uncommon in the first century.  We read of Lydia, who was from Thyatira in Roman Asia, doing business in Philippi at the time of her conversion (Acts 16:14).  Likewise we read of Aquila and Priscilla working their trade of tent making in more than one city (in Rome:  Romans 16:3; in Corinth:   Acts 18:1-2).

Indeed, travel for the purpose of enjoyment and pleasure was uncommon; few could afford it and there were significant potential dangers as one moved into unfamiliar regions and cultures.  Most who traveled did so as part of their effort to earn a living and advance their economic interests.[24]  Hence the bulk of James’ readers were unlikely to undertake such extensive travel.  On the other hand, it still provided a telling example of a mind frame desirable in those who never wandered many miles from the place of their birth.






The practice of trade and regional / international

commerce in the first century.



[Page 306]                  James’ silence as to ethical misbehavior argues that he is working from the assumption that the people he is discussing will avoid the excesses that were so easy and common in that day.  There was, as in the modern world, a vast difference between a modest profit, a good profit, and an exorbitant one.  There was always the temptation to go for the most whether justified by circumstances and costs or not.  Not to mention other forms of dishonesty, such as shoddy products or misrepresentation of their origin.

            Ecclesiasticus (= Sirach) 26:20-27:3 stresses that unethical behavior is a constant danger to such individuals, “A merchant can hardly remain upright, nor a shopkeeper free from sin.  1 For the sake of profit many sin, and the struggle for wealth blinds the eyes.  2 Like a peg driven between fitted stones, between buying and selling sin is wedged in.  3  Unless you earnestly hold fast to the fear of the Lord, suddenly your house will be thrown down.” 

Verse 3 may be intended to stand with these preceding verses—it certainly makes an appropriate conclusion—or it may be intended as a “stand alone” remark, the context allowing for this as well.  (New American Bible)  Their advice “about business” is as unreliable as a coward talking about making war or a lazy man talking about work (37:11).

            The Mishnah speaks of efforts to avoid merchant excess by establishing official prices for goods.  None ever worked well in practice, however.[25]

            Local, regional, and international trade involved a myriad of different players  from the prestigious wealthy elite—or ones far more modest in wealth--to the lowly peon who actually got the work done on theirs behalf.  As James B. Adamson sums it up,[26]

[Page 307]

It is clear that the Jews played a key role in the commerce of the Roman Near East; many of them were wholesale traders, keepers of large shops, shipowners, bankers, or contractors.  Naval allusions in James are certainly not non-Jewish and Klausner reminds us that the Jewish sailor was as common a sight as the Jewish donkey driver in New Testament Palestine.


            Throughout the Roman Empire, every significant community had one or more formal markets.  Some were ad hoc locations, but areas specially built for such business were common.  Indeed, one would suspect that it would be a natural instinct of both businessmen and civil leaders to have a specially designated part of their community set aside for such purposes:  it vindicated the permanence and successfulness of their community and minimized the danger that they would be overlooked for those products that might be needed in only limited supply but on an on-going or occasional basis.  If nothing else, suppliers would be encouraged to pass through periodically to sell new supplies to local middlemen.

            As to Palestine, the rabbinic literature indicates that it was routine for major cities to have more than one specially constructed market area.[27]  A rather late misdrash refers to how at that point,[28]


There were ten markets in Jerusalem, and they did not mix with each other.  There was a kings’ market, a prophets’ market, a priests’ market, a Levite market, an Israelite market.  Each was distinguishable by the garments worn in the markets.  What those wore, those others did not wear. 


[Page 308]                  Even through referring to “ten markets,” the source only lists five.[29]  The reference to various types of attire being worn by the merchants suggests each group was striving for a snobbery aimed at whatever particular cross section of population they were targeting:  In effect, “Yes, I’m one of those merchants you can rely on.  Not like those other folk.”  It could also have been encouraged by the fact that in the Roman world, particular markets tended to be associated with special types of products,[30] making the wearer of such attire an obvious person to stop on the street for current pricing and availability information.

            (Rabbinic sources claim 365 market areas for Rome.)[31]

            In addition, periodic markets were held throughout the Empire at the time when specific goods were expected to become available.  A step above these come the fairs, normally once a year but sometimes more often or every set number of years.[32]  These fell into three broad categories

            Local fairs were held within or easily accessible to a city, lasting two to three days.  People might come from up to 50 kilometers away but the bulk of sales would be to whoever intended to actually use the purchase.  In contrast regional fairs lasted two to three weeks and normally were located at sites where two or more major crossroads for goods intersected each other.  These could count on a clientele of perhaps three hundred kilometers in range and sales to middlemen merchants were common.[33]

            When you reached the level of inter-regional ones, we are talking about ones that would tap into sources coming from even longer distances and which could last as much as two months.  This would be the prime source of supply for those planning on making their money from the regional and local fairs and local markets.[34] 

[Page 309]                  We can easily imagine a merchant planning to attend such a regional or international location and how it could easily involve a year or better for arriving, trading, and then trading and reselling at lesser sites as well before returning home (James 4:13)--selling off his well stocked lauder and purchasing or trading for additional substitute products, the residue of which he would bring back home to sell as well.    

            It helped secure an increased supply of goods for such fairs—as well as giving merchants yet more reason to come—in that local taxes were often spared on the goods envolved.  Indeed, customs duties were commonly reduced or even eliminated to increase the number of participants and the goods to be available.[35] 

            There was also a brand of largish wholesalers who made their living by following a more or less prescheduled trading routine, selling goods to more localized wholesale resellers who had enough money to buy a large supply that would then be sold to small local retailers as the market needed it.  These individuals would routinely serve a more or less smallish local market. 

This permitted the point-of-final-purchase retailer to minimize his own short-term costs by buying the required goods whenever needing it (or as close to that as feasible) and without the existence of the intersecting wholesaling supply chain that made this possible, his own ability to function might easily be destroyed.  Wholesalers on any level of this “supply chain” might well time their travel route to end up at a major local or regional fair where they would endeavor to dispose of the rest of their product.[36]

These traveling merchants would naturally carry whatever they felt comfortable with handling and which would turn a profit,[37]

[Page 310]

Alongside the activity of the local town merchants, the rabbinic texts include numerous descriptions of traveling merchants.  The reference is to merchants who travel from place to place, transporting their goods with them, buying in one location and selling in another.

The merchants are portrayed in the sources as suppliers of a variety of products, from vegetables, grain, and wine, to fruit, clothing and vessels, spices, and frankincense, as well as scrolls of the Torah, mezuzahs, and ritual prayer shawls.  The wide variety of products bought and sold by them points to a profession whose chief characteristic entailed traveling from one destination to another with merchandise.


Large scale traders hit the urban and international markets.  Smaller scale ones cultivated the rural regions within what they regarded as a reasonable distance of their home.  Even so it envolved visiting a wide variety of villages since the population was so spread out outside the major cities.  Furthermore, the goods were inherently expensive.  “Transporting merchandise [by land] for a distance of 80 to 100 kilometers doubled the price of the product.”[38]     

            Hence wise planning was essential to obtaining prosperity.  What James wished to both intellectually and emotionally convince his readers of was that it still did not guarantee success.  That required God’s blessing.


[Page 311]




[1] Songer, 127.


[2] Songer, 127, and George Stulac, James, in the IVP New Testament Commentary series (Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1993), 142.  For an evaluation of the evidence where similar Greek words are confused in some manuscripts see Mitton, 49-150.  


[3] Laws, 171. 


[4] Stulac, 142.


[5] Ibid. 


[6] Ibid.


[7] Burdick, 192.


[8] [Anonymous], “Can Christians Commit Murder? – James 4.”  Posted April 18, 2010.  Part of the Living Word Library website.  At: uk/article.php?id=657.  [July 2012.]


[9] Ibid.


[10] Reicke, 45.


[11] Witherington, 508.


[12] S. H. Ong, A Strategy for a Metaphorical Reading of the Epistle of James (Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America, 1996), 412. 


[13] Ibid.


[14] Troy Hillman, “Are Selfish Prayers Answered.”  Dated:  July 6, 2010.  Part of the Veritas Ministeria website.  At:  [May 2014


[15] For a significantly different presentation of this same basic view, see Laws, 178-179.  


[16] McKnight, James, 339.


[Page 312]   [17] Hermas, Shepherd of Hermas:  Mandates (J. B. Lightfoot translation). 


[18] Carson, 579.


[19] Lockett, “Unstained by the World,” 58.


[20] Comfort, 229.


[21] Hartin, James, 223.


[22] Carson, 579.


[23] Timothy B. Cargal, Restoring the Diaspora;  Discursive Sturcture and Purpose in the Epistle of James, Number 144 in the Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series (Atlanta, Georgia:  Scholars Press, 1993), 177.


[24] Leahy, 375.


[25] Adamson.  James:  The Man, 248.


[26] Ibid., 250.


[27] Ben-Zion Rosenfeld and Joseph Menirav, Markets and Marketing in Roman Palestine, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, volume 99 (Leiden, Netherlands:  Brill, 2005), 21.


[28] Midrash Ruth Zuta, 1.8, as quoted by Rosenfeld and Menirav, 21-22.


[29] Ibid., n. 40, p. 22.


[30] Ibid., 48. 


[31] Pesahim II8b of the Babylonian Talmud, as cited by Rosenfeld and Menirav, 21.


[32] Ibid., 51.   


[33] Ibid., 53-54. 


[34] Ibid., 54. 


[35] Ibid., 55-56. 


[36] Ibid., 132. 


[Page 313]   [37] Ibid., 127. 


[38] Ibid., 128.