James 4 Commentary

vv.1-10: “The purpose of James’s discussion of the tongue and wisdom appears in this next section. There were struggles in the Christian community James was writing to. Each person wanted their own way and their own advantage. James makes it very clear that these struggles are not from God and calls on those involved to repent and be forgiven.

“James paints a picture of the church as he saw it: fights and quarrels, battle, kill and covet. The ‘kill’ probably refers to killing with words rather than literal murder, but the whole picture is familiar to anyone who knows the modern church. All of these fights and battles were certainly justified by those involved, perhaps as ‘striving for the truth’. But James writes of them just as they are in God’s eyes. He traces the origin of these conflicts, not to his readers’ love of God, but to your desires, the evil impulse that we have already learned about in 1:14–15.

“All of their arguing is fruitless: they do not get what they want, because you do not ask God. ‘But we do pray!’ might be their response. ‘You pray, but it is not effective, for your motives are wrong.’ They are not seeking God’s will or God’s wisdom, but their will: ‘God bless my plans.’ Their motive is their desires or pleasures. God’s goal is not to give human beings what their own impulses demand; his goal is that human beings will learn to love what he loves. It is not that God does not want people to have pleasure, but that he wants to train them to take pleasure in what he knows is truly good. As with Christ, crucifixion comes before resurrection for God’s people (Gal. 5:24).

“In claiming to trust in God and yet living according to their own desires these people are adulterous. The term is literally ‘adulteresses’, not that they were all women, but that the church is the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19, 21) as Israel was God’s bride (Is. 1:21; Je. 3; Ho. 1–3). To go after another lover is to be unfaithful to God, so friendship with the world is hatred towards God (cf. Mt. 6:24; 1 Jn. 3:15). It is not that it is hard or painful to serve both God and ‘desire’ or ‘the world’; it is impossible. The person who tries to become a friend of the world is actually God’s enemy. They may be an orthodox-believing and church-going enemy, but they are nonetheless an enemy.

“At this point James cites Scripture, but there is no known occurrence of this saying. He must either be citing the general sense of Scripture, or else a book he knows about but which is now lost. The niv says, the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely which seems to refer to the human spirit and its tendency to envy. While this is true enough, it does not seem to fit the context. Better is the translation, ‘God jealously longs for the spirit he made to live in us’. That means that God gave to each person their spirit. He jealously longs for pure love in return (cf. Ex. 20:5–6). Scripture does not speak emptily about this jealousy of God, as Israel found out from painful experience when she tried to serve both God and Baal.

“James’s argument might drive people to despair because of their sin. James claims, however, that God offers more grace rather than condemnation, to the believer who repents. To back this up James quotes Pr. 3:34, also quoted in 1 Pet. 5:5: God does give grace to the humble (i.e. the repentant).

“James next shows us what such humility looks like. Submit yourselves, then, to God. The main part of repentance is to stop doing what one was doing and start obeying God. Resist the devil. The devil is the ultimate source of testing or temptation (Mt. 4:1–11; Mk. 8:28–34; Lk. 22:31; Jn. 13:2, 27), and to refuse the call of desire is to resist him. When resisted he flees; he may threaten disaster, but it is all a lie. It only has power if believed. Come near to God says James. This sound like Mal. 3:7 and Zc. 1:3. The picture is that of a person coming to offer sacrifice in the temple and coming near to God in the ceremony. Wash your hands. This is another OT picture (Ex. 30:19–21), illustrating the removal of sinful practices. Purify your hearts. Purification is mentioned in the OT (Ex. 19:10), but this is the making of the heart pure. The double-minded is the person who tries to serve both God and the world (see 1:8). To purify the heart is to be devoted to God alone. These actions should be accompanied by a mourning for one’s sinful state. Repentance consists of sorrow for sin plus a turning from sin and, where possible, making restitution for the damage caused by one’s sin. Finally, James include promises within his call to repentance. God will come near to you. He will lift you up. God will not leave a humble heart mourning. He will accept the repentance and respond with his love, raising the person up from their mourning into the warmth of his love.”[1]

vv.11-12: “Having called for repentance, James concludes his section on the tongue and community harmony with another appeal. Christians are not to slander one another. A better translation might be ‘speak evil about’ or ‘say bad things against’ because ‘slander’ often implies in English that the things said are untrue and the Greek word does not imply this. As far as James is concerned, whether the things said are true or not, critical words divide the community and are not in order.”[2]

vv.13-17: “The first group addressed consists of wealthier Christians. As usual, James carefully avoids calling them rich, but it is obvious that they have some possessions, for they can engage in foreign trade. Their plans are normal plans: travel to a certain city, sell the goods they brought with them and perhaps purchase others, and make money. Is this not the way business is done?

“James’s criticism is that they are in fact carrying on business just the way every other merchant does. As Christians they should be well aware of not only the uncertainties of the future, but also who controls it. While the picture of the brevity of life is drawn from the OT (e.g. Jb. 7:7, 9; Ps. 39:5–6), the idea of the foolishness of planning without taking God’s values into account is Jesus’ teaching in Lk. 12:16–21. James’s point is not simply that they ought to preface all of their plans with, If it is the Lord’s will. That would be a lip-service to God. Instead, he wants them to seek God’s plan and follow God’s will in their use of money. This appears in his comment that they boast and brag, or, better translated, ‘boast in their pride’. What type of pride is this? 1 Jn. 2:16 uses the same term for ‘the boasting of [or pride in] what [a person] has and does’. They are laying plans that God did not make, claiming an ability to control life which they do not have, and boasting about the good deals they will make. This is no more and no less than love of the world.

“A one-line proverb drives the point home. These people are in the church and certainly each one knows the good he ought to do. Why not consult God and ask him what ought to be done with the money? Perhaps they do not do this out of fear that God would ask them to share it with others. They do not do that good, so they are sinning. There is no theft or immorality or other crime staining their hands. They are just honest businessmen, but they sin just as much in failing to do the good they could as if they actually committed evil acts. In either case God’s teaching is being ignored.”[3]


[1] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 4:1–10). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 4:11–12). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 4:13–17). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

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