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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

James 4


In this chapter James gave direction to his readers to encourage and enable them to live at peace with God, others, and themselves. It ties in closely to chapter 1 (cf. James 4:6 and James 1:5; James 1:21; James 4:8 b and James 1:6-8; James 1:15; James 1:21; James 1:27; James 4:9-10 and James 1:21).

Verse 1

1. The source of conflict 4:1

As in the previous chapters, James began this one with a clear introduction of a practical problem his readers faced. He had just been referring to the importance of avoiding strife (James 3:14-16) and loving peace (James 3:13; James 3:17-18). Now he attacked the problem of conflict within and among believers. The absence of the word "my brethren" (cf. James 1:2; James 2:1; James 3:1) indicates the severity of this section and the one to follow (James 4:13).

"The sudden transition from the beautiful picture in James 3:17-18 of a life governed by heavenly wisdom to the appalling picture in the opening verses of chapter 4 is startling, but it demonstrates effectively the need for this vigorous rebuke now administered to the spirit of worldliness. . . .

"The spirit of worldliness has always been a problem for the church; it manifests itself in varied and often subtle ways. James discusses its manifestation in the lives of believers in four different areas. Worldliness reveals itself in their selfish strife (James 4:1-12), in an attitude of presumptuous self-sufficiency in business planning (James 4:13-17), in wrong reactions to experiences of injustice (James 5:1-11), and in the use of self-serving oaths (James 5:12)." [Note: Hiebert, James, pp. 219, 220.]

"Quarrels" (Gr. polemoi, wars) could refer to disputes between several individuals whereas "conflicts" (Gr. machoi, battles) probably describes the tensions within one individual and between a few individuals. Both types of conflict, large and small, are the enemies of peace. James was using diatribe (cf. James 2:18), so "among you" has a general reference, aimed at no particular group. [Note: Sidebottom, p. 51.]

James identified, with a rhetorical question, the source of both kinds of conflict as pleasures. "Pleasures" are satisfied desires (cf. Luke 8:14; Titus 3:3). James did not say they war against each other in the believer but that, as a besieging army, they inevitably assail him or her. The satisfaction of desire, which is what pleasure is, is something people spend vast quantities of time, money, and energy to obtain. Am I spending them to satisfy my personal desires or God’s desires primarily? Our personal desires are part of our human nature, and we will never escape their pull as long as we live in our present bodies. Nevertheless they must not dominate our lives. God’s desires must do that (Matthew 6:33 a). Our culture glorifies the satisfaction of personal desire, and it is the primary pursuit of most people, including Christians.

Verses 1-10

A. Interpersonal and Inner Personal Tensions 4:1-10

"James 4 continues the same topic of strife, and addresses now not only the teachers of James 3:14 but also the rest of the brotherhood who are in similar sin: strife springs from within (James 4:1-3) and is fostered by worldliness; love of the world and love of God cannot coexist (James 4:4-6); Christians must resist the devil and draw near to God (James 4:7-10)." [Note: Adamson, p. 165.]

Verse 2

The ultimate end of lust, desire that a person may or may not satisfy, is murder. We can see this through human history all the way from Cain down to the present (cf. the case of Naboth; 1 Kings 21). James was probably not accusing his readers of murder, though at least one scholar believed he was. [Note: Martin, p. 146.] He was probably reminding them of the serious ultimate consequences of living merely to satisfy personal desires.

"In the context of forceful words such as polemoi (’wars’) and machai (’battles’), it seems better to take phoneuete (’you kill’) as hyperbole for hatred. This also resolves the problem of seeming anticlimactic word order. To say ’You hate and covet’ is a much more natural order than to say ’You murder and covet.’ Furthermore, Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15 show that hatred is equal to murder." [Note: Burdick, p. 193. Cf. Motyer, pp. 140,164-65.]

Likewise fights and arguments follow when we do not obtain our desires.

"There are indeed few evils in human life that cannot be traced to covetousness and envy in the sense in which we find these words used in this verse. Covetousness does not always lead to possession, envy does not always attain to the position of its rivals-and the inevitable result is conflict and strife." [Note: Tasker, p. 87.]

"This is the condition to which lust consigns it votaries; it disappoints them, and makes them mutual tormentors." [Note: Edwin T. Winkler, "Commentary on the Epistle of James," in An American Commentary on the New Testament, p. 54.]

"Unsatisfied desire leads to murder . . .; disappointed ambition leads to quarrelling and fighting." [Note: Mayor, p. 136.]

The only way to obtain satisfaction is to ask God to give it. We do not have what God wants us to have because we do not ask Him for these things. [Note: Cf. Fanning, pp. 432-33.] This is one of the most important verses in the Bible concerning prayer. There are some things we can have from God that we will not have unless we ask Him for them.

Verses 2-3

2. The explanation of the conflict 4:2-3

Verse 3

However, we often ask God for things to enable us to satisfy our own selfish desires. For example, we request more time, more money, more energy so we can do things that we desire but that God does not desire for us. What we need to ask Him to give us is more desire for what He promises and commands. We also need less desire for what is contrary to His will for us (cf. Matthew 7:7-11).

"If prayer is no more than a formula (saying the right words, believe hard enough, confess; it will happen), then Christians are back to a type of magic: They can manipulate God or impose their will on God, for he has to answer. In contrast, New Testament prayer grows out of a trusting relationship with a father whose will is supreme." [Note: Davids, pp. 99-100.]

"In the life of a full-time Christian minister, some may devote themselves to the activist pursuits of endless caring for the sick and house-to-house ministry to the unsaved, and skimp sermon preparation. It may be called ’getting our priorities right’, but it may simply be an exercise in self-pleasing. Others lock the study door behind them. When they descend the pulpit steps on one Sunday they are already mentally climbing the same steps next Sunday. They may say that the pulpit is the best place to exercise pastoral care, and that they are putting first things first-but they may in fact just be indulging a passion." [Note: Motyer, p. 144.]

Verse 4

The real issue is whom will I love, God or the world?

"In the simplest sense of the word, the world is each man’s natural environment, that into which he enters at birth, and from which he departs in death. It is the immediate present, the seen and temporal, of which our senses bear witness, in contrast to the unseen and eternal . . ." [Note: Mayor, p. 225.]

The world urges us to love ourselves, to put our pleasures before God’s pleasures. If we agree with that idea, we are unfaithful as the Lord’s spiritual brides. We have deliberately chosen to follow the world’s philosophy rather than God’s will. We cannot be on friendly terms with God if we follow the world’s philosophy (Matthew 6:24). The world wants us to exclude God from all aspects of life. God wants us to include Him in all of life because He is in all of life, and without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

". . . no man who makes worldly success his aim can be also a friend of God" [Note: Ibid., p. 140.]

Verses 4-5

3. The nature of the choice 4:4-5

Verse 5

In this verse James gave scriptural support for what he just asserted (James 4:4). However, he did not quote a particular verse but evidently summarized the scriptural teaching on God’s jealousy (cf. Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:14; Psalms 42:1; Psalms 84:2; Zechariah 8:2) in a new statement. [Note: See Sophie S. Laws, "Does Scripture Speak in Vain? A Reconsideration of James IV. 5," New Testament Studies 20 (1973-74):210-15; and Stulac, pp. 146-47.]

It is very difficult to translate this statement, but the best rendering seems to be something such as the following. "God jealously longs for the spirit that He made to live in us." Another translations is, "the Spirit which he made to dwell in us jealously yearns for the entire devotion of the heart" (cf. Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 4:30; John 7:39; John 16:7). [Note: Mayor, p. 141.] Both translations fit the preceding context well. God’s people who love the world have committed spiritual adultery against Him (James 4:4), but God (or His Spirit) jealously longs for their love (James 4:5). Furthermore these translations accurately represent the Greek text. The phrase pros phthonon literally means "to envy," but it is also an adverbial idiom meaning "jealously." [Note: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, s.v. "phthonon," p. 718. See also Ropes, p. 262.] The verb epipothei means "to long for" or "to yearn for" rather than "to tend toward." Another view is that the human spirit in us lusts enviously. [Note: See Sidebottom, p. 53.]

"Thus, in James 4:4 James has accused his readers of spiritual unfaithfulness. If they are not willing to accept this indictment, he asks in James 4:5 what they think about the OT passages dealing with God’s jealous longing for his people. This is the significance of the introductory conjunction ’or.’ Do they think Scripture speaks ’without reason’ or emptily? Of course they don’t think this. Consequently, it is necessary to believe that friendship with the world is enmity toward God, and thus it is spiritual unfaithfulness." [Note: Burdick, p. 194. Cf. Martin, p. 151.]

Verse 6

God has set a high standard of wholehearted love and devotion for His people, but He gives grace that is greater than His rigorous demand. Proverbs 3:34, quoted here, reminds us that God opposes the proud: those who pursue their own pleasures. However, He gives grace to the humble: those who put God’s desires first in their lives. He gives grace (help) to withstand the onslaughts of the flesh within and the world without.

Verses 6-10

4. The resources to choose right 4:6-10

Verse 7

In view of God’s certain supply of this grace we need to adopt a definite stance toward the people involved in this conflict. Ten aorist imperatives in James 4:7-10 demand decisive action. They sound like military commands and reflect how seriously James viewed double-mindedness. [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 236.]

Toward God we must submit in humility. This means making what is of importance to Him important to us, ordering our priorities in harmony with God’s priorities. It means not living to fulfill our personal ambitions but using our lives to fulfill His desires. Submission is not identical to obedience. Submission involves the surrender of the will that results in obedience.

We must resist Satan strongly. When we do, he will flee from us. What is Satan trying to get us to do? The record of his temptations, including those of Eve and Jesus Christ, indicates that he wants to make us doubt, deny, disregard, and disobey God’s Word (cf. Genesis 3; Matthew 4). We resist him by refusing to do these things.

Verse 8

While resisting Satan on the one hand, we must also draw near to God on the other. When we do, He will draw near to us. To draw near to God we must go through a purification process reminiscent of what the priests in Israel underwent. We must wash our hands, symbolic of our outward actions, as well as our divided hearts, symbolic of our inner attitudes and motives. We clean them by confession and repentance. We must remove sin from our hands and duplicity from our hearts. Single-mindedness involves singleness of purpose, namely, living for the glory of God rather than for both God’s glory and our own selfish desires (cf. James 1:8).

Verse 9

James was calling readers who had compromised with the world by following hedonism to get right with God. There is laughter and joy in the pursuit of personal desires, but we must abandon these in the process of repenting. James was not saying Christians must be constantly miserable, mourning, weeping, and gloomy. These are only the evidences of repentance from a formerly sinful attitude and lifestyle (cf. Matthew 5:3-4).

Verse 10

In concluding this section of direct advice (James 4:7-10), James sounded the same note with which he began: submission to God in humility, putting Him before self. This always results in God lifting one up both immediately and eventually. Since this is the condition in which God can use us, He will proceed to do so for His glory (cf. Matthew 18:4; Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14; 1 Peter 5:6).

"Ralph Bell, an associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is a godly man who tells of learning grace-reliance in a deeply personal way. Bell is a Canadian-born black man who lives and ministers in the United States. As a young man, he struggled with experiences of racial insults and discrimination. Being so treated by fellow Christians, who were disobeying James’s instructions about impartiality, was especially hurtful. Bell shared his struggles with his mother, who counseled him to keep his eyes on Jesus, because Jesus would never disappoint him. As he sought to apply that advice, he began to find the grace to see others’ racism as their problem. He further sought grace from God to purify his own life of hatred toward those who mistreated him. In James’s terms, Ralph Bell humbled himself before the Lord, and he found himself being lifted up by the grace of God to be able to love his enemies. How does one love hostile and hurtful people? The answer is supernaturally, by relying on the grace that God gives to the humble." [Note: Stulac, p. 151.]

Verse 11

The speaking in view is speaking disparagingly of, or down on, another Christian. To criticize another one must conclude that he is right and the person he is criticizing is wrong. This is passing judgment. The law in view probably refers to God’s law generally in view of the context. We sin against God’s law when we criticize a brother because God has revealed that we should not speak against, or pass judgment on, our Christian brethren (cf. Leviticus 19:15-18; Matthew 7:1). We should submit to one another (e.g., Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3). Rather than taking a position of humility, such a person exalts himself to the role of judge (cf. James 4:10).

"We must be careful to note the far-reaching consequences of James’ teaching here: respect for law and order is necessary (as we are often told) for the health of modern society, but James goes on to remind us (James 4:12) that, since God is the source of all law, what is ultimately at stake in a ’permissive society’ is respect for the authority of God himself." [Note: Adamson, p. 177.]

Verses 11-12

B. Self-exaltation 4:11-12

Having dealt with the source of interpersonal and inner personal conflicts that believers in particular and all people generally experience, James dealt next with a different aspect of the same problem. He did so to motivate his readers further to forsake the philosophy of the world that puts self first. Criticizing others is dangerous not only because it is a form of selfishness but also because the critic exalts himself even over God when he or she criticizes.

Verse 12

James was speaking of judging other people without divine authorization to do so. Obviously God has delegated the responsibility of judging some civil acts to human governments, some church conduct to elders, and the behavior of children to their parents. Likewise Christians who are walking by the Spirit who observe other Christians overtaken by some fault should seek to restore them, not ignore them (Galatians 6:1).

Criticizing our equals is a common sport, but it is inappropriate for mere mortals. We all are responsible to God ultimately and must leave the judgment of His servants up to Him (Romans 14:1-13). We need to remember that we are on the same level with those we may wish to judge. We are brothers and neighbors (cf. Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6-7; 2 Kings 5:7).

Verse 13

James confronted his audience as the Old Testament prophets did. He began, "Come now" (cf. Isaiah 1:18; et al.). The person in James’ illustration was probably a travelling Jewish merchant, ". . . the materialist core of the contemporary bourgeois prosperity." [Note: Adamson, p. 178.] Jewish merchants were common in the culture of James’ day, and undoubtedly some of them were Christian Jews. The man’s plans were not wrong in themselves.

Verses 13-16

1. The self-centered person 4:13-16

Verses 13-17

C. Self-reliance 4:13-17

As in the previous chapters, James began with the exposition of a practical problem and moved on to its larger contextual problem, that is, its context in life. He already identified the source of interpersonal and inner personal conflicts as self-centeredness and explained that criticism places the critic in a seat that only God should occupy. Now he pictured a self-centered person living his or her life. He did this to enable his readers to see the root of this problem clearly.

"James gave an example of a boastful statement [James 4:13], struck a condemnatory sentence on such boasting [James 4:14], and offered a practical solution for boasting [James 4:15-17]." [Note: Blue, p. 831.]

Verse 14

The problem is what the merchant did not consider: his complete dependence on God (cf. Luke 12:18-20; John 15:5).

"To what extent is your life directed by the knowledge that Christ is coming back? Much of our thinking and behavior is shaped by what we can see of present circumstances or past events. Yet Scripture speaks forcefully of Christ’s return as a fact that should be directing how we live now. Christians are to be motivated by the certainty of this future event." [Note: Stulac, p. 156.]

Verse 15

The merchant should have made his planning in conscious dependence on God recognizing His sovereign control over all of life (cf. Acts 18:21; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 1 Corinthians 16:7; Philippians 2:19; Philippians 2:24). The Latin phrase, deo volente ("God willing," abbreviated D.V.) remains in use even today among some Christians.

"A study of the use of this conditional clause ["If the Lord wills . . ."] in the NT makes it clear that we are not to repeat it mechanically in connection with every statement of future plans. Paul, for example, employs it in Acts 18:21 and 1 Corinthians 4:19, but he does not use it in Acts 19:21; Romans 15:28; or 1 Corinthians 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:8. Yet it is obvious that whether Paul explicitly stated it or not, he always conditioned his plans on the will of God." [Note: Burdick, p. 197.]

Verse 16

James rebuked those of his readers who were living with this God-neglecting attitude. They derived joy from feeling that they controlled their own destiny. Here is the picture of the "self-made man" taking credit for what God has given him. Boasting of this kind is unrealistic. It betrays an attitude that puts man in God’s place. For this reason it is evil.

In these verses James presented four arguments that show the foolishness of ignoring God’s will: the complexity of life (James 4:13), the uncertainty of life (James 4:14 a), the brevity of life (James 4:14 b), and the frailty of man (James 4:16). [Note: Wiersbe, pp. 130-33.]

Verse 17

2. The concluding exhortation 4:17

The person James just pictured was guilty of a sin of omission. He failed to acknowledge the place God occupies in life (cf. John 9:41). In concluding this discussion of conflicts, James reminded his readers to put into practice what they knew. They should avoid presumption and self-confidence, and they should submit themselves humbly to God. Failure to do this is sin.

"They cannot take refuge in the plea that they have done nothing positively wrong; as Scripture makes abundantly clear, sins of omission are as real and serious as sins of commission." [Note: Moo, p. 158.]

The verse that concludes each major section of James’ epistle, each chapter, is a proverbial statement. It summarizes James’ point in the preceding section and states it in a pithy way that is easy to remember. However, the statement in this verse is applicable to all that James wrote in this book.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on James 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.