James 4. 1-17

This chapter may be sectionalized thus:

  1. Exposure to vice, vv. 1-6.
  2. Exhortation to virtue, vv. 7-17.

1. Exposure to Vice, vv. 1-6

It should be remembered that this letter has in view both believers and unbelievers, whereas Paul writes solely to Christians.

From whence did their “wars and fightings” in verse 1 originate? They definitely did not come from the divine wisdom of chapter 3, which is first pure and then peaceable. Their source is the flesh. They are derived from the “lusts” or “pleasures” which war in the members. These lusts vary. Not only do they include lusts of the flesh and of the mind but, within the same range, desires for pre-eminence and leadership.

“Ye lust, and have not”, v. 2; nothing can gratify the heart, for all lusts will lead to misery, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work”, 3. 16. “Ye kill, and desire to have (or “covet”), and cannot obtain”, 4. 2. This is the state of fallen man.

Verses 2b, 3 show the readers making requests, because the natural man is religious, and therefore prays. However, their prayers emanated from the old nature and, consequently, they received not, for they asked amiss, i.e., they asked with a selfish motive, in order to satisfy their own wants. Had these prayers been answered, there would have been compliance with sin. Here we see an elaboration of an earlier theme in 1. 5, 6, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God … But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering”. This expansion is a characteristic common to this Epistle. Yet, all proper requests will be answered by Christ, for they go to the Father in His Name, “If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it”, John 14. 14.

Christians are included in verse 4. The sphere of the unconverted is the world; their walk is according to the course of this world; they are influenced by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. They are enemies of God by wicked works, and by nature are the children of wrath, Eph. 2. 1-3. We who are saved by grace are not of the world, even as our Lord was not of the world, John 17. 16; by grace our ties with the world have been broken, and the cross has made us dead to the world and the world dead to us. John exhorts us, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him”, 1 John 2. 15. Believers may turn back to it, as did Demas, and love it for a time; and what of Peter who, at the time of the crucifixion, warmed himself at the world’s fire and caught a spiritual chill? Thus, we should ensure that our friendship is spiritual, as was Abraham’s, James 2. 23, and the Lord’s followers’, John 15. 15.

James typifies the enemies of God as “adulteresses” (“adulterers” should be omitted), v. 4. They leave Christ to whom they are espoused, and go after another. This recalls passages from the Old Testament in which Israel is similarly presented. We must have our loyalties and our priorities right.

Verse 5 ought to be rendered, “Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the Spirit, who dwelleth in us, long unto envying?”. The Word teaches us that godliness and worldliness do not agree; do we then think that these Scriptures speak in vain? Furthermore, the Spirit who indwells His people does not lust unto envy, for He opposes the flesh, and those who walk in the Spirit do not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. Paul develops this theme in Galatians 5. 16, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh”. However, He gives more grace which through faith overcomes the world, for faith is the victory that overcomes the world. James quotes Proverbs 3. 34; God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Peter also cites this when he writes in a similar vein, 1 Pet. 5. 5. Mary also gives expression to it in Luke 1. 52, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree”. James has made reference to this already in 1. 9, 10.

2. Exhortation to Virtue, vv. 7-17

Now comes an appeal to godly living — for submission toward God. Satan would lure us back into the world as Pharaoh tried to get Israel back to Egypt. We are to guard against it by resisting him, and he will flee from us, v. 7. This is a great assurance which all faithful saints have tested. We are not to flee from the devil, but to resist him, and as we do this in the Name of the Lord, his power will be nullified and so he will flee from us. And there is the blessed certainty that, as we approach God, He in turn will come nigh to us. Yet we must approach Him properly, v. 8, for the Saviour said to the Pharisees, “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me”, Matt. 15. 7, 8. James, again addressing unbelievers, calls them to repentance, James 4. 9, 10, and his exhortation to make sure that the heart is in the right condition spiritually for drawing “nigh to God”, v. 8, is not irrelevant to believers.

Our attitude towards others is James’ concern in verses 11, 12; speaking evil (the sin of the tongue) is once more mentioned. Guarding our tongues, a sure corrective for evilspeaking (seemingly, a major vice among the Jews) is a constant theme of this Epistle. Evil should be dealt with, whatever form it takes; yet, only God the Righteous Judge knows the heart and its motives. Speaking against a brother and judging him, i.e. to pronounce a sentence upon him, is the equivalent of speaking against the law and judging the law. Whoever does this is not a doer of the law but a judge, and usurps for himself the function of Him who is the Lawgiver and the Judge, able to save and to destroy. These verses remind us of our Lord’s words in Matthew 7. 1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”; such reminders of the Beatitudes are another feature of James’ letter.

In the last paragraph, vv. 13, 14, dependence on the Lord is urged, and a warning given against making plans for the future without first seeking His will; “Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth”, Prov. 27. 1, comes to mind. Our life is as a vapour, and there are other similes used in Scripture to emphasize life’s brevity: “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle”, Job 7. 6, is one. Submission to God’s will is the recommendation, James 4. 15; else, it is the boasting, the vain-gloriousness, of the “self-secure” world, v. 16. The last verse of the chapter shows that sin implies not merely wrong doing, but also not doing the good we can and ought to be doing — knowing of the good but not doing it; this rules out the idea of sinless perfection! The Lord Jesus Christ warns against this negligent attitude in Luke 12. 47, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes”. We have now returned to James 2. 14ff, where faith without works is dead, and we conclude with the words of the Saviour, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise”, Luke 6. 31.

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