James Week 7

These last two weeks we have been studying the first part of James 4. Let’s read it again, together.

 James 4:1-12, ESV

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Let’s take a moment to examine verse 5 together.

        Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

This verse is often considered by many commentators to be one of the more problematic verses. The difficulty in interpreting this verse comes from not being able to use the interpretive tools we are accustomed to use. What do we usually do? Context! How has the author used it in this letter? How has it been used by the same author in another letter? How has it been used in the rest of the New Testament? How about the entire Bible? Or, if it is a quote of an Old Testament scripture, we can go to its original location and work out the context from there. Well, this does not seem to be a direct quote from any of the Scripture that we have. In the absence of a direct reference to help us understand the meaning, two major understandings have been offered. We will spend some time understanding these.


How many of you have the NIV? Your bible lands on one interpretation ( but has a note in the margin with the second interpretation, which we will get to)

“Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace.”

In this interpretation, the spirit is the human spirit that God caused to dwell in us, and it envies intensely. James would seem to be reminding us that human nature tends toward jealousy and envy, which he has specifically been teaching us against since verse 14 of chapter 3.

Here are the arguments for this interpretation.

1. Linguistically – The verb envies in the original language is not applied to God anywhere else so it must be talking about the human spirit, and the noun jealousy is always used in a negative form – God would not exhibit a negative form of jealousy

2. Context – the reference to human envy would be consistent with James’ larger emphasis in this passage.

3. Logical – The next verse, verse 6, would provide a logical contrast of God’s grace given to combat this human envy.


While these are good arguments, I think the other interpretation, which is where the ESV and NASB land, and that the NIV has in the margin, is more accurate.

        Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

In this translation, the subject of the sentence is the implied HE, meaning God. God is the one doing the yearning, and the object of his yearning is the spirit he caused to live in us. This spirit either means the created human spirit, or the Holy Spirit given to believers. I tend to agree that the most likely is the former – the created human spirit- because James uses the same word in chapter 2, verse 26 when he says the body without the spirit is dead. Either way, the interpretation is that God jealously desires us to belong wholeheartedly to him.

The arguments for this interpretation are these:

1. Linguistic: There are two words in the Greek used for “envy”, and they are sometimes interchangeable. The other word, zelos, is used elsewhere in Scripture in reference to God. However, James could be using the more unusual choice of pthonos here for stylistic contrast because he recently used zelos negatively of human envy in chapter 3 verses 14 and 16.

2. Grammar: It is more natural to have the same subject for the two verbs yearns and caused to live.

3. Context: While in the other interpretation the context fits with the nearby sentences, this one is equally consistent with James’ emphasis on God’s desire for righteousness in us throughout the letter.

4. Logical: A reference to human envy here would not fit well because it would seem to ignore the flow from verses 1 through 4, and would instead focus only on verses 1-3. The point of bringing us to verse 4 is to cause us to wonder how does friendship with the world make me an enemy of God? The answer comes in verse 5 if it is interpreted as God’s jealousy. Followed by verse 6 with the reminder of God’s grace to the humble.


If we can agree that the second interpretation is the correct one, then the scripture that James has in mind when he says “ Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says . . .” is not a particular verse, but rather a repeated Old Testament theme – the repeated theme of God’s jealousy for undivided devotion from his people. This is a theme the scattered Jewish Christians would be all too familiar with.

So what? Why did we need to work through that? Well, it helps us to understand something more about our passage, I think. The structure of our passage today is of significance. If you notice, there are three distinct sections of this brief passage. It follows an A-B-A structure. The first A is between verses 1 and 4/5. The B is verses 5/6 through 10. And verses 11 and 12 make up the second A. Many times throughout Scripture, there will be a structure like this. The A’s are “bookending” the B. This is a literary tool meant to draw you to conclude that whatever is in the middle – between the bookends – is the most important point. In James’ letter, his bookends are descriptions of the problem. He has spent the last three chapters explaining true faith, what it looks like. There is a shift somewhat here from the solicitous “my dear brothers” to “You adulterous people!” We are given a glimpse to the results of insincere faith, the results of untamed tongues. Obviously, the church is divided, there is dissention. He is describing their actions as war (an ongoing conflict) and murder (an individual battle). They are focused on the world – meaning the patterns of human life that are contrary to God’s will. You could say they are focused very much on self – what I want, what I need, I deserve that instead of them. When they pray, they are praying for selfish reasons, that is if they even think to pray at all. He shows them, shows us, that we need to choose – friendship with the world, or friendship with God. You can’t have both.

Let’s skip to the other bookend, the other description of the problem. Verses 11 and 12. We see here that when we speak against a brother or sister, when we judge them, we are actually speaking against the law, judging the law. He has already spent time addressing favoritism and preferential treatment – which result from judging others. Here he lays out very clearly that when we do that, we are usurping God’s position as judge and lawgiver! When we judge someone, speak evil against them, we are saying we know better than God, and declaring judgment. Like James says at the end of verse 12, who are we to judge our neighbor? Seriously. Again, a choice needs to be made. Are you going to continue to make judgments, speak evil, both of which come from a place of selfishness and desire for the world? Or are you going to choose to recognize “There is a God, and you are NOT Him?”

Then we focus on the middle, the meat of the sandwich. The solution to the problem. Here is a body of professing believers, not acting like believers, being called out by James for their lack of demonstrable faith. What do they need to do? In the middle of the passage are 4-5 verses that contain three couplets. A couplet is two lines of verse that form a unit alone, or as part of a poem. You find them often in the Psalms. They are used, like the bookend structure, to emphasize ideas. Here we see three:

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.


Cleanse your hands, you sinners,

and purify your hearts, you double-minded.


Be wretched and mourn and weep.

Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.


Notice the active imperatives, the commands:

Resist, Draw near, Cleanse, Purify, Be wretched, mourn, weep, let it be turned.

What is the solution? Intentional, ongoing, active pursuit of God, which includes taking a stand against the devil. The original word indicates more than just resisting. Imagine you are at the park, and you see all the kids playing. One of them is starting to get teased and picked on. You’ll see a couple of different things happen. Some of the other kids will see the teasing, and they will either walk away from the situation, or they will just keep quiet, not joining in with the teasing, but not doing anything else either. But there will always be at least one, hopefully, who will step in and defend the one being teased, tell the others to back off and leave him or her alone. That is the kind of stand we are told to take against the devil. Don’t ignore him and hope he will go away. He won’t. Put on that armor we have studied. Defend yourself and others with the weapons God has given you. Pray for strength. Seek him in his word. That’s the drawing near to God part.

We are also to mourn over the magnitude of our sin. James was not saying don’t be happy, he was talking to a group of people who were sinning, and then laughing about it!

What is our take-away then? The God who created you desires your complete heart, soul, mind, and strength. He is a jealous God, and you cannot desire anything of this world AND him. Choose. And keep choosing. Those active commands are not one-and-done choices. They are every day, constant choices to make. And it is hard. But to quote verse 6: But he gives more grace.

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