Notes on James 4:1-10

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Jas 4:1, KJV 1 From whence (come) wars and fightings among you? (come they) not hence, (even) of your lusts that war in your members?

James asks another pair of questions, which are related to the previous discussion of types of wisdom. See James 3:16. He mentioned that the wisdom that is not from God was “earthly, sensual, devilish (3:15)” Now he makes the application personal, asking what was the reason for the wars and fightings among these believers. James mentions lusts . . .what did he have in mind?

2 Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

Note the several charges or accusations James brings to the forefront. Remember that he is writing to the earliest numbers of Christians, most of whom at this time were from a Jewish background.

They lusted (even though James doesn’t give specifics); then they desired to have (perhaps riches? Did James have the rich oppressors of chapter 2 in mind, still?) but obtained nothing. They fought and even had wars—Paul would later chide the Corinthian believers for having a party spirit (see 1 Cor. 1). Finally he summed it up for them (and us) by starkly saying they didn’t have because they didn’t ask. Apparently they were trying any available means to increase their own wealth but failed to ask God for any of it.

3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume (it) upon your lusts.

Now James gives another, direct, reason why the believers weren’t receiving things: they were asking for perhaps the wrong things or perhaps with the wrong motives. Regardless, they were asking for stuff for themselves and apparently were not seeking the best things. Had they forgotten the promise from Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God. . . and all these things will be added to you”?

4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

This had to sting. Israel had abandoned God for idols numerous times, one of the worst examples being the golden calf worship while Moses was on Mt Sinai (Exodus 32)! Another example came several years later when over 20,000 Israelites bowed down to Baal-Peor (Numbers 25). After the nation split into the northern and southern kingdoms, Jeroboam led the north into a revival of calf-worship; later, Baal worship took place and immoral practices were part of that worship. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, even boasted of having plenty of everything (flax, oil, and even lovers) when she left Hosea but eventually he bought her back to be his wife again (Hosea 1-3).

There is nothing wrong with having friends who are unbelievers but quite another thing to deny your convictions or standards to please your friends. Besides, a friend who wants you to do something wrong isn’t really that good of a friend.

5 Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?

This is a difficult verse and I do not claim to have the best interpretation, James, though, in this context is describing the results of envy. Even in chapter 2 he condemns those who show favoritism to the better dressed compared to those less well off, and in chapter 3 he gives counsel about the right and wrong kinds of wisdom. It’s doubtful the Holy Spirit is in view here but it is possible James is speaking of the believer’s inward spirit (not the body, or soul) .The individual’s spirit sees and desires things that may not be available or profitable, even if one could obtain it. I defer to other commentators regarding this verse.

6 But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

Note, first, the contrast between the spirit “lust(ing)” to envy with the grace which God (alone) provides. Secondly, note that James does not say this is a quotation from anywhere but it is a true saying. James has given several examples of pride and proud people. Additionally, pride was the basic reason why Lucifer fell from his position and was eternally cursed for it (Isa 14). Third, God gave so much grace to those who did humbly submit to Him, seek His will, etc. (witness Abraham, Gideon, and David, for three).

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

James gives a list of commands beginning with a should-be-obvious command, namely, submit to God. The “therefore” probably reminds the readers that since God resists the proud (how many of these existed in the early Church?), but He gives grace to the humble (James even draws the distinctions between these in his letter), then every believer should submit to God.
Remember, James called himself a “servant (bond-slave, in the original)” of the Lord Jesus Christ. Should we try to be anything else? He may even have had Matthew 11:28-30 in mind, where Jesus Himself said the His yoke was easy and His burden was (and is!) light.

Then James gives a second command, logical as well as practical. Resisting the devil is not often taught these days but it’s one of the best weapons or strategies available. Trials, temptations, and tests will come but none of us have to fail. Remember that the devil even tried to make The Lord Jesus fall into one or more of the temptations—but Jesus, colloquially, sent him packing! Both Matthew and Luke record the trials and temptations our Lord endured and both (happily?) that the devil left Him for a season (see Matthew 4:1-11, and Luke 4:1-13).

8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse (your) hands, (ye) sinners; and purify (your) hearts, (ye) double minded.

What a beautiful promise! See how James makes the contrast between resisting the devil, and he will flee; and drawing nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you. This could refer to repentance, forsaking sin and enjoying a right standing with the Lord, or maintaining fellowship and a right relationship with Him.

Then he changes the subject to the sinners and double-minded ones. He does not specify why the hands need cleaning. Remember that the priests, under the Levitical system, had to undergo many washings including their hands and feet (Ex 30:17-21), as well as their bodies; there were also times when vessels and even clothing were to be washed. Interestingly, the Pharisees received a severe rebuke from the Lord when He was asked why He and the disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating (Mark 7:1-16).

James also makes another reference to the “double-minded” person. He had first spoken of a double-minded person being “unstable in all his ways (James 1:8); now he commands the double-minded people to purify their hearts. This may mean that there were more than a few double-minded people in this early Church, made up mostly of Jewish-background believers.

Why James uses the word “purify” in reference to the hearts of the “double minded” is not certain except to perhaps insist on singleness of purpose. Jesus Himself, several years before this, had said, “No (one) can serve two masters (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13)”.

9 Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and (your) joy to heaviness.

Several years after this, Paul would write to the Corinthians that “godly sorrow worketh repentance. . . (2 Cor. 7:10)”. Jesus Himself even taught the disciples “Blessed are they that mourn (Matt 5:4)” and in Luke 6:25, “Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.“

We don’t know what James had in mind when he wrote this command, nor the one to turn their joy to heaviness. The opposite of this happened after the Babylonian Exile, when the foundation for the new temple was set up. Some were so happy, and others so sad, that no one could tell if the sound was of joy or of sorrow (Ezra 3:10-13).

10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.

The Israelites had experienced humbling many times in their existence. Some of these are mentioned in Deuteronomy 8. The Lord also invited the nation of Israel to “humble themselves and pray . . (2 Chron 7:14)”—this, when the Temple was being dedicated.

Individuals and groups of people also humbled themselves: Rehoboam and the princes of Judah after Shishak looted Jerusalem (2 Chron 12); small groups of the northern tribes, when they came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover (2 Chron 30:11); Manasseh, king of Judah, after he was taken captive (2 Chron 33:12, 19); his grandson Josiah, once he heard the words of the Law (2 Chron 34:27); and even Ahab, king of Israel before this (1 Kings 21:29, but how sincere this was is debatable).

James also says that the Lord will lift up those who humble themselves—but he doesn’t say how and he doesn’t say when. This is another rebuke of those who, in these early days of the Church, seemed to keep aware of, and perhaps flaunting, their earthly standing and status.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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