An Exposition of James 4

Thomas C. Urrey  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 29 - Fall 1986

A Protest against Prevalent Evils
James 3:13-5:6

In keeping with the working theme of the Epistle of James, a manual of Christian conduct, chapter four falls in the middle of James’s discussion of prevalent evils. His protest against prevalent evils centers in this passage on the evil of strife (3:13-4:12). Then he proceeds to protest the evil of materialism (4:13-5:6).

To relate chapter four to the preceding and following chapters note the following outline:

A Protest against Prevalent Evils, 3:13-5:6

1. The Evil of Strife, 3:13-4:12

(1) Strife resulting from controversy, 3:13-18 (The need for true wisdom in speech and life)

a. The proof of wisdom, 3:13

b. Evidence of false wisdom, 3:14-16

c. Evidence of true wisdom, 3:17-18

(2) Strife resulting from selfish desires, 4:1-10 (The worldly mind)

a. Passion for self-gratification is the cause of wars and fightings, 4:1-2

b. Passion for self-gratification negates prayer, 4:3

c. Passion for self-gratification is detestable to God, 4:4-6

d. Passion for self-gratification demands repentance, 4:7-10

(3) Strife resulting from gossip, 4:11-12

2. The Evil of Materialism, 4:13-5:6 (The problem of self-centeredness)

(1) The futility of materialism, 4:13-17

a. The arrogance of self-determinism, 4:13

b. The uncertainty of life, 4:14

c. The need for humble submission to God, 4:15

d. The evil of an arrogant self-determinism, 4:16

e. Concluding summary word on knowledge, action, and sin, 4:17

(2) The fruit of materialism, 5:1-6

a. The doom of the rich who oppress, 5:1-3

b. The sins of the rich who oppress, 5:4-6

Even though the basic burden of this commentary is on chapter four it is important to see in summary fashion how the passage moves. The chapter divisions could be somewhat misleading.


A Protest against Prevalent Evils, 3:13-5:6

1. The Evil of Strife, 3:13-4:12

James emphasizes a cardinal truth of genuine Christianity, that healthy harmonious living is essential to Christianity; strife is a poison which will destroy it. So this beloved brother of our Lord launches his first protest against the prevalent evil of strife. He mentions two most common sources of debilitating strife: controversy and selfish desires.

(1) Strife resulting from controversy, 3:13-18

To avoid needless and treacherous controversy Christians are in deepest need for true wisdom in speech and life.

a. The proof of wisdom, 3:13

James asks the ones who claim to be wise and intelligent to prove this superior wisdom by means of their noble Christian living. The life they live will be a true indication of their wisdom. Their genuine good works and proper self-esteem will evidence the quality of real wisdom.

b. False wisdom, 3:14-16

Then James proceeds to describe the product of false wisdom in verse 14. It is jealousy and faction or contention. Since so many of his readers were caught up in a bad zeal, which led to jealousy, and selfish ambition, which produced contention, it was evidence of false wisdom, not true.

The source of such false wisdom is from below. It is earthly, sensual, devilish (v. 15). It is of the earth in contrast to heaven. It is sensual in the sense of “humanly,” even animalish. It relates more to the animal spirit in man than the godly qualities in Christians. It is malignant in nature as it characterizes a “devil-like” spirit. It is no wonder that this kind of wisdom breeds such deep and devastating controversies.

The result of such false wisdom is stated in verse 16. Such false wisdom evidenced by jealousy and contention leads to confusion. This means dis­ orders such as squabbles or disturbances destroying Christian fellowship. In addition such trouble produces every kind of vile deed.

c. True wisdom, 3:17-18

In sharp contrast to the despicable portrayal of the strife borne of a false wisdom, James beautifully depicts the evidence of true wisdom in these delightful verses.

First he describes the true wisdom in both experience and expression (v. 17). It is heavenly in source and divine in nature. It has purity as its fundamental quality. It never starts quarrels or causes strife. It is yielding and always sensitive to the needs of others. It is never stiff or unbending. It is full of mercy to the overflow of good fruits, always quick to help those in need. Itis free from exercise of partiality, so it does not cause vacillation. It rings genuine under tests. So one who really is wise exhibits the evidence of such wisdom in these characteristics which are so representative of basic Christianity.

James then adds to this beautiful description of one who is truly wise by stating the result or fruit of true wisdom (v. 18). Whereas false wisdom sowed jealousy and faction, as well as confusion and base deeds, true wisdom sows peace and produces peace as a fruit which is real righteousness. Here is basic Christianity. Controversy impairs such peace so it is an evil which must be conquered.

(2) Strife resulting from selfish desires, 4:1-10

Earlier James had stated that strife caused by controversy sprang from a mind characterized by false wisdom which was earthly, sensual, and devilish (3:15). Now he states clearly and strongly that such sensual orientation causes all kinds of troubles for Christianity. Here is basically a description of the worldly mindset where man’s self-centeredness governs his actions. The results are devastating to fellowship with others as well as with God.

a. Passion for self-gratification is the cause of wars and fighting, 4:1-2

James first asks the direct question as to what causes strife. Then he immediately answers most directly by saying the cause of different kinds of strife is a desire for pleasure. It can be described as selfish desires, lust for pleasure, or passion for self-gratification. Each expression speaks of a basic self-centeredness. Indeed this passion is earthy and earthly. It is sensual, seeking to satisfy basic animal appetites above all and in spite of all. And it is devilish as it causes one to follow his dictates instead of the will of God.

James is writing to Christians who were being devoured by discord and feuds. It is an ever-present trouble. It was probably not characteristic of the whole congregation, of course, or even of the majority. But such an influential minority was caught up in this devastation that it was corrupting the whole body. Too many were being swallowed up as the result of wars between groups and quarrels among individuals. The exact nature or identity of the strife is not presented. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been such struggles which have dulled the cutting edge of the Christian message. James is saying the source of such trouble, regardless of its nature, is our giving in to the desire for self-gratification. When a Christian draws away from God and His will he tends to enthrone his own will and turns to satisfy his own appetites. There is a constant warfare within one’s own makeup as to whether the flesh or the Holy Spirit will dominate one’s attitudes and actions. When the Christian becomes “hedonistic,” bent on pleasure, this desire for self-gratification takes precedence over the honor of the Lord or the well-being of others. The result is division, strife, faction, confusion, and trouble in general.

James vividly, but tragically, describes the con­ sequences of such evil desire for pleasure in verse 2. The Christians who had become bent on pleasure had become caught up in jealousy and covetousness but their desires had actually gone unfulfilled. In spite of their habitual lust for worldly pleasure and goods they could not have them. And what they did obtain in partial fulfillment of their lust did not satisfy them. It only increased their desire so that there was a constant insatiableness.

Because they were never satisfied they became as murderers. To hate is to murder so far as the heart is concerned. To be moved by lust and covetousness is to be moved to the point of relinquishing the value of other people; actual murder becomes the next step. Murder is to take one’s life. To take what is valuable of one’s life is a kind of murder.

The whole idea is that of losing sight of the worth and welfare of another. The problem is self-centeredness. All that counts is one’s own gratification without regard to the damage it may do to others. A vicious cycle is suggested when James says that they subsequently burned with envy and anger but still could not find satisfaction so they fought and feuded, and with   tragic consequences.

b. Passion for self-gratification negates prayer, 4:3

The problem many of James’s readers faced is that they looked to themselves both for the source of their pleasure and the end of their pleasure. They should have looked to God. So he says they have not because they ask not. Their self-centeredness had negated their prayer life. Since they made themselves the center of all actions, why did they need God? This self-centered arrogance vitiated prayer.

And even when they did pray, their prayers were negated because they were designed to satisfy their own lusts. They asked and did not receive what they asked for because they asked basely, with evil intent, to spend the proceeds of their sensually oriented prayer on their own pleasures. It is a fact that there are times when the worst thing that could happen to you is for God to give you what you ask for. Prayer should orient one to God’s will so that one requests what is pleasing in His sight. What one requests of God should be God-honoring, others-blessing, and then it will be truly self-fulfilling. When we magnify the latter, self-fulfillment, to the disparagement of God’s will, our desire for self-gratification becomes an immediate source of strife.

c. Passion for self-gratification is abhorrent to God, 4:4-6

When one becomes a Christian he enters into a new relationship. It is a special relationship, described in terms of our becoming as it were wedded to Christ. In the sense that He is the bride-groom and His people are the bride, we are indeed involved with God in a special relationship. To be untrue to that relationship constitutes spiritual unfaithfulness, in fact a real kind of adultery. This is why James calls the readers, who became so self-centered that they worshiped the god of pleasure, adulteresses (Hos. 2:2; Jer. 3:20; Ps. 73:27; Isa. 54:5). He naturally uses the feminine gender because we are the bride of Christ. This eschatological promise is already a reality as the Holy Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14).

This friendship with the world, produced by a worldly mind and subsequent desire for pleasure, constituted spiritual adultery and made the guilty enemies of God. For to declare one’s allegiance to the world is a declaration of enmity toward God. James reasoned with them on the basis of an understanding they should have had. When one enthrones the world and dethrones God he makes himself God’s enemy. This stance puts one in a spiritual condition which is indeed abhorrent to God.

It then is no wonder that in verse 5 James refers to an Old Testament scriptural principle which states that the Spirit whom God has caused to dwell in us yearns over us with a jealous love. This verse constitutes one of the greatest interpretative questions of the epistle. It appears that James is not quoting directly any Old Testament passage explicitly. The general truth is portrayed strongly in such passages as Hos. 2:19ff; Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Josh. 24:19-20; Deut. 6:14-15; Jer. 3:14. James wants his readers to understand clearly that their lustful friendship to the world was totally antagonistic to the Holy Spirit whom God had caused to dwell in them. The Holy Spirit is Christ Himself dwelling in our hearts by faith according to Eph. 3:16-17. As the One who reveals the Father, the resultant relationship is that we are dwelling places in which God resides (Eph. 2:22). So to turn our hearts to worldly pleasure and to play the harlot with the world moves God to a wholly legitimate jealous love. His jealous love is wholesome and completing because He yearns for us for our good and for the blessing of others by us. Our yearning for the world is devastating because it tends to destroy our basic well-being and hurts others in the process.

James indeed recognizes that this is a large and constant threat. The desire for self-gratification is one which will overwhelm even the strongest Christian. So in verse 6 he shares a distinct promise that God gives more and more grace. One who is self-centered does not feel he needs God’s grace. He is self- sufficient. One who is Christ-centered always recognizes his constant need of greater and more grace. The more one grows in Christian attainment the more grace he needs to stay Christ-centered. James is so right to acclaim that we need to hear carefully God’s claim that He sets Himself against the proud and haughty, but He graciously gives grace to the one who is humble-minded enough to receive it and be blessed by it and in turn be a blessing to others because of it.

d. Passion for self-gratification demands repentance, 4:7-10

Because this despicable worldly lust for pleasure was so abhorrent to God there had to be an immediate and complete repentance to avoid the catastrophe of a broken, shattered relationship. In these verses James first lists representative elements necessary in repentance, then a clear summons to repentance, and finally a brief, pointed statement of the result of repentance.

For one who has dethroned God and enthroned self for the sake of self-gratification there are certain elements which must be involved in his return to God. He must submit to God or take a stand with God. This is a military term describing a stance of renewed obedience to God’s will. Here is a positive commitment to God in total surrender. This element is paralleled by its negative counterpart. He must also stand against the devil. It is more than resistance; it is a definite stand taken against the will of the devil, who is actually “the slanderer.” (In verses 11-12 the one who slanders his brothers is acting in the role of the devil, the slanderer.) This decisive stance against the devil will result in his fleeing from you even as he did after Jesus’ own victory in the wilderness. James promises victory over Satan in the environment of a close relationship with God.

So along with submission to God is the accompanying element of drawing near to God. This action is a decisive act of approaching God in fellowship and worship. Our first move toward Him will be met by His outstretched open arms as He indeed draws near to us. This is a renewed relationship where self-centeredness is dissolved and Christ-centeredness is established.

Representative of our drawing near to God is having our defiled hands cleansed. James reflects his Jewish ceremonial background here, but not in a bad way. He is not to be understood as saying that we can actually cleanse our own hands. Nor does he mean that it is our hands that are the part of us which is defiled. Cleansing of the hands depicts that which defiles. Really it is the heart which needs cleansing. So James is saying that as we draw near to God we must let Him wash us of all our sins which defile.

Parallel to this element of repentance is the admonition to purify our hearts. It is not that we can do this for ourselves. But we are to draw so near to Him that He can rectify our double-mindedness. Reminiscent of Matt. 6:24ff James refers to the tendency to serve God and materialism. As we renew our loyalty to God we must no longer be characterized by the two-faced lifestyle. We cannot continue having a mind for worldliness and a mind for God. We must firmly come to God so that He can refocus our spiritual sight on His will for us.

Immediately following a presentation of these necessary elements of repentance James strongly delivers a decisive summons to repentance in verse 9. These outward elements in the summons must not be substituted for the heart’s condition. These are to be genuine outward expressions of a true inward condition. This summons is suggestive of a deeply repentant state of mind. Itis a sharp summons which should startle his readers into a recognition of their real need.

The first word in the summons to repentance is a call to wretchedness, a recognition of the heaviness of the affliction weighing down upon the sinner. This sense of wretchedness is to grow out of a deep sorrow for sin. This is why James follows with another sharp imperative to mourn in deep grief and sorrow. It is the “godly sorrow” described by Paul in 2 Cor. 7:9-10 which produces salvation not to be regretted. This inward grief is then to be expressed outwardly in shameless weeping, indicative of one’s genuine dejection because of his pitiful state in sin. Emphasis is placed on this summons to repentance by the concluding admonition to let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your mirth be changed to heartfelt shame or dejection. The literal downcast look is to reflect a downcast heart ready to turn to God for renewal. This downcast look reflecting the humility of the heart which fully recognizes that it does not deserve forgiveness prepares for the first statement in verse 10. James commands the repentant one to humble himself in the presence of the Lord and He will assuredly lift him up. Here is wonderful hope and encouragement.

It is to be noted that verses 7-10 do not stand as a barricade to genuine joy in the Christian life. There is indeed not only room for multiple expressions of joy; joy is to characterize the life of fellowship with God. But sin and its expression in arrogant pride is no occasion for joy. It is an occasion to be sad because of what it does to God, to others, and to oneself.

(3) Strife resulting from gossip, 4:11-12

Another real and tragic source of strife is the expression of self-centeredness, slandering, or backbiting another person. It is indeed a form of self-exaltation to try to destroy a brother by speaking against him. This action of critical judgment causes all kinds of contention. So James says in verse 11 to stop talking down your brother. The word means to talk down another person in the sense of using slanderous speech to bring low that person. It includes the action of backbiting someone with a view to slandering. When one does this he is actually drawing near to the devil, not God. The very name of the devil used in 4:7 means “the slanderer.”

So James makes it clear that to malign or judge a brother involves one in maligning and judging the law. The law referred to here is not only the legalistic expression of law. It actually is to be taken ultimately to refer to the greater law of love. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). His point of reference to the law itself was the Shema found in Deut. 6:5 and the companion to it found in Lev. 19:18. Even as it was serious to break the law, it was even more so to stand in judgment on it. This is what James said one did by the action of gossip. He added that to malign and criticize the law made one cease practicing the law because then he set himself up as a censor and judge of it. This attitude of self-exaltation, arrogant pride, placed oneself above God Himself.

So in verse 12 James reminds his prideful readers to whom this portrayal would apply that there is only one Law-giver and Judge who also is the One who has the power of life and death. He is able to save but He also is able to destroy. This reminder should have brought humility to the arrogant slanderer who by his action of malicious gossip tried to make himself God. But one who does this is in the wrong place and needs to be brought down. James does this by the question, “Who are you who would presume to pass judgment on your neighbor?”

There is probably no greater cause of most serious trouble in our churches and denomination today than malicious talk. It stems from the selfish desire to lift oneself up by tearing another down. Seeds of doubt and suspicion can be sown which sound so pious and righteous, but such ugly slander can do damage beyond repair. Because we are brothers in Christ we should strive to help one another and not destroy one another.

2. The Evil of Materialism, 4:13-5:6

James’s protest of prevalent evils now extends more explicitly to another expression of self-centeredness—avarice or materialism. When one is motivated by self-interest it is natural to plan life without God. Serious consequences are the natural result.

(1) The futility of materialism, 4:13-17

a. The arrogance of self-determinism, 4:13

James abruptly summons his readers to attention by the employment of an idiom in Greek, “come now.” The ones so addressed are those in the congregation whose lives were oriented to the material concerns of life so that concern for God was totally ignored. Their mindset was that of extreme arrogance and self-importance, indeed self-determinism.

Indicative of this arrogant, prideful state of mind is their casual expression of how they carefully planned their own future with a view to their own benefit. It is well expressed by the paraphrase, ”As we decide, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, we will journey to this city or that city, and we will spend a year there, trading and making a profit.” They are naming time and place and activity, and all of it is self-centered. They are on the throne; God is forgotten. They are assuming they had mastery over time and events.

This mindset fits the prevalent attitude of the typical Jewish merchant of the first-century world. It would also describe the action of Gentile merchants of the day. But it ought not be descriptive of the Christian. Too many Christians were adopting this materialistic attitude, action, and motivation, and God’s will was being ignored.

b. The uncertainty of life, 4:14

In this verse James sharply counters this disposition toward arrogance. He says his readers were of such nature that they did not really know what would be the makeup even of tomorrow. Much less could they program a year of tomorrows with such smug self-assurance. He asks them to examine the real nature of their lives. Such accurate appraisal of what life really is would cause them to be humble, not arrogant, and to depend on God, not on themselves alone. He depicts the basic uncertainty of life, that it is out of their control, by the analogy of a mist. Your life is as a vapor, a mist, a wisp of smoke, that is here one moment but gone the next. One does not exercise control of life’s events to the extent they were arrogantly displaying.

Certainly James is not suggesting that Christians not make any plans or to wake up in a new world every day. This would be irresponsible. So he gives directions as to how the Christian should deploy his life from day to day.

c. An appeal to humble surrender to God, 4:15

Because life is so transient in its basic character one should turn to God who is not like the vanishing mist. He is a solid rock, an ever-present security as one draws near to Him in a trustful relationship. James declares what one should say about the planning of life’s events. One should say he will do certain things he may plan here or there if the Lord wills. Certainly this is not an appeal to a mechanical verbal repetition before one makes any decision or carries out any action. But it is a clear recognition that God is in control and that it is best to humbly submit to His will. It does not remove the responsibilities of decision making on the part of Christians. However, it does remove an arrogant self-assurance and restores a stance of walking with God in all of life’s events.

d. The evil of arrogant self-determinism, 4:16

If there was no repentance and subsequent change of attitude the scene among James’s congregation was indeed a sad one. As it stood so many of them were boasting arrogantly in their vainglorious pride. They were carefully and meticulously evaluating their accomplishments and achievements, many of which were pretensions which exceeded actuality. But even the hollow pretenses were gains gotten without God so they were boasting long and loud.

This sin is especially dangerous to ministers. When one begins his ministry he easily recognizes his dependence on God and therefore seeks His grace. But as one becomes better educated, more experienced, more prestigious, more affluent, it is all too easy to start shutting God out.

One may continue the   words   of   trust and dependence, but all the while he is actually living his ministerial life according to his own designs and for his own profit. God is on the sidelines. This has happened and is now happening to many ministers, churches, institutions, and even denominations. Therefore, it is no wonder that James denounces such arrogant self-determinism as being basically evil. It is one thing to sin the overt, readily acknowledged sins. We know that is evil. But it is also evil to do even good things and abstain from the bad if what is accomplished is without God. Arrogance in any expression is basically evil. It must be seen for what it is.

e. Concluding word on knowledge, action, and sin, 4:17

James is writing to a congregation of people who knew what was right and what was wrong. They knew that materialism drove a wedge between one and God. They knew they should not be guilty of strife, gossip, or self-determinism. So he declares strongly that to know what is right and not to be doing it is outright sin. Sin is not only an overt act of missing the mark, doing a wrong thing. Sin is also choosing not to do what is a part of Christian responsibility. The sins of omission are as abhorrent to God and damaging to man as the sins of commission. Basic to this knowledge about what was right action is acknowledgement of God once again. In all matters of Christian conduct and attitude one should act to honor God, bless others, and fulfill God’s will for his own life.

(2) The fruits of materialism, 5:1-6

As James proceeds into what is now divided into chapter 5 he depicts the results or consequences of self-centeredness which has led to self-determinism, which in turn has resulted in oppression of others.

a. The doom of the rich who oppress, 5:1-3

The rich are those who have accumulated their wealth as a product of an arrogant disregard for God (4:13-17). They have achieved their goal but with such tragic consequences.

Their wealth has caused them to measure life in terms of the material so they have forgotten God. Their avarice has caused them to oppress the poor. And now James warns that surely judgment is on the way.

James calls the oppressing rich to attention even as he did in 4:13. Whereas in 4:9 the call was to a sobbing borne of repentance, this call in 5:1 is to an agonizing wailing which accompanies judgment. Here is what the rich who oppress can count on. The comfort and luxury purchased at the expense of one’s devotion to God and service to others is going to be turned into misery and become an occasion for woe.

The reason for their misery is that they trusted in expressions of wealth which do not last. The analogy here in verses 2-3 is so similar to Matt. 6:19-21 where Jesus spoke of treasures on earth being moth­ eaten, decayed by rottenness. But James adds another dimension. Not only will their wealth rot, their garments become moth-eaten, and their gold and silver rust, but also their riches will actually stand as a testimony against them and will eat them up as if it were fire. They will be denounced by those things they accumulated for security in their old age.

b. The sins of the rich who oppress, 5:4-6

These verses describe the reasons for the just judgment of the oppressing rich. Here is a tragic portrayal of what the rich did to the poor as examples of serious oppression. It is a natural result of self-centeredness. One’s own well-being is all that was ever considered. Others were used for the benefit of the rich. The withheld wages of workers was crying out for vengeance. The cries of the harvesters who were abused were being heard by the Lord.

Also in utter disregard for both God and man, they have abandoned themselves to soft living and to the pleasures of self-indulgence and self-gratification. But what was really happening was that they were fattening themselves for a day of slaughter. They were unknowingly sowing the seed of their own judgment. Another interpretation of this is that they were bent on fattening their own lives at the expense of others whose lives were slaughtered for the benefit of the rich.

Therefore this would be related to verse 6 where James charges the oppressing rich with condemning and murdering innocent, righteous men who could not resist their rapaciousness.

So James’s protest against prevalent evils concludes with a warning that self-centeredness in any expression not only comes to nothing but results in the severe condemnation of the greedy. Even though it is important to note that James does not condemn wealth nor the one who has wealth as an evil in itself he indeed does warn against improper gaining of wealth and improper use of wealth. Whether God is at the center or not makes the difference, and that is an everlasting and all-encompassing truth!

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