William Kelly Major Works Commentary - James 4:1 - 4:17

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - James 4:1 - 4:17


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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

James Chapter 4

The new chapter turns to the source of the bitter contention against which from the first its warning lay - "slow to wrath," to its disastrous result.

"Whence [are] wars and whence fightings among you? [Are they] not hence, from your pleasures that combat in your members? Ye lust and have not: ye kill and are jealous and cannot obtain: ye fight and war: ye have not because ye ask not: ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend [it] in your pleasures" (vers. 1-3).

These violent workings sprang from self unjudged. If deliberate and continuous they are called "wars"; if passing outbreaks, they are called "fightings" or "battles"; but they describe not effects of violence in the world, but among those addressed. The humiliating fact remains, that terms to describe them are drawn from the uncontrolled ways of men who knew not God. What a contrast with Him Who says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mat_11:29-30). "Blessed" He pronounces "the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed they which hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed the peace-makers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed the persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed are ye when they shall revile and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake" (Mat_5:3-11).

Next the proximate cause is stated. "[Are they] not hence, from your pleasures that combat in your members?" It was the gratification of fallen nature. The members of the body in this case play their part, unchecked by the will or fear of God: the throat, an open sepulchre; the tongue, deceitful; the lips, with poison underneath; the mouth, full of bitterness; the eyes, full of adultery; the hands, ready for rapine; the heart, prone to covetousness; the feet, swift to shed blood. How hopelessly evil, if grace had not given another nature through and according to the word of truth (which is indeed, as the apostle calls it, Christ our life)! And the new has its pleasures after its source, hating what God hates, and delighting in what pleases' Him. His word is then the law of liberty.

But where Christ is not before the eye of faith working by love, how mournful the issue! "Ye lust and have not; ye kill, and are jealous, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not; ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend [it] in your pleasures." Here the evil is traced to that unhallowed desire that is called "lust," whatever may be its object, and whether corrupt or violent. It is wholly in contrast with subjection to God and His word. It is therefore antagonistic to the affection and mind of the Holy Spirit, as is said in Gal_5:17, "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these things are opposed one to the other, that ye should not do the things that ye would."

Here therefore we have, traced in unerring lines, the inevitable failure of such a course. There are desires which come to nothing; there is violence to an extreme, and envy or jealousy to the full, yet still dissatisfaction; there is contention ever growing worse; there is no asking, and no answer of peace. If there be asking apparently, there is the reserve of selfishness; it is evilly done to squander on their pleasures.

Violence was denounced in the opening of the chapter. Hence we have corruption indignantly rebuked to the face.

"Adulteresses,* know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore shall be minded to be friend of the world is constituted enemy of God. Or think ye that the scripture saith in vain? † Doth the Spirit that took his dwelling in us long unto envy? But he giveth more grace; wherefore he saith, God setteth himself against haughty [men], but giveth grace to lowly" (vers. 4-6).

The shorter text as given here is attested by the great witnesses, both manuscripts and versions. The addition in later copies we can understand from the temptation to round the phrase and comprehend men and women; and this has tended to a literal sense instead of understanding it as a forcible and solemn appeal, the gender being easily apprehended from the nature of the offence. For the first duty of every Christian is fidelity to Christ; and assuredly there is no question of failure on His part. With the saints it is far otherwise.

* So run pm A B 13, and, only in the mass., Syrsch Copt. Aeth. Arm.

† The punctuation and translation of ver, 5 may be questioned; but I have faithfully given what seems best.

Thus wrote the apostle to the Corinthians, "I espoused you to one husband that I might present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." Here each individual is more in view; but the principle is the same, and the figure of departure quite intelligible. The world corrupts from simplicity as to Christ many who would turn from immoral ways at once. For it looks fair enough, and offers a variety of attractions suited to our nature. And the question is often raised, What is the harm of this? Is there any wrong in that? But this Epistle lays bare the character of the enticement. Are we seeking or accepting the world? Now friendship with the world is enmity with God. Did not the world crucify the Lord of glory? Is it Christian then to value its approbation, or to court its honour? Is it loyal to the Lord to walk in familiar ease with the system which shed His blood and put Him to the vilest ignominy? No one clears himself of that guilt save he who believing is washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of our Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. Those who profess the name without the power are sure to weary of separateness to Christ and to hanker after earthly things. But the word is plain: "Whosoever therefore shall be minded to be friend of the world is constituted enemy of God."

The written word of God is as distinctly opposed to such unholy commerce as the Spirit Who dwells in us revolts from its spirit. "Or think ye that the scripture saith [it] in vain? Doth the Spirit that took His dwelling in us long unto envy?" What did our Lord teach on the mount or in His discourses habitually, and in His answers to men? Separation from the world is everywhere enjoined, or presumed. And what can be more adverse to the envy which characterises the world than the mind of the indwelling Spirit of God? Subjectively therefore as well as objectively what God gives in no way countenances friendship with the world.

No doubt the difficulties and the dangers are great for the saint here below. "But he giveth more grace"; and all need it. Not content with imparting settled "access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" (Rom_5:2), where is the Epistle, speaking ordinarily, which does not begin with "grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ? "This is general, of course; and so much the better for its purpose that so it should be. Here it is suited to the trial, and therefore appropriate to need. "But he giveth greater grace." The more severe the strain, the greater is His outflow of goodness for seasonable help. "Wherefore he saith, God setteth himself against haughty [men], but giveth grace to lowly." Not only 1 Sam. 2 and Luke 10, but the Psalms and Proverbs furnish abundant testimony to both its parts.

The assurance that God giveth grace to the lowly leads to the next exhortation.

"Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse hands, sinners, and purify hearts, ye double-minded. Sorrow, and mourn, and weep; let your laughter be turned unto mourning, and your joy unto heaviness. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (vers. 7-10).

There is much that helps the soul, as it is due to God, that we submit ourselves to Him. Undoubtedly it becomes one that knows Him to cherish obedient lowliness in His sight; and were we ever in our watchtower, we should be habitually thus submissive. But in fact a little thing is apt to excite, and the uprising of another too often rouses our own pride, instead of being only a grief to our souls as it should be. Hence the need of subjection to God which quiets the spirit and leads to gracious affections.

But there is an adversary ever at work with whom we are called to have no terms, no compromises, even where appearances are put forward ever so plausibly. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Christ is the test: the devil always works to thwart and defame the Lord Jesus. He may preach righteousness, he may stimulate zeal; but he never exalts Christ's name in truth, any more than leads to suffering for His sake. Detested and resisted he will flee from us. To gratify flesh and the world are his ordinary snares. Let us never forget that to faith he is a vanquished enemy. Let us resist him in dependence on the Lord. On the other hand, we are called to "draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you."

The new and living way is now open to Him Who sent His Son that all obstacles might be removed in the love that wrought and gave us a redemption worthy of Himself and of His Son. His written word now imparts the revealed certainty of His will in thus putting us in relationship with Himself, as we were shown early in this Epistle. As He speaks freely to us in His love, so does He encourage us, "always confident," to draw nigh to Him. Our asking of Him, whatever the need, the danger, or the difficulty, is grounded on His having addressed Himself to us in grace. And Christ, as He was "the faithful witness" of Him to us, is no less of us to Him, so as to keep up faith's assurance alike when we draw nigh to God and when we resist the devil.

But the thought in the next words seems an example of the peculiarity of an Epistle addressed to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion. "Sinners" and "double-minded" persons are appealed to as such. Such appeals are nowhere found in the Epistles addressed to the saints in the N.T. Here the scope is so wide as to include souls not yet converted, though we have also seen a great deal in the Epistle which supposes the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is more here and to come in accordance with its being written to the ancient people of God as a whole, in whatever degree each believer may draw profit from all. The difficulty of the exhortation is thus accounted for, and the authority of the word maintained, without yielding to any strained interpretation. Nevertheless it is a call to faith in all these verses, and not to the slow process of human effort; for cleansing of hands and purifying of hearts, no less than for submission to God and drawing nigh to Him before, or for sorrowings that follow. The verbs are all in what is called the aorist, and therefore imply that God calls for each and all of these calls to be done once for all as a settled thing for the soul. This grace alone could effect. Man otherwise must labour in vain. God gives to faith what He demands.

Still where faith is, there is repentance also; and God will have evil felt and judged in those who are blessed of Him. Hence the summons, "Sorrow, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned unto mourning, and your joy unto heaviness." As the Lord said, "Blessed they that mourn; for they shall be comforted." The Epistle of James will no more allow the moral side to be forgotten than the apostle Paul in showing us the characteristics of genuine repentance. How could it be otherwise, if we stand in faith before God confessing our sins? To make repentance only a change of mind is a serious dereliction from the truth. Sin is ignored as it is in God's sight, and any divinely-given sense of our ruin.

But a larger call follows, and of deep practical moment, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." This too is a call to have it done once for all, like the rest - an accomplished act, and not a mere process going on. But as in the other cases, so in this, the believer is bound ever after to watch against every inconsistency with what is so done.

The next admonition is on evil speaking and the judicial spirit which is so often its root.

"Speak not against one another, brethren. He that speaketh against a brother, or judgeth his brother, speaketh against law and judgeth law; but if thou judgest law, thou art not a doer of law but a judge. One is the law-giver and judge that is able to save and destroy; but who art thou that judgest thy neighbour" (vers. 11, 12)?

Here was the suited place to apply particularly what the Epistle had guarded against in a general way in James 2, when on all it impressed slowness in speaking as well as in wrath. This was pursued again in James 3 to the strict government of the tongue from over-readiness to teach; seeing that fair words and foul from the same lips ought not so to be, and may easily prove occasion of stumbling. Here it follows the exposure of the inward spring of selfwill in violence and corruption, without duly heeding scripture and the Spirit Who leads to prayer with subjection to God, and confidence in Him and His grace.

The exhortation is as to our ordinary but God-fearing intercourse. The necessities of godly discipline are not in question. Holy love is bound to rebuke what is wrong in those guilty of it, and to warn those who may be endangered by the evil example. Wrong in these cases must be laid bare though it ought to be in sorrow; but it is due to the Lord, and for the profit of those concerned. If there be a public snare and peril, this makes a corresponding admonition to be a duty, and is love in truth.

But to spread disparagement or discreditable imputations without a call from God according to His word, and with no effort to seek the good of the alleged evil-doers, is not only far from Christ, but beneath even a Jew. There is neither truth nor love in detraction, but constant liability to false witness: a multitude must not be followed to do such uncomely turns, any more than to favour a poor man in his cause. The nearness of our relationship is apt to lend occasion to freedom of speech, but it clearly ought rather to enforce on us the greater caution. "Speak not against one another, brethren." Entreaty or remonstrance may be called for; but angry and especially habitual depreciation is unworthy of those that bear the Lord's name. Is it to injure? How does He regard it? "He that speaketh against a brother, or judgeth his brother, speaketh against law, and judgeth law; but if thou judgest law, thou art not a doer of law but a judge." Not only the uncharitable act, but the judicial assumption which it must involve, are here exposed with transparent soundness. The brother spoken against may be innocent; the evil speaker is certainly in a false position and an injurious state. The authority which all acknowledge condemns him, at least of being censorious, usurping the seat of judgment, and disputing the authority he invokes. Nor is God mocked: for we reap as we sow, if of flesh corruption; if of Spirit, life everlasting.

"But if thou judgest law, thou are not a doer of law but a judge." How true it is that the readiest to blame others are the least careful over themselves, and need most correction for their heedless ways and their hasty judgments!

How solemn too the appeal to conscience! "One is the law-giver and judge, that is able to save and destroy." How grave is the rebuke to any who so offend! "But who art thou that judgest thy neighbour?" Grace and self-judgment can alone enable us to abhor the evil and cleave to the good. may we cultivate both.

Thence the Epistle turns to that unbelieving spirit and inconsiderate speech too often borrowed from the world by those who know and ought to feel how all things hang on God's will.

"Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go to this city here and spend there a year, and traffic and make gain, whereas ye know not what [will be] the morrow. Of what sort [is] your life? Why, it is a vapour that appeareth for a little and then disappeareth, instead of your saying, If the Lord will, we shall both live and do this or that" (vers 13-15).

It is plain that the levity of the sentiment goes deeper than the words, and betrays the readiness of man's mind to leave God out of the ordinary round of life, especially in the affairs of business. But to bring Him in and to refer to His will with integrity would cover the greater part of every day. Christ, yea Christianity also, shows that as there is nothing too great for us to receive from God, so there is nothing too little for God to direct us in. His will embraces all that is humble, all that is glorious. Christ is not the witness only but the fulness in both. Who ever came so low? Who is now gone so high? And He is the fife of every Christian, who is therefore called to walk as He did. But there we fail, as Christ never did; in Whom nothing is more wonderful than His unwavering obedience; He is indeed the only Man Who always did without exception the things which pleased His Father.

It is then our duty, as it is our privilege, to consult the will of our God and Father day by day, and throughout each day. In our prayer and in His word we find the means; or, as our Lord Himself put the case perfectly, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done to you." For He begins with our constant reliance on Him, and He ends with the assurance of our having what we ask; for, so doing, one only asks what is according to God's will.

After knowing so blessed a reality as Christ's walk on earth, leaving us an example that we should follow His steps, is it not then a dead loss and a deep wrong, that any Christian should walk as the heathen that know not God? One can understand Elijah taunting the recreant Jews who followed Baal, and especially Baal's priests who vainly called on that demon to answer by fire. "Cry aloud: for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked." But he who believes on Christ knows Him active in the richest love to bless now and evermore, God revealed too as His Father and our Father, His God and our God. Are we not then to lay before Him every difficulty and every desire? Are we not to respond to His grace by our devotedness? Are not we too sanctified by the Spirit unto obedience, and this obedience, not of a Jew under the law, but under grace, yea expressly to an obedience like His own, of sons with the Father? As children of obedience, it is not for us to fashion ourselves according to our former lusts in our ignorance; but as He that called us is holy, so may it be with us in all manner of living. Now the main spring of this practical course is seeking to walk in His will.

But Christian profession, and perhaps especially among the Israelites, was fast slipping into worldliness and naturalism, as we hear it pungently described in these verses. Not only is it unworthy of God's child; it is practical impiety. Who and what is a man that fears God to talk of his plans for to-day or to-morrow without a thought of Him? Who and what is he to leave where he is and go to this city here, to spend there a year? And how? To traffic and make gain! "Whereas," says our Epistle, "ye know not what will be on the morrow." How simple yet withering! "Of what sort is your life? Why, it is a vapour that appeareth for a little and then disappeareth." Of course no more is here spoken of than our earthly existence, our life in the world. Instead of that we ought to say, "If the Lord will, we shall both live and do this or that." Impossible to resist the force of this appeal. Our living here below falls as much under the Lord's will, as our doing this or that. How wretched to ignore Him! How happy to know His will and to do it!

The closing verses disclose the root of this practical leaving God out of daily life and language, but deepen the censure by pointing to that unselfish goodness to which every one is called who has the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.

"But now ye glory in your vauntings: all such glorying is wicked. To one knowing to do a comely thing, and not doing [it], it is a sin to him" (vers. 16, 17).

The only befitting state of a creature is dependence on God; with this all vauntings, as if our life were within our power and every act of it free for our own disposal, is wholly at issue. Bought with a price, we with such feelings and ways defraud Him to Whom we belong; and all the more, if according to God's own will we derive our new nature from Him by the word of truth. We are called to keep up the family character. Of this He Who had sovereign rights has set us the perfect exemplar; for Lord of glory as He is, He came down to be a bondman and was to the uttermost. Love animated Him in an obedience which never flagged; as love sent Him on our behalf, not only to save us when lost, but to conform us in heart and to fashion our ways and words. What can be more opposed than vauntings, unless it be to glory in them? Instead of it, let us be ashamed when we consider what we are in such godless pride, and what He was, Who, though rich, for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, but rich only in the unseen and eternal. Are we any better in ourselves? Is it not solely in Him? How senseless, unworthy, and inconsistent to glory in our vauntings! Truly "all such glorying is wicked"; it savours not of Christ, but of the devil's inflation.

But we cannot, as confessors of the Lord Jesus deny what we have by faith seen and heard of Him. In virtue of life in Him we know the thing that becomes the Christian; for we are not ignorant of that which was manifested in Him, Who was its fulness and never allowed the entrance of the least foreign element. It is not here goodness in the form of benevolence (ἀγαθὸν though we are surely to follow Him in that path also (Gal_6:10). Here it is what is honourably right (καλὸν in one who professes not to be a man only, but to be born of God. If knowing it therefore, we are engaged to do it; and if one does it not, to him it is sin.

It is evident that this goes far beyond the Puritan and even more widely human perversion of 1Jn_3:4, which pervades systematic divinity. It ought to be absurd in any intelligent eyes to think that James penetrates more deeply than the beloved disciple. No law is in question but "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus"; it is the law of liberty, not of bondage. John however does not speak of "the transgression of the law," which has its own proper expression elsewhere; he presents the true and faithful character of sin, even where law was unknown: "sin is lawlessness." It is the principle and exercise of self-will, and not only breach of the law. Being a reciprocal proposition, lawlessness is sin as truly as sin is lawlessness. Here our Epistle applies the truth on the positive side. God's will is that we should do a thing that is right or comely when we know it: if we know and do it not, we sin. It is our own will that hinders; and this is always sin.