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James 4

Scripture: James 4:1-17


  • James asks his audience, “You wonder why you fight with each other? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re envious people. You desperately want what other people have, and when you can’t get it you become cantankerous, mean, even violent. You don’t have what you want because you haven’t asked God for what you need. And you don’t get what you need because you ask God for things selfishly–so you can get them and use them for your own pleasure. Not cool.”
  • “You people are Ashley Madison registered cheatin’ scum bags when it comes to your faith,” Jim Jam says. “Your BFF is the world, which means you’re anti-God.”
  • James reminds them that the Old Testament, again and again, tells the story of how God desperately seeks out our singular affection and attention. And that he graciously takes us back after every affair we’ve had with the world.
  • “Let me throw a Proverb at you,” Jay Jay says. “‘God pounds down the proud, but gives hugs to the humble.’ So humble yourselves. Tell the devil, ‘No’ and watch him run away. Snuggle up to God and he will snuggle you back. You people who think you can have it both ways (loving God and loving the world), unite your inside beliefs and your outside actions. Wash the ugliness of double-mindedness from your life. Don’t falsely act happy, be sad. You done wrong. Weep about it. Like an unfaithful spouse begging to be taken back, wail to God, because if you drop down to your knees in front of him, God will pick you back up, and you will be his again.”
  • J-Dogg tells them, “Furthermore, don’t go around using your words to put each other down. You are not the judge. You are not the law. There is only one true judge, one guy who makes all the rules, and that’s Jesus. Respect.”
  • “Now, you people who think you’ve got it all figured out,” says Jimbo, “you people who are all, ‘I’m going to be super successful because I’ve got a three point business plan to go down to such and such city and make huge sales and tons of profitable blah blah,’ let me remind you, you don’t even know what tomorrow is like, much less next year. Want to know what your life amounts to? You know how the fog rolls in at morning time, but by 10:00 it’s gone, without a trace, like it was never there at all? Yeah, that’s you. That’s your whole existence.  Next time you make a plan, be sure to start by saying, ‘If God wills it, we’ll do it.’ Thinking you’ve got it all under control, and not acknowledging your dependence on God, is plain evil.”
  • James wraps it up by reminding them that if they know what the right thing to do is but refuse to do it, that’s what God would call missing the mark. Willful ignorance is the very definition of sin.

Historical Context:

James 4:5

The wording of James 4:5 is ambiguous and has been interpreted two different ways: It can read that “[God] jealously longs for the spirit he caused to dwell in us,” or that “the spirit [God] caused to dwell in us longs jealously.”

The first interpretation implies that God is zealous in his love for us and wants us to only love him. The second implies that our souls, by nature, are inclined towards envy, and therefore we are prone to violence. Both fit the context of James’ discussion, but the majority of scholars favor the first interpretation: that God actively seeks our undivided attention.

Proverbs 3

James quotes Proverbs 3:34 to describe God’s personal stance in regard to the choice before us. God is neither passive nor indifferent but quite active in opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble. The proverb is also reflected in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11 and 18:14.This passage is also quoted in 1 Peter 5:5.

Reading through Proverbs 3 in it’s entirety shows that James uses many of it’s concepts in his letter: Resisting the devil and clinging to God (Proverbs 3:7); understanding God’s disciplinary actions (Proverbs 3:11-12); seeking God’s wisdom (Proverbs 3:11-26); and acting out one’s faith (Proverbs 3:27-31).

Hand Washing

To wash or cleanse the hands is emblematic of putting away transgression, (Matthew 27:24, Deuteronomy 21:6, Psalms 26:6). The heart is considered to be the seat of motives and intentions–that by which we devise anything; the hands, the instruments by which we execute our purposes. Jews were accustomed to wash their hands before they engaged in public worship.5

James says one must be sincere in purifying of one’s life, both morally and ceremonially. The two objects (your hands, your hearts) complement each other for external and internal cleansing. The essential connection between external washing and inward purifying is already an Old Testament theme in James’s background (Deut 10:16; Is 1:15-17). James may also be prompted by Jesus’ own teaching on washing of hands and purification within (Mk 7). James once again is connecting inward commitment and external action, a theme throughout his letter.1

Some scholars connect the Old Testament laws of impurity to the narrative in the beginning of Genesis. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve had brought death into the world by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Many think that the laws of impurity were devised to avoid contact with things that brought “death.” One who comes into contact with one of the forms of death must then immerse in water which is described in Genesis as flowing out of the Garden of Eden (the source of life) in order to cleanse oneself of this contact with death (and by extension, sin).6

Jewish Merchants

The practice of planning one’s year (James 4:13) was common among a very respectable and intelligent class of merchants during the first century. The merchants would convey the products of one place to some distant city, where they remained until they had disposed of their own goods and had purchased others suitable for another distant market; and thus the operation was repeated, until, after a number of years, the trader was enabled to return prosperously to his home. These operations were seldom very rapid, as the merchant would like to wait for opportunities to make advantageous bargains; and sometimes settle down and open a shop in the place to which he came. Many merchants at this time made long journeys to distant trading cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth.5


  • “Judging” in James’s text to refer to the act of setting oneself up as a judge and lawgiver, as if one had the authority to determine what is right or wrong about another person’s life.1
  • The term for “fights” in Greek is polemos; in other contexts (as in Heb 11:34), it refers to actual armed conflict and so carries a violent image. The term for “quarrels” in Greek is mache; it is used in other literature only for battles without material weapons and so refers more to angry disputes.1
  • The Greek word for “desires” is hedone, which speaks more distinctly of pleasures. James is saying we get into fights because of pleasures we desire for ourselves.1
  • Against whom are James’ audience battling? James does not seem to imply that our good and evil desires are battling against each other. James is not sympathizing with the audiences’ internal conflicts but warning that those who literally fight are cooperating in their own self-destruction. A better translation may be, “You want and do not have: (so) you murder. And you covet and cannot obtain: (so) you quarrel and fight.” 1
  • “Spiritual adultery” is the unfaithfulness of the church, which is the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Romans 7:1-6; Revelation 21:2; 22:17). The marriage metaphor was extensively used in the Old Testament, as in Isa. 54:5; and the new Israel of God, the church, naturally took it over. Jesus used it in John 3:29; and also in Matt. 12:39.4
  • James says our prayers are not answered due to the origin of the request being selfish. Elsewhere in the Bible we are told, God hears the cry of the righteous (Psalms 34:15); God hears those who call upon him in truth (Psalms 145:18); God hears the penitent (Luke 18:14); those who ask “in his name” (John 14:13); those who ask “believing” (Mark 11:24); those who ask according to God’s will (1 John 5:14).4
  • James draws the parallel that God resists the proud, so we are to resist the devil. The Greek verb for “resist,” anthistemihas, means to “set oneself against” and so emphasizes the Christian’s deliberately chosen personal stance.1
  • James gives his audience three vivid impressions of mourning: talaiporeo, a Greek word meaning “a state of being miserable or wretched”; pentheo, a Greek word meaning, “the great sadness of mourning”; and klaio, a Greek word meaning, “a vehement or bitter weeping.” James is calling for what Jesus prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:4).1
  • Moses was known as the great “lawgiver” of the Old Testament. James ascribes that title to Jesus in his letter. Christ himself made his teachings to be the “rock” upon which alone the builder could safely build (Matthew 7:24-27). His word will judge men “at the last day” (John 12:48); God has commissioned Jesus Christ to “execute judgment” (John 5:37). Christ is the one who will preside in the judgment of all nations (Matthew 25:31ff). His words, “these sayings of mine,” “whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), are the constitution and bylaws of the kingdom of God.4
  • The sin James accuses his readers of is not that they planned for the future, but that they failed to consider God in their plans.4
  • The “mist” that James refers to is the mist that covers the countryside in the morning, and by noon has disappeared completely.2


  • James implies that the source of all conflicts is our jealous nature. Do you believe that mankind could ever fully eradicate war? It has been said that “to kill one man makes a murderer, to kill many makes a hero.” How do we view violent conflict on a mass scale differently than on a small scale? Does it make it any more right/wrong? Is war ever justified? If everyone was a Christian, would violent conflict cease?
  • James says the only thing we need to do to make evil flee from us is to say, “No.” Why would simply resisting the devil cause him to run away? What does this say about the illusory power of evil in our life? Why is Satan so afraid of us standing strong?
  • James advocates mourning, weeping and gloom as acts of repentance. The church generally presents itself as happy and joyful during its Sunday morning service. What would it look like if a congregation embraced mourning? What would it look like if church members pleaded, sorrowfully, for forgiveness? Should the church be more sorrowful? Should you?
  • James seems to condemn those who make long term plans without incorporating God into the equation. What plans have you made for your future? How do you incorporate God into those plans? What would your future plans look like taking into account God’s will? How do you know what God’s will is for your future?
  • What does James mean when he says that anyone who “knows the good they ought to do, but doesn’t do it, it is sin for them”? How do you define sin? Is this a fair definition? What does this definition say about God’s expectations? What does this definition say about our will and where and when we chose to apply ourselves? What actions have you not taken that this definition would label as sin?


  1. IVP commentary
  2. Mackervoy’s commentary
  3. Constables’ commentary
  4. Coffman’s commentary
  5. Barnes’ commentary
  6. Ritual washing

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