Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


James 4:5

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain - This verse is exceedingly obscure. We cannot tell what scripture St. James refers to; many have been produced by learned men as that which he had particularly in view. Some think Genesis 6:5; : "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Genesis 8:21; : "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." Numbers 11:29; : "Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake?" and Proverbs 21:10; : "The soul of the wicked desireth evil." None of these scriptures, nor any others, contain the precise words in this verse; and therefore St. James may probably refer, not to any particular portion, but to the spirit and design of the Scripture in those various places where it speaks against envying, covetousness, worldly associations, etc., etc.

Perhaps the word in this and the two succeeding verses may be well paraphrased thus: "Do ye think that concerning these things the Scripture speaks falsely, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us can excite us to envy others instead of being contented with the state in which the providence of God has placed us? Nay, far otherwise; for He gives us more grace to enable us to bear the ills of life, and to lie in deep humility at his feet, knowing that his Holy Spirit has said, Proverbs 3:34; : God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Seeing these things are so, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil, who would tempt you to envy, and he will flee from you; draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you."

I must leave this sense as the best I can give, without asserting that I have hit the true meaning. There is not a critic in Europe who has considered the passage that has not been puzzled with it. I think the 5th verse should be understood as giving a contrary sense to that in our translation. Every genuine Christian is a habitation of the Holy Ghost, and that Spirit προς φθονον επιποθει, excites strong desires against envy; a man must not suppose that he is a Christian if he have an envious or covetous heart.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

Do ye think that the Scripture saith in vain - Few passages of the New Testament have given expositors more perplexity than this. The difficulty has arisen from the fact that no such passage as that which seems here to be quoted is found in the Old Testament; and to meet this difficulty, expositors have resorted to various conjectures and solutions. Some have supposed that the passage is spurious, and that it was at first a gloss in the margin, placed there by some transcriber, and was then introduced into the text; some that the apostle quotes from an apocryphal book; some, that he quotes the general spirit of the Old Testament rather than any particular place; some regard it not as a quotation, but read the two members separately, supplying what is necessary to complete the sense, thus: “Do you think that the Scripture speaks in vain, or without a good reason, when it condemns such a worldly temper? No; that you cannot suppose. Do you imagine that the Spirit of God, which dwelleth in us Christians, leads to covetousness, pride, envy? No. On the contrary, to such as follow his guidance and direction, he gives more abundant grace and favor.” This is the solution proposed by Benson, and adopted by Bloomfield. But this solution is by no means satisfactory. Two things are clear in regard to the passage:

(1) that James meant to adduce something that was said somewhere, or which could be regarded as a quotation, or as authority in the case, for he uses the formula by which such quotations are made; and,

(2) that he meant to refer, not to an apocryphal book, but to the inspired and canonical Scriptures, for he uses a term ἡ γραφὴ hē graphē- the Scripture) which is everywhere employed to denote the Old Testament, and which is nowhere applied to an apocryphal book, Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:29; Matthew 26:54, Matthew 26:56; John 2:22; John 5:39; John 7:38, John 7:42; John 10:35, et al. The word is used more than fifty times in the New Testament, and is never applied to any books but those which were regarded by the Jews as inspired, and which constitute now the Old Testament, except in 2 Peter 3:16, where it refers to the writings of Paul. The difficulty in the case arises from the fact that no such passage as the one here quoted is found in so many words in the Old Testament, nor any of which it can fairly be regarded as a quotation. The only solution of the difficulty which seems to me to be at all satisfactory, is to suppose that the apostle, in the remark made here in the form of a quotation, refers to the Old Testament, but that he had not his eye on any particular passage, and did not mean to quote the words literally, but meant to refer to what was the current teaching or general spirit of the Old Testament; or that he meant to say that this sentiment was found there, and designed himself to embody the sentiment in words, and to put it into a condensed form.

His eye was on envy as at the bottom of many of the contentions and strifes existing on earth, James 3:16, and of the spirit of the world which prevailed everywhere, James 4:4; and he refers to the general teaching of the Old Testament that the soul is by nature inclined to envy; or that this has a deep lodgement in the heart of man. That truth which was uttered every where in the Scriptures, was not taught “in vain.” The abundant facts which existed showing its developement and operation in contentions, and wars, and a worldly spirit, proved that it was deeply imbedded in the human soul. This general truth, that man is prone to envy, or that there is much in our nature which inclines us to it, is abundantly taught in the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 4:4, “I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbor.” Job 5:2, “wrath killeth, and envy slayeth the silly one.” Proverbs 14:30, “envy is the rottenness of the bones.” Proverbs 27:4, “who is able to stand before envy?” For particular instances of this, and the effects, see Genesis 26:14; Genesis 30:1; Genesis 37:11; Psalm 106:16; Psalm 73:3. These passages prove that there is a strong propensity in human nature to envy, and it was in accordance with the design of the apostle to show this. The effects of envy to which be himself referred evinced the same thing, and demonstrated that the utterance given to this sentiment in the Old Testament was not “in vain,” or was not false, for the records in the Old Testament on the subject found a strong confirmation in the wars and strifes and worldliness of which he was speaking.

Saith in vain - Says falsely;” that is, the testimony thus borne is true. The apostle means that what was said in the Old Testament on the subject found abundant confirmation in the facts which were continually occurring, and especially in those to which he was adverting.

The spirit that dwelleth in us - Many have supposed that the word “spirit” here refers to the Holy Spirit, or the Christian spirit; but in adopting this interpretation they are obliged to render the passage, “the spirit that dwells in us lusteth against envy,” or tends to check and suppress it. But this interpretation is forced and unnatural, and one which the Greek will not well bear. The more obvious interpretation is to refer it to our spirit or disposition as we are by nature, and it is equivalent to saying that we are naturally prone to envy.

Lusteth to envy - Strongly tends to envy. The margin is “enviously,” but the sense is the same. The idea is, that there is in man a strong inclination to look with dissatisfaction on the superior happiness and prosperity of others; to desire to make what they possess our own; or at any rate to deprive them of it by detraction, by fraud, or by robbery. It is this feeling which leads to calumny, to contentions, to wars, and to that strong worldly ambition which makes us anxious to surpass all others, and which is so hostile to the humble and contented spirit of religion. He who could trace all wars and contentions and worldly plans to their source - all the schemes and purposes of even professed Christians, that do so much to mar their religion and to make them worldly-minded, to their real origin - would be surprised to find how much is to be attributed to envy. We are pained that others are more prosperous than we are; we desire to possess what others have, though we have no right to it; and this leads to the various guilty methods which are pursued to lessen their enjoyment of it, or to obtain it ourselves, or to show that they do not possess as much as they are commonly supposed to. This purpose will be accomplished if we can obtain more than they have; or if we can diminish what they actually possess; or if by any statements to which we can give currency in society, the general impression shall be that they do not possess as much wealth, domestic peace, happiness, or honor, as is commonly supposed - for thus the spirit of envy in our bosoms will be gratified.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
Since all wars and fightings come from the corruptions of our own hearts, it is right to mortify those lusts that war in the members. Wordly and fleshly lusts are distempers, which will not allow content or satisfaction. Sinful desires and affections stop prayer, and the working of our desires toward God. And let us beware that we do not abuse or misuse the mercies received, by the disposition of the heart when prayers are granted When men ask of God prosperity, they often ask with wrong aims and intentions. If we thus seek the things of this world, it is just in God to deny them. Unbelieving and cold desires beg denials; and we may be sure that when prayers are rather the language of lusts than of graces, they will return empty. Here is a decided warning to avoid all criminal friendships with this world. Worldly-mindedness is enmity to God. An enemy may be reconciled, but "enmity" never can be reconciled. A man may have a large portion in things of this life, and yet be kept in the love of God; but he who sets his heart upon the world, who will conform to it rather than lose its friendship, is an enemy to God. So that any one who resolves at all events to be upon friendly terms with the world, must be the enemy of God. Did then the Jews, or the loose professors of Christianity, think the Scripture spake in vain against this worldly-mindedness? or does the Holy Spirit who dwells in all Christians, or the new nature which he creates, produce such fruit? Natural corruption shows itself by envying. The spirit of the world teaches us to lay up, or lay out for ourselves, according to our own fancies; God the Holy Spirit teaches us to be willing to do good to all about us, as we are able. The grace of God will correct and cure the spirit by nature in us; and where he gives grace, he gives another spirit than that of the world. The proud resist God: in their understanding they resist the truths of God; in their will they resist the laws of God; in their passions they resist the providence of God; therefore, no wonder that God resists the proud. How wretched the state of those who make God their enemy! God will give more grace to the humble, because they see their need of it, pray for it are thankful for it, and such shall have it. Submit to God, ver. 7. Submit your understanding to the truth of God; submit your wills to the will of his precept, the will of his providence. Submit yourselves to God, for he is ready to do you good. If we yield to temptations, the devil will continually follow us; but if we put on the whole armour of God, and stand out against him, he will leave us. Let sinners then submit to God, and seek his grace and favour; resisting the devil. All sin must be wept over; here, in godly sorrow, or, hereafter, in eternal misery. And the Lord will not refuse to comfort one who really mourns for sin, or to exalt one who humbles himself before him.
Ellen G. White
Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 125

“If any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” TM 125.1

This is the word of the living God. The law is God's great moral looking glass. He is to compare his words, his spirit, his actions, with the word of God. If we decide that in these last days we have no work assigned to us that is out of the common course of the nominal churches, we shall meet with great disappointment. The great question to be investigated, weighed, and decided is, What can I do to reach souls that are lost? God calls for a work to be done by Seventh-day Adventists that I need not define. Unless the work is first done in their own hearts, all the specific directions that might be given to point out their course of action will be labor in vain. TM 125.2

Read the second chapter of James. Practice the truth in your daily life and you will know the work that the Lord has given you to do. Read also the fourth chapter, especially verses 5-12; and chapter 5, especially verses 13-20. These chapters are a dead letter to the larger number of those who claim to be Seventh-day Adventists. I am directed to point you to these scriptures, and to the seventh chapter of Matthew. You need to study every word as for your life. TM 125.3

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