At the end of what has been considered the second portion of this Epistle, there is a last series of rebukes. suggested apparently by those already given. James 4 is included in this fourth subdivision. (See Analysis of Contents.) The lust of the eye and the pride of life are at the root of all the wrong-doing.
Come they not . . .—Translate, come they not hence, even from your lusts warring in your members? The term is really pleasures, but in an evil sense, and therefore “lusts.” “The desires of various sorts of pleasures are,” says Bishop Moberly, “like soldiers in the devil’s army, posted and picketed all over us, in the hope of winning our members, and so ourselves, back to his allegiance, which we have renounced in our baptism.” St. Peter (1 Peter 2:11) thus writes in the same strain of “fleshly lusts, which war against the soul”; and St. Paul knew also of this bitter strife in man, if not actually in himself, and could “see another law” in his members—the natural tendency of the flesh—“warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which is in his members” (Romans 7:23). See also Note on 2 Corinthians 12:7.
Happily the Christian philosopher understands this; and with the very cry of wretchedness, “Who shall deliver me?” can answer, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). But the burden of this hateful depravity drove of old men like Lucretius to suicide rather than endurance; and its mantle of despair is on all the religions of India at the present time—matter itself being held to be evil, and eternal.
Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?—i.e., the state of being an enemy to God, not one of simpler enmity with Him. There cannot be a passive condition to the faith of Christ: “he that is not with Me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30). Renunciation of the world, in the Christian promise, is not forsaking it when tired and clogged with its delights, but the earliest severance from it; to break this vow, or not to have made it, is to belong to the foes of God, and not merely to be out of covenant with Him. The forces of good and evil divide the land so sharply that there is no debatable ground, nor even halting-place between. And if God be just, so also is He jealous (Exodus 20:5).
“Let us not weakly slide into the treason:
Yielding another what we owe to Him.”
Whosoever therefore will be (or, wills to be) a friend of the world is the enemy of God.—The choice is open; here is no iron fate, no dread necessity: but the wrong determination of the soul constitutes it henceforth as an ally of Satan. “Woe unto you, when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26), for the world, as our Lord has taught us, must “love its own” (John 15:19). And the sooner the soldier of Christ learns to expect its animosity, the better will he give himself up to the battle. (Comp. Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13.)
Many commentators have been puzzled to say whence the words came which are quoted as authoritative by St. James. Surely the substance was sufficient for him, as for other inspired writers, without a slavish adherence to the form: comp. Genesis 2:7 for the inbreathing of the Spirit, with any such chapter as Deuteronomy 32 for His jealous inquisition. It must, however, be noted that a slightly varied punctuation of the verse will give quite another sense to its questioning. (See Wordsworth.) Suppose ye that the Scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the Spirit, which took up His abode in you, lust to envy? And defensible or not as this translation may be, at least it escapes some of the difficulties of the foregoing. (Exhaustive notes, with references to most authorities, are in Alford; or an easy summary of the matter may be read in Plumptre’s St. James.)
God resisteth the proud . . .—Excepting “God,” instead of “Lord,” this is an exact quotation from the LXX. version of Proverbs 3:34, which reads in our Bibles, “Surely He scorneth the scorners, but He giveth grace unto the lowly.” It is again brought forward by St. Peter (1 Peter 5:5), and seems to have been a common saying—“a maxim of the wise that had become, as it were, a law of life.”
He will flee.—Or, he shall flee. “The Devil,” says the strange old book called The Shepherd of Hermas, “can tight, but he cannot conquer; if, therefore, thou dost withstand him, he will flee from thee, beaten and ashamed.”
The text is another proof of the personality of Satan; no amount of figures of speech could otherwise interpret it.
He that speaketh evil . . .—Punctuate thus: He that speaketh evil of his brother, judgeth his brother; speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law. In this way the cumulative force of St. James’s remarks is best preserved. Hearken to the echo of his Master’s words. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). But the apostolic condemnation is in no way meant to condone a vicious life, and leave it unalarmed and self-contented; for boldness in rebuke thereof we have the example of John the Baptist. All that he reproves is the setting up of our own tribunals, in which we are at once prosecutor, witness, law, lawgiver, and judge; not to say executioner as well. Prœjudicium was a merciful provision under Roman law, and often spared the innocent a lengthier after trial; but prejudice—our word taken from it—is its most unhappy opposite. Many worthy people have much sympathy with David, in their effort to hold their tongue and keep “silence, yea even from good words;” truly it is “pain and grief” to them (Psalm 39:3). But “to take the law into one’s own hands” is to break it, and administer inequitably.
Able to save and to destroy.—Life and death, salvation and utter destruction, seem to be placed in intentional contrast here. (Comp. Matthew 10:28.) The thought of annihilation meets us with awful suggestiveness, yet let us leave the mystery for awhile in happier thought—
“That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete.”
“That untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever as he roams?”
For what is your life? It is even a vapour.—The rebuke is stronger still, the home-thrust more sharp and piercing—Ye are even a vapour: ye yourselves, and all belonging to you; not merely life itself, for that confessedly is a breath; and many a man, acknowledging so much, counts of the morrow that he may lay up in store for other wants besides his own.
A vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away (or, disappeareth).—There is a play upon words to mark the sad antithesis. The vision of life vanisheth as it came; and thus even a heathen poet says—
“Dust we are, and a shadow.”
(Comp. Wisdom Of Solomon 5:9-14.)
“Hadst thou stayed, I must have fled.”
And again, in another succession of thoughts on the text, God has no need of human knowledge; no, nor of our ignorance; “and it is a sin to shut the ears to instruction: it is a duty to get knowledge, to increase in knowledge, to abound in knowledge.” Nor must we rest therein, but (2 Peter 1:6-7) “add to knowledge temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity.”