Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
There is hardly a more important theme in Scripture than the loyal love of God. For example, the Lord promises David that his dynasty will rule an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7). The promise will not be fulfilled because David’s descendants were faithful, but because God’s love is loyal. One of the most powerful illustrations of loyal love in the New Testament is found in Luke 15. In this story Jesus portrays repentant sinners coming home to God like a prodigal son coming home to his father. God loves and welcomes us home with open arms and rejoicing, in spite of our foolish infidelity. This poignant story is repeated every time a sinner repents and is made alive (Luke 15:10, 32). Like He did with Israel, God chooses to set His love upon us, his wayward children (Deut. 7:7–8). He stakes His character on the fulfillment of His promises to His people. It is a trustworthy saying: “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). It is this theme of loyal love to which James turns to explain God’s response to worldliness.
After exposing the lamentable nature of worldliness among believers, James pronounces a sharp denunciation of their spiritual adultery, intending to show them the true nature of their choice to be the world’s friends (James 4:4). Now the author establishes, with a biblical precedent and promise, God’s desire and ability to bring believers back into spiritual oneness with Him. Christians can recover from worldliness because God is both jealous and gracious.
God Is Jealous
Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
Think — to suppose; imagine; consider; believe
In vain — in an empty manner; for no purpose; to no effect; for nothing
Dwelleth — to make; to dwell; to implant
Lusteth — to long for; to desire; to be filled with desire; to claim
To — to the point of
Envy — legitimate, passionate jealousy
God is jealous, with a passionate zeal for His own character and glory. God reveals Himself to His people through His law (Torah), and God’s people manifest their love for God by passionately seeking to know and obey the law of God (Deut. 6:4–9). When God’s people turned away from the law and began to seek after idols, God was not apathetic towards their apostasy.
He fervently and zealously pursued them, longing for their hearts to return to Him with a broken spirit and a full submission to His Word. This is the primary point of James 4:5—God is jealous for believers’ hearts.
James expects his readers to understand this righteous, divine jealousy because it is scriptural. However, it takes a little work to follow James’s argument. Verse 5 is considered one of the more difficult verses in the New Testament to interpret for two reasons. First, James says, “Do ye think that the scripture (the Old Testament) saith in vain,” yet there is no verse that can be found in the Old Testament that makes this exact statement. Secondly, the precise meaning of the phrase, “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy,” can be interpreted in a number of ways, making it challenging to discern its exact meaning. Both points require further explanation.
First of all, the Scripture to which James refers is not a direct quote of a particular verse; it is instead a general truth about God’s relationship with His people that surfaces throughout Scripture. There is precedent for James’s words to New Testament believers, because the Old Testament clearly establishes a pattern of how God responds when His people are unfaithful.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Ex. 20:5)
For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Ex. 34:14)
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; I was jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I was jealous for her with great fury. (Zech. 8:2)
God also graphically illustrated this pattern by commanding the Old Testament prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer. Through this prophet’s marriage God pictured the tragedy of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him when they pursued Baal and other false gods. This example, along with the Old Testament statements, demonstrates God’s unchanging, jealous nature. The Lord is jealous for the affections of believers just as a husband is righteously jealous for the faithful affections of his wife.
James describes God’s jealousy when he says, “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy” (4:5). The key to understanding this phrase is determining the subject of the sentence. There are two primary options:
- Option 1: The subject is the spirit of man that God caused to dwell in us. This spirit of man envies intensely, which causes conflicts like those mentioned earlier in this passage.
- Option 2: The subject is God, who jealously longs for the spirit He made (that dwells in us) to be wholly committed to the Father.
If the first option captures James’s meaning, then this statement means that the human spirit lusts with envy. While our spirits can lust with envy, this interpretation doesn’t make the best sense in light of James’ direction. He is describing God’s desire toward His erring people. In context, James has been addressing the problem of the believer’s worldliness. God’s desire is for man to be wholeheartedly committed to Him. It is also clear that God is the one who makes the spirit to dwell in us, whether it is the human spirit or the Holy Spirit. In addition, in the next verse (4:6), God is clearly the subject. Therefore, it makes more contextual sense that God is the subject of this phrase.
The primary verb in this sentence is lusteth or yearns. The verb envy refers to divine jealousy. The ESV reads, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (4:5). The spirit could be the Holy Spirit implanted in the soul at regeneration or the human spirit given to man at creation. Since God is going to give believers a series of commands calling for a heart of humility before God (4:7–10), it seems best to view spirit as referring to the human spirit. So, ultimately, James is telling us that God jealously desires the undivided love and loyalty of His people.
God Is Gracious
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
More — great
Grace — favor; kindness; enablement; gift
Therefore — for this reason; that is why; which is why (introduces the scriptural evidence for what the author has just said)
Resisteth — to oppose; to set oneself against
Proud — haughty; arrogant; proud in character
Humble — lowly in spirit; humble in character
James introduces another thought concerning God’s response to worldliness. God is not only jealous but also gracious. At this point many of us are overwhelmed because we recognize the amount of worldliness that resides in our hearts and comes out in our choices. However, instead of confirming us in despair, James gives us hope from God: “But He giveth more grace” (4:6). Douglas Moo says it well: “God’s grace is completely adequate to meet the requirements imposed on us by that jealousy.”¹
There is no ambiguity in James’s thoughts. He quotes Proverbs 3:34 to show us exactly how God responds to our choices: He resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. But what is grace? It is God’s superabundant strength to live a life that overcomes the incredibly strong desires of one’s evil nature. Living a committed Christian life in contrast to the world is beyond the strength of any Christian. God’s grace is the supernatural enablement to do that which we cannot do ourselves. Grace says, “You can’t, but God can.”
Grace is unmerited favor. But just because God has an infinite supply of grace that He desires to give does not mean everyone gets it. None of us can earn it, but we must be humble to receive it. The word resisteth is like an army arranging itself in battle formation against an enemy. It isn’t simply that God withholds grace from arrogant people. He actively opposes them. Relying on wisdom from below, fighting with other believers, being consumed with lust, adopting a worldly mindset—all of these sins greatly displease God. But the worst position any of us can be in is to be so infatuated with the world that we refuse to humble ourselves before our jealous, gracious God. Only those who wave the white flag, who prostrate themselves in utter dependence before the Lord, receive grace. And James drives home the importance of this humility by repeatedly emphasizing it in the next few verses.
In James 4:5–6 we see the two qualities of God at work in the restoration of the believer from the world. His jealousy convicts us of how we have strayed, and His grace enables us to return to Him in humble submission. God is truly more than enough!
¹ Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 191.
This post is from Wisdom from Above: A Study in James by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2015 by BJU Press. Printed by permission of BJU Press.