Interpretive Options Galore: A Quick Look at James 4:5

By | July 12, 2021

James 4:5 is one of the most difficult texts in the NT to translate and interpret. Considering the verse as a whole, James appears to introduce a biblical quotation in the first half of the verse, and then, in the second half, offers what most call not a quotation but a paraphrase or general summary of something taught in the OT. There is no OT quotation that directly corresponds to James 4:5b.

Looking at the second half of the verse, more issues arise:

  1. Grammatically, “the spirit” could be either the subject (1a) or the object (1b) of the verb “yearns.”
  2. “The spirit” (2a) could be also be interpreted “the Spirit” (2b).
  3. Due to a textual variant, “caused to dwell” (3a) could be “dwells” (3b).

So, depending on how to conclude each issue above, one could end up with a range of translations and interpretations. The following summarizes each position and quotes corresponding translations, using what is in parentheses above to identify its particular combination of conclusions.

  1. (1a), (2a), and (3a): Man’s spirit has been caused to live in him by God, and this spirit has sinful envy.

NIV84: “the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely”

NET Bible: “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”

  1. (1a), (2a), and (3b): Man’s spirit lives in him and has sinful envy.

KJV: “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy”

  1. (1a), (2b), and (3b): God’s Spirit lives in man and is righteously jealous.

NKJV: “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”

HCSB (1a), (2b), and (3b): “the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously”

  1. (1b), (2a), and (3a): God has caused man’s spirit to be in him and is righteously jealous for that spirit.

RSV: “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”

ESV: “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”

  1. (1b), (2b), and (3a): God has caused His Spirit to be in man and is righteously jealous for His Spirit.

NASB: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”

One can find some comfort that every position above is theologically true. God causes man’s spirit to live in him (cf. Genesis 2:7), so, obviously, it lives in him, and for Christians, God causes His Spirit to live in them as well (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19). Due to sin, man’s spirit is prone to sinful envy (cf. James 3:1–4:12). On the one hand, God jealously desires man’s spirit to be righteous as it ought to be, and, on the other hand, God is also jealous that His Spirit would not be quenched by sinful envy. As God is, so is His Spirit—the Spirit is jealous that a Christian would not be sinfully envious.

But, speaking for myself, if one option seems more probable to be the intent of James, perhaps it is #1 above for the following reasons:

  1. The textual variant for “dwell” is “almost certain” to be the causative form for “dwell” (i.e., “caused to dwell”).1
  2. Word studies seem to cancel each other out as being decisive for an interpretation. The noun “envy” (phthonos, sometimes translated as an adverb in James 4:5, “jealously”) is used eight other times in the NT, always with reference to sin (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10; Romans 1:29; Galatians 5:21; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:3; 1 Peter 2:1). The verb “yearn” (epipotheō) is also used eight other times in the NT as some kind of righteous longing by a Christian (Roman 1:11; 2 Corinthians 5:2; 9:14; Philippians 1:8; 2:26; 1 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Timothy 1:4; 1 Peter 2:2). Borrowing the meanings from these texts to define the words in James 4:5 does not make theological sense. One does not righteously yearn unto sinful envy. The context must decide the meaning of these words.
  3. So, in context, James excoriates the sinful because they follow “passions” that lead to “quarrels and fights” (James 4:1). They also choose to “desire” and “covet” in way that leads them to “murder” (figuratively; cf. 1 John 3:15) and “fight and quarrel” (James 4:2). Similarly, James points to the source of their sins in another way—the spirit is bent on sinful envy (James 4:5).
  4. Just as James asks, “Do you not know” and negatively assesses their sin (James 4:4), so also he asks a parallel question, “Do you suppose it is to no purpose” and points to the OT’s teaching about the envy of man’s spirit (James 4:5; cf. Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9).
  5. Taking James 4:5 as a negative statement about man’s spirit (it envies), James 4:6 immediately follows with a contrast: “But he [God] gives more grace.” James points to the problem in one verse and immediately follows with the solution in the next.

Good men disagree, as the translations show above. If nothing else, whether you find these truths in James 4:5 or somewhere else, remember that God is jealous for good, we can be jealous for evil, and we should let His Spirit rule our own to conquer our sinful envy.

  1. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 612. []