The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Bishop MacEvily’s Commentary on James 4:1-10

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 20, 2012

This post opens with Bishop MacEvily’s brief summary of James, chapter 4, followed by his notes on today’s reading (4:1-10). I’ve also included (in purple text) his paraphrasing of the verses he is commenting on. Text in red, if any, are my additions.

A Summary of James, Chapter 4~In this chapter, St. James points out the source of the dispositions which he censures, as opposed to that peace recommended by him in the foregoing chapter—viz., the corrupt passions of the human heart (verse 1). He shows, in the next place, the utter folly of seeking for true happiness in the gratification of these passions, instead of having recourse by prayer to God, from whom alone true happiness can come (2). And although they have recourse to God, still their prayer is of no effect, for want of the proper dispositions, either as regards the object of petition, or its motive (3). He then points out how utterly incompatible are the friendship of God and the opposite friendship of the world, enticing us to commit sin, and desert from God (4). This he illustrates by a reference to the testimony of Sacred Scriptures (5), and he mentions the claims God has on our undivided service and love (6).

He next exhorts them to range themselves under the banners of God, and fight manfully against the devil (7); and in order to battle in the service of God, as they should, he recommends them to enter on a new life of virtue, to do penance for the past, and practice the virtue of true, unaffected humility (8-10).

He then cautions them against another vice, springing also from pr’ide—viz., the vice of detraction, and all the other vices of the tongue, whereby our neighbour’s character is unjustly injured. He shows the enormity of detraction; because, the man guilty of it constitutes himself a judge of the law (11), and intrudes into the province of the Supreme Lawgiver (12).

He censures another fault of the tongue, common among woorldly-minded men, consisting in this: that in giving expression to their future resolves, they speak, as if they reposed their entire reliance on their own strength, without any dependence ofi the will and adorable Providence of God(13-17).

Jas 4:1  From whence are wars and contentions among you? Are they not hence, from your concupiscences, which war in your members?

From whence, think you, spring these strifes and contests that exist amongst you? Is it not from the corrupt passions and irregular desires of your hearts, which employ the different members of your bodies, as the instruments of the warfare, which they constantly endeavour to sustain in the soul?

“Wars and contentions” (in the Greek, for “contentions” we have, μαχαι = mache, “fights”), probably refer to the same thing—viz., quarrels and disputes, which may be either of a civil or religious nature, to which latter kind the Jews were particularly prone. Some Commentators refer this also to the teachers—it is better, however, extend it to all Christians; and as these words are written for all times, probably the word “wars” may refer to those which St. James foresaw would take place at a future day, even between Christian states. They all originate in their “concupiscences,” i.e., their unsubdued lusts, “which war in your members,” i.e., which employ the members of the body, viz., the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands, &c., as instruments of that warfare, which the unsubdued passions of pride, selfishness, avarice, &€., endeavour eternally to carry on in the soul of man.

Jas 4:2  You covet, and have not: you kill and envy and cannot obtain. You contend and war, and you have not: because you ask not.

(Behold both the utter folly of seeking true happiness in the gratification of your corrupt passions, and the total disappointment in which this gratification ends): for, although you obey the dictates of these corrupt passions, still you cannot secure their object; although you indulge in mortal hatred and envy towards whomsoever you think to obstruct your designs; still, you cannot possess that which you seek. You strive and labour hard in pursuit of happiness, and you cannot find it; because, you have not recourse to the proper means of obtaining from God, from whom alone they can proceed (James 1:17), these real and substantial goods, alone capable of satisfying the cravings of the heart; that means is, fervent and humble prayer.

In this verse, he shows the utter folly of seeking for pleasure and real happiness in the gratification of these concupiscences, since this gratification ends in total disappointment. “You covet,” i.e., indulge these passions, “and have not,” and still you cannot secure the object of their gratification. “You kill and envy and cannot obtain.” For “kill,” the reading in some Greek copies is, “you envy and are jealous.” And this reading Estius thinks would make better sense. The reading followed by the Vulgate, φονευετε και ζηλουτε, “you kill and envy,” has, however, the authority of the best manuscripts, in its favour; and the word “kill,” most likely refers to the will and disposition to commit murder, the guilt of which it entails; rather than to the act, although, even amongst the early Christians, some might possibly be found to commit the deed; and what wonder, was not a Judas found among the twelve Apostles to do worse?

“You contend and war, and you have not, because you ask not,” i.e., you strive and labour hard to gratify your desires; and still, you possess not the happiness, of which you are in search, “because you ask not,” because you have not recourse to God by prayer, to obtain these solid and substantial goods, alone capable of satisfying the cravings of the heart, which come only from Him, who is the source of every good gift (James 1:17).

Jas 4:3  You ask and receive not: because you ask amiss, that you may consume it on your concupiscences.

And although you may have recourse to prayer, it is of no use to you, from a want of the proper dispositions; you ask for what you may waste on the guilty gratification of your corrupt passions, instead of seeking for what will advance your spiritual interests, the concerns of your eternal salvation.

The words of this verse are an answer to an objection which the addressees are supposed to make to St. James; we do ask, and this is of no use for us. St. James answers, that their prayers are fruitless, for want of the proper dispositions, either because the object of their petition is bad, and the required feelings of humility, confidence, and perseverance, are wanting, both of which, as to the object and dispositions of their prayer, are included in the word “amiss:” or, because the motive of their prayer may be bad—their object in begging for temporal goods is, “to consume,” to squander them in gratifying their corrupt passions; to such prayers, God will never lend an ear.

Jas 4:4  Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world becometh an enemy of God.

Know you not, who, in the criminal indulgence of your passions, violate the vows pledged to God in baptism, and are, therefore, guilty of a spiritual adultery, that the inordinate love and friendship of this world, in obedience to which you gratify your corrupt passions, are the enemies of God. Whosoever, therefore, wishes to become the friend of this world, must become the enemy of God, who cannot bear a divided heart or allegiance.

“By adulterers,” some understand those guilty of carnal adultery. In the Codex Vaticanus, the reading is, μοιχαλιδες = moichalides, adulteresses, as if addressing those carnally guilty of this grievous crime. It is, however, more commonly understood to refer to spiritual adultery, of which the sinner is guilty, when he deserts and proves unfaithful to God, to whom he was betrothed, and to whom he pledged his faith in baptism. This latter interpretation is rendered probable by the following words: “know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God,” as if he said; in the desertion of God for the friendship of his enemy and rival, this “adultery” consists. St. James here exhibits God and the world as two rivals, both of whom cannot be served at the same time, as God will not admit of a divided heart, of a divided service or allegiance. St. James, of course, here speaks of that “friendship” and love “of this world,” which implies a conflict with, and a violation of, the law of God. It is, as considered and viewed in this latter respect, that we always find the “world” reckoned in Scripture as the enemy of God and of man’s eternal welfare; because it demands a service inconsistent with the undivided service we owe God. The Commentators who, with Œcumenius, understand the preceding verses of this chapter to refer to the teachers, have very little difficulty in tracing the connection of this verse with the preceding, thus: Know you not, who in the exercise of your ministry, seek only your own elevation, and the praises of men, before the glory of God, and are, therefore, guilty of spiritual adultery, that the friendship and inordinate love, which you have for this world, for its riches, honours, and praises, is opposed to the love you owe God; and that by becoming the friends of this world, you become the enemies of God? In the interpretation adopted in the Paraphrase, it is not at all necessary to trace any connection with the preceding. It may be said, that the Apostle enters here on a new topic altogether, a thing quite in accordance with his style in this Epistle.

Jas 4:5  Or do you think that the scripture saith in vain: To envy doth the spirit covet which dwelleth in you?

Or, can you imagine, that the Scripture speaks in vain, when in many passages, referring to the holy jealousy which God entertains for our souls, so as not to endure a rival, it says, at least in terms equivalent to the following: “the holy spirit of God, that permanently dwelleth in you, covets you to such a degree, as to be jealous of any rival in your affections?”

This passage has been variously interpreted by different Commentators. Some understand by “spirit,” the corrupt spirit of man. This opinion is preferred by Estius. Others—and, it would seem, with greater probabilit—refer it to the spirit of God, received in baptism. Of this spirit we find it frequently said, that it dwells in the soul of man; and of the same only could the words of the following verse be verified. “But he giveth greater grace.” The meaning of the passage, then, appears to be (as in Paraphrase), that the Holy Ghost, dwelling in a Christian, so loves him, as to entertain feelings, analagous to envy, at his being possessed by any other. The connection of this interpretation with the context is quite evident; it goes to show, that the man who gives the world a place in his heart, is become the enemy of God, who cannot peaceably dwell in a soul that has an affection for his rival.

But the question may be asked: What does the word “Scripture” refer to, and in what part of Scripture is the text here quoted to be found?

Answer.—Whenever the Scripture is quoted by any of the writers of the New Testament, reference is made to some part of the Old Testament; to the law and the prophets.

It is not clearly ascertained in what part of the Old Testament the text referred to is found. Most likely, reference is made to the passage in which God is described as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:6, and elsewhere); and St. James quotes not the language but the sense of these passages, which he develops and explains in his own words. Others make the word, “Scripture,” allude to the foregoing; and these place a note of interrogation after the words “in vain,” thus: “Do you think that the Scripture saith in vain?” when, in several passages, it represents the friendship of this world as the enemy of God. And then, again, they ask, “Does the spirit that dwells in you covet unto envy?” (The Greek for ” in you,” is,  εν ημιν = en hēmin, in us). By no means; since the Holy Spirit of God, rather prompts to acts of benevolence and virtue. According to this latter construction, there is no scriptural allusion or quotation whatever, contained in the words, “to envy doth the spirit,” &c. The interpretation adopted in the Paraphrase seems preferable, and more in accordance with the context.

Jas 4:6  But he giveth greater grace. Wherefore he saith: God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.

But, if he be jealous of every other, what wonder, since he bestows benefits incomparably greater than those bestowed by any other, which therefore, entitle him exclusively to our love and, undivided affection. But in order to be partakers of this abundant grace which the spirit of God bestows, we must be humble; hence it is, that in referring to the dispensation of this abundant grace, he saith: “God resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble.”

“But he giveth greater grace,” &c., i.e., it is no wonder that he should be jealous of every other rival in our affections; since every other, that may claim our affections, can bestow, at best, but fleeting, unsubstantial goods, which end in bitterness and remorse, and bear no proportion with “the greater grace,” the eternal blessings, he has in store for us, of which he gives us a sure earnest in this life. In the other interpretation, the words of this verse may be connected with the preceding, thus: “Does the Holy Spirit of God prompt us to acts of envy?” (verse 5). By no means; since, on the contrary, he bestows abundant grace to overcome these vicious dispositions of our nature, and to incite us to acts of benevolence.

“Wherefore he saith: God resisteth the proud,” &c., i.e., in order to be partakers of this abundant grace of God, the first and most necessary disposition on our part is humility, to the absence of which we may trace the vices we have been denouncing in the preceding part of the chapter. This quotation would appear very much to favour the interpretation and construction just referred to; since, far from promoting us to envy, the spirit of God bestows great grace, but only on those who have dispositions of humility so opposed to the spirit of envy. The words, “God resists the proud,” &c., are quoted here by St. James according to the Septuagint version. In the Vulgate of St. Jerome, they run thus: “He shall scorn the scorners, and to the meek, he shall give grace.”—(Proverbs 3:34).

Jas 4:7  Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil: and he will fly from you.

In a spirit, then, of humble submission and obedience, place yourselves under the banners of the Almighty, and manfully resist the devil, and you shall put him to flight.

“Therefore,” whereas, it is only to the humble he will give grace, “be subject to God.” In Greek, υποταγητε, i.e., with true humility of heart, and a ready disposition to obedience, range yourselves under the banner of God.  “And resist.” The corresponding Greek word, αντιστητε, means, stand against the devil, in which, as in the preceding word, “be subject,” a military metaphor would appear to be implied.

Jas 4:8  Draw nigh to God: and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double minded.

With true humility of heart, aided and assisted by his preventing grace, approach unto God, and he will draw nigh to you, by a greater effusion of his graces; aided by the same grace, cleanse your actions and reform your conduct in future, you sinners; and purify your thoughts and motives, you who have been wavering between pleasing God and gratifying your passions.

“Draw nigh unto God.” Of course, this is to be effected by the aid of divine grace; but, as in the performance of a salutary action, the human will and divine grace concur, the entire effect is sometimes in SS. Scripture wholly ascribed to the will of man, as here, and at other times, to the more principal cause, viz., divine grace. “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners.” The most effectual means to be adopted by those who have been enrolled under the sacred banners of God only of late—”ye sinners”—for resisting the devil is, “by cleansing their hands,” in other words, by ceasing from wicked actions, and by performing good works, of which the “hands” are. the chief instruments. As to those, who have been wavering between pleasing God and gratifying their passions, or between their inveterate habits of sin, and their weak purposes of good—”ye double minded” (διψυχοι = dipsuchoi, having two souls)—their duty, aided and assisted by divine grace, is “to purify their hearts,” i.e., their thoughts, motives, and intentions. “If thine eye be simple, thy whole body will be lightsome; but if thy eye (i.e., the intention or motive) be evil, thy whole body (i.e., the body of thy actions) will be darksome” (St. Matthew 6:22). For the full meaning of “double minded,” see James 1:8.

Jas 4:9  Be afflicted and mourn and weep: let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into sorrow.

In order to correct your vicious habits, and make atonement for the past, devote yourselves to the salutary rigours of holy penance; weep and mourn over your past infidelities. Let the laughter, to which you gave expression, and the joy, which you inwardly felt during the enjoyment of the passing and fleeting pleasures of sin, be now exchanged for mourning and inward sorrow of heart.

In order to make atonement for the past, and dispose themselves for reconciliation, they should have recourse to the salutary exercises of holy penance; they should “afflict” themselves, “mourn and weep;” the laughter in which they indulged during the temporary and transient enjoyment of sinful pleasures, should now be exchanged for “mourning,” and the passing “joy” which they then felt should be exchanged for the opposite and contrary feeling of penitential ” sorrow.” Similar is the exhortation of the Prophet Joel 2:12: “Be converted to me with all your hearts, in fasting, and in weeping and mourning.” From this passage it is clear, that external works of satisfaction form a part of the penance, which is necessary for our reconciliation with God.

Jas 4:10  Be humbled in the sight of the Lord: and he will exalt you.

Humble yourselves sincerely and profoundly not alone before men, who only see the exterior, but also in the sight of God, who sees the very thoughts of the heart; and he, who raises up the humble, will exalt you also, with the gifts of grace here, and eternal glory hereafter.

“Be humble,” &c. The chief disposition for our reconciliation with God, is true humility, “in the sight of the Lord,” i.e., truly humbled; for things are seen by God, as they really are; the words also suggest the most effectual means of acquiring true humility, which is the consideration of God’s infinite greatness, and of our own nothingness. “Quis tu Domine? quis ego?exclaims St. Francis. Tu abyssus omnis boni, et ego abyssus omnis mali et nihili. Noverim te Domine, noverim me, was the favourite exclamation of St. Augustine. O God ! grant us this all-necessary virtue of humility.

2 Responses to “Bishop MacEvily’s Commentary on James 4:1-10”

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  2. […] Bishop MacEvily’s Commentary on Today’s First Reading (James 4:1-10). […]

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