What Does James 4:5 Mean?
NKJV - Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
ASV - Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?
NIV 2011 - Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?
ESV - Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
NASB - Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?
This text is difficult and needs to be handled carefully. As one can see from the variety of translations mentioned above, it is difficult to translate from Greek into English. There are certain questions that arise when trying to understand this text:
1. Is James talking about “envying” or “jealously”?
2. What is the “spirit” in this passage referencing – the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, or a disposition?
3. What exact “Scripture” is this passage referencing?
4. What is the gist of this passage?
First, the word that is translated “envying” or “jealously” is the word, phthonon, which is used in the following verses: Matthew 27:18, Romans 1:29, Galatians 5:21, 1 Timothy 6:4, and Titus 3:3. As you look at the following verses, it has a negative connotation to it. The people delivered up Jesus because they were envious of Him. It is viewed as a vice and a work of the flesh in the lists found in Romans 1:29 and Galatians 5:21. He is likely then talking about envying.
Second, since context is the key, then we know that the One who is envying cannot be the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is God and cannot be tempted to do evil (Acts 5:2-3; James 1:13). It is most likely then talking about the human spirit which God created in each of us (Zechariah 12:1).
Third, we just do not know the Old Testament Scripture that James is citing, but we do know that this teaching is mentioned in the Old Testament as will be stated below.
Fourth, the text should be rendered as follows, “the [human] spirit which He made to dwell in us desires to envy.” This fits the grammar and the context. James is urging the child of God to stay away from worldliness. James previously mentioned that we are to follow wisdom from above and not wisdom from below (James 3:13-18). James further explains that the source of their fighting and greed was their self-reliance on worldly wisdom (James 4:1). They were coveting in their hearts, spiritually fighting with God and others, and praying with selfish motives (James 4:2,3). James is reminding them from the Old Testament (which was written for our learning – Romans 15:4) that their problem of envy is not a new thing. The Old Testament teaches that our own human spirit can go after wrong desires and be lead to envy (James 1:13-15) because we are tempted to go in that wrong direction. Jesus came so that mankind could be born again through the gospel, which is described as the implanted word that can save our souls and is also described as the law of the Holy Spirit that can free our souls from the power of sin (James 1:17-18,21,25). God’s word is able to sanctify us from this wicked and perverse world (John 17:17). It teaches us to be humble and submit to God (James 4:6,7), draw near to God (James 4:8), and repent to be renewed (James 4:8) so that we can be transformed into the image of God's dear Son and not the image of this world (Romans 12:1,2).
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