Any serious student of the Bible will study and read the Bible in more than one translation. If you are able to read fluent English, you should thank God for the ability. There are more accurate and faithful translations of God’s Holy Word in English than any other language on the planet. Yet any translation is only the inspired Word of God so far as it accurately represents the original language (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) in which it was written. Most of the time, there are very little differences between one translation and another. But that is not always the case. Here is James 4:5 in four different English translations:
New American Standard (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.”
English Standard Version (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”?
New King James Version (NKJV) – Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
New International Version (NIV) – Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?
With only these as examples, we immediately see questions that need answering. Does “the Spirit” refer to God the Holy Spirit (NASB, NKJV) or a human spirit (ESV, NIV)? Do the quotation marks (not included in the NIV) indicate a quotation of previous scripture? If so, where? And once we’ve answered these questions, what on earth does James mean in this verse? Before beginning, let us beware not to lose the forest for the trees.
Context: James is writing to a group of Jewish believers in the early days of the Church. The time-frame is probably after the persecution initiated by Saul (later Paul) in Acts 6, but before or shortly after the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15. James is writing this Jews in dispersion (1:1) with one objective in mind: Faithfulness. The entire epistle is written as call to live in faithful consistency to the gospel message to which they lay claim. They are called to remain faithful in the midst of various trials (1:1-18). They are called to remain faithful to the Scriptures (1:19-27). They are called to remain faithful to each other (2:1-13). They are called to remain faithful in their pursuit of holiness (2:14-26). They are to remain faithful in their use of the tongue and reliance of heavenly wisdom (3:1-18). And now in chapter 4, they are called to remain faithful in the face of worldly enticements (4:1-5:12). James wastes no time in putting his finger upon obvious troubles in the church; namely, their quarrels and fighting.
“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” (4:1-3 NASB)
James exposes the source of conflict as nothing more than naked pride or their “pleasures.” The Greek word ἡδονή is where we get out English, “hedonism.” These believers are consumed with one thing and one thing only: getting what they want, when they want it and the consequences can be hanged for all they care.
Rather than rebuking their actions only, James wants his readers to understand the deeper theological implications of their actions. Verse 4 marks the beginning of a logical trap.
“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (4:4 NASB)
To pursue your own pleasures is to be lured away from God and to befriend the world. James calls this for what it is, spiritual adultery. The logical trap begins with a rhetorical question regarding ignorance: “Do you not know?!” The answer being, of course they know! Even a “devotional” reading of the Old Testament makes the lines explicitly clear. Friendship, love of the world, has never been an option for the people of God. To be a friend of the world, James makes clear, is to be an enemy of God.
Now James springs the other end of his trap. “Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose.” (4:5a NASB). If ignorance is not the problem, then it is simply indifference to what God has already said.
Problem: We are now up to date regarding the context of the verse in question. But there are some things that we must admit. First, there is no cross-reference for the portion of this verse put in quotation marks by various translations. Second, it is not clear who is yearning/longing jealously. Third, from the above-mentioned translations, it is not obvious which “spirit/Spirit” is being referenced.
Solution: Regarding the first question, it is best to see this not as a quotation of a specific passage, but a summary statement of the totality of what Scripture teaches on the matter at hand. In light of this understanding, it would be best to insert a question mark at the end of this statement to introduce a hard break.
Answering the second and third questions becomes more difficult as the Greek can be translated in such a way to make the spirit/Spirit either the subject of the verb or the object. At this point we have two options: Either he (presumably God) yearns for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us. Or God the Holy Spirit, which he (presumably God) made to dwell in us, yearns enviously. If the first option is taken, the meaning is that Scripture speaks that God desires the spirit of man. If the second option is preferred, the meaning is that God has placed His Spirit within His people and His Spirit yearns jealously. The second is preferred.
Translation: If I might be so bold as to offer my own translation: Or do you think that Scripture speaks without purpose? The Spirit, which He made to dwell in us, yearns enviously.
Rationale: This translation completes the logical trap already set by James. Ignorance is clearly not the problem (v. 4). Then indifference is the culprit. These believers know that their actions are sinful they just don’t care. This is a reminder of the convicting work of God the Holy Spirit within the lives of the redeemed and bleeds seamlessly into v. 6. “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6 NASB). What is this “greater” grace? The grace of repentance given to spiritually adulterous believers.
Beginning in v. 7, James gives 10 explicit commands to stop their sinful pursuit of hedonistic pleasure seeking and repent. The ability to obey those commands is found in v. 5 and the Holy Spirit’s yearning for the believer, in which He was made to dwell, to repent.
Conclusion: James has exposed the root of the problem of internal conflict as theological adultery. No relationship within the church can be mended until there is spiritual fidelity. But He has not left us as orphans. The Spirit of Almighty God is made to dwell in His children and He yearns for us to repent and obey. This is the greater grace given to those who believe.
Bible study begins with solid translation. But nothing can replace careful, prayerful, obedience reading. Never lose sight of the larger context, and always pursue the author’s intention. If you do, you will come to the correct understanding of the text.