What Does James 4:5 Mean?

A church member recently submitted a question concerning the meaning of James 4:5. That verse says, “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”?” (ESV)

It is a difficult verse to interpret primarily because it is a difficult verse to translate. There are two primary challenges:

First, James indicates that he is about to quote a specific verse from the Old Testament, but the accompanying text is not a direct quotation. Thus, it appears James is summarizing a portion (or portions) of Scripture when he writes, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?” If James had provided for us a direct quote, then we would read the quote in its original context to determine James’ usage here in chapter 4. Alas, we do not have that option.

Second, determining the subject of the quote is problematic. A quick perusal at various English translations will demonstrate this grammatical conundrum. The ESV understands God to be the acting subject. Thus, the ESV says, “He (GOD) yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?” In this translation, God is the subject who is jealous over the spirit he has caused to dwell in humanity.

But the CSB (Christian Standard Bible, 2017) takes a different approach. It says, “The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely?” According to the CSB (and the KJV, the NIV 1984) the acting subject is the spirit of humanity that is prone to envy and pride and jealousy.

Therefore, if we take God to be the subject, the jealousy mentioned is a good jealousy whereby God desires the affection of his people for their good and his glory. But if we take the spirit of humanity to be the subject, then the jealousy is a sinful jealousy whereby men and women pursue inappropriate passions.

So, which is it?

Thankfully, both options are doctrinally correct and helpful for our edification. There is no doubt that humans are prone to envy and pride and passions, which is exactly the point of James 4:1-4. And, there is no doubt that God is a jealous God – even calling his own name Jealous in Exodus 34:14 – whereby he expresses his covenantal love for his children. God’s jealousy, like all his other characteristics, is perfect and a matter for praise. The jealousy of God protects the love relationship with his redeemed and provides a constant reminder of God’s absolute knowledge and understanding as to what is best for humanity. God knows joy, happiness, and fulfillment far better than we, and so his jealousy exists for our ultimate good…and our ultimate good is uniquely tied to God’s eternal glory.

I tend to think James 4:5 is concerned with the jealousy of God, but that jealousy causes us to consider and repent of our own lusts and passions that distort the glory of God. We simply cannot live both for the world’s glory and for God’s glory. Choose this day whom you will serve.