Straight Cuts: “The Yearning of the Spirit” James 4:5

David Pennington

Frontline Pastor’s Insert • January/February 2002

Many consider James 4:5 to be one of the most difficult passages to interpret within the entire epistle. Some believe it is one of the most difficult verses to interpret within the entire New Testament. While every Bible student will wrestle with this challenging verse, interpreting and applying its content provides both intellectual stimulation and spiritual insights for God’s people. James 4:5 reads, “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?”

The Context of James 4:5

James writes to a group of believers struggling with various internal issues. Their lives are frustrated because of unfulfilled desires, petty jealousies, and personal emptiness (James 4:1-3). Their underlying problem is rooted in worldliness. They are divided between the ways of God and the pull of the world (James 4:4). In James 4:5, the writer asks a carefully worded question. The question forces the readers to think deeply about God’s desire for their lives.

The Interpretation of James 4:5

Accurately interpreting this verse requires the reader to exegete carefully almost every word. Disagreement exists regarding the meaning of the phrase “the scripture.” Does this phrase refer to a specific Old Testament reference, or does it refer to a general principle found throughout the Bible? Since a specific passage does not exist, it is best to interpret the phrase as referring to the general tenor or a principle within Scripture. There is also debate regarding the sentence structure of the verse. Edmond Hiebert believes the first part of the verse forms a question and the last part of the verse makes a statement (The Epistle of James, pp. 252- 54). Most writers, however, believe the entire verse forms a question (e.g., Homer Kent, Jr., Faith that Works, p. 146).

One interpretive key is determining the subject of the sentence. Grammatically, two possible subjects exist: (1) an implied subject (God), or (2) the spirit. If God is the subject of the sentence, then the phrase “the spirit that dwelleth in us” becomes the object of God’s lusting. Thus, God lusts for the spirit in us. With this interpretation, two additional difficulties surface: (1) To what “spirit” does James refer? (2) Who is the “us” in this passage? Does God lust for the Holy Spirit within us (the believers), or does God lust for the human spirit in us? God’s lusting for the Holy Spirit seems improbable, and God’s lusting for the human spirit within us seems unlikely.

If “the spirit that dwelleth within us” is the subject, the identity of “the spirit” becomes the primary focus. Authors differ regarding the identity of “the spirit.” Some believe it is the Holy Spirit; others believe it refers to the human spirit. Differences of opinion seem tied to the meaning of the word “lusteth.” Normally, the English word “lusteth” contains a negative connotation. Therefore, writers are reluctant to interpret “the spirit” as a reference to the Holy Spirit. These words should not limit the interpretation to the human spirit, however. The word “lusteth” is not an evil word. Its primary meaning is “to long for” or “desire” (Joseph H. Thayer, Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 241). The context determines the nature of the desire. For example, in Romans 1:11 Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established.” Obviously, in this context Paul’s longing is positive in nature (cf. 2 Cor. 5:2; 9:14; Phil. 1:8; 1 Thess. 3:6; 2 Tim. 1:4; 1 Pet. 2:2). Writers interpret the words “to envy” in two ways: (1) as a prepositional phrase indicating direction; or (2) as an adverbial phrase translated “jealousy” or “enviously” (Hiebert, p. 255). If the phrase indicates direction, it refers to the Spirit’s longing towards the direction of envy or zeal. If it is interpreted adverbially, it speaks of the Spirit’s longing zealously for God’s people.

The Application of His Question

Apparently, James instructs his readers in James 4:5 that the Holy Spirit strongly longs to be jealous for the affections or devotion of God’s people. This interpretation finds support throughout the Old Testament where God reveals Himself as a jealous God who wants the total devotion of His people (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 6:15; 32:19-21). Here, James reveals to God’s people that the Lord will not be satisfied with a divided following. The Holy Spirit of God that dwells within the bodies of those who know Christ as their personal Savior possesses a strong yearning to be zealous over them. God wants their undivided devotion. He will not be satisfied with anything less.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)