In the King James Bible published in 1611, this verse has long been considered to be very difficult to understand. It has often been said that no such passage as James apparently quotes is to be found in the Bible. The text reads thus: "Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?"
Literally, the Greek text would mean: "Or, are-you supposing that in-vain the Scripture is-saying (or, speaking)? Towards envy is-earnestly desiring the spirit which dwells in us?"
Dean Alford suggested the following: "Or do you think that the Scripture saith in vain, The Spirit that He (God) placed in us (viz. when the Spirit descended on the church) jealously desireth (us for His own)." Alford also attempted to find passages in the O.T., and gave the following, Gen. 6:5 and 8:21; Num. 11:29; Deut. 32:19 and 21; Prov. 21:10. But not one of these came close enough to explain James 4:5.
Bloomfield had endeavoured to render the passage thus: "Do ye think that the Scripture speaketh in vain? Does the Spirit that dwelleth in us lust to envy?" But the word for earnestly-desiring or longing (epipothei) does not mean lust. And besides, we must remember that in the Angle tongue lust meant desire or pleasure, even in the writings of Chaucer (1340-1400) and later, in the time of Spenser (1552-1599) and Bacon (1561-1626). In Exodus 15:9 we find the word in the King James version, but in the Hebrew it means soul, and in the English text it means pleasure. Compare Romans 1:27, where the word lust means a very evil form of pleasure, the Greek term meaning eager-desire or craving.
On the above matter Dr. Bullinger, in his Companion Bible had little to say: "This can only refer to the general testimony of Scripture that the natural man is prone to selfish desires, leading to envy of others who possess the things desired (Cp. Gen. 6:5; 8:21)." How unfortunate that he did not examine the Revised Version of 1881, which reads: "Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?" Even in a version in Old English about 1400 we find: "What wene (imagine) ye? That scripture seye in veyn, that the spiryt that is in yow coveyteth to envye."
The American Bible Union version (1865) reads thus: "Or do ye think that the Scripture says in vain, the spirit he made to dwell in us has jealous longings?"
Paton J. Gloag, in Schaff's Commentary paraphrases as follows: "Do you think that the Scripture speaks in vain? Are its declarations against worldliness, and strife, and envy, a mere empty sound? Does the Spirit that dwells in Us lust to envy? Does He encourage such worldly affections? Are the fruits of the Spirit envy, and strife, and worldliness, and not rather love, joy, peace?" Rotherham's 1st edition: "Or are ye supposing that vainly the Scripture says, The Spirit which took up its dwelling in us, unto envy, is eagerly longing?"
Most of the renderings are reasonably good, the Revised Standard, New World, Diaglott, Weymouth, Wordsworth, Concordant, etc.
But can it be that there is nothing in the Old Testament which James was thinking of? What of Psalm 42, verse 1 of the Septuagint? "In the manner the stag is earnestly desiring the fountains of the waters, thus is earnestly desiring my soul toward Thee, O God." Or in the King James: "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." Observe in this verse that earnestly desiring or panting occurs twice. It is most unlikely that the first readers of James' epistle were not well acquainted with this verse, just as Christian people today are well acquainted with it. Probably James intended his readers to carry their minds back to this psalm, so that their hearts and souls might pant for "Thee, O God," and not for the things of the world. We must keep in mind that 1. John 2:15 was a new maxim in the first century A.D.: "Love not the world, nor the things in the world."
One could well imagine the utter self-loathing of the readers of James produced in their souls by the idea that in place of "Thee, O God," they were in danger of putting base worldly "envying," which is directly antagonistic to God, as James had told them in the previous sentence, "Adulterers and adulteresses! Are you not aware that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever, then, should be intending to be a friend of the world is being constituted an enemy of God."
F. W. Farrar says the spirit which God has given us longs, even to jealous fondness, that we should pay to God an undivided allegiance; and for that reason He gives us greater grace, that we may maintain that allegiance.
A.T. Last updated 2.11.2005