By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: What is the correct translation and meaning of James 4:5?
Reply: Albert Barnes is correct when he says: “Few passages of the New Testament have given expositors more perplexity than this. ” The King James rendering of the verse is: “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” The American Standard Version translation is: “Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?”
The context of James 4:5 is seen in verse 4, “Ye adulteresses, know ye not that friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God.” The word 49vain” in the Greek is kenos and it means “in an empty manner, idly, in vain, to no purpose” (Arndt and Gingrich, p. 429). So, James is simply asking his readers in verse 5, “Are you to suppose that what the scripture says about friendship with the world being enmity with God is of no value, that it is empty and serves no purpose?”
The real difficulty lies in the next part of the passage. “Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long (lust, KJV) unto envying?” The question asked is rhetorical for emphasis. There is much controversy as to what the “spirit” is in this verse. Is it the Holy Spirit, or the human spirit? The word “spirit,” translated from the Greek pneuma is not capitalized in the text, but since there was no capitalization in the Greek, no help is offered from this aspect. While the American Standard translators used the lower case “s” in the text, they have capitalized it in the marginal readings of the verse. The translators are divided upon this point, but two of the most significant translations (the KJV and ASV) have not capitalized it in the text; thus, this represents 148 of the world’s best scholars. But regardless of what the manuscript reading should be, there is a spirit which dwells within us.
It seems to be more harmonious with the teaching of the first few verses of chapter 4 in James, to conclude that the spirit in verse 5 is the human spirit. The wars and fightings among them alluded to in verse I came as a result of their lust and covetousness. They had broken their marriage vow to God (see marginal reading of “adulteresses” in ASV). Their friendship of the world is enmity with God. The question asked by James in verse 5 seems to be declarative, rather than interrogative. If this be the case, it would not be proper that the Holy Spirit would yearn or lust unto envying, the very thing He condemned in men. The hearts of those to whom James wrote were filled with envy, jealousy and covetousness. The teaching of Scripture spoke against these things, but the spirit which was in them was longing or lusting unto envying. The word translated “lust” here (KJV) is from the greek epipotheo “to lust,” and Thayer inserts in brackets “i.e. harbor forbidden desire” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 241). This was the spirit that was dwelling in those addressed by James in these verses.
James 4:5 is admittedly a difficult passage but hopefully these comments have been helpful in our study.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 15, pp. 451-452
August 6, 1987