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Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose, “The spirit that dwells in us strongly desires to envy”? (James 4:5)

Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose, introduces the reader to the bent toward envy? There is no text in the Hebrew Old Testament that the quoted words come from. Clearly, James was reflecting on what was being taught, or the sense of the entirety of the Hebrew Old Testament,[1] as opposed to quoting a specific text. Another alternative is that we know New Testament writers tend to paraphrase the Old Testament. On this, Edward Andrews writes,

On many occasions, a New Testament writer would quote or cite an Old Testament Scripture. Many times the New Testament writer would be using the Old Testament text contextually, according to the setting, and intent of the Old Testament writer (observing the grammatical-historical sense). However, at times the New Testament writer would add to or apply the text differently than what was meant by the Old Testament writer (not observing the grammatical-historical sense). This is either a new or a progressive revelation of God, where he has inspired the New Testament writer to go beyond the intended meaning of the Old Testament writer, and carry out what is known as Inspired Sensus Plenior Application (ISPA). In this latter case, the New Testament writer is using the Old Testament text to convey another meaning to another circumstance. This does not violate the principle that all texts have just one single meaning. The Old Testament text has one meaning, and the New Testament writer’s adaptation of that text is not a second meaning, but another meaning.[2]

How Are We to Understand the New Testament Author’s use of the Old Testament? [Full Article]

Here is what God said to man right after the flood, “I will never again curse the soil because of man though the bent of man’s mind may be evil from his very youth …” (Gen. 8:21, AT)[3] Yes, we are mentally bent toward evil, and part of that evil is that we can be inclined to envy. Such a spirit will lead to conflict and augments within the congregation. The love shown to Jesus made the Jewish religious leaders envious in the extreme, to the point of handing the Son of God over to Pilate to be executed. (Matt. 27:1-2, 18; Mark 15:10) The envious spirit that James speaks of is made all too clear throughout the entirety of the Hebrew Old Testament.

Envy is a product of selfishness. Solomon writes, “The soul of the wicked desires evil; his neighbor finds no mercy in his eyes.” (Prov. 21:10) In other words, if one is envious, even of his best friend, he will resort to evil, to acquire what his friend has. The envious one’s main objective is to tear down the one who has what he wants so that he can undermine his accomplishments. Again, Solomon writes, “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” What did Solomon mean? The Holman Old Testament Commentary,

Some people determine that the way to “make it” in this sin-saturated world is to allow the competitive juices to flow. Competition per se is not evil, especially the type that seeks to make personal goals. But competition that seeks to overpower another or to make that person look stupid or inferior is sinful. This type of competition is common in our world. As Solomon will graphically demonstrate, this leads to heartache and loneliness.

In case we don’t “feel” that we are very competitive, it is time for honest evaluation. How do we respond inwardly when someone does a better job at something we value? Do we feel “beat”? If we feel that we “lost,” we know where the competitive spirit is coming from![4]

James 4:5 does present problems when it comes to translation. On this, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament writes, “The two verbal forms, which, because of itacism, were pronounced alike, have slightly different meanings: [κατοικίζω katoikizō] is causative (“the spirit which he [God] has made to dwell in us”), whereas [κατοικίζω katoikizō] is intransitive (“the spirit [or, Spirit] which dwells in us”). The causative reading katókisen has better textual support, which suggests that God placed the Spirit within the believers, as God wanted us to be protected against losing our love for him. In other words, “the Spirit is jealous for the believers’ affection.” (Comfort 2008, 730) The intransitive katókesen can convey two different thoughts: (1) the Spirit is jealous for our affection but does not convey that God placed it there, or (2) the spirit is a disposition (inclination or tendency), an inborn, imperfect human desire to do wrong, like envy another.[5] Kurt Richardson offers another interpretation,

The more likely reading is based upon God as Creator and as lawgiver, and as the one who is giving new life to his dying creation. Humans are his perishing creatures. The spirit of life that transformed the newly formed body of the first man into a “living being” (Gen 2:7) is likely what is meant here. God is the giver of the spirit of life; it belongs to him. Moreover, the human spirit is not merely the vitality of the body (cf. 2:26) but also that which communes with God on the one hand or adulterates itself with idols on the other (cf. 1 Cor 6:17). The most natural understanding of “spirit” then is the human spirit, which gives us life and makes us spiritual beings. (Richardson 1997, 180)

However, this commentary interprets it as the spirit, inclination or disposition, which leans toward evil, of which one of the behaviors is envy. This envious spirit lies within imperfect humans and is not a behavior that God had intended for Adam and Eve or their prospective perfect offspring prior to their choosing to rebel. It was their sin, which came into the world through Adam, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom. 5:12) Our inherited imperfection brings about this tendency to envy. It is not something God tolerates. Scripture clearly condemns envies, and “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” – Galatians 5:19-21.

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[1] See, Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Proverbs 21:10; and Galatians 5:17.

[2] New Testament Writers Use of the Old Testament

How Are We to Understand the New Testament Author’s use of the Old Testament? [Full Article]

[3] The Bible–An American Translation (1935), J. M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed.

[4] Moore, David; Anders, Max; Akin, Daniel (2003-07-01). Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 14 – Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (p. 56). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[5] “There is really no pneumatology, that is, doctrine of the Holy Spirit, in the Epistle of James. His specific doctrinal and practical concerns evidently did not warrant such a discussion. So the verse is probably not concerned with God either desiring his Holy Spirit to indwell believers or what Paul called grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). A second interpretive option understands the Holy Spirit as desiring believers. But both these options, while not contrary to scriptural truth at all, are not likely interpretations.” (Richardson 1997, 180)

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