James 4:5 Commentary

 

 

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James 4:5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell  in us"?   (NASB: Lockman)

Greek: e dokeite (2PPAI) hoti kenos e graphe legei, (3SPAI) pros phthonon epipothei (3SPAI) to pneuma o katokisen (3SAAI) en hemin?
 

THE FOLLOWING TRANSLATIONS RENDER SPIRIT WITH A CAPITAL "S"

Amplified: Or do you suppose that the Scripture is speaking to no purpose that says, The Spirit Whom He has caused to dwell in us yearns over us and He yearns for the Spirit [to be welcome] with a jealous love? (Amplified Bible - Lockman)
Darby: Think ye that the scripture speaks in vain? Does the Spirit which has taken his abode in us desire enviously?
GWT: Do you think this passage means nothing? It says, “The Spirit that lives in us wants us to be his own.”

ICB: Do you think the Scripture means nothing? It says, "The Spirit that God made to live in us wants us for himself alone."
ISV: Or do you think the Scripture means nothing when it says that the Spirit that God caused to live in us jealously yearns for us?
MLB (Berkley): Or do you suppose the Scripture speaks to no purpose? The Spirit, who took up His abode in us, yearns jealously over us
NKJV: Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously"?
Phillips: Do you think what the scriptures have to say about this is a mere formality? Or do you imagine that this spirit of passionate jealousy is the Spirit he has caused to live in us?  (
Phillips: Touchstone)
TLB:  Or what do you think the Scripture means when it says that the Holy Spirit, whom God has placed within us, watches over us with tender jealousy
Weymouth: Or do you suppose that it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "The Spirit which He has caused to dwell in our hearts yearns jealously over us"?
WBC: Or do you really imagine there is no ground in what Scripture says: the Spirit God made to dwell in us opposes envy? (Ralph Martin)
Wuest: Or, do you think that the scripture says in an empty manner and to no purpose, The Spirit who has been caused to make His permanent home in us has a passionate desire to the point of envy  (
Eerdmans

 

THE FOLLOWING TRANSLATIONS RENDER SPIRIT WITH A SMALL "S"

ASV: Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?
BBE: Or does it seem to you that it is for nothing that the holy Writings say, The spirit which God put into our hearts has a strong desire for us?
ESV: 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”?
KJV
:  Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
Macent:
or do you imagine that passage of scripture to be insignificant, "does the spirit that dwells in you, incite you to vice?"
Moffatt:
What, do you consider this is an idle word of scripture?—'He yearns jealously for the spirit he set within us.'
Montgomery
: Or do you suppose that it is in vain that the Scripture says, "The spirit which has its home in us yearns over us unto jealousy?"
NAB
: Or do you suppose that the scripture speaks without meaning when it says, "The spirit that he has made to dwell in us tends toward jealousy"?
NET
: Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, "The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning"?
NIV
: Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?
NJB
: Can you not see the point of the saying in scripture, ‘The longing of the spirit he sent to dwell in us is a jealous longing.'?
NLT
: What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? (Or that God longs jealously for the human spirit he has placed within us? or that the Holy Spirit, whom God has placed within us, opposes our envy?) (
NLT - Tyndale House)
NRSV: Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"?
Young's Literal: Do ye think that emptily the Writing saith, `To envy earnestly desireth the spirit that did dwell in us,'

REFERENCES

Paul Apple
Albert Barnes
Brian Bell
John Calvin
Alan Carr
Rich Cathers
Rich Cathers
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Steven Cole
Thomas Constable
Ron Daniel
J N Darby
Bob Deffinbaugh
Dan Duncan
Theodore Epp
Explore the Bible
David Guzik
Matthew Henry
D Edmond Hiebert
F B Hole
IVP Commentary
Jamieson, F B
William Kelly
Keith Krell
John MacArthur
Ian Mackervoy
Thomas Manton
J Vernon McGee
Robert Morgan
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Grant Richison
A T Robertson
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Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: e dokeite (2PPAI) hoti kenos e graphe legei, (3SPAI): (John 7:42; 10:35; 19:37; Romans 9:17; Galatians 3:8)

A DIFFICULT PASSAGE
TO TRANSLATE & INTERPRET

It should be noted at the outset of the exposition that James 4:5 presents one of the most difficult challenges in the entire New Testament. There is not only a question regarding the most accurate Greek text (see below for discussion of the verb to dwell) but also the question of how the Greek text is most accurately interpreted grammatically. The following discussion will briefly discuss these problematic areas but the interested reader is referred to more academic resources for more detail. After studying multiple resources detailing the difficulties regarding James 4:5, I would suggest that the gracious reader take care not to be too dogmatic in the interpretation of this passage.

Or do you think - Parallels the introduction to Jas 4:4 "do you not know". The "or" introduces a question which addresses their attitude toward the authority of Scripture. Scripture speaks but do you think it speaks for no reason or without reason? Is the message which the Scripture speaks purposeless, so that it has no authoritative claim on how we conduct ourselves? While most of us would quickly respond with an emphatic "No, Scripture does not speak to me without purpose", our conduct many times unfortunately answers "Yes"!

The Scripture speaks - While this phrase in the first half of this verse would be expected to introduce a definite OT reference in the second half, there is no obvious passage of Scripture (OT or NT) that contains the words of the assumed quotation. Many explanations have been offered in an attempt to explain this enigma, but none are conclusive.

Ideas include (1) James quoted from some unknown apocryphal work (2) The quote is an unrecorded statement of James' half brother Jesus. (3) James quotes from some NT passage. (4) James was paraphrasing an OT passage. (5) James was not quoting a specific single passage, but is summarizing truths found in several OT passages. (6) Finally, some commentators (and Bible translations) do not treat the first half of verse 5 as a "formula" introducing a quotation but as a sentence which stands by itself. Several of the translations emphasize this latter view by dividing verse 5 into two separate sentences...

Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying? (ASV)

Think ye that the scripture speaks in vain? Does the Spirit which has taken his abode in us desire enviously? (Darby)

Do you think what the scriptures have to say about this is a mere formality? Or do you imagine that this spirit of passionate jealousy is the Spirit he has caused to live in us? (Phillips)

Or think ye that, in vain, the scripture speaketh? Is it, for envying, that the spirit which hath taken an abode within us doth crave? (Rotherdam)

Hiebert favors two separate sentences and comments that...

Lenski supports the view that verse 5 consists of two sentences by pointing out that the wording of the first part of the verse never occurs elsewhere as a formula of quotation; he insists, "If a quotation were to follow, we should certainly expect the addition, `saying that.'  (D Edmond Hiebert - James - Highly Recommended Commentary - Any commentary written by Hiebert is excellent!)

Gill explains that it...

seems best of all to conclude that the apostle has no regard to any one particular passage of Scripture, in which the following words are expressly had, since no such passage appears; but that his meaning is, the sense of the Scripture everywhere, where it speaks of this matter, is to this purpose: nor does it say this, or any thing else in vain; whatever is written there is to answer some end, as for learning, edification, and comfort, for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. (Gill's Expositional Notes)

Hiebert goes on to add that...

When the first part of Jas 4:5 is accepted as a separate question, by (his use of the phrase) the Scripture James is seen to refer to the teaching of the Scriptures as a whole, which supports the truth already declared in Jas 4:4, that man cannot love both God and the world at the same time. If the readers are prone to question the truth of what James had just said, as might be implied from their conduct, does that mean that they regard the teaching of Scripture—that worldliness and godliness cannot exist together—as without abiding authority? We accept the rendering of the ASV which makes two sentences of verse 5, as the most probable solution. (Ibid)

No purpose (2756) (kenos) means literally to be without something material and thus means empty or without content. It was used with the literal meaning (as in Mk 12:3 "they took him and beat him and sent him away empty handed"). Figuratively, kenos refers to endeavors, labors, acts, which result in nothing and thus are vain, fruitless, without effect and will not succeed. Kenos can also refer to that which is devoid of intellectual, moral, or spiritual value.

It appears then that in the present passage James is asking his readers if they think the Scripture lacks effectiveness, is useless, is of no purpose or is unable to produce results. When the passage is read in this way, it becomes essentially a rebuke to the readers.

He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell  in us: pros phthonon epipothei (3SPAI) to pneuma o katokisen (3SAAI) en hemin: (Genesis 4:5,6; 6:5; 8:21; 26:14; 30:1; 37:11; Nu 11:29; Ps 37:1; 106:16; Pr 21:10; Eccl 4:4; Isa 11:13; Acts 7:9; Ro 1:29; Titus 3:3)

The interpretation of the latter portion of James 4:5 is even more difficult than the first section and there is no clear consensus. There are at least 4 points of difficulty: (1) Is the word spirit the subject or the object of the main verb desires? (2) Is the spirit to be written with a little or big "s"? In other words is James referring to the Holy Spirit (which would be his only reference in the book) or to the spirit of man? (3) Is the phrase jealously desires to be understood in a good or bad sense? (4) Finally, is James making a statement or asking a question?

In the Greek this sentence begins with the preposition pros which generally describes direction toward and in this case would describe the direction toward which the jealousy (or envy) is directed. For example, the NIV renders this phrase "tends toward envy" while the New English Bible renders it "turns towards envious desires". One can readily see from these renderings that jealously desires has a negative connotation and this would indicate the passage could hardly refer to the Holy Spirit! One wordsmith, Bishop Trench, in fact has written (somewhat dogmatically) of phthonos (see below) that it "is used always and only in an evil signification." To reiterate, if one interprets jealously in this way, the NAS rendering would be difficult to accept (but see discussion under jealously). The KJV marginal reading is not far from the NAS, reading "the Spirit that dwelt in us loveth us to jealousy" (Jas 4:5, KJV, marginal reading)

Jealously (5355) (phthonos) in most NT uses describes not just wanting what another person has, but also resenting that person for having it.  Phthonos thus is generally given a negative connotation in biblical usage. Carson says that phthonos was occasionally used in secular Greek to describe "the jealous feeling of a lover towards a rival." Such a meaning would be compatible with the NAS interpretation that it is the Spirit of God Who jealously desires.

Hiebert adds that...

the nouns phthonos [envy] and zelos [zeal, jealousy] were sometimes used interchangeably. "Phthonos was occasionally used in Greek writers of the jealousy of the Olympian gods," (Douglas Moo - "The Letter of James") and both terms were "often used for the `jealousy' of God (1Mac. 8:16; T Sim. 4.5; T. Gad. 7.2; 1 Clem. 3.2; 4.7; 5.2)." (Ralph Martin, Word Biblical Commentary) So understood, the expression (jealously desires, NAS) could be used to describe God's unwillingness to share man's affections with the world (Ed: The affection for which James has just warned his readers in Jas 4:4-note).

Dobson, et al write that pros phthonos...

when taken adverbially, “the Spirit that dwells in us lusts jealously,” speaks of divine jealousy, a familiar doctrine to these Jews (Ex 20:5; 34:14; Zech 8:2).  (Dobson, E G, Charles Feinberg, E Hindson, Woodrow Kroll, H L. Wilmington: KJV Bible Commentary: Nelson or Logos)

Desires (1971) (epipotheo from epi = intensifies +  potheo = to yearn) means to have a strong desire for something, with implication of need. It mean to long for, have great affection for, yearn for someone or something. The present tense indicates this strong desire is continual. Epipotheo is used elsewhere in the NT always to express longing in a good sense and not to express an evil desire (See the 9 NT uses: Ro 1:11; 2Co 5:2; 9:14; Php 1:8; 2:26; 1Th3:6; 2Ti 1:4; Jas 4:5; 1Pe 2:2). Ropes remarks that epipotheo was even used to describe "the longing affection of the lover." (cp uses of epipotheo in the Lxx - Ps 42:1, Ps 119:20, 131)

The Greek scholar A T Robertson comments that the phrase (pros phthonon epipothei) is

A difficult phrase... (and if) God (is) presented as a jealous lover, does to pneuma (the spirit) refer to the Holy Spirit as the subject of epipothei or to man’s spirit as the object of epipothei? Probably the former and epipothei then means to yearn after in the good sense as in Phil. 1:8. (Study Notes on 4:5)

Spirit (4151) (pneuma) in the present context can be taken as either the subject (NET = "The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning") or the object (ESV = "He yearns jealously over the spirit") of the verb desires and to further complicate the picture can be interpreted as a reference to either the human spirit or the Holy Spirit. The various translations at the beginning of this note (click) have been divided into those who interpret pneuma as the Divine Spirit or the human spirit.

To dwell - The specific Greek verb which is translated to dwell is also in dispute. Most modern translations favor katoikizo while the KJV (based on the Greek Textus Receptus) favors the verb katoikeo.

Katoikizo (no unique Strong's # - some resources list it with katoikeo 2730) is used only here in James 4:5 (but used 40x in the non-apocryphal Septuagint) and means to cause to dwell, to establish, to settle. Katoikizo is the verb which most scholars favor as the one James intended. BDAG writes that katoikizo is used in James 4:5 "of the Spirit" (BDAG favors the Holy Spirit) and so renders this phrase as "the Spirit which (God) has caused to live in us." Louw & Nida on the other hand favors the spirit of man and so renders it "the spirit that (God) caused to dwell in us" or "the spirit that (God) put within us". The confused reader can begin to see the difficulties and disagreements among respected scholars regarding the basic rendering of James 4:5!

Katoikeo (2730) is the much more commonly used Greek verb (45x in 43 NT verses) meaning literally to reside and figuratively speaking of God dwelling in the heart (1Co 3:16), of demons dwelling humans (Mt 12:45), of God dwelling in the temple (Mt. 23:21), of Satan dwelling where Antipas was killed (Rev. 2:13), of Christ dwelling in His people by faith (Eph 3:17), of the fullness of God dwelling in Christ (Col. 1:19), of the fullness of Deity dwelling in Christ bodily (Col 2:9), and of righteousness dwelling  in the new heaven and earth (2Pe 3:13).

The NET Bible note says that...

Both because of the absence of an explicit subject and the relative scarcity of the causative katoikizo ("cause to dwell") compared to the intransitive katoikeo (live, dwell") in Biblical Greek...it is easy to see why scribes would replace katokisen with katokesen (Ed: Replacing "i" with an "e" changes the root verb [lemma] from katoikizo to katoikeo)...On internal and external grounds, katokisen is the preferred reading. (Ed: In other words, the NET Bible translators and most other scholars favor the conclusion that James used the rare verb katoikizo rather than the more common verb katoikeo which is favored by the Greek Textus Receptus [KJV]. Are you confused yet?)

Hiebert a highly respected expositor summarizes the textual and grammatical conundrum as follows...

When the second half of Jas 4:5 is accepted as a separate sentence, is it to be punctuated as a question or as a declarative statement? The ASV makes it a question, but its contents may equally be regarded as a declarative statement." Its close connection with the statement in the first part of Jas 4:6 supports the view that this is also a statement of fact. We accept it as a statement of fact made by James. In view of the grammatical structure, there are four possibilities as to the intended meaning:

1. The human spirit as the object of the main verb:

"He [God] yearns enviously for the spirit which He caused to dwell in us."

Then the meaning is that God, who placed man's spirit in him at creation, longs for its total loyalty and devotion to Him.

2. The divine Spirit as the object of the verb:

"He [God] yearns enviously for the Spirit which He caused to dwell in us."

But it is difficult to see how one member of the Trinity should be pictured as enviously longing for another. This alternative is highly improbable.

3. The human spirit as the subject of the main verb:

"The spirit which He made to dwell in us longs enviously"

Then the meaning is that the human spirit, imparted at creation, longs perversely for enjoyment of the world's pleasures, even to the point of envy Then James charges his readers with perverseness in being cool toward God while yearning for the world's pleasures.

4. The divine Spirit as the subject of the verb:

"The Spirit which He made to dwell in us yearns enviously"

Then the meaning is that the Holy Spirit, imparted to us by God at conversion, yearns enviously for our total loyalty and devotion to Him. The incoming Holy Spirit, Who sealed our redemption, justly claims our undivided love. He can brook no rival for our affection. The only reference to the Holy Spirit in this epistle is under the second and fourth views.

In view of the rebuke to worldliness that James is administering to his Christian readers, the last view seems most probable. Then this reference to the Holy Spirit's reaction to their worldliness fittingly expresses a further ground for censure. This view harmonizes with the natural force of the relative clause. The assertion that God caused the Spirit to dwell in believers is a central teaching of the New Testament (Acts 5:32; Ro 8:11; Gal. 4:6; 2Ti 1:14). The better-attested verb "causes to live" (katokisen) most naturally points to a distinctive experience that is not true of all men and is best taken as referring directly to the Spirit's impartation at regeneration. This view also gives the most natural meaning to "us" as restricted to Christians. This picture of the Holy Spirit's yearning for the undivided love of His people, and grudgingly refusing to yield to a rival, is consistent with the statement in Galatians 5:17 concerning the Spirit's opposition to the lusts of the flesh. This view also is supported by the assertion in the first part of verse 6, which stands in close connection with verse 5b.

The ESV Study Bible comments that...

God created mankind with a “spirit,” and he deeply desires that our spirits worship Him (cf. John 4:23,24). Some interpreters believe the verse speaks of human jealousy (“The spirit that he has made to live in us envies intensely”). But the idea of divine jealousy fits the context best, since the surrounding verses (James 4:4, 6, 7, 8) deal with man's relationship with God. (ESV = “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”)

The Handbook on the Letter to James has five alternative translations and has the following note on translation  #4 (consult the UBS NT Handbook for all five possibilities with the pros and cons of each)...

The Spirit he caused to live in us longs jealously” (NIV second alternative rendering). In this instance the Holy Spirit is the subject of yearning. But God is the one who caused the Holy Spirit to live in us. The verb phrase “to yearn jealously” is taken in the good sense of “to long jealously for our full devotion,” or “to love us passionately.” What James appears to say here, then, is that Christians are indwelt by God’s Spirit, and that the Spirit longs for the undivided loyalty and the love of God’s people. The unstated application of this is that it would be inconceivable for Christians to continue to live in accordance with their own sinful desires and passions.

To think of the Holy Spirit as dwelling in human beings is a concept well known in the Bible (Ro 8.11; 1Co3.16). The indwelling in human beings is the act and purpose of God. It makes more sense to say that God placed the Holy Spirit in us, rather than to say that he placed in us the human spirits with tendency to sin. However, the difficulty is that this would be the only reference to the Holy Spirit in the book, and this is considered by some scholars as most unlikely. Furthermore it would be unnatural to link the Holy Spirit with envy and jealousy. For this reason we would have to interpret the word “jealousy” in the good sense of a strong desire to love and care. This, to some scholars, is contrary to its normal usage in the New Testament, and it is therefore considered to be doubtful. (The United Bible Societies' New Testament Handbook Series or Logos)

Thomas Constable notes that James 4:5...

is very difficult to translate this statement, but the best rendering seems to be something such as the following. “God jealously longs for the spirit that He made to live in us.” Another translations is, “the Spirit which he made to dwell in us jealously yearns for the entire devotion of the heart” (cf. Ro 8:11; 1Co 3:16; Gal. 4:6; Ep 4:30; Jn 7:39; 16:7). Both translations fit the preceding context well. God’s people who love the world have committed spiritual adultery against Him (Jas 4:4-note), but God (or His Spirit) jealously longs for their love (Jas 4:5). (James Expository Notes)

Nystrom asks...

What is the subject and what is the object of the verb “longs for” (epipothei)? The NIV has chosen to muddy the waters by conflating (bringing together, combining two readings of a text into a composite whole) two consecutive Greek terms, phthonon (“envy, jealousy”) and epipothei ("express strong desire for") (NIV = "the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely"). It is best to treat phthonon as an adverb (“with envy, with jealousy, jealously”) and to see “God” as the subject and “the spirit” as the object of the verb. This leaves us with the following translation: “Out of jealousy he [God] longs for the spirit that he [God] made to live in us.” This is the interpretation chosen by the NRSV ("God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us") (cf. NIV footnote = "that God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us" or "that the Spirit he caused to live in us longs jealously"). Other renderings are, of course, possible and grammatically defensible. The subject could be the Holy Spirit, in which case the translation would be, “The Holy Spirit that he sent to live in us desires us for himself alone.” This, however, leaves us not distantly removed from where we find ourselves if God is the subject.

In any case, the point is, plainly, that God desires with all of His heart for us to come home and to live with and in Him, for us to ask for His wisdom. Instead, we follow the wisdom of the world (cp Jas 3:15, 16, 17, Jas 4:4-note), whether knowingly or unwittingly, and by following that errant path we can never achieve what we truly seek. ((NIV Application Commentary, New Testament: James. David P. Nystrom, Page 227. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) (Bolding added)

Donald Burdick also commenting on Jas 4:5 in the NIV adds that...

there is good reason to believe that the translation given in the NIV footnote for the last part of the verse is correct, "that God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us." This rendering fits the immediate context better than the NIV text, "that the spirit he caused to live in us tends toward envy." Jas 4:4-note, which is closely tied to Jas 4:5 by the conjunction "or," indicates that the believer who is a friend of the world is guilty of spiritual adultery. Although his love and devotion belong to God, he has fallen in love with the world. It is natural, therefore, to expect Jas 4:5 to speak of God's jealous longing for His people's love, rather than of their envious spirit. And there are OT passages that refer to God as jealously desiring the devotion of His people. Since there is no passage of which James 4:5 is a verbatim quotation, it is best to understand it as giving the gist of such passages as Ex 20:5 and Ex 34:14...

It is much better... to translate pros phthonon epipothei as "longs jealously for." Thus, in Jas 4:4-note James has accused his readers of spiritual unfaithfulness. If they are not willing to accept this indictment, he asks in Jas 4:5 what they think about the OT passages dealing with God's jealous longing for His people. This is the significance of the introductory conjunction "or." Do they think Scripture speaks "without reason" or emptily? Of course they don't think this. Consequently, it is necessary to believe that friendship with the world is enmity toward God, and thus it is spiritual unfaithfulness. (Gaebelein, F, Editor: Expositor's Bible Commentary 6-Volume New Testament. Zondervan Publishing or Pradis = computer version)

Warren Wiersbe says...

Living for the flesh means grieving the Holy Spirit of God Who lives in us... just as the world is the enemy of God the Father, so the flesh is the enemy of God the Holy Spirit. There is a holy, loving jealousy that a husband and wife have over each other, and rightly so. The Spirit within jealously guards our relationship to God, and the Spirit is grieved when we sin against God’s love. (Wiersbe, W: Bible Exposition Commentary. 1989. Victor or Logos)

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary reminds us that...

God is a jealous God (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:14; Dt 32:16; Zech 8:2; 1Co 10:22), and hence He will not tolerate divided allegiance. (Pfeiffer, C F: Wycliffe Bible Commentary. 1981. Moody or Logos)

Comment: See Dt 4:23, 24, 25, 26; 6:14, 15; Josh 24:19, 20 for other OT verses [among many] that describe God as jealous and as the One Who forbids idolatry remembering that an idol would be like a "lover" with which a believer seeks companionship, committing adultery with their true Husband, Jehovah. If human husbands become angered by a wife's adultery, how much more right would God have to be jealous toward His unfaithful wife?! (see Pr 6:32, 33, 34, 35-notes)

Motyer adds that...

God’s people are indwelt by God’s Spirit and there is no way in which the living presence of that Spirit is compatible with those sinful yearnings and promptings to self-interest which are destructive of the peace of the church. (Motyer, J. A. The Message of James: The Tests of Faith: Inter-Varsity Press)

Lehman Strauss comments that...

We might paraphrase this to read as follows: "The Spirit, who hath taken up His abode in us, enviously yearns over us." I have capitalized the word Spirit, for I believe James is referring to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, indwelling us, is longing after something: namely, to make us wholly Christ's, to bring us to the place where we have no divided allegiance. The Holy Spirit has just one envy, one desire, one longing; that is, our entire devotion to Jesus Christ. God warned His people of old time to have no other gods, neither to bow down to them, for, said He: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God" (Dt 5:1-9). This is the intense desire of divine love, and the dispensations do not alter it. God's pure and perfect love for us yearns over us, for He too longs to be loved by His own. This is the consistent teaching of all Scripture, and it is not mere vain (or empty) teaching. No teaching in the Word of God can be labeled meaningless.

The popular preacher and Bible expositor R. Kent Hughes writes...

I am convinced that the text refers to the Holy Spirit's jealousy over us because it best fits the argument of the context and because it touches on that grand truth so indispensable to the New Testament theology—the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Understanding that the Holy Spirit's jealousy for us is what is meant here opens a heart-changing truth to us: even when we sin by seeking our pleasures in friendship with the world (Jas 4:4-note), we are greatly loved, for jealousy is an essential element of true love. We are brides of Christ, and the Holy Spirit does not want us to go somewhere else to "have our needs met." The Holy Spirit's true love for us evokes a proper intolerance of straying affection. The personalness of this ought to steel us against wandering.

This jealous Spirit is inside us. When we sin, He is pained! Furthermore, His jealousy is passionate, for the idea in the Greek (epipotheo) is that He longs or yearns for us with an intense jealousy. To realize that the awesomely holy God who transcends the universe and is wholly other and self-contained is at the same time personally and passionately and lovingly jealous for our affection—this realization ought to stop any of our "affairs" with the world and cause us to prostrate our souls adoringly before him. How we are loved! And how we ought to love! For as John informs us, "We love because he first loved us" (1Jn 4:19).
(Hughes, R. K. James : Faith that works. Preaching the Word. Crossway Books or Logos)

George Stulac in the IVP NT Commentary series has a well done analysis of this difficult section of James. After assessing alternative interpretations (see his discussion), Stulac explains why he favors the NAS (and the NIV marginal translation) noting first that...

the subject of the verb (desires) is the understood He, referring to God. The object of His yearning is the spirit He caused to live in us. This spirit could be either the created human spirit or the Holy Spirit given to Christians, though the former seems more likely because it is consistent with James's only other reference to "spirit" in Jas 2:26-note. In either case, the meaning is that God jealously desires us to belong wholeheartedly to Him. (Even if one takes the Jerusalem Bible or Living Bible rendering with "spirit" referring to the Holy Spirit as the subject of the clause, one is left with the same meaning: that God jealously desires us.)

The arguments making this understanding of Jas 4:5 preferable are the following.

1. Linguistic. Two terms for "envy," phthonos and zelos, are sometimes interchangeable, and zelos is used elsewhere of God. James would be choosing this more unusual use of phthonos simply for stylistic contrast, since he recently used zelos negatively of human envy in Jas 3:14 and Jas 3:16.

2. Grammatical. It is more natural to have the same subject for the two verbs yearns (desires) and caused to live (made to dwell).

3. Contextual. An emphasis on God's jealousy for righteousness in us is equally consistent with what James has emphasized in the letter.

4. Logical. A reference to human envy here would be awkward, because it would seem to ignore the point to which James has come in Jas 4:4-
note and would instead return to his point in Jas 4:1-3. On the other hand, a reference to God's jealousy fits the flow of thought well. The point of Jas 4:4 logically raises the objection "How does friendship with the world make me an enemy of God?" James would be answering this in Jas 4:5 by reminding us of God's jealousy. Then Jas 4:6-note would follow as a reminder of God's grace to the humble, which protects us from being overwhelmed by God's jealousy. (George Stulac - IVP NT Commentary - James 4:4-5 Don't You Know the Choice to Be Made) (Bolding added)

Ralph Martin explains that...

 there is another argument that speaks against construing “the human spirit” as the subject of epipothei (desires). To take Jas 4:5b as a Scriptural confirmation of human jealousy would require that the author has returned to his description of human nature in Jas 4:1, 2, 3, but in Jas 4:4-note James has issued a call to repentance, warning his readers that friendship with the world means enmity with God. Thus, more than likely, Jas 4:5 is set down to highlight God’s displeasure with the behavior reported in Jas 4:1-4. To conclude, therefore, that the subject of epipothei is the human spirit is fraught with much difficulty.

If it is the divine Spirit (taking God as the subject of katokisen, a hapax legomenon = only Biblical use) which opposes envy, then we have an understanding of Jas 4:5 that continues the flow of Jas 4:4. Even though many interpreters prefer to take God as the subject of epipothei Hort, p 93, 94; Ropes, p 263; Dibelius, p 223, 24; Mayor, p 144,145; Mussner, p 142, 43), the same thought could be expressed in terms of God at work in the believer through the Holy Spirit, which opposes the jealous or envious tendencies of our “earthly” human nature. As a result the effect of “godly wisdom” should prevail. God opposes those who fight and war within the church, and he has placed his Spirit within His people to combat that tendency. Therefore, it is God’s jealousy that is described in Jas 4:5, for He stands waiting for the belligerent to forsake their envy of others and direct their attention back to Him. (Martin, R. P. Vol. 48: Word Biblical Commentary: James. Page 150. Dallas: Word, Incorporated. 2002)

John Piper (Godward Life - Book Two) commenting on Jas 4:2, 4, 4 writes that...

James has in his mind a picture of people who use prayer to try to get from God something they desire more than God. He calls these people—men and women—"adulteresses." Why? Because in his mind God is like our husband Who is jealous to be our highest delight. If we then try to make prayer a means of getting from Him something we want more than we want Him, we are like a wife who asks her husband for money to visit another lover.

As if it were not clear enough, James explains (in Jas 4:5) why this is offensive to God: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us." In other words, God is jealous to be the object of our spirits greatest delight. And Jas 4:4 says, if we become "friends" with the world, we become "enemies" of God. That means if we find our most satisfying relationships with others besides God, we make him our enemy. God is either our first and greatest delight, or he is our enemy.

F B Meyer in Our Daily Homily...

THE SPIRIT...YEARNETH FOR US EVEN UNTO JEALOUS ENVY.
Jamess 4:5 (RV, marginal reading).

A VERY deep and remarkable verse! The apostle is contending against the worldliness which was so rife among the believers he was addressing. They were set on pleasure; they sought the friendship of the world, and became unfaithful to their divine Lover; they were proud and high-minded. He went so far as to speak of them as adulterers and adulteresses (Jas 4:4); and then adopting a gentler, pleading tone, he says,

"You are grieving the gentle Holy Spirit who has come to dwell within you, who yearns with a jealous envy to possess your entire nature for Himself."

The Spirit of God dwells within thee, O believer in Jesus Christ. If a man have not the Spirit of God, he is none of His; and since thou art undoubtedly one of us, thou hast most certainly the Holy Spirit (Ro 8:11-note). But the mistake of thy life consists in this, that He hath not thee. Some part of thy heart is given, but not all; and this causes Him the most exquisite pain, like that which we suffer from jealousy.

No keener pain is possible to the heart of man than to have good reason for the belief that a loved one is not wholly true; that there has been an alienation of affection which was once whole and entire; that another is receiving a part at least of the heart's devotion. The fire and screw are light in comparison with our anguish then; but, this is what the Spirit of God suffers when we share between Him and the world that love which should be all His own. "I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God," is as true as when first spoken from Sinai. The person of Jesus Christ must be the Sun of our system, though that system may include many planets beside.

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GOD'S JEALOUS SPIRIT - Do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously"? James 4:5

Shep, the newest member of our family, is a young Shetland sheepdog who openly displays his jealousy when I kiss my wife. He doesn't snarl or bite, but in the language of barking he seems to be saying "Hey, Master, you belong to me!" His jealousy gives me a good feeling. After all, don't we all like someone to care that much about us?

There's another kind of jealousy -- a righteous jealousy -- at work in the life of every Christian. It's not the yearning of a subject for his master, like that of my dog Shep, but of "the" Master for His subject. Some has rephrased James 4:5, 6 to read,  "Do you think that Scripture says without reason that the Holy Spirit, whom God caused to live in us, jealously wants us exclusively to Himself in order to pour out His grace on us generously?"

When we lust, covet, and create strife, we embrace the world's values (Jas 4:1-4), and this stirs up God's jealousy. He continually longs to keep us near to Him. He corrects, rebukes, comforts, guides, and urges us to get to know Him better. This pure possessiveness doesn't stifle or demean us, but uplifts and liberates because it is full of grace and truth. That's why He
wants us all to Himself. Thank God for His jealous Spirit. -  Dennis J. De Haan
(Our Daily Bread, Copyright RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved)

ACTION SUGGESTION- Since we are aware of God's righteous jealousy, what steps should we take so that He can bless us? (James 4:7-10)

There's no room for double occupancy in the Christian's heart.

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Tony Evans writes that...

Our God is jealous of His work in us (Jas 4:5). He won’t share us with another spiritual suitor—and He shouldn’t have to!

John Blanchard in his book The Complete Gathered Gold- A Treasury of Quotations  (or Computer version) (Highly recommended as one of the best resources for Biblically sound quotes) has these quotes...

God is jealous for the good of His redeemed people—but He can never be jealous of anything or anyone. - John Blanchard

The jealousy of God is one of the Christian's greatest challenges—and comforts. - John Blanchard

God, as a jealous God, is filled with a burning desire for our holiness, for our righteousness, for our goodness. - Donald Grey Barnhouse

John Macarthur's interpretation of the last half of James is somewhat in the minority opinion for he writes that...

This difficult phrase (The Spirit … yearns jealously) is best understood by seeing the “spirit” as a reference not to the Holy Spirit, but to the human spirit, and translating the phrase “yearns jealously” in the negative sense of “lusts to envy.” James’ point is that an unbelieving person’s spirit (inner person) is bent on evil (cf. Ge 6:5; 8:21; Pr. 21:10; Eccl 9:3; Jer 17:9; Mk 7:21, 22, 23- note). Those who think otherwise defy the biblical diagnosis of fallen human nature; and those who live in worldly lusts give evidence that their faith is not genuine (cf. Ro 8:5-11- note; 1Co 2:14). (MacArthur, J.: The MacArthur Study Bible Nashville: Word or Logos)

John MacArthur is not alone in his interpretation, C H Spurgeon commenting that...

There is a spirit, resident in the natural man, the human nature of man, which is always inclined toward hate and envy, always wanting to get somewhat from other men, and always grieved if other men seem to be or to have more than the person himself has. How is this spirit to be met? This verse supplies the answer, "He giveth more grace." (Jas 4:6- note) "More grace," -this is the great remedy for hate and envy. "More grace,"-this is the balm for sorrow. "More grace,"-this is our greatest help out of all difficulties. "More grace,"-this is the universal recipe for all that we need: "He giveth more grace."

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