Wisdom makes Perfection
James opens several sections of his letter with the term brother
typically translated, brother and sisters, or believers.
It is clear that he is addressing his own community. But James 4
opens with the term you. A significant part of the meaning
of the text may depend on who you actually is. Elsa Tamez
reads these verses as a condemnation of outsiders to James’
communities, or at least that James considers them outsiders. They
are the rich and those who aspire to be rich (Tamez 38). From a
wisdom perspective Wall and Hartin find that you are believers,
members of the community, who are trying to stay faithful, and yet
long to be rich.
4:1-10 Wisdom makes perfection
It is those who seek God’s wisdom that will find Christian
perfection. What is critical is that we give up our envy of the
rich (Wall 210). James 4:1-6 indicts our present life, verses 7-10
our proper response. The text teaches us to give up wishing for
riches and to strive instead for God’s wisdom, and ultimately,
What is keeping us from perfection, then, is our coveting
and craving. In this reading what we covet may be wealth;
on the other hand some scholars argue it is wisdom, and the leadership
that comes with that wisdom (Moo 184). In a link with James 3:13
we desire to be teachers, to be leaders in the community. But we
don’t have the necessary wisdom for these roles; our wisdom
is incomplete because it is double-focused on world values and God’s
The term world in verse 4 then implies wisdom of the
world (Johnson 211). The first century world view is that prestige
comes from leadership roles and from wealth. James argues that serving
that viewpoint is enmity with God. The message is comparable
to that of Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate
the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise
the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
The term adultery is used for those who serve more than
one God. The text is primarily about our moral choices—where
are our religious allegiances (Johnson 210)? The point is that those
who are trying to avoid deciding between the world and God are making
the wrong choice. We cannot follow both.
The morality of the world is arrogance. In verse 6 huperephanos
is literally showing oneself above others. Johnson prefers
the translation arrogance over the NRSV's choice of proud
because of the implied competition (Johnson 211) in the meaning.
This connects to the concept of jealousy and envy in verse 2, and
conveys the understanding that the world is one of limited resources.
The wisdom of the world says that if I have more, you must have
less. “The logic of envy demands competition for scarce resources”
(Johnson 211). For ancient moralists, envy is automatically connected
to hatred, boorishness, tyranny, ambition, but above all arrogance.
And in the Old Testament humble is typically the opposite of that
very self-exaltation (Penner 166).
Verse 7 then is a call for the arrogant to give up their competition
for the world’s values. The key point is to submit yourselves
therefore to God. Resist the devil and draw near
are examples of how one is to submit (Moo 193). Purifying our hearts
is in direct contrast then to the selfish ambition of our hearts
in James 3:14 (Johnson 209). The promise is that the Christian community
can be restored to close fellowship with God.
But we must act now to restore our fellowship. Draw near
says verse 8. Our English translations do not adequately portray
the sharpness of James command. Moo suggests a translation that
shows the lack of articles and pronouns in the Greek:
Wash hands, sinners;
And purify hearts, double-souled! (Moo194).
The use of the terms cleanse and purify may imply
a ritual cleaning from Israel’s cultic tradition. The call
in James 4:9-9 is not to despair, despite the language of mourning
and lament. Instead the message is that humbling today will bring
joy in the life to come (Wall 209). The repentance must be read
in light of verse 6 and the promise of God’s grace on the
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James in The New
Interpreter's Bible Volume XII, Leander E. Keck et al, editors.
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James in The Pillar
New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general editor. (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).
Todd C. Penner, The Epistle of James and Eschatology: Re-reading
an Ancient Christian Letter (Sheffield, England: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1996).
Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without
Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide
by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James
(Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).
- Who is the you to whom James addresses this text?
- What are the conflicts and disputes James may be referring to?
- Who are the proud? Who are the humble?
- What is the main point of this part of the James text?