James 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Don't Be Arrogant
The continuity from the preceding passage is the theme of humility. Humility is characteristic of the truly wise (3:13); it is the stance for receiving God's grace (4:6); it is commanded in the description of repentance (4:10); the opposite of humility is implied in the question immediately preceding this new passage: "But you--who are you to judge your neighbor?" It is natural for James now to confront directly the opposite of humility, which we would call arrogance.
Dibelius emphatically dismisses any literary connection between this passage and the preceding verses (1976:230). Davids also misses the continuity of theme and sees no direct connection to 4:1-12 (1982:171). He is perhaps overly distracted by the question of the identity of the hoi legontes ("you who say"). He and Laws perceive two distinct classes being addressed by James: merchants in 4:13-17 and wealthy landlords in 5:1-6. Laws concludes from the term emporeusometha ("carry on business") and from the rhetorical address "Come now!" that James is speaking about a distinct class of traveling traders who at this stage would not likely have been a part of the church in sufficient numbers to be singled out as a group of Christians (1980:190). If so, James would be addressing rhetorically people outside the church for the benefit of the Christians who are actually reading his letter. This is a possibility, since James refrains from calling them "brothers" and makes no distinctly Christian references about them. On the other hand, Davids believes James reserves the term plousioi for rhetorically addressing the "rich" who are not part of the church (as in 5:1). In this view, James's avoidance of the term plousioi in 4:13 means he is there addressing people within the Christian community.
Though Davids underestimates the continuity of the humility theme, this continuity actually supports his view of the identity of the entrepreneurs in 4:13-17. James has been addressing Christians about humility ever since 3:13 and has reached a climactic reference to arrogance at the end of 4:12. He would most naturally continue to address believers in 4:13, warning them about arrogance especially in their business endeavors. James will escalate this message in the next paragraph (5:1-6) through his rhetorical address to unbelieving rich oppressors. They will serve as examples of the arrogance described in 4:13-17, carried to the level of murderous greed. This is a more elaborate example of James's argument in 2:1-7, where he first warned Christians about their own sin of favoritism and then reminded them that they were acting like the unbelieving rich who were exploiting them and blaspheming the name of Christ.
James begins with the interjection now listen (age nyn), a short, blunt expression to get his readers' attention. He will call their attitude boasting by the end of the paragraph. Most of us do not think of ourselves as boasting people, because we do not go around making people listen to our bragging. As a good discipler, however, James makes us examine more subtle forms of boasting. Arrogance in knowledge occurs when we assume that we control time and events. By using the categories of 4:13, Douglas D. Webster observes how comprehensively we do this: "What else is there besides time (`today or tomorrow'), purpose (`we will go'), place (`to this or that city'), goals (`to carry on business') and reward (`make money')?" (1991:125).
James has touched what has become a major pathology in our society. It is alarmingly commonplace, even among Christians, to be overextended in commitments, to be stressed because of time pressures and finally to become dissatisfied, compulsive people. Observing the sickness of contemporary family life, James Dobson has warned that if the devil can't make you sin, he will make you too busy, and that's just as bad. We are a driven people.
The attitude confronted in 4:13 is exposed as deception in 4:14: Why, you don't even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. The verse begins as a relative clause continuing 4:13 as "who do not know . . ." The use of hoitines instead of hoi ("who") emphasizes a characteristic quality of the group being mentioned--to be rendered in this case as "who do not even know." Poia is the feminine of the interrogative pronoun poios ("of what kind?"), which brings a qualitative sense to the question: "What is your life like?" The question, however, is more likely the end of the longer sentence (as in the NASB). The NIV follows a textual variation to make it a separate question, but the variation seems best explained as an attempt to smooth and clarify the reading (Davids 1982:172). The preferred result is "who do not even know what your life will be like tomorrow."
The solution to our time-stress begins with humility, and humility comes from this knowledge: that we are like a vanishing mist unless the eternal God establishes us. James has employed an Old Testament image that captures an important biblical concept. In Hosea, for example, this image is used in judgment. The nation's weak love for God is condemned by its likeness to the morning mist and the early dew that disappears (Hos 6:4). Hosea combined the images of morning mist, disappearing dew, swirling chaff and escaping smoke to portray how easily the people who trust in idols will be blown away (Hos 13:3). In Psalm 1:4, the wicked are "like chaff that the wind blows away," in contrast to the righteous, who stand firmly planted. Isaiah described people who oppose God as being blown away like chaff before the wind (Is 17:13). The biblical concept is that human life is utterly dependent on God and completely incapable of standing before God's judgment.
James would impress upon us this critical piece of knowledge: that God is the one who sustains our lives, that each day's twenty-four hours are not "ours" automatically, that God controls time and gives it as one of his good gifts, and that we would be already blown away in God's judgment were it not for his mercy. The biblical worldview is that "we receive another day neither by natural necessity, nor by mechanical law, nor by right, nor by courtesy of nature, but only by the covenanted mercies of God" (Motyer 1985:162).
This knowledge helps to dispel self-sufficiency, replacing it with the freedom to rely on God's faithful generosity. Again, far from preaching self-reliance and works-orientation, James is leading us into a life of grace-reliance.
This life of reliance on God runs far deeper than the words we say, and care should be taken to apply James's words deeply and honestly. First, it would be a superficial spirituality to think that James's instruction is fulfilled merely by sprinkling our speech with "the Lord willing." At the same time, we should not judge those who do use this phrase; if it is done humbly as a way to keep oneself reminded of God's sovereignty, it can be a godly practice. Second, it would be a deformed spirituality to apply this by refusing to do any planning; 4:15 affirms the validity of planning to do this or that. Motyer writes, "James is not trying to banish planning from our lives, but only that sort of self-sufficient, self-important planning that keeps God for Sunday but looks on Monday to Saturday as mine" (1985:161). The spirituality James wants for us is a humble reliance on God which flows from knowing that one is in reality dependent on God for every moment. It is yet another example of how James would envision the manifestation of grace-reliance in our lives.
The sin of self-sufficiency is a serious matter. You boast is kauchasthe, a verb that can have a positive meaning, as in Romans 5:11 and 1 Corinthians 1:3, but clearly has a negative emphasis here. The NIV's and brag is actually not a second verb in the text but a prepositional phrase "in your arrogance" (cf. NASB). Moo (1985:157) points out that such a phrase in the New Testament, with the preposition en following this verb kauchasthe, always refers to the object of the boasting (for example, boasting in one's high position as in 1:9). This makes the arrogance not merely the manner of their boasting but rather the object of their boasting. The sin James is exposing is not merely a sin of omission (neglecting to recognize God's rule over their affairs); it is a sin of commission in that they even boast about their self-sufficiency. Such boasting, kauchesis, is therefore especially evil; further, all such boasting is evil. It is a blasphemous denial of God's authority and grace to think that we instead of God control events.
Suddenly James shifts his emphasis from whether we know God's will to whether we do God's will. Verse 17 seems at first not to fit the thrust of the paragraph. That, however, is a clue not that James is erratic in his thought but that we have not understood his meaning. The adverb oun ("then") provides grammatical evidence that James intends a connection in thought. He may have made a jump in his line of thought without articulating the intervening steps, but it is entirely consistent with the rest of the letter for James to tell his readers to carry out their inward attitude with outward actions. In fact, James capsulizes in this one verse much of what he has already taught in the letter. His double use of the verb poieo (to do and doesn't do) reminds his readers succinctly of his earlier emphasis on doing the word of God (1:22-25). The picture of one who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it recalls the earlier picture of one who finds the brother or sister in need but does not do the good that ought to be done (2:15-16). The label of "sin" (hamartia) is applied with all the severe warning about sin given earlier (1:15).
James fully expects that a humble attitude will be manifest in humble actions, and an arrogant attitude will be manifest in arrogant actions. It is natural for him now to be saying in 4:17: "Do not merely say that you want to know God's will or that you recognize your dependence on his will; look carefully at what God has already said about his will, and do that."
Failure to do what one knows to be God's will is the same arrogance that James has been describing in knowledge and attitude, now carried out in behavior. Indifference toward God's will is commonplace sin today, and Motyer comments on this verse that "the whole idea of sinning by default has never been given more pointed expression" (1985:163). As we have previously found in this letter, here James carries the issues of faith into the realm of active obedience.