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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


In this chapter, St. James points out the source of the dispositions which he censures, as opposed to that peace recommended by him in the foregoing chapter—viz., the corrupt passions of the human heart (verse 1). He shows, in the next place, the utter folly of seeking for true happiness in the gratification of these passions, instead of having recourse by prayer to God, from whom alone true happiness can come (2). And although they have recourse to God, still their prayer is of no effect, for want of the proper dispositions, either as regards the object of petition, or its motive (3). He then points out how utterly incompatible are the friendship of God and the opposite friendship of the world, enticing us to commit sin, and desert from God (4). This he illustrates by a reference to the testimony of Sacred Scriptures (5), and he mentions the claims God has on our undivided service and love (6).

He next exhorts them to range themselves under the banners of God, and fight manfully against the devil (7); and in order to battle in the service of God, as they should, he recommends them to enter on a new life of virtue, to do penance for the past, and practise the virtue of true, unaffected humility (8–10).

He then cautions them against another vice, springing also from pride—viz., the vice of detraction, and all the other vices of the tongue, whereby our neighbour’s character is unjustly injured. He shows the enormity of detraction; because, the man guilty of it constitutes himself a judge of the law (11), and intrudes into the province of the Supreme Lawgiver (12).

He censures another fault of the tongue, common among worldly-minded men, consisting in this: that in giving expression to their future resolves, they speak, as if they reposed their entire reliance on their own strength, without any dependence on the will and adorable Providence of God (13–17).


1. From whence, think you, spring these strifes and contests that exist amongst you? Is it not from the corrupt passions and irregular desires of your hearts, which employ the different members of your bodies, as the instruments of the warfare, which they constantly endeavour to sustain in the soul?

2. (Behold both the utter folly of seeking true happiness in the gratification of your corrupt passions, and the total disappointment in which this gratification ends): for, although you obey the dictates of these corrupt passions, still you cannot secure their object; although you indulge in mortal hatred and envy towards whomsoever you think to obstruct your designs; still, you cannot possess that which you seek. You strive and labour hard in pursuit of happiness, and you cannot find it; because, you have not recourse to the proper means of obtaining from God, from whom alone they can proceed (1:17), these real and substantial goods, alone capable of satisfying the cravings of the heart; that means is, fervent and humble prayer.

3. And although you may have recourse to prayer, it is of no use to you, from a want of the proper dispositions; you ask for what you may waste on the guilty gratification of your corrupt passions, instead of seeking for what will advance your spiritual interests, the concerns of your eternal salvation.

4. Know you not, who, in the criminal indulgence of your passions, violate the vows pledged to God in baptism, and are, therefore, guilty of a spiritual adultery, that the inordinate love and friendship of this world, in obedience to which you gratify your corrupt passions, are the enemies of God. Whosoever, therefore, wishes to become the friend of this world, must become the enemy of God, who cannot bear a divided heart or allegiance.

5. Or, can you imagine, that the Scripture speaks in vain, when in many passages, referring to the holy jealousy which God entertains for our souls, so as not to endure a rival, it says, at least in terms equivalent to the following: “the holy spirit of God, that permanently dwelleth in you, covets you to such a degree, as to be jealous of any rival in your affections?”

6. But, if he be jealous of every other, what wonder, since he bestows benefits incomparably greater than those bestowed by any other, which therefore, entitle him exclusively to our love and, undivided affection. But in order to be partakers of this abundant grace which the spirit of God bestows, we must be humble; hence it is, that in referring to the dispensation of this abundant grace, he saith: “God resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble.”

7. In a spirit, then, of humble submission and obedience, place yourselves under the banners of the Almighty, and manfully resist the devil, and you shall put him to flight.

8. With true humility of heart, aided and assisted by his preventing grace, approach unto God, and he will draw nigh to you, by a greater effusion of his graces; aided by the same grace, cleanse your actions and reform your conduct in future, you sinners; and purify your thoughts and motives, you who have been wavering between pleasing God and gratifying your passions.

9. In order to correct your vicious habits, and make atonement for the past, devote yourselves to the salutary rigours of holy penance; weep and mourn over your past infidelities. Let the laughter, to which you gave expression, and the joy, which you inwardly felt during the enjoyment of the passing and fleeting pleasures of sin, be now exchanged for mourning and inward sorrow of heart.

10. Humble yourselves sincerely and profoundly not alone before men, who only see the exterior, but also in the sight of God, who sees the very thoughts of the heart; and he, who raises up the humble, will exalt you also, with the gifts of grace here, and eternal glory hereafter.

11. My brethren, refrain from the odious and common vice of detraction (and all the cognate vices of the tongue, whereby our neighbour’s character is damaged), for, he that detracteth his brother in any of the different ways in which this crime is committed, or he that judges his brother, detracts, judges, and condemns the law itself, as unjustly prohibiting detraction, and thereby depriving him of the full right, which nature gave him over his tongue. But if thou constitutest thyself a judge of the law, thou dost not acknowledge thyself any longer a doer of the law, bound by its precepts; but, rather its superior and judge, quite exempt from its obligation.

12. (Thou dost, therefore, usurp a function, which does not belong to thee) for, there is (only) one lawgiver and judge, who can alone affix a proper sanction to his law, who can save those who obey his law, and can destroy the refractory.

13. But who art thou, what right, or authority or control hast thou over any other, thus to presume to sit in judgment on him? Come on, now, and see how foolish and irreligious is your conduct, in another matter, viz., when relying on your own strength, and without a proper acknowledgment of your dependence on God’s holy will and Providence, you say: to-day or to-morrow we shall go into such a city, and remain there, for a year, in traffic and in pursuit of gain.

14. (Although you are wholly ignorant of what may happen on the morrow.)

15. For what is human life on which you thus confidently calculate? (What is it but a thin vapour, which appears for a short time, and afterwards is dissipated and vanishes from our sight)? Instead of such irreligious conduct and language, you should always express, or, at least, imply the following conditions before proposing to yourselves the execution of any purpose: “if the Lord will,” and, “if we shall live.”

16. But now, while employing the language I have censured, you boast and glory in the expression of your arrogant and proud rejection of God’s adorable Providence; all boasting of this sort is wicked and sinful.

17. Of course, as Christians, you must be fully aware of your dependence on God’s Providence; this knowledge, however, only serves to aggravate the sinfulness of your conduct; since the man who knows good and does it not, or acts against it, sins the more, by reason of his knowledge.


1. “Wars and contentions” (in the Greek, for “contentions” we have, μαχαι, fights), probably refer to the same thing—viz., quarrels and disputes, which may be either of a civil or religious nature, to which latter kind the Jews were particularly prone. Some Commentators refer this also to the teachers—it is better, however, extend it to all Christians; and as these words are written for all times, probably the word “wars” may refer to those which St. James foresaw would take place at a future day, even between Christian states. They all originate in their “concupiscences,” i.e., their unsubdued lusts, “which war in your memoers,” i.e., which employ the members of the body, viz., the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands, &c., as instruments of that warfare, which the unsubdued passions of pride, selfishness, avarice, &c., endeavour eternally to carry on in the soul of man.

2. In this verse, he shows the utter folly of seeking for pleasure and real happiness in the gratification of these concupiscences, since this gratification ends in total disappointment. “You covet,” i.e., indulge these passions, “and have not,” and still you cannot secure the object of their gratification. “You kill and envy and cannot obtain.” For “kill.” the reading in some Greek copies is, φθονειτε, και ζηλουτε, you envy and are jealous. And this reading Estius thinks would make better sense. The reading followed by the Vulgate, φονευετε, you kill, has, however, the authority of the best manuscripts, in its favour; and the word “kill,” most likely refers to the will and disposition to commit murder, the guilt of which it entails; rather than to the act, although, even amongst the early Christians, some might possibly be found to commit the deed; and what wonder, was not a Judas found among the twelve Apostles to do worse?

“You contend and war, and you have not, because you ask not,” i.e., you strive and labour hard to gratify your desires; and still, you possess not the happiness, of which you are in search, “because you ask not,” because you have not recourse to God by prayer, to obtain these solid and substantial goods, alone capable of satisfying the cravings of the heart, which come only from Him, who is the source of every good gift (1:17).

3. The words of this verse are an answer to an objection which the converted Jews are supposed to make to St. James; we do ask, and this is of no use for us. St. James answers, that their prayers are fruitless, for want of the proper dispositions, either because the object of their petition is bad, and the required feelings of humility, confidence, and perseverance, are wanting, both of which, as to the object and dispositions of their prayer, are included in the word “amiss;” or, because the motive of their prayer may be bad—their object in begging for temporal goods is, “to consume,” to squander them in gratifying their corrupt passions; to such prayers, God will never lend an ear.

4. “By adulterers,” some understand those guilty of carnal adultery. In the Codex Vaticanus, the reading is, μοιχαλιδες, adulteresses, as if addressing those carnally guilty of this grievous crime. It is, however, more commonly understood to refer to spiritual adultery, of which the sinner is guilty, when he deserts and proves unfaithful to God, to whom he was betrothed, and to whom he pledged his faith in baptism. This latter interpretation is rendered probable by the following words: “know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God,” as if he said; in the desertion of God for the friendship of his enemy and rival, this “adultery” consists. St. James here exhibits God and the world as two rivals, both of whom cannot be served at the same time, as God will not admit of a divided heart, of a divided service or allegiance. St. James, of course, here speaks of that “friendship” and love “of this world,” which implies a conflict with, and a violation of, the law of God. It is, as considered and viewed in this latter respect, that we always find the “world” reckoned in Scripture as the enemy of God and of man’s eternal welfare; because it demands a service inconsistent with the undivided service we owe God. The Commentators who, with Œcumenius, understand the preceding verses of this chapter to refer to the teachers, have very little difficulty in tracing the connection of this verse with the preceding, thus: Know you not, who in the exercise of your ministry, seek only your own elevation, and the praises of men, before the glory of God, and are, therefore, guilty of spiritual adultery, that the friendship and inordinate love, which you have for this world, for its riches, honours, and praises, is opposed to the love you owe God; and that by becoming the friends of this world, you become the enemies of God? In the interpretation adopted in the Paraphrase, it is not at all necessary to trace any connexion with the preceding. It may be said, that the Apostle enters here on a new topic altogether, a thing quite in accordance with his style in this Epistle.

5. This passage has been variously interpreted by different Commentators. Some understand by “spirit,” the corrupt spirit of man. This opinion is preferred by Estius. Others—and, it would seem, with greater probability—refer it to the spirit of God, received in baptism. Of this spirit we find it frequently said, that it dwells in the sous of man; and of the same only could the words of the following verse be verified. “But he giveth greater grace.” The meaning of the passage, then, appears to be (as in Paraphrase), that the Holy Ghost, dwelling in a Christian, so loves him, as to entertain feelings, analogous to envy, at his being possessed by any other. The connexion of this interpretation with the context is quite evident; it goes to show, that the man who gives the world a place in his heart, is become the enemy of God, who cannot peaceably dwell in a soul that has an affection for his rival.

But the question may be asked: What does the word “Scripture” refer to, and in what part of Scripture is the text here quoted to be found?

ANSWER.—Whenever the Scripture is quoted by any of the writers of the New Testament, reference is made to some part of the Old Testament; to the law and the prophets.

It is not clearly ascertained in what part of the Old Testament the text referred to is found. Most likely, reference is made to the passage in which God is described as a “jealous God” (Exodus, 20:6, and elsewhere); and St. James quotes not the language but the sense of these passages, which he develops and explains in his own words. Others make the word, “Scripture,” allude to the foregoing; and these place a note of interrogation after the words “in vain,” thus: “Do you think that the Scripture saith in vain?” when, in several passages, it represents the friendship of this world as the enemy of God. And then, again, they ask “Does the spirit that dwells in you covet unto envy?” (The Greek for “in you,” is, εν ἡμιν, in us). By no means; since the Holy Spirit of God, rather prompts to acts of benevolence and virtue. According to this latter construction, there is no scriptural allusion or quotation whatever, contained in the words, “to envy doth the spirit” &c. The interpretation adopted in the Paraphrase seems preferable, and more in accordance with the context.

6. “But he giveth greater grace,” &c., i.e., it is no wonder that he should be jealous of every other rival in our affections; since every other, that may claim our affections, can bestow, at best, but fleeting, unsubstantial goods, which end in bitterness and remorse, and bear no proportion with “the greater grace,” the eternal blessings, he has in store for us, of which he gives us a sure earnest in this life. In the other interpretation, the words of this verse may be connected with the preceding, thus: “Does the Holy Spirit of God prompt us to acts of envy?” (verse 5). By no means; since, on the contrary, he bestows abundant grace to overcome these vicious dispositions of our nature, and to incite us to acts of benevolence.

“Wherefore he saith: God resisteth the proud,” &c., i.e., in order to be partakers of this abundant grace of God, the first and most necessary disposition on our part is humility, to the absence of which we may trace the vices we have been denouncing in the preceding part of the chapter. This quotation would appear very much to favour the interpretation and construction just referred to; since, far from promoting us to envy, the spirit of God bestows great grace, but only on those who have dispositions of humility so opposed to the spirit of envy. The words, “God resists the proud,” &c., are quoted here by St. James according to the Septuagint version. In the Vulgate of St. Jerome, they run thus: “He shall scorn the scorners, and to the meek, he shall give grace.”—(Proverbs, 3:34).

7. “Therefore,” whereas, it is only to the humble he will give grace, “be subject to God.” In Greek, υποταγητε, i.e., with true humility of heart, and a ready disposition to obedience, range yourselves under the banner of God. “And resist.” The corresponding Greek word, αντιστητε, means, stand against the devil, in which, as in the preceding word, “be subject,” a military metaphor would appear to be implied.

8. “Draw nigh unto God.” Of course, this is to be effected by the aid of divine grace; but, as in the performance of a salutary action, the human will and divine grace concur, the entire effect is sometimes in SS. Scripture wholly ascribed to the will of man, as here, and at other times, to the more principal cause, viz., divine grace. “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners.” The most effectual means to be adopted by those who have been enrolled under the sacred banners of God only of late—“ye sinners”—for resisting the devil is, “by cleansing their hands,” in other words, by ceasing from wicked actions, and by performing good works, of which the “hands” are the chief instruments. As to those, who have been wavering between pleasing God and gratifying their passions, or between their inveterate habits of sin, and their weak purposes of good—“ye double minded” (διψυχοι, having two souls)—their duty, aided and assisted by divine grace, is “to purify their hearts,” i.e., their thoughts, motives, and intentions. “If thine eye be simple, thy whole body will be lightsome; but if thy eye (i.e., the intention or motive) be evil, thy whole body (i.e., the body of thy actions) will be darksome” (St. Matthew, 6:22). For the full meaning of “double minded,” see chapter 1 verse 8.

9. In order to make atonement for the past, and dispose themselves for reconciliation, they should have recourse to the salutary exercises of holy penance; they should “afflict” themselves, “mourn and weep;” the laughter in which they indulged during the temporary and transient enjoyment of sinful pleasures, should now be exchanged for “mourning,” and the passing “joy” which they then felt should be exchanged for the opposite and contrary feeling of penitential “sorrow.” Similar is the exhortation of the Prophet Joel (2:12): “Be converted to me with all your hearts, in fasting, and in weeping and mourning.” From this passage it is clear, that external works of satisfaction form a part of the penance, which is necessary for our reconciliation with God.

10. “Be humble,” &c. The chief disposition for our reconciliation with God, is true humility, “in the sight of the Lord,” i.e., truly humbled; for things are seen by God, as they really are; the words also suggest the most effectual means of acquiring true humility, which is the consideration of God’s infinite greatness, and of our own nothingness. “Quis tu Domine? quis ego?” exclaims St. Francis. Tu abyssus omnis boni, et ego abyssus omnis mali et nihili. Noverim te Domine, noverim me, was the favourite exclamation of St. Augustine. O God! grant us this all-necessary virtue of humility.

11. St. James now cautions them against a vice which, like the other vices denounced by him in the preceding part of the chapter, springs from pride, viz., that of detraction, under which are included calumny, contumely, and all the other vices of the tongue, whereby the reputation of our neighbour is unlawfully injured. This vice has its origin in pride, in the inordinate desire to raise ourselves by lowering the character of our neighbour. “He that detracteth his brother, or judgeth,” &c. In some Greek copies, in place of “or,” we have, and; but the disjunctive particle is found in the chief MSS. “Detracteth the law and judgeth the law,” because by detracting and judging his brother, he practically declares and, by a virtual and implicit judgment, pronounces the law prohibiting detraction to be unjust, as interfering with his natural right over the full use and exercise of his tongue. No doubt, the same is true of the violation of every other precept of the law; the man who violates it practically condemns the law, as in the case of theft, murder, &c. But this in a more special manner applies to the rash judgment regarding our neighbour, in which an act of judgment is expressly contained; and that, in opposition to the law prohibiting it; St. James appropriates to the violation of the law, as regards the rash judgment in question, the inconvenient consequence of condemning the law itself—although a consequence in some measure common to it, with the violation of every other precept—because the crime is committed by judging, which is expressly forbidden by the law.

St. Thomas and others understand by the law “which is judged,” the law of fraternal charity. It is “judged” by being contemned by him who rashly judges his neighbour; this opinion is preferred by Estius, who thinks the words have a peculiar application to teachers, who, with supercilious haughtiness, despise others and wish that their own dicta should pass for law. The words are particularly true, in the case where detraction is employed in vilifying our neighbour’s character, on account of his more exact observance of the duties and counsels of Christian perfection.

There is no vice more common in the world than this dreadful vice of detraction. “Tanta libido hujus mali mentes hominum invasit, ut etiam qui procul ab aliis vitiis recesserunt in istud, quasi in extremum diaboli laqueum, incidant.”—St. Jerome (Ep. ad Celantium). How few are there to be found, even among those who appear to lead a regular Christian life, to scruple this matter, as they ought! How few who bear in mind that, while judging their neighbour, they are only adding to the weight of their own judgment, before a just judge whose prerogatives they usurp! How little do men think of setting up a tribunal and anticipating the judgment of God! “Tu quis es qui judicas alienum servum?”—(Rom. 14:4). Truly, “si quis verbo non offendit, hic perfectus est vir.” “Place, O Lord! a guard on my mouth, and a gate of prudence on my lips.”

“But if thou judge the law, thou art no longer a doer of the law but a judge.” Thou settest thyself above the law, as its superior, instead of regarding thyself, as bound by it.

12. “And judge,” και κριτης. This word is omitted in some Greek copies; however, it is in the chief manuscripts and versions. By thus sitting in judgment on thy neighbour thou dost usurp a function, and dost intrude on a province that does not belong to thee. To the Supreme Judge and Legislator alone does it belong to judge his creatures. He alone can affix a proper sanction to his law by rewarding those who obey it, and punishing the refractory. From Him is all legislative and judicial authority among men, derived, “per me, reges regnant, et legum conditores justa decernunt,” and for Him, are we to obey all legitimate authority, whether temporal or spiritual. “Omnis anima subdita sit sublimioribus potestatibus; Qui vos audit, me audit.” The man, then, who rashly judges his neighbour, is guilty of judging the law (verse 11), and of presumptuously usurping the prerogative of the Almighty (verse 12).

13. “But who art thou?” &c. “But,” is not in some Greek copies. It is found in the Vatican MS. “Thy neighbour;” in some Greek copies, another: πλησιον, neighbour, is the reading of the Vatican and Alexandrian MSS. As if he said, wretched worm of the earth, who art thyself one day to be judged, what right or control hast thou over thy fellow-creatures?—who is it authorized thee, thus to sit in judgment on him? “For his own master will he stand or fall.”—Rom. 16:14.

“Behold now you that say,” &c. For “behold” it is the Greek, αγε, go to, or come on, as in chap. 5 verse 1. It is merely a form soliciting attention. Some Commentators endeavour to trace a connexion between these words and the foregoing, thus:—Who art thou to judge thy neighbour? you who are so foolish, in the ordinary language of life, as altogether to renounce practically your dependence on divine providence, although your weakness and frail dependence be such as not to be able to promise yourselves a moment’s continuance in existence. This connexion is warranted, in a certain sense, by the division of the verses in the Vulgate. The more probable opinion, however, appears to be (as in Paraphrase), that St. James is censuring another vice of the tongue, then so common among worldly-minded persons, who relied too confidently on their own strength, in the execution of their designs and purposes, and seemed altogether to forget their dependence on God’s adorable providence. Such persons propose to themselves to traffic for years, and to execute other purposes at some future time with a degree of certainty and security, that would imply their independence of God’s providence. It is the irreligious sentiments expressed by such language that St. James here condemns, as appears from verse 1, their “rejoicing in their arrogancies.” In some Greek copies, instead of “we will go, will spend,” &c., it is, let us go, let us spend, &c. But the Vulgate translator has better expressed the sense of St. James, by employing the future Indicative, which more clearly conveys their foolish resolves in regard to the future. Moreover, the future is the reading of the Codex Vaticanus.

14. Such foolish men may experience the fate of the rich glutton in the Gospel, who gave up his soul, in the very execution of his projects of self-aggrandizement.—(Luke, 12:20).

15. The words of the preceding verse (14) and of this, as far as “For that you should say,” are to be read parenthetically. “What is your life?” “It is a vapour,” &c. The Greek has, “γαρ,” for, it is a vapour, &c. It is like the morning dew, which ascends in thin vapour, and immediately after disappears altogether from our eyes. We frequently meet in sacred Scripture with beautiful comparisons of the same kind “Remember,” (says Job. 7:7), “that my life is but wind … as a cloud is consumed and passeth away,” &c. (Psalm, 143). The conclusion is, that as human life is thus fleeting, precarious, and uncertain, it is the excess of folly, and the height of presumption in them, thus to calculate for certain, on the success and enjoyment of their future projects. “For that you should say.” These words are to be immediately connected with the words, verse 13: “You say, to-day or to-morrow, we shall go into such a city,” &c. “For that you should say,” i.e., instead of which mode of speaking, you should say, “if the Lord wills,” and “if we shall live.” These two conditions should be always expressed, or at least implied, whenever we propose to ourselves the accomplishment of any future project. The example of St. Paul alone shows us how much these forms of expression, recommended by St. James, were at the time in use.—Acts, 18; 1 Cor. 4 and 16; Hebrews, 6; Rom. 1; Philipp. 2 Even among the Pagans, viz., Socrates, Cicero, Cato, &c., such forms were in use.

16. In this verse, the Apostle shows that he is condemning dispositions of mind, the opposite of the Christian and religious forms of speech, which he is recommending. He is censuring such persons as attributed the merit of their success to themselves, without a due regard to God’s Providence and assistance. Such conduct on their part is “arrogance,” or pride, since, of themselves, they can do nothing. “All such rejoicing is wicked,” such haughty, presumptuous reliance on our powers is, in every case, evil, because it is a practical lie, and a lie, too, injurious to God’s supreme dominion over his creatures. St. James by no means condemns a prudent provision for futurity, dependent on God’s will and Providence.

17. The connexion adopted in Paraphrase is: You know, as Christians, all that I am saying: you know your dependence on Providence and the uncertainty of life; now, this knowledge will only aggravate the sinfulness of your impious and unchristian mode of expressing your future resolves. Or, the words of this verse may be only a conclusion drawn from the two foregoing chapters, wherein St. James instructs them in several points of Christian morality; and now, he tells them, that if they hereafter sin in any of the particular points in which he instructed them, the instruction and knowledge imparted will only aggravate their sin; for, sins committed with knowledge are more grievous, than if they were committed in ignorance.

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