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214

CHAPTER XVIII.
ST. JAMES AND PLATO ON LUSTS AS THE CAUSES OF STRIFE;
THEIR EFFECT ON PRAYER.

"Whence come wars, and whence come fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your pleasures which war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures."—St. James iv. 1-13.

THE change from the close of the third chapter to the beginning of the fourth is startling. St. James has just been sketching with much beauty the excellences of the heavenly wisdom, and especially its marked characteristic of always tending to produce an atmosphere of peace, in which the seed that produces the fruit of righteousness will grow and flourish. Gentleness, good-will, mercy, righteousness, peace—these form the main features of his sketch. And then he abruptly turns upon his readers with the question, "Whence come wars, and whence come sightings among you?"

The sudden transition from the subject of peace to the opposite is deliberate. Its object is to startle and awaken the consciences of those who are addressed. The wisdom from below produces bitter jealousy and faction; the wisdom from above produces gentleness and peace. Then how is to be explained the origin of the wars and fightings which prevail among the twelve 215 tribes of the Dispersion? That ought to set them thinking. These things must be traced to causes which are earthly or demoniacal rather than heavenly; and if so, those who are guilty of them, instead of contending for the office of teaching others, ought to be seriously considering how to correct themselves. Here, again, there is the strangest contradiction between their professions and their practice. Clement of Rome seems to have this passage in his mind when he writes (c. A.D. 97) to the Church of Corinth, "Wherefore are there strifes and wraths, and factions and divisions, and war among you?" (xlvi.).

"Wars" (πόλομοι) and "fightings" (μάχαι) are not to be understood literally. When the text is applied to international warfare between Christian states in modern times, or to any case of civil war, it may be so interpreted without doing violence to its spirit; but that is not the original meaning of the words. There was no civil war among the Jews at this time, still less among the Jewish Christians. St. James is referring to private quarrels and law-suits, social rivalries and factions, and religious controversies. The subject-matter of these disputes and contentions is not indicated, because that is not what is denounced. It is not for having differences about this or that, whether rights of property, or posts of honour, or ecclesiastical questions, that St. James rebukes them, but for the rancorous, greedy, and worldly spirit in which their disputes are conducted. Evidently the lust of possession is among the things which produce the contentions. Jewish appetite for wealth is at work among them.

It was stated in a former chapter (p. 48) that, there are places in this Epistle in which St. James seems to go beyond the precise circle of readers addressed 216 in the opening words, and to glance at the whole Jewish nation, whether outside Palestine or not, and whether Christian or not. These more comprehensive addresses are more frequent in the second half of the Epistle than in the first, and one is inclined to believe that the passage before us is one of them. In that case we may believe that the bitter contentions which divided Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Zealots, and Samaritans from one another are included in the wars and fightings, as well as the quarrels which disgraced Christian Jews. In any case we see that the Jews who had entered the Christian Church had brought with them that contentious spirit which was one of their national characteristics. Just as St. Paul has to contend with Greek love of faction in his converts at Corinth, so St. James has to contend with a similar Jewish failing among the converts from Judaism. And it would seem as if he hoped through these converts to reach many of those who were not yet converted. What he wrote to Christian synagogues would possibly be heard of and noted in synagogues which were not Christian. At any rate this Epistle contains ample evidence that the grievous scandals which amaze us in the early history of the Apostolic Churches of Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus were not peculiar to converts from heathenism: among the Christians of the circumcision, who had had the advantage of life-long knowledge of God and of His law, there were evils as serious, and sometimes very similar in kind. The notion that the Church of the Apostolic age was in a condition of ideal perfection is a beautiful but baseless dream.7474   See the volume on the Pastoral Epistles in this series, pp. 264, 265.

"Whence wars, and whence fightings among you? 217 come they not hence, even of your pleasures which war in your members?" By a common transposition, St. James, in answering his own question, puts the pleasures which excite and gratify the lusts instead of the lusts themselves, in much the same way as we use "drink" for intemperance, and "gold" for avarice. These lusts for pleasures have their quarters or camp in the members of the body, i.e. in the sensual part of man's nature. But they are there, not to rest, but to make war, to go after, and seize, and take for a prey that which has roused them from their quietude and set them in motion. There the picture, as drawn by St. James, ends. St. Paul carries it a stage farther, and speaks of the "different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind" (Rom. vii. 23). St. Peter does the same, when he beseeches his readers, "as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul" (1 Peter ii. 11); and some commentators would supply either "against the mind" or "against the soul" here. But there is no need to supply anything, and if one did supply anything the "wars and sightings among you" would rather lead us to understand that the lusts in each one's members make war against everything which interferes with their gratification, and such would be the possessions and desires of other people. This completion of St. James's picture agrees well also with what follows: "Ye lust, and have not: ye kill and covet, and cannot obtain." But it is best to leave the metaphor just where he leaves it, without adding anything. And the fact that he does not add "against the mind" or "against the soul" is some slight indication that he had not seen either the passage in Romans or in the Epistle of St. Peter. (See above, p. 57.)

218 In the Phædo of Plato (66, 67) there is a beautiful passage, which presents some striking coincidences with the words of St. James. "Wars, and factions, and sightings have no other source than the body and its lusts. For it is for the getting of wealth that all our wars arise, and we are compelled to get wealth because of our body, to whose service we are slaves; and in consequence we have no leisure for philosophy, because of all these things. And the worst of all is that if we get any leisure from it, and turn to some question, in the midst of our inquiries the body is everywhere coming in, introducing turmoil and confusion, and bewildering us, so that by it we are prevented from seeing the truth. But indeed it has been proved to us that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything we must get rid of the body, and with the soul by itself must behold things by themselves. Then, it would seem, we shall obtain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers; when we are dead, as the argument shows, but in this life not. For if it be impossible while we are in the body to have pure knowledge of anything, then of two things one—either knowledge is not to be obtained at all, or after we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself, apart from the body, but before that not. And in this life, it would seem, we shall make the nearest approach to knowledge if we have no communication or fellowship whatever with the body, beyond what necessity compels, and are not filled with its nature, but remain pure from its taint, until God Himself shall set us free. And in this way shall we be pure, being delivered from the foolishness of the body, and shall be with other like souls, and shall know of ourselves all that is clear and cloudless, and that is perhaps all one with the truth."

219 Plato and St. James are entirely agreed in holding that wars and fightings are caused by the lusts that have their seat in the body, and that this condition of fightings without, and lusts within, is quite incompatible with the possession of heavenly wisdom. But there the agreement between them ceases. The conclusion which Plato arrives at is that the philosopher must, so far as is possible, neglect and excommunicate his body, as an intolerable source of corruption, yearning for the time when death shall set him free from the burden of waiting upon this obstacle between his soul and the truth. Plato has no idea that the body may be sanctified here and glorified hereafter; he regards it simply as a necessary evil, which may be minimized by watchfulness, but which can in no way be turned into a blessing. The blessing will come when the body is annihilated by death. St. James, on the contrary, exhorts us to cut ourselves off, not from the body, but from friendship with the world. If we resist the evil one, who tempts us through our ferocious lusts, he will flee from us. God will give us the grace we need, if we pray for that rather than for pleasures. He will draw nigh to us if we draw nigh to Him; and if we purify our hearts He will make His Spirit to dwell in them. Even in this life the wisdom that is from above is attainable, and where that has found a home factions and fightings cease. When the passions cease to war, those who have hitherto been swayed by their passions will cease to war also. But those whom St. James addresses are as yet very far from this blessed condition.

"Ye lust, and have not: ye kill and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war." In short, sharp, telling sentences he puts forth the items of his indictment; but 220 it is not easy to punctuate them satisfactorily, nor to decide whether "ye kill" is to be understood literally or not. In none of the English versions does the punctuation seem to bring out a logical sequence of clauses. The following arrangement is suggested for consideration: "Ye lust, and have not; ye kill. And ye covet, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war." In this way we obtain two sentences of similar meaning, which exactly balance one another. "Ye lust, and have not," corresponds with, "Ye covet, and cannot obtain," and "ye kill" with "ye fight and war;" and in each sentence the last clause is the consequence of what precedes. "Ye lust, and have not; therefore ye kill." "Ye covet, and cannot obtain; therefore ye fight and war." This grouping of the clauses yields good sense, and does no violence to the Greek.

"Ye lust, and have not; therefore ye kill." Is "kill" to be understood literally? That murder, prompted by avarice and passion, was common among the Christian Jews of the Dispersion, is quite incredible. That monstrous scandals occurred in the Apostolic age, especially among Gentile converts, who supposed that the freedom of the Gospel meant lax morality, is unquestionable; but that these scandals ever took the form of indifference to human life we have no evidence. And it is specially improbable that murder would be frequent among those who, before they became Christians, had been obedient to the Mosaic Law. St. James may have a single case in his mind, like that of the incestuous marriage at Corinth; but in that case he would probably have expressed himself differently. Or again, as was suggested above, he may in this section be addressing the whole Jewish race, and not merely those who had become converts to Christianity; 221 and in that case he may be referring to the brigandage and assassination which a combination of causes, social, political, and religious, had rendered common among the Jews, especially in Palestine, at this time. Of this evil we have plenty of evidence both in the New Testament and in Josephus. Barabbas and the two robbers who were crucified with Christ are instances in the Gospels. And with them we may put the parable of the man "who fell among robbers," and was left half-dead between Jerusalem and Jericho; for no doubt the parable, like all Christ's parables, is founded on fact, and is no mere imaginary picture. In the Acts we have Theudas with his four hundred followers (B.C. 4), Judas of Galilee (A.D. 6), and the Egyptian with his four thousand "Assassins," or Sicarii (A.D. 58); to whom we may add the forty who conspired to assassinate St. Paul (v. 36, 37; xxi. 38; xxiii. 12-21). And Josephus tells us of another Theudas, who was captured and put to death with many of his followers by the Roman Procurator Cuspius Fadus (c. A.D. 45); and he also states that about fifty years earlier, under Varus, there were endless disorders in Judæa, sedition and robbery being almost chronic. The brigands inflicted a certain amount of damage on the Romans, but the murders which they committed were on their fellow-countrymen the Jews (Ant. XVII. x. 4, 8; XX. v. i).7575   If φονεύετε is taken with what follows, it is best to render φονεύετε καὶ ζηλοῦτε "Ye act as Assassins and Zealots," referring both words to the fanatics who a little later killed James himself, and were the hasteners of the downfall of Jerusalem.

In either of these ways, therefore, the literal interpretation of a "kill" makes good sense; and we are not justified in saying, with Calvin, that "kill in no way 222 suits the context." Calvin, with Erasmus, Beza, Hornejus, and others, adopts the violent expedient of correcting the Greek from "kill" (φονεύετε) to "envy" (φθονεῖτε), a reading for which not a single MS., version, or Father can be quoted. It is accepted, however, by Tyndale and Cranmer and in the Genevan Bible, all of which have, "Ye envy and have indignation, and cannot obtain." Wiclif and the Rhemish of course hold to the occiditis of the Vulgate, the one with "slay," and the other with "kill."

But although the literal interpretation yields good sense, it is perhaps not the best interpretation. It was pointed out above that "ye kill" balances "ye fight and war," and that "wars and fightings" evidently are not to be understood literally, as the context shows. If then, "ye fight and war" means "ye quarrel, and dispute, and intrigue, and go to law with one another," ought not "ye kill" to be explained in a similar way? Christ had said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment" (Matt. v. 21, 22). And St. John tells us that "every one who hateth his brother is a murderer" (1 John iii. 15). "Every one who hateth" (πᾶς ὁ μισῶν) is an uncompromising expression, and it covers all that St. James says here. Just as the cherished lustful thought is adultery in the heart (Matt. v. 28), so cherished hatred is murder in the heart.

But there is an explanation, half literal and half metaphorical, which is well worth considering. It has been pointed out how frequently St. James seems to have portions of the Book of Ecclesiasticus in his mind. 223 We read there that "the bread of the needy is the life of the poor: he that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood. He that taketh away his neighbour's living slayeth him (φονεύων); and he that defraudeth the labourer of his hire is a blood-shedder" (xxxiv. 21, 22). If St. James was familiar with these words, and still more if he could count on his readers also being familiar with them, might he not mean, "Ye lust, and have not; and then, to gratify your desire, you deprive the poor of his living"? Even Deut. xxiv. 6 might suffice to give rise to such a strong method of expression: "No man shall take the mill or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh a man's life to pledge." Throughout this section the language used is strong, as if the writer felt very strongly about the evils which he condemns.

While "ye lust, and have not, and thereupon take a man's livelihood from him," would refer specially to possessions, "Ye covet (or envy) and cannot obtain, and thereupon fight and war," might refer specially to honours, posts, and party advantages. The word rendered "covet" (ζηλοῦτε) is that which describes the thing which love never does: "Love envieth not" (1 Cor. xiii. 4). When St. James was speaking of the wisdom from below (iii. 14-16) the kind of quarrels which he had chiefly in view were party controversies, as was natural after treating just before of sins of the tongue. Here the wars and fightings are not so much about matters of controversy as those things which minister to a man's "pleasures," his avarice, his sensuality, and his ambition.

How is it that they have not all that they want? How is that there is any need to despoil others, or to contend fiercely with them for possession? "Ye have 224 not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss." That is the secret of these gnawing wants and lawless cravings. They do not try to supply their needs in a way that would cause loss to no one, viz. by prayer to God; they prefer to employ violence and craft against one another. Or if they do pray for the supply of their earthly needs, they obtain nothing, because they pray with evil intent. To pray without the spirit of prayer is to court failure. That God's will may be done, and His Name glorified, is the proper end of all prayer. To pray simply that our wishes may be satisfied is not a prayer to which fulfilment has been promised; still less can this be the case when our wishes are for the glorification of our lusts. Prayer for advance in holiness we may be sure is in accordance with God's will. About prayer for earthly advantages we cannot be sure; but we may pray for things so far as they are to His glory and for our own spiritual welfare. Prayer for earthly goods, which are to be used as instruments, not of His pleasure, but of ours, we may be sure is not in accordance with His will. To such a prayer we need expect no answer, or an answer which at the same time is a judgment; for the fulfilment of an unrighteous prayer is sometimes its most fitting punishment.

St. James is not blaming his readers for asking God to give them worldly prosperity. About the lawfulness of praying for temporal blessings, whether for ourselves or for others, there is no question. St. John prays that Gaius "in all things may prosper and be in health, even as his soul prospereth" (3 John 2), and St. James plainly implies that when one has temporal needs one ought to bring them before God in prayer, only with a right purpose and in a right spirit. In the 225 next chapter he specially recommends prayer for the recovery of the sick. The asking amiss consists not in asking for temporal things, but in seeking them for a wrong purpose, viz. that they may be squandered in a life of self-indulgence. The right purpose is to enable us to serve God better. Temporal necessities are often a hindrance to good service, and then it is right to ask God to relieve them. But in all such things the rule laid down by Christ is the safe one, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." A life consecrated to the service of God is the best prayer for temporal blessings. Prayer that is offered in a grasping spirit is like that of the bandit for the success of his raids.


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