“Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The Spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” James 4:5 (AV)
Let us sit quietly for a few moments to ponder this profound and wonderful text from God’s Word! Apparently it, too, belongs to a long series of well-nigh forgotten and neglected passages. It seems to us as if it is almost completely unknown today. If so, it is more than worthwhile for us to attempt to rediscover the vast riches hidden within what appears to be a very difficult sentence.
In his letter the Apostle James kept himself as close as possible to the teachings of the Old Testament. In the context of this verse we notice that James likens unbelief and disobedience in the Church to the sin of adultery, and this is something which the Old Testament does upon countless occasions. The argument basic to such a comparison runs like this: There is a covenant between God and his people. We belong wholly to him. We are his “covenant people,” and we trust in him alone. We serve none besides him, and he receives from us all honor for he is our Maker. James’ epistle is known as a practical letter, and that it is because its central message is: You are the Lord’s! Live in faithfulness to that covenant, and demonstrate this faithfulness in concrete deeds of love and obedience!
Against this background we can understand why the writer has put our text into question form, “Do you think that the scripture speaketh in vain?” Of course we do not think so I The question is rhetorical, meaning to give even stronger expression to the idea than a simple assertion could ever do. For James, then, Scripture speaks with utmost earnestness. All of it has a special purpose and a very definite message. Let us carefully listen, therefore. And what the Scripture declares is this: ‘“The Spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy.”
If you now ask, Where does the Bible literally use these words? you might be disappointed. We should not regard this verse as a quotation, but as a summarization of all Biblical teaching in one of its most basic aspects. For James and for the people for whom he first intended this letter it is meant to summarize especially the teaching of the Old Testament.
Thus James means to say that in the Old Testament we always find assertions of God’s gracious love toward his people, and the law of his love declares in its Third Commandment that he is “a jealous God.” He wants you, all of you! He wants his love to be answered by your love. He does not give his honor carelessly or faithlessly to others. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, we find the same attitude. After the resurrection he, the exalted Lord, solicited Peter’s love by asking repeatedly, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” Here James teaches that in the same urgent manner the Holy Spirit seeks his own. He, too, desires them, longs for them, and sues for their wholehearted devotion. “The Spirit that dwelleth in us, lusteth to envy.” A newer translation has, “the Spirit who dwells in us, yearns jealously over us.”
The Holy Spirit of God yearns over us with a jealous love!
Surely this is greater than anything we can possibly imagine! This is a real message to us and to all, a message great and wonderful! God longs for his people, and Jesus Christ longs for his bride, and the Holy Spirit yearns jealously that this covenant people, this Church of Jesus Christ may respond to the sovereign overtures of his divine love.
If we truly realized this we would not dare to love the world nor to have other gods before him. For he alone possesses all rights with respect to us. We are a chosen people, bought with the precious price of Jesus’ blood, and kept close to him by the Spirit who dwells within us. This Spirit brooks no competition. He wants our very all, our undivided personal loyalty.
This word is quite humiliating for us, is it not? It ought to be if it in any way brings us under the conviction of God’s great love for us. Oh, answer his love with the purest adoration of your whole heart and your entire life, and say with the ancient psalmist,
Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee, for thou art my portion forever!