Picture yourself standing chest high in a great fresh water lake during a warm summer rain, draw the water to you lips, this is what it means to draw near to G-d.
4:1-2a. What is the source of the quarrels and fights among you? Isn’t it your lusts--yetzer ha-ra—battling inside you? 2 You lust after things but don’t have them. You murder, and are jealous, and yet you still can’t obtain them. So you fight and quarrel.
Yaakov began this letter with an admonition against giving in to the yetzer ha-ra—evil inclination/fallen nature. As his teaching draws to a close he reminds his readers of the root of conflict and sin, by challenging wrong action born of human willfulness and rebellion against G-d. The desires or lusts at war within are parts of the evil inclination, this is not—as some mistakenly interpret—an allusion to the conflict between the yetzer tov—good inclination—and the yetzer ra. This is a description of evil divided against itself, a fallen kingdom within.
In the throes of lust we are disappointed, failing to obtain the object—when we lust after another person we make that person an object, they are no longer a person to us at this juncture—of our lust. This ironic dissatisfaction is the very nature of lust, like the Adversary—ha Satan—lust promises fulfillment but doesn’t deliver, we are left empty, unsatisfied. It is unlikely that the use of the term “murder” here is referring to physical murder, the whole synagogue is being rebuked regarding the core motives of human sin. We see a similar reprimand in 1 Yochanan/John 3:15, “Whoever hates another person is a murderer.” It is perhaps true to say that hate births jealousy, leading to murder, which in turn results in idolatry—the constant desire of the Adversary to usurp G-d’s throne. It seems even Satan is subject to lust, and has himself become a slave to his own degradation.
A similar concept regarding internal motivation is found in the Mishnah: “Whoever thinks, ‘Yours is mine’ is a Sodomite.” - Mishnah Avot 5:3
4:2b-3. The reason you don’t have is that you don’t converse with G-d! 3 Or, you speak to G-d and don’t receive, because you pray with the wrong motive, wanting to indulge the yetzer ha-ra—evil inclination—your own lusts—fallen nature.
Firstly, if we choose not to converse with G-d we should not expect to receive anything from Him. Yeshua says, “Ask and it will be given to you.” Secondly, simply speaking at G-d is not sufficient. Asking G-d to do what is evil is redundant, He cannot sin. When we ask G-d to provide us with the fruit of our fallen nature we are speaking in vain. A loving father doesn't respond to a teenage sons request for a porn-site subscription by giving him money.
4:4 You unfaithful wives! Don’t you know that love toward the world is hatred toward G-d? Whoever chooses to become a friend of the world makes himself G-d’s enemy!
The statement, “unfaithful wives” deserves our careful attention. For an observant Jew this is a familiar metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness, found numerous times in the Tanakh—Hebrew Scriptures. It is important to understand that Israel herself is seen as a wife to HaShem—G-d. G-d is Israel’s Ba’al—lord and husband; see Ezekiel 23, Hosea 1-2, 9:1 & Exodus 34:15. Yeshua infers a similar meaning when He calls his generation “wicked and adulterous.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4)
Regarding love for the world as hatred of G-d:
“Don’t love—agapeo/committed devotional love, friendship—the world—kosmos/not just the earth—or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, there is no love for the Father in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its lusts pass away, but whoever does the will of G-d lives forever.”
1 Yochanan/John 2:15-17
4:5-6 Or do you suppose the Tanakh--the only Scripture available to Yaakov’s readers—speaks in vain when it says that there is a spirit--yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination—in us which longs to envy? 6 But the grace He gives is greater, which is why Scripture says, “G-d opposes the arrogant, but to the humble he gives grace.” (Proverbs 3:34)
In reference to this widely misunderstood passage, Rav Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein—as quoted by David Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary—writes:
“The commentators have had great difficulty with this reference to the Tanakh. What verse is it? What does it mean? Who is the subject of it? Some say it speaks about G-d. Others say it speaks about the Holy Spirit. But according to all commentators, it is not found in the Scripture. In my opinion, the spirit it refers to is not G-d’s but Satan’s, as in Ep 6:12. The evil spirit is the evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) in us. Yaakov refers to it in v. 7: ‘Take a stand against the Adversary and he will flee from you.’ Jews today still call Satan der ruach [Yiddish for “the spirit”; Lichtenstein was writing around 1900]. I believe Yaakov is referring to Genesis 4:7, where G-d says to Cain, ‘Sin lies at the door, and his desire shall be toward you, but you are to rule over him.’ This is understood by all to be speaking about Satan, who is the evil impulse in man; for example, in the Talmud (Bava /batra 16a), ‘He is Satan the evil impulse.’ The evil impulse is used by satanic angels to cause man to sin.” (Commentary to the New Testament, ad loc.)
4:7 Therefore, submit to G-d. Resist ha-Satan—the Adversary, and he will flee from you.
Because “G-d opposes the arrogant/proud and gives grace—that is greater—to the humble,” we should submit to Him. If a child is certain of his father’s love for him, he will readily submit to his father’s will, knowing that his father has his best interests in mind. Submission is an act of humility, resisting ha-Satan is an act of humility. Therefore, resisting the world is loving G-d.
Whether Satan is the yetzer ha-ra or the motivator of it, the response is the same, it is an act of the will to resist him/it. This act can only be practiced as the fruit of the Ruach Ha-Kodesh, the Spirit of Mashiyach—Messiah—who lives in us, that’s why v. 6 says, “But the grace He gives is greater.” Don’t be fooled, this is not a fair conflict, Satan is the dust on a Nat’s foot floating in the infinite ocean of G-d’s creation. There is no balance here between good and evil, the scales are immeasurably weightier in good’s favor and, only G-d is good. G-d’s character is never described as fair, rather He is just. The battle we wage against the evil inclination is won only in Him. We take hold of the sword—which He created, and it is His arm that strengthens the blow.
4:8a Draw near to G-d, and He will draw near to you.
Picture yourself standing chest high in a great fresh water lake during a warm summer rain, draw the water to you lips, this is what it means to draw near to G-d. It is the realization that He is closer to you than breathing.
We participate in relationship with Him. As I have said elsewhere, a husband cannot say “I will” on his wife’s behalf. The Scripture teaches G-d as the Originator of relationship and we as the participants in that relationship.
“Tishuvah—Turn us to You AdoShem, and we will return.” – Lamentations 5:21
4:8b-10 Wash your hands you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded! 9 Wail, mourn, sob! Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into gloom! 10 Humble yourselves before the L-rd, and He will lift you up.
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the acts of the yetzer ha-ra from before my eyes; cease to do evil and learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, give favor to the fatherless, plead for the widow.” – Yeshayahu/Isaiah 1:16
“Who shall ascend into the mountain of AdoShem? Who shall stand in His Holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Tehillim/Psalm 24:4(3)
Realizing the reality of G-d, by the Ruach Ha-Kodesh--Holy Spirit, we must make the choice of humility. He will lift us up, out of confusion and double mindedness and turn our mourning into dancing.
4:11-12 Fellow Israelites, stop speaking against each other! Whoever speaks against a brother or judges a sister is speaking against Torah and judging Torah. And if you judge Torah, you are not a doer of Torah, but a judge. 12 There is but one Giver of Torah; He is also the Judge, with the power to save and to destroy. Who do you think you are, judging a fellow human being?
When we concern ourselves with accessing the behavior of other believers we are already sinning. On the other hand, making a right judgment of the spiritual battle surrounding wrong action may allow us the opportunity to come alongside and redirect a brother or sister, Yaakov addresses this at the end of his letter.
The judgment spoken of here is a judgment of punitive motivation, a judgment that seeks to see others ridiculed and made slaves once more. When we judge others based on the very Torah we ourselves break we come under judgment, rather than living within the Judge. How often we sit in judgment of the Torah itself, critiquing it and tearing it apart. Sadly, it critiques us and finds us wanting.
4:13-17 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such-and-such a city, stay there a year trading and make a profit”! 14 You don’t even know if you will be alive tomorrow! For all you are is a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If AdoShem wants it to happen, we will live” to do this or that. 16 But as it is, in your arrogance you boast. All such boasting is evil. 17 So then, anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, sins.
Some see a big jump in the subject matter here, suggesting that perhaps Yaakov has changed his audience and is speaking to traveling traders outside the synagogue. However the subject here is no different from the previous paragraphs. Yaakov continues to juxtapose humility and pride, the prideful merchant boasts and is motivated by financial gain, the humble merchant trusts HaShem and is motivated by G-dly vocation.
5:1-3 Next, a word for the rich: weep and wail over the hardships coming upon you! 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes have become moth-eaten; 3 your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat up your flesh like fire! These are the acharit-hayamim—last days, and you have been storing up wealth!
Again, the temptation to relegate this part of Yaakov’s teaching to outsiders rather than Jewish believers is unfounded. There are always rich among us, there will always be poor believers. Although the language is harsh it is also familiar. Yaakov knows he is speaking to Jews who are immersed in Torah, the prophets and writings of HaShem. The Tanakh uses similar terminology in Psalm 73 and Isaiah 5:8. These words are an admonition with the intent to encourage repentance—a tishuvah—turning back—to right Torah living in Messiah.
“These are the last days,” is a testimony against the Ludacris behavior of hording wealth only to see it destroyed. To the contrary Yaakov will soon call for patient trust in Messiah, a position that will bear fruitful and eternal treasure. Those being rebuked here are likened to a drug addict storing up drugs prior to an overdose.
5:4-6 Listen! The wages you have fraudulently withheld from the workers who mowed your fields are calling out against you, and the outcries of those who harvested have reached the ears of AdoShem-Tzva’ot—L-rd of heavens armies. 5 You have led a life of luxury and self-indulgence here on earth — in a time of slaughter, you have gone on eating to your heart’s content. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the innocent; they have not withstood you.
This is straight out of the Torah, its Judaism 101:
“The wages of a hired man shall not stay with you until morning.” – Leviticus 19:13
See also: Deuteronomy 24:14-15 and Malachi 3:5
HaShem hears the cry of spilled blood and the agony of the oppressed. This too is a familiar refrain from the Tanakh; Genesis 4:10, Exodus 3:7
5:7 So, fellow Israelites, be patient until the L-rd returns. See how the farmer waits for the precious “fruit of the earth” — he is patient over it until it receives the fall and spring rains.
Patience, not boasting, is the path of the believer. It’s not patience in and off itself, rather it’s patience born of hope, that hope is in the Messiah’s return.
“Fruit of the earth” is a quotation from the brachah for eating berries and vegetables. A farmer’s patience is rewarded by the harvest. The fall rains are mentioned first, this is contrary to the rhythm of the Greek world which measures it’s year using different spiritual markers. The Jewish High Holy days occur at the end of the year approaching fall and winter, this is a metaphor for judgment. The spring rains coincide with Yom ha-bikkurim—day of first fruit, this is a metaphor for new life, resurrection. Again Yaakov is reminding Jewish believers in the diaspora that their roots are of the land and are intrinsically linked to the spiritual year as laid out in the Torah. Death, judgment and new life continue to be part of their journey. In the end it is the hope of new life, eternal life, which they must focus on.
5:8-9 You too, be patient; keep up your courage; for the L-rd’s return is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t come under condemnation — look! The Judge is standing at the door!
“Be patient, be courageous,” words like these were spoken to Moses, Joshua and the prophets.
“The L-rd’s return is near”--perhaps not near in terms of earth history, but in terms of eternal consciousness, very near. Therefore His return is now nearer still.
“The Judge is standing at the door,” see Revelation 22:20
5:10-11 As an example of suffering mistreatment and being patient, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of AdoShem. 11 You see, we regard those who persevered as blessed. You have heard of the perseverance of Iyov—Job, and you know what the purpose of AdoShem was, that AdoShem is very compassionate and merciful.
Here perseverance is the key. One might become impatient, but like Job we must overcome impatience with perseverance, trusting, like Job, in the compassionate mercy of G-d, the ultimate positive outcome, Messiah’s return and an eternity of prosperity in G-d.
5:12 Above all, brothers and sisters, stop swearing oaths — not “By heaven,” not “By the earth,” and not by any other formula; rather, let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No,” so that you won’t fall under condemnation.
This is similar to Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 5:33-37 and links to the frivolous boasting of the traders in 4:13-17. Simply put, oath taking was a big part of Jewish culture at the time and had become a means for justifying daily deception as a lesser form of communication. Speak the truth and don’t make promises you have no intention of keeping.
5:13 Is someone among you in trouble? He should converse with G-d. Is someone feeling good? He should sing songs of praise.
Both prayer and singing are forms of conversation with G-d. It seems that Yaakov’s best advice is this, “Be in relationship with the Creator.” As opposed to doing in relationship with the world.
5:14-15 Is someone among you weak? He should call for the elders of the congregation. They will pray for him and anoint olive oil on him in the name of the L-rd. 15 The prayer of faith will save the toiling one — the L-rd will wake him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Both the weary and the ill are offered anointing here. Oil has been used by Israel’s priests to anoint her Kings for centuries. It is a symbol of the Ruach ha-Kodesh and the rich blessing and healing of G-d. The faith spoken of here is not faith in healing, rather it is faith in the Healer, Messiah Yeshua/G-d the Father. This prayer will be the vehicle for revelation to the needy one. He will be delivered from needless toil and lifted up or awakened from his disappear or illness, made whole—not necessarily physically well but whole/complete, spiritually speaking. As a result of this prayer of faith in Messiah, sin will be covered and forgiven.
5:16a Therefore, openly acknowledge your sins to one another, and converse with G-d petitioning Him on behalf of one another, so that you may be made whole.
Openly vocalizing our sin as confession to one another can be a very powerful source of release from the burden of it. This is something the Catholic Church does well. It is true to say to a brother or sister, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” We are not saying that we have forgiven their sins, we are simply acknowledging that through the blood covering of Messiah’s sacrifice, their sin is forgiven.
The purpose of this open confession is not to publically humiliate or give opportunity for gossip. It should be undertaken only with trusted believers and then only by the leading of the Ruach ha-Kodesh. In petitioning G-d on behalf of one another we are to be motivated by mercy because “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Therefore we see the work of G-d here, denouncing false judgment and vindictiveness and announcing mercy and freedom. The result? Wholeness.
5:16a-18 The fervent prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. 17 Eliyahu was only a human being like us; yet he conversed with G-d fervently (and heard from G-d) that it would not rain, and no rain fell on the Land for three years and six months.18 Then he conversed with G-d again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
It is important to note here that the type of prayer being spoken of is a form of fervent listening. After all, the narrative concerning Eliyahu’s—Elijah’s—life tells us only that he heard from G-d that the heavens would be shut up, following which he heard from G-d again some years later that the heavens would release rain upon the land. The pattern goes like this: Listen… No rain. Listen… rain. Listen… drought and death born of idolatry. Listen… Life giving waters welling up from Messiah in you. It is the Patient, or rather, persevering Eliyahu—like the farmer of verse 7, who received the later rain.
19 My fellow Israelites, if one of you wanders from the truth, and someone causes him to return--tishuvah, 20 you should know that whoever turns--shuvah—a sinner from his wandering path will save him from death and cover many sins.
Finally, and with concise literary beauty, Yaakov reminds us that in Messiah we live and breathe to see others reconciled to G-d.
© Alastair Brown 2014