James asks if we think the scripture speaks in vain when it claims our spirits lust to the point of envy. (Ja 4:5) The claim stumps scholars: there isn’t a quote quite like this anywhere in the Tenach (Old Testament). Mystery calls; there must be treasure here. (1Co 2:7)
If we look prayerfully at the context, James is addressing the difficulty we all face, particularly in times of suffering, as we observe the prosperity of those around us, wanting to have what they have and be more like them. (1) To the degree we fall into lusting after the comforts of this world (2) we align with and imitate the world, alienating ourselves from God. (4) Even our prayers may become warped (3), until we’re totally out of step with God.
There’s only one way out: grace – God enabling us to see more from His perspective (6a), a gift He bestows on the humble. (6b) As He realigns our desires in holy vision we resubmit to God (7) and draw near to Him again. (8a)
So, to overcome our lust and envy James exhorts us through this claim of scripture to repent, to cleanse our hands and hearts (8b), to grieve over our wayward affections (9); it’s the path of deliverance. (10)
James’ quote of scripture then, supporting his prescription for healing, would likely be found in a description of this conflict in the godly, where this gracious remedy, this heavenly perspective, is revealed and applied. Where might this be?
Perhaps Psalm 73.
The Psalmist, evidently a godly soul, finds himself struggling with envy as he observes the wicked prospering. (Ps 73:3) Some folk seem to have it so easy, skating through life, doing as they please, everything going their way, with no thought of serving God.
Who among the godly can’t relate to this, especially as we’re suffering through no obvious fault of our own? The wicked prospering alongside us just makes it all the more painful. (12)
Who doesn’t want to prosper and be in health? We certainly wish this on those we love (3Jn 2), so we tend to expect the same from God. Yet when God chastens and corrects us as we pursue Him (Ps 73:14) we may fall into doubting and resentment, hesitating and turning back from the very things James calls us to: cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts. (13)
But even as we notice our hearts straying, we know speaking aloud in such frustration is going to offend others in pursuit of God; so few have the wisdom to navigate this one. (15) Yet, as we contemplate these things and try to hold it all in, we may find the pain unbearable. (16)
The scripture’s saying here that the spirit within most all of us struggles with unholy desire at some point, particularly as we’re being scourged by God (He 12:6), and this inevitably leads to envy, wishing others didn’t have it so good since we can’t seem to get there ourselves. Consider it a universal problem, for all practical purposes; James evidently sees the scripture proclaiming it here, as well as the remedy.
In his unbearable pain, the Psalmist is driven into God’s presence for answers, and promptly finds deliverance in a new perspective. (Ps 73:17) He observes the end of the wicked, that they’re suddenly destroyed, without warning or remedy. (18-20) Their very prosperity blinds them to the urgency of their need, and effectively destroys them. (Pr 1:32)
This insight moves the Psalmist to repent, to realign his beliefs with God once more. He’s initially grieved at his foolishness (Ps 73:21-22), repenting and appreciating once again the precious hand of God in his life. (23-24) He is then able to refocus on the treasure he has in God (25) and is delivered from his trouble. (26)
Though James’ quote isn’t verbatim from scripture, it’s faithful to what scripture indeed proclaims. He hasn’t added to God’s Word as much as he’s distilled and summarized it for us, as those prayerfully filled with the Word may wisely do. (Mt 13:52)