Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible

Verse 5 (James 4:5)

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain - This verse is exceedingly obscure. We cannot tell what scripture St. James refers to; many have been produced by learned men as that which he had particularly in view. Some think Genesis 6:5 ; : "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Genesis 8:21 ; : "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." Numbers 11:29 ; : "Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake?" and Proverbs 21:10 ; : "The soul of the wicked desireth evil." None of these scriptures, nor any others, contain the precise words in this verse; and therefore St. James may probably refer, not to any particular portion, but to the spirit and design of the Scripture in those various places where it speaks against envying, covetousness, worldly associations, etc., etc.

Perhaps the word in this and the two succeeding verses may be well paraphrased thus: "Do ye think that concerning these things the Scripture speaks falsely, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us can excite us to envy others instead of being contented with the state in which the providence of God has placed us? Nay, far otherwise; for He gives us more grace to enable us to bear the ills of life, and to lie in deep humility at his feet, knowing that his Holy Spirit has said, Proverbs 3:34 ; : God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Seeing these things are so, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil, who would tempt you to envy, and he will flee from you; draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you."

I must leave this sense as the best I can give, without asserting that I have hit the true meaning. There is not a critic in Europe who has considered the passage that has not been puzzled with it. I think the 5th verse should be understood as giving a contrary sense to that in our translation. Every genuine Christian is a habitation of the Holy Ghost, and that Spirit προς φθονον επιποθει , excites strong desires against envy; a man must not suppose that he is a Christian if he have an envious or covetous heart.

- Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible