Examining Some Ambiguities I: James 4:5-6 in English Translations

In the home group Bible study that I’m in, we’re studying the epistle of James. We’re currently in James 4. While preparing for this week’s study, I noticed some interesting things going on in James 4:5-6. There are some ambiguities in James 4.5. This seemed like a good text to examine a bit further using some of the resources and reports found in Logos Bible Software (things that are in some collections, and some things that are supplemental).

First, the text of the ESV:

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”(Jas 4:5-6, ESV)

Seems pretty straightforward, huh? It actually isn’t. When reading the Greek in preparation for the study, I noticed a few things that are ambiguous. And these things are pretty noticeable when you compare English translations. So I made a video that shows how to do this.

The basic issues discussed in the video, as a result of examining English translations, set the stage for the balance of posts in this series. At present I hope for two more posts plus a summary/conclusion post, though that may change (likely be extended) as I write further posts.

So what are the issues we’ll look at?

  • Is it ‘spirit’ or ‘Spirit’ in James 4.5? That is, is it the Holy Spirit, or is it more along the lines of Genesis 2.7, the life breathed within us?
  • What is the subject of the quotation in verse 5? Is it:
    • God (also ‘He’)
    • Spirit (that is, the Holy Spirit)
    • spirit (that is, the human spirit, that of Ge 2.7)
  • Where does the quotation in v. 5 come from? (I’ve not discussed this yet, but it will come up in later posts).

Further posts will focus on using syntactic annotations, morphology, critical commentaries and syntax searching to look at this verse further.

All in all, I hope to show that there are features and resources that those who aren’t comfy with the original languages can use to think about these things and that there are other features and resources that those comfy with the original languages can use to examine these sorts of issues more fully.


  1. In terms of “Holy Spirit” vs ‘spirit’, from my understanding and work in the Book of James, I would take it as the Holy Spirit due to the word epipotheo (G1971) being used. Every other occurrence (16) of this word in the NT is used of desiring ‘good things’. The other use of the word ‘lusts’ used in verse 1 & 3 are different in the Greek.
    As I see it when a Christian is born again, we are born again through the Holy Spirit and our bodies become temple of His Spirit (1Cor 6:19). Through the act of Christ on the Cross, we are earmarked by the Spirit as belonging to God. We are no longer to live by our own means and will, but should be guided by the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit. When we ignore this leading then we grieve the Holy Spirit and find that God’s will in our life becomes blurry.
    This shows that we should obey and apply God’s word into our lives, use our tongues with vigilance, and fix Godly wisdom to our lives. The Holy Spirit stands guard over our lives, jealously yearning for our obedience to His word.
    This interpretation not only fits into the preceding verses of James, but also into the following ones too.

  2. Thanks for your notes, Mark. They show there are other ways to approach spots of text that have ambiguity (that is, a grammatical/syntactic ambiguity) that can affect translation. The next post in the series will focus on using other resources to examine the grammatical/syntactic ambiguity. After that, I’ll mention immediate and larger context.
    Thanks again for your notes!

  3. There are basically four options here as a result of primarily two factors. First pneuma is neuter and could be either the subject or object of the verb, if it is the object then God is the implicit subject. Second, pneuma could mean Holy Spirit or human spirit. The four options are as follows:
    First, the popular choice of translators:
    “The spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely” (NIV)
    (also similar in KJV, NLT, NET, NEB)
    Second, the NASB option:
    “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us” (NASB)
    Third, the NKJ option:
    “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”(NKJ)
    Fourth, the popular choice of commentators:
    “He jealously desires the [human] spirit which lives in us”
    The first option makes little sense in the context. One must wonder what a statement about human sinfulness at this point in the paragraph. Additionally, Davids (NIGTC) argues that it “ignores 4:4 and jumps back to 4:1-3.” Finally, one must ask the text would mean that the scripture does not say this “vainly”? This option brings James argument to a dead end.
    The NASB option makes even less sense. In what sense does God jealously desire the Holy Spirit in believers? How does this fit into context and contribute to James argument?
    The last two options both make the same basic sense of the passage. In each one you have a member of the trinity jealously desiring something about man. In the NKJ option what He desires is implicit, but is probably “man’s friendship” from the context. In the commentators option, God desires man’s spirit. This can be nothing other than man’s affections and pursuit in this context. I think both of these options are equally valid since they make the same (good) sense of the passage. But I am open to arguments to nail it down to one or the other if anyone has something.

    • Timothy Robertson says

      Responding to your statement that the NASB “makes even less sense” and subsequent question, rhetorical or not, asking “in what sense does God jealously desire the Holy Spirit in believers?”, I must respond by saying it makes perfect sense. I would at least offer for your consideration that we think about the distinct role of the Holy Spirit within us and compare His relationship with God, the Father as we would compare Jesus Christ’s relationship with God, the Father while He too carried out a distinct role during His time upon the earth. Philippians 2 classically describes an “emptying” or “letting go” (“grasped”) that the Son demonstrates and we witness that time and time again during His earthly ministry, where He yearns and depends on His relationship with the Father. I suggest that is exactly what is being described here. As Ephesians 1, among others, offers, we see that we were given the Holy Spirit as a “seal” and “deposit” but then go on to read how Paul continues to pray that “God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit [fn] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better.”
      I believe there is wisdom and revelation in seeing how this is all so very connected and how “our works” that James goes on to speak about has little to do with us and everything to do with allowing in humility, His Spirit to work through us. This helps to unify additional truths in Ephesians 2, including 2: 9 in light of v.18 and 22. In addition, I suggest that we consider the meaning of Romans 8:25-27 and its surrounding context as well.

      • Timothy Robertson says

        I may have missed the clarity of the greatest truth here. The Father, even the Son, gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, His Holy Spirit. But how often do we find ourselves, in our own human trappings, refusing, through the old nature, be it pride, laziness, temptations to wander to “draw near to Him”. His Holy Spirit desires to draw near to the His place and His Father in Heaven and the Father desires to guide Him in us through the relationship we have the free will to let or not let them have. Jesus described this relationship in the context of His own life. John, culminating in chapter 5 certainly demonstrates this.

  4. Tom Delmonte says

    It seems it would be best to have not only the questions posted but some answers as well, especially for those who are young Christians and need help, leaving the answer hanging for a later time is not helpful in uplifting the body because it leaves them in doubt of what is true or not.
    Not necessarily examining the question in depth but at least show clearly that scripture is not contradictory.

  5. James V Thivierge says

    This shouldn’t be so complex! The verse is refering to the human spirit! I avoid scripture based on the minority text! Satan is the author of confusion and deceit! The KJV makes it very clear!

  6. Tony Hard says

    I really enjoyed what I learned from this study. Please include more for I am always in search of deeper meaning and instruction from Scripture.

  7. Philana Crouch says

    In answer to the idea that we should not leave questions hanging. First this post is not about Scripture being contradictory, but about how the different translations point out multiple ways to translate it. As a seminary student who has to translate the Bible this is a common issue. Second, new Christians need to understand that studying the Bible takes times. And it is OK to have questions, and that they may not find the answer right away, but must KEEP DIGGING. That is something mature Christians understand, and it is a lesson new Christians will find helpful to understand now, rather than be shocked later. When issues like the one in James 4:5 the right answer may not be found right away. Remember you have Bible scholars who do disertations on one verse of the Bible that they spend five or six years to discover the correct meaning. It is the joy of studying the Bible. You NEVER get bored studying the Word of God. It is OK to say, I don’t understand this now, so I need to keep studying. I think the post is a perfect example of good Bible study. It shows the importance of taking time and not jumping to conclusions. The great thing is LOGOS makes this a lot easier and quicker. I still remember when I used my hardcopy of Strongs, it took hours to get the information you get with LOGOS. It means more time studying the Bible and less time in hunting helps. Just thought I would comment on the issue of leaving an answer hanging for a time can be healthy, and helpful. If we rush with a bunch of answers without taking time to fully study it, then we may well end up with the wrong one.
    In Christ

  8. I just love this kind of discussion because we are functioning as the priesthood of all believers, and we are able to examine the original languages of the bible, as it was really meant to be. The church had centuries of being told distorted truth by the professional clergy, but Jesus always spoke plainly, and the scriptures were written in language accessible to everyone at the time. At last this is not the case. The internet does have good uses, and this is the best.

  9. the in breathing of the Spirit is a mark of inspiration. The HOLY sPIRIT IS AT WORK in the lives if the faithful

  10. Note also the topics found in James are also found in the /Sermon on the mount–Could it be that James comes to understand the practical ideas of that sermon?

  11. Rick Brannan, How do I find the follow-up writings you have on the ambiguities of James 4:5-6? I see them in a list to the right if this first article, but when I tap them, only the scripture verse appears. Thanks!