The Wisdom of James

by Jim West

There is scarcely a page of the New Testament which does not contain a quotation from, or allusion to, a text in the Old Testament. If you take your Greek New Testament (NA 27) and thumb through the pages you will discover that in the margins the editors have indicated what they believe to be quotations or allusions from the Old Testament, as well as parallel passages from the New Testament and other literature. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong in their evaluations. Nevertheless what one discovers in examining these putative allusions or quotations is that the Old Testament is heard in the background of the entire New Testament if one listens carefully; just as music is heard in the background of modern movies. This "theme music" plays constantly for the one who "has ears to hear". The book of James is no different in this respect.

The purpose of this brief paper is to examine the allusions from Old Testament wisdom literature that are found in James. Our procedure will be quite simple: to examine the context of James in which the allusion occurs and the attendant condition of the Old Testament texts from which they are taken. We will then be in a position to discover James' purpose in using these quotations and allusions.

The first allusion is found very early in the letter at 1:3: "knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" which alludes to Proverbs 27:21 (LXX): "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, so a person is tested by being praised, for the wise heart seeks knowledge."

It is clear that this qualifies as an allusion and not a quotation simply because the idea found in Proverbs is alluded to by James and expanded by him. In the clause in Proverbs fine metals and human words have in common that they are tested and their value demonstrated as the final result of the refining process. Just as metals are exposed for what they are at the end of the smelting process, so also are evil hearts made known by evil words.

It is my opinion that as James' readers encounter this allusion they were drawn into the context of the source to such an extent that they would have thought of the surrounding passages and their meaning. Just as many of you, if hearing the phrase, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..." will be drawn into the entire song and hear the tune in your head. This, I take it, is true of each allusion in the book of James.

James employs this allusion and maintains that faith is likewise subjected tothat when this process is completed the result is patience. Faith that is not fired through the smelting oven of trials is not as pure as faith that has been refined by the fires of distress, heartache, and troubles. James thus rightly sees that trials are not efforts by God to destroy faith but to improve it. It is my opinion that as James' readers encounter this allusion they were drawn into the context of the source to such an extent that they would have thought of the surrounding passages and their meaning. Just as many of you, if hearing the phrase, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..." will be drawn into the entire song and hear the tune in your head. This, I take it, is true of each allusion in the book of James.

The significance of this cannot be overlooked. For if the hearers and readers of James heard the text quoted along with its context then they would, it seems to me, be enabled to draw on the spiritual riches of those texts and empowered to apply them to their own situations. For after all, the whole purpose of wisdom literature is to empower the wise to live the will of God in an evil world.

The next allusion is found in 1:5: "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you," which alludes to Provergbs 2:3-6: "if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures -- then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding."

If you lack wisdom, ask God for it, James urges his comrades. Wisdom, then, is not attainable by mere human effort but is a gift of God Himself. This also seems to be the meaning of the Proverbs passage cho bestows wisdom on the seeker. But one caveat is added; the seeker must desire wisdom more than he desires wealth or material goods. Perhaps we hear an echo here of Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple in which he asked God for wisdom above wealth and power. Perhaps, likewise, James hears an echo here of the saying of Jesus which runs, "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well", which is as much as to say that the person who lives wisely and obediently to God will lack nothing. James thus uses this wisdom text to assure his readers that the foundation of life must be set on the rock of God's wisdom.

Then we find in 1:11: "For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same waywith the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away," which points us towards Job 14:2: "comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last."

Please notice that the first allusion James uses points to the necessity of wisdom and its accessibility to those who ask. In the second allusion wisdom is described as greater than wealth. And now, in the third allusion James draws our attention to the fact that those who trust in wealth will soon wither and fade. The progression seems self evident- from the call to wisdom to the explanation that wisdom is greater than wealth and now to the fact that wealth itself is a dead end street which the wise one does not travel. Is this not the very method of instruction used by the wise in Israel's wisdom schools? It seems to me that James is developing a pattern which is very well thought out and very intentional. These are not haphazard allusions to the Old Testament wisdom literature b ut evidence of a refinlying the Old Testament text to the present situation by James.

Now that the preliminary injunctions which refer to the superiority of wisdom over wealth are concluded, James turns to the practical application of wisdom in the life of his community.

So we have in 1:19 "You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger", where we are pointed towards Proverbs 15:1 "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger".

James first applies wisdom to an internal aspect; the right use of the tongue and ear. It is a well established fact that the Wisdom teachers of Ancient Israel were very interested in the right use of the tongue. Here we have evidence that James was at least familiar with that tradition and probably greatly influenced by it.

When we come to chapter 2 we find in 2:6 "But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?" which points us to Proverbs 14:21 "Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor".

This second application of wisdom is external; or, how does the wise treat the poor? This, too, like the wisdom school's interest in correct speech, was a high priority for the wise of Ancient Israel.

Our next allusion does not come until 3:6 "And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell", which alludes to Proverbs 16:27 "Scoundrels concoct evil, and their speech is li And now, in a brilliant move, James circles back to the beginning and again discusses how the wise person makes use of the tongue. Perhaps those acquainted with the literary device known as parallelism could make a contribution here. At any rate, James applies wisdom to speech, treatment of the poor, and again, speech.

James will now, with his Old Testament allusions, move to another application of wisdom to everyday life: humility. The wise soul is the humble soul.

And so we find our next quotation at 4:6 "But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble". which mirrors Proverbs 3:34 "Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor". Humility, like kindness towards the poor and correct speech, was another "pillar" of wise behavior, according to the Wise of Israel. James adopts this belief as well and instructs his community to behave humbly, as well as speak rightly and act kindly.

To recap to this point: James begins his use of allusions with the call to wisdom. He then describes the superiority of wisdom over wealth. Then he turns to the application of wisdom in everyday life in speech, hearing, treatment of the poor, and speech. He next procedes to consider the fact that those who live wisely also live humbly. And now he will tell his readers that life must be lived under the Lordship of God in trust and obedience.

This is what we find in chapter 4:14 "Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" which alludes to Proverbs 27:1 "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring".es each day in the certain knowledge that God oversees his activities.

And now, another move which brings us back to the beginning of the discussion and points us away from riches and back towards God. In 5:2 we have "Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten". which alludes to Job 13:2 "One wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten".

Lets look at our next text. 5:11 Says; "Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful" alluding to Job 1:21-22 "He said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing".

When the wise person is confronted with difficulties in life, he or she is not brought to a point of unbelief. Instead, their wise faith injects itself into the situation and they are enabled to overcome any difficulty. That is what endurance is; and real endurance is available only to faith.

And lastly, 5:20 "you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" which alludes to Proverbs 10:12 "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses". This text is a concluding note on the value of love. When one loves another, one does not ignore their difficulties or errors; one does his or her best to correct those errors.

It seems to me that James is circling thethese ideas unnecessarily- instead he is reiterating in quite poetic fashion the most important issues of wisdom in daily life. If I may be allowed to set this out diagrammatically:

A 1:3- Faith is tested.

B 1:5- Faith Seeks Wisdom

C 1:11- Wisdom is More valuable than Gold

D 1:19, 2:6, 3:6, 4:14, The application of Wisdom to Daily Life

C' 5:2- Wisdom is More valuable than Gold

B' 5:11- Faith Acts Wisely (because it has sought wisdom and found it)

A' 5:20 Faith is Active (because, having been tested, it is victorious)

I don't think that this schematic is artificial; rather I think it demonstrates a clear intention on the part of James to communicate the central position of ethical behavior as the result of real wisdom. More than that, I take these allusions to Old Testament wisdom to be the organinzing principle of this epistle.

By way of conclusion let me say that when we take the time to examine the allusions and quotations of the Old Testament in the New we find not proof texting, as is sometimes claimed, but excellent theological insight into the meaning of the Old Testament text exhibited by the New Testament writers. The book of James is no exception to this rule. His utilization of the Wisdom literature for the benefit of the young Church (for like Schlatter, I take James to date from the 40's) is an effort to apply the wisdom of God to the grind of daily life.