For those acquainted with the Israelite wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a brief reading of James will sound very familiar: ‘What is your life? ...you are a mist’ James reminds us (4:14) echoing the Preacher’s memorable opening to Ecclesiastes. How to endure your present suffering?, recall the ‘steadfastness of Job’! exhorts James (5:11); and of course, James’ singular appeal that true wisdom is alone to be received from God above (1:5, 1:16ff) recalls Proverbs 1.
Similarly, the style of James contributes to this sense of familiarity with the instruction in James often arriving in the form of imperative—reasoning wisdom couplets found throughout Proverbs (‘Do this .. for ..’): ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, /for/ the anger of man …’ (1:19b-20); ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only, … /for/ if anyone is a hearer of the word …’ (1:22-23); ‘if you really fulfil the royal law … you are doing well, /for/ whoever keeps the whole law …’ (2:8-10), .. and so on.
Why wisdom? It is clear from the opening of the letter and subsequent references that James is writing to a body of believers who are facing suffering for their faith. Unfortunately, it seems that so far their response has been bickering (1:19), favouritism (2:1-7) and slander (1:26-27) (to name a few), none of which honour the name of Christ and all lead to disunity. In contrast, biblical Wisdom, received from the mouth of God, is that instruction which exhorts us to live Godly lives in the present age: practical advice aligning with the cosmic reality of God’s sovereign plans.
It seems fitting therefore that in this present trial, James exhorts the church to return to God as the initiator and author of wise, Godly living under trial. God’s wisdom (3:13,17) begins with purity, and leads to Godly character (cf. Gal 5:22-23); God’s heart (1:5-8) is generous towards His people and desires an undivided, faithful (not fake) response; God’s gifts to His followers are perfect and good, steadfast and truthful (1:16-18), leading over time to followers marked by changed lives, ‘first fruits’ of a new creation.
Ultimately, James works against an impoverished view of God’s gracious, generous, powerful and transformative action in the lives of His believers. In this way, James is simply repeating the Lord Jesus who prepared (time and again) His followers for the trials to come, by pointing them to God’s steadfast love and His active and powerful presence in their lives to withstand whatever may come at them in this passing age (e.g. Mark 13:11-13, Matt. 28:20). Wisdom indeed!
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