Proverbs: Primer for Princes (10): Proverbs in the Epistle of James

The Old Is In The New

The teaching in the book of Proverbs should not be dismissed as out of date, nor does it clash with the light of New Testament revelation. Rather, in Christianity its maxims are shown to be necessary and indeed possible to the redeemed soul. Noting that the epistle of James draws heavily upon Proverbs will emphasize this. James speaks of some of the very themes found in Proverbs, for his epistle and Proverbs are alike very practical.

James emphasizes the need for wisdom (1:5; 3:13-18), which is one of the great subjects of Proverbs. Perhaps the seven features of wisdom in James 3:17 are like the seven pillars of wisdom (Proverbs 9:1). These features will serve well to support the believer through life! All of these are features which the book of Proverbs will hold up to us as valuable virtues. James has solemn words for the rich. He reminds them that they will pass away (1:10) and also that riches are temporary (5:2-3). Solomon too says, “riches certainly make themselves wings, they fly away as an eagle toward heaven” (Prov. 23:5). The snare of materialism and its consequent grip on our lives must be resisted. Notice the three marks of true godliness (James 1:26-27): carefulness in speech, compassion for the needy, and consecration to God from the world. James then develops these (2:15-16; 3:1-12; 4:4). Turning to Proverbs, we see that James is but repeating the wise counsel of Solomon. Hence what we find in Proverbs as to the tongue, the poor and needy, and the attractions of the world are brought into the light of New Testament teaching even in this very early epistle.

Consider seven echoes in James that come from this great wisdom book.

The Control of the Temper (James 1:19)

“Slow to wrath.” These necessary words from James remind us of teaching in Proverbs relative to the watching of our temper, lest the hasty reaction and passionate outburst does harm to others and ourselves. In Proverbs 15:1 we read, “A soft answer turneth away wrath” and again, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding, but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly” (14:29; cp 15:18; 19:11; 25:15 and 29:20). A bad temper is a sure sign of weakness and if we have not learned self-control we shall be little able to help others. A wise man will know when to speak and when to be silent. Wrathful words, condemned by Solomon because they are unbecoming and never really lead to profit, are seen in James to be absolutely inconsistent with true Christian character. Hence the appeal of James grounded on the fact that we have been begotten by the word of truth (v 18). The Lord will enable us to curb such passions.

The Sin of Partiality (2:1)

“Have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . with respect of persons.” Solomon says, “to have respect of persons is not good” (28:21). This is more than once repeated throughout the book (18:5; 24:23). Showing partiality is a grievous thing in the sight of God, whether in the matter of judgment, employment, our dealings with others in everyday life, or even in our assembly relations. Solomon had witnessed the harmful results of it in his day. Sadly even some Christians are not free from showing partiality. James, as Solomon in Proverbs, shows it to be wrong, but gives an added thought as a safeguard against respect of persons. To have faith in the Lord of Glory would preclude such behavior, for even the religious leaders recognized that He did not accept the person of any (Luke 20:21). He was impartial in His dealings with all.

The Power of the Tongue (3:6)

“The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” Listen to Solomon: “The ungodly man diggeth up evil: and in his lips there is as a burning fire” (Proverbs 16:27). It is awful to use the tongue in the evil habit of slander or tale-bearing. What fearful uses and yet happy possibilities can employ the tongue! Solomon was all too conscious of this, for he says also in Prov. 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The tongue, says Solomon, may be a means of blessing or disaster. James in chapter 3 takes up this very theme of Solomon’s, and while he is talking to the teacher, the application to us as believers is obvious. By means of very colorful and effective metaphors James outlines for us the tremendous power of the tongue (vv3-4); the beautiful possibilities of the tongue (vv 5-6); the human impossibility of controlling the tongue (vv 7-8) and the great inconsistencies of the tongue (vv 9-12). Our tongue should be under the control of the Spirit. It is solemn to think, as was the case with Peter, that the devil can use our tongues (Matthew 16:22-23).

The Fruit of Righteousness (3:18)

“The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” We cannot read this verse in James without thinking of Proverbs 11:18: “To him that soweth righteousness shall be a sure reward.” Both Solomon and James have before them the thought of spiritual sowing. Righteousness is the seed to be sown and it is practical righteousness. In the garden of the soul are we sowing to the spirit or to the flesh? If it is the latter, the harvest will end with this world, but if the former we shall reap a spiritual crop that will never pass away.

The Need of Humility (4:6)

“God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” Here we have a direct quotation from Proverbs. James unites his testimony with that of the wise man of old to underline this rule of heaven’s unchanging law. About no sin does Proverbs have more to say than the sin of pride. It is utterly condemned and shown to be abhorrent to God; see 6:17; 8:13; 11:2; 13:10; 16:18 and 29:23. Over against pride of every kind Solomon commends to us the lovely grace of humility. Hence, James cites Solomon’s words as the very words of God – “He saith” – and the purpose of the quotation lies really in the last clause, because it contains the proof of what James had just said that God gives freely of His grace only to those who feel the consciousness of their nothingness. Thus the ancient maxim is taken up by James and becomes as it were a regulating principle in the life of the Christian.

The Ignorance of the Morrow (4:13)

“Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go unto such a city… ” Behind this warning are the words of Solomon in Proverbs 27:1, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” James then partly reproduces this verse and indeed gives us quite an application of it! Both Solomon and James rebuke the boaster who makes his far-reaching plans for the future without ever considering his total ignorance of the morrow. While Proverbs 27:1 is very often applied to the unsaved in gospel preaching, James clearly uses this caution in Proverbs for the Christian also. It is possible, too, for the Christian to make the same mistake as the foolish rich man in the parable in Luke 12 and scheme and plan without reference to God. James brings in what Solomon did not – the need for subjection to the Lord’s will in all our plans. The proverb is thus shown by James to have a vital bearing on our lives today as much as it did in Solomon’s time.

The Condition of Effective Prayer (5:16)

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Solomon in Proverbs dwells much on the features of the righteous man and more than once shows the important connection between a righteous life and answered prayer. In 15:29 he says, “The Lord is far from the wicked but He heareth the prayer of the righteous” (see also 15:8). This prerequisite for prevailing prayer has not been changed in the Christian age. The character of the man who prays can never be separated from the power of prayer. This should be a voice to us all.

In these echoes from Proverbs in the epistle of James we can see the abiding practical value of the book and that it is woven into the warp and woof of his teaching. James saw fit, early in this present day of grace, to apply its lessons and put them in Christian dress.