More and more I am convinced that the doorway into understanding the New Testament is the Old Testament. It’s not a new idea. I think Jesus had something to do with it. But it’s one of the reasons we made this a major feature in our recently released LifeGuide in Depth series, including A Deeper Look at James, that my wife, Phyllis, and I wrote. An example can illustrate the point.
the best-known verses in the letter is James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (NIV). But almost immediately James jumps to issues of rich and poor (1:9-11) and doing the word (1:22-24) and helping widows and orphans (1:27). And the rich and poor make several more appearances in the letter. Why, after headlining the topic of wisdom, does James make this leap to these other topics?
One well-known Old Testament use of the idea of wisdom orbits around craftsmanship. Bezalel was filled with “wisdom” in making artistic designs, metalworking and woodworking (Ex 31:2-5). It is also evident when people obey God’s law: “Observe them [God’s decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom” (Deut 4:6).
But there is a third meaning that is less well-known, even though it is found in the very famous story of Solomon discerning who the true mother is when two prostitutes come to him with a baby. When he indicates he will give half to each, the true mother pleads with the king to not do so and to instead give the child to the other woman.
And what was the reaction of the people? “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to figure out who the real mother was.” Well, no, it doesn’t actually say that. It was “because they saw that he had wisdom from God to really put that wicked woman in her place.” Um, no, it doesn’t say that either.
What happened was, “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice” (1 Kings 3:38). Wisdom and doing justice are also equated in Psalm 37:30.
So when James mentions wisdom in the context of rich and poor, and helping the marginalized like widows and orphans, he’s not talking about how we can up our IQ or get some street smarts. He’s telling us that doing what is good and right for the oppressed is true wisdom.
The Old Testament can help us not only interpret the New Testament correctly but apply it correctly as well. Sounds like a wise thing to do. That’s why we wrote A Deeper Look at James.
Nineteenth-century engraving by Gustave Doré.