True Wisdom Examined Through The Bible

James 3:17 (ESV) … “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”


James now turns to the wisdom that comes down from God. First, he gives us its basic characteristic: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure” (3:17a). The word that James uses is hagnos, meaning “free from defilement.” The word chaste aptly conveys the thought.


In his early years, Solomon understood this feature of wisdom. The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs contrast wisdom with immorality and impurity:

  1. Wisdom's call (Proverbs 1:6–2:15); The immoral woman (Proverbs 2:16–22)

  2. Wisdom’s call (Proverbs 3:1–4:27); The immoral woman (Proverbs 5:1–23)

  3. Wisdom’s call (Proverbs 6:1–23); The immoral woman (Proverbs 6:24–35)

  4. Wisdom's call (Proverbs 7:1–4); The immoral woman (Proverbs 7:5–27)

  5. Wisdom's call (Proverbs 8:1–9:12); The immoral woman (Proverbs 9:13–18)

The first and last of these segments dealing with wisdoms call are especially graphic. In them, wisdom is personified as a woman. She stands in the streets and at the great thoroughfares where people congregate, offering herself to the simple, to the unlearned, and to the fool. She offers to make them wise and to lead them in the path of light. She is of old, the companion of the Creator Himself. Thus, cleverly, Solomon contrasts her with the wanton woman, who likewise plies the streets and marketplaces, offering herself and her advertised charms to fools.


Heavenly wisdom is pure. It will never suggest or condone anything unclean or vile. Wisdom never offers a defiling thought. It partakes of the impeccable righteousness and absolute holiness of God.


Next, James gives us wisdoms benevolent characteristics (3:17b–d). He mentions wisdoms motivation—it is “peaceable” (3:17b); its moderation—it is gentle (3:17c); and its mediation—it is easy to be intreated (3:17d).


The word for “peaceable” can be rendered “peace loving” or “disposed to peace.” Solomon said of wisdom that “all her paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17). Peace was one of the outstanding characteristics of the early years of his reign. This fact had been anticipated. David said to Solomon, “My son, as for me, it was in my mind to build an house unto the name of the Lord my God: but the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars: thou shalt not build an house unto my name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in my sight. Behold, a son shall be born to thee, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about: for his name shall be Solomon [i.e., ‘peace’], and I will give peace and quietness unto Israel in his days” (1 Chron. 22:7–9).


The word for “gentle” here conveys the ideas of moderation and forbearance. It paints the picture of a person who does not stand up for his rights but who is willing to make room for others. It marks the man who is not a stickler for the letter of the law. Paul used the word when he urged his friends at Philippi, “Let your moderation be known unto all men” (Phil. 4:5, emphasis added). Paul listed it as a qualifying mark of a church elder. He must be patient (the same Greek word), he said (1 Tim. 3:3). The wise man does not insist on getting his pound of flesh.


The word for “easy to be entreated” can be translated “approachable,” or “compliant.” It is a military word. A good soldier knows how to receive and execute orders. The word also can mean “easily persuaded.” That does not mean, however, that the wise man is gullible. On the contrary, he is fully aware of all of the factors in the equation of his decision.

David exemplified this kind of wisdom. Even as a young man, tied to the court by official duties and to King Saul by family relationship, he displayed the spirit of wisdom. Again and again, the Holy Spirit says, “he behaved himself wisely.” After he killed Goliath, his name was on everyone’s lips, so much so that King Saul was jealous of him and set traps for him.


He tried to kill him with his spear. He tried to trap him when he offered to make him his son-in-law. David, however, saw through Saul’s snare when he offered him his oldest daughter, Merab, to be his wife, and answered wisely. He saw through Saul’s further trap when he offered to make him his son-in-law by marriage to Michal. He saw through Saul’s transparent plot to kill him when he demanded a hundred “scalps” (as we would say today) as the dowry for Michal (1 Sam. 18). Yet, for all that, David was “easy to be intreated.” On the two occasions when Saul sought to be reconciled with the man he had so wickedly wronged, David responded at once, graciously and like the Lord’s anointed.


David was the same with Absalom when the wise woman of Tekoa came to plead his cause (2 Sam. 14). It was the same when the scoundrel Shimei came begging for his life (2 Sam. 19:16–23). Such are the benevolent aspects of the wisdom from above. In such a benevolent fashion has the “Wonderful, Counsellor” (Isa. 9:6) dealt with us. God is peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated. We should be the same.

James continues. He reminds us of wisdom’s bountiful characteristics. He sets before us the thoughts that wisdom entertains—it is “full of mercy” (3:17e) and the things that wisdom espouses—it is “full of … good fruits” (3:17f). What mercy exists in the philosophy of a man such as Nietzsche, who pictured a world based on blood and barbarism and whose ideal superman was Cesare Borgia? Nietzsche said that Christianity was “the one immortal blemish upon the human race.”


What mercy is there in Darwinism, which Huxley hailed as a working hypothesis for atheism? Evolution says that might is right. It promotes the survival of the fittest. It is a philosophy that gave the world two global wars in one lifetime. What mercy exists in the philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who sought to abolish great truths common to all society and build a world based on atheism? What mercy did Lenin and his heirs ever have in imposing communism on Russia and much of the rest of the world? What mercy exists in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, with its strident demand for the extermination of world Jewry?


The wisdom that comes down from heaven is steeped in mercy, mercy for all of Adam’s ruined race. The word for “mercy” here is eleos, “the outward manifestation of pity,” or a “feeling of sympathy with misery.” Eleos embraces the idea of succor, as distinguished from mere pity. God’s mercy responds to a cry of distress. It is a good thing for all of us that God’s character includes mercy. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed,” said Jeremiah (Lam. 3:22).


A story is told about Napoleon’s having condemned a man to death. The man’s mother appealed to the emperor for a pardon. Napoleon replied that it was the man’s second offense and that justice must be done.


The mother persisted. “I am not asking for justice,” she said, “but for mercy.”

The emperor replied, “He doesn’t deserve mercy.”

She said, “It would not be mercy if he deserved it. And what I ask for is mercy.”

Napoleon gave in.


We do not have to plead thus with God because God does not need to be persuaded. Mercy is not second nature to God; it is His nature. It is the nature, too, of everyone who partakes of His nature.


James points also to the things that wisdom espouses. It is “full … of good fruits.” It is full of kind deeds. Thus did David extend practical grace to poor, lost Mephibosheth. In the first place, the unfortunate fellow was lame in both of his feet. He lived far off in distant Lo-debar. He was born into the family of a man (King Saul) who hated David so much that he tried to kill him on at least two dozen separate occasions. David told Ziba that he wanted to show “the kindness of God” to Mephibosheth. And so he did. He sent the messengers of his grace to find him. He brought him to himself, restored to him all of his lost estates, adopted him into his family, and set him at his own table (2 Sam. 9). What an example of being full of good fruit!


That is what God’s wisdom teaches that He does for us. As hymn writer Samuel Medley put it in “Awake, My Soul, in Joyful Lays,”

He saw me ruined in the Fall,

Yet loved me notwithstanding all;

He saved me from my lost estate

His loving kindness, O how great!


The believer who has drunk deeply of that heaven-descended wisdom will be full of good fruits because “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23) will be a characteristic of his life.

That’s how Joseph treated his brethren. Dying Jacob well understood the goodness and wisdom of his beloved son. “Joseph,” he said, “is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). Joseph not only proved to be easily entreated and not only frankly and freely forgave his brothers for their terrible sin of selling him into slavery but also settled them in the green pastures of Goshen. He was not ashamed to call them brethren. He presented five of them before the throne in a generous display of wisdom because that action opened for them tremendous doors of opportunity. The fruit of his goodness extended, moreover, to the Egyptian people when they begged him to do something about their bankrupt condition. He provided generously for their future. More still, “all nations came into Egypt to Joseph” (Gen. 41:57), and he dealt with these suppliants from distant and neighboring lands according to the same heavenly wisdom that he showed to one and all.


Finally, James mentions wisdoms balanced characteristics. It is absolutely unbiased: it is “without partiality” (3:17g); and it is absolutely unblemished: it is “without hypocrisy” (3:17h). The expression “without partiality” comes from adiakritos. The word occurs only here in the New Testament and seems to have puzzled translators considerably. It is rendered in a variety of ways. It is described as a negative and adjectival form of a word similar to diakrinō that is unambiguous enough; it means “to discriminate” or “to make a difference.”


James has already discussed the problem of believers showing partiality to the more affluent members of the Christian community. God, in His wisdom, never allows Himself to be swayed by the size of a persons bankbook, the color of his skin, from which side of the tracks he comes, or the number of letters he can put after his name. Nor should we.


The expression “without hypocrisy” comes from anupokritos. The idea behind the word is an actor’s playing a part on a stage, portraying a character quite different from himself. The great hypocrites of the Gospels were the Pharisees, who pretended to a holiness and a spirituality that they did not possess. Christ roundly condemned them in a passage of singular power (Matt. 23). True wisdom will keep us from putting on such airs and graces. Nobody likes a hypocrite. [1]



[1] Phillips, J. (2009). Exploring the Epistle of James: An Expository Commentary (Jas 3:17). Kregel Publications; WORDsearch Corp.

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