How to Gain Deeper Insight from James’ Proverbs (Thursday, January 19)

The word of the day is “parallel.”  In our reading of James 4:7-5:9, we find more gems of the “wisdom from above,” wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (OSB James 3:17).  Our passage is like a string of pearls. Each saying holds a perfect, complete, and thoughtful insight into living by and in the grace of God (James 4:6).

However, we may have difficulty grasping the depth of wisdom in these pearls of divine truth because we are unfamiliar with their literary form. The teachings are not narratives, sermons, letters, or lectures. They are aphorisms or short, pithy sayings after the model of the Book of Proverbs.

Besides the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, proverbs appear in the teachings of Christ, the New Testament, and especially in the Epistle of James. Proverbs seem to be practical and specific observations of ordinary life.  But their poetry contains a striking and memorable truth.

The Poetic Structure of Proverbs

Many aphorisms are written in a parallel poetic style in which one clause balances the other.  The first part seems to be a simple observation about Ife, but the second part unlocks the deeper meaning of what seems to be ordinary.

For example, the Psalmist writes: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  When we hear the comparison of the word of God with a lamp by which we see our feet, we aren’t sure what significance this image has.  But when we hear that the word is also a light to our path, suddenly, new insight clicks in.  The word is a guide that illuminates our way in life.  By the word we can see our feet so that they do not stumble, and we can see ahead so that we do not lose our way.  (You can add other interpretations of the comparisons of the word with a light and a lamp.)

Examples of Parallelism in James

Here are examples of parallelism in today’s reading:

  • Submit to God // Resist the devil
  • Draw near to God // He will draw near to you.
  • Laughter // mourning.
  • Joy // gloom
  • Humble yourself // Be lifted up.
  • Not a doer of the law // But a judge
  • You say, “Tomorrow we will go…” // You do not know what will happen tomorrow.
  • Riches [are good] // Riches corrupt.
  • Gold and silver [in this life] // Treasure [of judgment] in the last days
  • Lived in pleasure and luxury // Fattened for the day of slaughter
  • Condemned and murdered the just // He does not resist.
  • The farmer waits patiently // Until he receives the rain.
  • Do not grumble against one another [in condemnation] // Or you will be condemned.
  • Living in pleasure and luxury // fattening your hearts for slaughter
  • You have condemned, you have murdered the just // he [the victim] does not resist you..

The Parallels are Opposites of One Another

To appreciate the insight of sayings like these, we should be aware that in these contrasting statements, the two clauses are not complementary. They are the opposite of each other.  For example, if you humble yourself, you will be lifted up (vs. 10).  If you resist the devil, he will flee from you.  If you judge your brother, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it (vs. 11).

Note that the last condition is a consequence of what one does in the first.  Is this an inevitable and automatic result that works like karma?  No, the apostle says that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (OSB 4:15). Karma is an impersonal, relentless and unavoidable reaction to our actions. But the firm belief of the apostle is that it is not an impersonal force that governs the universe. The Lord is in charge of the cosmos.  He is the “Judge” who is “at the door” of His final coming (vs. 9), and He governs all things, both great and small.

Proverbs Reveal God’s Righteousness

Therefore, the consequences that James points out are the manifestations of the Lord’s righteousness.  The Almighty has established an ordered universe.   And He rules the cosmos with justice. Therefore, the murderer will not go unpunished, and the rich who are eating and drinking as if they were swine are being fattened like pigs for slaughter.  No wonder the wealthy should weep and howl,” for the “miseries that are coming upon them” (vs. 5:1).

For Reflection

The commentary today suggests a way to read the many proverbs of greater understanding.  When we read them together, one after the other, they give us an impression of the Lord’s righteous justice.  However, these pearls of wisdom are also meant to guide us in the way of God’s grace.  Each one of these gems of instruction is complete and memorable.  Therefore, to apply James’ wisdom to our walk with the Lord, we might select one or two at a time to remember and follow throughout the day.



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