This blog post is Part 7 of a series entitled, "A Summer of Wisdom" by Pastor Jeffrey Dean Smith of Donelson First in Nashville, TN.
Message Date: September 11, 2022
Wisdom Literature = writings that give instructions for living well while discussing the challenges + difficulties of life.
THIS is exactly where our study over the past 7 weeks has led us – to a discussion about the challenges of life and the wise instructions the Lord offers us freely in His Word.
As a recap, there are five books in the OT that are classified as Wisdom Literature.
Wisdom Literature books of the OT:
Wisdom Literature book #1: Job
The Big Question: Can God be trusted?
We were reminded that, even though life is tough, “Yes, God can be trusted!” As quickly as Job realized all he had lost, the first thing he said was these ever-famous words: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.
Wisdom Literature book #2: Psalm
The book of Psalms includes more authors than in any other book in the Bible: Most people attribute David as the author of the book of Psalms. David is an author but is not the only author of this masterfully written read.
The Big Question: How do I personally reconcile the evil in the world and why God allows such evil to remain?
The book of Psalms is one of the most popular books in all of the bible. Containing 150 poems or songs, the book of Psalms encourages the reader to experience and express a wide variety of emotions. Every chapter in these 150 Psalms, is an example of wisdom literature. Similar to Job, many of the Psalms deal with the “Why do the wicked prosper?” dilemma.
Even though sin is the reason for the world’s evil, God is still in control and involved in every aspect of our lives.
Wisdom Literature book #3: Proverbs
The Big Question: To where do I turn for answers to life’s questions?
We concluded that there is tremendous power in God’s Word and that His truths should be a tremendous source of hope and encouragement for us.
Wisdom Literature book #4: Ecclesiastes
The Big Question: Can my life have meaning without God?
We walked in detail through the experiments in which the world’s wisest man ever endeavored.
Solomon experimented striving to find meaning in life through wisdom, worldly pleasures, and toil. And with each experiment, he always came up short. His conclusion was: Life without God is meaningless.
This book makes much more sense to the reader when one understands that Solomon is exploring the ideas of a life void of God. He often uses the term “under the sun” as he writes. And, he speaks about life, “under the sun,” as being completely void of meaning when God is not the center of one’s life.
Solomon’s conclusion is that one should stop looking to the world for satisfaction and completeness and instead look to God, our Creator.
Solomon’s conclusion: Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
Wisdom Literature book #5: Song of Songs
The Big Question: How can I express my love to my one true love?
The ultimate expression to our one true love is best expressed within the boundaries of marriage.
So, where do we now go?
Well, first, these books are a deep well of wisdom from which you can draw and drink that give instructions on how you should live amidst the difficulties & challenges of your life.
So my hope is that you’re going to continue to turn to these books as life brings challenges your way.
This study has also reminded me that we need one another to help us navigate this journey called life. You and I need the Godly encouragement and counsel and accountability from other Christ followers. I hope you will open yourself up to receiving such encouragement and also offering the same to others in need.
Wisdom is mentioned throughout the entirety of God’s word. It is a concept, a way of life, of which we read about more than 360 times in the bible.
There is one book in the New Testament that is written in a similar style and with a similar philosophy as are these five Old Testament books. Interestingly, it is quite possible that this New Testament book was THE first New Testament book written. This comes as no surprise when you consider that the contents of these books would have been very familiar to the author of this book. This book’s author would have known of these Old Testament writings, and actually, he references several of these books throughout his writings of this New Testament book. Any idea to which book I refer?
It’s the book believed to have been written by the brother of Jesus Christ. This New Testament book to which I refer:
Wisdom Literature book #6: James
The book of James is actually a letter written to Christians around the world.
There are only four men mentioned in the New Testament whose name is James. Of these 4 men, only 2 could be serious contenders as possible authors of this letter. The prominent view has been that James the brother of our Savior, wrote this book. I believe this to be the case which means this book must have originated prior to A.D. 62, when it is believed that James was martyred.
There is leading evidence that this letter written by James was actually penned before A.D. 50. If this is the case, then it would be true that James wrote the first book of the New Testament.
As always, historical context is critical. Understanding what is happening in & around the time James writes this letter will better help us understand why this letter was written in the style in which it was written & to the people in which it was written.
Note that in verse 1, we read to whom this letter from James is addressed: James 1:1
The letter is addressed to the 12 tribes scattered among the nations.
Immediately, we have 2 questions needing answered…actually three.
The first two:
Who are these 12 tribes? The 12 tribes originate from the offspring of Abraham, Issac, Jacob & Jacob’s twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, & Benjamin.
The descendants of these 12 brothers are the 12 tribes or the nation of Israel.
Why are they scattered? These Christ-followers were forced to leave Jerusalem during the persecution following the death of the first martyred Christian, Stephen. They were mostly scattered over Judea and Samaria and into Cyprus and Syrian Antioch. So though this is a difficult time for these Christians, it’s also a spectacular example of how Jehovah God works.
The Sanhedrin, who were not followers of Jesus Christ, meant to end the rise of Christianity with these persecutions. Instead, these persecutions led to the scattering of followers of Jesus.
Therefore, the message “Jesus saves!” would now begin to be taken to the ends of the earth!
So…the first two questions lead us to this third question:
3. Who are the Sanhedrin?
Sanhedrin (Greek) = assembly; council.
The term Sanhedrin dates back to early Old Testament times. Look at these 2 Old Testament verses:
Numbers 11:16: The Lord said to Moses: Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you.
Deuteronomy 16:18: Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly.
In these times, the land was divided up among the tribes. In those areas where tribes had their presence, there were towns & villages, & in every town & every village, there was to be a court.
In smaller Old Testament towns, there were usually 3 judges. In towns a little larger, there were 7 judges. These judges would preside on a court as both judge and jury to handle all legal matters.
If a town had 120+ men as heads of families, they had a local court called the: Sanhedrin. Eventually, there was what was known as the: Great Sanhedrin.
The Great Sanhedrin: Was the supreme court of ancient Israel. Was comprised of 70 men and the high priest. Met in the Temple in Jerusalem. Convened every day except festivals and on the Sabbath. Claimed powers that lesser Jewish courts did not have. In the New Testament, is best known for their part in the series of mock trials that resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus.
These religious leaders became the epitome of power, prestige, and pride! As Jesus’ followers grew in number, the Sanhedrin felt threatened and were fearful of losing their positions. Thus, they led the charge to have our Savior killed. After the crucifixion of Jesus, it was this court that encouraged the persecution of all Christians. Therefore, this is what led to the scattering of the 12 Tribes of all Christians to which James refers at the beginning of his letter.
There are several reasons as to why the book of James is considered to be the New Testament book of Wisdom Literature. First, James is the first pastor of the New Testament church. So when he writes this letter to all the scattered Christians, he is teaching them from the Word of God…just as we are today.
So, his writing style is extremely similar to the teachings of the Scriptures he would have had access to from the Old Testament.
As we have already established, this is most likely the first book of the New Testament. So it would make sense that the Old Testament would greatly influence the writings of James here in this New Testament book.
Additionally, this book is stylistically similar to the pithy statements and writings found throughout the other Wisdom Literature books we have studied over the past 7 weeks.
For instance, look and listen to the similarities in written styles:
Proverbs 12:5: The plans of the righteous are just, but the advice of the wicked is deceitful.
Ecclesiastes 3:17: God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.
Psalm 118:8-9: It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.
Each of these examples is from the Old Testament Wisdom Literature books. These statements are simple, direct, succinct, and offer a no-nonsense approach to holy living. This writing style is parallel to the way in which James writes in his New Testament letter to Christians.
James 4:17: If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
James’s message too is simple. Succinct. Direct. And is no-nonsense.
Additionally, another reason we categorize this book as Wisdom Literature is the comparisons we see James take in his writing to nature, the sun, flowers, planets, and animals. These references are rampant among the 5 OT books we have unpacked in this study! If you choose to look deeper into the book of James this week in your personal time of study, look for such references!
James also asks his readers short, penetrating questions to cause them to reflect. And he often quotes very specific Proverbs. Each of these attributes is characteristic of the Old Testament Wisdom Literatures. Thus, this is why the book of James is the only New Testament book considered to be a part of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature.
So, what do we do with all of this?
I would like to offer a few thoughts as to why this book is such an important book for us as Christians as it relates to the way in which we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ.
Our A Summer of Wisdom series through these Wisdom Literature books has really been about whetting your appetite to want more of these six books. Each of these books could’ve been a study in and of themselves. We have offered them to you as an opportunity to consider them collectively and to highlight the plethora of wisdom offered in each. My hope is that you will begin to explore the richness and beauty of each of these books in your own personal times of reflection and study.
5 attributes of Wisdom Literature that apply to my life today:
It’s the overarching idea of point #5 that James points us to over again:
God knows more, and God can do more with my life than I can do alone.
I had dinner w/a friend this week who shared with me some challenges he is having in his life. He told me, “Jeffrey, I know what God’s Word says about His desire for me to live my life for Him. But I sometimes have a hard time discerning God’s will for my life, thus I don’t always know what I am to do in a given situation.”
I wonder if you can relate? If so, then what I want to share during the rest of our time together should be truths you can take and begin to implement today!
As I read the letter James wrote, I made a list of words that really jumped off the pages of these 5 chapters. My list totaled 14 key words! I want to leave you with 1 word… One word that can be a tangible takeaway… If we study this book more in-depth in the coming weeks, we may tackle the rest of these words. But if we do not do so, I do know that this one word will be an important one for you to think through, to pray over, and hopefully to apply to your life as we come to the end of this study of Wisdom Literature.
This simple, yet ever-important word is found at the beginning of this letter: James 1:1-3
This word is the word: Joy
In the book of Acts, we know that James is the pastor of the Jerusalem church. We’ve already established that this letter is addressed to the 12 tribes, meaning designated to those followers of Jesus Christ. We know that they are no longer residences of Palestine but were scattered among the greater world at that time.
Why the persecution? Well, in Acts 6, we read that Stephen was one of seven men chosen to serve the church so that the disciples could continue to evangelize and teach the Word. Stephen was murdered for taking a stand for Jesus Christ against the members of the Sanhedrin leadership which I referenced earlier. What we have just read in James chapter 8 is the great persecution that broke out in response to the stoning of Stephen. Again, this is when the church scattered.
Remember, prior to this time, James was the true pastor to these Christ followers. So James is speaking as their spiritual leader, and he is very aware of their challenges and has tremendous knowledge of their needs as a people.
Look again at Acts 8:1
This verse highlights the persecution that is taking place in the early church.
Thus, when we read in James 1:2: Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…
…we know that James explicitly understands these trials God’s people are facing. They are being killed!!
James’s words just might be the first recorded “pep talk” of the post-crucifixion era that a leader offers to those under his leadership who find themselves battered, bruised, and beaten.
James speaks of something that is almost seemingly impossible - - rejoice in my pain!
At first glance, this word “joy” to which James alludes is to be our outlook on life, even in difficult moments, one what might assume that James is simply saying: “Be happy; have cheer about your life!” In actuality, the words “happiness” and “cheerfulness” do not offer a full dissection of the meaning of the Greek word: xapa (ha-ra) or joy.
xapa (pronounced ha-ra) = joy (Greek) a calm and peaceful delight
And in the Bible, the word joy is typically associated with a testing of life’s “trials” as here in this letter from James.
Amy & I had another dinner with 2 new friends of ours this week. During our dinner, she said, “We are sad. But we too are peaceful.” Our friend might not know it, but she was speaking of xapa (ha-ra) – a calm and peaceful delight associated with an indescribably painful “trial.”
Speaking of “trials,” I want to highlight a word found in verse 2 that you possibly overlooked. But it’s an important one!! Because we each have been in such a place as this… It’s the word: “face!”
face (Greek) = surrounded by people, objects + circumstances that overwhelm
Let’s read this verse again & do so by inserting the Greek meaning of the words: “joy” + “face:”
Consider it a calm and peaceful delight, my brothers and sisters, whenever you are surrounded by people, objects and circumstances that overwhelm… James 2:1
I wonder if you feel this way today? - - Overwhelmed? Burdened? Spent?
I am confident that this is a fitting place for us to end this series A Summer of Wisdom.
We do not end with a pretty story that cleans up all of life’s hurts and pains and challenges and fears and scares and troubles and temptations and brokenness and even death!
The reality is, life truly is hard!
Remember…we began this teaching series with these 5 realities:
Life is hard.
You & I might not get what we want.
But we can know this: God, the Fountainhead of all wisdom is in it with us every step of the way.
And we can try to do things on our own. Or, we can let the one who knows more and who can do more with our lives take our hand and walk with us every step of the journey.
And when we do this, the step may be scary, the scab may be difficult, and it may not in this we desire, but we can know this we can consider it to be Joy – to have a calm and peaceful delight, knowing our Savior is with us every step of the way.
Jeffrey Dean Smith is a husband, father to Bailey & Brynnan, author, and the Senior Pastor at Donelson First in Nashville, TN. If you are in Music City, meet Jeffrey and enjoy iced tea on the front lawn each Sunday at 10:30a.