Wisdom from Below

There is a lot of talking that passes for wisdom. There are a lot of people today that people consider to be knowledgeable and skillful. And yet, when you consider true wisdom – the wisdom that God encourages and makes possible – all other kinds of wisdom seem much less appealing and much less helpful, and appear in fact to be confusing and hurtful.

In James 3:13-16, James explains to us the kind of wisdom that often deceives us, or to use an old word – frequently hoodwinks us. (Hoodwink means “to cover or to hide, or to trick or deceive.” It has something to do with being blindfolded I think.) Anyway, the kind of wisdom that James describes here today regularly hoodwinks Christians, and churches blindly fall under its spell.

Let me urge you to listen to the words that people say with discerning minds and biblical ears. Not all speech, not all talk is as wise as it sounds or as sound as it appears to be. Learn to identify destructive speech by that attitudes and actions that accompany it.

There is some confusion about the nature of godly wisdom (James 3:13).

What topic is the predominant theme of James 3? The tongue, right?

  1. Your tongue is more powerful than it appears.
  2. It is uncontrollable. It is always looking for more bad and wrong things to say, and once you say them, there is no way to retrieve or rescind those words. In fact, it’s like a raging wildfire and the deadly venom of a serpent.
  3. Your tongue is also contradictory. It praises God one moment, then turns around and says hurtful things about another person, who is in fact made in the image of God.

Yes, the tongue is a very significant thing, and it has potential to be very harmful. And so, when we speak about the destructive power of our tongues, we tend to conjure up thoughts of swearing, yelling, off-color jokes, and general meanness. But that is not the kind of ideas that James uses to describe the kind of wisdom he has in mind. Instead of focusing on these kind of features of speech, he focuses on the behavior and attitudes that accompany the words that a person makes. He points out that good wisdom features a couple of things.

Good wisdom features good behavior (James 3:13).

To describe the behavior of a truly wise person, the kind that you should give attention and listen to, we should look at their behavior.

  • The KJV word conversation here actually doesn’t mean “talking or discussion” or anything like that. It is an old word that several centuries ago meant what we call today “lifestyle, or general behavior and conduct, the way of life.” (And by the way, the word good means something like “excellent or beautiful.” Does the person who is claiming to speak with wisdom have a corresponding lifestyle marked by consistent excellence and beauty?)
  • The word works means a similar thing – “actions, things that a person does, etc.”

So when a person talks – regardless of how much they talk, and regardless how compelling what they are saying may seem – step back and take a look at their general, daily lifestyle and the kind of things they actually do on a regular basis. When a person says things, we should also look at their behavior to see whether or not it actually matches what they are saying.

Good wisdom features a good attitude (James 3:13).

Not only does the right kind of wisdom feature a corresponding good lifestyle and pattern of behavior, but it also features a good attitude. The word James uses here is meekness. It means something like “gentle, mild, courteous, and tame – not harsh.”

Some commentators and a host of preachers have occasionally mentioned that the word was used in Classical Greek to describe a horse that has been broken, although the source for this usage is never mentioned.562 It was used by the great Athenian philosophers to describe a calm disposition (Plato, Symp. 197)[1]

The example of Jesus actually defines the word for the rest of its use in the NT. Jesus presented Himself as meek and lowly of heart (πραΰς εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδία)—a trait in the literature that is to be characteristic of teachers.563[2]

So when a person says things that sound like wisdom, step back and take note of their general corresponding attitude. Do they speak in a harsh manner? Or is their attitude while speaking and apart from speaking generally mild, gentle, and courteous?

A person may say things that sound discerning, clear-headed, and correct – but if their attitude is harsh and not gentle, then what they are saying is probably more like a forest fire and the poison of a snake – whether it appears to be that way or not.

And so, here we are. James is teaching us the kind of wisdom that accompanies destructive speech. The kind of behavior and attitude that accompanies deceptive and destructive wisdom. And he gives this kind of wisdom a description. He calls this kind of wisdom the kind that is “from below.” And he calls the good kind of wisdom and speech the kind that is “from above.”

What is Wisdom?

Now, what is wisdom? That’s a great question, isn’t it!

Wisdom is having the right knowledge and perspective; and it is using that knowledge skillfully and appropriately in the situation at hand.

Consider the skill of an architect who applies his knowledge and theory to build bridges. He looks at a difficult situation (a raging river or drop-off cliffs), applies the knowledge and theory that he learned in college, and designs a bridge. I did this once – somewhat.

In 6th grade, I was in shop class for a semester (and I was in home-economics class for the other semester). One class period we built bridges out of glue and toothpicks. I vividly remember using what the teacher taught me about the strength of triangles and designing a bridge that capitalized on the use of triangles. And guess what. When the bucket with the bricks payload were added, I won the prize for the bridge that would carry the most weight!

Wisdom is not a degree on the wall, or a lot of knowledge to pass along to someone else. It is not a grade-point average or a chart with stickers that you’ve earned. It is using your knowledge skillfully. It is knowing what is right, and doing what is right with that knowledge.

Being wise does not mean we understand everything that is going on because of our superior knowledge, but that we do the right thing as life comes along. Some drivers may have immense knowledge about everything, but they cannot drive well at all. Others who are less knowledgeable consistently do the right thing as they wisely drive through life.[3]

James helps us to understand here that there is a way of taking information, knowledge, and even truth and applying it, employing it, and forming conclusions and observations with it that is not the way that God would handle the information, that is not the kind of conclusions and actions that God would want to be taken with the information.

This is the kind of wisdom – the kind of applied knowledge, the kind of use of information – that appears skillful, and does indeed require a lot of skill, and yet is not endorsed nor encouraged by God. It is “not from above, but is from below.” It is a kind of skillfulness that this world is so good at, and admires. But there is another kind of wisdom and skill, a kind that is from God.

James has used this word in James 1:17 to identify the direction from which all good gifts come.571 This is the realm of God, who delights to grant His children what they request—especially wisdom (see 1:5). The wisdom that James commends does not come to the believer through intellectual effort or study, but as the wisdom literature has clearly taught, it is God’s gift (Prov 2:6).[4]

Now, having made an attempt to define wisdom in a succinct and clear way, let us also observe that wisdom is probably easier to describe than it is to define. And that is what James does here. Rather than pigeon-hole the concept of wisdom, he takes the time to describe it – and especially to describe its corresponding attitudes and behavior traits.

And so, James is asking this question, “How can you tell whether what a person is saying is the right application of knowledge or not? How can you tell whether a person generally has the right perspective on what to do with information? How can you tell whether to trust the judgment of another person in making significant decisions and in learning how to live, to make choices, and to serve God?”

And so to answer this question, James teaches us to learn to identify destructive speech by that attitudes and actions that accompany it.

Learn to identify the wrong kind of wisdom (James 3:14-16).

Here James provides a very strong attention getting device, one that you would notice by reading these words in the Greek words that James used, but one that is not readily visible in our English translation. Do you see the words “descendeth not?” Literally, it reads something like this: “this wisdom is not coming down from above.”

First of all, this is an obvious allusion to James 1:17 a couple of chapters before this, when James says that all good things come down from above and are from God. So James is saying that this kind of wisdom is not coming from above and is not coming from God.

But he makes his point even more strongly. He actually does something that perhaps you can do better in Spanish or another language than you can in English. He puts the “is not coming down” at the beginning of the sentence, and in fact, he puts the “not” at the very beginning. So he is saying something like this: “NOT is coming down this kind of wisdom from above.”

You say, that doesn’t make sense! Right, not in English. So let me give you an idea in English what He is saying: “This kind of wisdom is DEFINITELY NOT (all caps) coming down from heaven, make no mistake about it.”

It is unexpected and surprising that the negated being verb (οὐκ ἔστιν) should come first in the sentence. Of the ninety-eight occurrences of οὐκ ἔστιν in the NT, only nine times does it initiate a sentence. Four of those are in Synoptic sayings of Jesus (Matt 10:24/Luke 6:40 and Matt 28:6/Luke 24:6) and two of them are in OT quotations (Rom 3:11, 18). While most commentators ignore the issue, such a rare choice must be for a reason. [5]

So what is this kind of NOT-IS-COMING-DOWN-FROM-HEAVEN wisdom, the kind of wisdom that is definitely not coming down from heaven, but which we might actually be deceived into thinking is coming from God? Well, let me remind you – sometimes the kind of speech that seems wise in content is actually a wildfire and a snake’s poison in disguise. How can you tell?

Bad wisdom features a bad attitude (James 3:14-15).

That’s what the next three descriptive words tell us. This kind of wildfire, snake’s poison wisdom that isn’t coming from God, has features of a bad attitude in the background of the words that are being spoken. What kind of bad attitude will it be?

Bad wisdom is jealous and political (James 3:14).

The words jealous and political help us understand the words bitter envying and strife.

Envy describes a determined desire to promote one’s opinion to the exclusion of the opinions of others. Selfish ambition pictures a person who tries to promote a cause in an unethical manner. This person becomes willing to use divisive means to promote a personal viewpoint. Bitter rivalries develop out of these practices.[6]

The jealousy is a kind of seething resentment towards another person that drives the things you say, no matter how wise and discerning your statements may be.

And strife is a word that has political overtones to it. If you follow the political scene much at all, the presidential election build-up for instance, you will find candidates using all kinds of skillfulness to promote themselves, their agendas, their campaigns – and then also to discredit, one-up, and tear down the campaigns and reputations of other candidates. This is certainly a kind of skill, a kind of wisdom, a kind of using knowledge that is incredible and masterful – and yet, it is not from God.

The word ἐριθεία occurs earlier only twice in Aristotle (Pol. 5.3.1302b4; 1303a14), and once in Philo (Leg. 68), where it refers to a party spirit or a, “narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day” (Moo, 2000, 171).569 In the NT, it is associated with attitudes that destroy community life (Rom 2:8; Gal 5:20; Phil 1:17; 2:3).[7]

Whatever a person says – if it has underneath it a seething resentment and a kind of maneuvering that borders on unethicalness (if that’s a word), gossip, hurtful tactics, and subversive, divisive measures and words – then the wisdom under observation is wisdom and skill indeed – but it is not from God. It is instead a wild-fire in the making, and the poison of a recoiled venomous snake beginning to lunge and bite.

Bad wisdom is hypocritical (James 3:14).

Hear we find that low-level wisdom, the kind of skill with words and information that is not from God, is hypocritical. It is play-acting. It is like children putting on dress-up clothing pretending to be kings and queens, when they are nothing more than toddlers wearing old clothing that is far too many sizes too large!

Boasting describes the malicious triumphant attitude gained by one party over its opponents.[8]

We have here an attitude of seeking the demise of another person, and expressing triumph through bragging about the damage done to another person through the words that were spoken with a certain successful skill, though it was not from God.

Yes, here is one rather glaring clue that the kind of skill used with words is in fact not from God – the person doing the talking brags about the outcome when they are in his favor and to his credit to some degree. The gloat in their triumph. But James says strong things about this kind of bragging. He says, “Stop boasting already. Stop reveling in a way that reveals that you have no true concept of the real love of God for other people!”

Don’t even pretend you understand the love of God because of the thoughts you harbor toward him and your neighbor” (cf. 2:8). All of this boasting would only be a lie and an offense against the truth. To make any reference to the things of God or the life of faith would itself be an empty and obscene boast.[9]

Bad wisdom is oblivious to God (James 3:15).

In addition to envious jealousy, political maneuverings, and bragging about outcomes – James points out the real root problem of all of this kind of wisdom and skill. He uses a three-some that describes our three-fold enemy that is opposed to the true, peaceful ways of God: the world, the flesh and the devil. This kind of skillful talking is:

  • Limited to earthly perspectives
  • Driven by fleshly impulses
  • From the devil himself

Being limited to earthly perspectives, it is earthly and terrestrial.

Such wisdom certainly does not reckon according to the “law that gives freedom” (1:25). Instead, earthly wisdom is bound by material and physical concerns and will not suspend its interest in the temporal plane for the sake of the divine glory (cf. 2:1). The maxim from Prov 14:12 characterizes this “wisdom” as well as any in the Bible: “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways to death.”[10]

Yes, this kind of wisdom resembles the endless talk of philosophers throughout the centuries spinning around all kinds of high-sounding ideas but all the while never accounting for the fact of a sovereign, personal God to whom we must all give an account. It sees money in an earthly way, not a heavenly and eternal way. It views relationships in a selfish way, not an eternal, heavenly way, and so forth.

Being driven by fleshly impulses, it is sensual and soulish. Ultimately, this kind of wisdom is technically, according to the word that is used, it is “unspiritual.” It doesn’t take spiritual things into account. It only takes things into account that regard the emotions and intellect. It does not take spiritual matters into concern. It is blind to the Holy Spirit and to the true wisdom of the Spirit.

There is a dimension of truth and understanding that is invisible to this person. He may have logical presentations of information and conclusions that go on for hours endlessly and masterfully, all making perfect sense. But somewhere in all of that talking is an ignorance of the Holy Spirit and the discernment from God, and so this person is missing a key aspect and angle of perspective that causes them to miss the right conclusion entirely, as persuasive and skilled as their talking may be.

Being from the devil himself, this bad wisdom:

Points clearly and frankly to the fact that this antiwisdom is demonic in nature or, more probably, in origin. It might be described as the kind of “wisdom” retained by fallen angels (demons), who were undoubtedly intelligent but utilized their “wisdom” to advance themselves. The use of “demonic” gains significance from the reference in 3:6 to the evil force of the tongue as “set on fire by gehenna (γεέννης),” and the later exhortation in 4:7 to “flee the devil.”573 This climactic term is clearly the most pejorative. It comes from demonic influences arising from a focus on “the things below,” as opposed to the wisdom that comes from “the things above” (see Col 3:1–5).[11]

Do you remember the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan? Did Satan appear to be wise and skillful? Yes. And in fact, he was! But not with the right kind of skill, not with the good kind of wisdom, not with the wisdom from above. Did he yell? Did he curse and swear? Did he tell off-color jokes and was he loud and vociferous? No. He was smooth talking, skillful in his choice of words, and even used true thoughts in crafty ways to deceive Eve into thinking that he was genuinely wise.

And what was the outcome? Minor damage? No. Endless pain and suffering. The words Satan spoke that day, as charming and skillful as they sounded, lit the embers of a wild-fire and implanted the venom of sin and death that pervades us to this day, along with all of the horrors and heartaches that continued to occur.

And then what about the example of Peter (Matthew 16:21-26)?

  • What Peter said was wise, but not in a heavenly way. What sense does it make to go to the cross and die there, as an innocent person who could have instead ruled the world and conquered all of other nations?
  • Notice the wisdom of Jesus, though. He said to take up your cross, suffer every day, and let the promises of this temporal world slip away through your fingers – for the cause of Jesus. Take this job. It offers a lot of money and a comfortable lifestyle! Take this relationship. It’s available and will be so exciting! And so forth.

Before we close, let us look at the kind of behavior – not just the attitudes – that accompany low-level wisdom.

Bad wisdom features bad behavior (James 3:16)

It features disorder.

I’ve chosen the word “disorder” to describe the meaning expressed by the word confusion. That’s what it means. You can look it up and do your own research. The idea here is that when a Christian assembly, a church, turns its ears to people who are promoting, through their words, low-level wisdom – the earthly, sensual, devilish kind, – the kind promoted by Peter, etc., the kind that avoids the bearing your own cross, the kinds that elevates making money over making eternal investments, that places self-preservation over self-sacrifice, the kind that seeks to damage the reputations of other people and promote themselves – then you will find a proliferation of certain side effects and outcomes over time.

First, you will discover a growing crescendo and increase of general disorder, chaos, confusion, uneasiness, restlessness, and instability. Instability. That’s the thing that happens. The wisdom of God encourages and increases order, stability, and an overall spiritually healthy environment. The wisdom that characterizes this world produces an increasing sense of instability, unrest, and disorder. Study the cycles of human civilization. Cycles of psychology. Cycles of philosophy. Cycles of peace and war. Cycles of economies. Cycles of politics, empires, and government. When the wisdom of this world, the low-level wisdom that cannot see past selfish interests, self-preservation, and self-promotion, is in vogue, chaos and unrest increases. And it is the same way in churches, families, and the lives of individual Christians.

But that is not all. The kind of behavior that accompanies low-lever, earthly wisdom also features immoral activity.

It features all kinds of immoral activity.

This is a sad, heart-breaking, but all-too-true fact. Lurking under the surface of pious, worldly-wise, deceptive talk in lives, families, and churches is all kinds of immoral activity. And the longer worldly wisdom is tolerated and given serious attention, as sensible as it may seem, the more immoral activity will flourish.

πᾶν φαῦλον πρᾶγμα, “every evil practice.” The πᾶς (“all”) is inclusive, and means “every kind.” The noun πρᾶγμα is used for any deed or thing, and the adjective φαῦλος tends to connote lowliness, cheapness, and meanness even more than moral wickedness[12]

Allow me to share one example of how this looks, from a political figure in American history.

In March 1805, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, delivered a farewell address to the Senate. After four years in office, he presented a valedictory to conclude his service. Burr said: “I shall, until I die, feel reverence for this house and the noble principles of which it is the primary guardian. In taking my leave of it and of you, I feel like the young man who leaves the dwelling of his parents to make his way into the world. This house is my mother, and has nurtured me; this house is my father, and has given me strength” (Philip Vail, The Turbulent Life of Aaron Burr).

After finishing his address Burr left the Senate chamber, receiving a standing ovation from his colleagues. His well-chosen words resembled the speech of a great patriot. They prompted the Senate to an outburst of affection and support. The picture of Burr we see in this speech is a complete distortion of this complex master of deceit. Burr was an accomplished liar!

When Burr reached the street after leaving the Senate chamber, he checked to see if bailiffs from either New York or New Jersey were waiting to arrest him. Not seeing any law officials in the streets, he left the Capitol on horseback, changed to another horse at the stable behind a small inn, and later transferred again to a coach with heavy, closed curtains. Then Burr disappeared from sight for two days.

At the time when he spoke Burr was wanted by officials in New York for murdering Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the treasury, in a duel. He was also engaged in a plot to seize the Louisiana Territory and install himself as its emperor. He had shown nothing but contempt for the laws of the Senate. He adjusted his words to fit the occasion and felt no guilt about lying to protect himself or to arouse support. He used words as a tool to get people to act in his own ways.[13]

Where talk is prevalent, of the low-level, earthly wisdom variety, rest assured of one thing. There is all kind of bad and worthless behavior going on in private and behind the scenes. It was that way with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They spoke famously of Jewish culture, Old Testament law, and so forth. But Jesus pointed out that in their private lives, all kinds of hypocrisy and wickedness lurked, of every kind.

Where talk is prevalent, of the low-level, earthly wisdom variety, rest assured of one thing. There is all kind of bad and worthless behavior going on in private and behind the scenes.

And be aware of this today as well. When low-level, earthly-minded wisdom is allowed to go on and on in a church, it will create an atmosphere where all kinds of wickedness will proliferate behind the scenes. But where true, genuine wisdom from God above is fostered and prevalent, you will find an increase of many other good and encouraging qualities which we will enjoy looking at in depth next week. Don’t miss it!


562 Kittel cites a reference in Xenophon’s Anabasis where the adjective describes some formerly wild Syrian horses (F. Hauck and S. Schulz, “πραΰς,” TDNT 6:645).

[1] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 375.

563 Spicq, 3:168.

[2] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 376.

[3] R. Kent Hughes, James: Faith That Works, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 148.

571 While the word may sometimes mean “again,” the idea of “from above” seems to be its meaning also in the Johannine writings (John 3:31; 19:11, 23). The implications of this Johannine and Jacobean usage for the meaning of the word in Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus (John 3:3, 7) are striking.

[4] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 380–381.

[5] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 380.

[6] Thomas D. Lea, Hebrews, James, vol. 10, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 307.

Pol To Polycarp

569 It is also absent in Josephus, other Hellenistic literature and the papyri (Spicq, 2, 210)

[7] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 379.

[8] Thomas D. Lea, Hebrews, James, vol. 10, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 307.

[9] Kurt A. Richardson, James, vol. 36, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 164.

[10] Kurt A. Richardson, James, vol. 36, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 165–166.

[11] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 381.

573 The strikingly similar language in Hermas 39.11 (“double-mindedness is an earthly spirit from the devil”) may well be dependent on James, here and often in chapter 3.

[12] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 382.

[13] William Varner, James, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 384.

[14] Thomas D. Lea, Hebrews, James, vol. 10, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 310.

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