Bible: Earthly or heavenly wisdom?

“It just takes common sense!” insists my longtime renter. “Why don’t people use common sense?” She was ranting about the outrageous remarks she likes to rebut on Facebook.

Reta Halteman Finger

More than 1,700 years ago, James commented that “every species of beast and bird . . . has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil full of deadly poison” (3:7-8). Social media, I suppose, is our culture’s extension of the tongue as a symbol of (sometimes poisonous?) human speech.

But I must be careful writing this lesson. As a teacher, “you know that we will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). I’ll try not to make too many mistakes!

As Americans head into a political campaign season, James’ words should be taken to heart. James addresses the human condition and makes down-to-earth analogies to drive home his points.

Digging into James’ wisdom, I realized that this is a rare biblical book that does not require much historical context. Centuries later, James’ everyday comparisons still communicate, sometimes more concretely than we expect.

I recently visited Mary, a friend who is a plant pathologist and whose verdant gardens are a wonder to behold. After a tour of her back yard, Mary called my attention to her flourishing fig tree. Underneath the wide leaves were small green globules on their way to becoming figs. My mind skipped to James’ advice on taming the tongue. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . . . This ought not to be so! Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs?”

But Mary gave James a twist. Working in her gardens, she says she liberally evokes both cursing and blessing — she curses the groundhogs who compete for her vegetables, but she blesses her friends with rhubarb and blackberries! (I doubt James was thinking of cursing groundhogs.)

In our earlier lessons from Proverbs, Woman Wisdom was contrasted with Dame Folly. Now James shifts gears by introducing two kinds of wisdom — moral and immoral. Earthly wisdom is not simply ignorance or foolishness; at its core it is selfish and conniving. It cleverly finds ways to gain wealth and prestige over others, unconcerned of the disorder and disaster it leaves in its wake (3:15-16). (I’m sure you can name many contemporary examples!)

In the spirit of our times, I have begun reading Just Mercy, a book that characterizes both kinds of wisdom — peaceful, merciful wisdom from above (3:17) and wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (verse 14). In this story of justice and redemption, Bryan Stevenson recounts his career as a lawyer committed to defending poor people on death row in Alabama and Georgia — most of them Black men without access to a lawyer.

A Black man himself, Stevenson confronts the racial injustice permeating legal systems in the American South. The entire system of “justice” in these rural counties seems, as James puts it, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:15).

A major case Stevenson handled was that of Walter McMillian. A white girl had been murdered, and the police had no clues. Public pressure built on them to find a suspect, so a hard-working, nonviolent Black man was arrested for the murder. Beyond hearsay “evidence,” and in spite of testimonies from 12 friends and neighbors at a public function he was attending at the time of the murder, Walter ended up on death row.

Using knowledge of the law — and wisdom from above — Stevenson worked for justice in this seemingly hopeless case.

Read the book to find out what happened.

What have you learned about Woman Wisdom this summer? Walk with her in peace, so that you may reap a harvest of righteousness and justice (James 3:18).

Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at

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