Notes on James 5:1-6

11 Aug

The first paragraph of chapter 5 is the harshest paragraph of the whole book. James rails against those who trust in riches. The passage has an amazing number of parallels to statements Jesus made in the gospels. But how does this paragraph fit into the bigger picture of James? That is what we’ll consider below.

5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

The issue I have wrestled with in this verse is whether the rich here are believers. I am convinced that the traveling businesspeople of 4:13-17 were part of the church James was addressing but I am not as persuaded that the people in chapter 5 are true believers. It is possible they could be part of the church but were people with a false profession of faith. This lines up well with James’ words in chapter 2 about faith and works and favoritism and about poverty and riches in chapter 1. The works of the rich here in 5:1-6 and the threat of God’s judgment seem to bring us to a point where we must acknowledge that these people were not true believers, even if they were part of the church outwardly.

The rich rejoice in this life. They have it all. But James says they should weep and howl. That Greek word howl carries the idea of an uncontrollable shriek of horror. And this state of emotional turmoil would not be because of a true repentance like in chapter 4 but because of the fearful expectation of judgment (“the miseries that are coming upon you”). The wealth which they acquired through evil has been their hope. But that hope is fading away (cf. 1:10) and now all that is left is the judgment of God.

2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

Here we see the parallel to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ words about storing up treasures on earth (Mt. 6:19-24). Jesus said the very reason not to store up earthly treasure was its temporary nature. Not treasure on earth, treasure in heaven is the goal. Live for that which is eternal. James uses the perfect tense in Greek, pointing to the material possessions of the rich as having a standing of uselessness and an ongoing uselessness. Rotten and moth-eaten, riches ultimately fail to satisfy in this life and will be of no help in eternity.

3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

Precious metals like gold and silver do not rust or become corroded, except when they are mixed with other substances. In this case, James is probably using this illustration to show that the wealth these people had accumulated was not pure but was mixed with impurity (namely the oppressive actions used to acquire it) and therefore the fact that it was corroded was evidence of their impurity in obtaining it. The judgment that would come is the horrible judgment that their riches would eat their flesh like fire. This appears to be an eternal judgment with an earthly component. These people are going to die in misery and face an eternity of misery.

The phrase “You have laid up treasure in the last days” can only be understood rightly if we understand the New Testament view of the last days. Unlike our time, when we think of the last days as the days immediately preceding the return of Christ, the New Testament views the last days as being marked from the dying, rising and ascending of Christ until the second coming. So all of time marked from the coming of Jesus is viewed as the last days. Therefore, James is saying these rich people are laying up treasure now, on this earth, in the days when they should be focused on eternity.

4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

Here I think of Cain and Abel and how after Abel was murdered by Cain the Lord said to Cain that his brother’s blood “cried out to him from the ground.” Here the rich are carrying around dirty money, money that has been gained through cheating. This money, the reward that should have gone to the laborers for their hard work, is crying out against the rich. God knows this money came by fraud. God knows the laborers were being cheated and so this dirty money metaphorically cries out against the rich, another thread of evidence bringing God to a judgment of condemnation. In addition, the harvesters themselves are aware that they are being cheated and so are crying out to the Lord for justice. This brings to mind the children of Israel oppressed under Egyptian slavery, crying out to the Lord for deliverance. These cries have reached the ears of the Lord, He is attending to them, and that is not good news for the rich.

5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

James continues his indictment of the rich by pointing to their lives of luxury and self-indulgence. The self-centeredness with which they live is indicated by the fact that they have fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter. This is the picture of self-satisfied hope in this life and its pleasures. The legitimate good and perfect gifts of God have been distorted and deformed through an obsessive pursuit of pleasure in material things. The “day of slaughter” here is not the time of their judgment but is the time when they were killing those they oppressed, even as the filled their own lives with pleasure and indulgence.

6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

The rich through their oppressive ways have stood as judges, feeling the right to condemn and murder the righteous person. They have taken the place of God. These workers who have been oppressed have not resisted. There is an echo here of Christ, the perfectly righteous One who did not resist His oppressors. So the rich are put in a place of comparison with the ones (Jews and Romans) who crucified the Lord. And Jesus is shown to have solidarity with those who are oppressed.

CONCLUSION: Are We “The Rich”?

This is a sobering question. It is true that most Americans are richer in material things than probably 98% of people who have ever lived. We mostly have pantries, closets full of clothes and some money in the bank. We have air conditioning, refrigerators, garages for our cars, large homes, swimming pools and all manner of electronics to keep us entertained. Certainly by the standards of James’ day almost every American would be considered fabulously rich. So what do we say about this passage? Are we in danger of falling under the condemnation of the rich man? I think there are two ways in which the answer to that question might be yes, but thankfully both ways can be avoided. First, if our material possessions have a grip on our hearts, so that we would find it difficult to live without them, we might fall into the category of those in chapter 5:1-6. If our focus is so much on our pleasure that we pursue monetary gain for the sake of what we can own, we are adopting a pattern of life very different than that of our Savior, who told us not to lay up treasure on earth. The second way our material wealth may be a snare to us is if we have acquired it through dishonesty or oppression. So a disciple of Jesus should not be involved in business ventures which are inherently immoral. Further, we should consider whether our consumeristic ways are supporting things which are sinful in the eyes of God (buying clothes manufactured from oppressive overseas labor, for example). We want to stay far from the attitudes and actions of James 5:1-6, because these actions reveal a heart that is not in a good place with God and a heart that is subject to His judgment.

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