Chapter 5:1-6 The Day of the Lord is at Hand
1. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
2. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.
3. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days.
4. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
5. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
6. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.
These verses are closely related to chapter 4:13-17. Notice how both sections begin with “come now,” or as the NIV puts it, “now listen.” Both paragraphs condemn the pursuit of wealth that fails to credit God for all blessings and use the wealth for the benefit of humanity. There is also dissimilarity in the two sections of verses. While 4:13-17 is written as a diatribe against rich Christians, 5:1-8 is a no holds barred attack on rich land owners who exploit the poor. The writing is in the style of an Old Testament prophet claiming judgment upon a rebellious people. There are a great number of lessons to be learned concerning wealth and the pursuit of it in these verses that are very applicable for our own era.
We live in a very confusing and corrupt world. Somewhere, along the way we as a nation stopped worshipping God and began worshipping at the feet of wealthy, spoiled rotten, self-centered celebrities. Their every antic, stupid publicity stunt and self-promoting action is fawned over and promoted by an adoring media and legions of fans. The result is that for most people money is the be all and end all of life. They believe that if you just accumulate enough money you are guaranteed fame, and celebrity status. Stupid slogs like, ‘who has the most toys- wins,’ is not only childish, but also shallow to the core. Yet, it is the philosophy that is promoted in almost everything we see and hear. What is even more disturbing is the way this infection has infiltrated our churches. Pastors often draw gigantic salaries, raise enormous sums from sales of their books and sermon tapes all the while declaring how deserving they are of these riches. Other, less scrupulous pastors just steal the money through crazy teachings concerning such things as planting seeds (giving money) and letting God grow the harvest. While Biblically illiterate Christians wait patiently for checks to start pouring in the pastor is living in a multi-million dollar home and living the “good” life.
For all you Christians who dream of wealth in light of James 1:1-8 you need to praise God that He has never placed you in the position that you are confronted with the admonishments found in these passages. All this being said remember the condemnation is not over being wealthy, but on how wealth is used. It is the sinful amassing of wealth (v. 2, 3) that is the problem. The pursuit of wealth stems from greed and greed leads to the pursuit of wealth. It is a vicious circle that crushes grace, compassion, service, and selflessness under its ever-revolving door.
One last point before we look at the texts. Why does God place this text regarding the habits of non-Christian landowners in his letter? It is to be a lesson to the Christians of what they are not to aspire to. Our calling is to become fully committed followers of Jesus and not waist our time seeking wealth. We are to remember our faith and trust is in God not the things of the world.
Verse1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
The misery that is coming upon the rich is not natural, but the supernatural hand of God. It is His judgment and condemnation that is meted out on the great day of His return. When the mistreatment of the poor is epidemic because of the greed of the whole socioeconomic system we can say the whole culture is corrupt. James is not alone in his pronouncement of woe on the system of greed that stomps the poor underfoot. Luke 6:24, 25 and Revelation 18:10-24 are well worth taking a few minutes of your time to examine. We need to keep reminding ourselves that James, Luke and John are not talking about all rich people but the unrighteous rich.
Sections like chapter 5:1-8 are difficult for us to digest in the wealthy west. Most of us are considered wealthy by comparison with the entire world. There is no comparison between a North American making thousands of dollars a month and someone in Sudan making five or six hundred dollars a year. Since the average North American doesn’t consider himself rich then we easily use these texts to point to the greedy corporate system that amasses billions of dollars and give ourselves a free pass. I don’t know the answer to this dilemma is, but it is worth praying over and giving it some thought.
Verse 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten
Verse 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days.
These two verses give us the first reason for the condemnation of the rich in verse one. These rich landowners have accumulated wealth for their own selfish wants. The sad aspects of these two verses is not that the greedy pursuit of wealth has no benefit for a person and is already empty and rotting even as they accumulate it, but it testifies against them. (See Matt. 6:19; Job 13: 28; Psalm 37:6; Ez. 17:9)
The problem of accumulating wealth is that their treasure becomes here on earth and in the things they own and takes away from their spiritual focus that should be on the Kingdom to come. We can say that if our focus is on the things of this earth we will miss out on the new earth. “They will throw their silver into the streets and their gold will be an unclean thing. Their silver and gold will not be able to save them in the day of the Lord’s wrath. They will not satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it, for it has made them stumble into sin.” Ezekiel 7:19 Think about that quote for a moment or two and you will see that this topic of wealth is no joking matter. (See also Luke 12:33) John Calvin wrote, God has not appointed gold for rust, nor garments for moths; but on the contrary, He has designed them as aids and helps to human life.”
Verse 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
In this verse we see the second reason for the condemnation of the unrighteous, selfish wealthy. They have accumulated and hoarded their wealth by cheating the poor. In Malachi 3:5 God makes it clear that His testimony is against those who, ”defraud laborers of their wages.” (See also Deut. 24:14-15; Lev. 19:13If ever these admonitions are needed it is now in our own time. A handful of very powerful and wealthy families hold a great deal of the land and have hoarded large amounts of money that could be used for the benefit of our world. Just as in James time many small farmers were forced out of business by the big wealthy landowners so it is just as true today.
The phrase “cry out” is interesting because when used in the Bible its usual connotation is associated with crying out for God to intervene and bring justice. Also the term “Lord of Hosts” echoes back to Isaiah 6. Isaiah uses this title for God throughout his book and associates it with God’s judgment upon the wicked. In chapter five verse 9 the judgment of God is poured out upon the oppressors of the poor. Any Jewish reader who knew the book of Isaiah knew exactly what James was saying in this verse. God will judge the oppressors of the rich and that is certain.
Verse 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
We now come to the third explanation for judgment on the rich. They have lived in luxury and pleasure while the poor starve. The verb James uses for pleasure is interesting and gives insight into what is going on. The verb spatalao is only used here and in 1 Timothy 5:6 in the entire New Testament. In 1 Timothy it is translated the same as here in James as pleasure. “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”
The whole point of the story of Lazarus and the rich man is based upon the idea that the rich who prosper here and the poor who suffer here will have their places changed in the world to come. The day of slaughter is a frightening and solemn reminder of the soon judgment of God upon all humanity. (See Ezek. 7:14-23; Rev. 19:17-21)
Dr. Moo, in his commentary on James, sums up these first five verses of James when he writes, “James point then, as in v.3 is that the rich are selfishly and ignorantly going about accumulating wealth for themselves and wastefully spending it on their own pleasures in the very day when God’s judgment is imminently threatened. The last days have already begun; the judgment could break in at any time- yet the rich, instead of acting to avoid that judgment, are, by their selfish indulgence, incurring greater guilt. They are like cattle being fattened for the kill.” The Letter of James, pg. 218 Wow, think that paragraph over the next time you think you would love to be rich.
Verse 6 You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.
This fourth reason for God’s judgment upon the greedy self-righteous wealthy is because they kill innocent people for their greed. This has been the case throughout history. The rich landowners kick the poor peasants off the land and they end up starving without the means to feed themselves along with their families. Peasant rebellions against oppression often lead to mass slaughter and more suffering. Slavery where men and women are forced to work long hours without pay to grow crops so an elite can grow rich has been with us throughout history as well. Millions upon millions of men and women have died under the oppression of the get rich at all cost mentality of the unrighteous wealthy.
The final part of the sentence leaves us with a very bad taste in our mouth for those who oppress the poor. Those poor people do nothing to resist the persecution, either because they can’t, or they won’t. Either way they are innocent and non-deserving of the ills thrown upon them.
It is difficult for us to leave this verse and not think in some way of Jesus. The political and social elite condemned Him because of their fear He would undermine their authority and wealth. Eventually, they would have Him killed in order to keep the old system in tact, and of course Jesus died without resisting. Though this is not what James has in mind in this passage the comparison to Jesus is too good to pass by.