As James writes this letter, it seems as though he has a stack of issues and complaints that have been brought to him for consideration and response. Now he comes to an issue that is “written in bold letters and highlighted in red”! He uses some fiery language here in his response to the rich people among his readers and listeners. If you are a wealthy person yourself, don’t take these words of his personally until you understand the context! James is disappointed in them and he disapproves of their actions. He is not condemning wealth, but he is condemning some of the ways that they have gained that wealth, and the ways they have misused it.
In order to understand what is going on, and why it is so wrong, we will have to leave our twenty-first-century technology and see things through the minds of his first-century readers. As we will soon see, technology has changed, but people haven’t!
It’s interesting to note that some Bible commentators skip this passage of Scripture, and some others just make a quick note of it and press on. The passage doesn’t seem to fit well into the context of what James has said before it and after it. Let’s proceed and see if we can make any sense out of it!
I. WASTING THEIR WEALTH (verses 1-3)
In verse one of chapter 5, he addresses the “rich”. These are the “filthy rich” – they have so many possessions that they can’t possibly use them all. They had gained those riches unjustly and were using them selfishly. James tells them to “weep”, “wail” (scream), now, in an attitude of true repentance before they are taken out of this world and will be weeping and wailing for eternity in Hell. These rich people to whom James is making his appeal are not Christians. Their actions in disobedience to God’s Word make their spiritual condition obvious. That’s why the suffering and judgment he is referring to is eternal. So I do not believe that James is condemning them. He is condemning their actions and warning them of the eternal consequences. The word translated “wail” or “howl” in verse one is the Greek word “ololuzontes”. The word is called an onomatopoeia – a word that sounds like its meaning. Try saying the word “ololuzontes” outloud yourself a couple of times. Say it loud enough for a congregation of people to hear it clearly. If somebody hears you, you may get the response, “What are you whining about?” This is the only time that this particular word is used in the New Testament. I believe James chose this word intentionally under the inspiration of God. He wanted any “filthy rich” person who might be in the congregation, on the Sunday that his letter was read aloud, to hear what it would sound like if he didn’t let the Lord Jesus Christ have control of his life and his wealth.
In verse 2, James says to the rich, “your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten.” In this country, we measure wealth by dollars and cents, and by holdings that can be converted into dollars and cents. Here, James is speaking of riches in grain and clothing. For the poor in those times, food was a matter of life and death. The prophet Micah said that the withholding of food from the poor was the equivalent of cannibalism (Micah 3:2-3). For the poor, clothing was also a basic necessity. However, for the rich, it was a way of showing off their wealth. Some of the rich had so many garments that many of them were never worn and became “food for the moths”. I guess they didn’t have mothballs or use cedar chests back in those days! The sad thing was that these rich people didn’t care! They would rather have their food and clothing go bad than contribute to the needs of the poor! They turned down the joy and blessing that they would have received from their generosity. No wonder their lives were so empty and miserable!
You may have heard this illustration, but it may be useful to hear it again. One day a certain old, rich man of a miserable disposition visited a rabbi, who took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. “Look out there. What do you see?”, asked the rabbi. “I see men, women, and children”, answered the rich man. Again the rabbi took him by the hand and this time led him to a mirror. “Now what do you see?” “Now I see myself”, the rich man replied. Then the rabbi said, “Behold, in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added, than you cease to see others, but you see only yourself.” The Lord Jesus called this phenomenon “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19)
Citicorp Bank ran a series of billboards about money. One said: “Money changes hands – just don’t let it change the rest of you! (DB August 2010)
Verse 3 reflects the words of Jesus in His Semon on the Mount:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
In verse 3, James says to his readers: “Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure.” The word translated “rusted” here, means “to rust down” or “to corrode”. Gold and silver, wealth that we may consider to be indestructible, is going to be destroyed, and those who trust in them will be destroyed also. Like rust or corrosion, your lust for riches will eat away at your souls!
I believe that James is not only giving them a graphic description of their riches, but he is also making an urgent plea to them. “Take a good look at your possessions! Observe the rotting grain in your storehouses; make note of the moth holes on the clothes in your closets; observe the rust or corrosion on your gold and silver! It’s all plain to see! They are a witness before your eyes, and they are a witness against you before the eyes of God also! Take heed and repent of your selfishness and greed, and give the Lord Jesus Christ His rightful place as Ruler of your lives before it’s too late! You can’t take it with you beyond the grave, but you will suffer for it throughout eternity because God is your witness, and it has all been written down!
“And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. . . . And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12,15)
ii. DEPRIVING LABORERS OF HARD-EARNED WAGES (verse 4)
In verse 4, James gives further proof of their selfishness, this time in their dealings with the laborers who worked in their grain fields. These were called “day laborers”. They received their pay at the end of each day, and their pay was barely enough to meet their basic needs. The wealthy landlords had the money to pay them. Yet they knowingly and willfully disobeyed God’s Law, which says, “You shall not oppress the hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NASB)
This next passage of Scripture is even more specific about paying the laborers: “The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13 NASB). In other words, they were to pay their laborers when the day’s work was done, and before those laborers went home for the day.
Have you ever been a “day laborer” – harvesting a crop? If so, I’ll bet you have some stories to tell! My brother and I got a taste of it, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience! We were looking for work and saw a newspaper ad saying, “Grape-pickers wanted”. We arrived at the address at daybreak and saw an old bus pulling out and a large group of men standing around. While we were walking over to them, another old bus arrived, full of men. These were migrant farm-workers, brought in from tenement houses nearby, and the only one who spoke English was the foreman! Large buckets were handed out and the work began! These were wine grapes on high trellises, and there were miles of them . . . the dust, the heat, the flies, bees, wasps, and, worst of all, the spider webs and spiders! At lunch-break, my brother said “I’ve had enough!”, and I was quick to agree. We talked to the foreman and he told us what time to return at the end of the day and pick up our pay. We could afford to do that, but all those migrant workers needed the money to survive and feed their families. They were paid by the bucket, not by the hour, so they had to work hard and fast to fill as many bucket-fulls of grapes as possible by the end of the day. It was no “picnic”, believe me! If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s book, “The Grapes of Wrath”, you would have an image of what it must have been like to be a “day laborer” moving from field to field during harvest season.
Here in verse 4, in order to get the grain harvested and put away, the laborers had to work from dawn til dusk. The rich land-owners promised to pay their laborers a certain amount at the end of the day. The tense of the verb “withheld” indicates that those laborers would probably never get their hard-earned wages. There is a clear application for each of us in this verse. We ought to pay our bills, and pay them on time!
James has more to say to these wealthy Jewish land-owners. They think that they are going to get away with this unfairness, but James warns them that their day is going to come. He uses a very familiar passage in the book of Genesis to get his point across to them. When James says, “the pay . . . which has been withheld by you, cries out against you”, he is reminding them of God’s words to Cain after he had killed his brother Abel and then buried his body. He must have thought that he had committed the “perfect crime”. But God said to Cain: “Where’s Abel your brother? . . . What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) Then God pronounced a curse on Cain.
James ends verse 4 by saying, “the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the Lord of Sabaoth.” God is watching, and God is listening to the prayers of these laborers. The phrase “Lord of Sabaoth” or “Lord of Hosts” pictures God as powerful, invincible, and the Leader of a great army. Ladies and gentlemen, there are no “perfect crimes”, at least not in God’s sight, and He will bring judgment in His time!
III. THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES, AND YOU KNOW IT! (verse 5)
As James brings this rebuke and warning to the unrighteous rich people to a close in verses 5 and 6, I detect a note of sadness and sorrow in his words. Do you? These wealthy land-owners know how to over-feed their chickens in order to get more breast meat. They know how to feed their cattle with the best grains, as much as they will eat, in order to get more steaks. They are “preparing those animals for slaughter”! James is saying, “Can’t you see that you are doing to yourselves the same thing that you are doing to your livestock?”
James wants them to take a good look at themselves. They are living a life of luxury, satisfying their own desires and lusts. They fit Ezekiel’s description of the city of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49. “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”
IV. YOUR ONLY HOPE (verse 6)
In verse 6 James brings his rebuke and warning to these wealthy, selfish, unbelieving Jews to a conclusion. Throughout his epistle, the apostle James has phrased his words in such a way as to bring to mind Old Testament passages of Scripture that would be familiar to his readers and listeners. Remember that these rich Jews had also been taught the Scriptures by their parents when they were little children. They faithfully attended the synagogues with their families, hearing the Scriptures being taught by the rabbis and other teachers of the Law. Many of these sons of the wealthy may also have attended rabbinical schools for further training. Their parents wanted them to have the best education available at that time.
I can imagine that there were many rich Jews of all ages who hated the Lord Jesus Christ because He spoke many times publicly against the misuse of riches (eg. Mt. 19; Luke 6, 16). His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus must have set the hearts of many wealthy Jews against him. It makes me wonder whether some of his rich listeners were also among those in Pilate’s courtyard yelling “Crucify, crucify Him” (Luke 23:21). Here is the literal translation of James 5:6 from the Greek: “You condemned, you murdered the righteous man. He does not resist you.” These words immediately bring to my mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7). These wealthy Jews knew this passage of Scripture. They heard it at home, in the synagogue, and at the temple worship services, and they had studied it in school. They also knew the last words of that chapter, which reads, “Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” I believe that many, if not all, of these selfish, wealthy Jews were standing at a distance, watching the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. They wouldn’t want to miss this event! If so, they probably heard, or were told about, this prayer that Jesus uttered on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
We don’t know for sure if this was James’ intent when he wrote the words of verse 6, but we do know that God always forgives those who truly repent of their sins, recognize that those sins were paid for by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and let Him reign as Lord of their lives. Whether rich, poor, or in-between, that is what brings meaning, purpose, and joy to one’s life. Can you attest to the truth of those words in your own life? I sincerely hope so!
CONSTRUCTION SITE: COMPLETED
It’s time to begin a new construction project at “the vacant lot next door”!