Destiny of the Rich
Their coming miseries
In chapter five, James leaves his discussion of a living faith evident in good works and returns to another major theme of his epistle, a theme he touched on both in chapter one, where he advised the rich man to humble himself (vv. 10-11), and in chapter two, where he denounced the rich for oppressing the poor and blaspheming God (vv. 6-7). Now he issues the rich a chilling prophecy of what their future will be.
He begins by summoning them to hear his words. He calls out, "Go to now, ye rich men" (v. 1a). As in the previous usage (Jas. 4:13), the opening words are better translated, "Come now." In other words, stop whatever else you are doing and listen closely. He immediately justifies his claim on their attention by telling them bluntly that they are headed for disaster (v. 1b). They face such miseries that, if they could now see them in all their horrible detail, they would not be able to contain their grief. They would be helpless to hold themselves back from utter despair. Indeed, James advises them to "weep and howl." Both are strong words, referring to vocal expressions of grief in extremity. A translation giving a better idea of the anguish suggested by these words is, "Wail and scream."
Why does James urge the rich to distress themselves about miseries they will not face until sometime in the future? Because now is the only time they can change their destiny by repenting of their sins. James hopes that they will repent if they look with realistic fear and sorrow at the future awaiting them.
In his appeal he seeks to counter the two reasons that the rich continue in sin. First, as they lie on their beds of ease and drink in all the pleasures that money can buy, they are satisfied with life as they know it. They see no incentive to change. To unsettle their apathy and contentment, James reminds them that their life of pleasure will not last. Soon it will be gone, and then they will suffer misery and loss. After death, they will enter into a different sort of life, not really life at all, but a state of consciousness that they will express through weeping and howling. Therefore, if they wish to get a taste of their coming experience, they should start even now to weep and howl. This way of facing the stark reality of future miseries will, if they are wise, move them to repent.
The decay of their possessions
The second reason that the rich continue in sin is that they are entranced with the beauty of their riches, so entranced that they cannot see anything else. James tells them that they are wearing blinders. They do not see the true condition of all the wealth around them. He says, "Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered" (vv. 2-3a).
James is showing the transitory nature of three specific kinds of wealth. Because "corrupted" is the word for rotten, many expositors agree that the first kind James has in view is perishable foodstuffs, which in antiquity were a valuable commodity that the rich sought to acquire (Luke 12:16-21). The word translated "cankered" refers to rust. Also, each verb signifies an event already past. Thus, a more illuminating translation of James's warning is, "Your foodstuffs have become rotten, your garments have become moth-eaten, and your gold has become rusted."
In summary, as the rich survey all their accumulation of property and rejoice in its eye-fixating glamour, James says, "Look, it is already starting to decay." Jesus pronounced a similar verdict: "But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt" (Matt. 6:20). Indeed, nothing in this world is exempt from deterioration. Nothing lasts but a moment in a perfect state. The point James is making is that it is folly to pin one’s happiness upon possession of things that are wasting away and will soon vanish. When they vanish, so will any happiness they provided.
Why James supposes that gold is vulnerable to rust is a question long debated. Perhaps he is using "rust" as a generic term for every form of metallic decay. Although gold is not subject to oxidative corrosion, it yields to the corrosive effects of various other agents, such as fluorine, chlorine, and aqua regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids). Perhaps also James is using gold to represent precious metals in general, including silver, brass, and bronze. All these are prone to the type of oxidative corrosion known as tarnish.
Their sins requiring punishment
Why do the rich deserve the terrible fate that God has ordained? James next proceeds to give the answer, listing four grievous sins that they have committed.
- The very decay that is eating away at their wealth witnesses to their first sin (v. 3b). They have devoted their lives to what is worthless. Instead of seeking eternal reward by doing works of eternal value, they have collected pretty junk, here today and gone tomorrow. As a result, they have wasted their time and talents and everything else God has entrusted to them for accomplishing good.
James continues, saying literally, "Ye have treasured up in the last days." He means that they have done nothing better than to amass troves of fleeting treasure, even though they should have known that they were living in the last days: that is, in the days right before they would face God in judgment.
They will pay an awful price for their love of corruptible wealth. James says that corrosion ("rust") will "eat your flesh as it were fire." It is a law of human existence that every man is destined to be molded in the image of whatever god he chooses. As believers in the true God, we assume His attributes and change into His likeness, which is the summit of every virtue. An idolater, however, replicates his lifeless gods, for like them he is blind to truth, unable to speak truth, and powerless to shape his destiny (Ps. 115:4–8; 135:15–18). The rich worship money. Mammon is their master and god. Hence, just as material wealth succumbs to irreversible decay, causing its substance to crumble and scatter, so the worshipers of wealth will waste away forever. The processes of decomposition will eat away their bodies without relief, yet without ever destroying them completely. As Jesus says, they will go to the place "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). Their most terrifying prospect is that they will perpetually feel the corrosion at work upon their bodies. It will burn like fire.
- James indicts the rich with a second grievous sin (v. 4). "By fraud" is not actually in the original, but without it the text is still clear. As employers, the rich have cheated their employees out of rightful compensation. James refers specifically to day laborers hired to assist in the harvest of crops. It was the custom for a landowner to visit the marketplace early in the morning and pick out workers for the coming day. When he hired them, he promised certain wages. Yet at the end of the day, when the work was done, an unscrupulous employer might pay less than he promised, or he might pay nothing at all. What recourse did the laborers have? Virtually none in the ancient world. There was seldom a legal remedy. Judges were reluctant to hear complaints against a leading citizen, and complaints concerning a verbal agreement were hard to prove anyway. Besides, a rich man could use bribery to secure a favorable ruling.
James warns the rich that there is a Judge who cannot be bribed and who is not indifferent to the complaints of the poor. He is the Lord of Sabaoth, the latter being a transliteration of the Hebrew word "hosts." The title "Lord of hosts" is of course common in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 24:10; 84:1; Isa. 1:24; Jer. 32:18). What James is saying that although the poor appear weak and defenseless, in fact they have on their side the most powerful defender of all, the very God who can summon all the forces of heaven to do His will.
Down through history, the rich have exploited the poor, and the poor have resented the rich. In the last few centuries many political movements promised to wrest power from the rich and give it to the poor. The most important was Marxist Communism, which promised to organize society under the dictatorship of the proletariat (the working class), but in reality merely succeeded in creating new oppressors. The wealthy capitalists at the top of society were replaced by wealthy Communists, who expanded the power of the ruling elite at the expense of everyone else's freedom. While promising liberation, Communism brought the iron grip of tyranny. Who is the only advocate and defender of the poor who can be trusted? James gives the answer. It is the Lord of Sabaoth.
- The third grievous sin of the rich is that they wallow in self-indulgence (v. 5). This has taken two forms. First, they have "lived in pleasure," which might be translated, "lived delicately." That is, they have furnished themselves with every manner of comfort and convenience as a buffer against anything unpleasant. Second, they have "been wanton." The Greek word suggests that they have carried self-indulgence to the point of riotous living. But to what purpose have they nourished their lusts? James says, "Ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter." Here, James offers us two distinct pictures of the rich man. In the first he is a fat glutton who resembles an overfed cow ready for butchering on the day of slaughter. In the second, we see his heart. It has become so fat with sin that it is insensitive to the gentle touch of conviction, and thus God can do nothing with the rich man except bring him into judgment. The image of a fat heart derives from Isaiah’s famous denunciation of the stiff-necked in Israel (Isa. 6:9-10), twice quoted in the New Testament (Matt. 13:15; Acts 28:27).
- The last grievous sin of the rich is murder (v. 6). In an effort to multiply wealth, they have not scrupled to kill good men. Perhaps the specific instance James has in mind is the evil that came from Ahab’s greed. He framed Naboth on a charge of treason so that he might put him away and take possession of his vineyard (2 Kings 21:1-16). History is replete with other examples. It would not be an exaggeration to say that human life is cheap in any society where greed reigns supreme.
What does the just man do in self-defense? James takes it for granted that because he is just, he will not resist the evildoer. Again we see James’s debt to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus commands, "Resist not evil" (Matt. 5:39), but rather, "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44). By resistance, Jesus means stooping to your enemy’s level, returning gibe for gibe, sneer for sneer, and blow for blow. The mark of a good man is that he seeks his enemy’s welfare. Thus, even when under an attack that could take his life, he will strive to spare his attacker.
I do not believe that either Jesus or James means that we should never protect ourselves from violence or oppression. The scenario James implies is a rich man manipulating the justice system to destroy someone standing in his way. In that situation, providing no legal refuge, a man seeking to honor the Sermon on the Mount can do nothing but submit.
The first questions address whether you are devoting your life to corruptible things. To be specific, where does gaining money and possessions fall on your scale of priorities?
The remaining questions deal with the other sins that James charges against the rich.