“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your 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! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.”
Many have read the book of James as nothing but a loose connection of moralistic sayings, a few tidbits to encourage or convict the Christian. Sadly, this is how many professing Christians read the rest of their Bibles.
The truth is that James is writing to a real audience who are dealing with real problems. There is a unified point and argument through the entire letter. The church that I pastor has devoted Sunday mornings to the study of James for several months now, and in that time we’ve seen that time and again James is calling the believers to whom he is writing to live their lives consistently with the gospel that they profess to believe. Let’s try to pull that together in a single word. James is calling for faithfulness.
Faithfulness under trials and when facing temptation (1:1-18)
Faithfulness to know and obey the Word of God (1:19-27)
Faithfulness to love the brethren (2:1-13)
Faithfulness to pursue holiness (2:14-26)
Faithfulness in self-control (3:1-18)
Faithfulness in identifying and repenting of worldliness (4:1-5:12)
We’ve been in this last call for a few weeks now. As we’ve studied through these verses, we tried to peel back the concept of worldliness to its core, and what did we see there? Naked Pride. And as we’ve studied through and looked back, we’ve noticed that pride makes some assumptions.
In 4:1 James asked the rhetorical question “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” Y’all are fighting and bickering, what’s the root of it all? Without skipping a beat he answers, “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” Pride assumes privilege.
In 4:7-12 the folks James is addressing are called to repent because in judging one another, they set themselves up as judges of God’s royal law of liberty. Pride assumes authority.
In 4:13-17 James rebukes a particular subgroup for their attitudes of practical atheism as they carry on as if God does not exist or that He is not sovereign over all things. Pride assumes sovereignty.
These assumptions must be repented of and humility must be pursued. But pride makes more than assumptions. It also perverts everything it touches. At the core of these verses in front of us is a perversion of justice. If love of the brethren indicates a true disciple (John 13:34-35), then extortion and mistreatment of individuals indicates a true rebel. In an effort to warn the sheep, James points to the goats by exposing their obsession of materialism.
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.”
We would do well to notice that this verse begins just like 4:13. James identifies a specific audience, “you rich.” But we must understand something. These individuals are not believers and are not the same practical atheists from 4:13. They are called to “weep and howl,” but why? There’s not a whiff of repentance in these verses. They’re commanded to weep only because of their “miseries which are coming upon you.” In other words: Judgment is coming, y’all. And there’s not a thing to be done but weep.
Scripture has used this language many times. When speaking of nations that do not fear the Lord, the Lord promises judgment upon them and they are commanded to weep because of their pending doom (Isaiah 13:6; 15:3; 16:7; 23:1; Jeremiah 48:20; Ezekiel 21:12; Amos 8:3; Zechariah 11:2). This is the same call that James gives to “you rich.”
James is not condemning all those with money, but those “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19 NASB). They pursue riches with everything they have and yet their wealth will profit them nothing.
Materialistic Gain has no Eternal Value (5:2-3)
“Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your 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!”
Unlike modern westerners who really only value their bank accounts as determining factors of wealth, ancient man weighed wealth in three areas: Food, clothing, and money.
You were considered wealthy if you possessed or had access to food beyond what is absolutely necessary for sustenance. James refers to this realm first “Your riches have rotted.” The word “riches” is quite generic, but the verb that it’s paired up with is usually used to describe the spoilage of food. All that they have stored up is now useless.
You were considered wealthy if you possessed multiple changes of clothing. Your average working man did not own more than one or two changes of clothing. Yet these rich open the closet to reveal that moths have destroyed their garments.
You were considered wealthy if you had gold and silver (either in coinage or in vessels). James tells these rich that their gold and silver has rusted. Now James isn’t stupid. He is well aware that gold and silver do not rust (which is what made them so valuable and what makes them useful as currency). That’s the whole point. They have stored things up for themselves, assuming that it would last. Yet the un-rust-able has rusted through and is even consuming them like a fire.
“It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!”
“The last days” is a reference to the time period between Christ’s first and second coming. Therefore, we are most certainly in “the last days” as were James’ audience. It seems that James is thinking of Jesus’ own words as recorded in Matthew 6:19-21 – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Worldliness calls for us to become distracted from following Christ and humbly serving Him. It’s easy to be distracted by those who seem to have it all. James points out that they have nothing but hellfire awaiting them. That is all.
Unjust Gain will receive Justice (5:4-6)
“Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.”
Now James gives us some detail concerning how the rich get rich. It seems that these rich individuals have a habit of not paying the help. Most field work was done with day laborers. There’s no contract or guaranteed work tomorrow. You sweat your tail off and at the end of the day the landowner pays you. Yet the rich under the microscope withhold the pay owed to their laborers. As a footnote, this is a direct violation of God’s word (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14). But this injustice (like all injustice) will be corrected. Notice that it is the wage itself that cries out to God.
“…the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”
These wicked individuals will not get away with refusing to pay their day workers. This injustice has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, i.e. the Lord of Hosts. This name of Almighty God is used to emphasize His might (hosts = armies) and is normally used in the context of killing his enemies (which, according to 4:1-6, these rich most certainly are enemies of God).
They have lived lives of wanton pleasure right up to the day of slaughter. The imagery is that of a calf being fattened for the purpose of butchering. That calf will eat anything and everything in the trough right up to the point of slaughter. So too will these rich who devour anything and everything that pleases their heart, their control center. It might seem desirable from the outside. But the reality is that all of their licentiousness is food for the slaughter.
Once again, this is much deeper than dividing between those who have and those who have not. This text reveals the wickedness of those who pervert justice simply because they can.
“You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.”
The rich have judged/condemned and they have put to death the innocent/the righteous. This is probably a reference back to 2:6-7 – “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?”
Conclusion: James singles out the “best” that the world has to offer and reveals them to be goats that are as lost as lost can be. They’re gluttonous calves for the slaughter and they will receive their just reward from the Lord of Hosts. Do you really want to be one of them?
These verses speak only of the condemnation awaiting those who have succumbed to worldliness. But the verses ahead are a salve for those who seek to faithfully endure.