In the earlier sections of the book of James, James spoke to believers. In this section, he spoke directly to unbelievers and indirectly to believers. Just as the last section of James 4:13-17 speaks about businessmen, so James 5:1-6 speaks about businessmen. The difference between these two passages is the James 4 passage speaks about Christian businessmen and the James 5 passages speaks about unbelieving businessmen. To the Christian businessmen, James taught them to consult with God before they made plans because God is the One who knows what will happen in the future. He taught them not to be arrogant and boast of their plans and their wealth because they do not know what tomorrow will bring. In the James 5 passage, James told the unbelieving businessmen what would occur because of their oppression of the poor, their store of treasures and garments, and their luxurious living. Both passages speak of wealth and what a person does or plans to do with it. They each remind businessmen they are mortal, will die, and cannot take their riches with them.
Even though similarities exist in these two passages, we must wonder why James spoke directly to unbelievers for the first and only time in his epistle. Is there significance for James speaking to unbelievers here? What was James trying to teach believers since he directed this whole epistle toward the twelve dispersed tribes (James 1:1)? We will answer these questions as we study this passage of James 5:1-6.
Verses one through three express judgment on rich unbelievers. This judgment was not new. Many other Bible writers expressed it, too. Jesus taught about judgment on the rich in Luke 6:24. Paul spoke about it in 1 Timothy 6:9. Isaiah taught to the rich destruction would come from the Almighty in Isaiah 13:6. Each of these speakers taught the same thing; the rich who hoard their wealth and oppress the poor received their comfort and wealth on earth. What would come in the future at the time of judgment would be punishment, and their weeping and howling.
With this in mind, let us consider what James taught in verses one through three. In verse 1, James said, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries, which are coming upon you.” First, we must note the word “rich” comes once again from the Greek word plousios. This word is the same word James used in James 1:9 and 2:6 to refer to rich unbelievers. Jesus used plousios, too, in Luke 6:24. Paul used the same root word in 1 Timothy 6:9. Each of these men recognized most Christians at the time were poor and oppressed. So when they referred to the rich, the spoke of unbelievers. James spoke to catch their attention in this passage when he used the word, “Come now.” He told them to “weep and howl.” “Recognize now what your eternity holds and weep,” James meant. He offered no comforting words to the rich. Forgiveness would come to them if they repented, but James did not expect this to happen as we note in this verse since he did not tell them to repent. He said they would weep and howl for their miseries. The English word “weep” comes from the Greek word klaio meaning to weep, mourn, and lament for pain and grief[i]. “Howl” comes from the Greek word ololuzo and means to wail and lament loudly for grief[ii]. The miseries to which James referred in this verse are the Day of Judgment after Jesus Christ returns and their lives spent separated from God eternally. On the Day of Judgment, everyone will receive his or her judgment from God according to his or her life while on earth. For those who are not Christians, their judgment penalty will not be waived because they did not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and, thereby, have their sins washed away to receive the inheritance of being children of God. Though the rich lived in wealth and luxury on earth, their eternal home of permanent separation from God would make them weep and howl loudly for eternity. James expressly and poignantly told them their lifestyle on earth would bring eternal judgment of misery.
James added at the end of verse one these miseries “are coming.” This word, “coming” derives from the Greek word eperchomai and means to come to arrive and to be at hand. James expressed these miseries were upon them imminently. The Christians of the first century believed Jesus Christ would return soon for them. They waited expectantly for Him. For this reason, James felt he had to encourage them to endure no matter how long it was before Jesus’ return. He taught them they could ask for God’s wisdom by which to endure in chapter 1. Just as the Christians waited for Jesus’ imminent return, their suffering to end, and their eternal inheritance to begin, James told the rich unbelievers Jesus’ imminent return would bring eternal judgment and this judgment would not be long in coming. It was at hand – imminent.
With verses 2 and 3, James gave the rich unbelievers everyday examples of their judgment. He told them, “Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire.” The wealthier businessmen of the time traded in dyed cloth, stored corn and other grains, and hoarded their gold and silver from their sales. James named two of the main classes of wealth in verse two – cloth, and gold and silver. He said the businessmen’s stored cloth would rot and become moth-eaten. They would not be able to rely upon that for their wealth. The rich person’s wealth would dwindle away. James expressed with a mental picture that upon which the businessmen relied for their wealth would end and fail them, then they would have nothing on earth or for eternity. Job, Isaiah, and Jesus understood a person should not store up for the future and rely upon earthly wealth. They each expressed moths would eat garments. (Job 13:28, Isaiah 50:9, and Matthew 6:19). Besides the wealth of garment merchants, James said the wealth of gold and silver was fleeting, too. He told them their gold and silver would rust. The rich businessmen stored it for the future and neither they nor the poor people received help from it. The fact it laid around and tarnished showed the rich person did not need it. Yet its tarnish would be evidence of its misuse, its hoarding and not helping.
James added in verse three that the moth-eaten cloth and the rusted gold and silver would be a witness - a testimony - against the rich. It would be proof the rich did not use their wealth and excess to help the poor, needy and oppressed. The judgment to come would not be baseless because their hoarded wealth would testify of that. If they had followed Jesus’ teaching, their cloth could have clothed the naked and their wealth could have fed and housed the poor (Matthew 25:34- 46). This was not a new lesson to New Testament era people. God told the Israelites to take care of the widows, orphans, poor, and foreigners throughout the Old Testament (Exodus 22:22, Exodus 23:6, Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 19:10 & 15, Leviticus 25:25, 35, 39, & 47-48, Deuteronomy 10:18, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deuteronomy 15:4, 7, 9, & 11, Deuteronomy 24:14, 17, & 19-21, Deuteronomy 27:19, et. al)
James continued verse three by saying these things would consume the flesh of the rich person like a fire. These unbelieving Jews followed God's commands and knew to slaughter animals for their sins regularly. They saw the animals' bodies consumed on the altar. The rich understood sin required a sacrifice. James meant here their sins of hording would require the personal sacrifice of their bodies in eternal separation from Yahweh. In the end, the ox, lamb, or other animal would not be sufficient to cover their sins. Their punishment/judgment from God would be their eternal death. This metaphor reminded Jewish unbelievers the judgment God would make on them on the judgment day. The fire that devoured their flesh brought a visual remembrance of watching fires consume the flesh of their animal sacrifices. Fire consumes things much faster than rust. The judgment on the rich would be fast. Jesus was returning soon and God’s judgment was swift, just as Malachi 3:5-6 says. James, in the last sentence of verse three, reminded these rich, hoarding, and oppressing businessmen the days they lived were their last days. Their judgment was imminent. He meant, too, what they stored up for the last days was judgment. The “last days” comes from the word eschatos meaning the time of the eschaton - when Christ returns[iii]. The treasure the rich stored on earth stored judgment for them at Christ’s return. With the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70AD, the unbelievers received a taste of the wrath to come and their fall. God’s vengeance for His people against those who oppressed them would occur.
Just as James was warning the rich businessmen of their eternal reward and judgment for hoarding and oppressing, he reminded the Christians of their eternal reward. Since the unbelievers received this, know Christians will receive a better reward. Even though the rich have plenty on earth, their eternal judgment make them the poorest. They will not inherit the kingdom of God as co-heirs with Christ as the Christians will. James’ encouragement to endure and be patient comes with the promise of Jesus to His followers. Christians can hold on to that hope while they are poor here on earth. Even though James explicitly addressed rich unbelievers in these six verses, he implied a lesson of encouragement for Christians as he did throughout the rest of this epistle.
In verses 4 through 6, James listed actions of the rich (unbelievers) against the poor (Christians). He said in verse 4, “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.” Notice James spoke twice about the farm workers – the reapers of the crop. In each instance, he stated the result of the rich person’s hard heart, oppression, and tight-fistedness – non-payment of daily wages. The Jews had laws that addressed this issue (Leviticus 19:13 & Deuteronomy 24:15). We can read of this lesson in Job 24:10, Jeremiah 22:13, and Malachi 3:5, too. Many people were poor and relied upon daily wages to be able to feed their families each night and the next morning. By not paying them at the end of the workday, the rich person kept the worker and his family from eating each day. The rich person stored up his money until he sold his grain. This enabled the him or her to keep hold of his own money until he knew he could replace it with a profit at market.
From verse four, we must notice two things. James said two things happened when the rich did not pay the day laborers. The laborers cried out and the Lord of Sabaoth heard their cries. The poor had almost no voice in society. They were given little and were heard little by the rulers because they had no champion to stand up for them. Riches brought power and luxury, both of which the poor did not have. Yet, though the poor did not have a champion who on lived on earth, they had a heavenly Father who stood up for them and for all His children. Moses taught this in Deuteronomy 32:35-36,
Vengeance is Mine and retribution; in due time their foot will slip. For the day of their calamity is near and the impending things are hastening upon them. For the LORD will vindicate His people and will have compassion on His servants when He sees that their strength is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free. [NASB]
This point is the second thing we must notice from verse four. The LORD God would have vengeance on the people who oppressed His children. He would pay their oppressors back what they earned by doing evil on the earth – hoarding wealth and not helping their laborers or the poor. The rich may have earned wealth on earth but they earned judgment for eternity from God. Their wealth could not go with them, but their eternal reward of punishment would not go away…unless they repented and believed in Jesus Christ for their salvation. That is what James meant when he said the cries of the poor reached the ears of the Lord of the Sabaoth. The “Lord of the Sabaoth” means the Lord of the armies of Israel. Israel is under the leadership and protection of Jehovah. The enemies of His people are His enemies. The enemies of God’s children (those adopted in by faith), in this case the rich, will meet their protector, the Lord, and receive their judgment from Him for oppressing His children. We see repeatedly the Lord intervening for His children in the Bible. Look at Exodus 2:23, Deuteronomy 24:15, Job 31:38, Romans 9:29, and Isaiah 5:9. The people cried out because they were powerless and their Lord heard their cries and promised vengeance and retribution on the people who oppressed them.
Besides hoarding their money and not paying their day laborers, the “rich lived luxuriously and led a life of wanton pleasure,” verse five states. The rich used their wealth for themselves even though they faced the desperate poverty of their workers and other poor people each day. Their luxurious living was so gross it led to wanton pleasure. “Wanton pleasure” comes from the Greek word spatalao and means to live luxuriously, to lead a voluptuous life to give one’s self pleasure[iv]. With James’ use of the term “wanton pleasure,” we recognize the rich used their wealth for more than having the softest bed or the best prime steak. It included gratifying physical promiscuous pleasures, too. Ezekiel spoke of this in Ezekiel 16:49 as did Paul in 1 Timothy 5:6. The exceeding wealth the rich hoarded led them to seek pleasures that defiled themselves before God. It corrupted their thinking and obedience to God’s laws. Luxury leads to wantonness. This wanton lifestyle left the poor hungrier and the rich farther from a relationship with God.
James continued his thoughts. He said in verse five, “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The English word “slaughter” in this verse comes from the Greek word sphage, which means slaughter of sheep and day of destruction. Jews call the “day of slaughter/feasting” as the day when they will sacrifice their lamb, ox, or ram. Just as Jews fattened a sheep or ox for its slaughter on the sacrificial altar to God, these rich people fattened their pockets with more wealth and increased the testimony/witness against them for the day of God’s judgment. God’s judgment of these rich will be their day of destruction.
With verse 6, James concluded his thoughts on the rich businessmen oppressing the poor by not paying them their daily wages. He said, “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist.” James said the rich man condemned; he judged against the poor person, and put him or her to death by not paying his or her daily wage at the end of the day. As said before, by not paying the poor laborer each day, the rich kept food from the mouths of the laborer and his or her family. By removing the ability to buy food, the rich person in effect killed the person and his or her family. His actions condemned the poor person as not worthy to receive food because the rich person found his or her own wants more important. The rich person made a judgment for him or herself and against the poor person. Added to this, the poor did not resist, James said. He or she could not resist because he or she had no power in the community to receive recognition or restitution. The poor person gradually wasted away and became depressed because of the oppression by the rich person.
James meant this when he said the poor person did not resist. The poor person could not oppose the rich person; no one would be champion for him. Yet we know, as James said in verse four, God is the Lord of the Sabaoth. He is the Champion of the poor. The witnesses against the rich will be their moth-eaten garments and their rusted gold and silver. Those things will testify against them. Because of this, the believers of the Jerusalem church could have hope. The Lord God would judge and find guilty the rich who oppressed them. In addition, as Christians they themselves had the hope of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God. They could endure in the midst of their current situations - prejudice, poverty, abuse, slander, or beatings - because they had hope for their future in Jesus Christ. The believers James spoke to were co-heirs with Christ to God’s kingdom. Beyond any trouble believers had in this world, James said they could have hope and endure. James wrote this passage explicitly for non-Christians, the rich businessmen. He meant it to encourage and uplift the hopes of the Jerusalem Christians, too.
Though the rich oppressed the poor, the poor could have hope. God notices the deeds of the rich. He hears the cries of the oppressed. God promises judgment for every person – believer and unbeliever. Jesus Christ paid the penalty of sin for every person who believes in Him. For James, the Christians were the poor. People not saved by faith in Jesus Christ will pay the penalty of sin – eternal death, eternal separation from God. For James, these people were the rich of Jerusalem. Though they lived out their lives in luxurious and wanton living, God heard the cries of the people. The actions of the non-Christian will be testimony against them. The wealth they hoard, but do not use for the poor and oppressed cannot leave this earth nor buy salvation. The judgment they render against the poor as unworthy by not paying their daily wage or not helping them, God will render on them. Non-Christians will be poor for eternity. He or she will have no relationship with God and will have unfulfilled wants.
Relevance and Conclusion
With these few verses, James offered hope and encouragement to the beleaguered Jerusalem Christians and to every oppressed Christian throughout time. He gave warning to those people who are not Christians, and who can give help to the poor. For the rich, by acting wantonly and living luxuriously, without giving heed to the poor to give them work and daily wages, effectively the poor person and his or her family would die. Is that what we meant and want to do? This verse speaks to each of us.
We pass judgment each time we pass a poor person or refuse to pay a proper daily wage. By doing this, we say they are not worthy, worthwhile, and we do not care about them. Jesus gave a different and the greatest commandments to His disciples in Matthew 22:27-39. He said, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” These were not new to the Jews. Moses taught this commandfrom God in Deuteronomy 4:29 and 6:5, and with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.
We come to the point where each of us needs to consider our own self. Do we judge when we pass by a poor person and not help them? Are we considering them unworthy and unlovable? What, instead, would show that person we do not judge them? Consider, too, when we hire a person, do we pay a suitable wage so he or she can feed him or herself and his or her family or are we just giving grudgingly and saying to ourselves, “They are lucky to have a job no matter what I pay.” By doing this, we judge the other person as unworthy of our consideration and care. Jesus did not do this. He came to preach the Gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61). Christ commands us, as the children of God and as workers for Him, to be His witnesses. That involves living it out not just speaking. James said that when he told Christians to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.
Will you live out Christ’s love even to the poor, hopeless, helpless, and oppressed?
Will you be doers of God’s Word and not hearers only?
This is what James asks us today.
[i] Thayer and Smith, The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, 1999. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/klaio.html)