The Coming of the Lord, part 2

James shifts focus in verses 7ff. The previous section was directed toward the rich of the world who are not Christians. The rest of the epistle is addressed to “my brothers” (v.12, 19) or simply “brothers” (v.7, 9, 10). As is characteristic of this epistle, the pastoral heart of James is evident as he exhorts and encourages his brethren to patience (7-12) and prayer (13-20).

James 5.7-12

7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.

8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

12But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

Concerning Grit (7-8)

Exhortation (7a). “Therefore” points us back to the preceding context about the mistreatment from the rich and the miseries in store for them. Since all these things “are coming” upon them, that is, since judgment is coming for the rich from the Lord of Hosts, God’s people (“brothers”) must “be patient.” Brave perseverance is what James is calling his brethren to. The word itself (Gk. makrothumesate) carries the idea of having a “big thermometer” – in other words, withstand the heat of persecution when it comes. Why be patient? The Lord is coming and he will bring deliverance to the righteous.

The Lord is coming to execute judgment upon the wicked also. We, in the religious realm, often speak of the “coming of the Lord” as though it is a one time event. Indeed, Robertson in his commentary notes that what is in view here is the second coming of Christ. On the contrary, Scriptures often speak of the coming of the Lord and you can read about the many times God has come in judgment (Psa 22.19, on enemies; Psa 50.3; Isa 13.9, on Babylon; Isa 19.1, against Egypt; Isa 26.21, inhabitants of the earth (not final judgment); Jer. 4.13, against his people Judah and specifically Jerusalem; et al.). Here is another instance of God coming in judgment on the wickedness of man in history. Granted, the word used here (Gk. parousias) can be used in connection with the final coming of Christ. Jesus Himself used it to speak of judgment coming in history upon wicked men, specifically upon Jerusalem (see Matthew 24.3, 27, 37, 39). Perhaps James has this same coming judgment in mind (i.e. AD 70). James saying that the coming of the Lord is “at hand” or “near” (v.8b) only works to support the idea that this judgment coming would happen soon, even during the lives of those first century readers of this letter.

Example (7b-8a). James points his readers to a very common and relevant example of patience from the agrarian culture. The farmer plants his seed and “waits for the precious fruit of the earth.” Expectation and anticipation are coupled in this example of the farmer. Time must pass before the crop which is useful to beast and man can be reaped following the early and late rains. Although “rains” is not in the text, the implication is heavy that what are in view are the rainy seasons in late Autumn and early Spring (Moo 168). In the farmer is an example of patience. The seed of divine judgment has been planted. These Christians are waiting for the harvest of deliverance to come from the Lord. In the same way the farmer is patient for his crops, “You also, be patient.”

Encouragement (8b). With the pastoral care of a shepherd James offers another word of encouragement. “Establish your hearts” while you wait for “the coming of the Lord” which is “at hand.” These Christians are to firmly ground their faith in anticipation of the coming judgment. Earlier James addressed the man wavering in faith who prays and how this individual is “unstable in all his ways” (1.8). Here is the opposite of this unstable one. A heart that is established is a stable heart, strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13.9). Since the Lord’s coming is so near, these Christians need to firmly adhere to the faith. Adam Clarke captures the nearness factor perfectly when he writes, “He is already on his way to destroy this wicked people, to raze their city and temple, and to destroy their polity for ever; and this judgment will soon take place.”

Concerning Grumbling (9-11)

Exhortation (9). A cleaver way of understanding the imperative in verse 9 is as follows: Do not grudge that you be not judged. If grudge takes its archaic meaning of “murmuring” then this captures the thrust of James’ exhortation to his brethren. The connection of this command to the preceding context seems to be that grumbling because of unjust circumstances is the opposite of patient endurance of trials and mistreatment. The question is why these Christians were grumbling (or complaining) against one another? Perhaps after a long day of injustice from the rich, they would come home to friends and family or come into the assembly and take out their frustration on those around them. Another idea is that these brethren were complaining to their brethren about how bad they were mistreated. Or maybe these Christians were blaming each other for their persecution. Whatever the reason, these Christians were complaining and grumbling against (lit. finding fault with) one another and James has to say cut it out.

Why stop your complaining? “So that you may not be judged.” The judgment of God is at hand and very near, so near in fact that James says “The Judge is standing at the door.” Whether the “standing” is a perfect or imperfect tense verb can be debated by scholars, but the fact of a very real and immanent judgment from the Judge is undeniable. There is no doubt that James is very deliberate in the language he uses to exhort his brethren. It conjures up images of Israel murmuring in the wilderness and alludes to the question of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18.25). If that were not enough, perhaps a verse of the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 is alluded to also. God knew His people would grumble against Him in the wilderness and “the time when their foot shall slip” was going to come (verse 35). Therefore Moses says, “The Lord (i.e. YHWH) will judge his people” (32.36, NIV). Over and over God is pictured as Judge of those who grumble. How much more will He judge those who grumble against their own brethren?

Examples (10-11). Two examples of patience are used by James to further strengthen his case and to encourage his brethren to cease and desist in grumbling against one another. These examples are intended to be instructive, like a copy used for imitation. First, he points to the prophets who endured suffering (physical pain and hardship) yet were patient (same word as verse 7, 8). They spoke “in the name of” (Gk. en to onomati) the Lord and were mistreated. Perhaps a contrast is painted here: these Christians are maltreated over their work in the world but the prophets were maltreated over their work in the Word. Yet the prophets did not grumble but entrusted their souls to their faithful God. They remained steadfast in their faith and mission. James reminds his brethren of what he has already written about earlier in the epistle (1.12; see also Daniel 12.12) about the beatitude of the steadfast. Those remaining steadfast enjoy the bliss of God.

Second, James points his readers to Job. Like the prophets he remained steadfast during severe trials. Up to this point, James has spoken of “patience” (Gk. makrothumia). Now he writes concerning the “steadfastness” (Gk. hupomone) of Job. There are those who find subtle differences between these terms. Lenski says the former is patience when people abuse us and the latter is brave perseverance under things which distress us. Moo says the former is long-suffering with a loving attitude toward others and the latter is a strong and determined attitude with which we face difficulty. Perhaps there is a difference but it would seem James uses them somewhat interchangeably, almost as synonyms. Nevertheless, Job presents an interesting case for steadfastness. Did he not grumble against God concerning his affliction? While he did complain, Job never renounced God nor abandoned his faith. He clung to God and continued in hope.

No doubt this was a familiar example for James says, “You have heard.” Not only that, James says, “You have seen the purpose of the Lord.” Seen here is used in the sense that God has shown it through His revealed word. The “purpose” (or end) of the Lord has to do with how he dealt with Job, that is with compassion and mercy. Most commentators point to the end of Job (42.12-13) where the property and family Job lost is restored to him and long life is granted to him. “Certainly, James does not mean that patience in suffering will always be rewarded by material prosperity; too many examples , the Old Testament (Jeremiah!) and the New, prove this wrong” (Moo 172). Rather he seeks by this allusion to the Old Testament character Job to encourage and assure his readers “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (see Exodus 34.6; Psalm 103.8).

Concerning Giving Your Word (12)

Verse 12 is clearly a restatement or at least an allusion of the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5.33-37). James reminds his readers of what Jesus has said which seems to indicate that this teaching (if not the passage itself) was evidently present to James’ thoughts. Coming out of Judaism which taught “a man might swear with his lips, and annul in his heart; and then the oath was not binding” (see Clarke concerning Rabbi Akiba), these Christians were perhaps a bit hasty in their oath taking. So prevalent was swearing in the Jewish culture (and the Oriental culture in general) that Aben Ezra says, “Men swear daily countless times, and then swear that they have not sworn!” (Pulpit Commentary 70) Though Jesus’ teaching was available, either these Christians were lax in keeping His word or had not been instructed concerning oaths. Perhaps like Peter the night Jesus was betrayed these Christians had relapsed into behavior of their former life (see Matthew 26.72, 74). James leaves them without excuse. The oath taking usually involved invocation of a divine being or in this case invoking heaven or earth or some other oath to execute judgment upon a person if the statement or obligation made were not true or kept. James says not to do this. Burton Coffman notes, “It was a common sin of that day to punctuate ordinary conversation with all kinds of imprecations and oaths used as a device for establishing credibility.” Instead, Christians should be so truthful that when they say “yes” or when they say “no” there is no need for an oath or swearing or “pinky promise” – Christians keep their word. To fail to keep your word is to fall under the judgment of the Judge.

How this fits in context is difficult. Adam Clarke is outright in saying he cannot figure out why this is here and prefers to think of it as separate and final advice for James’ readers. Robertson likewise states there is no connection to the preceding context. That this verse is connected with the previous context of attitude, behavior, and demeanor of those looking forward to the coming of the Lord is certain – “above all” coupled with de (Eng. but or and) indicates this.[1] Since swearing or making oaths is so foreign to the enduring and patient Christian, it is “above all” to be avoided, especially in light of the Lord’s teaching. Just because a Christian has turned to the one true and only God does not give him/her the right to invoke God in oaths and somehow strengthen your word. It doesn’t work that way. Rather, because a Christian has trusted in the only true and living God, he should speak truth to all, especially in light of the coming of the Lord.

[1] There are those who see pro tanton de as introductory of the end of the epistle, similar to Paul’s “finally” (Gk. loipon) in his epistles or Peter’s “above all” (Gk. pro tanton) in 1 Peter 4.8.

The Coming of the Lord, part 1

Rich people are getting a bad rap these days. Some of it is self-inflicted; some of it not. Recently, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney expanded the gap between himself and the “common man” by explaining that his wife and he drive a mustang, truck, and a couple Cadillacs. There is much made of the wealthy 1% and just how much Uncle Sam should take from them to give to the other 99% (if any should be taken at all!). On and on the rhetoric goes.

It should be noted that riches, money in and of itself has no character. It is amoral. Thus, when bad people have money it’s bad and when good people have money it’s good. Money derives its character from those who possess it. Nevertheless, Scripture does caution rich Christians to be careful because money can have an evil influence (see 1 Timothy 6.10, 17-19).

It should also be noted that “rich” is a relative term. If someone were to ask “Are you rich?” how would you respond? Or “who do you think is rich?” One might answer “Bill Gates” or “Carlos Slim” (Telecom billionaire who is now the richest man on the planet). However, when we consider that Americans make up the richest 5% of people on all of planet earth we begin to realize how rich we really are. Or when we consider that nearly 50% of the world’s population lives on $2 a day…who’s rich now? This should make the words of James come alive and penetrate deeply into our very souls.

James 5

James 5.1-6 (ESV)

1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

One writer says that this section (v.1-6) “might almost be a leaf torn out of the Old Testament” because it resembles the prophets so much. It is rife with Old Testament allusions and quotes. It is soaked with the regulations of the Law, especially as regards the relationship between owner and servant and how wages are to be paid.

The Doom of the Rich (1-3)

Who are these rich ones? Are these rich Christians or just rich people in general? Contextually, it would seem these are rich people who are not Christians. First, they are juxtaposed with “the righteous person” (v.6). Second, James does not return to speaking to his “brothers” until verse 7. Third, James has already spoken of rich people who are not Christians and yet find their way into the “assembly” (lit. synagogue) when these Christians meet (2.6). Finally, there is not a call to repentance or amending of ways; rather, all that remains is judgment. This would seem to indicate that “you rich” is a general term referring to those plutocrats outside of the Body of Christ. It should be noted that the rich here are not condemned simply because they are rich; it is because of their 1) refusal to obey the gospel and 2) harsh and oppressive treatment of the righteous that they are condemned. Hence, not all rich people are addressed here, but a specific group known to James and his readers. So why address the rich in a letter written to the church? Conversion! To convert his brethren from envying the rich and their wealth. To convert his brethren from a shaken mind to a solid mind concerning their suffering and endure it. To convert those rich who frequent the assembly from time to time who are not Christians.

These rich ones are to “weep and wail” (NIV). Literally they are to weep wailing. Lenski translates this as “sob while howling.” What is in view is not only the shedding of tears and not simply loud howling, but tears and shrieking. It bears some similarities to 4.9 but there it referred more to exhortation and here it refers more to condemnation. These are common terms for the reaction when the Lord comes in judgment on the wicked (e.g. Isaiah 10.10; 13.6; et al). The reason they are to weep wailing are the “impending miseries” (NAB). Some commentators will point to the destruction of Jerusalem for the coming miseries and even point to select passages in Josephus for confirmation. However, rich and poor alike suffered intensely in AD 70 so perhaps something else is in view. John Gill sees here “eternal miseries, or the torments of hell.” Possibly. Others point to the context and verses 2-3 as the miseries which are prophesied. This seems to be in keeping with the meaning of the word “miseries” (lit. hardship resulting in wretchedness). James describes three miseries coming upon the rich. They are present as three “prophetic perfects” (Pulpit Commentary) or three “present perfects” (Coffman) indicating that they are of such a certainty that if they are not already in the process of happening, they most certainly will be.

Rotted Riches. “Your wealth has rotted” (Lexham Bible). Those things which you possess which make you rich are a decaying dead body. All the fields and flocks. All the grain and grass. The wine and the wheat. The oil and the olive. Supplies stored up in storehouses. All of it has been and stands putrefied.

Moth-eaten Mantle. “Your garments are moth-eaten” (ESV). Those splendid and gorgeous garments which are bought and sold for so much and laid up for show or future use are full of holes and useless.

Corroded Coins. “Your gold and silver have corroded.” All those precious metals which have been hoarded away in some secret place are collecting dust and rust as they lie unused.

An obvious paradox should be pointed out: rich people tend to take care of their storehouses so that supplies do not rot; they tend to take care of their clothes very well or even wear silk; and gold and silver never rust in the hands of rich people. So what are we to make of this? Lenski explains: “The whole passage is exalted and is worded in Hebraic parallelism. When James says that gold and silver rust he becomes purposely paradoxical when his words are understood literally; hence the real meaning of the metaphor strikes the mind forcibly.”[1]

The putrefying supplies, the moth-eaten clothes, and the tarnished coins all rise up as witnesses against the rich. “Their corrosion” is literally their poison, as like that of an asp or other venomous creature. Hence, these rich people stand infected and dying from the venom of riches. These riches are not being put to use and they witness to this by their constantly being stored up. Like the venom of a deadly creature if left untreated the flesh will decay, turn black, and rot, so too the rich will have their flesh eaten by a consuming fire. Certain doom awaits the unrepentant rich person.

Immediately a connection can be made from James to his half-brother Jesus and his teaching on riches (cf. Matthew 6.20, 21). The moths which eat and rust which corrodes are themes which Jesus used to describe the fleeting nature of earthly wealth. Yet He pointed His disciples heavenward where those things cannot happen to the treasures of heaven. Further, the storing up of treasure is wrong because it reveals the priorities of the one storing them. Having faith in God and not wealth, clothes, or coins will enable one to properly view those possessions given by God. Finally, storing up treasures is wrong because it deprives those in need of what they need. When wealth could be used to feed the hungry, they lie unused and rotting in barns. When clothing could have been used to clothe the naked, they lie unused and moth-eaten. When gold and silver could have been used to buy what is needful for those in need, they lie unused and corroding in a closet.

James lays a final strike against the rich when he says that they “have laid up treasure in the last days.” Scholars debate what exactly it is that the rich are treasuring up (Greek word from which we get our English word “thesaurus”). The ESV seems to indicate that treasure is still in mind. John Gill seems to confirm this. In the Vulgate text, what is being “treasured up” is wrath. Other scholars point to the preceding object, which is fire. Hence the rich are storing up fire “in the last days.” Nevertheless, the lesson is clear: they have been storing up the wrong things. They should have been storing up treasure in heaven. But now, “in [the] last days,” in the days following Jesus’ earthly ministry and which precede his final coming, they have/are stored/storing the wrong things. Let every (American) Christian learn the message of James to the rich and share, not hoard, our wealth.

The Sin of the Rich (4-6)

Why is all this to befall the rich? Wherefore are these miseries to come upon the rich? What is their sin? James does not leave us or his readers in the dark concerning the judgment of God. Even in their negligence with sharing their wealth, they have been busy in sin. Sin is the cause of the impending doom.

Heartless Injustice. What is described in verse 4 was all too real for those first century Jewish Christians. Even a parable of Jesus captures the daily struggle of hired workers laboring in a field owned by a wealthy person (Matthew 20.1-16). The laborers expected their pay at the end of the day. Apparently, James’ audience has been experiencing fraud from the land owners of the area. Wages were not paid. This was something the rich land owners had done and continued to do in spite of the fact that this was something forbidden under the Law (Deuteronomy 24.14-15; Leviticus 19.13). Now the laborers are crying out (for vengeance) unto God against these land owners. Specifically, James uses a familiar and frequently used term for God found in the Old Testament – the Lord of Hosts (cf. Isaiah 5.9). He is the Lord of the armies of heaven who stand ready to lead his army into battle against the oppressive rich. The imagery here also mimics that of the people of Israel in Egyptian captivity when they cried unto the Lord and He heard them (Exodus 3.7).

Lavish Luxury. Not only do these rich land owners continue to withhold wages from their laborers, but apparently whatever funds would have been paid for work they use for their own “luxury” and “self-indulgence.” These terms taken together point to a soft life given to pleasure. Self-indulgent is a term applied to the people of Sodom (Ezekiel 16.49). This puts into perspective the nature and character of these rich people – they are on par with the people of Sodom. They are pampered and deny themselves no pleasure. Older versions of the Bible use the word “wanton” (KJV). Through all this lascivious living, they grow fat, like an ox or sheep, for “the day of slaughter,” yet another Old Testament allusion (see Jeremiah 12.3). Their doom and destruction is certain.

Murderous Cruelty. The final indictment from James is perhaps the most shocking. The rich “have condemned and murdered the righteous.” How to understand this phrase is the question. Some see Jesus here. He is “the righteous [one]” and James pictures Him the same as John does in his epistle (1 John 2.1). Indeed, it could be argued that the rich of Jesus’ day (Pharisees, Pilate) condemned and murdered Him. Still others see not only Jesus but Stephen as well who was martyred after his sermon (Acts 7). There are those who even see James, the one who is writing this epistle who will himself be martyred (according to tradition, James the half-brother of Jesus was cast down from the pinnacle of the temple and then his head was smashed by a blacksmith’s hammer). Contextually, it would seem that what is in view is that those laborers who cried out against the landowner were silenced permanently and no doubt by fraud. The rich condemn and murder “the righteous man.” Even in the face of the murderous assaults of the rich, the poor man does not resist or withstand the rich man. That is to say that these righteous ones had no one to plead their cause before the court. Like Paul years later, no one came to stand by them save the Lord (2 Timothy 4.16-17).

In light of the severe cruelty, the lavish and lascivious luxury, and the heartless injustice, these rich have stored up the wrath of God for themselves. This should teach man that God is always mindful of the little guy, the ones who cannot take care of themselves, who are poor and in need. God is not ignorant of their suffering and He will issue recompense against those who perpetrate acts such as these against them. As Christians, we must be sure to always do good and help those in need. As Christians, when the godless come against us we must let the Lord be our Justifier.

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, O.: Lutheran book concern, 1938). 647.