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 5.1-6 (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.”
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.
 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.