“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.” – James 5:1
In Luke 16:13 Jesus stated an important spiritual principle: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Because of that, Jesus exhorted,” 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” (Matt. 6:19–21).
Very few other things more clearly reveals the state of a person’s heart than his view of money and material possessions. Many who profess faith in Christ invalidate their claim to genuine saving faith through their materialistic lifestyles—a clear indication that they serve wealth, not God (Matt. 6:24).
James presents a test in chapter 5—that of how one views money. The first six verses of chapter 5 form a strong rebuke—the strongest in the entire epistle. James’s blistering, scathing denunciation condemns those who profess to worship God but in fact worship money. He calls on them to examine the true state of their hearts in light of how they feel about their wealth.
The Bible does not teach that possessing wealth is sinful in and of itself. In fact, everyone possesses wealth and material goods to one degree or another.
Moses reminded the Israelites poised to enter the promised land that “the Lord your God … is giving you power to make wealth” (Deut. 8:18), a truth confirmed by Proverbs 10:22: “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it.” What is wrong is to misuse one’s wealth. “The love of money “wrote Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10,” is a root of all sorts of evil;” but he later wrote that it is God “who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (v. 17).
James, like Paul, cautions against the love of money that leads people to misuse the wealth with which God has blessed them for their own selfish, sinful ends.
James’s sharp rebuke of the wicked wealthy is in keeping with the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah repeatedly denounced those rich people who misused their wealth or abused the poor. In chapter 3 he warned,” The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people, ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing My people and grinding the face of the poor?’ declares the Lord God of hosts” (vv. 14–15; cf. 5:8–10). In Isaiah 10:1–4 the prophet gives his pronouncement of judgment on Israel’s wicked rich. In Amos 8:4–10 the prophet prophesied of doom on the wicked rich. Job (Job 24:2–4), Jeremiah (Jer. 5:27–29), Micah (Mic. 2:1–5), and Malachi (Mal. 3:5) also condemned the wicked rich.
James was speaking to those who would hear his letter read in the churches. He aimed his rebuke at people who were in some way associated with the church. He realized that some in the churches to which he wrote claimed to be Christians but were not. Though they may have outwardly professed faith in Christ, their focus on earthly treasure betrayed the falsity of that profession (Matt. 6:21; cf. 13:22; 19:21–22).
Sadly, many in the church today are accepted as Christians because they talk about Jesus and claim a superficial allegiance to Him. Yet an examination of their lifestyle reveals that they do not walk in obedience to His commandments. Their lust for money and possessions betrays their true allegiance (Matt. 6:24; cf. James 4:4; 1 John 2:15–17). Believers must be wary of falling into the same sins that characterize unbelievers.
James begins his denunciation with a forceful pronouncement of impending judgment. In light of the inescapable doom that is coming against the wicked wealthy, James warns, come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Weep and howl picture an intense outburst of despairing, violent, uncontrollable grief. The Old Testament prophets frequently described such wailing over the effects of sin (e.g., Isa. 13:6; 15:3; 16:7; 23:1; Jer. 48:20; Ezek. 21:12; Amos 8:3; Zech. 11:2; cf. Matt. 5:4).
The miseries which are coming upon them describes overwhelming hardship, trouble, suffering, or distress when they stand before the Lord in judgment. In Luke 6:24–25, Jesus warned them, ”Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Later in Luke, Jesus told a shocking story of Lazarus and the rich man.
James notes four sins that precipitate the severe judgment pronounced on the wicked rich. They are condemned because their wealth was uselessly hoarded, unjustly gained, self-indulgently spent, and ruthlessly acquired.
“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!” – James 5:2–3
Hoarding is the practice of collecting or accumulating something, like money and worldly riches and is one of the most widespread sins of our time. God entrusts believers with material goods so they may use them for His glory. Obviously, Christians are to provide for their families (1 Tim. 5:8). But beyond that, Christians’ resources are to be used to advance God’s kingdom (cf. 1 Chron. 29:3; Mark 12:42–44; Luke 6:38; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 8:2; 9:6–7). Specifically, believers are to use their wealth to win the lost (Luke 16:9), care for those in need (Gal. 2:10; 1 John 3:16–18), and support those in ministry (1 Cor. 9:4–14; Gal. 6:6). Those who name the name of Christ are not to amass a fortune that is uselessly stashed away without regard for God’s will (cf. Job 27:13–17; Ps. 39:6; Eccl. 5:10–11, 13).
Hoarding one’s possessions—whether food, clothing, or money—is foolish. All such earthly treasures are fleeting and transitory. ”Do not weary yourself to gain wealth,” cautioned Solomon. “Cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings like an eagle that flies toward the heavens” (Prov. 23:4–5).
Having exposed the sinful futility of hoarding wealth, James then described the judgment pronounced on the hoarders. Personifying the rust that depicts the futility of hoarding riches, James declared that it will be a witness for the prosecution against the wicked rich. In the judgment, their hoarded, rotted, moth-eaten, corroded treasures will give graphic testimony to the unregenerate state of their hearts. Their covetous, selfish, compassionless, earthbound approach to life will provoke their condemnation.
The last days encompass the period between Christ’s first and second comings (Acts 2:16–17; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; 4:7; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18). James sharply rebuked them for hoarding their wealth without regard for God’s timetable, the flow of redemptive history, or the reality of eternity. The day of judgment draws near!
Wealth is to be enjoyed as a blessing from God AND used to fulfill His will in meeting needs and advancing the gospel. Those who fail to do that suffer judgment.
“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.” – James 5:4
The wicked rich were not only guilty of sinfully hoarding their wealth; they had also sinfully acquired it. Far from being generous to the poor as Scripture commands (Deut. 15:9–11; Matt. 6:2–4; Gal. 2:10), they exploited them.
Is this not what is happening in many prosperity churches today, as they make loads of money by giving false hope to the poor and the sick? Or what about the rich who misuses “cheap” labour? Lacking the security of a steady source of income, the poor day laborers depended on each day’s wages to feed and clothe their families. That pay, James warned the wicked rich, cries out against you.
James then added the sobering warning that the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (cf. Deut. 24:15). The painful cries of the robbed, defrauded laborers reached the ears of God—and they would echo there until He acted in righteous judgment. The phrase the Lord of Sabaoth describes God as Commander of the armies of heaven (cf. 1 Sam. 17:45).
A frightening judgment awaits those who unjustly hoard the wealth they rob from the poor. Their victims will cry out for justice to the Righteous Judge and He will not disappoint them.
“You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” James 5:5
Having increased their wealth by robbery and hoarding, the wicked rich added to their sin by using their wealth for their own selfish indulgence. James condemned the wicked rich for living in soft, extravagant luxury at the expense of others. Those who pursue pleasure and luxury often descend into vice in a vain attempt to satisfy their insatiable desires. A life without self-denial soon goes out of control in every area. Paul described such people as dead even while they live (1 Tim. 5:6) because, like the foolish son in our Lord’s parable, they squander everything on loose living (Luke 15:13). Those with money frequently close their eyes to the needs of others and the work of God, living solely to gratify their selfish, sinful desires. And, apart from faith in Christ, they face eternal ruin and loss.
Finally, James accused the wicked rich of having fattened their hearts. The desire for luxury led to vice, which led the unjust hoarders to seek to selfishly indulge every desire of their hearts.
Ironically, one of the wealthiest and wisest men who ever lived provides an illustration of the futility of such self-indulgence. Ecclesiastes 2:4–10 reveals that Solomon left no stone unturned in his frantic pursuit of pleasure. Yet Solomon’s evaluation of his pursuit attests to the futility of such selfindulgence: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun” (v. 11).
But lavish self-indulgence can lead to something worse than vanity. James warns of a coming day of slaughter—a frightening picture of judgment. In vivid language, he depicts the self-indulgent hoarders as fattened calves, headed for the slaughterhouse of divine judgment. Blind to heaven, deaf to warnings of hell, insensitive to the impending day of slaughter and judgment, the unrepentant, selfish, indulgent hoarders stumble blindly to their doom. Unless they repent, James warns, they will experience eternal damnation.
(Main Source: The John MacArthur New Testament Commentary – James)