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Approaching quickly the end of our study in James, we continue here with the fifth chapter.
5:1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
Here, James admonishes the rich oppressors who were persecuting the church in Jerusalem. He does this not only to condemn the oppressors, but also to encourage the oppressed, letting them know that the oppressors will not go forever unpunished.
This is the third time in his epistle that James refers to the rich, all unflatteringly. In chapter one, James told the one who is rich to "take pride in low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower" (James 1:10). In chapter two, James warned of giving the rich preferential treatment in worship assemblies, especially since the rich were, as James pointed out, exploiting them, dragging them off to court and blaspheming Christ (James 2:6-7).
It is difficult for fallen man to be rich and to be godly. Jesus warned us of this, when He said: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:24). The rich, in general, are admired by the worldly and by the wicked, and so, are subjected to many temptations. The rich have the resources to carry out the whims of their fleshly desires, and so, are more apt to fall into a sinful lifestyle. The rich have all their worldly needs satisfied and see themselves as self-sufficient, and so, are more likely to see no need for God. Now, riches are not bad in themselves. "Riches are given to the good, lest they should be thought evil; to the bad, lest we should think them the only and chiefest good."[Footnote #8] The sin of riches comes from our reaction to them. Christians who are rich must be on guard. Paul tells Timothy: "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (I Tim. 6:17). And so, if we are rich in this world, we must be careful how much we love our riches, trust in our riches, live for our riches. We must make all the more effort to seek God and what He would have us do with our riches.
The wicked rich lose the true enjoyment of riches on earth (which is to use them for God's glory), as well as the prospect of eternally enjoying them (which comes through using them to store up treasures in heaven). As Paul continues to tell Timothy: "Command [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasures for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life" (I Tim. 6:18-19). True prosperity is not in possessions, but in the use of them for God's glory.
James, by saying "listen, you rich people", specifically targets his admonition at the rich oppressors of the church in Jerusalem. He warns them to repent, saying: "Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you." "The misery" of which James speaks has two fulfillments: first, in the destruction of Jerusalem that came in 70 AD; ultimately, in the end-time judgment that all wicked oppressors will face. The judgment of the wicked rich is inevitable; nevertheless, the rich seem to themselves invincible. They forget God and say: "Nothing will shake me; I'll always be happy and never have trouble" (Psalm 10:6).
James goes on to picture the time of judgment. The wealth of the wicked will be of no use in the judgment. It will have "rotted", become moth-eaten and "corroded". Rather than helping them in the judgment, their hoarded wealth will testify against them; it will be proof of their wasted efforts, their following after fleshly desires and their striving after the things of the earth. Their riches may have given them enjoyment on earth, but the testimony of their corroded wealth will haunt them for eternity.
James enumerates some of their sins specifically: "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you." James must say "Look!" presumably because these wicked rich are so accustom to their sin that it has to be brought to their attention. Also, their sin is bad enough that it is "crying out against [them]." Gross sin is said to cry out to God, especially sin committed against the helpless: Abel's blood cried out to God (Gen. 4:10); the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah reached the ears of the Lord (Gen. 18:20-21); the cries of the Israelites under Egypt's oppression also reached the Lord's ears (Ex. 3:9). The extreme miserliness of the rich people that James is addressing is shown in the fact that they not only failed to give to the needy (by hoarding their wealth), but also failed to pay their debts to those who worked for them.
However, "the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty." God is in control; He is sovereign; He is the "Lord Almighty." The wicked rich "have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence", they have "fattened [themselves] in the day of slaughter", as hogs unaware of the coming doom, but their extravagance will end on their death bed. They have "hoarded wealth in the last days", failing to store up treasures in heaven (see Matt. 6:20). What good is comfort in this short life when it comes at the expense of comfort throughout eternity?
Extravagance often leads to injury and oppression (the rich never being satisfied with what they have, but always wanting more), and so the rich James speaks of have "condemned and murdered innocent men." Innocence in itself will not keep one free from being oppressed. Oppression of the innocent started with Abel, carried on through Christ, and continues today. Unfortunately, man-instituted governments do not always prevent such oppression. The rich that James speaks of apparently used the existing judicial system to carry out their oppression. However, God sees and will rejudge all cases man has unjustly judged.
The oppressed, rather than fight the oppressors, reflected the attitude of their Lord and did not oppose the mistreatment. The writer of the book of Hebrews, possibly referring to the same oppression, spoke of the attitude of the faithful through oppression: "Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions" (Heb. 10:33-34). The great riches of our inheritance in heaven make our oppression here on earth not worth even bothering with. Unfortunately, this attitude is very hard to find nowadays, even among Christians. So many Christians spend so much time complaining about, protesting, and agonizing over the mild (in comparison) taxation that we experience here in the U. S. Who cares?! We have "better and lasting possessions"! Our riches are in heaven! The Lord is our "exceeding great reward" (Gen. 15:1, KJV)!
7Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. 8You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. 9Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Given the judgment that the oppressors will undergo, we should "be patient, then,... until the Lord's coming." James spoke in detail of the judgment of the oppressors in order to lead into this exhortation. "Patience is a sense of afflictions without murmuring, and of injuries without revenge."[Footnote #9] We can afford to "be patient" because our reward is in the next life. Such patience is a recognition of God's sovereignty and a demonstration of one's faith.
Thoughts of the Lord's coming can inspire such patience. There are some things that just won't be taken care of until the Lord comes again. Until the Lord comes, sin will remain, oppression will continue, pain will be a part of day to day life. However, when the Lord returns, all oppression will disappear, for "righteousness will be the scepter of [the Lord's] kingdom" (Heb. 1:8); all affliction will be gone forever: "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
James gives, as an example of the patience we should have, the farmer who "waits for the land to yield its valuable crop." In waiting for the Lord, we should have the same attitude as the farmer, saying, "This is my seedtime, heaven is the harvest; here I must labour and toil, and there rest."[Footnote #10] For the farmer, the time of waiting is full of trials and testings: with drought, flood, pestilence, etc. These trials increase the farmer's toil, but they also sweeten the reward. The crop is all the more valuable because of the trials and testings. And so, through our trials and testings, we come to value all the more the reward, the coming of our Lord. Note that the farmer is "patient...for the autumn and spring rains". These rains are not his reward, but they are signs to him that the reward is forthcoming, that the harvest will be successful. So, we also should be comforted by the signs of the Lord's coming, and be strengthened in our faith that our reward is forthcoming. Given the magnitude of our rewards as compared to the farmer's, we should have much more patience than the farmer. "Consider him that waits for a crop of corn; and will not you wait for a crown of glory? If you should be called to wait longer than the husbandmen, is not there something more worth waiting for?"[Footnote #11]
So, we are to "be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near." We are to "stand firm" in faith and hope, despite the situation of our lives on earth. And, indeed, "the Lord's coming is near". Make no mistake, the Lord Jesus Christ will come back to earth. He said, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:3); also, at the ascension of Christ, the angels told Jesus' disciples: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).
We should all have the awareness that the Lord will come soon. Even if the Lord decides to tarry in coming back bodily to earth, He will come soon for each of us individually on our death-beds. Our lives should take this fact into account. Jesus told us: "Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" (Matt. 24:42).
Finally, not only are we to show patience in affliction, but James also tells us: "Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged." Many people show an abundance of Christian charity to non-believers, but their patience is non-existent towards other Christians. Our brothers need our love, patience, and forgiveness as much as non-believers, for we are all still sinners. So, show patience towards oppressors and brothers alike, for "the Judge is standing at the door!" The Lord's coming is not only our hope, but also a great incentive to live a godly life.
So, Father, give us such patience through the awareness of the soon coming of Your Son. Strengthen our faith and our appreciation for the great inheritance that is ours through Your Son. Give us the proper attitude toward our worldly possessions; show us by Your Spirit how we may use them for Your glory, that we may store up treasures in heaven. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray these things, Amen.
8. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 400.
9. Ibid., pg. 418.
10. Ibid., pg 421.
11. Matthew Henry, on James 5.
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