The Coming Misery of the Rich: An Examination of James 5:1-6

The Letter of James

There is a cartoon character named “Richie Rich” who has been around since the 1960’s.  Though being essentially the richest boy in the world, Richie Rich is often portrayed as being a “down-to-earth” kind of character, kindly and compassionate to those less fortunate that himself and the antithesis of being a “rich snob”.  Though the image of a kindly yet excessively rich child serves as a springboard for innumerable adventures, not all people who discover wealth are as upstanding as Richie Rich.   In the days that James wrote his letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1), the rich were not being kind or compassionate at all.  They were acquiring money the way many rich people do; bending the rules, cutting the corners and stepping on those who were beneath them.  Moo suggests that James wrote to his audience before the Jerusalem council (47-48 A.D.) and possibly sometime around or before the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28 (46 A.D.).[1] Like all times in the past, there would have been serious hardship for all and it seems that the audience written to by James was facing severe hardship.  In times of hardship some rise to the top and some sink to the bottom; James 5:1-6 is written to those on the top.  In James 5:1-6 James delivers a message of judgment to the rich people who chose to act in 4 ways unfitting their Christian claims.

The Context of James 5:1-6

In the first chapter of his letter, James addresses his readers on suffering and gospel obedience, reminding his readers to think rightly about temptation and to act in line with the teaching of scripture.  In the second chapter, James addresses a problem of practice and a problem of doctrine.  He warns the readers to not show favoritism based on financial position, and he warns his readers to not think that they can claim to have “faith” and then not do what they know they should do.  In the third chapter, James addresses the biggest problem of obedience to the scripture; the control of the tongue.  He instructs his readers to strive to keep a tight reign on their tongues, and also comments on spiritual wisdom that refrains from boasting about selfish ambition.

Then, in the fourth chapter, James gives some specific teaching regarding how his readers should be living.  In 4:1-6, James teaches his readers how their fights and quarrels come from the battling desires in them that seek to exist in two competing worldviews; the Christian and the secular.  Then, in 4:7-12, James writes to his readers that they should instead abandon the ways of the world and come near to God.  He writes to them, encouraging them to “Resist the devil” (4:7), “Come near to God” (4:8), wash hands and purify hearts (4:8), “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (4:9) and to “humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10).

Upon commenting in general, James starts to give some very specific pieces of instruction.  In 4:11-12 James writes to his readers, that they should “not slander one another” (4:11).  The reason he gives for not slandering is “Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it” (4:11).  James parallels mistreatment of a fellow believer with judging the law.  This is entirely inappropriate, for “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (4:12).  His readers must remember that their disobedience is rebellion against the Lawgiver and Judge, who alone commands obedience to the law, justifies those under the law and administers justice against those who rebel against the law.

James then moves on to give specific encouragement, and rebuke, to a specific group of people.  In 4:13-17 he addresses the merchants (the middle class).[2] In writing to the merchant class, James instructs them to not make presumptuous plans for they “do not even know what will happen tomorrow” (4:14).  James reminds the merchants that, in the cosmic scheme of things, they are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14) and they should instead say “f it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (4:15).  The merchants were not doing this; they were instead making clever plans regarding their lives and business and then boasting about their “arrogant schemes” (4:16).  James reminds the merchants of the importance of doing what they know should be done in 4:17, for “if you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin”.  James condemns their sinfulness and warns them to not look to the future with presumption but to instead make plans with reference to God’s will.[3] This then brings the reader to 5:1-6.

Exegesis of 5:1-6 – Addressing The Rich

After writing to the merchant class, James takes an aggressive turn.  He changes pace from firm exhortation to hard rebuke, writing to the “rich people” (5:1).  The rich, according to verse 4, are landowners who had hired laborers.  The reader would already have learned from 1:9-11 that there was some sort of tension between the poor and the rich (as there always is).  The poor were told to “take pride in their high position” (1:9) while the rich were to “take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower” (1:10).  In 2:6-7 the reader would have read that that the rich were mistreating the poor, exploiting them and dragging them into court.  The rich people in the second chapter were people from a hypothetical situation; rich individuals that came into the church and received preferential treatment over and against the treatment offered to a poor individual.  The rich people addressed in the fifth chapter are not hypothetical, but there is some serious debate and question regarding whether the rich were pagan outsiders to the church or believers; part of the church.

Some individuals look at the hard language of James 5:1-6 and see a clear echo of an Old Testament prophetic announcement of judgment.[4] Seeing that such pronouncements of judgment were often addressed to pagan nations, some commentators see the audience of 5:1-6 as being primarily pagan in nature.[5] Other commentators see the answer to this question as being almost self-evident, for James would be addressing the Christians to whom the letter was written.[6] It seems highly probable that, like today, the first century church had many who claimed the name of Christ and did not actually live up to that claim.  Were the rich in danger of ‘losing their salvation’?  The answer lies clearly in the text.

Verse 1 – The Desperate Need to Change

James starts off his condemnation of the rich with a hard comment to the rich.  Right off the start, James instructs the rich to “weep and wail”.  The idea is a repetition of the call to change in 4:9, to “grieve, mourn and wail”, and “change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom”.  The rich have been enjoying life, eating and drinking and generally catering to their own desires.  They have spent what they have got on their pleasures (4:3) and need to instead humble themselves.  Why should they humble themselves?  It is imperative for there are justified miseries that are coming on them.  The original word for “misery” (talaipwria) occurs only one other place in scripture; Romans 3:16 where it is talking about the way marked by sinful man.  What exactly is the misery that is coming on the rich?  That question is answered further on in the passage.

Verse 2 – 3b – The Coming Misery Upon the Rich

In James 5:1, James writes that there is misery coming to the rich where as in 5:2, he starts commenting in the past tense regarding the good of the rich.  James says three things to the rich, that their wealth has rotted, moths have eaten their clothes and their gold and silver are corroded.  This at first seems slightly bizarre, especially in a modern context.  How does wealth rot?  Is James claiming that gold corrodes?

First, the comment on the rotting of the wealth uses a word that is a hapax legomenon; occurring only once in the New Testament (and 5:1-6 contains several).  Several commentators suggest that the 3 fold comments on corruption of possessions refers to the 3 categorical classes of riches in the Roman world; grain, garments and gold.[7] Others see the comment regarding rotting wealth as a general comment on the transitory nature of material goods, with the actual goods described only as clothing and money.[8] It seems more sensible to the author that the first position is a good option, seeing that the fourth verse indicates that these landowners ran some sort of farming/agricultural operation.  People that have agrarian sources of income tend to have to stockpile seeds and crops (if not for selling, then for planting and personal use) and if those rotted, there would be significant problems for the rich landowners.

Regarding the question about the corrosion of gold, some comment that James is literally talking about coins corroding, for coins in that era were made with many impurities that made corrosion very possible.[9] Others suggest that James is obviously not making a propositional claim about gold and its ability to actually rust, but is instead a figure of speech for referring essentially to the worthlessness, not the perishability, of wealth.[10] It seems that whether or not James is making a claim regarding the ability of gold to rust is no the point of the text though.  The three comments on grain, garments and gold serve as a triple repetition on the true nature of the valuables of the rich, on “the perishability of riches and hence of the certain ruin awaiting those who have no other ground of hope”.[11] Davids states “the rich almost by definition have their wealth stored on earth and thus are not rich toward God”.[12] The things that the rich gather for their own personal security were destined to let them down.

James comments initially on how the wealth of the rich was perishing and corroding, and then makes two searing predictions against the rich.  For his first prediction, he says “their corrosion will testify against you”.  The rich who put their trust in wealth will ultimately be betrayed by that wealth, when they are called to give account before the Lord.  The fleeting and perishing nature of their riches will declare their foolishness and will be a condemning voice at their coming divine court date.

For his second prediction, he states that the corrosion will “eat your flesh like fire”.  The corrosion of the wealth of the rich was contagious.  In the end, all material goods will be destroyed.  Peter writes of the coming destruction saying, “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10) and “everything will be destroyed in this way” (2 Peter 3:11).  When the rich connect themselves to their material goods in hope of security, those goods will anchor them and trap them in the fire when it finally arrives.  The first and second predictions are essentially the same; judgment is coming and the verdict is already in; the rich are headed for eternal suffering in hell.

Verse 3c – 6 – Four Wicked Ways of Living

#1 – Hoarding Wealth

James follows his condemnations and gives four evidences against the rich that will assure them of the certain judgment against them.  First, he writes that the rich “have hoarded wealth in the last days” (5:3c).  The last days is understood not as the immediate days precluding the second coming (the weeks, months or immediate years before Christ returns), but instead as the period of time between the first and second coming of Christ.[13] The perishing nature of material possessions only is shown to be exponentially increased folly when a person seeks security in acquiring more material possessions.  Jesus spoke about this when he said “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14).  There is a contemporary saying (mostly on bumper stickers and t-shirts) that goes “he who dies with the most toys wins”.  Though not always that explicit, the rich often think in this way.  Another version says “he who dies with the most toys still dies”.  If James was marketing today, he may have said “he who dies with the most toys will not escape hell”.  This is not to say that having many goods is inherently evil, but there are many individuals in the modern church who claim allegiance to Christ but “their lust for money and possessions betrays their true allegiance”.[14]

#2 – Disobeying the Scripture

Second, he writes that the rich “failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields” (5:4).  The rich were directly disobeying the law which said “do not defraud your neighbors or rob them. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight” (Lev 19:13) and “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is an Israelite or is a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”  (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).  This is exactly what had happened.  The rich had held back wages, they had cried out to the Lord, he had heard and the rich were guilty of sin.  On this account alone, the rich were inescapably condemned.  Like the cries of the blood of Abel (Genesis 4:10) and the moaning of the Jews themselves in Egypt (Exodus 2:23, 3:7), the cries of unpaid wages and mistreated workers had reached the Lord and the dispensation of his justice was imminent.

#3 – Chasing Luxury

Third, James writes that the rich “have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (5:5) and have “fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (5:5).  The rich had disregarded the teaching of the church, and the Old Testament, on wealth.  Those in the church should use their wealth for evangelism instead of personal pleasure, for this is the great commission to everyone in the church (Matthew 28:19).  Those in the church should also use their money for the needy (Galatians 2:10, 1 John 3:16-18) and for ministry (1 Corinthians 9:4-14, Galatians 6:6).[15] None of this was happening.  Instead of being compassionate and generous, they hoarded their wealth and saved it, spending it on luxury.  The idea of the original word translated “luxury” (τρυφάω) carries the connotation of “soft living” instead of excessive, wanton vice.[16] The rich weren’t going crazy with pleasure, but instead of giving it to the poor for the benefit of the poor they were taking it from the poor for the benefit of the rich and the increase of their pleasure.

This living for pleasure was resulting in the rich fattening themselves in the day of slaughter.  Jesus taught that on earth, the rich were to be pitied for on earth they had received their comfort (Luke 6:24).  The original text comments on how the rich were “fattening your hearts” (εθρεψατε τας καρδιας).  In response to this, an immediately following verse following verse (5:8) urges the readers to instead “strengthen your hearts” (στηριξατε τας καρδιας).  Their luxury was priming them for the eschatological kill floor; their hearts were growing fat with pleasure when they should have been growing in lean with discipline.

#4 – Perverting Justice

Fourth, James puts forth the final, and most decisive, piece of evidence for the condemnation of the rich.  They “have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (5:6).  The immediate question that many commentators tackle is regarding “the innocent one”.  There is an old position that the “innocent one” is Christ, but every modern commentator consulted by this author found unanimous decision that it was not a reference to Christ but was instead a general classification for those persons mistreated by the rich.  Kistemaker says “τον δικαιον – the definite article with the substantive (adjective) defines the generic class of righteous people”.[17] Knowing that the rich were not being condemned for the death of Christ (which Moo rightly comments would be a strange insertion into the text)[18], one can reconstruct the situation.

It seems that the rich landowners were defrauding their workers of their rightly owed wages.  Then, either due to challenges/complaints from their workers or in an effort to eliminate the evidence of their wickedness, the laborers of the rich ended up facing them in court.  The rich, who were already disobedient to the commands of Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14-15 were now being disobedient to the command of Leviticus 19:15, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly”.  The rich covered up one sin with another sin.  Martin says that the legal system is the tool of the rich, for the poor cannot use it due to its inherent expense.[19] If the poor could not secure their own wages to pay for their daily expenses, it is no surprise that they lost their battle in court to acquire those wages.[20] Somehow, through the corruption and power available to the rich (likely a bribe), they ended up putting certain innocent and defrauded workers to death.  This bloody corruption of the court system, the dispensing of injustice from the very office dedicated to the upholding of justice, was the final nail in the coffin for the rich.

This now brings the reader to the obvious answer to the question of whether or not the rich persons in 5:1-6 were regenerate believers.  They were obviously in the church, for this epistle (like others) was read in the churches, not the brothels or the marketplaces.  The rich were identifying themselves somehow with the church, but after examining the wretched accusations against the rich, one realizes that there is no way that a true Christian would ever live a life characterized by corruption, theft and orchestrated murder.  Whatever their claim to faith, their actions revealed a contrary truth about the condition of their hearts.  Is this to say that there was no hope for the rich?  Not at all; just because there is no call to repentance does not mean that it is not implied.[21] One only need think of the story of Jonah, remembering how he only proclaimed “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).  There was also no offer of repentance, but the offer was implicit in the message and inferred by James’ admonition to “weep and wail” (5:1).

Contemporary Significance and Reflection

The problems of money are nothing foreign to the church in North America.  The corruption of the rich is everywhere in the church; from secularly owned and operated “Christian” media corporations to money grabbing word-faith teachers, one sees the rotten fruit of greed and corruption everywhere.  Outside the church, it is even more excessively horrible.  Every time a person shops at WalMart and purchases shoes for $16, they support Chinese sweat shops.  Millions of illegal immigrants give honest days work, day in and day out, for pay that is only a percentage of the state minimum wage.  Sex trafficking of children is a global epidemic.  When one considers the modern tsunami of corruption and wickedness, one almost finds it difficult to know where to start.

From James 5:1-6, one knows that one cannot simply do nothing. Sitting by and allowing the wicked to prosper is itself wickedness (James 4:17).  One could start with the antitheses of the accusations made against the rich.  First, one could strive to be generous and not hoard wealth (Psalm 37:21; Proverbs 11:25; 2 Corinthians 9:6; 1 Timothy 6:18). Second, one could work at obeying the scripture and not simply listening to it (James 1:22-25, 4:17).  Third, one could aspire towards learning contentment with what God has given (Luke 3:14; Philippians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; Hebrews 13:5).  Fourth, one could resolve to refrain from taking fellow believers to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).  Beyond all that, one could make an effort to become active in fighting against the mistreatment of one people group or organization; if every Christian fought for just one people group or organization, the various injustices of the world would face resistance to the tune of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of individuals.  That would make a serious difference and would make sweeping sin “under the rug” almost impossible.  Ultimately, the injustice of the world will be dealt with when the judge (Christ) arrives, but James also states “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:20).  The size of the task does not negate the goal.

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James. PNTC (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 26.

[2] David P. Nystrom , James. NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 267.

[3] Mark E. Gaskins, “Looking to the Future: James 4:13-5:11” in Review and Expositor, no. 97 (2000), 241.

[4] Ralph Martin, Word Biblical Commentary: James (Waco: Word Books, 1988), 172

[5] Ibid.

[6] James  B. Adamson, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1976), 184.

[7] Martin, 173.

[8] R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James, (Hendrickson, 2001), 646.

[9] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: James (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), 244.

[10] James Ropes, The International Critical Commentary: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James (NY: Charles Scribners Sons, 1916), 284-285.

[11] Ibid, 286.

[12] Peter H. Davids, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1982), 44.

[13] MacArthur, 245.

[14] Ibid, 242.

[15] Ibid, 244.

[16] Ropes, 289.

[17] Simon Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John.  (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 163.

[18] Moo, 218.

[19] Martin, 181.

[20] Ibid,.

[21] Nystrom, 268.


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