Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your 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. 4 Behold, 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. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers,[a] 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. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, 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.
12 But 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.James 5:1-12
The current political rhetoric in the United States coming from one side of the Presidential race would love to use this passage in James (and misquote it as is usually the case when politicians appeal to Scripture). James in no uncertain terms condemns rich people. It doesn’t make a statement as to whether these rich people are believers or unbelievers. What I am sure would not be made clear if this were applied in the political arena is the fact that is isn’t riches that are condemned, but rich people who have obtained their riches by oppression. And, not all rich people got that way by oppressing their employees and partners. It is misleading to imply that all wealthy people got that way in some unrighteous manner.
Having said all that, I would be terrified if I realized that I was one of the rich people James is referring to. The response of one who comes to realize his position would be to weep and howl. James is using very powerful language here. AT Robertson translates this as “Burst into weeping, howling with grief” for the miseries that are coming upon you. James makes it clear that heaping up treasures is unprofitable since they are rotted, moth-eaten and corroded. What some people heap up for security proves to be without value.
Now James gets to the real point, these rich people got that way by oppressing their laborers, they withheld their wages. They perpetrated a fraud against their workers having turned them into slaves by not paying them their due. James’ judgment is, “You have laid up treasure in the last days.” At a time when generosity is called for, you horde riches and fraud your workers. The last days refer to all the time between the resurrection of Christ and his second coming.
“You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.Deuteronomy 24:14-15
“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.Leviticus 19:13
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,Proverbs 3:27-28
when it is in your power to do it.
28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,Jeremiah 22:13
and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing
and does not give him his wages,
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.Malachi 3:5
Get this, the workers’ wages are crying out against you. Fraudulent rich man, you may have held back wages and accumulated them but unbeknownst to you, those same wages you withheld are crying out to God for justice. This is like the blood of Abel that cried out to God after being murdered by Cain.
What happens when these wages cry out to God? “…the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived in luxury on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The cries have reached the ears of whom? The Lord of hosts. Who is the Lord of hosts? A direct answer is Jesus, however, why did James refer to him as the Lord of hosts instead of any of the many other titles he is given? This, by the way, is the only time this title is used in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, he is also known as the Captain of the Lord’s army.
Remember when Elijah was being chased by the Assyrian King and he was surrounded by the king’s armies. Elijah’s servant freaked out when he awoke and went outside to see the city surrounded by a huge army. Elijah simply asked the Lord to open his servant’s eyes. When he did, the servant saw the host of heaven that significantly outnumbered the Assyrian army. The Assyrian army was quickly dispatched by the Lord’s army. This is the host referred to in the title, the Lord of hosts. The fate of the unjust rich man is to meet with the Lord’s army and find a great defeat.
Advice for the oppressed brethren
James’ response for how to respond to being oppressed by this kind of evil rich man is, Be patient! How long? Until the coming of the Lord, that is when the Lord of hosts returns he will mete out justice. He then exhorts the brothers to be patient with one another, do not grumble even though things are tough. Take the example of suffering and patience from the prophets and Job. You will experience the compassion and mercy of God.
James’ final exhortation in this section is to not be like the fraudulent rich men who have defrauded you. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. No fraud or deceit should ever come from your mouths. Follow the example of Jesus who in complete humility submitted himself to unjust treatment while entrusting himself to the Father.
This passage is a hard saying both for the rich defrauder and for the righteous sufferer. In our humanness we often allow criminals to get away with their crimes to some degree. In contemporary American culture, we have a very difficult time accepting God’s declaration of justice. We are much too lenient in our understanding of just how wicked our behavior is and the punishment it deserves.
We also don’t think a righteous person should have to endure unjust treatment, and he shouldn’t. However, God is the just judge and will give to each according to his deeds. When we want vengeance, the Scripture says, “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.
Should we not fight for the underdog who is mistreated? Of course, we should. But we are to fight righteously and mostly in prayer so the real problem is solved and not just a symptom of the true problem.
This is a prime example of what Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What does the Kingdom look like?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon meLuke 4:18-19
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When the Kingdom of God comes on earth there is no oppression, no fraud, no unjust gain. The oppressed are set free. That is absolutely true when referring to the future Kingdom following the second coming of Christ. It is somewhat true in the here and now when through prayer, the gospel of the Kingdom, and obedience to all Jesus taught us the Kingdom is manifest in the here and now.
Let’s up our prayer commitment to bring in the Kingdom of God on earth in the here and now.