Practically Speaking, James Part 11

A brief look at an apostrophe, James 5:1-6

Consider what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 10:22 as we begin our look at this apostrophe:

The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.

Unfortunately, when wealth comes without the Lord’s blessing, then troubles comes right along with it.  This trouble takes the form of many things:  jealousy, envy, fear, abuse, misuse, just to name a few.  The trouble is, wealth without the blessing of the Lord takes the love we should have for people and God all for itself.  When that happens, we are only concerned with the wealth; preserving it, protecting, growing it, and acquiring more of it.  We move from being a friend of God to a friend of the world.

This handful of verses is a natural continuation from the previous section of verses, 4:13-17, where James had discussed carrying out business plans and making money without adding God and His will into the mix.  However, in that section, James is writing about believers.  With this new section, the ungodly rich are in his view.

1.  What is an apostrophe?

The question Bible students ask is this:  Why does James suddenly change his focus?  First, we assume that the believers to whom he is writing are meant to learn something from these verses, even though they are not directed specifically at them.  Second, James is employing a literary technique known as an apostrophe.  In the simplest of terms, an apostrophe is a technique whereby a writer or speaker appears to turn away from his intended audience to address some new and unrelated person or situation, but he expects his audience to get the message.  James uses this device at this juncture, perhaps, as a way to both warn the ungodly rich and at the same time to encourage those who are serving the Lord but with little wealth to speak of.  People like that might be tempted to become discouraged or begin to resent all wealthy people, the Christian business person of the previous section as well as the ungodly rich of this section.

It might very well be that James, writing under the unction of the Holy Spirit, had hoped that his letter might well fall into the hands of unbelievers.  That’s the wondrous thing about the Holy Scriptures; every verse, regardless of who the human author was writing to, was inspired by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit intended those verses for every person to read.

2.  A woeful indictment, verse 1

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

Verse one reads a whole lot like something from the Old Testament, for assailing the ungodly, wicked rich was more or less a common practice among the prophets.  God does not carry a grudge against wealthy individuals; nowhere in the entire Bible are the rich condemned because of their wealth; rather, God simply warns against the special temptations the rich face.  Of note is that James is addressing a particular wealthy group:  those without God.

To be wealthy but without God and to treat others in an ungodly way invites judgment, James warns.  There is no escaping this; they have all the comfort the world has to offer, but because of their ungodliness, “misery” in fast approaching them.  James tells them to “weep and wail.”  These are very descriptive words which describe a loud crying and moaning.  In fact, James is telling them to “howl,” like the wind, so terrible is there forthcoming misery.

At the same time, however, James is not indicating this “howling” is something that leads to repentance.  John Calvin:

Repentance has indeed its weeping, but being mixed with consolation, it does not proceed to howling.

Their comfortable life of luxury is about to come to an abrupt end.

3.  Selfish hoarding, 5:2-3

Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your 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.

There are a number of “crimes” with which these godless rich are charged.  The first one is the crime of hoarding.  Apparently, these people hoarded so much of their wealth that it had started to rot.  In the Apocryphal book of Sirach, we read this little bit of wisdom, which, though not inspired, is nonetheless priceless:

Lose your money to a brother and friend, and let it not rust hidden beneath a stone.

The initial wealth James refers to here is probably agricultural in nature; food supplies, grain, wine, and so on.  What is interesting is that the way this verse is written in the Greek, this “rotting process” has already begun.

He moves on to clothing, which he says are becoming moth-eaten.  In James’ day, a person’s wealth was determined, not so much by coinage, but by their clothing and how much grain, oil, and wine they possessed.  All of these things are temporal in nature.  They are meant to be consumed–eaten or worn–not hoarded.

The final phrase of verse three deserves some attention:

You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

What does James  mean by this somewhat cryptic sentence?  Some scholars, like Burdick and Harper see James referring to The last days, that is, that is, James has the future judgment in mind.

It was even in the last hour, as it were, before Christ comes to judge, that the rich “hoarded wealth.”  (Burdick)

Perhaps James has another “last days” in mind.  How wicked is it for a man, who is on the verge of death–his literal last days–to keep on hoarding his wealth?  What good will all his stuff do him as he struggles to take his last breath?

Believers should leave this world the way they came into it:  with nothing.

James’ teaching here sounds a lot like his more famous half-brother’s on the same topic:

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 moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  (Matthew 6:19-20)

The apostle Paul gives some balance, as he frequently does, to James’ teaching.

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.

In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.  (1 Timothy 6:17, 19)

4.  Dishonest dealings, verses 4, 6

Look! 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.

You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

It surprises many believers to learn this, but God is as much concerned with how we earn our money and how we spend it as He is with how much we give in offerings.  It’s a truism that one sin leads to another and the sin of hoarding ones riches leads to being stingy.  Verse four condemns those who grew rich at exploiting the poor.  James uses harvesters as an example of the “working poor.”  The language James uses reflects the teachings of the Old Testament, in particular Deuteronomy 24:15,

Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

The last phrase of verse four is powerful.   The NIV translates it like this:

The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

But the New King James Version, to its credit, gives the reader a literal translation:

The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.

That phrase, “Lord of Sabaoth” simply defined was an ancient Israelite name for Jehovah, but it means a little more than that.  It suggests an omnipotent “Lord of the armies of heaven.”  God is always on the side of the oppressed.  He metes out justice and saves from harm.  Thanks to Martin Luther, most of us have become familiar with the name Sabaoth:

Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus it is He.
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

James is using the  most graphic language of his time to declare that God is absolutely almighty.  The godless and stingy rich are without excuse, for this almighty God hears the cries of His suffering people and He will, in His own good time, rescue them.

I grouped verse six with four, not because verse five is unimportant, but because verses four and six are somewhat related.  Just as the rich withheld wages from those who deserved and needed them in verse four, verse six deals with more dishonesty:  wealth through fraudulent court actions.

It was back in 2:6 that James makes mention of the rich who were dragging the believers into court, and here 5:6 they have been charged with murder.  We may interpret this verse literally or figuratively.  Burdick sees the literal interpretation as the only one:  the rich, for their own wicked reasons, dragged believers into court n trumped up murder charges.  Kistemaker, on the other hand thinks there is both a literal and figurative meaning to this verse.  He cites Joshua ben Sira, a Jewish sage who lived two centuries before Christ:

The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.  To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed his blood.

These wicked rich were not only taking advantage of the poor, but were also guilty of, literally and figuratively, attacking those who were unable to defend themselves.

5.  Selfishness, verse 5

You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

“Luxury” and “self-indulgence” are very similar in the Greek but with a very slight difference between them.  The first, “luxury,” means more affluence.  It refers to a kind of luxury Thoreau made reference to:

“the luxury which enervates and destroys nations”

It’s the kind of luxury that leads to one becoming morally and ethically lazy.  The second term, “self-indulgence” extravagant and wasteful living.

Jesus spoke of this kind rich individual in Luke 16; the kind who cared only for himself.  This man suffered eternal punishment, not for what he had or what he did, but rather what he failed to do in life:  the rich man failed to love God and failed to care for his neighbor (Kistemaker).

In some powerful language, James compares these rich people to farm animals who, day after day, gorge themselves on food, not realizing that their slaughter is at hand.  The term “day of slaughter” refers to the day of judgment:

Yet you know me, O LORD;
you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!  (Jeremiah 12:3)

The Contemporary English Version captures the real spirit behind James’ words:

While here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. But now you are like fat cattle on their way to be butchered.

Because of the way they lived their lives, the end of the rich will be inescapable.

You must pay with your lives for the wanton indulgence that has cost your victims their lives, the victims of your social and judicial oppression.


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