As a general, overarching theme in this epistle, James has been contrasting the wisdom which is from the world, with the wisdom which is from above. He has shown that contrast in a variety of ways. For instance, James spent a great deal of time talking about the use of the tongue, or our speech, as the evidence of which wisdom you follow – whether it’s the wisdom of the world or the wisdom from above. You can tell by one’s speech.
But he really begins this epistle by talking about wisdom. And in those opening verses, we get some clues that I believe will help us properly understand the passage before us today in chapter five. Notice in chapter one he talks about having faith through the trials of life, and the wisdom to do so which he says comes from God. But then he contrasts that wisdom with the one who doubts. The one who has faith has the wisdom from God, the one who doubts doesn’t really believe the wisdom of God and is instead following the world’s wisdom.
He then continues that contrast saying in vs 9, speaking of the brother of humble circumstances and he contrasts him to the rich man. Once again, we can assume that the humble follow the wisdom from God, the rich man follows the wisdom of the world. And I think in that passage James sets the rich man as an example or illustration of one who lives by the wisdom of this world.
And again and again as we read this epistle, we see James characterize those who live by the wisdom of the world as being the rich. In chapter 2, for instance, James contrasts the rich man with those whom he says are the poor of this world. And again we see the parallel; those who are poor in this world he says are actually rich in the faith, whereas the rich man oppresses the poor. So in a broad sense, I think James is using the rich man as a metaphor for those who follow the wisdom of the world and treasure the things of this world, and he uses the poor as a metaphor for those who are rich in faith but poor in the riches of this world.
There are other examples of that as well, but I think I will let you study that out for yourselves and we will work on chapter five from that perspective; that the rich are illustrative of those who follow the wisdom of this world, that live for the pleasure and the things they can get from this world. That’s the default wisdom of this world, that if you work hard, if you do this, or do that according to the wisdom of this world, then you can enjoy all that this world has to offer – you can be content, satisfied, and live a comfortable, happy life. You can be rich in the things of this world.
And so we follow the wisdom of the world and we tell our kids to get good grades, send them off to a good college, to get a degree in a field with high paying jobs, and to pursue the American dream and promise them fulfillment and happiness. Now, just to be clear, the “American” part of that dream is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the same dream in Europe or Asia. They just call it by another name. However, in America we seem to have a better chance of accomplishing it. We are told that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. And here we have enough freedom to be able to come closer to making that a reality than they might have in other countries.
So as we delve into chapter five and James rails against the rich, we need to understand that he is not necessarily pronouncing some horrible judgment on those who happen to end up with a lot of money at some point in their life. But he is proclaiming judgment on those who live by the wisdom of the world, who have set their sights on acquiring material things as a means of finding happiness and fulfillment in life.
Now one more difficulty this passage has is we can’t know for sure specifically who James is speaking to. He doesn’t address the rich as brothers, or brethren, so some commentators see this as only applying to the unbeliever. But I’m not so sure that Christians can opt out of this criticism so easily. Because I believe number one, that we have a default mechanism in our behavior even though we may be believers, which is to rely on the wisdom of the world more often than we realize. And number two, I think all of us qualify as being rich by the metric that most of the world goes by. Even those who live below the poverty level in America would be considered rich in many other places in the world. But it’s not so much the amount of money or possessions that James is talking about, but the perspective of the world that believes in and follows the wisdom of the world, a wisdom that has materialism as it’s goal.
So James is condemning the world’s wisdom, the world system, while at the same time rebuking the same tendencies within the heart of the believer. He is exposing the materialistic perspective of the world, but he also knows it’s possible for believers to be just as materialistic and self-centered and indulgent and guilty of the same sins.
So he begins with a scathing rebuke to anyone who has adopted the world’s wisdom saying in vs 1, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.” On the one hand, he is calling for repentance from those who hold to that false wisdom, and on the other hand, he is warning of impending judgement upon those who hold to such a world view. James says, you may think you are rich, that you have obtained happiness and fulfillment in life by living according to the world’s wisdom, but you should be mourning for what you have lost, and crying out for the misery that God’s judgment will bring upon you.
It’s the same sort of rebuke that James offered in chapter four when he called out those who sought friendship with the world, but ended up becoming the enemy of God. To be rich is to be a friend of the world, to live in agreement with the world system which is engineered by the devil and produces every kind of evil.
James speaks of a coming time when God will judge the world. He says in vs 3, it is in the last days that you have stored up treasure for yourself. He goes on to speak in vs 7 and 8 saying that the coming of the Lord is at near. So the misery that is coming upon the rich is the judgment of the Lord at His second coming. The first coming of the Lord He came bearing mercy, the second coming He comes in judgment. And James says that the day is near.
So James goes on to speak of four sins of this materialistic, worldly wisdom in this passage that will bring about the judgment of God. The first sin is what might be called the sin of hoarding. Wealth was held in those days in three primary forms, and he says that in all three areas, they were guilty of hoarding it.
One form of riches was corn and grain. We find that example in the parable which Jesus gave concerning the rich man who built more barns to store, or hoard his crops. There’s nothing wrong with storing corn or grain— the problem James points out is the fact that because they stored more than they could ever eat— James writes, “your riches have rotted” . . . literally, they’ve spoiled. You didn’t use it for good, for the glory of God, and so it has become foul and putrid before the Lord.
Another form of wealth was clothing. There are many examples of clothing in the Bible being used as money. For instance, Samson gave changes of clothing as payment for whoever solved his riddle. James is talking here about people who had so many garments they could never use them all, and so they stored them away. They can only store them away in bigger boxes; bigger garages; bigger attics; bigger rental units; bigger barns. It’s amazing to me to see how they keep building more and more storage units. People have huge houses, sometimes two houses, big garages, and yet they need to rent a storage facility to hold their excess.
Notice what James says next in verse 2. Your garments have become moth-eaten. Again, the point made is that in storing it away and not using it, the moths ruined it and destroyed it. I remember once years ago when I was an antique dealer. I was at these people’s house trying to buy some things, and they told me that they also had some Navajo rugs. We went back into a bedroom and under the bed the pulled out some boxes in which they had stored these Navajo rugs which today would be worth a good bit of money. But when we pulled them out and unfolded them, it became obvious that moths had gotten into the rugs and laid their larvae which then ate the wool. There were large gaping holes all throughout the blankets. They were completely ruined because they had not been stored correctly.
That’s what James is saying here, the garments that the rich had accumulated and stored away, had no value anymore because they had been ruined by moths. Jesus said that if you had two coats, you were to give one to him who had none. Garments that are used for the Lord’s purposes do not get moth eaten. But these selfish rich people who stored up their wealth in garments found they were worthless in the day of judgment.
The third way of storing wealth was gold and silver. He writes in verse 3, “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!” One of the things that makes gold and silver valuable is that they don’t rust. What James is probably referring to, since the judgment is the context here, notice the last phrase of verse 3 where James says that they have stored up their treasure in the last days – what he is referring to is that it will be as if their gold and silver have turned to rust. In the judgment, the world’s gold and silver will be as worthless as rusted iron. When iron rusts, it becomes like the moth eaten garments – it just denigrates in your hand.
The point James is making is that the currency of the world is worthless in heaven.The things that are valued in the world’s wisdom have no value in the kingdom of God. At the judgment, those things that you hoarded, you valued, which you sold your soul for will have no value whatsoever, and in fact James says they will be a witness against you and will fuel the fires of hell. It’s an echo of what Jesus taught in Matt. 6:19-21 saying “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.”
I don’t know if you remember a few years ago some mortuary company had these billboards that promised you could be buried with your motorcycle or car or whatever it was that you treasured or which defined you while you were living. I don’t know how that worked out for that funeral home. I haven’t seen any of their billboards lately. But I read a story not long ago about a man who had a similar ambition. His chief purpose in life was to get as much money as he could. He not only loved money and everything it could buy, he hoarded it all for himself.
In fact, this guy wouldn’t let his wife spend any of it. He made her promise that when he died, he wanted her to have all of his money buried with him in the ground. It was his and he wanted to keep it all for himself. And unbelievably, his wife promised him she would do what he asked. When he died he was enormously wealthy. At his funeral, attended by his wife and just a couple of her friends, just before the casket was lowered, the wife put a large box on top of the casket before it was lowered into the ground. The wife’s close friend said to her, ―”You’re not foolish enough to keep your promise to him, are you?” She said, ”But, I promised him I would.” Her friend protested all the more, ”You mean to tell me that you kept that selfish demand of his —you actually put all that money in the casket with him?” The widow said, “I sure did … I wrote him a check.”
So following hoarding comes the second sin of materialism, which is defrauding. James says in vs 4, “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.”
In this case, James is describing those who in the wisdom of the world to use people, to take advantage of people, in order to climb and claw their way to the top. The end justifies the means, and if that means I have to step on others then so be it. That’s the wisdom of the world that says “go for all the gusto you can get.” “You can have it all if you’re willing to sacrifice everything.”
James uses the example here of a day laborer, who was according to Jewish law supposed to be paid at the end of the day, instead, he says the rich man held back his pay, and he was in danger of never getting paid at all. I once worked for someone many years ago like that who used me to paint a house in Greenwood. I was in a pretty desperate place at the time and really needed the money. It took me several trips back and forth to finally finish the job, but the company who hired me kept finding fault in what I had done. So I went back and redid a large portion of it. That happened again, until I finally realized that they were just putting me off not wanting to pay me. Then when I finally confronted them and they gave me a check, I went to their bank to cash it and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. Turns out, that was the modus operandi of this company, to hire people to do a job and never intend on paying them.
Now that’s an extreme example of what James is talking about. Most people aren’t that crass and obvious about it. But there is a wisdom of the world that values making a buck over treating people fairly. And that is what it means to defraud someone. James says the Lord of Sabaoth hears the cries of those that were taken advantage of. That title is also translated in some versions as the Lord of Hosts. It means the Lord of armies. God’s might is able to rectify and repay those that do injustice to others.
The third example of the materialistic worldly wisdom is self indulgence. That’s found in vs 5, “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 speaks of a life lived in luxury and wanton pleasure. That’s the goal of the wisdom of the rich man. These people are using their wealth to gratify their love of luxury and to satisfy their lusts for sexual gratification.
Back in James day, the Romans were notorious for gluttonous feasts and sexual orgies. They actually had these latrines built into the temples where they indulged in these festivals so that when they had gorged themselves on food, they could throw up in the latrine and then eat some more. In contrast to that, the Christians were displaced from their homeland, they had often lost their occupations in the process, and were probably wondering where they would get their next meal.
From a human perspective, it looked like the rich, worldly wise people were living the best life possible, enjoying every pleasure in abundance, but James says that they are actually fattening themselves for the day of slaughter. He likens it to the farm animal that eats and eats but doesn’t realize that it is only so that they might be slaughtered later. He is speaking metaphorically about the judgment that will be greater because of their self indulgence. It’s interesting to think about how so much that we consider essential, that we work and spend our money on, is actually a luxury that would be inconceivable to people living a hundred years ago. And we try to justify our lifestyle in the name of providing for our families, when really we have to have all these luxury items that we think are essential.
Just compare the average house of the generation that lived in the 50’s and 60’s in comparison with the average house today. You can’t even find a builder today that will build a house like that. It’s not marketable unless it has a top of the line kitchen, walk in closets, a two car garage, and all the modern conveniences. I’m not saying we have to live in a hut to be spiritual, but I am saying we have bought into the world’s wisdom for what is an acceptable standard of living.
There is a final characteristic James speaks of concerning the worldly wise rich man, and that is ruthlessness. He speaks of it ruthlessness in vs 6, “You have condemned and put to death the righteous [man;] he does not resist you.”
More than likely James is speaking metaphorically here about putting someone to death. But in Jewish legal terms, taking away the livelihood of someone was the equivalent of murder. One rabbi a couple of centuries before Christ said it this way, “As one that slays his neighbor is he that takes away his living.”
Having even a little experience in our legal system, it’s not hard to see that the rich are able to take advantage of the courts, whereas the poor are not able to afford to defend themselves. I think using the legal system to their advantage is what James is speaking of. Remember back in chapter 2 vs 6 James said, “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?”
What he is talking about is that the innocent man is personally abused, beaten down and ruined by a court, that instead of dispensing justice, is able to be controlled by the rich. And according to the wisdom of the world, all is fair in love and war and business, even if it means taking everything from the innocent to stuff the pockets of the rich. Those that follow the world’s wisdom are ruthless, taking advantage by every means possible to keep themselves rich and add to their riches.
Notice at the last part of verse 6, James says that the righteous man does not resist you.
This can mean one of two things: one, that the righteous man doesn’t have the
ability to show up in court. He doesn’t have the money to hire a fancy lawyer; he doesn’t even have the ability to photocopy the paper to file his complaint. There is a man that I have befriended in prison that I’ve seen this happen to again and again. He has lost so many court battles simply because he didn’t have access to a phone, or to a lawyer, or even able to get things photo copied. The prison charges him money to make copies, and he has no money, so he can’t make the copies and loses the appeal.
The other possible option is that the righteous man doesn’t even try to fight back legally, and chooses instead to be ruined and leave his vindication up to God. We can’t be sure, but that latter interpretation is very likely the one James had in mind, given the use of the word righteous as a description of this innocent person.
In that case where I painted a house in Greenwood and the business that hired me gave me a bad check, I remember I called them and asked for them to pay me what they owed me. The guy on the telephone became so vile, so filthy mouthed, he cursed me up one side and down the other. It was actually unnerving to hear the hatred in his voice. I was very upset and considered all the ways I could try to legally get my money. Then later that night I began to pray about it and asked the Lord to show me what to do. The next morning, I wrote this guy a letter. I said I knew that they owed me the money but I had decided I was going to forgive them for defrauding me, and I wasn’t going to take any legal action against them. I said I had also owed a debt that I had not been able to pay, and the Lord had forgiven me, and by His example, I had decided to forgive them. I tried to use it as a means of witnessing to them their need of salvation. I never heard from them again, and I don’t doubt but that they laughed over the idea that they thought they got away with it. But I know that the Lord will vindicate me, that he saw what I did, and I believe over the years He has restored so much more than I lost in that deal.
Listen, the wisdom of this world says that the end justifies the means, and the goal in life is he who dies with the most toys wins. The wisdom of this world says that there is no God, or that God doesn’t care, or even that if there is a God, He just wants us to be successful in the things of this world, and so we are justified in cutting corners, or we’re justified in being ruthless or stepping on people in our pursuit of the goal. Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. God sees, and God will judge the world for every deed, and even every careless word that they have done.
Rather than trusting in the wisdom of the world, Paul told Timothy in 1Tim. 6:17-19 “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. [Instruct them] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”
Jesus told us how we are to gain that life in Matt. 16:24-27 and it is the opposite of the world’s wisdom. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS.”
I pray that if you are following the wisdom of this world today, if you are rich in this world, then you will repent, weep and howl, and ask God for forgiveness, for Him to transform your heart, so that you might escape that judgment which is coming on all the world. Renounce the riches of this world, renounce the wisdom of this world, and in exchange the Lord will give you the next world, and the wisdom which comes down from heaven, that you might have life and have it more abundantly. That you might obtain an inheritance [which is] imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.