An Exposition of James 5:1-6

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. 

James 5:1 

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 

James introduces this new unit with the repeated phrase “come now;” which also indicates the intense tone of this section. The passage is addressed to “you rich!” Unbelieving wealthy persons are abusing the poor and their own acquisitions (we know unbelieving because of the final judgment pronounced on these individuals). The command is clear. The wealthy individuals are called on to burst into a howling cry, not because James envisions them repenting of their sin; but, because of the tragic judgment coming their way (Vlachos; A.T. Robertson).  

James calls out this representative audience of unbelieving rich people even though they are most likely not in the congregation. He is, like a prophet, depicting the full force of God’s wrath against this audience for a dual-faceted benefit of the real audience (the Christian in the dispersion).  

  1. Oppressed Christians to realize their plight is only for a season. 
  1. Christians tempted toward wealth do not fall into the same misery (Calvin) 

This would be akin to me calling out a representative audience of high school drop outs: “Come now, you lazy drop outs, practice your line in your misery!” . . . [practice your line is an inside reference to “do you want fries with that?”] “You slept in class, and turned in no assignment so you could enjoy life’s leisurely pleasures! You spat at your responsibility and squandered your future! The very laziness you enjoyed will never occur in your life again until you lie cold in lifeless in your grave! You will work day and night to barely scrape by. Even what little you have will be taken away!” 

Now, I want you to note some things about this oracle of judgment I just made up. Am I calling out every high school drop out without exception? No. How do you know that? Because of the qualifications I give. There are some people who drop out of high school because of unforeseen life circumstances. There are some people who drop out of high school and end up being fairly successful. I’m calling out a specific group of drop outs who did so because of their laziness.  

In the same way, James is calling out not all people who happen to be wealthy, but a specific group of rich people. But before he further defines this group of rich, he explains their misery.  

James 5:2-3a 

Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, 

James, in prophetic style, gives a series of rapid-fire phrases to condemn this group of people (Moo). In your economics class, you may learn the difference between a depreciating asset and an appreciating asset. The depreciating asset decreases in value over time (car); the appreciating asset increases in value over time (house). Once you buy a car and drive it off the lot the retail value immediately drops; you now own something that’s worth less that one you paid for.  

A house, on the other hand, is an appreciating asset. However, guess what? It falls apart. Your AC goes out or your plumbing backs up; and then you have to call J&J. Your roof leaks, and you have to fork out ten grand or more to fix it. Your appliances break; your foundation cracks; on and on the list can go.  

James recognizes the transient nature of stuff while calling out these rich people: the very stuff you prize so dearly is falling apart! Why is James pointing this out? 

James 5:3b-5 

and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 

James’s teaching is clear: Improperly prioritized values condemn you. You see, the corrosion testifies to their inner condition: their misplaced value system. What do you value? How do you value things? Have you ever valued the wrong things and it ended up costing you? If we took a poll, what do you think Americans would value the most? Probably the American dollar, right? 

And if we could have lots of money quick with little to no work, that would be great, right? Proverbs teaches, “Wealth gained hastily[a] will dwindle, 
    but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” Prov. 13:11 

Have any of you heard of Lula Roe? I had never heard of it until my wife and I watched a documentary. This was a clothing store that specialized in yoga pants with artistic prints. Women (mainly) would purchase huge amounts of inventory and sell it all off. They would also sign-up other people below them (who would do the same). The more people they had below them, the bigger their check would be. Well, as the demand increased, the quality of the product decreased; people stopped buying. These women who had purchased thousands of dollars of inventory to sell could no longer sell it. They showed the living rooms of these people and they were literally wall to wall with products. These products that were once prized and making them a lot of money were now rotting away in their living rooms being eaten by moths. The very thing they valued crowded their living rooms hanging in sober judgment over the people who valued the wrong thing.  

You guys realize the American dollar is not invulnerable, right? The American government could collapse, and the dollar right along with it. Even right now, this year there is an inflation scare in the U.S. Inflation is essentially where everything increases in price. Inflation occurs annually, typically at a very low and controlled rate. However, what if it increased substantially without warning? The loaf of bread that once cost a few dollars now cost $15? Or the gallon of milk costing $20? Now, this type of inflation sounds incredible, but it is plausible. This has happened in other countries. The cost-of-living skyrockets while your income stays the same.  

“Prior to World War One, Germany was a prosperous nation. In the decades since its unification, it had become an industrial powerhouse leading Europe in fields like chemicals, machinery, and optics. Its gold-backed currency traded at comparable rates to the British shilling, Italian lira, and French Franc (about 4-5:1 against the U.S. Dollar). Nine years later, hyperinflation hit its peak in 1923. A loaf of bread in 1922, Germany cost 163 marks. In September 1923, it cost 1,500,000 marks. At the peak of German hyperinflation, a loaf of bread cost 200,000,000,000 Marks.” Allen Behrens 

Everything you value more than Jesus condemns you. It will consume you like fire. Maybe you don’t value money as much as you do other things. Perhaps you value social media. Let me read something to you written by Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 

“Social media, moreover, exacts an enormous social toll on society, especially children, teenagers, and, as it turns out, young women. Facebook knew the impact of its platforms—indeed, it collected data on how something like Instagram influenced teenage girls. The WSJ [WallStreet journal] reported, “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another part of the data concluded, “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” The WSJ summarized the findings and reported, “For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo sharing app effects its millions of young users repeatedly. The company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.” Indeed, the Facebook data that was leaked stated, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.” 

Just consider that—one in three. . . 

Hence why Instagram has become a place of enormous harm to the teenage population. As the WSJ summarized, “The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core. The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect, and an addictive product can send teens spiraling towards eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies, and depression.” Again, this information was not an external survey, but an internal review conducted by Facebook itself. Their report concluded that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm.” 

Values prioritized out of order not only testify against you, but they also work to destroy you “like fire”. You see, the young ladies in this article value things that are good. They value relationships with other people. They value the good moments in life. However, they valued the production or manufacturing of a perfect moment more than just enjoying life. The manufactured life is no life it all, but a facsimile which will doom you to depression. Scrolling through endless photos of perfect people cause you to value their body and their looks more than valuing being healthy; then commences the eating disorders, which could end up killing you. You see this? Death! All the result of a misplaced value system. What do you value? 

James 5:4 

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. 

The other end of this wicked value system is displayed. You see these rich people value their own stuff more than they do other people. You might envision old Scrooge in this category. He’d rather get all he can, can all he gets, then sit on the can, rather than love other people. These rich people would rather have their gold, their land, their clothes, rather than give their laborers what their due. And the consequence is dire: The Lord of hosts hears.  

As I was considering this text, I began to realize that this is not the verse you will see sown on the pillows or scrawled onto “inspirational” calendars. You won’t turn on “Positive and Encouraging” KLOVE and hear this verse being read, “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. . .” Positive, Encouraging, KLOVE!  

And this is sort of a tangent, but bear with me. We Christians have developed a misplaced value system in our churches and ministries. You see, we value people liking us, we value people feeling loved and encouraged, more than we value people being holy. We’d rather people be enjoying their coffee and donut holes in the lobby than giving their whole life to God is the prayer closet. Just listen to the songs we sing! Almost every Christian song you hear on the radio is either celebratory or reminding us about how much God loves us! Maybe we don’t need the reminder that God love us, maybe we need the reminder of how much of a wretch we really are! Maybe we don’t need the reminder that “the God of angel armies is always on my side,” maybe we need the God of Israel to wound us! Don’t you see this? It’s not the moments that I’m most pleased with myself that I’m seeking after God. It’s those still, quiet moments. Those moments no one else is around. The only thing that stands before me is my own miserable, wretched sin, and the holy God, who I don’t deserve.  

What does God want for your life? Would he rather you be suffering a deep depression and seeking him with are your heart or being content and happy in that pew while you give him not a care in the world? You see, so many Christian ministries have decided they would rather have you happy than holy.  

This is a disordered value system that will destroy itself; and I’ll tell you when: What about when injustice ravishes our land? What about when disaster strikes your house? What about when disease consumes your body or a loved one? What about the times you enviously scroll through social media staring at all these prefect things that you want so bad it makes your stomach hurt? The “god” of only celebration and only happiness will be far from you in those times as you crawl further in the darkness groping desperately for answers. And your false faith will be consumed by fire as you try desperately to reassure yourself of how much God loves you, or perhaps wonder if he even does. 

If the god you say you love so much only works to give you the things you selfishly desire, you don’t worship the one, true God. If the “god” you worship cares more about your happiness than your holiness, you don’t worship the God of the Bible! This is what the rich operate for: their own self-indulgent luxury: 

James 5:5 

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

You remember the story of the Prodigal Son? He demands his inheritance early and then goes off and squanders it all. Do you remember what he spent it on? You could perhaps sum it up with the words in this passage: luxury and self-indulgence. Do you think this prodigal son would have come to his senses if he still had money? Probably not, right? Starving so badly that you’re sticking your head down in some putrid pig slop just to get something to eat is a pretty good impetus to “come to your senses.”  

Well, this is not so for the rich of this passage. You see this wealthy people have lived their self-indulgent life and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way.  

James 5:6 

You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. 

They’ve fattened their hearts on a day of slaughter. They’ve murdered righteous people. They will do whatever it takes to maintain their wealth and style of life. Like a work stalking and slaying a helpless lamb, this wealthy people trample on others who cannot and do not resist them.  

And I think it’s important in light of our cultural moment to note something of significance in the text. James does not decry rich people simply for being rich; rather he decries these certain rich people with a disordered value system living self-indulgent lives while trampling on the poor to maintain their lifestyle.  

We have people in our culture who want to punish the rich simply for being rich. Marxist political philosophy has infected our system to the extent that a prominent US Representative attended a $35,000 per ticked event dawned with a dress announcing, “tax the rich.” You see, the major problem with Marxist philosophies and even Critical Race Theory is that it wants to punish rich people just for being rich or powerful people just for being powerful. It does not even consider the character of the individual. Yes, it is true and biblical that both wealth and power can exert a corrupting influence on and individual! But the Bible also makes plain that just because someone is rich does not mean they murder or commit fraud, and just because someone has power does not mean they are unjust. 

We live in a society that makes you want to feel bad for things that are outside of your control! You should feel bad that you’re a male, you should feel bad that you’re a woman. You should feel bad if you’re white, or black. You should feel bad if you have an ugly body type. You should feel bad if you were born into a family with money. And on and on the cultural faux pas go.  

Now we have thought crimes. If you dare say the wrong thing about the wrong person! If you slip up and say “pregnant woman” instead of “pregnant person,” you’re canceled. JK Rowling cannot even attend a celebratory anniversary event of the fictional world she created because she’s been identified as a TERF. . . that is, a trans exclusionary radical feminist. So, since she actually believes women are women, she does not want to give women’s rights that women have fought so hard for to, you know, men. And for that? Cancelled. 

And can you repent of these new supposed moral mess-ups? Nope. Once you mess up, you’re pretty well done for life; always stuck perpetually apologizing for your views that don’t fit the moral revolution. You will never be redeemed. You will never be restored. You will never be fully accepted again, because you are cancelled.  

But this is not the case with the Bible’s view of sin. He does not punish you for the color of your skin or your socioeconomic status. God punishes you for your willful breaking of his holy law. But he does not leave you there without hope. He sent his only Son who lived the life you could never live and died the death you deserved. There is redemption in Christ and in him alone.  

So let me ask you again. What do you value? Are you like the rich? Do you value your own happiness that you would do anything to maintain it, even invent a god to worship whose main goal is to make you happy? Or do you value Jesus? Do you value Jesus more than your own happiness? More than your own selfish pleasure? More than your desire for money or power or success? More than your desire to feel loved? Do you want him, or do you just want to use him to get what you selfishly want? 

James clearly shows that when our value system is out of alignment, it will destroy us. I believe this is the cause of so many maladies in our day. But the gospel invades our life and turns our value system upside-down. Once the Holy Spirit grabs hold of your soul, you begin to value your own esteem less and less and realize the importance of esteeming God. When I was in college, I used to tell myself, “I’m going to do great things for God! I, me, me me!” You see although my dream included God, it was more focused on me than it was Him. If God chooses to exalt me and give me a large audience; so be it, may He be glorified. If God chooses to grind my name to powder and make me the laughingstock of the ages; so be it, may He be glorified!