I wonder did you notice that this week’s passage begins the same way as last week’s passage began? Verse 13 of chapter 4 began with the words:
And verse 1 of chapter 5 begins with the words:
I suggested last week that we should think of a father, saying to his unruly and disobedient son:
Now listen. It’s time for you to stop and listen to me for a minute. Now listen and I’ll remind you of what I expect from you.
And I said that’s the tone James was using as he addressed his readers:
Now listen. It’s time for you to stop and listen to me for a minute, because what you’re doing is not right.
However, in today’s passage, the tone he’s using is not so much that of a father, speaking to an unruly child; it’s more of the prophet who is addressing a disobedient people on behalf of the Lord. Doesn’t James remind you of an Old Testament prophet in this passage? ‘Now listen,’ he says.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.
That’s the kind of thing a prophet might have said in the Old Testament. We can imagine Jonah saying something like that to the people of Nineveh:
Now listen, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.
A couple of weeks ago, when were we studying verses 1 to 12 of chapter 3 — where James was accusing his readers of being spiritually adulterous people — we were thinking about the poor person who had to read this letter to the congregation one Sunday; and how he’d want to remind them that he’s only the messenger and that these were James’s words he was reading. Well, think of that poor man now, having to read this passage to the same congregation. Imagine how uncomfortable he might have been, as he reads these words of accusation and judgment. No doubt he was feeling even more nervous and afraid, wondering how some members of the congregation might react to this message from James.
Since the words are so strong, some of the commentators say that the people James was addressing were not actually members of the church. They argue that they weren’t actually present whenever these things were read out. They suggest that James was addressing rich unbelievers. But James wanted the believers in church to overhear what he was saying to these rich unbelievers. And he wanted them to overhear so that the believers would be encouraged. You see, perhaps these rich unbelievers were oppressing the Lord’s people; and James wanted to encourage the Lord’s people by letting them know that their oppressors will not get away with it. So, James is saying to this congregation:
Let me tell you what their end will be. You think they’re getting away with it; but in the end, misery is coming upon them and God will repay them for what they have done to you.
Perhaps the commentators are right to think that these words are about rich unbelievers, but they’re addressed to believers to encourage them. They may be right about that. Nevertheless, the fact is that any believer who might be guilty of doing some of these things needs to pay attention to what God is saying here so that we’ll stop sinning and start to do what’s right. And, of course, any believer who has suffered at the hands of rich oppressors also needs to pay attention to what God is saying here, because it’s written for your encouragement, to let you know that you can count on the Lord to help you. So, let’s turn to this passage now and see what the Lord is saying to us through James.
First of all, in verse 1, there’s this warning to rich people. Now, as we’ll see in a moment, James is not referring to all rich people; and he’s not condemning rich people for being rich. There were rich people in the early church and we read in the book of Acts about their generosity and how they were prepared use their wealth for the good of others and sell some of their property in order to help believers who were in need. It’s not a sin to be rich. But because of the things they were doing, and because of the way they were treating other people, James issues this warning to them. He says to them:
weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.
Right now, in the present, you’re happy and content and perhaps you have a great life now, and you have everything you need and want. But unless you repent of your sins, and seek the Lord’s forgiveness, one day all you’ll know is misery, everlasting misery.
And, of course, James is talking about the coming day of judgment, when everyone will stand before the Lord, to give an account of our lives. On that day, the righteous will be acquitted of all their sins and they’ll be brought in to enjoy God’s presence for ever in glory; but the wicked will be condemned and punished forever. So, James is warning his readers and saying to them:
If you continue in your sins, without repenting and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, then you should weep and wail now because of the misery that will come upon you on that day, when the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead. So come on. Repent and seek God’s forgiveness, because for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for sinners, God will pardon you. So repent.
Verses 2 and 3
What have they been doing wrong? That’s the question. And in the following five verses, James lists their sins. And he mentions three of them in particular. And the first one is found in verses 2 and 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 your wealth in the last days.
‘You have hoarded your wealth in the last days’, says James. Now, when are the last days? From time to time, when there’s an earthquake or some other natural disaster, or when there’s trouble somewhere in the world, someone will say to me that the Lord must be coming soon, because what’s happened in the world is surely a sign that the last days are upon us. However, the Bible makes clear that we’ve been living in the last days ever since the Lord rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. We’ve been living in the last days for two thousand years. How can I say that? Well, on the Day of Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit came on the believers in tongues of fire, Peter stood up and quoted from the book of Joel who had prophesied:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
And what Peter was saying to the people in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, two thousand years ago, is this. He was saying:
Remember what Joel said about what would happen in the last days. Well, it’s happened. We’re now living in the last days.
And they’re the last days, because after the Lord’s death and resurrection and ascension when he poured out his Spirit from on high, after that happened, the next date on God’s calendar is the Lord’s second coming. We’re living in the last days, the last days before he comes again.
And in these last days, these rich people have been hoarding their wealth. Why do people hoard their money? Because they think money gives them security. They think: If I have plenty put away, then my future will be secure. If I have enough put away, then everything will be okay. But, remember the Lord’s parable of the rich fool? This rich man wanted to build bigger barns to store his grain and his goods. And then, because he had plenty laid up for the future, he thought he’d take life easy and eat and drink and be merry. But he didn’t know, he didn’t know, that that very night he was going to die. He thought his money guaranteed a secure future; but he was foolish to think like that, because his money was no guarantee of a long life. And here, James is accusing these rich people of hoarding up wealth for themselves in the last days, when they could have used their wealth for the good of others. We’re living in the last days; and the Lord could come again at any time. And when he comes, we’ll stand before him, to give an account of our lives and of what we’ve done with our money. And what will these rich people say on that day?
Well, says James in verses 2 and 3, their great wealth, which is already rotting, and their fine clothes, which are already being destroyed, and their silver and gold, which are already corroding — though they don’t know it — all their wealth which they’ve hoarded away will speak out against them. And what will their wealth say about them? That they’ve hoarded their wealth for themselves instead of using it to be generous to others. They’re living in the last days; the Judge is coming; and their money will speak out against them. So, repent.
Verses 4 and 5
So, they’ve hoarded their wealth in the last days, instead of using it for good. What next? Well, look at verse 4 now and this is right up to date, isn’t it? Verse 4 says:
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 lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.
James was writing to people in a rural setting, who made their money from the land. And they probably needed to hire extra workers every year to help with the harvest. But instead of paying their workers promptly, they put off paying the wages they owed. And now, these poor labourers didn’t have the cash to buy what they needed. And, of course, there was no credit in those days. No cash. No food.
Meanwhile, the rich people lived in luxury and self-indulgence. Do you see that in verse 5? Their workers were struggling to survive, while they were able to indulge themselves with one good thing after another. They had everything they needed and wanted, and more besides, while the ones who worked for them hadn’t enough for the very basics.
While we’re not growing crops here in Belfast, nevertheless, those of you who are in business have bills to pay, don’t you? Someone did some work for you. Someone supplied you with something you needed. Those people need to be paid. Or a decorator or plumber or some other person comes and does some work in your home. They need paid; and paid promptly.
But we hear of these cases — don’t we? — where businesses struggle because of unpaid bills. Or we hear about workmen who do a job, and do it well, but the homeowner is slow to pay up, or refuses to pay everything that is owed. Or instead of being generous with what God has given us, we try to pay as little as we possibly can. I remember being part of a group of Christians who were looking to hire a fellow-believer to do some work. And I remember one person saying how we didn’t need to pay the worker very much, because this was the Lord’s work and the worker will surely be prepared to receive less because they were serving the Lord. So, what’s the least we can get away with? That’s what they were asking.
But that’s entirely the wrong attitude: Christian employers will want to be as generous as possible, so that we can be a blessing to those who work for us. You see, this is all part of our witness, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people who worked for Christians were able to say about Christians that we’re unusually kind and generous and we’re such good employers? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were to ask why we’re able to be so generous? And we’d be able to explain that we’re generous because we love the Lord who gave up everything for me, and who, on my behalf, paid for all my sins. And I want to be as kind and generous as him. What a witness that would be!
What James is saying is right up to date, isn’t it? It’s about employers who were taking advantage of those who work for them. And look at what he says: Their cries have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. These rich people thought they were getting away with it. No one would listen to the cries of the poor people. But the Lord was listening.
And then, in verse 5, he says that you have lived on earth in luxury. Isn’t that interesting? Why did he write ‘on earth’? Well, perhaps he was thinking of the Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Remember, Lazarus was a poor man who suffered much on earth, while his neighbour was rich and enjoyed much on earth. But afterwards, after they died, Lazarus enjoyed pleasures forevermore in the presence of the Lord, whereas the rich man, who lived in luxury on earth, suffered much in hell. And so, James is writing to these rich people, and he’s warning them that while they’re living in luxury now, in this life, things will be very different for them in the future, unless they repent. Otherwise, they’re only fattening themselves for the day of slaughter, when the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead and to punish the wicked for ever. So, repent.
So, they’ve hoarded their wealth in these last days instead of using it to be generous. They’ve lived in luxury on the earth, while withholding wages from their workers. Thirdly, they’ve condemned and murdered innocent men. That’s in verse 6. More literally, James says that they have condemned and murdered ‘the righteous one’. He’s thinking of how wicked rich people have used their power and their influence to deprive believers of their rights and their property.
We can think of the Old Testament story of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel and what they did to poor Naboth. Do you remember the story? I was telling it to the children a few weeks ago and Roland was also preaching about Naboth’s vineyard recently. Naboth owned a vineyard, next to the king’s palace. And the king wanted to buy it since it was so close to his palace and to turn it into a vegetable garden. Naboth said no. He had every right to say ‘no’. In fact, land was not meant to be bought and sold like that, because it had been given to them by the Lord. Well, Ahab sulked because he couldn’t have what he wanted. And so, his wife, Jezebel, came up with a plan. She arranged for some men to make up a false accusation against Naboth and to say that they had heard him cursing the Lord and the king. And that’s what happened. These wicked men falsely accused him. And Naboth was taken away and killed. And since Naboth was now dead, Ahab was able to take over the vineyard. Do you see? Ahab and Jezebel used their power and their influence to deprive Naboth of his rights and his property and his life.
Or we can think of the story of King David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament. Remember how David used his power and influence to ensure that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, was killed in battle so that David could take Uriah’s wife for himself? He used his power and his influence to deprive Uriah of his wife and his life.
Well, James accuses these rich people of doing the same kind of thing. And again, the same kind of thing happens in our day when some people are able to use their money and their power and their influence to take advantage of others to get what they want.
And look at what James adds at the end:
they were not opposing you.
The righteous ones were utterly helpless and powerless and could do nothing to defend themselves from those who were taking advantage of them.
If we had time today to read on and to study the next verses, we’d see that James turns his attention from the wicked rich man to the righteous poor man. And James says to the righteous poor man who has suffered so much at the hands of the wicked rich man:
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming.
Here we are, coming to another Christmas season, when we remember when the Lord came into the world the first time. But in the next verses, James is telling us to remember that he’s coming again. And when he comes again, he’ll come to bring the suffering of his people to an end. And when he comes again, he’ll come to punish the wicked for their sins. And so, here’s James saying to believers who have suffered at the hands of wicked rich men and women:
Be patient. The Lord is coming. And when he comes, all of your present suffering in this troubled life will be over. So, be patient.
We’ll look at that next time. But his message here, in verses 1 to 6, is to say to those who are guilty of such sins that you need to repent. That’s why we have these warnings in the Bible. Jonah was sent to warn the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them in forty days. And so, they had forty days to repent. And here’s James warning the wicked that misery is going to come upon them for their sins. They’ve hoarded their wealth. They’re withheld wages from their workers. They’re used their power and influence to deprive the poor of their rights and property and even their lives. You’ve been doing these things in the last days, says James. And the Judge might come at any minute. Therefore, while you have time, repent. Turn from your wickedness and seek forgiveness from the Lord. And for the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for sinners, God will pardon you and will not condemn you. So, repent.
And, of course, whoever repents and believes, receives from the Lord, not only forgiveness, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is able to renew us more and more in God’s likeness, so that instead of hoarding our wealth, we’ll be generous with it, just as the Lord was generous to us when he freely forgave us and gave us eternal life. And instead of withholding wages from those who ask us for them, we’ll pay what we owe promptly, just as God does not withhold forgiveness from those who ask him for it, but he gives it to us, promptly. And instead of using our power and influence to take advantage of others, we’ll use whatever power and influence we have in order to build others up and to help them, just as God used his mighty power to deliver us from our sin and misery and to raise us up with Christ to new life.
And so, if we’re guilty of any of these sins, we’re to repent. And we’re to trust in the Lord for forgiveness. And we’re to ask him to renew us into his likeness so that we will not sin, but will bring glory to him, while we wait for our Saviour to come again.