James 5:1-6.
The Pitfall of Worldly Wealth.

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

It certainly does not take an advanced degree in economics to identify that greed is alive and well in this world.  The world-wide economy is based primarily on consumer demand.  When consumers are confident in their environment, they purchase products, driving production and creating jobs.  When consumer confidence is reduced, the demand for products is reduced, resulting in an economic recession, or a slowing down of the accelerating economic engine.  One side-effect of this type of economy is the power that the greedy have to influence it.  This century has been marked by a greed-based economy that bought large, built large, and built false confidence on claims of great opportunities.  When the hype and greed was exposed, the hyper-inflated market found its proper value, costing investors billions of dollars.  We saw a similar pattern at the beginning of both the 19th and 20th centuries.  In each of these three periods the economy was driven to a level too high to sustain, and market values came crashing down when it found its true value.

What we are witnessing is greed in action.  The greedy have no care for the impact that the consequences of their actions has on others, particularly those who lose their jobs or their property when the market checks.  Yet, even when the consequences of unbridled greed are evident, those who are so addicted do not change.  People seek great wealth as if it is something of value to be attained, only to find emptiness in a ledger with a lot of numbers, or in a home full of stuff that simply depreciates and gathers dust.  Wealth that is obtained at the expense of others, whether directly through fraud or indirectly through a lack of godly stewardship, serves as a testimony against the one who lives such a self-centered life.

James 5:1. (NIV)  Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

Here James is reiterating the statement of the Lord from Luke 6:24. 

Luke 6:24.  But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

James is sending this message to the worldly and/or unbelieving Jews.  For the most part, the poor among the Jews were the ones to receive the gospel.  Most of the rich were arrogant, self-sufficient, and actively persecuted the believing Jews.  This verse is the first prophesy of the Lord concerning the judgment to come.[1]  What is the reason for the necessity of their weeping and wailing?  It is not the riches themselves that will surely bring such suffering, but rather the astonishment that will come when they discover their lost state at the final judgment.  James is aware of their lost state simply because of their lack of spiritual fruit, expressed in the wickedness of their ways.

Being wealthy in and of itself is not an indication of a lost state  Nor is there any biblical imperative against the proper pursuit of wealth.  However, one should be aware of the dangers that come with the attainment of wealth.  Wealth can bring a false sense of personal security when one may think they can rely on that wealth rather than upon the LORD.  Again, the attainment of wealth can often be accomplished at the expense of others and the expense of contribution to the LORDís work.  Some may hold that the attainment of wealth and generosity are mutually exclusive.  Note that the rich are more impacted by calamity than the poor.  In times of public disaster they complain the loudest.  There is actually very little of true value that is found in the attainment of great wealth.

James 5:2. (NIV)  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.

The misery that is experienced by the rich will rise from the very things they value.  Property values depreciate.  Stock and investment values fall.  They will have, at the end of this life, lost those things that they consider of greatest value.  What is being stated here is literally that those things of value will be revealed as valueless.

Much of spiritual maturity is realized by what one considers of greatest importance.  Those who are lost, or those who are spiritually immature place great value in the things of this world: power, influence, and possessions.  They are often driven by pride and arrogance, demanding their own way within their social circles, and willing to step on others in order to obtain it.  One who is spiritually mature understands and appreciates the folly of such a temporal and destructive attitude and instead places great importance upon the maintenance of positive and affirming relationships with the LORD and with others.  The primary difference in these two views is that the first relies on those things that will be left behind in this life, and the latter develops relationships that will continue for eternity.

James 5:3 (NIV)  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.

The rich think that they heap up treasures against their last days.  The shiny gold coins that we may so value belonged to someone else before we held them, and will belong to someone else when we have left this world.  This does not imply that it is inappropriate to invest in retirement programs.  It would be unwise to place ourselves in an intentional dependency on others when God has given us the means to be better stewards of what He has provided for us.  Planning and preparing for latter years is certainly appropriate.  The inference here is not so much as an effort of planning and preparation as it is an effort of hoarding at the expense of others and at the expense of Godís kingdom work.  Many may think that they are simply planning and preparing, but also argue that they cannot financially afford to demonstrate proper stewardship through the tithe.  It is also these who are condemned by Jamesí indictment.

If that big retirement account is your priority, and if its collection has come at the expense of proper generosity and stewardship, it will expose you in the last days.  You won't be able to hide it, but rather, it will have displaced God as the true priority in your life.

James 5:4 (NIV)  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.

James shows here one of the ways the stored up riches are going to be a witness against the rich in the last days.  Exposed here is a lack of honesty and stewardship motivated by greed and contempt for God.  Earlier in the book James addressed this same problem when speaking to the persecuted.  Now he is exposing the folly of greed.  However, the indictment also reaches to those who deny payment to Godís work.  When we consider harvesters, we may also include those who harvest souls, both in foreign, domestic, and local ministries.  Self-centered greed also replaces the generous spirit that God would have us demonstrate towards the work of His laborers.  When pastors, missionaries, and others who have committed themselves to the fields of the kingdom find themselves in need, that need cries out against those who fail to support them.

Shown here also is an abuse of power.  What is the response of the laborers who have been cheated?  The title of the Lord used here, Kerion Sabaoth, is from the Old Testament and was used when the people of God were defenseless and needed protection.  Those who are abused by the rich have no recourse, and their defender is God, and God alone.  People would probably not knowingly place themselves in a position where the LORD is called upon to defend others against them.  The LORD is an awesome adversary who will come to the aid of those who cry out to Him.

James 5:5 (NIV)  You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.  You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

Another of the effects of wanton greed is the lifestyle that such a poorly-gained treasure promotes.  What happens when someone comes into a large sum of money?  What temptations are evident?[2]  These are those who have great resources when those around them face calamity.  Rather than demonstrate generosity in such times, they use their comfort to insulate themselves against the needy.  Such a position further drives the needy into a state of greater stress and need. 

One who is both wealthy and righteous recognizes the needs of those in the community and rises up to help in times of distress.  Such an individual is used of God in such times of calamity, and though some material wealth may be sacrificed in such times, the individual receives the blessing of knowing that God has used them for His purposes rather than for their own.  Furthermore, God works in the lives of the faithful, and promises to bless those who use their resources for Godís kingdom work.

James 5:6 (NIV)  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

Another sin of the rich, caused by the same self-centered motivations of greed, are the persecution of others simply due to the power over others such riches can enable.  Here we see that the power gained from wealth was used to persecute the righteous even to the point of death.  Furthermore, those who were persecuted did not even stand in the way of the rich man.  When one comes to rely on their own resources rather than upon the resources of God, one stands no taller than their own stature.  All of their riches are immersed in the same sinfulness that so characterizes the human spirit.  The result of such a self-defined life is a spirit of cruelty and contempt. 

However, when one places their property under the authority of the LORD and seeks the Holy Spiritís guidance in utilizing it in this life, a great dynamic is realized.  Rather than limiting our resources by our own stature, giving our resources to God places them at a point where they are limited only by His stature.  Our possessions take on a greater power than we ever imagined when they are laid at the throne of grace.  Rather than being empowered by our own skills and desires, our possessions become empowered by His purposes of grace.

Keeping and hoarding our wealth for ourselves is a task fraught only with pitfalls of our own sinfulness.  However, dedicating our possessions completely to the LORD brings a dynamic to them that is attainable in no other way.  James has seen this principle in action in the life of the early church, and he warned the faithful Jews not to fall into the error that ensnares so many of their community.  Not much has changed over the years.  People are still sinful and self-centered.  Consequently, Jamesí instruction is as relevant today as it was in the first century.  Let each of us reflect upon how we relate to our possessions, observe how we may be using them in a self-serving manner, consider how we support Godís kingdom work with them, and seek ways to dedicate them entirely to the LORD.

[1] Matthew 13:41-42.

[2] Hosea 13:6.