(Please read James 5:1-12)
In the first verses of chapter 5, the wealthy are condemned for abusing riches and oppressing the poor. James had spoken about rich people earlier in the Epistle (1:9-10; 2:6). James does not denounce wealth in its own right. He does not condemn anyone for being rich, nor does he put a premium on being poor. Money itself is morally neutral. It is the abuse of wealth that corrodes men’s lives. The Bible does not condemn wealth if it is acquired honestly and distributed wisely. In consecrated hands, wealth can be a means of upbuilding the work of God.
1. Announcing Judgment on the Ungodly Rich (5:1-6)
This whole section of chapter 5 announces God’s judgment upon those who dishonestly acquire wealth, and who oppress the poor, and who live wastefully. Verse 1 says, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.” There will be a severity and certainty about God’s judgments upon those who abuse wealth. The words “weep” and “howl” denote a spirit of anguish because of coming judgment, not a mourning of repentance and sorrow because of sin. The word “miseries” is a strong word that suggests hardships and afflictions and wretchedness. James says there is coming a Day of Judgment. Wrongs are going to be righted and punishment will be meted out.
Verse 2 continues the thought: “Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you.” In the ancient world, wealth was of three types—stores of grain, expensive garments, and precious metals. These things constituted wealth, instead of the stocks and bonds and other securities that are common in our day. The men of wealth (to whom James writes) had accumulated so much that it was actually rotting in their storehouses. They were hoarding far more than they could ever use. We are reminded of the words of Jesus, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” (Matthew 6:19).
Verse 3 (of James 5) continues: “Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.” There is nothing more irrational than for a person to spend his whole lifetime hoarding up a fortune for his last days, and then he becomes sick and can’t enjoy it—and finally dies and leaves it all behind.
The reason God’s judgment is going to fall upon the rich—is not because of the mere possession of wealth, but because of the sins often associated with riches—and that is what James speaks about in the verses that follow.
Verse 4 describes the sin of injustice: “Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them who have reaped, are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” The greed of the rich had led some employers to withhold wages from those who had worked for them. The Mosaic Law had specifically stated that the poor laborer should be paid at the end of each day’s work (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The day-laborer in Palestine lived on the verge of starvation; his wages were small; if the wage was withheld from him (even for a day), he and his family many times could not eat. James condemns the unfair practices of those employers who pay laborers less than a living wage, in order that they might add more to their own vast possessions.
The word “Sabaoth” means “hosts” or “armies”—and was a title used to depict the majesty and the power of God. The cries of those who are mistreated are not always heard on earth, but their appeals are heard in heaven. Those who deal unjustly are going to have to meet the Lord of the armies of heaven.
Verse 5 describes the sin of luxury: “Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.” The rich often pamper themselves, squandering their money to buy almost anything they want. In our day it is sometimes a boat at the lake, a trip to Hawaii, or a color television set. The word “wanton” translates a Greek word that suggests wasteful and riotous conduct. It speaks of squandering one’s money and satisfying every whim of the “heart” (seat of our desires). The “day of slaughter” is best understood as a reference to the Judgment Day. The wealthy person’s manner of life often resembles that of cattle which do nothing but feed themselves, totally unconscious that what they are doing is fattening themselves for their own slaughter.
Verse 6 describes the sin of violence. “Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.” The phrase “the just” may refer to one person (Jesus Christ). Acts 3:14 calls Him “the Holy One and the Just.” Jesus offered no resistance when He suffered abuse. However, the words (“the just”) may be a comprehensive reference to men of God (such as Stephen) who died as martyrs in the cause of Christ. The words “he doth not resist you” mean that the poor (having no means of setting things right), submitted to their cruel treatment without a murmur. They had no adequate legal defense, and so they had to quietly submit.
What James has been saying here about unconsecrated riches, is just as applicable today as it was in the first century. We know that the pursuit of gain has kept more people from true devotion to God than many other forces combined. We must be careful not to envy the rich.
2. Appealing For Patience When Under Stress (5:7-11)
James turns now from addressing the ungodly rich (the men in verses 1-6 are not addressed as “brethren”)—to bringing counsel and encouragement to Christians who have been oppressed. Sometimes Christians were the objects of ridicule and persecution. Sometimes they were defrauded of their rights. Sometimes they were falsely accused. How do we react to all this? “Patience” is the key word.
Verse 7 says, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receives the early and latter rain.” The work of the farmer requires faith and patience. He prepares the soil, sows the seed, cultivates the new growth—and then waits! There are many things that can trouble the farmer (no rain, too much rain, diseases, insects, etc.)—but still he waits patiently. He knows that in due time the crops will mature and the harvest will come, and then the long hours of labor will be rewarded.
Verse 8 of our lesson says that just as the farmer patiently awaits the harvest, so we too must be patient and muster up courage (“establish your hearts”), for the coming of the Lord is drawing closer. Jesus is coming, and when He comes, the wicked will be put down, wrongs will be righted, and the world will be set straight. Our trials will not continue forever, and thus we should wait patiently for the harvest of eternal glory. The admonition of Galatians 6:9 is appropriate here: “Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
Verse 9 says that the fact that Jesus is coming, and the fact that He is going to set things straight—should have a transforming effect upon our lives. For one thing, it should help eliminate grumbling. The word “grudge” means “an inward unexpressed feeling of complaint, created by undesirable circumstances.” James says, “I know there is plenty to upset you; you are often cheated and falsely accused, and your nerves get edgy.” But he admonishes that we don’t become irritable toward our fellow Christians. If we grumble against one another, we are going to fall under the judgment of God for it. It is easy, you know, to blame our plight on others. Some are indifferent; others are too rigid; still others are hypocrites. James condemns such complaining. He says, “Grow up.” One of these days the Judge will straighten matters out.
In verse 7 James referred to the patience of the farmer. Now he appeals for patience by referring to the experience of the prophets. Verse 10 says, “Take, my brethren, the prophets which have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.” Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and others—are examples of suffering affliction and of patience. They become for us a pattern of patience even when under ill treatment. James says in essence: “When it falls our lot to be like the prophets in suffering, we should strive to be like them in patience.”
It is always a comfort to know that others have gone through experiences that were hard too. We are not alone:
Daniel was put into a den of lions.
Elijah fled from the wicked Queen Jezebel.
Jeremiah was placed into a dungeon filled with mire and he sank into the mud until it came up to his armpits. How could such a thing happen? Wasn’t Jeremiah in the will of the Lord when over and over again he told the king God’s message? Surely he was in the will of the Lord, but that’s how things happen in this world.
James says we must not give up when we face hard places. Instead, we must let the example of the prophets who have gone before us give us fresh courage to keep on keeping on! In other words, God’s arm is not shortened. His power has not grown less. Jeremiah was delivered; Daniel was delivered; Elijah was delivered—and what God has done for others, He can do again!
The final illustration of patience under trial is the example of the patriarch Job. Verse 11 says, “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy.”
Job had been suddenly overwhelmed with affliction. The Sabeans stole his oxen; lightning killed his shepherds; the Chaldeans carried away his camels; a great wind blew over his house; and his children were all killed in the storm. This would have been more than enough to make most of us give up. But later—there was added affliction. Job’s body was covered with boils; his wife laughed at him and told him to curse God; his best friends accused him of hiding some secret sin. Yet Job never lost his faith in God. True, he was not always patient, in the sense that we often think of patience. But the word used here is “steadfastness” or “endurance.” It is the spirit that doesn’t easily give up when the going is hard.
Sometimes Job did speak impatiently, but the important thing is that he persevered to the end. He maintained a persistent trust in God. And there is something about such resolute endurance that all of us admire. James says in verse 11, “Behold, we count them happy who endure.”
“I will not doubt, though all my ships at sea
Come drifting home with broken masts and sails.
I will believe the Hand which never fails,
For ‘seeming’ evil worketh good for me.
And though I weep—because these sails are tattered,
Still will I cry, while my best hopes lie shattered—
‘I trust in Thee.’
I will not doubt, though all my prayers returned
Unanswered from the still white realm above.
I will believe it is an all-wise love
Which has refused those things for which I yearned.
And though at times I cannot keep from grieving,
Yet the pure ardor of my fixed believing—
undimmed still shall burn!
I will not doubt, though sorrows fall like rain,
And troubles swarm like bees, about to hive.”
— Author unknown
The word “patience” used in James 5:11 speaks of a gallant spirit which refuses to give way even under pressure. Job had no explanation as to why those evils befell him. Yet we know that afterward God blessed him far beyond anything he knew before his suffering. Just so, God will bless us too, if we are steadfast. In the meantime, He is full of pity and of tender mercy. And all of us know that our greatest trials have many times later brought us some of our greatest blessings. James is emphasizing the fact that we must keep on going.
Somehow, we seem to get the idea that Christians should enjoy God’s blessings, but should not be subjected to His testings. There isn’t too much teaching in most church circles about the hardness of the Christian life and the cost of following Jesus Christ. One of the reasons for this lack is that we have been over-sold on “happiness” and “success” formulas. Christian bookstores are crammed with “How to be Happy” books, but the Book of James talks about steadfastness in the midst of reverses. Keep in mind that Jesus closed the Sermon on the Mount by saying that the rains descend, the floods come, and the wind blows and beats on both houses—the one built on the sand as well as the one founded on the rock.
To summarize then, James 5:1-6 says God will finally punish ungodly sinners. James 5:7-11 says that God will finally reward those followers of Christ who endure steadfastly until the end.
3. Urging Reverence in Using God’s Name (5:12)
The kind of stress described in the earlier verses of chapter 5, may cause some to break out carelessly in using oaths. James warns against that practice. Verse 12 says, “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay, lest ye fall into condemnation.”
An “oath” is a solemn declaration (based on an appeal to God or some revered object) that one will speak the truth (or keep a promise). Generally we think of two kinds of oaths. There are “common oaths” and there are “civil oaths”:
1) Common oaths—Sometimes a person in private conversation, says, “I’ll swear to it.” Children playing at school, will say, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I’m not telling the truth.” These are attempts to guarantee the truth of what is being said by appealing to some revered object. The common oath also includes profane swearing and the use of euphemisms. Swearing is calling upon the name of God to express feelings of anger and resentment and overemphasis. Euphemisms are mild words substituted for outright profanity. Both are flippant uses of God’s name to guarantee the strength or truth of one’s statements.
2) Civil oaths—One who is called as a witness in court, is asked to place his hand on a Bible, and to solemnly swear to tell the truth. In the courts, it is a very serious matter to promise (in God’s name) to tell the truth, and then tell a lie. The crime is known as “perjury.” But one who “swears” before a court of justice, implies that he doesn’t always tell the truth—but now that he has placed his hand on a Bible, in these moments, he is promising to be truthful. Jesus says that our “yes” should always be “yes” and our “no” should always mean “no”—therefore swear not at all (Matthew 5:33-37).
The Bible says that a Christian is to be clearly identified with truth telling. He doesn’t need an oath to guarantee that what he says is true. The Christian is to be so careful with his speech at all times that it will be said of him (as William of Orange once said of the Anabaptists who lived in Holland): “Their yes is equal to our oath.” This means that we must guard carefully against excessive teasing, exaggeration, telling “white lies,” and using other forms of inaccurate speech. Our reputation for truthfulness should be such that when we say “yes,” it will be accepted as “yes” (without the need for a confirming oath).
One of the recurring themes in the Book of James is a reference to the sins of the tongue (1:19; 1:26; 3:1-12; 4:11; 4:13; 5:9). Oath-taking is one of them.