A Warning to the Wealthy
© 2020 C. O. Bishop
James 5:1-6; Psalm 73:1-12; Psalm 37:1, 2, 16
We have been working through the book of James for quite some time, taking excursions to address other matters from time to time, but in general, pressing on with James. James has proven to be a very practical book, and in chapter five it becomes quite “pointed” for the first six verses. In keeping with the topic of the last month, the next few verses give us some insight into our response to the world around us.
It is easy for us to become disgruntled or envious as we see others prosper, especially if we know that the persons in question are living in such a way as to dishonor God, so that they are prospering in spite of their ungodliness, or possibly because of it. What we are going to read today is God’s response, both to them and to us.
Interpreting James Chapter 5
1Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
There are several questions we should be asking, as we consider this passage:
- Who is speaking?
- To whom is this passage speaking?
- Is this a general condemnation of wealthy people?
- How much do I have to have, to be “wealthy?”
- Is this passage speaking to believers or to unbelievers?
- Is this a general condemnation of wealthy people?
- What does it say?
- Is this a statement that wealth itself is evil?
- If not, then what is the issue?
Obviously, this is a good time to be very careful to “compare scripture with scripture,” in order to ascertain what God is saying, and to whom, as well as what effect it should have upon believers as a whole; and, finally, “how does this affect me?”
Let’s take the above questions one at a time:
Who is speaking? To us, as believers, and specifically as those who believe the Bible is literally the Word of God, the answer is simple: God is speaking. There are believers who begin to sort out the scriptures “by writer,” as if one writer had more authority than another, or more credibility. If that is the case, then the Bible is a bewildering mixture of authoritative and non-authoritative writings, and we are effectively declaring ourselves to be the “authority” who determines which is which. I hope you can see the problems inherent in that approach to the Bible. I choose to place my confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. Yes, there are human writers, but the result is God speaking through them.
To whom is the writer speaking? It is important to ask this question, too, because, while all of the Bible is for us as believers, not all of it is “to” us. There are portions which are pronouncements of judgment on enemies of God, and are not to us at all.
As we read through the book of James, we can see that up to this point (and beginning again in verse seven), James has clearly addressed the “brethren;” specifically speaking to the needs of believers. Here, he seems to change audiences for a moment, and speaks briefly to a different group. How can we tell? Back in chapter one, verses nine and ten, he addressed the poor and rich “brothers”, and rather than condemning the rich, he asks that they rejoice in being “brought low.” Also, comparing the many references to kings and wealthy men in the Old Testament, there is not a condemnation of wealth, nor the wealthy, but a recognition that, as a rule, God has blessed them (the Godly, wealthy men, such as Abraham.)
So, the question we finally have to answer is whether the passage speaks to believers or to unbelievers: unregenerate men whose wealth was not from God.
I read, not long ago, that, because open land is scarce in Japan, and golfing is extremely popular, golf-courses were becoming crowded to the point of being unusable, until the owners raised the fees high enough to “thin the ranks” and make the courses less crowded. Their shameless intent was to make golf completely inaccessible to people of modest income, thus making it a “privilege of the rich”, while making themselves very wealthy as well, through the green fees. But there was an embarrassing, unintended result: Only very wealthy people could play, certainly, but that meant that, very publicly, now, the politicians, industry potentates, and the organized crime leaders together, shared the clubhouses: Everyone could see the “connections.” They all seemed to be “together,” as…they were “together.”
I don’t know what eventually became of that; I am not a golfer, but if I had been, and if I had found myself in such a situation, I would have abandoned the game. Actually, there was a similar situation at work years ago, wherein it became common knowledge that “the way to get promoted was to join the golf league, and schmooze with the bigwigs.” I would not have believed such a story, except that I saw it in action numerous times, and some of the “beneficiaries” of this “insider” gamesmanship bragged about having “golfed their way” into their current jobs. I found such goings-on deeply repugnant, and, when invited to join, I was glad I could honestly say, “I don’t play golf.”
Since God does not condemn people for how much they have, nor how little, and He warns believers not to give special attention to believers who are wealthy, I think it is correct to conclude that the “rich,” here in James 5:1-6 are unbelievers, who are literally guilty of the crimes he lists. What is coming for these “rich,” then? And why? Why is it worthy of “weeping and howling?” Let’s compare Psalm 73:1-12 (read it.)
The Unbelieving Rich
The Psalmist says (Psalm 73:3-12) that, in their lifetimes, these wicked rich prospered; and they did not even seem to suffer in death, but were strong all their lives. He says that this bolstered their personal pride, and gave them confidence that they could do whatever they wanted, including violence and greed, and exalting themselves against God. We have “celebrities” today who speak boldly against the God of Heaven as the psalmist describes in verse nine, and wealthy politicians who oppress the very people they claim to represent. I recall various celebrities even claiming to be God, while others claimed themselves to be more popular than Christ, and still others insist that God does not exist, and they “re-invent Jesus” in various vile forms, far removed from His holy, omnipotent reality, as both the “Judge of all the Earth,” and the Savior.
Does this behavior of the wicked, who rant against God, go unnoticed? It surely seems to do so, from our perspective, doesn’t it? And it did from the psalmist’s point of view, too! He said that his own attention to the ways of God had been for nothing (Psalm 73:13-16): “I have cleansed my heart in vain…I have been plagued…and chastened every morning.” He was becoming bitter, and frustrated, but when he entered the temple, (Psalm 73:17-23) God gave him something to change his mind. He allowed the psalmist to see the “end” of the wicked. He saw that they had been lulled into complacency by their own sin, and were trapped in their wickedness, and despised by God: and that their final destination was an eternity in Hell. The psalmist then repented of his own bitterness and resentment, as he realized that, while things had not been “comfortable” from his own perspective, he, in fact, had continually been with God.
That is a good thing for us to keep in mind, as well, when we see the wicked flourishing. They always have done so: this is nothing new. They open their mouths against God, and league themselves with the enemies of God. So, the enemies of God reward them, and they flourish. But the final result is the total disaster of eternal damnation. So there is a warning, here, in James, to exactly that sort of person: “Repent, because judgment is coming!”
2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
We make jokes about this sort of thing, saying, “You can’t take it with you!” But the fact is, you not only will not prosper by it, eternally, but, if you fall into this category of ungodly “prosperity”, the very riches themselves will stand in the judgment, as testimony against you.
When the “books are opened”, as in Revelation 20, these things will testify against you, not for you. We tend to see the rich as having been “blessed by God,” but it entirely depends upon two things: How did they get the wealth, and what did they do with it? There have been wealthy individuals who inherited wealth, and regardless of how it was originally amassed, they used it faithfully, once it was under their control
We can read the account of Hezekiah, in 2nd Chronicles 29. It says that, when Hezekiah became king, he immediately used his inherited authority to open the doors to the Temple, which had been closed up by his ungodly father, and to exhort the Priests and Levites to use their divinely-appointed authority to go in and clean out the interior of the Temple (where he had no authority.) He then saw to it that the idols were dragged out, broken up and thrown into the muddy creek east of Jerusalem—the Kidron. The ultimate result of his inherited wealth and authority was a full-scale revival in Judah. (Read chapters 29-32.)
There have also been wealthy industrialists, (R.G. Letourneau, for example) who started out with nothing, who earned the money through inventions and entrepreneurship, and who not only did not mistreat their employees on their way to such wealth, they gave heavily to support missions or other humanitarian works. I do not believe that such persons fall under this condemnation. But to those who cruelly exploited their workers, and ignored the plight of the poor, and ignored the call of God, all these things will testify against them. Judgment is coming!
Notice, too, that it specifically warns that the treasure is being heaped up for the “last days”…the tribulation, or the judgment day. This is not addressed to a believer. We will not be involved in those things.
4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.
6 Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.
What a terrible indictment against these individuals, whoever they are/were. Obviously it is not an indictment against every rich person in history, but it seems that it could easily apply to many, whose lives actually have matched these accusations. There are counter-examples within the scriptures, and there are counter-examples alive today. But the fact is, the very wealthy of this world have frequently gotten there by “stepping on” the poor. Not always, of course, but it is certainly an observable phenomenon. And this warning is to those persons.
Consider the Book of Ruth, though: God does not condemn the wealthy Boaz, for instance, because he was definitely treating his workers well, and reached beyond the legal requirements, with Grace, in order to meet the needs of Ruth. It is also clear that he had no designs upon her, at the start: her mother-in-law, Naomi was the one who initiated the move to have Ruth approach Boaz as the “Kinsman-Redeemer”; Boaz had only given instructions to his workers to add Grace to her gleanings. (I love that book, by the way, as it is such a clear, tender picture of Christ.) But the workers blessed Boaz voluntarily, and He blessed them in return, as well as eating with them in the field: he did not see himself as “above them,” socially. He chose to eat with them in fellowship, as Jesus chooses fellowship with us.
Finally, the accusation is that they have condemned and killed the “just” (singular), and he (singular) has not resisted them. Who is that one Just man? I think the condemnation here is specifically against the ungodly of this world, who, collectively, down through the ages, have approved the crucifixion, through their own choices and actions. Our sins put Jesus on the Cross! All of us bear that burden. But whether you will meet Him as your Savior or as your Judge is up to you! If you meet Him as your Judge, remember what you have done to Him by your life! If you would rather meet Him as your Savior, then throw yourself upon His mercy, offered through the Cross!
If you know that you will meet Him as your Savior, then consider how you are responding to Him today as your Lord. He is the Judge of all the Earth, and that includes the Judgment seat of Christ, where our works will be judged. Nothing escapes His attention. Yes, my sins were judged at the Cross, but my works are still awaiting judgment and will either be eternally worthy of reward, or eternally worthless.
As I look back at my life, I can easily see that much of my effort has been directed at things which were ultimately a waste of time. That is pretty sad, but it is true. God sets the standard. We can either believe it or not believe it, but the standard remains the same.
So, how should we respond?
I can truthfully say that this verse is not speaking “to” me, as:
- I am not an unbeliever, and
- I have no employees, regardless of whether I could be accused of being “rich” in anyone else’s opinion. (We know that, to people in very poor nations, the poorest people in the United States would be considered very wealthy, by their standards. But that is not the issue, here.)
I also know that this passage is written “for” me: The whole Bible is! So how can I profit from this specific passage, and how should I respond to it?
If nothing else, it should alert me to the fact that while the possessions and actions of this life are passing and temporary in nature, our actions and attitudes are by no means unimportant, in light of eternity. God doesn’t miss anything at all! According to Jeremiah 17:10, He will render “…to every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doing.”
Further, Psalm 37:1-4 tells me how I am to respond to those around me: I am not to “fret” about them, nor to envy them, nor try to “right their wrongs” myself: I am to “trust in the Lord and do Good,” and to commit my way to Him and allow Him to take care of my needs.
I don’t know what the eternal rewards are, because we simply are not told. But I do know they are eternally worthwhile! So, since the rewards for proper response to God are eternally worth having, a proper response to God is also worth the effort. I can ask myself:
- How do I use my time?
- How do I use my belongings?
- How do I use my money?
- How do I handle relationships?
- How do I treat people who have not treated me well?
Each of these is a part of how we can determine whether our lives are fitting the pattern set by The Lord as being “Lights in a dark world” and “ambassadors of Christ.”
Lord Jesus, allow us to see ourselves clearly in the light of your Word, and to see the World clearly, through the eyes of your Love. Help us to repent of the things that fall short of your honor, and to live as ambassadors of Christ.