Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 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. Behold, the wages of the labourers 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. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
Men want to be like God – owning everything and living forever. Christians live in wicked world with wicked men. When we speak we must always speak as those who are aware of this sad environment. When we are aware of this unfortunate environment, then we would season our words so that they build and edify those who hear us.
James is not addressing believers here, he is addressing the wicked rich among them. This is the view many godly brethren on whom shoulders I am standing holds for the following reasons:
1) James addresses his whole letter to the twelve tribes (1:1) in general without any express mention of their holy calling or faith. This is usual in the older apostolic letters.
2) He uses the common form of greeting – just greetings. When writing to the Christians, the apostles solemnly wish them “grace and peace,” etc.
3) The style is more rousing and persuasive than usual, as if it were intended to awaken complacent sinners or worldly people.
4) The last verses of the letter seem to intimate that much of his purposes was to convert unbelievers; see 5:19-20
5) Here he plainly speaks to the rich, wicked men. Though the truth is that it is not so much for their sakes as for the godly, to encourage them to patience. I like John Calvin’s assessment, “These six verses are not so much an admonition as a denunciation, in which the apostle is not so much telling them what to do as foretelling what shall be done to them, so that the godly may be encouraged to greater patience under their oppression. The apostle plainly implies this in verse 7”.
James says here, “Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” There is a possibility though that there were wealthy Christians who had been blinded by the deceitfulness of sin so as to behave in this manner with regard to their wealth. James tells them it is the time to shed tears. Tears is not something that the rich think about often. James is telling them that judgment is on the way to destroy them – doom is upon them all. Therefore, “Weep! Shed tears!” Yes indeed, the rich also cry.
This is an indictment to any wealthy person who acts in this manner. James is not simply condemning them for being rich, rather it is because of the manner in which they were minding or handling their riches. They were materialistic and covetous.
It is particularly the case with those who have bought land, and sometimes an acquisition where the Christian buyer has been defrauded into buying someone else’s land. You discover too late that you have been defrauded…what do you do? Do you marshal financial power and make sure that you wrestle the land from the poor owner by dragging him into the law courts? Do you bribe to have your way?
The point made here is that everyone could be in danger of abusing wealth and possession and this why there are so many passages exhorting the rich and the wealthy. The rich and wealth have unique temptations and are many dangers in their wealth and so the Lord would not have His children short-circuited by materialism.
A time is coming when some of you people could be rich and wealthy. This is the right time for you to learn how to use earthly riches and how not to abuse it. Unless you are prepared before the day comes, you are at a great risk of weeping and howling when riches are upon you.
This sermon is meant to vaccinate you against this terrible malady associated with the infatuation with the possession. Whenever you acquire a new possession, when you get a better paying job, or are given an inheritance or get a loan, always remember what the Lord said, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." Luke 12:15.
Covetousness is a sin that demand a constant watch against, and therefore frequently to be warned against. The life of the soul, which is the man, does not depend upon possession. Worldly wealth, leave alone earthly riches will not suit the nature of a soul, nor supply its needs, nor satisfy its desires, nor last so long as it will last. Many who have abundance are discontented, covetous and fretful, as Ahab and Haman. Then what good does their abundance do them? They both fell headlong to their destruction! They both abandoned their wealth or rather their wealth abandoned them at their greatest hour of need.
1. What is the cost of abusing wealth? (vv. 1-3)
1) Now and here (vv. 2-3a)
Here is something about the misery of perishable riches on this side of eternity, here on earth. Possession in wealth in those days of James consisted of three things: grain, clothing and precious metals. Not one of these things lasts! Even gold, though not corrosive and does not rust physically, could not only diminish in luster but actually drops in value sometimes. In those days they did not have an elaborate banking system as ours. They did not have insurance companies to cover damages and loses as result of natural disasters such as disease, pestilence and calamities. Hence the destruction that pastor James speaks about.
They had more clothes that they can wear! They had more in their physical treasury and in their wardrobes than they had in heaven. Instead of giving these clothes to the needy they were storing up for their own use only for moths to destroy them. About this the Lord Jesus said,
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:19-21)
You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deu 8:18). But God does not give riches to be stored. God gives wealth for personal use and for others and especially for the advancement of the Christian gospel. But instead of these people using the wealth they were storing it up and James is saying that what they were storing up was more material for their own combustion. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.
This hoarding of possession, whether little or much, has led to more evils in the world as people compete. We must always remember the words of the apostle Paul, the love of money is the root cause of all evils. The point is, if you are obsessed with foodstuff, clothes, money, gold, land and more possession, your only help is one – to weep and howl when they are destroyed.
2) In eternity (v.3)
Not only to weep and howl when this earthly property is gone, but to realize that there is an eternal weeping and gnashing awaiting those who abused their wealth. This is what informs the sarcastic statement, ‘You have laid up treasure in the last days’ (v. 3). Earlier on he had said, “…their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire (3a). The point is obvious, if you are going to misuse the wealth that God gave you, then be prepared for the pain that is coming upon you in future.
Therefore, those who make riches the primary object of their lives now and here, living without regard for God, will sooner than they expect regret, for the great loss that will befall them in eternity. The Bible is full of these reality-check stories and admonition. The rich fool, even though he had all his stores full, and even if he told his soul that he had ample goods laid up for many years, he was unable to relax, eat and drink and be merry, for God required of his soul the same day! Therefore the one who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:20-21) will find himself in eternal peril.
In eternity, they will see that they hoarded and amassed wealth as if they would live forever on earth, yet the truth is that they were living the last days of their brief lives. What became of the wealth of Mr. Dives in Luke 16:19-31? While he was so wealthy here on earth, he soon died and was buried but his soul was in torment of hell in darkness and anguish of pain. His wealth did him no good in eternity. So poor was he that he could not afford a drop of water for the tip of his tongue!
2. What are some of the abuses of wealth? (vv. 3-6)
The Bible does not condemn being wealthy… rather pastor James, by the inspiration of the Spirit is warning his readers who had ‘laid up treasure’. It is the same problem the Lord is addressing in Luke 12:21 of laying treasure for oneself and not being rich toward God.
You ask, “Pastor, are you saying that saving is wrong?” There is no doubt that we are encouraged to save up for the future. The Lord exhorts us to be wiser than the ants who lay something for themselves in summer for the use in winter (Prov. 30:25). So we are to think wisely about the future both spiritually and financially and plan prudently for it.
So what is hoarding? It is when you continue to accumulate above and beyond that which is necessary, and only for your own use. Like John Wesley, learn what is enough for you and yours and for the future. I knew a lady who passed on, not in very good conditions and yet so much money was found hidden on her pillow, and a lot of rotten rice and wheat flour was discovered in her bedroom, yet she could not let her care-giving daughter-in-law know that there was the rice to cook for her.
The law is so clear about how one is to deal with his workers (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15; Prov. 3:27–28). As at the time when the Holy Spirit went to the press, there were rampart cases of abuse of the workers by the rich! There were multiple ways in which they did this:
a) Keeping back the wages of the labourers who had mowed their fields. That is, they were refusing to pay their workers on time!
b) Defrauding workers, that is swindling them. They got less than the labour service discharged. They got less value for their sweat!
Although the rich had more than enough, they still reached out to the only lamb of their neighbours to slaughter it for their guests! They had plenty from which to pay, without taking from their labourers who depended on their daily wage to survive hand to mouth!
These are not people who could afford to picket or hire a lawyer to plead justice for them. There was no labour union anyway. But they went to the Judge of all the earth and so James records two of their cries to the Lord: The first is the cry of the unpaid wages after mowing their fields.
The second is the cry of the harvesters.
When they cried after working without pay and had nothing to give their children, the Lord of hosts heard them (v. 4). God is surrounded by hosts of angelic beings. He is greater than all of them, and will send them to execute justice on behalf of His people and wrath on His and His people’s enemies.
3) Luxury and self-indulgence
You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. The rich and the wealthy know how to pamper themselves. They only think about their needs and their wants and their preferences. They constantly talk about their comforts as they shop. Constantly buying and never stopping to buy – even what they do not need! While they are so generous on themselves, they are oblivious of the needs of those around them, even their own workers!
Thunderbolt is upon them – Pastor James tells them, “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. This is not meant to pamper them, it is meant to awaken them from their luxurious stupor of self-indulgence. Wake up, all you men of influence and affluence. They might not realize it now in the hammock of their opulence and luxury, but their hearts are on the waiting list of the day of slaughter. This reminds me of my huge cock in the compound, as it has been growing bigger, it is only being fattened for the day of slaughter which a few of you are waiting for!
4) Injustice and murder of the righteous
What is it that Pastor James has in mind when he says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person?” Kent Hughes explains:
‘James is referring to judicial “murder”—primarily referring to taking away the means of making a living. The landed gentry controlled the courts. The poor could not oppose them because they had no way to use the system, and thus were helpless.’
There are many ways to murder, scorched earth campaign is one of them – cut off the supply and they will starve to death!
This method of murder is so bad that the poor righteous cannot even resist the rich! But the attitude of the righteous is to be like that of their Master – who did not revile or retaliate even though He had legions of heaven to defend Him. He willingly submitted to unjust treatment so he could provide eternal salvation for sinners.
Come to Christ and find true riches and eternal wealth. There is real hope and blessing for this life and the one to come. The wealth that Christ offers, this world cannot afford! He has abundance of life to give all who request Him.
The rich are urged to become poor, recognizing that their riches cannot save them and are temporal. Happy and blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3). True blessedness is only found by those who see their need and go to the only One who is more than able to supply their needs beyond their wildest imagination. He who depends on the degenerating arm of flesh will soon find himself defenseless. He who trusts in the chariots and horses will soon find that he is kicking against the goads.
How do you use your money? Is it for the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ? Christ gave us His all, even His own life; will you not give Him part of what He has freely given you? Or is it for personal luxury and self-indulgence? What percentage have you purposefully, determined to give for the cause of the gospel of Christ? How much do you give to share with others who are needy? Work out specific percentages before you get the money, before you are employed, before getting married think through it with your fiancée. Give faithfully. The church should be a place where the riches of God are exhibited by the giving of His people.
The manner in which you spend your money shows if you are worldly or godly, covetous and idolatrous or rich towards God. Remember that laying up your treasures on earth is only to be store them to be devoured by moths and thieves and rust. Remember also that when you lay up your treasure in heaven you certainly will reap now and in eternity. Unless you determine this now, you will soon find your heart firmly established here on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also!
How content are you with what the Lord has given you? Remember that godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (1Ti 6:6-8).
The snare and danger of wealth and riches is a real one. Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1Ti 6:9-10).