James 5:1-6 Woe to the Rich

When James denounces hoarding, oppression, indulgence, and financial violence, he is not simply denouncing several random acts of wickedness. Abuse of wealth is the final mark of a life of worldly “wisdom” James described in 3:13-4:3. Abuse of wealth is another form of envy, coveting, strife, and grasping. More precisely, oppression is the last element in a series of offenses against gospel humility.

We have studied that James examines three sins of pride, three acts that fail to show humility before God. First, we can malign and judge our brothers (4:11-12). Second, we can make presumptuous plans about our future (4:13-17). Third, we can use financial power to oppress the poor and indulge ourselves (5:1-6).

James 5:1-6 assesses the last and most serious of these offenses. Oppression is public and detrimental to others. Further, the kind of oppression James describes involves systematic perversion of justice. It shreds the fabric of society. When James laments wage fraud (5:4) and the condemnation of the innocent (5:6), we enter the sphere of legal abuse. James’s rich people are perverting both the economic and the legal system of the land.

Echoing the voice of many prophets, James tells the rich to “weep and wail” (NIV) or “weep and howl” (ESV). The judgment of God is coming and will bring them misery. On the one hand, James does not condemn everyone who is rich. Riches are not evil in themselves. On the other hand, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). The desire for wealth is often insatiable.

Material wealth only temporarily quenches the soul’s thirst for meaning and acceptance. Acquiring wealth to cure the problem of meaninglessness is like drinking coffee to solve the problem of exhaustion. It can mask the problem, but it cannot cure it. Riches cannot fulfill the quest for meaning, but those who live for wealth decide the problem is not wealth per se, but their insufficient wealth. Thus, devotee of wealth work harder and harder at the wrong thing. The desire for wealth becomes insatiable. If anyone thinks riches or social rank will satisfy his soul, he deludes himself.

Because material wealth is transitory, fleeting, and easily spoiled, hoarding is senseless. Nonetheless, materialists hoard. We should expect this, if money is their god. Yet, since money is a weak god – no god – we expect plans to store wealth for another day to fail. “Your wealth has rotted” is James’s theme. First, moths have eaten the fine clothes of the rich while they lie in storage (v. 5:2). Second, gold and silver “corrode” (v. 5:3). Literally, James says, the “rust.” This echoes words of Jesus (Matt. 6:19) and Isaiah (50:9; 51:8), who use rust and moths as metaphors for the weakness and transience of human treasure and strength.

James holds a specific complaint against the rich: they have defrauded their field laborers of their wages. As he says, “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” This could mean several things: (1) they pay, but after undue delay; (2) they pay less than they agreed, less than a living wage; (3) they refuse to pay at all. Biblical law emphasizes the need to pay fair wages to day laborers and to do so at the end of the day, because a laborer and his family would otherwise go hungry.

The rich think nothing can stop them. The poor seem powerless. They can only cry out to God: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (5:4). But “the Lord hears the needy” (Ps. 69:33). He stands “at the right hand of the needy” (Ps. 109:31). This is a social principle and a gospel principle too. James blesses the poor and preaches the good news to them.

Meanwhile the rich “have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (v. 5:5). They have “fattened [themselves] in the day of slaughter.” The Bible never censures the rich per se. But it often says that those who live for pleasure in this world will suffer sorrow in the next. God’s judgment brings reversals. James says the self-indulgent rich have fed themselves in “the day of slaughter.” The phrase “day of slaughter” may mean they sat by idly on a day when the poor were slaughtered. More likely, the point is caustic: they are fattening themselves up for the day of their slaughter.

The rich hoard, cheat, and indulge themselves. Worse yet, James says, “You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (v. 5:6). If murder is the most egregious sin among men, murder of unresisting innocents is most egregious among murders. As before, the murder is probably figurative. Yet by withholding their wages, the rich condemn the poor to poverty, even starvation.

The word “condemn” suggests the law court. It is likely that the rich used the legal system to deprive the poor of their wages and lands. We must remember that in most societies in antiquity, as in many societies today, there was little concept of rule by impartial law. Those who had power and wealth on their side won in court, not those who had justice. The courts were governed by patronage, clan, and tribe, not objective justice.

James never condemns riches per se, but riches can lead to sin: (1) if they are accumulated through injustice (5:4), (2) if they are used for indulgence (5:5), and (3) if they breed insolence and lawlessness (5:6). The primary cure for these ills is to use wealth as the Lord prescribes. We must not hoard, for hoarding is wasting. We keep some for proper enjoyment, save sensibly for the future, and give much to the Lord and His work.

Another cure for these ills is to lift our eyes from material things. James says we are living in the last days (5:3). We are near the day of slaughter (5:5). The Lord is coming (5:7); indeed, His coming is near (5:8). By faith, believers are prepared and remain prepared for that day. When our hearts are right, we long for it. So then, let us not live like the godless rich, who grasp, hoard, and indulge themselves. Let us live out the conviction that the riches of this age are fleeting, and that our life with God is forever rewarding.

James 5:1-6 Study Questions:

Based on the opening verses of this passage (vv. 1-3), why might you argue that James is speaking mainly to wealthy people who are not genuine Christians? How does he address them (v. 1), and how is this different from the titles he has used before in the letter? What does James seem to anticipate about their future judgment?

What has happened to the riches and possessions of those who have hoarded them, according to what James says in verses 2-3? What warnings are implicit in the descriptions in these verses? How might James be subtly teaching about right investments and an eternal perspective on our possessions?

According to verse 5, what kind of treatment of people has played a major part in the growing wealth of the rich people James denounces? How does James introduce the presence of God into this verse?

While James 5:5 does not condemn wealth and possessions per se, what kind of attitudes and motivations does he denounce in the lives and hearts of wealthy people? What seems to be driving the men and women whom James confronts?

For at least some of the wealthy people that James has in view, their sinful behavior has not stopped at self-indulgence, or even at the oppression of the poor. What additional sins does James decry in verse 6? How does he characterize the “righteous” person who falls prey to the violence of the sinful rich person?