The Coming Judgment on the Greedy Rich (5:1-6)

  1. Come now, you rich, weep and howl (“burst into tears”) for the miseries that are coming upon you. The same opening address in 5:1 is used in 4:13, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” You rich—James doesn’t refer to “the rich” as brethren in this section (see 1:9-11). He is still addressing “the rich” unbelievers in 4:13-17. Weep and howl—James public declaration to the greedy rich oppressing the poor is a common theme among prophetic writings. James calls upon the unjust rich to repent and warns of God’s impending judgment. The description is similar to that of OT judgments (see Isa. 13:6; 15:3; Amos 8:3). In the Jewish war (AD 66-73), the wealthy Sadducean landowners and many merchants lost their positions of power and personal belongings. In a way, the war was judgement on the unjust rich.
  2. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion (ios, poison) will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. The first charge brought against the greedy rich is their coming judgment for the injustice they amass. They have greedily acquired so much wealth (riches, garments, gold and silver) that they have ignored to care for those in need. Their corrosion—As their possessions waste away so too will their own lives because of greed and corruption. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “They have so much wealth stored up that it “has rotted”; their clothes also are moth eaten. Wealth in those days consisted of both money and such commodities as grain, oil, and costly garments. Evidence that costly garments were stored as wealth and used as payment for services rendered occurs in such passages as 2Ki 5:5, 22; Mt 6:19. Thus what rotted were the commodities and what had been invaded by moths were the stored garments. There is no reason to take these happenings as figurative or as predictive of the future. The tragic fact was that the rich had hoarded so much food and clothing that it was going to waste. Their crime was uncontrolled greed that resulted in oppression of the poor (v.4).” You have laid up treasure in the last days—Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). The only thing the rich cared about was accruing more wealth. In Lk. 12:33-34, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
  3. Behold, the wages of the laborers 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. The second charge James brings against the greedy rich is dishonesty. They fail to pay what their workers are rightly owed. Lev. 19:13b, “Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, “For this setting, see the article “Poverty and Revolt in Judea.” wages you failed to pay the workers. Wealthy landowners often lived far away from the estates where their laborers worked. Tenant farmers normally paid the landowner a share of the crops, but landowners could also use slaves or, as in this case, temporary workers. Day laborers — especially in demand during the harvest — made subsistence wages; they depended on these daily wages to feed themselves and their families.”
  4. You have lived on the earth in luxury (“to lead a soft life”) and in self-indulgence (extravagant; absolutely wasteful; “going beyond pleasure to vice”). You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. The third charge brought against the greedy rich is living in self-indulgence. The rich are so consumed with their excessive greed that they are oblivious that they are fattening themselves for the day of slaughter. Day of slaughter—A term used by the prophet Jeremiah of coming judgment on the Day of the Lord (12:3; elsewhere Isa. 30:25; Ezek. 7:14-23; Rev. 19:17-21). In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul gives Timothy directives on how wealthy Christians are to live: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
  5. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. The fourth charge against the greedy rich is having Christians murdered for their faith. The rich controlled the court systems through bribery and threats. Resist you—James depicts the righteous as people who did nothing wrong and didn’t fight back; and yet, the wicked have them killed.