The Book of James Bible Study

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James 5

The Trouble with Wealth - James 5:1-6

Hoarding Wealth

Until the Lord's Coming - James 5:7-9

You also be Patient

Patience and Perseverance - James 5:10-11

James and the Sermon on the Mount

The Trouble with Wealth

BACKGROUND: Tensions between the wealthy and the poor have been occurring for a long time. Twenty-first century outcries are no new phenomena. In Bible times there was usually not a middle class in society, and the gulf between the rich and the poor could be very wide.

The Bible does not denounce money per se, or rich men as such. It does not call all money "filthy lucre," only that which is acquired by shameful means (the epithet literally means "shameful gain"). Scripture does not designate money as the "root of all evil"; it is the "love of money" that received this disrepute (1 Timothy 6:10). Rich men who receive God's disapproval are defined not simply as people with much money, but as those "who trust in riches" (Proverbs 11:28; Matthew 19:16-26). Many wealthy persons are clearly described in the Bible with divine approval, and in some cases it is stated that their wealth was a blessing God had given them (Genesis 12:2; 13:2; 24:35; Job 1:1-3, 10; 42:10-13).

Those who carefully read the Bible understand that wealth is a stewardship entrusted to men to use wisely. The God who has made us and has supplied us resources with which to function also holds us accountable for how we carry out our stewardship (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Have we used these resources for His glory? For the furtherance of His program? For the benefit of others and not just ourselves?

Wealth itself is a relative term. All of us know persons who are economically better off than we, and we tend to regard them as "rich" in contrast to ourselves. At the same time, others less affluent than ourselves may think of us as the "rich" ones. Experience in traveling abroad quickly brings the recognition that Americans are more affluent than much of the world and makes one wonder about the exercise of his own stewardship.

Problems regarding rich and poor loomed large in James' thinking. He has referred to them in James 1:9-11, 2:1-13, to some extent in 4:13-17, and now more severely in 5:1-6. The principles he sets forth merit every Christian's careful attention.

JAMES 5:1: "Now listen” (literally “Come Now”) is the second of the two NT uses of this interjection (see James 4:13). It summons the ones addressed to give careful attention to what will be said.

Who were these rich persons being addressed? The wealthy men mentioned in 1:10~11 were most likely members of the Christian assembly. However, the rich visitor of 2:2 was probably not. If these persons in 5:1 were viewed as part of the Christian group, it seems clear that they must have been merely professed believers, for the fires of judgment are described as destroying both them and their riches. It is better to understand these rich men as oppressive landowners who were not believers. They are not challenged to repent but merely to wail over their certain prospect. They are viewed with a prophetic eye as already receiving the fires of judgment.

The strongest objection to regarding them as non-Christians is the fact that they are directly addressed in a letter to Christians. However, the Letter of James is steeped in OT terminology and style, and remarks directed to Israel's oppressors were a common feature of the Prophets. Isaiah delivered a message to Babylon and that nation was told to wail (13:6). He also gave similar prophecies to Philistia (14:28ff.), to Moab (15:1ff.), to Damascus (17:1ff.), to Ethiopia (18:1ff.), and to Tyre and Sidon (23:1ff.). In similar fashion, James' Christian readers were being informed that God would judge oppression at the proper time, and believers must not become disillusioned nor look enviously at the rich who might attend their services.

Eastern people are very demonstrative in grief. James challenged them to weep by howling over the miseries coming upon them. Neither here nor in the words to follow are there any calls to repentance. To the contrary, James thunders out like an OT prophet and regards the fires of judgment as already in process against these persons.

JAMES 5:2: Wealth in biblical times was commonly held in grain and other foodstuffs, in clothing, and in precious metals, as well as in flocks and herds. James was looking with a prophet's eye, seeing things from God's point of view. He saw judgment as already in progress and man's opulence revealed as temporal at best, subject to swift destruction.

JAMES 5:3: Even the gold and silver are seen as having rusted. In the physical world, rust does not affect gold or silver, and though silver may tarnish, gold does not even do that. In actuality the rich owners would have kept their valuables polished and sparkling. Again, however, we must allow James the privilege of bold metaphor as he describes the scene of final judgment in striking figures that arrest the attention and drive home the point. The meaning is clear: what men think is so important may be spiritually worthless.

In the judgment, their corrupted wealth will stand as a witness to their misuse of God's provision. No excuses will undo the evidence of their hoarded wealth, which was used only for selfish luxury, not for assisting others. In the bold and even bizarre imagery that apocalyptic prophets were noted for, James describes the rust of their corroded gold and silver as destined to eat their flesh as fire. The fires of judgment will be fueled by this corrupted wealth, instances of which are described in the succeeding verses.

The folly of their action is stated in the clause, "You have stored up treasure in the last days." Note that James said, "in the last days. He understood, in agreement with other NT writers, that the "last days" was a designation for messianic times, which began with Christ's first coming (Acts 2:16-17; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:18). These rich men were oblivious to the momentous days in which they were living. They did not understand that the "last days" had already begun and that Christ's second coming could be at any moment. They were like the Babylonians, feasting and reveling in willful ignorance that disaster was about to strike their city (Daniel 5:1-31).

Next Section - Hoarding Wealth

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