1 - 6 Warning For the Rich
1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! 4 Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, [and] which has been withheld by you, cries out [against you]; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and put to death the righteous [man]; he does not resist you.
V1. James is addressing the rich people in strong terms. They actually were asking for it. They reveal themselves as opponents to the poor in whom we can recognize the believing remnant of God’s people. They drag the poor to court (Jam 2:6). The rich are exerting power over the poor who are dependent on them. When the poor for example are not able to pay the rent of their houses, the rich are suing them. Of course they have the judges on their side, for they are corruptible.
The rich depend on their riches, they put their trust in those riches. That’s the cause of the separation between them and God. However, what they are trusting in will be taken away from them. They will be struck by the judgment of God. With a view to that James is calling on the rich to become aware of what is waiting for them. That should make them weep and howl as an expression of repentance about the sins they have committed. If they finally repent, this weeping and howling will be of temporal nature. If they do not repent they will weep and howl to eternity.
V2. James doesn’t address them as ‘brethren’. These rich people are unbelievers who have gained their riches in a crooked way. The riches that they have are corrupted riches and the nice-looking garments they wear (Jam 2:2) with which they show off, expose traces that they were eaten by moths. Riches that are corrupted are riches without any security. Moth-eaten garments are garments that do not give any warmth.
This rebuke of James in the direction of the rich must have sounded strange to his readers, who belong to the twelve tribes. In the Old Testament wealth is generally after all contrarily a proof of God’s favor. Didn’t He promise them that He would bless them when they are faithful (Deu 28:1-14)? But that promise regarded a national blessing that the people would be receiving as a whole when the people as a whole would obey God. But the people as a whole awfully disobeyed God that reached the crisis level in the rejection of the Lord Jesus. Due to that things turned out differently and therefore the case can be that a faithful believer is poor and an ungodly person rich. That is the situation among the twelve tribes to whom James is addressing this letter.
V3. The rich are fooling themselves that their gold and silver can make them to enjoy life without limits. James completely overturned that false security. The glitter of these materials, that are so precious for the rich, has not only faded away, but has changed to corrosion. James is presenting the ultimate result. Just as corruption and moths can decompose and consume materials, corrosion is a condition that makes materials totally useless. Corrosion is a process that ends up in total destruction. Everything that these rich people have gained will testify against them. God will surely reveal the uselessness of the treasures to them that they have gathered. That will deliver the proof of their ungodly life. After that they will receive the wages that they deserve in the eternal fire (Rev 20:11-15).
James speaks about an extra thing that they are to be blamed for: they were engaged with the collection of treasures “in the last days”. It is firstly foolish for a person to heap up treasures for himself, but it is even more foolish to do that in the last days. He who lives like that is not only selfish and insensitive for the need of others, but also short-sighted and blind for the threatening judgment that will strike him and his possessions.
It applies also as a warning to you as a believer. Don’t let yourself be dragged in the struggle for having more and more. The call of the Christian is not collecting, but giving. A Christian shows Who God is, and God is a Giver.
When James speaks about the last days, how much more should that apply to us. It has never been God’s intention that a Christian should heap up treasures on earth. Just look at the great Example, the Lord Jesus. You read of Him that He, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become (spiritually) rich (2Cor 8:9).
The servant of Elisha, Gehazi, is a striking example of how it should not be done. Gehazi had been heaping up treasures through lies and deceit. He got to learn that it was not time yet for that (2Kgs 5:26). He did not have to send back his wealth to Naaman, but the leprosy of Naaman was added to him. The greed for wealth makes a person to become a leper, meaning that it causes a disease that ends up in death. The rich who live for his wealth walks with death in his shoes.
V4. How did these rich people gain their treasures? They gained them in a most unfair way. They simply kept back the wages of the laborers whom they hired to work on their fields. They profited from the harvest of the work of the laborers and they also had pleasure in the thought that they kept the wages of their laborers in their own pocket. They counted themselves rich, for they thought to be doubling their profit.
James rebukes them by telling them that they were making a miscalculation. They actually count without “the Lord of Sabaoth”. The Lord of Sabaoth is Yahweh of the hosts. It is God in His majestic greatness as the Chief of all armies.
The rich are closing their ears to the cry of the poor, the ones who have been disadvantaged by them, but the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth were not closed. His ears hear two things. The wages that the rich have kept back unjustly are crying out to the Lord and also the cries of the mowers are reaching His ears. The wages that were unjustly kept back are testifying in God’s sight against them. By committing these actions they make themselves violators of the law (Lev 19:13; Deu 24:14-15). They will be judged as that. God will vindicate the complainers who have called on Him and also make sure that they will be reimbursed.
V5. The rich have excessively fed themselves with all luxury and devotion to pleasure that the earth can possibly offer. They did that to the detriment of the poor. There was nothing in their heart that could stop them from living such a life. They “have fattened” their “hearts”. They whole-heartedly gave themselves to this depraved life. That only proves that they have become totally numb. Their conscience does not function anymore.
They have been gobbling like pigs. Every day was “a day of slaughter” for them, a day with an abundance of meat. Instead of sharing that with others, they pounced on it and stuffed their fat bodies with it more and more. Their god is their belly (Phil 3:19).
It is also a possibility that James uses the word ‘day of slaughter’ as an allusion to the risk of judgment that they are running. For an animal a day of slaughter means the end of his life. These people get to learn that, while the slaughter of the judgment is near, they happily continue to feast. They refuse to consider the judgment.
V6. As the high point, or better said, the nadir, of their selfish life style James accuses the rich for making themselves guilty of the death of righteous compatriots, who did not resist against it. James is able to speak of this accusation, because the spirit of the rich is the same spirit that brought the Lord Jesus to the cross. In a life that puts their own honor and satisfaction to the center there is no room for Him. Wherever He appears in such a life to offer something that really gives joy, He is condemned and murdered, even though He may have done only good.
The selfish person does not tolerate kindness, which proves how bad and evil he is. He does not want to be confronted with it and therefore he will try to eliminate everything that tries to do that. He even does that with people who only come to ask him the wages they are entitled to. He cannot stand such righteous people.
That especially applies to the Just. James actually seems to consider Him in particular. The last sentence “he does not resist you”, seems to confirm that. The Lord Jesus has not resisted those, who are rich in might and honor and wealth in the expression of all their evil. He did not open His mouth, but let Himself to be led to the slaughter like a lamb (Isa 53:7). He endured all injustice and did not resist at all. He surrendered everything to Him Who judges justly (1Pet 2:23). He suffered as the Just for the unjust, that He may bring to God anyone who acknowledges that (1Pet 3:18). Towards all evil of man His perfection shines in everything. His example may be an encouragement for you when you have to suffer injustice.
Now read James 5:1-6 again.
Reflection: Which warning(s) does this portion contain for you?
7 - 12 Patience
7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. 8 You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. 10 As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and [is] merciful. 12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.
V7. James connects his exhortation to have patience with the previous verse. There you saw that the Lord Jesus has patiently endured the suffering. Patience is something we can learn from Him. In verses 7-10 the word “patience (patient, patiently)” appears four times. That shows how important it is to be patient, for how easily feelings of impatience can arise. Patience is needed in circumstances where you are being treated unjustly and/or when you have no prospect in your circumstances. Patience is always rewarded when it means waiting on the Lord.
Being patient until the coming of the Lord here refers to His coming to the earth in order to administer justice, to exert justice and to reign justly and to reward everything that was done for Him. As a member of the church of God you may also look forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus when He will catch up all the believers together with Him (1Thes 4:14-18). That coming will precede the coming of the Lord to the earth.
You may also look forward to the coming of the Lord in the sense of a coming into the circumstances wherein you find yourself (cf. Phil 4:5b). That is not much of the point here, but you may surely draw consolation from it. You can be sure that the Lord wants to be involved in your circumstances, to support you when you open your heart for it. That will prevent you from getting stuck into all the injustice you have to suffer and which you seem to encounter.
Sometimes you have to accept that things will not change. Then you can be sure that the Lord will come to you to strengthen you. In that sense Paul had also experienced that the Lord came to Him and encouraged him (Acts 18:9). When you have a vivid thought about the coming of the Lord, you will experience that He is with you.
The thing with patience is the same as the farmer who had sown. The only thing that is left for him to do, which he does, after he has finished sowing, is to patiently wait until the delicious fruit of the land comes. For the growing of the seed and the ultimate fruit he is dependent on the rain from heaven (Deu 11:11,14). He expects that from God.
Your life is a field wherein God has sown the seed of His Word. His desire is that fruit will come out of that. He does not accelerate the process of growing, but He waters the soil with His Word and His Spirit. His Word is like rain (Deu 32:2). He wants to have delicious fruit for Himself out of your life.
That also applies to Christianity as a whole. At the beginning there was the “early” rain. You can apply that to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). That is how the church has come into existence which was intended by God to be bearing fruit for Him.
After the rapture of the church, there will be another outpouring of the Holy Spirit and that will be over the remnant of Israel (Joel 2:28-29). That is the application of the “latter” rain. When the remnant has received the latter rain, it will then surely produce delicious fruit for God.
V8. The patience to wait is the opposite of the immediate satisfaction of need to which the rich deliver themselves. They want to have something and they want it right now. Such an attitude is inappropriate for a child of God. A child of God is not supposed to expect that his desires will be directly fulfilled. He needs to learn to be patient. Therefore James, after the example of the farmer, repeats his exhortation to have patience.
He adds to that to strengthen their hearts and passes on the means of strengthening: the coming of the Lord. For the second time he refers to the coming of the Lord. The believer will only be satisfied in his desires when the Lord comes. And His coming is very near. That thought gives the heart courage to persevere in the path of faith. As soon as you lose sight of the coming of the Lord, you will make an effort to make your life on earth as pleasant as possible. When the Israelites were tired of waiting on Moses, they demanded a gold calf to be made and therefore they fell into idolatry (Exo 32:1). In a parable the Lord Jesus shows that the same danger is threatening the Christians (Mt 24:48-49).
V9. Looking forward to the coming of the Lord will therefore be a guarantee that we do not trouble one another, but on the contrary encourage and comfort one another with the view to that coming. How easily it occurs that we grumble to one another about the injustice we suffer. When we grumble to each other we quickly say things that are not appropriate or that are even untrue. It is possible that we accuse those who make our life difficult of much more than they in fact do. It is even possible that we blame God for our difficulties. We will then be judged for that at the coming of Him Who is on the edge of coming as Judge.
The coming of the Lord is not only a comforting event, through which there comes an end to all injustice that is done to us. The coming of the Lord also has the result that each person, you and I included, will have to give account of himself (2Cor 5:10).
V10. Instead of grumbling and complaining about our circumstances, we have to look at the prophets and follow their example. Haven’t they tolerated many who grumbled about them; not to mention the injustice that they had to suffer? They had the thankless task from God to reprimand the people for their sins. That was not something for which the people were grateful. On the contrary, the people mocked, despised and ridiculed them (2Chr 36:15-16). What a lot of patience these prophets have shown. The people refused to listen, but they still went on to preach in the Name of the Lord.
V11. When we notice endurance, a sense of admiration arises from our hearts. People who endure show character. Therefore they also make achievements. That definitely goes for us also when it comes down to the faith. Those who persevere in faith, show that they possess something that is worthy of holding on to, right through all adversities. That is what the prophets have shown.
James points at another remarkable example of endurance and that is Job. What this man has shown, concerning endurance, you can without a question call unique. Consider all the sufferings he had to endure. All his possessions were taken away from him in a very short time. He lost all of his children and also his health. When he got into that situation he was even deprived from his wife’s support. As his help she should have been pointing him to God, but instead she encouraged him to say goodbye to God. From being a very wealthy and blessed man, Job in a short time turned into the most pitiable man on earth (Job 1-2).
The readers of this letter are familiar with the matchless suffering of Job. James, however, does not write about the suffering of Job, but about the endurance of Job. They have heard about that and that had to be an encouragement for them. When Job has endured, shouldn’t they, who had to suffer to a lesser extent, also endure?
James adds another important detail. He does not tell us how gloriously Job overcame the tough afflictions. He writes about “the outcome of the Lord”, meaning the final result of the Lord’s intentions with Job (Job 42:7-17). In this way James emphasizes that the Lord has achieved His goal with Job.
All the time of Job’s suffering, also caused by the accusations of his friends, the Lord was “full of compassion and merciful” towards Job (cf. Exo 34:6). It can be of comfort to us that when we feel to be rejected and lonely and to have failed, to be reminded that the Lord is with us with His affection.
V12. After the examples of patience James also exhorts to be patient with the tongue. He sees the abuse of the tongue as the greatest danger, for he says that they “above all” should not swear. When a person is facing a suffering which seems to last endlessly and when waiting for an answer becomes very hard, he runs a great risk to swear. A person then may for instance promise to do things as long as the pain gets lighter or as long as the difficulty disappears. Also revenge can be sworn towards the person who is seen as the cause of this suffering or that problem.
Such expressions of the tongue show the mind of a heart that is not subjected to God. That heart does not strengthen itself in God or in grace, but gives in to impatience. The Lord and His majesty are being forgotten and heaven or earth or other things are being called upon in order to empower the own will. That is very evil, which must be judged.
James speaks a lot about judgment. That’s because he approaches the Christian life practically and he calls the Christian to account for his responsibility. He often points at the tongue. Instead of using powerful terms we are to express ourselves by common words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We should not be ambiguous about these words. God and men must be able to rely on our words.
Now read James 5:7-12 again.
Reflection: What makes you to be quickly impatient? How realistic is the coming of the Lord to you?
13 - 20 Prayer
13 Is anyone among you suffering? [Then] he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? [Then] he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. 19 My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
V13. In the first verse of this portion you see three situations wherein a person can possibly find himself:
1. a person can suffer,
2. a person can be cheerful and
3. a person can be sick.
These are situations that may trigger those who are in such a situation, to respond in a certain way. The point is:
1. in what way they respond to sufferings,
2. how feelings of joy are being dealt with and
3. how do people go through sickness.
The world tries to escape sufferings, it loudly expresses its feelings of joy and it goes through sickness by grinding its teeth. The believer can respond to that totally differently. It is wonderful to see that in each of the three situations James refers to God as the refuge of the believer:
1. He who suffers can go to God with his suffering by praying. In that way he will find comfort (2Cor 1:3-7).
2. He who lives in prosperity and is not being plagued by adversities, can sing out his thanks to God. In that way he acknowledges God as the source of his prosperity and is being prevented from forgetting God, due to prosperity. We are often willing to bring our sufferings to God, but we often forget to share our joy with Him.
3. V14. He who is sick can tell that to the elders of the church. That doesn’t mean that God is not involved here and that the sick person expects his healing from people (cf. 2Chr 16:12), but this is the way that God shows. The elders are as it were His representatives.
That doesn’t mean that for each sickness the elders of the church are to be appealed to. Timothy doesn’t get the advice to call the elders of Ephesus to pray for him and make him healthy. Paul gives him the simple advice to take a little wine to drink (1Tim 5:23).
What follows here makes it clear that it is about a serious disease that also may possibly be the consequence of certain sins. If that is the case, the sickness has revealed the sin. It is not enough that the sick keeps his sins between himself and God. The sickness is not a little flu. The word ‘sick’ that James uses, indicates that the sick is weak, without any power. It is also clear that the sick is not able to join the meetings, for he has to call for the elders. Another aspect that you find in the expression “the Lord will raise him up”, is that it is about a person who is bedridden (or housebound), while he lacks the power to raise up.
When the sick has called for the elders, they are to pray over him. The sick is not supposed to pray. The elders must also anoint “him with oil in the name of the Lord”. A lot has been written and said about the effect of the oil or what it represents. I will now pass on some possibilities to you for consideration, for they also meant a lot to me.
The first consideration is that the oil is simply a medication (cf. Isa 1:6; Jer 8:22; Lk 10:34). Therefore we should not ascribe any miraculous effect to that oil, just as less as we are not to do to the lump of figs that Hezekiah had to apply as a poultice on the boil (Isa 38:21). We should allow the Lord to bless the means. That is the reason why His Name is being related to it. Therefore the use of the oil by the elders may be a medical application that helps to lighten the sick from his pain, without relating any conclusion of healing to it. There is no question of a religious ritual here.
The other consideration is that the use of the oil has a symbolic meaning. The anointing then has the meaning in the sense of honoring a person. You can also read about the anointing of the feet of the Lord (Jn 12:3) and the body of the Lord (Mk 16:1). The Lord rebukes Simon for holding back the proof of generosity to Him by not anointing Him (Lk 7:46).
There is also a lot to say in advance of this meaning of anointing. It will make the sick, who may possibly be wondering whether God still cares about him, feel better by experiencing this anointing. In relation with Mark 6 (Mk 6:13) the oil perhaps can also be seen as a symbol of power or authority of the elders to pray for healing.
V15. In any case, the prayer and the prayer alone produces blessing from God for the sick believers and the use of oil is in no way an essential part that would be necessary to receive that blessing. It is not the oil that works healing, but the prayer of the faith of the elders. That this prayer of faith is being answered by the Lord, is to be seen in the fact that He raises up the sick.
To the raising up of the sick forgiveness is related in case the sick has sinned. Then there can be no blessing of healing without confession. Therefore confession must have preceded, for sins are only forgiven when they have been confessed. Here it is about the forgiveness by the elders. The sick will have had confessed his sins already to God and will have received forgiveness from God (1Jn 1:9). It is also important that the elders speak out the forgiveness (cf. Jn 20:23; Mt 18:18). As a result to that there is also a public restoration of fellowship with the believers.
V16. The situation of the ‘sickbed prayer’ makes James underline the necessity of the confession of sins to one another, also when there is no mention of sickness. Confessing sins to one another has got nothing to do with the penance, as it is being taught and practiced by the roman-catholic church. In that penance a person confesses his sins to a person who has nothing whatever to do with it and who arrogates the status of mediator between the sinner and God.
The call of James refers to situations wherein we have sinned to one another. Sin always hinders the blessing of God. That hindrance is being taken away by confession. When sin is being confessed, then the blessing can flow freely again and also healing and health can possibly take place in case of sickness.
By the way, it is not wrong for a person to confess sins to a person against whom he has not sinned in case of pastoral counseling. A person may be tortured by a sin, but doesn’t know how to confess. It may possibly be the case that this person for instance has sinned against a person who does not live any more. Then it is a good thing that this person confesses the sin together with a confidential counselor and that the counselor also ensures him that forgiveness by God is certain and clear, because God has said that in His Word.
The power of prayer is awesome. The condition, however, is that it is prayed by a righteous person. By “righteous” James does not mean a person who through faith is righteous to God, but a person who lives righteously. When such a person comes to God with a fervent prayer God can and will surely hear it. He does not need to speak first with the one who prays about things that are not right in his life. A righteous person is associated with God, he is accustomed to it and that causes him to know the will of God.
You can be a righteous person. That is not a status that you achieve by living rightly, but you are that when, as far as you know, your life is pure before God. God wants to have your prayer involved in His actions. He listens to it and uses it to realize His plans.
V17. As an example of a righteous man who prays an effective, fervent prayer James presents Elijah. Elijah stands next to you and not above you, although you certainly will look up to him. At least I do. He is really a man of God. Elijah also has known his weak moments. For that reason it is written here that he was “a man with a nature like ours”. Therefore you can also learn a lot from him. He was able to stand fearlessly before Ahab because he was aware that he was not standing before Ahab, but before God (1Kgs 17:1). There he made known that there would be no rain. In that announcement you do not read about a prayer. That’s what you read here. James is telling that a prayer preceded that announcement.
How could Elijah pray such a prayer which in fact is a judgment? He knew God’s thoughts and that’s why he prayed this remarkable prayer (Deu 11:16-17). He loved God’s people and he loved God. God wanted His people to turn back to Him and the only way to realize that was through the judgment of drought. It is a prayer to the Lord not to bless us, so that we may feel that we have departed from Him. The prayer of Elijah was answered.
V18. After a course of time he prayed again and this time he prayed for the rain to fall. He understood that the time of blessing had come, because he had offered up the offering and the people had spoken out the confession that Yahweh is God (1Kgs 18:38-39).
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, especially in the last days, to pray. We are in need of people who know the will of God and who are convinced about the power of prayer. I hope that you may become a man of prayer. You do not need to have a gift for that, neither do you need to follow a training for that. You simply have got to do it. Just give a careful consideration about this prayer of Elijah and try to commit yourself to pray more often and more fervently.
V19. James concludes his letter with two verses about bringing back a person who has deviated from the truth. That is in line with Elijah. Elijah was also a restorer. By his prayer he brought back the people to God. You can also by prayer bring back a person to God. Do you know people, believers, who first were faithful in their service for the Lord, but now do not seriously approach the truth anymore? When they continue to do so they will end up in death. You are allowed to bring back such a person from that misguided path by praying for him. When you pray in such a way for the wanderer involved, then the Lord can also make clear to you whether you should see him and how to address him.
V20. In the case of you bringing him back you save him from death and you also cover a multitude of sins. He will repent and confess his way of error. Then he may learn again that all his sins are forgiven, that they have been cast away in the depths of the sea. By bringing back the wanderer you also prevent him from being drawn further into the power of sin. Also in that sense you have made sure that a multitude of sins has been covered, for they were not committed. I sincerely hope that you have the desire that deviated believers will turn back to God.
Now read James 5:13-20 again.
Reflection: Commit yourself to pray for the restoration of deviated believers.