Passage – James 5:1-6
1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 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. 4 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. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
Have you ever been eating a cluster of grapes, the first several a sweet, and then you pop one in your mouth that is sour? It startles you. You look at the other grapes to make sure didn’t accidentally pop a baby lemon in your mouth. But sure enough, that last grape was just different.
That is how this passage may feel. Both the audience and the tone of James 5:1-6 shift dramatically from the rest of the book. But this stark change represents a new focus of ministry in James’ letter, one that is easy for us to neglect. In these verses God speaks with boldness and clarity to parts of human experience that we might think he ignores. Let’s explore this strange terrain.
Tone Change: Imprecatory (v. 1-3)
Chances are, you haven’t used the word “imprecatory” in a while. It means to invoke a curse. Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69 79, 83, 109 and 137 are often referred to a “imprecatory psalms.” These psalms call for God’s judgement on the wicked. This part of James’ letter is written in that same style – it expresses God’s judgement on the rich people who are taking advantage of these displaced Christians.
The start of chapter five is not random. James did not get some news that made him furious and awkwardly change subject to rant about oppression. Instead, this point is an extension of how James ended chapter four, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (4:17).” Who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it? For one, the rich landowners who are taking advantage of these Jewish refugees. James is making clear they are without excuse.
Notice that the early verb tenses in verses two and three are either past or present tense: “have rotted… are moth-eaten… have corroded.” Then, midway through verse three, the verbs change to the future tense: “will be evidence… will eat your flesh.”
God is providing his current assessment and declaring his future actions. In the present, God views these riches as worthless. Rotted is a term used for fruits and vegetables. If you have two tons of rotten apples, you have nothing. Economically, you have a liability (a mess to clean up) not an asset (nothing you sell or eat). God is making clear that what these rich oppressors have is not to be envied but pitied.
God doubles down on this message when the verb tenses change. That proverbial pile of rotten apples is not just a worthless liability, it is crying out for judgement. It is evidence of their immoral life. It is the equivalent of a bloody knife with fingerprints at a murder scene. However, the trial for this crime is not temporal (a few years in prison), but eternal. This is imagery of final judgement and Hell.
At the end of verse three James changes to a past tense verb again: “have laid up treasure in the last days.” Using the past tense verb indicates that these actions are irreversible. James is making clear that a sudden burst of generosity, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol after his dreams, will not erase the evil of their oppressive actions.
We’re used to reading the Bible and hearing words of hope. This feels different. It is heavy. But we must realize this passage was written for those on the suffering side of oppression, not the sinning side. If we place this passage in the era of World War II, it was written to the Nazis, not the Jews. God is assuring these believers that what has been done to them will be taken seriously. No cheap grace will be offered.
As those who provide care and counsel in the church, we need to have “imprecatory tools” in our “ministry toolbox.” We need to be able to speak imprecatory words about abuse to those who face oppression. The abused and oppressed need to know how God views the actions of those who seem to be “winning at life” but decimating the vulnerable.
Sincere Question: Does God See? (v. 4)
Put yourself in the position of these oppressed early Christians. What questions would be bubbling in your mind? Doubtless, they were asking: Does God see what is happening? Does God hear my prayers for relief? Does God even care? This is where James turns his attention next.
James 5:4 is the New Testament equivalent of Exodus 3:7-10 where God assures Moses that he has not been deaf towards the oppression of Israel in Egypt.
Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (emphasis added)
Notice how in Exodus 3, as in this passage, God goes to great the length to ensure that his people knows that he sees, hears, and cares for their suffering. God doesn’t merely assure his people that there will be judgement. He wants them to know he is burdened by what they are experiencing.
Notice that James is speaking about these early believers in the third person – “the laborers” and “the harvesters” – when, for most of this letter, James has spoken directly to his readers in the second person – “you.” It is as if James is allowing these early Christians to eavesdrop on God’s rebuke of their oppressors.
Sometimes, we need to hear God speak to us about our suffering. Other times, as in this verse, we need to hear God speak to those causing our suffering. James does both in this letter. Here, James invites his readers to hear God’s rebuke of those causing their suffering.Sometimes, we need to hear God speak to us about our suffering. Other times, as in this verse, we need to hear God speak to those causing our suffering. James does both in this letter, Click To Tweet
James concludes this verse by saying the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the “Lord of hosts.” This is a reference to God as the commander of heaven’s armies. In the Old Testament this name was used to communicate that Yahweh fights on behalf of his people.
In modern language, this is the equivalent of saying, “God does not negotiate with terrorists.” While God is eager to forgive, God not fooled by contrived contrition (Gal 6:7). These believers need not worry that God will go soft on these oppressors.
We can’t say this without reckoning with the life of Jonah. Jonah feared that God would be gracious to the Ninevites if they repented (Jonah 4:1-3). The Ninevites terrorized Israel. Jonah was rebuked for not taking God’s message to Nineveh. How do we reconcile to tone of God in James 5 with the book of Jonah?
The reality is, if these rich oppressors came to church (James 2:1-7), sought God, and truly repented, they would no longer be dangerous. There would be no need to fear God’s graciousness towards them. The New Testament church had already seen this happen (Acts 9). Saul, who became Paul, was an oppressor of the early church; even to the point of killing Christians for their faith.
That begs the question: how did the early church know that Saul-turned-Paul really repented and was different? One evidence was that Paul didn’t rush into a ministry or leadership role. We learn in Galatians 1:17-21 that, after his conversion in Acts 9, Paul spent three years in Arabia, then visited with Peter for two weeks, before spending more time in Syria and Cilicia. Most church historians believe there were six or seven years between Paul’s conversion and his first missionary journey with Barnabas (Acts 11:25-26). There was an extensive time of reflection, training, and proving his character.
How can we summarize this point?
- We see in James 5 that God is direct and clear in his condemnation of oppression.
- We see in Jonah that God is willing to be gracious toward the oppressor.
- We learn from Galatians 6:7 that God will not be mocked, so the oppressed need not fear of cheap grace being offered to those who claim to change.
- We learn from Paul’s example (I Cor. 11:1), that an oppressor who truly repents will not rush those who fear him/her to trust them because that would fail to be “loving their neighbor as themselves” (Mark 12:30-31).
When we are in caregiving or shepherding roles within the church, we have a responsibility to honor each of these truths. Seeing them laid out in this way should help us not emphasize one of these truths over the other.
Response Demanded: Repent or Else (v. 5-6)
Finally, James invites the church – and any oppressors who may read his letter – to reinterpret their circumstances. Suffering has a way of skewing how we interpret our lives. In hard times, we are in perpetual need of having the distorting influence of suffering reduced.
James keys in on the term luxury (v. 5). We tend to view luxury as a sign of God’s blessing. This passage is a real-life example of the Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). Both Jesus and James would say to us: do not assume luxury is a sign that God is endorsing your life.
How many of us have heard someone retort, “Well, it’s working isn’t it?” to validate a foolish choice. Maybe it’s a parent who is being too harsh with a child. Yet that parent points to their child’s compliance as a validation of their parenting. Time will show that what presently manifests as compliance will soon turn to distance or rebellion. It is this kind of mindset towards luxury that James is refuting.
James uses imagery from the sacrificial system. These oppressors are fattening their hearts for a day of slaughter (v. 5). James is making the same point Jesus made in Luke 9:24-25, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” If they insist their destructive ways are best – fooled by their own financial success, they will lose their life. What they view as God’s blessing is preparing them for death like the fattening of a lamb.
Because James is writing to his refugee friends, he concludes this section by clearly stating how God sees them. They have heard God condemn their oppressor (i.e., “murder” in verse 6), not they need to hear God declare them innocent (i.e., “righteous” in verse 6).
James further emphasizes the innocence of his readers by saying “He [the person being oppressed] does not resist you [the person oppressing].” If we didn’t know the people involved, we might think the rich bosses were initially rude, then the refugees responded poorly, and from there the situation escalated in a mutual-responsibility way. James was confident that these believers were living out Romans 12:9-21; they were not escalating an unhealthy situation.
James was under no delusion that these believers were perfect. He corrected them many times in this letter. But we see that someone does not have to be entirely innocent in order to be innocent of their abuse. Not all conflicts are 50-50 propositions. When problems are highly one-sided, we see from this passage, that is biblical to hold the person with greater a greater contribution to the problem responsible.
This addresses the misnomer that someone must be entirely innocent, or they deserve the mistreatment they receive in an abusive context. That is a highly destructive lie.
James’ letter is an example of how we can nurture character formation work in the lives of the oppressed – helping them become more like Jesus – while not drawing a false connection between areas their character needs to grow and the abuse they are experiencing. James does both without connecting the two. We should too.
This passage has an awkward, but needed, change of tone and audience. But God’s perspective on oppression and God’s care for the oppressed would be incomplete without it. Our counsel and care for those who are experiencing oppression would also be incomplete without if we don’t imitate this passage.
For many of us, speaking this way is difficult. Read this passage out loud. Imagine comforting a friend who is in a toxic work environment with these words. Imagine saying these words to the toxic boss in that workplace. When would you want to hedge, caveat, or change what this passage says?
We should recognize, not every modern situation parallels the context of these early Christian refugees. It would be an overstatement to imply this is how we should always talk when a fellow church member feels taken advantage of. But as we conclude our study of this passage, we must ask ourselves if we are comfortable speaking like God spoke. If not, then this is an area we need to grow if we are to be faithful ambassador of God in our biblical counseling.
- What are situations in your life when you needed the Bible to speak in an imprecatory tone?
- Imagine that the Bile never spoke this directly to oppression, what would the implications be?
- What is the value of passages, like this one, where God goes out of his way to communicate that he sees our suffering?
- As you reflect on this passage in light of Jonah’s life and Paul’s conversion, what did you learn about extending hope that oppressors can change without an undue burden on those who they have oppressed?
- What are examples, in your life or those you know, of assuming that luxury (i.e., success) is necessarily a sign of God’s blessing and affirmation?
- What did you learn about yourself and your readiness to offer the whole counsel of God as you imagined speaking like this passage speaks to an oppressed friend and an oppressor?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.