It’s a very, very interesting passage. Commentators struggle with this passage because it starts so strong. To understand it, you need to know the intended audience. And what I want you to know, verse 1 is intended for unbelieving rich who were abusing believers at the time. This is the first book of the New Testament, as I’ve shared before, and so the early Church – these people had been scattered. James opens up, “To the twelve tribes scattered abroad.”
And many have lost their families, lost their business, and they find themselves in dire financial straits. Many of them, because they have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, have been cut out of wills, cut out of inheritances, and they’re in a very difficult time, disowned by their families. And this scathing rebuke, in verse 1, is to rich, powerful people that are abusing God’s children.
Then, in verses 2 to 4 in this historical background, we’re going to get some reasons why God is so adamant about this abuse. Open your Bible, and let me just read an overview of the first six verses, and then let’s dig in together. It opens up and says, “Now listen, you rich people” – and this is strong – “weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” Verse 1, written to unbelievers abusing God’s children: “Judgment is coming for what you have done.”
He goes on to say, “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.” Verse 3, “Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you fail to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, those who are not even opposing you.”
And so, the intended audience is some rich unbelievers, but out of it, I think, are some principles for all of us. Scathing rebuke, followed by the four reasons for the rebuke.
Now, here’s what I want you to get, before we jump into this very strong passage: The truth is, God is not opposed to wealth. Many of the greatest believers in the Bible time were wealthy. Solomon, David, Job, Abraham. New Testament: Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas – very, very wealthy believers. He’s not against wealth, but God is opposed to the misuse and the abuse of wealth.
For your own study, if there’s one section of Scripture, I think, that really helps you understand the balance of wealth, and enjoying it as a good gift from God, and being on guard against what wealth can do, I would encourage you, 1 Timothy chapter 6, verse 6 through the end of the chapter – I would make that a personal study. I would get my arms around 1 Timothy 6, about verse 6 through the end, and really have a grasp of: what does God say about wealth?
However, God is not against wealth, but the warning is, the misuse of wealth brings God’s judgment.
And so let’s open up the text together. Notice what it says in verse 1 of James chapter 5. “Now listen” – it’s strong. Literally, it’s, “Stop! Wait a minute. You rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” Underline the words rich people – because we need to know who they are – and then circle the words weep and wail.
Who are these rich people? Again, Swindoll makes a great observation. He says, “There are four kinds of people in the Bible with regard to wealth. There are people who are poor without – on the outside – and they’re poor within.” In other words, the point is, they don’t have any economic wealth, but they don’t have any spiritual wealth either.
He said, “There are people who are rich without, they have strong economic, physical wealth, but they are poor within. They don’t have a relationship with God.”
He says, “Third, there are people who are poor without” – in other words, they are poor financially – “but they are rich spiritually.”
And then, his final observation, “There are people who are rich without” – very, very wealthy – “but they’re poor within” – totally estranged from God. And that is who this is addressed to.
And he says to them, “Weep.” Literally, it’s a prophetic usage. This same word is used in the Old Testament of a response for evil men and women, of how they should respond, knowing that divine judgment is coming down. This is really strong. And then, he says to them not only weep, but wail. Loud weeping.
So, that’s the warning. He says, “The misuse of wealth that hurts and abuses other people will bring the judgment of God.”
And then, he’s going to give the reason. There are four warnings that he gives, out of verses 2 through 6.
And these warnings are for wealthy people who are unbelievers, who are abusing God’s people, but here’s the thing. “All Scripture is profitable” – right? – “for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” And the fact of the matter is, these are four warnings, and he’s going to give specific reasons to these unbelieving people about the abuses there, but those really turn into very clear warnings to you, and me, because I don’t think we’re immune to the misuse, or the mishandling, of money. And so, he’s going to give us four clear warnings about what not to do, or how not to handle your money.
The first one has to do with how much you’ve accumulated. He’s going to talk, in verse 2, and he’s going to say, “Here’s the warning: Don’t hoard it. Don’t hoard it.”
And you say, “Where do I get that?” Read verse 2. Look at it. It says, “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver have corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you” – and, boy, this is graphic – “and will eat your flesh like fire.” Whoo. That is graphic. “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”
To understand this passage, put a circle around the word rotted, put a circle around the word clothes, and put a circle around the word corroded, because this is all about the accumulation of wealth. But they didn’t use 401(k)s, and didn’t have a lot of banks, the way we think of banks.
And the way they would accumulate wealth is, number one, through food. In other words, your harvest – you get more and more and more grain, so you would store it, and he says, “Guess what? It’s rotted.”
Another way was clothes. Silks, or linens, or fine fabrics – you would stack them up, and the more you owned, that would be like your 401(k), or your retirement. And he says, “The moths have gone in and eaten it.” And the other was precious metals. And he says, “They’re corroded.”
And the word picture is this extreme judgment. Because they were hoarding, because they were so selfish, while there were so many people that had needs, he says, “God is going to judge you. Look at all the needs that there are, and look how you have hoarded it.” And he says, “Those things that you thought would give power, and security – the grain is being eaten up and ruined. Those things that you thought that you could leverage, or buy, and sell, and do something with,” he says, “the moths are going to take care of it. And the precious metals are being corroded before your very eyes. Why? Because you have hoarded it. You have taken, and taken, and taken, and taken, and taken, to give you personal power, and a sense of authority, and prestige, and security – you thought – all the while, while all these people had needs.” And God says, “Don’t do it.”
And, you know what? We are not immune to that. We’re the most prosperous country in the world.
I had a lady in our church, in California, that we were talking about this, and she said, “You know something? It is amazing how we think things, or possessions, will really come through for us.” And her husband owns a special kind of windsurfing company, and her kids are grown, so she decided she would go work part-time, in a department store, and get out and meet some people.
And so, she was out one day, and a lady came in, and she began to show her different things. And she just went in, and she just started taking all kinds of things, and racks and racks and racks and racks, and she came out with – she goes, “It was thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes.”
And she goes, “Oh, did your house burn down, or something terrible happen? This is a lot of clothes for one day.” She goes, “No. In fact, I have four walk-in closets at home.” She said, “What?” “Yeah, four.” And she said, “Well, do you need these?” She said the lady looked at her like, “Need these? That never entered my mind.”
It was just a hoarding. There was something that made her feel powerful, and significant, to go in and buy these clothes, and have anything she wanted, rack after rack after rack after rack. And that’s an extreme case.
But, sometimes, Saturday mornings, I’ll get up early, and I like to drive into the office, because no one’s there, and I get a lot more done, and it’s quiet. And you have all these – I’m sure your town’s the same – these garage sales. Do you ever see how many garage sales there are? Saturday morning is a big morning to have that. Get there early, by the way. If you don’t get there early, the good stuff is gone.
And I thought to myself – when I was a kid, no one had garage sales. We have so much stuff. We have so much stuff. We live in a garage sale world, where we all have so much stuff that we have to put it out on our lawn so that other people can come and buy our stuff. And we live in a garage-sale mentality world. Could it be that even Christians are guilty of hoarding in our day?
I told you the story of that security blanket that different people have, at different times, and all of us have a line. All of us have a secret line that we think – and some with good reason, we’ll talk about – I need “x” amount of money for this situation. And then, I feel secure if I have “x” amount of money. And then, after I have that, and then I also have my retirement working, and I have…then I’m willing and ready to be generous with others.
The more and more and more you get does not produce more and more generosity. The more and more and more you get, what it produces is, your safety net gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And it’s interesting, you would think that the percentage of your giving would increase and increase and increase and increase the more you get. But, actually, what begins to happen is, people realize they have more and more and more to lose. Warning number one, don’t hoard it.
Warning number two has to do with how we get the money that we have. And he says, “Don’t steal it. Don’t steal it.”
Notice what he says in verse 3, “Look, the wages you have failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” It’s the Lord Sabaōth, the One who is the host of armies, the All-Powerful, the Leader, the One who repays, the God who will bring about justice.
And you need to know the historical context is: they were getting income dishonestly. The way it worked in that day is, remember the parables that Jesus would tell, where you would come out into the field, and, at the end of the day, you got paid? That’s how people got paid.
And what these people would do is, they would go, and they would do their day’s work, and then the guy who’s rich and powerful would say, “Eh, I’m not going to pay you today.” It’s exactly what it says, “You withhold the wages from your workmen.”
But unlike us, they didn’t get their paycheck every two weeks, or once a month, and write out their bills. They didn’t go home and have a closet full of food. They made the money that day for that day’s food.
In fact, later on you’ll learn, the definition of a “rich person,” in New Testament times, is, you had a second change of clothes, and you already knew for the day, or the next day, after today, you already had the food stored. That’s considered rich. See, you have excess.
Most people lived hand to mouth. Most of the world lives in such a way where, “What am I going to eat today? I’m going to work today; I get this money. When I get this money, I’m going to buy the food. I’m going to buy the food, and I’m going to take care of my family. Now they have enough for tonight, and morning breakfast, and lunch, and then I’m going to go to work, and I get my…”
And what they did is, they wouldn’t pay them. So, their families couldn’t eat. And that’s why, notice, “The cries of the harvesters ...”
What would you do if you were a man, and you worked all day, and you needed “x” amount, and there’s no food at home, and you know the day is gone, and then you come home, and the big, heavy guy – and what are you going to do? You’re a little, poor guy, and he’s a rich, powerful guy. “I’m not paying you today.” You go home, and you cry.
“The cries of the harvesters are being heard by the Almighty, the Lord Sabaōth.” And He’s telling these people, I’ll tell you what, I am going to come, and I am going to bring about justice. Because what are they doing? They’re stealing it.
I don’t know about you, but some of the worst testimonies I’ve ever seen, in all my life, have to do with people not paying their debts, Christians not paying their debts. This is very, very disturbing, but do you know, in America, at least, one of the worst credit risks are pastors? Now, I’m hoping it’s of all those non-Bible-believing churches, but I don’t think that’s where it’s at.
Ask financial people. Pastors are one of the worst credit risks. And if they don’t have their act together, with regard to money, what in the world is happening in the churches?
How many of you have done business with a Christian – fish on the card, fish on the car – and have had a terrible experience? Right? It’s almost like you see the fish on the card, you’re thinking, I’m not – ah, ooh, ooh, baby. I’m just looking for someone honest, and you sign the contract, because – I’m just not sure – wonder why he put that there?
How many of you have a relative, who is a believer, who owes you money? And because you’re both Christians…how many of you, in a church situation – and, boy, this happened in our church a number of times. You trust one another.
Christians, by the way, are the easiest people to con on the face of the earth. Ponzi schemes, get-rich-quick schemes – you are the easiest. You know what? You’re trusting! And if a person says “Jesus” a couple of times, “praise the Lord” a couple of times, quotes a couple of verses, and then says, “Hey, could you help me out? I really need this, and I’ve got this great opportunity…” It is amazing, in churches, how people will lend money, or give money, to other people, only to discover some of the worst conflicts you ever have is with a fellow believer who doesn’t pay you back.
I have been in church discipline situations where people have come in and said, “I don’t get it. We gave them x-thousands of dollars, they say they can’t pay us. They went to Hawaii! We can’t go to Hawaii. They owe us ten thousand dollars! How can they go to Hawaii? What are you pastors going to do about this?” And this person is involved in ministry in the church!”
And you bring those people together, and you sit them down, and you open the Bible, and you shoot it really straight, and you work through some very difficult issues, and you line out payment plans, and…so, it happens, even in the church.
He says, “The wrong uses of wealth – ” warning number one – don’t hoard it. Warning number two – don’t steal it. He goes on. Warning number three – this is about how we spend the money that we have. And here, he says, “Don’t waste it.” Don’t waste it.
Listen to the Scripture. “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” Put a circle around that word luxury. You guys are getting good at this Bible study, aren’t you? And put another circle around the word self-indulgence.
The root word of the word luxury, here – it means “to break down; to make soft.” It has the idea of an excess in living. It’s a picture of people who have so much that there is never any need. There’s such opulence that they’re – it’s not just the physical things, but they have very weak moral fiber. You find that some of the downfalls of great civilizations, there is such luxury, the people never have to make hard decisions; they never have to say “no” to themselves. There’s no discipline. And so, what you find is, the softness not only occurs in all the finances, and the food, and the luxury, and this and that, but there’s no moral fiber; there’s no strength.
And so, he says to them, “You have lived in this luxury.” And if you missed the point, it’s self-indulgence. It’s the idea of excess, waste. It connotes lewd, immoral self-gratification. This is a picture of the Neros of the world. This is the idea of people who have so much, and eat so much, that they just fling it here, and fling it there. They stick their finger down their throat to throw up so they can eat some more.
This is a picture of the rich and the famous. This is the little stories that we get, where so-and-so met so-and-so, and they were a little bored one night, so they flew to Paris for lunch the next day. It was great. They had a hundred of their friends come with them. It’s this sense of, you’ve got it; flaunt it. You’ve got it; use it.
And God speaks to these people, and He says, “You’ve lived in luxury and self-indulgence.” And then, this phrase, “You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” Literally, “You have fattened your heart” – that’s the literal text. “You have fattened your heart.”
And it’s a word picture of what they would do when they would have a pig that would be grain-fed. They would put a pig in a stall, and they would fatten it, and grain-feed it to make it fat.
And it’s a picture of God saying, “You think you’ve been living in the lap of luxury? I’ll tell you what you have done. You are like a pig that’s been preparing yourself that I am going to slaughter, because all you’ve done is focused on you. You’ve lived in such wanton opulence and waste.” It’s pretty strong stuff, isn’t it?
What’s the application for us, as believers? For me, the application is, just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you should buy it. Just because you can afford it, does not mean you should buy it.
I think what’s developed in our country, and developed, even, in the Church, is what I call “the buffet mentality.” You know what “the buffet mentality” is? You paid your eight bucks, or your nine-fifty, or your twelve-fifty, or if it’s one of those Sunday brunches, twenty-two bucks, right? And there’s a table here, and they have shrimp, and roast beef, and chicken, and they’ve got seven kinds of meat, and over here they’ve got forty-nine kinds of dessert. And then, you can have eggs over here; you can have waffles over here. There’s fresh fruit over here, and there’s more food than forty-nine people could eat in forty-nine days, ever.
But you’ve paid your twenty-two bucks, or your nine-fifty, and what do you have to do? You have to make sure you get your nine-fifty’s worth!
So, you put stuff that doesn’t even go together – a piece of ham, and a shrimp, and an egg. You know? But you like all three, and it’s a buffet. And you go and you eat that, and you watch kids there, and they eat about half the plate, and the servers come by, and they take half the plates off with food.
And people line up for round two, and round three, and round four, and they ought to give you Pepto-Bismol and Alka-Seltzer to go, but they don’t. And you get your twenty-two dollars’ worth, and you stuff your face, and you feel uncomfortable.
But it’s not just how we eat. Why? Why do we do that at a buffet? Because there is so much, and you can have – what’s the whole point of a buffet? Eat all you want, right?
And if it’s there to eat, whether you’re still hungry, whether you need it. Sometimes, I know the shrimp costs a lot. If I’m going to really get my money’s worth – nine o’clock in the morning – okay, I’ll go for the shrimp.
And because it’s there, there’s a compulsion in human nature to do something with it. And I think what’s happened is, the buffet mentality has gotten to where, if we have money, we just – we’re deluded into thinking it’s our money. It’s God’s money.
What do you have that you don’t possess? What do you have that you haven’t received? One hundred percent of all that you have, all that I have, it’s God’s.
You say, “Well, I worked for it.” Okay, who gave you the talent? Who gave you the job? Who gave you the oxygen? He’s the Lord of all the earth. “Silver and gold is Mine” – Deuteronomy 8. Everything belongs to Him.
And so, what He’s saying to these people is, “Don’t waste it! Don’t waste it. Don’t hoard it. Don’t steal it. Don’t waste it.”
And then, finally, the warning here is, don’t abuse it. He talks about, “How do you use your money to influence other people?” He says, “Don’t use your money to abuse the influence that it can have.”
Notice, he says in verse 4, “You have condemned and murdered innocent men who were not opposing you.” The owners didn’t pay their wages. Well, guess what happens? Not only does the guy go home and cries out to God, and says, “God, I worked all day; I didn’t get any money. I can’t feed my family.” Well, he has other – he’s got bills to pay, right? He’s got a landlord to pay.
So, the landlord comes to the guy and says, “Hey, where’s my money?” He goes, “Well, the guy didn’t pay me.” He said, “That’s a personal problem.”
And you know how they got people to pay their debts back in that day? They put them in prison, which is really smart. He’s really making a lot of money in prison to pay off that debt. But that’s how it worked.
Remember the parable of Jesus, and the man who came and wouldn’t pay the debt? And he said, “Put that man in prison!” He begged, begged, begged for mercy, and then he did the same thing with someone else. That was how it worked in the day.
So, literally, what he’s saying here is that you have abused it; you’ve condemned and murdered men. If you end up in prison, in order to pay your debt, and you can never pay your debt, what do you end up doing? You die. You die.
And this is the harsh word from the Spirit of God, who sees this injustice to these unbelievers who are hoarding, and stealing, and abusing these people, and He says, “They weren’t even opposing you.” Literally, that phrase is, “They were powerless before you. They weren’t even in the game. They couldn’t do anything against you.”
And, now, you see people who use money for bribes, to pay off judges, political appointments, to get contracts. See, that’s how you abuse money. Any time you use money to pervert justice, and control others, instead of love and serve others in a way that will bring glory to God, it’s an abuse.
And this passage that we’ve read is happening all around the world, especially in Third World countries. And it’s happening, probably, more here than we would like to believe.