The Fading and Fatal Pleasures of this World
At times it can be difficult to see beyond this present world. It is easy to loose a proper perspective and fall into our culture’s preoccupation with play and entertainment. When we watch TV we see ads for the latest new gizmo. At the mall we see that latest new fads. Around our friends we notice all the cool things that they have. It can be very easy to become preoccupied with the things that we see around us. However, as Christians, we must fight this urge. In James 4:4 we are reminded that these urges for worldly pleasure constitute friendship with the world; and if we are the friends of the world then we are God’s enemies. Yet still we struggle with this desire for worldly pleasure. For some reason we think that we are missing out on some fun by not pursing the pleasures of this world. It is in those moments of struggle that we must look to Scripture and remind ourselves that the pleasures of this world are fading and fatal. In James 5:1-6 we see this truth very clearly.
As we look at James 5:1-6 we must remember the situation of James’ audience. James wrote this letter to the poor and persecuted Jewish Christians that were dispersed throughout the region. Because these people were in such a difficult situation it would have been easy for them to look at the wealth of the rich with envy. With this in mind James wrote these verses so that these people, hearing of the outcome of the rich and God’s ultimate punishment of them, would be content in their situation rather than envious of earthly pleasure.
It is pivotal that we remember that the pleasures of this world are fading and fatal. They pale in comparison to the pleasure that results from following God. Unfortunately the evil rich people that James wrote about in this passage did not live their lives this way (It is important to remember that James is not condemning riches, but rich people who are consumed with riches rather than following God. In fact as
Kent has aptly observed, “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 [Gen. 12:2; 13:2; 24:35; Job 1:1-3, 10; 42:10-13].”). In all likelihood these rich people lived with the motto “eat, drink, and be merry.” James commanded them to do the exact opposite of “eat, drink, and be merry.” They were to weep and howl because of the certain condemnation that they faced.
Thesis: You rich weep and howl over your certain condemnation. (v. 1)
Notice how James’ command to weep is not followed by the command to humble yourself as it was in chapter 4 (vv. 8-10), but rather to howl. In chapter 4 the command to weep was a part of repentance, but here it is weeping over the misery they will suffer as a punishment for being the friends of the world (and the enemies of God). James, in the same way that the OT prophets condemned the pagan nations, is condemning these people to judgment. He does not call for repentance or change, but simply recognizes that these people are consumed with the pleasures of this world and will be judged for it. This is why they were to weep and howl.
The Greek word here for howl is an onomatopoeia, which means that the word sounds like the noise it is describing (i.e. bang, pop, moo). The Greek word is pronounced ὀλολύζω, so you can hear that James is referring to hollering, or screaming. This was the reaction that these people were to have over the misery they would face. This is how bad the result of being consumed with the things of this world is. It is so bad that these evil rich people were to despair with a loud outburst because they faced certain condemnation. The very thought of the miseries that were coming upon these people should have caused them to weep and howl. In verses 2-6 there are four ways in which the rich people have brought this condemnation upon themselves; and thus there are four different reasons that these people needed to weep and howl. We we look at those one at a time over the next few days.
Kent, Homer A., Faith that Works: Studies in the Epistle of James, pg. 167.