Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. 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! 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. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.
II. Weep over your certain condemnation because you have cheated your workers. (v. 4)
a. The pay you withheld, and the workers you cheated cry out against you. (v. 4a)
In v. 4 James gives a second reason why these rich people should have wept and howled over their certain condemnation. They were to weep and howl over their condemnation because they cheated their workers. In vv. 2-3 James condemned the rich for hoarding their wealth, and now here in v.4 we see where this hoarded wealth has come from. These rich individuals withheld the pay that the workers of the field had rightly earned. Because most of the land was owned by a few number of wealthy individuals many farmers were forced to earn their living by hiring themselves out to these wealthy land owners to work their land. This is what we find here in our passage. The only problem is that the wealthy land owners did not pay their workers for the work that they had done. It is easy for us to see why James condemned the wealthy land owners for this practice; if my boss did not pay me I would be pretty upset. However, it is hard for us to understand just how evil this is for several reasons. First of all, in this society you would be paid daily as work was available. Without the security of a steady income these workers depended on each day’s pay to provide for their families. They did not have a savings account at the bank that they could dip into; they needed to be paid every day. Additionally, this society was a cash only society. Credit was rarely available, and certainly was not available to the poor. They couldn’t just charge it until the next paycheck; they needed cash. Thus failure to pay workers promptly was more than just unfair, it was life threatening. It was for these reasons that the practice of withholding pay was outlawed in the OT. Leviticus 19:13 says “You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” In withholding the pay of their workers these wealthy land owners were being fair, threatening the lives of their workers, and breaking the law of God. b. The outcry has been heard by the Lord of Hosts. (v. 4b)What seems so unfair is that these wealthy land owners were getting away with it. There was nothing that these workers could do about this injustice. There were no unions and they certainly could not afford to buy their own land to farm. This is what makes this so frustrating. But this is also why James reminds us in the second half of v. 4 that ultimately God will deal with this injustice. James writes, “The outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” The cries of the cheated workers were ignored by the wealthy land owners, but they gained the attention of God. James adds emphasis to this point by using the term “Lord of Sabaoth” to refer to God. The word “Sabaoth” comes from a Hebrew word that means “hosts” or “armies.” So, the phrase “Lord of Sabaoth” is describing God as the Lord of the armies. Or, to put it in more vivid terms, God is the Commander and Chief of the armies of heaven. These evil land owners may have thought that the poor workers had no protector, but the Lord of the Heavenly armies heard the cry of the poor. The obvious implication of God hearing the cry of the cheated workers is that He will bring judgment on their oppressors. With the armies of heaven at His disposal God will judge the acts of men. The wealthy land owners lived their lives as if there was no God, and there would be no consequences for their evil deeds. However, James is clear that the sin of these wealthy land owners would be judged, and that judgment would result in condemnation. Be very careful that you do not live you life in this manner; for if you do your fate will be the same as these wealthy land owners, and you will weep and howl over your condemnation.
III. Weep over your certain condemnation because you have lived a self-indulgent life. (v. 5)
a. Your lived a soft and self-centered life. (v. 5a)
James gives a third reason for the rich to weep and howl over their certain condemnation in v. 5. They were to weep and howl over their certain condemnation because the lived a worldly and self-centered life. James writes, “You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure…” In sharp contrast with the hardship that the poor faced, these rich individuals selfishly lived a luxurious life at the expense of others. And the phrase “on earth” seems to indicate that their pleasures came strictly from the things of this earth. They were consumed with this world, and they tried to make their lives as easy and luxurious as possible. This is a temptation that we all face. This temptation is particularly strong when it comes to choosing what you will do with your life. Are you going to be like these rich individuals and make you goal to have an easy and luxurious life? Or, are you going to work diligently at your job always laboring for the spread of the Kingdom of God?
In addition to a soft and luxurious life these rich individuals were consumed with “wanton pleasure.” This phrase “wanton pleasure” means to indulge oneself excessively in satisfying one’s own appetites and desires. This is the culture that we live in here in American; it is culture that is centered on leisure. People make massive investments of worldly possessions all for temporary pleasure. For instance, out of curiosity I went on e-bay and looked around at what people are spending their money on. Did you know that for $8,000 you can buy a pair of pants that used to belong to Ringo Starr? As funny as that may seem is should reveal to us that we live in a culture that is seeking enjoyment and satisfaction in all the wrong places. This selfish tendency to love the things of this world exists in every culture. We see it here in America, and we see it in the rich individuals to whom James was writing. They invested their lives in the things of this earth and they received a return that they never imagined their own destruction in the day of wrath.
b. You fattened yourself for destruction with your life. (v. 5b)
James tells us that by their actions these rich individuals “fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” As we mentioned with reference to v. 3 the “last days” have already begun, and judgment could break out at any moment. Yet instead of acting to avoid this judgment these rich individuals, by their self-indulgent love of the world, are built up more judgment. That is why James compares them to cattle being fattened for the kill.
How many of you have read the book Charlotte’s Web? Do you remember what happened to Wilbur the pig? He was being fattened up, and at the end of the season Wilbur was going to end up being slaughtered by Mr. Zuckerman. Here is where Charlotte, the spider, comes in. She hatches a plan with Wilbur to make him a special pig and avoid being slaughtered. Here is my point, there was a slaughter coming for Wilbur and so he acted to avoid that slaughter. These rich individuals did nothing to avoid the slaughter that would be their judgment. In fact, they lived their lives as if they would never be judged for their actions. Apart from faith in Christ this is a description of each and every one of us. There are times when we have all tried to place the things of this world on a pedestal above God. We have all made the mistake of searching for joy and pleasure in this world, rather than accepting the joy and pleasure than can be found in the Gospel. We have all sinned. The question is what can we do to avoid the judgment for these actions? How can we avoid the slaughter? The answer is that we can do absolutely nothing. But thankfully despite our disloyalty and inability Christ has provided a way for us to avoid the slaughter. Romans 5:8-9 says,
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
The blood of Christ is the only way to avoid the wrath of God. We must identify ourselves with his perfect sacrifice by putting our faith in Him and submitting to Him as our Lord. For those who have been chosen unto this faith the wrath for their sins has been poured out on the cross, and the righteousness of Christ has been credited to them. Unfortunately the rich individuals that we are learning about here never received this truth, and their fate was to weep and howl over their certain condemnation.
IV. Weep over you certain condemnation because you have oppressed the righteous. (v. 6)
a. You oppressed the righteous. (v. 6 a)
James gives the fourth and final reason of this passage for the rich to weep and howl over their certain condemnation in v. 6. They were to weep and howl over their condemnation because they oppressed the righteous. James writes, “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man…” Commenting on this very verse John MacArthur said,
“This is the final progression in the downward spiral followed by the rich people James rebuked. Having unjustly hoarded the money they robbed from their poor day laborers and spent it on their self-indulgent desires, they went even further and condemned and put to death the righteous man. They would literally kill to maintain their opulent lifestyle.”
Certainly the workmen that we read about in v. 4 were innocent of any crime in this instance. But rather than being rewarded for their labor they were oppressed by the rich. James describes this oppression in two ways. First James says that the rich “condemned” (κατεδικάσατε) the righteous. With this term James is probably referring to the fact that the rich were using the courts against the poor believers (See 2:6). James then goes on to say that the rich “put to death” (ἐφονεύσατε) the righteous. Literally the word used here means to murder (“…put to death is translated “murder” in all of its other New Testament appearances [Matt. 5:21; 19:18; 23:31, 35; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:9; James 2:11; 4:2].” ). James probably means on of two things with this term 1) the rich were using the courts to have the poor condemned and put to death; 2) or the unjust withholding of their pay was the equivalent of murder. James probably had in mind the second of these two, but he did not give precise details so we cannot be sure. The point that he is making is that these oppressed individuals were innocent in this regard yet still faced the oppression of the rich.
b. The righteous did not even resist you. (v. 6b)
The innocence of the righteous man is the final piece of evidence against these evil rich individuals. James informs his readers that the righteous man “[did] not resist” the oppression of the rich. It is more than likely that oppressed righteous man did not resist the rich individual because he was not able to do so. He had no money, and he certainly had not influence with the courts. By treating the defenseless poor this way these rich individuals proved that they were the enemies of God. And because they showed no mercy or compassion to the poor they proved that they will not receive Mercy from God. For as James states in 2:13 “…judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
If there is one thing that you take from this passage I want it to be that you be very careful how you look at the things of this world. Do not be envious of stuff, and people who have lots of it. Just look at the live of these rich individuals who were consumed with the things of this earth. Their lives were wasted, and God punished them for their actions. Learn from these people and desire a relationship with the Lord above the things of this earth. There is nothing evil about riches, but we must remember that to possess wealth brings with it serious responsibility. The potential for falling in love with the riches of this world is great. But as James has made abundantly clear God holds men accountable for how they use their wealth.
Wealth by itself is not to be seen as a blessing. In fact, the only way that wealth is going to become a source of blessing and not a source of condemnation is if we use our wealth to glorify God. God expects us as believers to use our wealth for His Kingdom, rather than using it as the rich individuals in this passage did. Are we doing that?