The Pressure of Retaliation

The Point:  When someone wrongs you, respond with patient endurance.

Warning to the Rich:  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.  [ESV]

[1-6]  With the beginning of chapter 5 we come to the third area of high risk to our humble walk with God. James addresses himself to the wealthy and has pretty straight things to say about the use and abuse of wealth. But who are these rich people? Are they Christians who have been so drawn off course by the power wealth bestows that they have turned to oppress their fellow-believers? If they are Christians, then we may treat the command to weep and howl as the same implicit summons to repentance that was similarly expressed in 4:9. And, if James is addressing believers, we do not need to ask any further questions as to why the passage occurs here. It is a feature of church life among those whom he is addressing, and gives him an opportunity to alert believers to an area in which their all-important humility could so easily be lost. As James looks at the rich, he starts by condemning the hoarding of wealth. Garments are stored away and become the prey of the moth [2]. Gold and silver bear on them the marks of disuse. The rich have laid up treasure [3]. James sees all this as senseless from the earthly point of view, but he has his eye on eternity. Hoarding is condemnatory and spiritually foolish. The use of the idea of corrosion in relation to non-corroding metals like gold and silver makes an important point. Gold and silver might as well be base metals for all the worth they really are for their possessors. Gold and silver will reveal where the real faith of the wealthy lay: their trust was in their resources. They stored earthly goods as if there was nothing to expect but this life and its needs. We see, behind what James is teaching, the truths spoken by the Lord Jesus. It was He who showed how condemnatory hoarded wealth is in the day of divine scrutiny [Matt. 25:24-30], and how foolish is the man who says he has more than enough stored away for many years, and who overlooks that he will promptly be called to account before God [Luke 12:15-21]. In verse 4 we see that the wealthy against whom James is inveighing were landowners employing farm workers. They were proving to be dishonest and dishonorable in paying the wages of their staff. As in the accusation of sinful hoarding, so here, James takes us straight from the earthly facts to their heavenly significance. He might well have dwelt on the insensitivity involved in withholding payment: families left unfed and so on. But one thing alone is important to say. The Lord is aware of what has happened, the fraud has not escaped His attention. The pain of His people has reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. In its Old Testament use Lord of hosts points to the Lord who has within Himself and at His sovereign command every possible potency and resource. No power, however great or solid to the earthly eye, is beyond His capacity; no need, however pressing, is beyond His means, or outside His attention. What can the powerless laborer do against the all-powerful employer? Nothing for himself, but he can be sure that his very situation has already registered an appeal in the highest court of all. Here the all-powerful Lord sits as judge of the oppressor and the all-sufficient God attends to the needs of His people. In two words James now exposes the fact of wealth used for self-indulgence and in two more the folly of it [5]. Together luxury and self-indulgence offer a picture of a life without self-denial, not necessarily corrupt in every way, but certainly offering no resistance to sin where there is promise of comfort and enjoyment. James portrays these people living on the earth as if this life were all that is, without thought of a heaven to be gained or a hell to be avoided. It is this latter thought that comes to the fore with the accusation that they fattened  their hearts in a day of slaughter. The picture is fearfully vivid. They are like so many unthinking beasts, luxuriating in their rich pasture day after day, growing fat by the hour and careless of the fact that each day brings the butcher nearer. In such a way James saw the wealthy, blind alike to heaven and hell, living for this life, forgetting the day of slaughter. As James balances out his teaching on wealth, there are two sections exposing the use of wealth for self-care [2-3, and 5], and each is followed [4 and 6] by a condemnation of the way wealth is used to hurt others. The final charge [6] is blunt: the murder of an unresisting victim. The victim is called the righteous person, which could either point to some notable, well-known individual or else it could be a collective description of a whole class against whom the rich set themselves. But in either case no resistance was offered; the victim accepted uncomplainingly whatever came his way. Thus James exposes the sinfulness of those whose lives acknowledge only the lordship of money, and plots the pathway ahead for those who suffer as a result. What conclusion can we draw here from James comments concerning the rich? There is no sin in merely being rich; where sin exists among the rich, it arises from the manner in which wealth is acquired, the spirit which it tends to engender in the heart, and the way in which it is used. We must not shirk the implication of James’ harshness and directness. More than any of the areas of high risk, wealth threatens its possessors with coming misery [1]. Its earthly cushioning dulls the sense of spiritual urgency [2-3] and of the reality of divine judgment [5]. Affluence opens the door to commercial carelessness and insensitivity to what is both due and needful to others [4]. It leads finally to setting aside the honor and dignity of the Lord Jesus Christ [6]. James says nothing in these verses of the great good that those who possess wealth can do because his concern here is on the dangers and misuse of wealth. What is James teaching us about our attitude towards and use of possessions we enjoy? Following the teaching in verses 2 and 3, we must strike the right balance between prudent saving and sinful hoarding. We should always put a priority on the use of possessions, following our Lord’s own teaching about so using our resources as to heap up treasure in heaven [Luke 12:32-34]. And, as regards what may legitimately be put aside to shelter us in the earthly rainy day, we must ask the question where our trust is being placed. Are we keeping our reserve of earthly riches at such a level as indicates that they are our security, or does the level of earthly security represented by stored wealth prove that our trust is in the living God [1 Tim. 6:17-19]? The teaching of verse 4 leaves no room for speculation. All our financial dealings must be honest. Moving to verse 5, we must keep the tightest hold on all luxury spending. The more we surround ourselves with possessions which only minister to creature comfort, the less we are likely to cultivate the spiritual trimness of physique which keeps us fit in the battle for holiness. Furthermore, when we allow such wealth as we possess to focus attention on ourselves and our satisfactions, we are ministering to that spirit of pleasure, desire and wanting for self which is the root of all unholiness and unfaithfulness to God [4:1-4]. Worldly wealth is an area of high risk in the battle to walk humbly with God. It is hard to be rich and lowly at the same time. The use of money and the life of self-pleasing are never far apart.

The Importance of Patience:  James 5:7-8a.

[7]  Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. [8]  You also, be patient.  [ESV]

[7-8a]  With the reappearance of the key idea of patience [7-8, 10] or steadfastness [11] James makes his letter return at the end to the point from which he started. As regards these two words which James uses, patience is the self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate against a wrong, and steadfastness is the temper which does not easily succumb under suffering. James began his letter with a call to steadfastness under trial [1:2-4], and we saw that holding up through the God-sent afflictions and difficulties of life is actually the pathway of sanctification, the progressive road to becoming perfect and complete, lacking in nothing [1:4]. His conclusion [5:7-20] opens with the same theme set in the same context. He encourages us to the life of steadfastness by holding before us the bright prospects of the last Day. In 1:12 there is the bestowal of the crown and in 5:7-8 the personal coming of the Lord. In 1:4 and 12 respectively, he speaks of the goals of completion and life and, in 5:7 and 11, precious fruit and a promised experience of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Within the total complex of this conclusion to his letter, James takes up two major topics as the setting in which he allows his major themes to receive their final expression. In verses 7-12 the foremost subject is patience or steadfastness, but it is shown as under constant threat – not as in 1:2-4 from external circumstances, but from a factor within ourselves, the impatient and hasty tongue [9,12]. In verses 13-20 the foremost subject is prayer, but the prayer which in 1:5 sought the meeting of our own needs now pleads on behalf of brothers and sisters [14,16]. It is this note of outreaching care for our fellow-members in the Lord’s family that finally closes the letter [19-20]. Each of the sections of 5:7-11 concludes with a forward look. In verses 7-8 we expect a coming Lord; in verse 9 there is a Judge already at the door; in verses 10-11 James speaks of the purpose of the Lord. The coming of the Lord [7] refers to the Lord’s personal arrival and presence with His people. Our main source of information regarding this coming (parousia) is the Lord Jesus Himself. We have, therefore, a sure foundation for our expectant faith. He taught that His coming would be preceded by signs [Matt. 24:3] and would, when it happened, be as vivid, visible and unmistakable as lightning which illuminates the whole sky [Matt. 24:27]. It will happen on a day which cannot be known in advance [Matt. 24:36ff.], and will bring about a separation or taking away of the people of God [Matt. 24:8ff.]. Those who are Christ’s [1 Cor. 15:23] will be gathered for ever into His presence [1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Thess. 2:1], caught up to meet Him in the air [1 Thess. 4:17], transformed into an unblemished holiness [1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23] as they are at last made fully alive in Christ [1 Cor. 15:22]. To unbelievers the expectation of the Lord’s return is a matter for cynical doubt and dismissal [2 Peter 3:3-4], but to believers this sure hope constitutes a strong call to endure [James 5:8] and to prepare by holiness of life [1 John 2:28]. For the Lord Himself [1 Thess. 4:16] will come in power [2 Peter 1:16], His foes will perish [2 Thess. 2:8], and the heavens and the earth will be replaced by new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell [2 Peter 3:12-13]. It is striking that all James needs to say to his readers is that the Lord is coming. He does not enter into long explanations and descriptions. He can assume that they know all about it, for it was a familiar truth to the New Testament church. If we wish to be New Testament believers, and to think in terms of New Testament priorities, then the fact of this great Advent, the sure expectation of it and the desire not to be ashamed before Him at His coming should be in the forefront of our thoughts. In the first instance James intended the expectation of the coming Lord to bring comfort and joyful expectation to those to whom he wrote. They were undergoing stresses and strains [5:1-6], therefore [7] they needed to be called to patience, but they needed too the reminder of that coming which would put an end to all opposition and make suffering a thing of the past. James loves the imagery of gardening and farming. In the present verses he presses home his call to patience by noting how necessary and how fruitful a virtue patience is for a farmer. The farmer sets out to obey the laws of God as they are built into the way things work. He plants his seed at the appointed time, in the appointed conditions, and having done so he waits, for there is no other way to harvest-time. James’ doctrine of the Christian life is a doctrine of process or growth, and patience is its central requirement. Nothing can hurry on the early and late rains and nothing can speed up the imminent coming of the Lord. James thus speaks to assure us that all will be well. Along the line of the processes He has appointed, God the Creator germinates the seed, promotes growth, swells the grain until, when harvest-time comes, the harvest is ready. It is His annual miracle in the sphere of the created world. Surely James wishes us to see the same mighty hand at work in our lives. The Father will have us ready too, so that nothing will mar the excellence of the day He brings His Son back in glory.

Patience and Steadfastness:  James 5:8b-11.

[8]  Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. [9]  Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. [10]  As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. [11]  Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.  [ESV]

[8b-11]  But we have our part to play. In one of the Lord’s parables [Mark 4:26-29], the farmer, who cannot explain or understand the processes of growth, nevertheless superintends and watches over the developing crop with persistent care. In verses 8-9 James summons us to this task. First, we need to watch our own hearts. The words establish your hearts do indeed repeat and enforce the call to be patient, but they do so by focusing attention on a central need: the fixed heart. The word establish indicates determination, steely resolution, persistence. All this is to be directed towards our hearts. In other words, James is faithfully warning us against the old enemy of inconsistency. He looks for a heart fixed on the harvest, fixed on the returning Lord, a heart which leaves no room for the double-mind. There is a contrast here between the fattened heart of 5:5 and the established heart of 5:8. Whatever our life-style, the heart lies at the center. It is either the focus of indulgence or the focus of determination. We can forfeit the harvest by a failure in true, sustained commitment. Secondly, we need to watch our fellowship [9]. The call for patience needs to be made only in situations where there is a temptation to impatience. Our hearts may let us down through failure in commitment and resolution. Our tongues may let us down and rob us of the harvest through failure to cherish the family and fellowship of the people of God among whom He has set us. Verse 10 flows naturally out of verse 9. If such serious consequences can follow upon impatience of speech, so that we are called into question by the Judge on the day of His coming, then indeed it is important to give ourselves to the task of bearing up under stress. James brings out three points in sequence. First, we have reason to expect in our experience the sort of suffering which requires patience [10]. Secondly, James points out that we consider those blessed who remained steadfast [11], that is, we look at them and instinctively recognize that the blessing of God has rested on them. The Lord subjects His servants to those trials which call for steadfastness, because it is along this line that He wills to achieve His own purpose for them in some signal outpouring of His compassion and mercy. Thirdly, the story of Job is an example of faithful steadfastness, but even more of divine purpose. The blessedness that came to Job was the enrichment of knowing God more fully: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you [Job 42:5]. His new knowledge of the Lord was as vivid as the replacement of hearsay by encounter with a person. James too brings out, not the blessings the Lord bestows, but the knowledge of the Lord Himself, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful [11].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What conclusion can we draw from James’ comments concerning the rich in 5:1-6? What is James teaching us about our altitude towards and use of possessions we enjoy?

2.         Instead of retaliation against the rich, James encourages his readers to be patient [7,8]. Patience is an important word in James’ letter. Define patience. What does James intend for us to learn about patience from the farmer?

3.         In 5:7-11, James gives his readers three commands: be patient, establish your hearts, do not grumble. James connects each of these commands with the coming of the Lord [7,8] or the Judge is standing at the door [9]. Why does James do this? What does he intend for his readers to learn by focusing on the return of Christ?


James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

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