Notes on James 5:1-9

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Jas 5:1, KJV 1 Go to now, (ye) rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon (you).

This is the second and final “go to” passage found in this letter. He had previously spoken directly to those who were planning for the future but seemed to have left God out of the whole process (see 4:13-17). Now he is directly addressing the rich, specifically those who were guilty of the sins James is going to list in the verses following.

James apparently had no bias against the rich, but he was keenly aware of those who became rich because of their greed and lack of showing Christian love. Several times in this letter he mentioned the “evil” rich, for lack of a better term, who were receiving preferential treatment, persecuting believers, and making plans for the future—a better future for themselves only, it seems.

2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. 3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Here James quotes or alludes to another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus warned the listeners about “laying up” treasures on the earth (getting rich with this world’s goods, in other words) because thieves could break into the house and steal almost anything; moths, especially the young, could eat some of the woolen clothing, thus making an expensive garment worthless; or where rust (perhaps tarnish, if the metal objects were exposed to moisture) would corrupt the metal valuables. Achan had some gold and silver objects in his tent after Israel conquered Jericho but he hid them in the ground. Not only could he not spend it or show it, he lost his life because he stole from God. See Joshua 7 for the story of Achan and these stolen goods.

It is not clear just what James meant when he said that the gold and silver would eat the flesh (of the rich?) as if it were fire. Nor is it clear what he had in mind when he wrote that they had heaped treasure together for the last days. The prophets declared that the Kingdom was coming, in the last days; even Jesus Himself had taught this. But nothing was said about people bringing anything into the kingdom except themselves or their own souls. Could it be that, as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you when you go”, that “you can’t take it into the kingdom with you, either”?

4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Laborers were supposed to be paid every day (Lev. 19:13), under the Law. Jesus alluded to this in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matt 20:1-16). The landowner gave each man his wage when the workday was over, according to the story.

5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Just like the rich man in Luke 16. In the context, if the rich did hold back the pay due to the workers, it would be easy to get rich and have a life of pleasure for yourself. “Wanton” here reinforces the idea of having pleasure. Compare this accusation with the example Jesus gave in Luke 14:12-14, where He encouraged those with means (could the poor really give a banquet or dinner?) to help or feed the less fortunate: (the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind, to name a few).

6 Ye have condemned (and) killed the just; (and) he doth not resist you.

Several examples from the Old Testament alone come readily to mind: Abel, whose own brother, Cain, killed him (Genesis 4); Naboth, when Ahab and Jezebel conspired to steal his vineyard (1 Kings 21); Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest who prophesied before Joash king of Judah but was murdered (2 Chron 24:22); and Urijah, a prophet during Jeremiah’s time who fled to Egypt but was brought back and executed because of his message (Jere 26:20-23). James may have remembered what had happened to Jesus Himself, Stephen (Acts 7) and James the brother of John (Acts 12). None of them resisted their enemies. O that we might have the same courage, patience, and steadfastness if we ever stand before a similar situation.

7 Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

James uses a figure of speech from agriculture, comparing the waiting for a harvest to the Lord’s return. The early rains were mostly in late summer or early fall; latter rains, closer to springtime. Sometimes there was rain in the winter time (Ezra 10:9, 13, the “ninth month” corresponding to December; Song 2:11).

8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

Jesus Himself had used a similar example in the Parable of the Fig Tree (Matt 24:32-33, Mark 13:28-29, Luke 21:29-31). One central truth is that Jesus spoke this parable in springtime, perhaps early to mid-April, just days before His Crucifixion. A fig tree, blooming in summer, wasn’t supposed to be growing at all, let alone with leaves or fruit, before summer, a couple of months in the future at least. So when the fig tree blossomed or sprouted leaves, that was a sign summer was coming. In the same way, when the signs Jesus prophesied are fulfilled, that was a promise that the Return of the Lord was close. James may not have had the Rapture in mind at this early stage of Church history.

James may have had John 14:1-3 and 14:27 in mind when he encourages the readers to “stablish” their hearts. In that passage Jesus twice tells the disciples to don’t let their hearts be troubled nor be afraid.

9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

James once more addresses this command to brethren (brothers and sisters in the Lord). The exact definition of grudging may be different now than in 1611 but the concept seems to be a genuine lack of joy in seeing another brother or sister in the Lord (example, “oh, here comes so-and-so, they’ll probably try to ruin the meeting”).

The “judge stand(ing) by the door” may refer to Genesis 4:7, when Cain was told “sin was lying at the door (of his tent or house?). The Hebrew word translated “sin” also meant “sin offering” so Cain could repent of his sin and offer an acceptable sacrifice. That he did not do so is made clear in the text of Genesis 4, going so far as to kill his own brother. What a contrast: Abel killed an animal for an acceptable sacrifice and was blessed; Cain offered fruits or produce, not acceptable, then refused to accept God’s provision. He killed his own brother, and was cursed.

The Judge is not only standing before the door—He is everywhere and hears every word every person has ever said. We ought to be careful in what we say, and to whom!

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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