The French poet, Saint-Foix, had a large income, but constantly lived beyond his means, which meant that he was getting further and further into debt. One day he was in the barber shop all lathered up and ready to be shaved, when one of his largest creditors, a local tradesman, walked in. As soon as the man noticed Saint-Foix, he came over and angrily asked about his money and demanded that payment be made for his services. And the poet begged him not to make a big scene in the barber shop. He said, "Won't you wait for the money until I am shaved?" The tradesman brightened at the prospect of getting the money so soon, and said, "Certainly." Saint-Foix made the barber a witness to the agreement, wiped the lather off his face, refused the shave, left the barber shop and never shaved again as long as he lived.
"Won't you wait for the money until I have shaved?" Well- that was a technicality that got him out of paying a huge debt, but I think we would still call it theft, wouldn't we? The Jewish Pharisees in James' day were masters at such subterfuge. In fact, they had been trained all of their lives in the strange ethical system that is now known as the Talmud. And Jesus was constantly challenging these oral traditions by which justified their sins. And if you have never seen any of the oral traditions of the Pharisees, go to Creighton University, and read a few pages from the Soncino edition of the Talmud. Make sure it is the unabridged Soncino edition. I don't think you will have to read more than five pages to be frustrated, upset and astonished at how these Jewish rabbis were able to circumvent the clear teaching of the Bible. Given the right circumstances, they could justify theft, murder, sodomy and incest. I can show you my photocopied pages to prove it. But more relevant to the passage we just read, they had all kinds of creative ways of justifying getting rich by taking advantage of other people. In Gary North's masterful essay on Jewish law, he said, "The Talmud is a giant exercise in finding ways to escape the Old Testament texts." And I think he is right.
Who is being addressed? (v. 1 versus v. 7)
And so, when we are answering that first question in your outlines: "who is being addressed?" we need to keep this in mind. Judaism (even in the dispersion) operated with a legal system that was governed by these oral traditions of the Pharisees, not primarily by the Bible. And Jesus pronounced His woes against them. Just so you can get a feel for what James is talking about, let me read just the woes related to economics in Matthew 23. He said:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation… Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence… Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness… Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechaiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt. 23:14, 25, 27, 34-36)
And His judgments did indeed come upon that generation of Jews, not just in Jerusalem, but during that seven year period, throughout the empire. There were over a million Jews killed in Jerusalem, and I don't know how many million throughout the empire. And James picks up on some of the same woes and judgments that Jesus had predicted. Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23 of taking widows houses away from them and taking advantage of them economically. He accused them of extortion, self-indulgence, all kinds of uncleanness, murder and oppression and of forcing Christians to flee.
These are the culprits that James 1:1 says had scattered the Christian Jews all over the place. These are the ones who had oppressed them, taken advantage of them and even in the diaspora. And many scholars believe that James is prophetically opening the windows of the church, and addressing people outside the church for three reasons.
First of all, he does not address them as brethren, as he repeatedly has in the previous sections. Second, when he once again addresses the brethren in verse 7, it is totally different. It is to comfort them for having experienced such oppression from the rich. Verse 7 says, therefore be patient, brethren… Verse 7 (the brethren) and verse 1 (the rich) seem to be two different groups of people. And so logic would say that the rich are not part of the brethren. Third, he doesn't call the rich to repentance as he has the brethren throughout. Instead, he basically says that they are toast; they are finished; they are being fattened for the slaughter of 70 AD (verse 5). So that is the direction that many scholars go. They say that he is addressing only unbelievers.
Others say, "Don't be too hasty. He had addressed rich people within the synagogue in chapter 2. At this point in the church's history, many churches still met in the synagogues. And there would have been many Jews who (like Paul) had been brought up in the demonic oral traditions of the Talmud. It would be easy even for a true believer to fall into the same unethical business practices that James reproves in this chapter. Just like Christians today will ask a carpenter to do a job for them, and then refuse to pay or expect him to do it for free, or for a major discount (because, "Hey, I'm a Chritian") – well in the same way, it is possible that Christians in that congregation ripped harvesters off, and justified it with the same strange logic. We have our own means of avoiding the payment of debts. People think, "O well, I deserve it anyway." I have talked to so-called Christian socialists who justify theft in the name of mercy; who refuse to pay off student loans; who declare bankruptcy as an easy way out or who enrich themselves by robbing God or cheating clients.
So, even though the main application may have been (and probably was) against people outside the church – we need to take the attitude that if the shoe fits us, we need to wear it. And so, we will try to make application to ourselves before the sermon is over. But I do think that the primary application is against the Jewish landlords, rulers, Pharisees and other rich who had gained their riches through the unethical practices of oral tradition. And these wealthy rich probably did attend the worship services. They may have stormed out and never come back, but they probably heard this message.
What is in store for these unbelieving persecutors?
Miseries that will make them weep and howl (vv. 1-2)
But let's look first of all at what is in store for these unbelieving, rich persecutors. Verse 1 indicates that they will be facing miseries that will make them weep and howl. And it reminds me of the words of Jesus to that generation. Look at verse 1: Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! What an encouragement this was to the disciples that God noticed and He cared. So certain is James that these miseries will come, that he uses a prophetic present tense. The riches are already as good as corrupted, garments already as good as moth eaten, gold already as good as gone. And when those things happen, it will be a witness and a testimony against them that there is a judge in the Universe.
And if you want to read about the vivid weeping and howling that came upon Jews throughout the empire, read Josephus' incredible account. They went through unbelievable miseries. There were three Jewish factions within Jerusalem who were at war with each other, and those factions went after the rich and poor alike. They stole, tortured to extract information, tormented, murdered and engaged in all kinds of barbarities. One of the factions was homosexual in orientation, and I won't go through the barbarities they engaged in. There were examples of seeing a person quickly eating the little food that they had saved when the faction scouts came looking for food, and the scouts would cut open that person's stomach so that he could grab the food that had been swallowed. Verse 3 says that their riches would eat their own flesh, and Josephus mentions how the very riches that they trusted in proved to be the undoing of the rich. Early on in the war many wealthy Jews tried to escape to the Romans and swallowed large quantities of gold so that they could take it with them. When the Roman soldiers found out, they cut open the stomachs of these escapees while they were still alive and pulled the gold out. I won't go into all the miseries that would lead to weeping and howling. But rebellious Judaism got its just deserts.
Miseries in the last days of the Jewish economy (v. 3)
And verse 3 says that this was going to happen to them because they had already been heaping up treasure in the last days. Let me comment on that phrase briefly. The last days in the New Testament are the days from Christ's birth to the ending of the Jewish economy in AD 70. They are the last days of temple, city, priesthood, Old Covenant, Jerusalem and Israel as a separate people. It's wrong to speak of us as being in the last days. The last days were in the first century. For example, Jesus was said to have been born in the last days (1 Pet. 1:20), and to have taught His disciples in the last days (Heb. 1:2). The Spirit is said to have been poured out in the last days (Acts 2:16-17). Paul claims to have been living in the last days in 2 Timothy 3, and warns Timothy to stay away from these last days false teachers. How could he stay away from them if he wasn't in the last days? Jude talks about people in his own time who were living in the last days. And consistent with all of that, James speaks of the rich people who had troubled this church as having already heaped up treasure in the last days. So we are talking about a judgment that was in the distant future. Look at verse 8: the coming of the Lord is at hand. 2000 years later is not at hand. No, this was something that would happen to that generation. And Jesus did indeed came to judge Israel in 70 AD. This is not His second coming, which is a physical one, which is yet future, and is said to be a long time off, distant, far off, etc in Matthew 25. Instead, this was the coming in judgment that He promised in that generation. Verse 9 says Behold! The judge is standing at the door! So these were miseries were miseries or judgments brought in history. Some people think that God doesn't settle accounts until the second coming, but it is important to realize that God frequently brings judgments on cultures, especially when His people obey the injunction in Luke 18 and ask for such judgments. Verse 4 talks about the laborers crying out and the cries of the reapers reaching the ears of the Lord of armies. That's not unbiblical.
Judgment from the Lord of Armies (v. 4)
The word Sabaoth in verse 4 is a Hebrew word that means armies. And it could refer to God as being the God over heavenly armies. But frequently it is used to speak of God's control over human armies as well. Scripture is clear that Jesus sent Rome to devastate the Israel in the first century. But Scripture is clear that He brought His heavenly angels at that time as well. And it's interesting that both Romans and Jews said that they saw heavenly chariots all through the skies at that time. In Matthew 22:7 Jesus used a parable of a king to describe Himself and said, But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. That's exactly what happened in 70 AD. I intended to give a chart showing how James is an expansion on Psalm 39. But in Psalm 39 it is explicit that God is the moth that would chew up their treasures. He is the Lord of armies who would bring judgment.
Though they are getting away with their behavior now, they are simply being fattened for slaughter (v. 5)
And so verse 5 indicates that even though these rich people were getting away with their fraudulent ways right then, the Christians should not be envious or feel that God was being unfair. After the sermon we will be singing Psalm 73 where Asaph felt things were not fair – the Christians were getting all the trouble, and the unbelievers were wealthy and trouble free. But then he realized their end, and it all made sense to him. They were being sent to the slaughter. And James is even more explicit. He says that these people are no better off than cattle who are being fattened up for the day of slaughter. Verse 5: You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in the day of slaughter. One version has it, You have fattened yourselves as for the Day of slaughter. The New English Bible paraphrases the meaning this way: fattening yourselves like cattle – and the day for slaughter has come. No one envies a heifer that is doing nothing but eating and enjoying itself. We know what is going to happen to that heifer. And when we look at these people who have it all, we should not at all be envious. We know what is going to happen to them. To lust for the lifestyle of the ungodly rich is to lust to be a heifer who can eat and enjoy itself and do nothing but be fattened for slaughter. It's insanity. He says, "Don't even think like that." Those rich are to be pitied.
Though they would have to wait (v. 7) and be patient (vv. 6-7), the wait for judgment on apostate Judaism would not be long (vv. 8-9)
Why is God so angry with these wealthy persecutors?
Because of how they got their wealth
Fraud (v. 4)
Now that's pretty rough language. So, the question might come, "Why in the world is God so angry with these wealthy persecutors?" Was it because they are rich? And if we have read the Bible, we would have to say, "No." Abraham was rich. The exegetical evidence shows that at least four of the apostles were wealthy and continued to be wealthy throughout their entire ministry. God was upset with them for two reasons: the wicked way in which they got their wealth and secondly, the wicked way in which they independently used their wealth.
They did not get their wealth through godly dominion. Verse 4 describes the fraud. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. To promise wages and to not deliver is fraudulent. Yet it happens all the time. It is especially bad in underdeveloped countries where contract law is not vigorously enforced. We should praise the Lord that contract law still rules in America. All throughout the middle east and Asia you see people ripped off with little recourse. Children are taken from Thailand villages and promised work in Bangkok, only to find themselves taken into prostitution and other forms of slavery. God knows it. The Lord of armies sees it and will bring vengeance upon such business men, who promise but do not deliver.
Condemnation of just people (v. 6)
The second evil that they used to gain more money is given in verse 6: You have condemned, you have murdered the just. First, you have condemned the just. This is a trick used frequently in America to extort profits. A company or even an individual will threaten a lawsuit of a big business, and because of the cost of justice in our country, the company decides to settle out of court, or to not pursue the development of the software or whatever, because the cost of litigation exceeds the threshold of profitability. I believe that Apple Corporation used this form of condemnation to shut down upstart companies who were developing legitimate competition. It happens all the time with other companies as well. The company being condemned is innocent, but they settle because the cost of litigation is not worth it. There are legal and illegal means of extorting profits from people. The Mafia is well known for its tactics during the prohibition. What many people do not realize is that they are strong today in more respectable fields like medicine – especially in the area of organ transplants. Condemnation or false accusation has been a staple down through the centuries to extort money. And this was one of the things that Jesus accused the Pharisees of engaging in – extortion.
Murder (v. 6)
The last wicked way of gaining profit is mentioned as murder. You have murdered the just. And you might not think that this happens as much today. Sure it happened in the Wild West, and it happened with the Mafia, but not as much. But let me assure you that most murders in America have been done by respectable folks for purely economic reasons. And of course you recognize that I am talking about abortion. Most abortions are done because of the inconvenience and cost that would be entailed by bringing the baby to term. It may be the cost of not being able to finish college, or of not being able to stay in a career, or of being tied down. But the worship of the Almighty dollar continues to be the reason for much murder. But murder can be in more subtle forms of endangering the lives of employees without their knowledge. Yes, this ungodly way of gaining wealth continues to occur in America.
Because of how they used their wealth
Hoarding without a stewards heart (v. 3)
But it is not just the wicked accumulation of money that brings his judgments. It is also the wicked way in which wealth was used. For example, verse 3 speaks of hoarding wealth even when it was in their power to pay their debts. Hoarding is a use of wealth. The rich who refused to pay what was owed in verse 4, obviously had the money (or at least goods that could be converted to to money) in verse 3. The last phrase says, You have heaped up treasure in the last days. And yet they are not paying their employees. And this hoarding has been going on for so long that verse 3 speaks of corruption and corrosion. For gold to corrode, it would take quite a while, unless there was quite a bit of alloy in the gold. By the way, some people object that gold cannot tarnish or corrode. But just look on the web and you can find scientific articles that describe the slow process of the oxidation of gold. It can occur.
But the word "indeed" in verse 4, indicates that God expects us to be responsible stewards who use the money in ways that please God, not just in ways that best serve the bottom dollar. They failed to have a steward's heart.
Using people without a servant's heart (v. 4)
Second, they were controlling of people without having a servant's heart. Their wealth and power meant that they had jobs to offer, but in verse 4 they are keeping back the wages. They are using people, not serving people.
Self-indulgence without a generous heart (vv. 5-6)
And the last thing that he blasts is self-indulgence without a generous heart. Verse 5 says, You have lived on earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in the day of slaughter. He is not against pleasure and luxury. He is against pleasure and luxury when you are not paying your debts. And again, this is something that Christians do today. They owe others and do not pay their debts all the while living in luxury by first century standards. You look at what is left over after bankruptcy proceedings, and my-o-my these people still have a pile of stuff. Sure they may have a technical reason why they cannot pay, just as these rich people probably had their technical reasons. But if you owe people something and you are eating more than beans and rice, and you own more than the clothes on your back, and you are living in a beautiful home rather than a scaled down dwelling, you are under James' condemnation as well.
God does not condemn the presence of wealth, but He does condemn the abuse of wealth
So let me end by making a few applications based on the data that we have in this chapter. I've already mentioned some applications - like it is okay to cry out for justice (Luke 18). There are more. First, God does not condemn the presence of wealth, but He does condemn the abuse of wealth. And the reason this is an important principle is that many Christians condemn the wealthy altogether. But I have seen relatively poor people abuse others in the way mentioned in verse 4 just as I have witnessed wealthy people abuse it. So, the first principle is that God does not condemn the presence of wealth, but He does condemn the abuse of wealth.
A. Though wealth can be a good tool of the godly (1 Tim. 6:17-18), and though both employees and employers should appreciate the profit that the other makes (1 Tim. 6:1-2) the love of wealth is always a snare (1 Tim. 6:9-10). "Greed...is idolatry" (Col. 3:5). Jesus said, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The second principle is that even though wealth can be a tool of the godly, and even though Paul clearly praises the wise stewardship of the wealthy, the love of money or greed is always a snare. But socialists don't tend to apply that evenhandedly. They speak of rich greed, but fail to condemn poor greed. I talked to a pastor of a church in Africa, and he told me that he had witnessed just as much lust for money among the abject poor of Africa as he did among the rich in America. Envy and greed knows no socio-economic boundaries.
Turn with me to 1 Timothy 6, and I want to spend a bit of time in this incredibly revolutionary chapter. I think it would be good if you followed along. I will be getting to verses 6-10 in a bit, but let me place that passage in context, as Christian socialists fail to do. Let's start at verse 1. Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor... And let me stop there, because the word for "honor" (time) has connotations of financial profit. Paul does not want servants complaining that the masters are getting profit off of them. The whole point of hiring a servant is to make a profit for the master. If masters don't make a profit, there won't be any employees, right? So Paul admonishes employees not to be greedy and reluctant to see the master receiving any amount of honor or profit. Masters are worthy of that, and the words "all honor" show that there is no such thing as an obscene profit. Jesus didn't even consider a 100-fold profit to be obscene. He considered it a blessing. Some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold and some 100-fold. Just to put this into perspective, a two-fold profit is 100% profit. A 100-fold profit is 10,000% profit. That's an obscene profit according to many people. But Paul comes down hard on the socialistic envy of welfarism and insists that the employees not begrudge the employers or businesses of all kinds of honor or profit. After all, the employee has contracted to work for what he works for. So let me read that again, and then move on to Paul's words that slam any who refuse to acknowledge the right of this honor or profit. Paul is going to call it blasphemy for anyone to hate the free-market enterprise system. Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. If you envy the high profits that your employer makes, you need to repent because Paul says that such envy is blasphemy against God. And that's talking about envy of your unbelieving employer.
But he strengthens it in verse 2 and says that this is true even if the employer is a believer. Don't get envious and expect a larger share than he is willing to contract for. Negotiate for higher wages, fine. God to a different employer who pays more, fine. But don't envy him. He says, And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited [and he is talking about a Christian employer being benefited by the labors of the employee. "because those who are benefited"] are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things. I'm reading this context because Paul is going to come down hard on the rich later on, but it's not because they are rich. Look at verse 3. Paul strengthens his insistence that profit is OK by saying, If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing… Christ said exactly the same thing in the gospels. The preaching on wealth that comes from some pulpits shows that these preachers know nothing at all about Biblical economics. Nothing. Paul even goes on to say in verse 5 that we should withdraw ourselves from such envious socialists.
But now comes the wonderful teaching of how to use our wealth to God's glory. The first step is to learn contentment at every step. Verse 6 says, Now godliness with contentment is great gain. If you don't learn contentment now, before you get that extra dollar or extra 100 dollars or 10, 000 dollars, you will never be content. It takes godliness or a focus upon seeking first God's kingdom and His righteousness to be able to gain that contentment. And such contentment is great gain not only spiritually, but also materially. The person who does not make money his idol can be trusted with more money by the Lord. It is great gain in every respect. But if you envy and fail to appreciate and handle wisely what you do have, then the Lord will remove even what you do have from you.
He goes on in verse 7 to say, For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. Just as time must be used wisely before it is gone, money must be used wisely before it is gone. You have only one opportunity to use each dollar in a way that counts for God.
Verse 8: And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. That's pretty radical contentment. Are you able to be happy when you are poor and when you are rich? Paul learned the secret of contentment in even such dire circumstances as that. He said, I have learned both to abound and to suffer want.
But now comes the verse that I wanted to highlight. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. It doesn't say, "Those who are rich," but "those who desire to be rich." That desire shows lack of contentment, and it leads to a focus on life that will ensnare you and keep you from spiritual success.
In the movie, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko made a passionate speech to his stockholders, saying this: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms — greed for life, greed for money, greed for love, greed for knowledge — has marked the progress of mankind." On the other hand, Jesus said, "Beware and be on your guard against every form of greed." God put the laws of the free market in place to control greed and put it somewhat in place, not to glorify greed. But that is a movie of extremes. On the other extreme, Bud Fox says, "Money makes you do things you don't want to do." He had it wrong too. It's not money, but the love of money, or the desire to be rich. If we were to add the word greed for, or love of or desire for into Bud Fox's advice, it would be right on the money and exactly what Paul says in verse 10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. You will have those sorrows and weeping and howling whether you are poor or rich, if you do not conquer the problem of greed or the desire to be rich.
The love of money is a snare. Colossians 3:5 says, "Greed...is idolatry." Jesus said, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). It's a focus issue. Lot was greedy for wealth, and he lost it all. Abraham was even wealthier, but he had not greed. He gained even more.
Don't withhold money from those you owe it to nor obtain wealth by oppression (Deut. 24:14-15)
A third lesson we can learn from James is that we should not withhold money from those that we owe it to. Leviticus 19:13 says about day laborers: You must not cheat your neighbor or rob him. You must not keep a hired worker's salary all night until morning. If we have contracted daily wages, we violate the law if we procrastinate paying by even one night. That's how seriously God takes our contracts.
We may not be landholders who are hiring people. In fact, we might convince ourselves that we are poor, and so we don't need to listen to James' words to the rich. But let me assure you that most of you (including myself) are still living like the rich, even if you are living on borrowed funds. I grew up in a country where true poverty reigned. People were happy to get a small handful of whole wheat kernels to munch on once a day. Their clothes were in such rags that there wasn't much skin that was covered. Most of us are so wealthy comparatively speaking that we have servants to wash our clothes (called washing machines). We can afford four burly men to carry us to the market place (called our car). We have people fanning us to keep us cool (called the air conditioning). We have messengers to deliver messages across town (called the phone and mail and email). We hire people to chop our wood and bring it into the stove throughout the day (called natural gas). We live richly, so all of us need to listen to James' words.
When we order a service from a contractor and make them wait month after month before we pay them, we are not doing right. Our bills must be paid on time. We must not rob God of tithes. Don't withhold money from those that we owe it to. If you defraud people in this way God's judgments will come upon you whether you are in the church or outside of the church.
We should be wise and generous with the wealth that God gives to us (1 John 3:17; 1 Tim. 6:17-19; Acts 20:34-35)
A fourth lesson is that we should be wise in the way we use God's resources and we should be generous. And the two are not necessarily always the same. What some people interpret as generosity is actually lack of wisdom. But God often gives the wealthy more money because He trusts them to share it in a way that will build God's kingdom. 1 John 3:17 says, But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? There is the equation of generosity. We can't allow cynicism over the irresponsibility of the welfare mentality to blind us to true needs when they arise. In the 1 Timothy 6 passage that we read from earlier, Paul commanded the rich to do good, that they may be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. But I tell you, it is an art to give properly. It takes God-given wisdom. There is a coalition of wealthy philanthropists in the south who have recognized that giving in the past has often proved to be poor stewardship. They have given in ways that have created dependencies. So they have been strategizing on how to give strategically in ways that will benefit the kingdom and make other people less dependent and more productive in their own right. So this point really is a balance.
Wealth is no security
It can't protect you from sorrow (v. 1)
The last lesson is that wealth is no security. The rich need to be reminded of that and the poor need to be reminded of that. Wealth is no security. First of all, it cannot protect you from sorrow (or the weeping and howling of verse 1). Again, in 1 Timothy 6 Paul told Timothy, Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Misers can't enjoy the riches God gives to them because they are trusting in the riches rather than God. God gave wealth in part to enjoy Him as the giver, but when money becomes the idol, it becomes a task master that takes away our joy. And it does so in many ways. Sometimes it drives us. Sometimes it separates us from friends. It may be the sorrow of depression or loneliness or the emptiness of Solomon who cried out, Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
The "Radio Times" did a four page article on Freddie Starr. And in that article Starr confesses, "I've had no life. I've missed it. And if you haven't got a life, material things mean nothing. I've lived in a palace, with eight Rolls-Royces and two helicopters, so there's nothing anyone can tell me about that. There's times I put my head in my hands, and think, 'What's this all about?' I lead a dull and lonely life off-stage. Show business has cost me a lot of money and two marriages. Categorically it has not been worth it" (Radio Times, 20-26 February, 1999, p.20). What sad words. But those are exactly the kinds of sorrows that Paul and James talk about. They stand united on this.
It can't protect you from a crash (v. 2)
Secondly, wealth can't protect you from a crash. The crash these wealthy people in chapter 5 faced was the crash of the seven year war from 67-74 AD. But there are many kinds of crashes. A number of years ago I read about a meeting of the most powerful and wealthy people in the world gathering for a meeting in 1923. Of the eight men who met at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, seven had unexpected reversals or disasters. Charles Schwab died penniless. Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, spent the last years of his life in Sing Sing prison. Arthur Cutton, the incredibly wealthy wheat speculator became insolvent. Leon Fraser, the president of the International Bank of Settlements committed suicide. Albert Fall, was pardoned from federal prison so that he could die at home. Seven out of eight had reversals of fortune. I thought that was a great illustration of the uncertainty of riches that Paul talks about and the stock market crash of 70 AD that James refers to. Well, there really wasn't a stock market crash – everything crashed, but you get the point. Don't trust in your wealth to protect you from a crash. Whether poor or wealthy, work and trust God. I like Oliver Cromwell's famous statement during the war: trust God and keep your powder dry.
It can't shield you from God's judgments (v. 3)
And finally, don't think that wealth can shield you from God's judgments. We are shortly going to be singing a Psalm in which Asaph at first felt envious of the rich, and wondered why God allowed them to get away with so much evil. And God basically said, "Don't worry about it. They are cattle being fattened for the slaughter."
James will bring other words of comfort in verses 7-12, but these verses serve as a reminder that we are all stewards of our finances, and as stewards we will one day have to give account for what we have done with them. I would encourage each of you to take your finances and financial attitudes to the Scriptures and submit them to Christ's Lordship. Amen.
Gary North, The Judeo-Christian Tradition: A Guide for the Perplexed (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), p. 87, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/221a_47e.htm. ↩