Judgment on the Wicked Rich

Sermon preached on James 5:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/09/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Our passage for today speaks a word of judgment on the wicked rich. This word of judgment reads much like we see among the Old Testament prophets where they are speaking to God’s people and take an aside to declare judgment on the nations. Presumably, those prophets would speak such judgment on the nations not so much for the nations to hear it, but for God’s people to hear it. It would have been to God’s people to know that God would deal with the wicked, especially in cases when certain nations had been afflicting God’s people. So then too, this passage deals with rich wicked people who had afflicted the righteous. This passage of judgment then is offered to encourage those afflicted by such condemned people.

But we can note that structurally this passage begins the same way last passage did in chapter 4 verse 13. There it said, “Come now you who say”, and here it says, “Come now you rich.” We mentioned last week that this uses a literary device called apostrophe to interrupt the main dialogue and parenthetically address a third person. It’s the only place James uses this structure in the whole letter and they are back-to-back passages. Yet, while last week could easily have addressed itself to Christians, this passage clearly addresses itself to non-Christians, confronting the wicked rich. Arguably the similar structure between this passage and last is to warn those Christians who might aspire to riches through their business plans to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of the wicked rich here are denounced in judgment.

So, as Christians we can see two main applications by which we can approach today’s passage. This judgment oracle against the wicked rich can serve to comfort us who are God’s people who have been afflicted by such. It comforts us to know that God sees our afflictions and will ultimately vindicate us and deliver us from them. But this judgment oracle also warns us not to become like such people who have rejected Christ and disregarded righteousness for the fleeting riches of this world. So then, with this two-pronged framework of application in mind, let us dig into today’s passage that declares judgment on the wicked rich.

In our first point then, we will observe how James describes these wicked rich and their sins. I’ll start by explaining that I’m referring to them as “wicked rich” and not simply as the “rich” to bring out a good and necessary conclusion we must have in light of the rest of Scripture. James must not be speaking against any and all rich people as being under God’s judgment, because Scripture speaks of many godly people who were rich and were blessed by God. James even tells us of one in this very chapter, in verse 11, namely Job. James even commends Job’s example to us. So, James can’t be speaking judgment on anyone who has riches. Riches aren’t the problem, and should a Christian find themselves rich in this life, it is a blessing to steward righteously to the glory of God. Rather, what we find here is that James is addressing a stereotypical rich person of the day whose riches were attributed in one way or another to various aspects of their wickedness and how they afflict others, particularly the godly. For James to simply refer to them as the “rich” here is basically a form a prophetic shorthand. I mentioned this back in chapter 2 as well, where James employed similar language. So then, let’s observe in this first point what kind of rich people that James is condemning here. As we do that, we’ll see that is fitting to refer to such as the wicked rich.

So, then we see starting in verse 2 that these rich people have put their energy into building up earthly treasure. There we find James describe their riches and garments and gold and silver. Here, we should recall Jesus’ teaching on this in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:19. There, Jesus exhorted to, “not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The corruptibility of earthly treasure is something James mentions here too. And when Jesus compared the ambition and pursuit of earthly versus heavenly treasure, he said it was ultimately an issue of the heart. This is similar to how Paul talked about money in 1 Timothy 6:10, that having money is not a sin, but that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. So, Paul also talks about this being a heart issue. The core of the issue here is a sinful idolatry of earthly treasure and a disregard of the kind of heavenly treasure they should have been setting their heart on.

That disregard of the right kings of things to treasure can be see as we keep looking at the kind of rich people James is condemning here. As we turn to verse 3, we see that James describes how they are hoarding their treasures. But notice how he describes this. He says they are doing it in the last days. It’s kind of like that parable of the rich fool we discussed last week – the one who was building bigger and bigger storehouses, to accumulate more and more, not realizing he was going to die that very night. Similarly, James sees these rich storing up more than makes sense given that these are the last days. We know there is a wisdom to save for the future. But for some people, their love for money means they never have enough, and they so fall into such unrighteous hoarding.

Looking next at verse 4, we see that James also accuses them of cheating and defrauding their workers. Again, this is the kind of rich people that he is addressing here. People like it says in verse 4 that are holding back the wages of their laborers who mowed their fields. The law said they were supposed to promptly pay their laborers, not withhold their payment, Leviticus 19:13. James tells us how they were trying to get away with this. He says the wages were being kept back “by fraud”. Fraud is a form of lying as you deal deceptively in business. Sadly, one could imagine all sorts of ways a business owner could try to fraudulently cheat their workers out of their wages. Maybe you’ve even been the victim of a boss doing that at some point. But it is wicked and a form of both lying and stealing.

In verse 5 we see James continues to describe these rich as people who are living now in luxury and self-indulgence on this earth. These two words, luxury and self-indulgence, are synonyms. They both especially have in mind things like feasting and drinking and excessively indulging in satisfying one’s appetites. James then further runs with this imagery on verse 5 in describing them as fattening their hearts. Notice how James too brings this to the heart. When speaking of these rich people eating and drinking in luxury and self-indulgence we could probably think of them literally fattening themselves. But James takes it further and says they’ve fattened their hearts in their excess and lust for carnal pleasures.

The last description of these rich that James gives us is in verse 6. There he describes these rich as people who have condemned and murdered the righteous. This is such a common scene in Israel’s checkered history, though I’m sure its not unique to Israel. The prophets would describe how the rich people would pervert justice in the courts, often through bribery, in order to win verdicts against the poor. So, while this language here of murder is likely to be understood to be the literal taking of life, it was likely being done in the cloak of justice. An example that comes to mind is how the wicked Jezebel got Naboth’s vineyard for King Ahab. Through lies, she conspired against Nabal with false charges of blasphemy that resulted in an unjust condemnation against him, ending in his capital punishment. Too often, such wicked rich people have perverted justice to get their riches, lying and stealing their way to the top. But such is wicked.

And so then, we see James has painted us a vivid picture of the type of rich people he is condemning in this passage. He is not condemning godly people who have set their hope on the Lord and his coming kingdom who happen to also be rich. No, he is condemning such wicked rich people as we just walked through. Let us then in our second point for today see the verdict of judgment that James pronounces here prophetically upon these wicked rich. And as we look at this judgment, we recognize the eschatological component to this. There is a final day of judgment coming. As verse 3 says, we are in the last days. And so, the point is that the day of judgment upon these wicked rich is fast approaching.

When declaring a verdict, justice requires witnesses. James prophetically calls certain witnesses for their testimony here in this oracle. The first witness James calls is the treasure itself. That’s verse 3. He says the fact that their own earthly treasures corrode show that they are not enduring beyond this age. Their riches have rotted and their garments are moth-eaten, verse 2. Their gold and silver have corroded, verse 3. They are evidence against them that they have set their hearts upon the wrong things – things that do not last. The second witness he calls against them is the wages they’ve held back by fraud. I think of how God had told Cain that Abel’s blood he shed was crying out to God from the ground as a witness against Cain. These wicked rich have profited from dishonest gain, and that ill-gotten gain is further evidence against them. The third witness James speaks to are the cheated harvesters in verse 4. They have cried out to the Lord and this has reached the Lord’s ears. I think of how in Exodus 2:23 it described how God’s people who found themselves in bondage to Egypt cried out to God and it says that God heard their cries. That’s why God then sent Moses to be used by God to save his people from the Egyptians. So too, James says these cheated harvesters bear witness against their oppressors, and God has heard their cries.

So then, in light of the truthful testimony against these wicked rich, God has heard and pronounced judgment against them. James, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks God’s judgment here against them. Let me walk us through all the language of judgment in this passage. We start in verse 1 with James calling them to weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. We can think of elsewhere how God’s judgment is said to evoke weeping and gnashing of teeth. James tells these wicked rich they should start crying now because the cup of God’s wrath will soon be falling hard upon them.

James continues in verse 3 by speaking of how their flesh will be eaten like fire. Interestingly, James there takes the illustration of the corrosion of metals and says that’s like what will happen to your flesh by fire. Their flesh will be eaten away by fire, though never actually consumed. I say that because of what we see like in Isaiah 66:24 that describes God’s eternal judgment as a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. The final judgment God describes as the eternal lake of fire and that is a description meant to terrify.

Then in verse 4, James speaks of how it is the Lord of hosts who will hold them accountable. My point there is to observe that he’s not just called the Lord, but the Lord of hosts. The word “hosts” means here “armies”. That language of hosts refers to the angelic armies of God. To call God the Lord of hosts is to speak to his power and might that he brings with him. If you’ve ever seen a movie where a commander or king stands before some vast array of soldiers beyond count – well God’s armies are far more. If a vast human army is scary to think of standing before, how much more the heavenly armies of God who do his bidding. This is what has befallen the wicked rich.

In verse 5, James goes on to speak of this judgment by describing the rich in the imagery of a calf fattened for the slaughter. The rich have fattened their hearts in their sinful excess, and they have done it in a day of slaughter. There are times that the fattened calf reference can be used in a good way in Scripture, like Jesus being a lamb led to the slaughter to save us from our sins. But this is not such a reference. This is a reference to the wicked rich being ripe for the reaping. This is a reference to the iniquity of these wicked rich having reached its completion and now their day of judgment has come.

So then, James has declared the terrible judgment of an eternal punishment on these wicked rich. All their treasures will one day be gone, and they will only know misery and curse in the eternal lake of fire in the age to come. Let us know turn to our third point today and spend a little more time as Christians in reflecting on these truths from our passage today. In other words, how should a Christian apply this sobering announcement of God’s judgment? I introduced us to such applications and want to further digest them now.

First, and briefly, let us take that application as a warning against following in the ways of these wicked rich. Don’t be the kind of rich people James describes here. Riches are not inherently evil. But we also know that it is too easy to fall in love with the riches of this world. And sometimes those worldly riches are not only material. People can also lust over the riches of power and influence and position in this world. Our text reminds us that to love earthly riches does not end well. Let us set our hearts on Christ and what endures, even if it should mean that we don’t have earthly wealth or power in this age.

Second, we think of how this speaks to Christians that have found themselves afflicted by the wicked rich of this world. As James does prophetic shorthand to describe such powerful wicked as the rich, by extension we can think of the reverse as well. It’s the righteous Christians who are so often the poor and powerless in the world’s eyes, who are so often afflicted by these wicked rich. Remember, James said this specifically in James 2:5, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” Today, even wealthy godly Christians are increasingly demonized by the wicked rich and powerful in this world. So then, what does this passage say to us who are “poor” to the world should do if we are persecuted by such wicked rich?

Well, one thing that is subtly commended to us is in verse 6. There James speaks of how the wicked rich afflict the righteous person who doesn’t even resist them. That subtly commends not resisting the wicked in such a case. Remember again the Sermon on the Mount, where in Matthew 5:39 Jesus taught:

But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Now yes, there are times and ways that we ought to look to “resist” evil. Yet, Jesus and James tell us there are other times and ways where it is righteousness to not “resist”. If I had a whole sermon to talk about this, I could give you many examples of when we should resist and when we shouldn’t. But today I will give just one example, the one that is in context in verse 6. There we think of the situation of what to do in the face of perverted justice. Righteousness would speak against a response of revenge. If an evil person takes you to court falsely, you would certainly be in the right to resist the false charges and make the best legal defense you can. But if they bribe the judge and you lose the case, and all judicial appeals fail, we might be tempted to try to take personal vengeance. Yet that specific example is met with God’s exhortation, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” At that point, our most righteous recourse is to cry out to God for justice.

It may not seem right and fair for the wicked rich to get away with such things. But that’s also James’ point here – they won’t get away with it. James is saying here that when God says “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” that he means it. God will repay the wicked rich. That’s the whole point of this passage. The sure application then comes to us who are afflicted. We are to patiently trust in God’s timing when he will vindicate us and reverse these circumstances. In fact, that is what the next section will tell us. Verse 7 starts out saying, “Be patient, therefore, brothers until the coming of the Lord.” We’ll delve into that next week, but for now take the encouragement this passage is meant to give us. God is not blind to how the world hates us right now. As Christians, in showing love for enemies, we hope they yet repent of their evil and turn to Christ to be saved. But should they not, know that God will not forget. God will vindicate us.

And the result will be riches for us in the age to come. That is also behind this text. The wicked rich of this world have their riches in this age but the day is fast coming when this age will end and they will lose them all. That day will be when Christ’s kingdom of glory comes in the full. That will be the day when we enter into the full enjoyment of the riches of that kingdom. This is how we know that God isn’t against riches. Because he has promised us riches upon riches in the age to come. Let us be patient until that day when God brings a mighty reversal to lift us up into such riches of glory. Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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