Go to now, you rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come on you.…
It is not to "rich men," simply as such, that James addresses himself. There was no sin in being rich. It is to the description of rich men whose characters he proceeds to portray, that he speaks — unprincipled, selfish, ungodly, wicked rich men. "Weep and howl." Tears are the natural indication of grief: "howling," or loud lamentation, of overwhelming distress. They had reason for both in "the miseries that were coming upon them." They would be the chief objects of the plundering rapacity of the besieging foe; and, while the sword would be upon them for their riches' sake — even to those of them who fell not a prey themselves, the very loss of all their accumulated stores, gathered with so much pains and care, would itself be one of their miseries from which the poorer would be exempt. True it is, however, with regard to all "rich men" of the same character, that "miseries are coming upon them." What, then, is the character? Vers. 2, 3. The word "riches" need not be confined to the precious metals alone: the" silver and the gold" are separately mentioned. Eastern riches consisted frequently, not in these alone, but also in stores of corn, and wine, and oil; and here, as in other places, "garments" — wardrobes of various descriptions of clothing, are mentioned, as forming part of such wealth. "Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten," is a part of the charge brought against them: the charge of avaricious selfishness — that, instead of giving away, they kept all to themselves; allowing what might have been distributed for the benefit of others, rather than part with it, to go to waste in their own stores; and allowing the moths to consume what might have clothed and comforted the naked. Had they given away as they ought to have done, their riches would not have been "corrupted." That their "riches were corrupted and their garments moth-eaten" was thus their crime rather than their punishment — though as a part of their punishment — the effects of their selfish hoarding — it might also be regarded. The "last days" are susceptible of two interpretations: of the time of Jerusalem's destruction and the final overthrow of the Jewish economy; or of the end of the world. I do not think it at all unlikely that the apostle had both in his eye; on the same principle on which our Lord Himself appears to pass from the former to the latter — from the nearer to the more distant — in His remarkable address to His disciples in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel by Matthew. In the sack and pillage of Jerusalem, how vain would all the pains appear which they had bestowed on the "heaping together of their treasures." And in the great day of final reckoning they should find that, in having amassed for self, instead of having distributed for God and for fellow-men, they had only been "heaping up" evidence for their own crimination at the bar of Divine judgment. How different the case with those who, in the early days of the Christian Church, used their wealth as the inspired history describes: when they" sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every man had need; and distribution was made to all as need required." They had acted in conformity with the Lord's own directions (Matthew 6:20; Luke 12:33). Of that treasure there would "in the last days" be no loss, nor any bitter lamentation over it. No enemy could touch it. And in "the day of the Lord" — the day of final account — it would tell in their favour as the evidence of the genuineness of their faith and love. The wealth of those addressed by James was not only selfishly hoarded, it was obtained by criminal oppression and cruelty (ver, 4). This "keeping back by fraud" — under false and unworthy pretexts — of the reapers' wages, to which they were rightfully entitled, was a fearful violation to explicit Divine precepts (see Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14, 15). And it "cried" — cried against the unrighteous oppressor; cried to God; cried for just retribution; cried — in the same sense in which God said to Cain — "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto Me from the ground." And, as God heard the voice of the blood of a murdered brother, so did He hear that of the "hire" of the defrauded labourers. Let Christians avoid even the remotest approach to such oppression. They ought to be examples of righteousness and love as the children of a just and merciful God. We have next, the manner in which they laid out their riches. We have seen how they were made: we learn now how they were used (ver. 5). The verse expresses the extreme of self-indulgence; the gratification of every sensual desire. Like the infatuated king of Israel, "in the days of his vanity," "whatsoever their eyes desired they withheld not from them; they restrained not their hearts from any joy." The clause — "ye have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter," is by many understood to mean their pampering themselves as in a day of killing for social festivity. But the meaning seems rather to be that they were pampering themselves as beasts were fed and fattened for a day of slaughter. They were preparing themselves for the knife. While thus "feeding themselves without fear," they were "only fitting themselves for final destruction." Their "joy would be turned to sorrow; their mirth to heaviness." And, in addition to all this, while at the same time in full consistency with it, they were persecutors. "Ye have condemned and killed the just" (ver, 6). This by some interpreted as having reference to Christ Himself: "the just" being in the singular number — "the just" or "the just one." And without doubt this is one of His distinguishing designations. But, on the other hand, "He doth not resist you" is in the present time; and agrees better, consequently, with a charge of present persecution unto death, than with one relating to a deed so long past. This, therefore, favours the interpretation which makes it refer to the persecution of Christ's followers, who resembled Him in character; of which we have so beautiful an exemplification in the case of the first martyr, Stephen. That there were persecutors still troubling the Church is evident from the admonitions to patience under such troubles, which immediately follow (vers. 7, 8). Let us conclude with one or two reflections.
1. Surely the poorest Christian has no reason to envy the wealthy but wicked man of the world; no, even though he were to suffer, and suffer unto death, at his hands. The poorest Christian is "rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom which God hath provided for them that love Him." He has God Himself for his portion — a portion infinite in preciousness and fulness of blessing, and unfailing and everlasting in duration. Let him cherish "godliness with contentment," and he is a happy man — happy in enjoyment, and happier in hope.
2. There may be rich men whose wealth has been acquired by honest means — who have been chargeable with no extortion; and who, in the use of their wealth, have not at all rioted in sensuality and libertinism, or abused the superiority which it imparted in evil-entreating and persecuting the godly. Let not such, on this account, sit at ease and flatter themselves with safety. Your riches may be a snare to you, notwithstanding. You may trust in your wealth. It may take away your heart.
3. Let Christians, whom Providence, in whatever measure, has favoured with this world's wealth, remember the true use of riches. Bear in mind that in bestowing wealth upon you the universal Proprietor alienates nothing from Himself. Of the gold and the silver which He puts into your coffers He continues to say, just as He does of all yet in the bowels of the earth — "The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine." And His command is, "Honour the Lord with thy substance, and" — not with the paltry remnants after all thine own selfish cravings have been fully satiated, but — "with the first-fruits of all thine increase."
(R. Wardlaw, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.