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The fact that this prophetic warning is located just on the threshold of God’s judgment of Israel in 70 A.D. does not prevent it from providing us with a number of useful warnings. They were told to look back at similar times of affliction in the Old Testament, and so we have two sets of such historical warnings. Locating this in the first century, therefore, does not make this irrelevant to us, but rather doubly relevant.
“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten . . .” (Jas. 5:1-20).
Summary of the Text
The rich are instructed to weep for the coming miseries (v. 1). The wealth they have, and the luxuries they possess, are all coming apart (v. 2). Their gold and silver is corroded, and will both testify against them and devour them (v. 3). They have made piles of treasure for the last days (v. 3). The next judgment tells us what kind of rich men we are talking about (v. 4). They can hire roomfuls of lawyers to keep the working man in bondage to the fine print. They are sensualists, fattening themselves for God’s charnel house (v. 5). They are rich men who kill just men (v. 6).
So the brothers ought to be patient in waiting for the coming of the Lord, just like a farmer waits (v. 7). They should strengthen their hearts as the coming of the Lord approaches (v. 8). Don’t break out into squabbles . . . the judge is at the door (v. 9). Christians in the first century should take a page from the Old Testament prophets (v. 10). We consider men happy who endure misery through to the end (v. 11). Count Job a happy man therefore.
Whatever you do, don’t swear by created things. Let your yes be yes (v. 12). The afflicted should pray (v. 13). The merry should sing psalms (v. 13). The sick should ask for the elders to come (v. 14). The prayer of faith will raise up the sick, and sickness is more closely related to sin issues than we might want to think (v. 15). Confess your faults and failings to one another, so that you might be healed (v. 16). In this humbled, honest context, fervent prayer avails much. Elijah was a man with problems like we have, and look how God answered his prayers (vv. 17- 18). Go after those who wander off (v. 19). Let the one you are chasing know that he is being pulled back from death, and that a multitude of sins is being covered (v. 20) . . . which is the task of love.
Injustice on the Threshold of Judgment
The Bible describes the run-up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. in terms that should make us think of the denouement of The Odyssey. We see rich and insolent suitors devouring what is not theirs, while justice is right at the door. This chapter describes this kind of scene for us well.
The rich here are the same ones in chapter two, those who mistreat the saints (Jas. 2:6). Their wealth is not like that of Abraham or Solomon, but rather was wickedly obtained (v. 3). They rob their laborers of wages that were promised to them, keeping the wages back by fraud (v. 4). They live in wanton luxury (v. 5). They use their wealth to murder just people (v. 6). Foolish saints are tempted to flatter such men, but what is required is for us to stand against them with a prophetic courage.
For all their wisdom (the kind of wisdom that is from below), these rich people do not know they are on the precipice of disaster. They have heaped up piles of loot for the last days (v. 3). A mound of gold at your feet in Hell will just melt and run away. Those afflicted by these people are told to be patient to the coming of the Lord (v. 7). The coming of the Lord is drawing near (v. 8). The judge is standing right at the door (v. 9). From these descriptions, this had to have happened in the first century. But this does not make such warnings irrelevant to us —all of us will meet God within one lifetime . . . our own.
Sickness and Sin
We know from the teaching of Scripture that sin and suffering are not automatically connected. James mentions Job here as a patient and happy man (v. 11), and not the sinner that his three counselors thought he was. And of course, Jesus effectively countered His disciples who thought a man was born blind because of his or his parents’ sin (John 9:3).
But the fact that there is not an automatic connection does not mean there is no connection. When the elders pray, it says, healing and forgiveness are closely connected (v. 15). This is why we should be honest with each other (v. 16). Being honest means that we will not treat the whole thing as a cosmic karma machine, but neither will we shuffle off all responsibility as though there could not be a connection.
Merriment and the Psalms
The psalms are like the blues. One of the striking things about the blues is that singing them makes you feel better. Even though the subject of many blues songs is pretty grim (“nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jiving too”), the overall effect of the blues is pretty upbeat.
The same thing is true of the psalms. Notice that James says that if someone is merry, he should “sing psalms.” He does not say that the merry one should sing Psalms 148, 149, and 150. The book of psalms is full of affliction, and yet God tells us that it provides us with our vocabulary of joy and godly mirth. Psalms of distress, psalms of war, psalms of fear, psalms of imprecation, psalms of penitence . . . into the hopper.
Confession and Accusation
Remember that the world runs on envy and accusation. Remember that God gives more grace. But what sense does it make to confess my faults to others when anything I say can and will be used against me? We are not to confess anything in an attempt manipulate God, or as we try to get Him to do our bidding. We are to confess our sins in Christ, and we are to be lifted up in Christ. Confession must not be a “work.” It must be all of grace.