James 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. 4 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. 5 You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you. (NKJV)
In the previous chapters James has been writing of sin. Now, in this chapter, James addresses the sin that befalls some who are rich. It is not a sin to be rich. However, it is a sin to hoard riches and not give back to those in need. Also it is a sin to obtain riches in a dishonest manner.
The word translated “rich” (v.1a) is the Greek word “plousios”, which means copiously, or abundance. The term “rich” is a relative term. For example, the middle class in America would be considered rich by most people in the world. Many people consider you and me to be rich. This passage applies to anyone who has accumulated more than they need.
Verses 1-3 address the subject of hoarding. The words of James here echo the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do 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 (Mt. 6:19-21). Jesus commands us to not hoard earthly treasures, but instead to use earthly treasures to do good.
“Miseries” are coming upon those who hoard earthly treasures (v. 1b). Their riches could become “corroded” (v. 2a). Unused clothing that sits in the closet for years is susceptible to moth infestation (v. 2b). Gold and silver that is hoarded and never used is susceptible to being tarnished, stolen, squandered, or even rusted if kept in poor conditions (v. 3a).
Even worse, these “miseries” could be of an eternal nature. Storing up earthly treasure “will eat your flesh like fire” (v. 3b). Those who invest their lives in accumulating wealth at the expense of ignoring their salvation will spend eternity in Hell. The reference to “heaped up treasure”, hoarded treasure, “in the last days” (v. 3c) is an eschatological reference having to do with salvation.
Not only is it a sin to hoard treasure, it is also a sin to gain treasure by dishonest means. Be fair in all money matters. The example given here is to pay fair wages to those who work for you (v. 4a). The cries of injustice “have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (v. 4b). “Sabaoth is Hebrew for “hosts”. This is a reference to the Lord Jesus.
James likens this kind of living “in pleasure and luxury” to fattening “your hearts as in a day of slaughter” (v. 5). Dishonest gain is a sin. Those who live in pleasure and luxury upon the backs of others “have condemned, (and) have murdered the just” (v. 6a). The just do “not resist you” (v.6b), for fear of losing their reputation, their job or even losing their life.
In Biblical days those workers who felt cheated would often not complain for fear of being murdered by a violent land owner. Some believe that verse six is a reference to Jesus. However, Jesus was murdered by the religious class and not by the rich.
If we have a closet full of clothes that we have not worn in the last year, we could be considered hoarders. Those clothes could be given to someone in need. We likely have many things that we have hoarded over the years that could be given to someone in need, someone who would use them, through charities like the Salvation Army.
Likewise, we should not hoard money. Saving money is Biblical. But once we have more money than we need we should share our treasure with the needy. Money that is hoarded is in danger of being squandered. We can give to meet physical needs, or spiritual needs. Ministries, such as this one, meet spiritual needs.
Finally, we should always be honest in money matters. We should be fair in our business dealings with others and we should pay those who work for us a fair wage. To do less is to sin. The cries of those who have been treated unjustly reach the ears of the Lord.
Online Bible Commentary