posted on Nov, 12 2012 @ 05:18 PM
At the end of the third chapter of his New Testament letter, James was explaining the difference between the Wisdom which comes from God, “the
Wisdom from above”, and the more earthly, merely human wisdom.
In the next part of the letter, he sets out some of the practical implications of choosing between them.
In a previous thread, I was looking at his warnings at the beginning of the fourth chapter, about the “passions”, and the danger of choosing
enmity with God, and the need for repentance.
Now at the end of the chapter, from v13, he’s addressing those absorbed in the pursuit and possession of wealth (obviously still making the wrong
So this brings us back to the acquisitive passions that he mentioned at the beginning of the chapter-“you desire and do not have”.
His first rebuke is addressed to those making ambitious plans for their mercantile ventures- “Today or tomorrow we will go…we will trade there for
a year and get gain”.
They’re at fault because of their over-confident assurance that they’ll still be around in a year’s time, or even the next day.
In ch1, he compared the rich with the grass that withers quickly under the sun.
In this place, he compares these merchants to the short-lived mist (which also vanishes under the sun, though he doesn’t mention that).
They need to to remember that their lives are subject to the condition “If the Lord wills…”.
This is not about the words they’re using, but about the attitude they’re adopting.
It’s about the self-aggrandisement of leaving the Lord out of consideration, and boasting about their own intentions and expected achievements.
In fact this is the story of “the rich man who pulled down his barns”, translated into commercial terms (which takes it into the wider world
In v16 he tells them their boasting is evil, and then he adds the declaration, in the following verse, that “Whoever knows what is right to do and
fails to do it, for him it is sin”.
This supplements the usual understanding of sin, that sin is “doing the wrong thing”.
We sin by neglect and omission, as well as by positive action.
However, it isn’t easy to understand how the statement fits into the context.
The merchants haven’t been accused of any kind of neglect, apart from neglecting to say “If the Lord wills”, and it isn’t clear that they knew
about the need for that.
The best explanation I can suggest is that these comments were originally made in a different context.
Taking vv16-17 together, the purpose of v17 seems to be to explain why “such boasting” is evil.
The connection would make more sense if the “boasting” was a self-assured complacency about the relationship with God, because that claim would be
undermined by a failure to act in obedience to his commands.
In James’ eyes, the “Faith alone” dogmatists that he criticised in other parts of the letter would have been guilty on both counts. Their
doctrine would be making them complacent, while their attitude towards “works” might lead them to neglect such things as “visiting orphans and
widows in their affliction”.
If the same people were also “judging the brethren” in vv11-12, then v17 draws attention to their own failures.
The common theme of “boastful over-confidence” would then attract these two verses to the place where we find them, as the sequel to the comments
about the merchants in vv13-15.
At the beginning of his fifth chapter, James turns to those already living in wealth and comfort.
Their offence is not that they are wealthy, but that they have chosen wealth in preference to God.
He invites them to start mourning, in advance, over the misery their wealth is going to bring them.
He gives a paraphrase of the teaching of Jesus about “laying up treasure on earth”.
The difference is that Jesus is warning off people who might make that mistake, while James is addressing men who have already done it.
Therefore they will face all the loss of wealth that Jesus described.
James mentions the natural causes, like moth and rust, and leaves out theft- so it would be pedantic to object that gold and silver do not rust.
They’ve laid up this treasure “for the last days”- that is, the last days are going to be upon them before they can use it, and they’re just
keeping it for that moment when they’re going to hand it all back to God.
V4 is a comment on the way they’ve achieved their wealth- we’re obviously back in the farming world.
By holding back the wages of their field-workers, they’ve triggered off the “appeal for justice”, a theme which recurs in the Old Testament
right from the murder of Abel.
This appeal, this “cry to the Lord”, is what will bring down God’s wrath upon them.
They have been “living off the fat of the land”, as we say in modern times, with the result that they have “fattened their hearts” (v5)
This thought has more than one double meaning.
It suggests the charge in Deuteronomy ch32 v15, that Jeshurun “waxed fat” and “forsook the God who made him”.
That is, their luxury has made them complacent and self-sufficient.
Then James adds the words “in a day of slaughter”.
The combination of “fattening” and “slaughter” suggests the slaughter of animals.
For famers, of course, fatten up their animals in preparation for that day, and the implication is that the wealthy have been doing this to
There’s a similar image in Jeremiah, when he’s complaining about the prospering of the wicked, and he urges the Lord to “pull them out like
sheep for the slaughter” (Jeremiah ch12 v3).
In effect, these people are providing themselves, together with their wealth, to be a sacrifice to the Lord on the day of judgement.
The last comment addressed to the wealthy is the complaint in v6, that “You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man”.
This recalls what James says about the rich in ch2 v6- “They oppress you and drag you into court”.
So we need to ask ourselves, once again, what situation James is describing, with the same two possibilities.
Is this about the generic mistreatment of poor people as a class by rich people as a class?
Or is he complaining about the persecution of Christians by the religious establishment?
The second explanation looked better in ch2, because the rich were also “blaspheming the honourable name which was invoked over you”.
As I observed on that passage, the social reality would be that the wealthy would be supporting the religious establishment, while the religious
establishment would be wealthy, making it natural for James to identify them as a class.
A number of clues are pointing towards the same conclusion about the current verse.
One is “you have killed”, because oppression of the poor in the courts does not normally need to go that far.
Another is that the victim is labelled “the righteous man”, which seems more applicable to the followers of Jesus.
Finally there is “he does not resist you”, which implies that he’s able to resist but unwilling, possibly prompted by the teaching of Jesus
about “turning the other cheek”.
This last verse differs from the other comments about the wealthy, because it isn’t a response to their acquisitive traits.
In fact it’s really a connecting link, to bridge the gap between the attack on the power of wealth (vv1-5) and the call for patience under
What better way of connecting the two issues than by pointing out how the first helps to cause the second?
This passage completes what James has to say about the various ways of choosing “enmity with God” instead of following the lead of the “Wisdom