Those who refused to heed the cautionary words at the end of chapter 4 should anticipate the harshest judgment. They are told to week and howl for the miseries that are coming upon them. But who are these ‘rich’ people? Is this a blanket condemnation of the wealthy? What is the crime they have committed?
Laid up Treasure
At the most basic level, the crime they are charged with is ‘laying up treasure’. But saving money is not sinful. The problem is with their hearts. First, they are not seeking wealth so that they might glorify God by providing for the needy (Eph. 4:28). Rather, their quest for wealth has one goal, viz. self-indulgent luxury. James’ word choice here points to gluttonous, beyond-the-bounds-of-propriety luxurious personal pampering, not to the simple enjoyment of luxuries. It is important that we realize that it is not a sin to be rich. Paul expects there to be rich people in the church (1 Tim. 6:17). And, while wealth brings its own challenges to one’s walk with Christ, there is no command to divest oneself of all abundance.
What makes the rich whom James addresses wicked is not their money. Rather, their wicked hearts are revealed by the intention behind their hoarding, and by what they are willing to do to acquire their wealth. Obviously, they are not intending to provide for the needy or bring God glory, since they do not mind causing others to suffer in their quest for more. No doubt there is a touch of hyperbole in the charge of murder. But if my quest for luxury deprives someone else of the necessities of life, have I not murdered them? The problem here is selfishness, not wealth, per se. In light of where James has been leading us, he would probably say they are whore-ding wealth, rather than hoarding it.
It’s Not Really Treasure
Not only have they gone after wealth for the wrong reasons, and ignored God’s law and their neighbor’s good in the acquisition of it, they have actually been investing in a dying currency. The problem isn’t just that they’ve ‘laid up treasure’; it’s that they laid up treasure in the last days. James illustrates this with moth-ridden clothing and rusty gold. The only way gold will rust is if it is not refined. That is, if it is not pure gold. We need to understand this from the perspective of the judgment and the heavenly economy. Jesus clearly warned about moths and rust destroying worldly, this-age treasures (Matt 6:19–20; Luke 12:33). And James notes that the corrosion of their gold and the corruption of their garments will demonstrate that these people have not invested in heavenly riches, and can only expect destruction (Luke 12:20-21). We are in the last days. It is folly to invest in the wealth of this age, as it is, for all intents and purposes, over. These rich have “fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter”. The irony is thick. It is the fattened who are attractive to the butcher, not the lean.
What Do I Do with This?
If you have trusted in the finished work of Jesus Christ for your salvation and peace with God, and if you have bowed to Him as Lord, then you have no reason to weep or howl, and you have no expectation of miseries (Rom 8:1; Gal 3:13; Rom 5:1; John 3:18-19; 5:24; etc.). So, what should you do with a passage like this?
First, take the warning. This would not be the first time that God issued a verdict as the severest of warnings (Jonah 3:4-5, 10). If the end of chapter 4 wasn’t enough to turn you from your idolatry, let the beginning of chapter 5 do it.
And secondly, embrace the coming vindication. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV) Obviously, it is the righteous who suffer at the hands of those James warns. And it is the righteous who look for vindication from God (Psalm 121:1-2; 26:1; 35:24; Rev 6:9-10). For now, we are to wait patiently. But James will go into detail on this in the next verses.