Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 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.
By now we’ve all seen it. The heart-wrenching, soulful lament of a man who has been beaten down by the system, and who is railing against those “rich men north of Richmond”. Oliver Anthony certainly struck a nerve…a nerve that has taken him from obscurity straight to the top of the musical charts, pretty much overnight.
In this week’s text, James also has a message for the “haves”, and he pulls fewer punches than does Mr. Anthony.
First, some context. If you remember, this is not the first time James has addressed wealthy people. Back in James 1:9-11 he has some words for wealthy believers. Hard words, in fact. So when we come to this section, and James is addressing the rich again, we almost get a sense of déjà vu.
Except there’s a difference. Back in chapter one, James is talking to wealthy believers. And now? Not so much. Look at the words he uses: “weep”, “howl”, “miseries”, “witness against you”, “eat your flesh like fire”…
No. James is not exhorting wealthy believers to have an eternal perspective on their wealth. He is warning a group of wealthy people of impending doom. Let’s look at a few important points James makes here.
1. The judgment of these people will not be pleasant. “Weep and howl” he says. Things are going to be so bad for you, that you might as well get started on the lamenting right now.
2. Their riches will be of no use to them. There’s an interesting verb tense shift that happens here. James goes from future (“…miseries that are coming…”) to present (“Your riches are corrupted…your garments are corroded…” etc). In other words, to God, these things that mean so much to them are completely worthless. In fact, they are less than worthless, because…
3. Their wealth will be a testimony against them. Look at these two phrases: “…their corrosion will be a witness against you…”, and “…you have heaped up treasure in the last days…” Like a scene from a courtroom drama, these wealthy people will stand before God and their very riches will be brought forth as a Exhibit A against them. At that moment, the condemned will wish that the things they spent their life amassing would disappear, because their presence guarantees a guilty verdict.
So what exactly is the crime that has been committed here? Is it just being wealthy? Chapter one would indicate not. No, James has a very specific reason why he is proclaiming these woes, and we will see them in the next verses. Stay tuned!
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