Faith Proved by How We Handle Injustices: James 5:1-13

James 5:1‑13  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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Vs. 1—The things before us in the first part of this chapter clearly show that some among these professed converts to Christianity were definitely not saved. The way in which James addresses these "rich men," shows that he did not consider them to be believers at all. He doesn't even call them "brethren"—which is how he has addressed his audience up to this point in the epistle (chap. 1:2, 9, 16, 19; 2:1, 14; 3:1, etc.).
James warns these false professors of the certainty of coming judgment. He tells them to "weep and howl" because their "miseries" were about to come upon them at any moment, and they would lose everything. Judgment was going to be meted out against them because of their faithlessness toward God and their ill treatment of the believing Jews. This happened in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Historians tell us that most Christians left the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area before the Roman armies descended upon it. They heeded the warning given by the Lord in Luke 21:20-2420And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. 21Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. 22For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. 24And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. (Luke 21:20‑24). The unbelieving Jews did not heed the warning and were taken by the Romans, and subsequently fell under this judgment. So certain was this judgment that James tells these rich men to start their weeping now.
Four Outstanding Sins of the Rich
Vss. 2-6—He accused them of four specific things:
Hoarding up treasures—vss. 2-3.
Fraudulent practices in dealing with their employees—vs. 4.
Self-indulgence—vs. 5.
Persecuting their brethren (the just)—vs. 6.
What was at the bottom of their unbridled lust to gain wealth and power was the sin of covetousness. It drove them on in their wicked practices. It was especially sad that these evil practices were done at the expense of those with whom they professed mutual faith—their own brethren! Hence, the strongest rebuke in the epistle is given to these false professors.
Vss. 2-3—Even though the sin of hoarding is condemned in the Scriptures (Eccl. 5:10-1310He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity. 11When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof, saving the beholding of them with their eyes? 12The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. 13There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt. (Ecclesiastes 5:10‑13); Psa. 39:66Surely every man walketh in a vain show: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. (Psalm 39:6); Prov. 23:4-54Labor not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom. 5Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven. (Proverbs 23:4‑5)), these rich Jews, who would have been familiar with those Scriptures, "heaped treasure together for the last days." James warns them that God's judgment was against this practice. To emphasize the brevity of material possessions, he tells them that their "garments are moth-eaten" and their "gold and silver is cankered." Their treasures would be corrupted and become useless. The point here is that riches can be hoarded up to the point that they become spoiled and useless. On a very practical note, it shows us that it's not God's will for people to hoard clothes in their wardrobes and to stock pile money in banks.
The Bible does not say that it is a sin to be rich, but it does teach that hoarding riches is a sin. Unconsecrated riches is what James is rebuking here. In the plainest language the Lord Jesus taught, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal" (Matt. 6:1919Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: (Matthew 6:19)).
The sad thing about the wealth that these Jews had acquired was that it had been gotten by unjust means. James assures them that they would be rewarded accordingly. They would have their eyes opened to see the demise of their wealth: "Their canker shall be for a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as fire." This is figurative language indicating that these rich men would have great remorse at the loss of their possessions—not to mention the loss of their souls (Mark 8:3636For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36)). The lesson here is that it is foolish to hoard one's possessions—be it food, clothing, or money. These rich men had heaped treasure together for "the last days," but they would not live to the last days to enjoy them because the Romans were going to invade and destroy the land.
Vs. 4—The second great sin that these rich Jews were guilty of was cheating their employees through fraudulent practices. "The hire [wages]" of the labourers who had reaped down their fields was being "kept back by fraud." This was not an oversight on their part, but a deliberate action of short paying their poor farm workers. What made this so sad was that many of these were their own brethren whom they mutually professed faith in the Lord Jesus! This was not only a violation of the Law of Moses (Lev. 19:1313Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning. (Leviticus 19:13); Deut. 24-14-15), but it was contrary to the teaching of the Lord Jesus (Luke 6:31, 3631And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:31)
36Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
). It was also contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul (Col. 4:11Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)). It is clear that their profession of faith was not real.
James told these rich men that God had seen their wicked practices and that He had heard the cries of His suffering people. "The cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth [hosts]." We might be tempted to think that the Lord is indifferent to the injustices that are leveled against us, but it's not true. Just because He does not act on our timetable doesn't mean that He doesn't care. The Apostle Peter reminds all who might be tempted to think such things: "He careth for you" (1 Peter 5:77Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. (1 Peter 5:7)). The Lord is deeply interested in everything that touches His people (Exodus 2:23-2423And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. 24And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2:23‑24); Zechariah 2:88For thus saith the Lord of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye. (Zechariah 2:8)). The point in mentioning "the Lord of Hosts" here is to emphasize the fact that He who commands the hosts of heaven is strong on behalf of His suffering people who are unjustly trodden down. God's governmental dealings with all who accumulate wealth by oppressing their employees will meet with their just retribution.
Vs. 5—The third sin of these rich men was self-indulgence. They lived in pleasure and extravagance. James says, "Ye have lived luxuriously [in pleasure] on earth and indulged yourselves." Such a lifestyle can lead to insensibility to the needs of others. These unjust hoarders lived with self at the center of their lives, while those whom they took advantage of were in need. They "nourished" themselves "as in a day of slaughter." This is an image taken from soldiers greedily looting the spoils of their conquered enemies in a scramble for wealth.
Vs. 6—The fourth evil of these rich men was their persecution of the righteous. They "condemned and killed the just" followers of Christ. In doing so, they were manifesting the same character of unbelief and wickedness as the unbelieving Jews who killed Christ—"the Holy One and the Just" (Acts 3:1414But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; (Acts 3:14)). The killing of the righteous here refers to "judicial" murders. That is, these wicked rich men would get the judicial system to execute judgment (falsely) on these righteous believers. This is seen in the fact that their condemnation is mentioned before they were killed. These poor people were haled to court and accused unjustly by these unscrupulous and wicked men (chap. 2:6). Having no means of defending themselves, they were executed under the judicial system. "And he doth not resist you" apparently refers to these poor accused persons having no power to resist the injustice.
These things show us what covetousness can lead to. What began as an undue emphasis on amassing wealth, ended with murdering those who were in the way of achieving that goal! This ought to be a severe warning to Christians not to allow themselves to get caught up in accumulating wealth. Unconsecrated riches will destroy their owners.
The Dangers of Reacting Wrongly to Injustices
Done Against Us
Vss. 7-13—Having warned the unbelieving rich men in this mixed company of professed converts, James returns to address those who are true believers, calling them "brethren."
These poor people were being taken advantage of—especially in the workplace. The question is, what were they to do about these injustices? Since there is a real possibility of letting those things, by which we have been wronged, bother us to the point of getting into a bad state of soul, James anticipates three fleshly responses in which a person might understandably have in these situations, and exhorts his audience accordingly.
1) Retaliating (vss. 7-8).
The first thing that James addresses is the tendency to want to retaliate—to get revenge. However, he does not present that as the answer for his suffering brethren. Instead, he says, "Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord" (vs. 7). This is a reference to the Appearing of Christ. (The truth of the Rapture was a unique revelation given to the Apostle Paul to bring to the saints; it is unlikely that it was known at the time of the writing of this epistle.)
In answer to these injustices, James does not say, "Form a trade union, brethren. Stand up for your rights in this world and fight back against these things." No, they were not to strike back at these injustices, but wait patiently for the Lord to come. Just as a "husbandman" (a farmer), after sowing seed in the ground, must wait for "the early and latter rain" to come before he harvests his crop, so also these suffering brethren were to patiently wait for "the coming of the Lord" (vs. 8). They needed to show their faith by having patience and endurance in the face of these injustices from their false brethren (the unbelieving Jews). This is emphasized by the word "patience" being used five times in these few verses. The Apostle Peter confers with this: "When ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God" (1 Peter 2:2020For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. (1 Peter 2:20)).
The point that James is making here is that the evils in this world will not be set right until the Lord appears and takes the reins of government in His hand (Rev. 11:1515And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)). Christians are to "be patient" and to wait until then. To take up the wrongs in society now in this day and try to set them right is to move before the Lord does in the matter. There is a "time of setting things right" coming for this world (Heb. 9:1010Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:10)); it will begin when the Lord intervenes in judgment. Then righteousness will reign (Isa. 32:11Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. (Isaiah 32:1)).
If we live any length of time in this world, we will inevitably encounter something being done to us unjustly—either in the workplace or in private life. The struggle between capitalists and the labour class still exists today. What should Christians do about industrial strife and other unjust things taking place in society ? They are not to join the confederations of men that have been set up to fight these injustices—well intentioned as they are—but simply to "be patient" unto "the coming of the Lord." There will be a time of righting the wrongs in society when the Lord righteously judges this world for 1000 years (Acts 17:3131Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)). Scripture does not teach Christians are to get involved in setting things right now because we are "not of this world" (John 18:3636Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (John 18:36)). If we feel that we have been taken advantage of, the Word of God says, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Rom. 12:1919Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)). As we wait, we are to commit ourselves to Him who judges righteously in all these things.
2) Complaining (vss. 9-11).
Another tendency is to “complain” about the situation. However, complaining manifests a bad spirit; it is often born out of not submitting to what God has allowed in our lives. James, therefore, says, "Complain not one against another, brethren." He also warns that if it developed into a chronic problem, God our Father might have to deal with us in a governmental way to correct our bad attitude. He reminds us that "the Judge" stands "before the door." That is, God our Father is ready to act as a judge in our lives, if need be (1 Peter 1:1717And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:17)). The KJV says "condemned" and "condemnation" (vss. 9, 12) but it should be translated "judged" and "judgment." (This mis-translation also occurs in John 3:18-1918He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:18‑19)). Condemnation is an irrevocable and final thing from which a person cannot be delivered. All who are not saved in the world are presently "under judgment to God," but they are not yet condemned (Rom. 3:1919Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:19); John 3:3636He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. (John 3:36)). The judgment of God is a sentence from which a person can be delivered, if they come to Christ and get saved (John 5:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)). In doing so, they are not only delivered from judgment, but they are also set in a position before God "in Christ" where they cannot come into "condemnation" (Rom. 8:11There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1)). If, however, men will not believe, their "judgment" will be "to condemnation" (Rom. 5:1616And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. (Romans 5:16)).
As an example of how we are to behave in these trying situations, James points to the prophets in old times. They suffered "affliction" with "patience." All who have followed after them in the path of faith "call [count] them blessed" because they "endured" suffering patiently (vs. 11). We respect and honour them for their lives of zeal and devotion. One of the patriarchs in particular ("Job") is set before us as a example of the "endurance" we need to have in our suffering. “The end of the Lord” refers to the end the Lord had in view for Job in his trial. He was a good man made better, and thus "the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning" (Job 42:1212So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses. (Job 42:12)). He found something very good indeed by enduring the trial.
3) Swearing With Oaths (vss. 12-13).
Another thing that we may be tempted to do when we have been taken advantage of is to swear that we will get revenge. James anticipates this, and says, "Above all things, my brethren, swear not , neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath" (vs. 12). In these situations, we might be inclined to call on God to bring judgment on those who have wronged us. But as Christians, we are not to pray imprecatory prayers of judgment on others. The Lord is our example in this: "When He suffered, he threatened not" (1 Peter 2:2323Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: (1 Peter 2:23)).
Our place is to wait for the Lord to work in these matters. Judgment is His work, not ours. He might even set some things right before the day of setting things right comes. He could very well cause some to rectify the wrongs that they have done to us—it is His prerogative. Swearing with oaths and vows were common practice in the old Mosaic economy (Num. 30; Eccl. 5:4-64When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. 5Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. 6Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4‑6)), but invoking the name of God, or heaven, or earth, in the heat of passion for retaliatory reasons against our enemies is not the Christian way to handle wrongs. We are simply to let our "yea be yea" and our "nay, nay" in all of our interactions with men. That is, our word in saying "yes" or "no" ought to be enough for men to trust us, because our Christian character is such that we do what we say we are going to do, and there is no need for us to back our word up with oaths.
Instead of looking up to heaven and swearing by an oath, James tells us that we are to look up to heaven and "pray." He says, “Does anyone among you suffer evil? Let him pray” (vs. 13). This is the Christian's true resource if he has been treated unfairly. Again, the Lord Jesus is our example. When He was ill-treated, He "committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:2323Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: (1 Peter 2:23)).
James concludes this subject by saying, "Is any merry? Let him sing praise” (W. Kelly Trans.). In saying this, he anticipated the faith of the saints rising to the point where they would take these things from the Lord in the spirit of praise and thanksgiving. Many persecuted saints have done just this. They have risen above the evils against them so significantly that they have actually gone to their death singing praise to the Lord! (Acts 5:41; 16:2541And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. (Acts 5:41)
25And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. (Acts 16:25)
; Heb. 10:3434For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. (Hebrews 10:34)) This is the ultimate proof of the reality of a person’s faith.
The grand point to see in all this is that God is not indifferent to the injustices of His people. He will deal with it all in His good time. In the meantime, we are not to take matters into our own hands and avenge ourselves. We must leave it to the Lord: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" (Rom. 12:1919Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)). Until that time, the answer for us is to "bear evils" in a spirit of longsuffering patience (2 Tim. 4:55But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. (2 Timothy 4:5)). This manifests true faith that believes that the Lord will set everything right in His time. It also practically manifests the fact that we are not living for this world, but for another world where Christ is the center.