God’s Word for You
James 5:1-3 Fear love and trust
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, August 24, 2020
In this final chapter, James begins with a condemnation of the unbelieving rich (James 5:1-6), and then a series of encouragements for Christians: Be patient as you suffer (James 5:7-11), beware of taking the Lord’s name in vain (James 5:12), take your needs to the Lord in prayer (James 5:13-18), and call the wandering back in repentance (James 5:19-20).
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl about the miseries that are coming upon you.
Like a coach walking back onto the court or field after a halftime pep talk to his team, James turns his voice on the opponent. He does this in order to proclaim the truth to the other side but also to give his own team courage and a rallying cry. Keep in mind that in the first six verses of this chapter, James is not calling the wicked to repentance. He is condemning the wicked for their sins. He is like one of the Old Testament prophets, especially Amos, who condemns the nations that surrounded God’s people in an ever-tightening spiral until Judah and Israel were condemned for their sins as well. There are long examples of this type of condemnation in Isaiah (ch. 13-23), Jeremiah (ch. 46-51) and Ezekiel (ch. 25-32). All of these can be summed up with the words of the Psalm: “You destroy all who are unfaithful to you” (Psalm 73:27).
What miseries are coming upon the unrepentant enemies of God? Using the term “rich” to describe them, like a sneer from the sidelines, James begins with a taunt that shows how complete God’s victory will be. They will suffer the absolute misery of everyone who prefers sin over repentance, their own will over God’s will, lust and greed over humility. “Bring on them the day of disaster; destroy them with double destruction” (that is, the punishment of both body and soul, Jeremiah 17:18). They are bound for hell.
2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will testify against you, and they will eat your flesh like fire.
The protection that the wicked wealthy hope for will not help on Judgment Day. James describes things that normally do not perish as being perishable. The clothing of the wealthy was often made of expensive silk, something that, if cared for, would last more than a lifetime. Of all the precious metals, silver and especially gold are not normally subject to rust or even tarnish. Yet the unthinkable will happen: All of your treasure will vanish, like a golden ring melting in a furnace of volcanic lava; like a library overwhelmed by a forest fire. Like a cupboard of food overrun by parasites.
To bring his point home even further, James adds: “And they will eat your flesh like fire.” This is not a passage that describes physical fire in hell, since James says “like fire,” not “with fire,” and so we cannot include this with the many passages that describe hellfire. The destruction of the flesh that James preaches is both a physical and a spiritual pain, an eternal suffering, and a complete ruin of the whole person. The same hellfire will punish the demons, and so the spiritual side of suffering will be at least as agonizing as any physical suffering that living humans can imagine. The reason for the damnation of the wicked is really the point James makes, and his next sentence summarizes his point:
You have hoarded your treasure in the last days.
Notice that he doesn’t say, “for the last days,” as if the wicked were trying to avoid the troubled times of the last days with an insurance policy. No, he says, “in the last days,” reminding us that from the ascension of Jesus onward in time, man is living in the last days. These days and hours, from the first coming of Jesus as a baby to the second coming of Jesus as Judge, are the last days. These are the “afterward” of Joel 2:28; the time usually called “those days” or “those times” in the Scriptures (Jeremiah 3:16, 50:4, 50:20; Daniel 11:14; Matthew 24:19; Mark 13:24; Luke 5:35).
The sin James exposes is the sin against the first commandment. The greedy sinner makes his god out of a chunk of God’s creation rather than the Creator himself. Isaiah is brilliant at mocking this sin. “No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’” (Isaiah 44:19). And again: “He nails down the idol so that it will not topple” (Isaiah 41:7). Luther explained the first commandment this way: “True faith and confidence of the heart fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone. The meaning is, ‘See to it that you let me alone be your God, and never seek another.’ In other words, ‘Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, come and cling to me. I am the one who will satisfy you and help you out of every need. Only let your heart cling to me and to no one else.’” (Large Catechism, First Commandment, paragraph 4).
Trust is easier for a child than for an adult. Grown-ups learn to be cynical. We have the experience of being hurt and lied to and disappointed and let down, but a child has no choice; a child in her mother’s arms can do nothing but trust in her mother, because she has no reason not to. God invites us and beckons to us: Trust in me like a child trusting in its mother, “For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear, I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13). Fear God above all things, but also love God about all things. And more than these, trust in God above all things.
My God will never leave me
And I will not leave him;
A light my God will give me
In pathways dark and grim,
He reaches out his hand
His mighty power sharing
My burdens ever bearing
Wherever I may stand. (Christian Worship 418:1)
Pastor Timothy Smith