Lesson Eleven: Wealthy Sinners and Waiting Saints
At this point in his epistle, James seems to lay aside his pastoral garments, exchanging them for the prophet’s mantle. He looks far ahead to the Day of Judgment, warning the rich of the instability of their wealth while encouraging the believers with the promise of Christ’s return. He is no longer just a pastor ministering to his flock, but he has become a prophet addressing an injustice of the world.
The style James adopts reminds us that on occasion the preacher is commanded to "Cry aloud, and spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and shew my people their transgressions." At times he must pronounce woes and expose sin. He must be just as prepared to issue a rebuke as he is to offer encouragement. At one service people may need to hear, "You matter to God!" At the next service, they may need to be asked, "Does God matter to you?"
The goal of preaching is not to make people feel good and help them lead well-adjusted lives. It is to confront them with the message of God and motivate them to think and act Biblically. Sometimes God’s Word brings comfort. On other occasions it convicts. In this section, it does both. It issues a stern reproof to those who find their security in "uncertain riches." It rebukes those who misuse their wealth and the power associated with riches. At the same time, it encourages the Christian to wait on the Lord. We are reminded that the final episode in the history of this world has not been acted out. Jesus is coming again! Until then, we are to wait upon the Lord – anticipating His coming and enduring through our trials.
I. The Abuse of Wealth – Verses 1-6
The Bible never condemns the accumulation of wealth, only the abuse of wealth. It is not a sin to have riches, but it is a sin to hoard riches. In Ecclesiastes 5:13, Solomon wrote, "There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their own hurt."
A. The Insecurity of Riches (1-3)
- Wealth cannot shield you from sorrow. Verse 1
The rich often have more than their share of sorrow in life – troubles brought about by their godless, selfish lifestyles. However, James is referring more to the misery and grief that will come upon the rich in the Day of Judgment at Christ’s return.
- The word howl means to cry aloud in great distress. It actually describes the wailing sound a person makes when he is overwhelmed by grief or pain.
- It is often used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament with which James was familiar) in the prophetic books. SEE Isaiah 13:6, Jeremiah 4:8, and Joel 1:5, 13.
- Wealth cannot be safeguarded against a crash. Verse 2
James looks ahead and sees the silos of the rich full of rotting grain and their closets full of moth-eaten garments. He foresees a day when their wealth will be worthless. In our own day, we have seen the great railroads – once the foundation of success – file for bankruptcy and put out of business. The same thing happened to the American oil industry in the 70’s and early 80’s. Not a year goes by without a reminder how unstable the market can be and how quickly a fortune can be lost.
The following Scriptures tell us something of the fleeting nature of earthly wealth.
- Proverbs 23:5 – "…riches certainly make themselves wings, they fly away …"
- Haggai 1:6 – "…he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes."
- Matthew 6:19-20 – "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal ..."
- Wealth cannot shelter you in the Day of Judgment. Verse 3
- The term "the last days" refers to the period of judgment connected with Christ’s return.
- In that day, the hoarded riches of the wealthy will testify against them and contribute to the severity of their judgment. See Proverbs 11:4
B. The Injustice of the Rich (4-6)
- Dishonest wages. Verse 4
- The Bible addresses the practice of defrauding an employee of a portion of his wages – not paying him all that he has earned on time. See Deuteronomy 24:14-15
- Even today, such a practice would cause unnecessary hardship – bills unpaid, insufficient funds to buy food, clothing, etc.
- The Lord (of Sabaoth) does not overlook this kind of injustice. See Malachi 3:5
- Deceptive lifestyles. Verse 5
James uses graphic, vivid imagery to drive home his points. He reminds the rich of their habit of squandering their wealth on pleasures and luxuries. He compares them to livestock that is fattened for slaughter. In fact, he implies that they are like beasts gorging themselves on their last meal, not knowing that that very day they would be killed.
- Deliberate misuse of power. Verse 6
In the Disney film Aladdin, one of the characters asks, "You’ve heard of the Golden Rule, boy? He who has the gold makes the rules." Money is often associated with power, especially the corruption of power. That is what James had in mind. He recalls how the rich have used their wealth to influence the decisions of authorities and have their enemies condemned, and even put to death.
II. An Appeal for Patience – Verses 7-9
A. The Believer’s Hope (7)
- The promise of Christ’s return.
- The return of Christ is one of the most frequent subjects of prophecy.
- One out of every 30 verses in the Bible mentions the subject of Christ’s return or the end of time.
- Of the 216 chapters in the New Testament, there are over 300 references to Christ’s return.
- Only 4 of the 27 books of the New Testament fail to mention His return.
- The most common word for the coming of Christ in the New Testament is parousia.
- It indicates nearness and personal presence, the fact that the person is with you.
- It emphasizes the bodily, personal return of Christ in which He will be with us and we will be with Him.
- The prospect of Christ’s return.
- James uses the illustration of a farmer who plants his seed and then waits in expectation to reap the fruit of his harvest.
- Similarly, we are to live in anticipation of the Lord’s return. We do not know the day nor hour, but we know He is coming and we will reap the fruit of His promises.
B. The Believer’s Heart (8-9)
- The Lord’s return can give us stable hearts. Verse 8
- The word stablish means to make stable. It conveys the idea of being firm, unwavering, steady, and reliable.
- The promise of the soon coming of the Lord enables us to stay the course, endure our trials and stand by our convictions in an unjust and uncertain world.
- The Lord’s return should give us sensitive hearts. Verse 9
Old wooden sailing ships used to creak and groan as their timbers rubbed against one another. Generally, the more rough the seas, the more timbers "protested" against the others.
That is the idea verse 9 conveys. When our lives encounter trials and stress, we often get impatient with those closest to us. We grumble and complain. We get restless and intolerant. We forget that we are all struggling against the same storm, enduring the same difficulties, and going through the same stressful circumstances.
The coming of Christ reminds us that the Lord stands at the door, ready to render a verdict on how we lead our lives. When He returns, He should not find us nursing grudges and being impatient with those around us. We need to be sensitive to their struggles and encourage them with the promise that the coming of the Lord draws near. When He comes, He will settle all the accounts and make everything right.
III. Advice for the Suffering – Verses 10-11
A. Look Back (10) "for an example"
Throughout this brief section, James has clearly drawn inspiration from the Old Testament prophecies. Now he turns to the prophets themselves as models of endurance. These men of God suffered persecution and condemnation because they dared to speak out for the Lord. Generally, the prophets did not live to see the events of which they prophesied. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises." (Hebrews 11:13) If we want to know what patience looks like, we need only look back to the lives of the prophets.
B. Look Beyond (11) "and [see] the end of the Lord"
Not only are we to look back to see how others endured. We are also to look beyond our trials and focus on what God is going to accomplish. God is not absent from our struggles. He is working all things together for good. We may not be able to see the good in our circumstances now, but we will in the end, when the Lord returns.
James uses the example of Job. In one day he lost all his wealth. In another day he lost all his family. But in the end, the Lord made it all up to Job because God is very pitiful and of tender mercy.
- God will compensate us for all our losses.
- Mark 8:35 – For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the Gospels, the same shall save it.
- Matthew 19:29 – And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold.
- God cares for us throughout our losses.
We do not why the Lord delays His coming. We do not know how long the injustices of this world will be allowed to continue. But we do know that God loves us. He bears our cares upon His heart. But if we are going to learn this by experience, we must have the patience of Job. We must stick with God through every twist and turn of our trial – trusting Him, believing His promises, expecting Him to accomplish His purpose in our lives. Then, in the end, we will learn of the mercy and compassion of the Lord firsthand.
We need to examine our lives in light of the promise of the Lord’s return. Are we walking by faith? Are we governed by eternal values? Do we exhibit patience – the outward sign of our confidence that God has everything under control? Are we ready to meet the Lord?