Presumption and Perversion
Presumption and Perversion (James 4:13 to 5:6)
A song that was popular boasted, "I did it my way." James confronted the greedy, affluent business community with withering denunciation. The previous section condemned Christians' love of the world (4:4). That love demonstrated itself in the affluent people's sins. James targeted two groups: merchants (4:13-17) and landlords (5:1-6). Presumption, arrogance, and exploitation marked their lives.
Mistaken Merchants (4:13-17)
Mercenary merchants mistook their plans for God's plans. They thought that they could play God with their own futures. People's desire to control the future shows the futility of such arrogant planning. No one on earth ever tried to control his future as the Egyptian pharaohs tried to control theirs. Each one exploited thousands of people for dozens of years to assure his future. Their efforts failed.
The earliest pharaohs tried to ensure their futures by having their bodies buried in above-the-ground pyramids like those at Giza near Cairo. Within decades, grave robbers looted the tombs and stole the mummies. Then, later pharaohs moved their tombs three hundred and fifty miles up the Nile to Luxor (ancient Thebes). There, in a remote area that resembles a moonscape, the pharaohs carved their tombs out from the solid stones under the ground. The pharaohs literally started planning their tombs at the time of their coronation. Yet despite the remote site, the strict secrecy, and diversionary shafts, the tombs were plundered soon after they were sealed. The lust for gold and hatred for enemies spoiled the pharaohs' plans. Out of more than sixty tombs in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings at Luxor, only one tomb remained almost untouched—that of Tutankhamon, "King Tut." History teaches a striking lesson from those plundered tombs: Those who worked the hardest to secure their futures without God lost the most. God's Word teaches the same truth.
Perilous Planning (4:13)
A group of merchants eagerly riveted their attention to a map of the Roman Empire. In the electric atmosphere of anticipation, they planned when and where they would go, how long they would stay, and how much money they would make. A confident attitude of materialistic certainty filled the room. Did James consider that unethical? No, he did not consider making business plans unethical. He stated that making plans without acknowledging God's sovereignty was illogical and unspiritual. It was illogical because one did not even know what the next day would hold (4:14). It was unspiritual because it did not reckon with God's will (4:15).
The background of James 4:13 reflects the Jewish genius for business. That genius developed during the Babylonian captivity. Documents discovered in Babylon reveal the intensive Jewish commercial transactions there. The Jews' language after the captivity, Aramaic, became the language of trade. The Mishna, a collection of Jewish precepts, contains extensive advice on personal conduct by Jewish traveling businessmen. It reveals that the Jews were involved in international traffic in silk, satin, vases of gold, mirrors, and even slaves. The word "trade" (v. 13) reflected the ambitious, traveling wholesaler rather than the local retailer. James 4:13 pictures a group of Jews or Jewish Christians who were ambitious businessmen with big plans for the future.
In every way, the businessmen demonstrated a worldly presumption about the future. They presumed about time: "today or tomorrow." This attitude suggested that opportunity for future business rested in their power. They presumed about mobility: "We will go." No human can say for certain whether he or she will be able to move a single body part tomorrow. No one ever slams a car door or walks down an airplane's loading ramp with any certainty of destination. They presumed about location: "such and such a town." The English translation does not catch the significance of the Greek idiom. In Greek, the expression suggests definite plans about were they would go. They had a cock-sure attitude about their destination in business travel. They presumed about their durability: "spend a year there." In arrogance, they acted as if they could assure their longevity.
Most of all, the businessmen made an arrogant presumption about their success: "trade and get gain." Here, the merchants betrayed the mainspring that wound up their lives and made them tick. Everything grounded itself in personal, material gain. James arranged the verbs in 4:13 to end in this climax. The hidden agenda behind all of the businessmen's proud presumption about the future was personal gain.
James did not mean that sound business planning is sinful. He certainly did not mean that business travel never should be planned. He did indicate that every plan for the future should be submitted to God's sovereignty. The psalmist wrote: "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act" (Ps. 37:5). A simple, practical plan commends itself for such submission of the future to the Lord. Take time every morning to consider the day's agenda before God. Take an hour at the end of every week to submit the coming week's agenda to the Lord. Take a day every month to reflect on your life's goals and their relationship to God's will. These planned checkpoints will enable you to keep the tentative nature of your future clearly in focus.
What people plan and what happens often contrast strikingly. In 1923, an important planning meeting took place at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. "Attending this meeting were nine of the worlds most successful financiers. Those present were: the president of the largest independent steel company; the president of the largest utility company; the president of the largest gas company; the greatest wheat speculator; the president of the New York Stock Exchange; a member of the President's cabinet; the greatest 'bear' in wall street; head of the world's greatest monopoly; president of the Bank of International Settlements."
An investigator determined the destiny of the nine men twenty-five years later. The president of the steel company lived on borrowed money the last five years of his life and died bankrupt. "The president of the greatest utility company... died a fugitive from justice and penniless in a foreign land. The president of the largest gas company... was insane. The greatest wheat speculator... died abroad, insolvent. The president of the New York Stock Exchange... was... released from Sing Sing Penitentiary. The member of the President's cabinet... was pardoned from prison so he could die at home. The greatest 'bear' in Wall Street... died a suicide. The head of the greatest monopoly... died a suicide. The president of the Bank of International Settlements... died a suicide." Even though they planned the future for personal gain, the future they planned did not happen.
Future Frailty (4:14)
Those who make plans for future years cannot be certain about tomorrow: "whereas you do not know about tomorrow" (4:14). Jesus told the parable of the big fool with little barns. He, too, was certain that he had many years to build and to gather. In a single night, his soul was required of him (Luke 12:16-21). He worried about little barns and thought that he had big amounts of time. Instead of concern about bigger barns, he should have pondered the possibility of less time to live. In every generation, people trip over the trap of what is really big and what is really little.
The correct perspective recognizes the finitude and frailty of human life: "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (4:14). Literally, James's language suggests that human life is a phenomenon for a little while and suddenly is no longer a phenomenon. The Bible uses a variety of metaphors to express the brevity of life: a declining shadow (Ps. 102:11), a whiff of breath (Job 7:7), a vanishing cloud (Job 7:9), and a wild flower (Ps. 103:15). Robert Burns, whose tragic life underscored his poems, wrote poignantly of life's brief pleasure:
But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snowfalls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever.
The shocking bevity of life's influence surprised me several years ago as I stood in Westminster Abbey near the Houses of Parliament in London. In that extraordinary building, many of the greatest men in western civilization are buried. I stood before the statues of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, the two greatest prime ministers in nineteenth-century England. At the height of the British Empire's widest extension, these men's names were on everyone's lips. Two imposing statues tower over their tombs. As I listened to two American tourists, they said: "Disraeli! Gladstone? Hmm. I wonder who they were? Some old poets, I guess." Because of my background in European history, I was amused by their missing the mark. However, amusement turned to sadness as I pondered how two great men could be forgotten in the next century. I had the same experience when I asked a London cab driver, "Take me to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the church of Charles H. Spurgeon." The cabbie never had heard of either. The man alleged to be one of the greatest preachers since Paul was not remembered in the city where he preached. The brevity of life and its influence are remarkable. Unless God remembers us, we are undone.
Careful Contingency (4:15)
In light of life's brevity, what should the Christian's attitude be about future planning? One might react with terrorized fear. Another might respond with paralyzed inaction. Hedonism says: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Nihilism says: "Life means nothing." Existentialism says: "Life has no essence; you cannot plan it." What is the Christian attitude toward the uncertain future?
The Christian attitude is submission. The Christian submits to God's will: "'If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that'" (4:15). The Christian inscribes over all of his or her plans: "if the Lord wills." This raises the question of whether the sincere believer actually should state this phrase before any future plans.
The phrase "if the Lord wills" can become a mere formality that is devoid of any meaning. One may hear repeatedly in the Moslem world the Arabic statement, inshallah, which simply means, "if God wills." However, in some instances it has become a tricky way of avoiding future responsibility. -Obviously, the phrase can be trivialized if it is attached lightly to everyday activities. For example, one should not say: "We will go buy a hamburger for lunch, God willing," or "I will shoot par on the back nine, God willing." Such talk trivializes the phrase and runs dangerously close to taking God's name in vain, which means without sufficient weight. That Paul did not always use these words when he spoke of his future plans is interesting. Sometimes he did, and sometimes he did not (1 Cor. 4:19; 16:5-7; Rom. 15:28).
To live life with the attitude, without verbalizing the words, is far more important than to use the phrase without the underpinning attitude. However, as a whole, Christians should use the phrase far more than they do.
A Warning (4:16-17)
"You get a certain pride in yourself in planning your future with such confidence" (4:16, Phillips). Nothing can breed arrogance like a humanistic certainty of continued health, prosperity, and life. John called this "the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). It is the arrogance of self-sufficient living without dependence on God. The omission of stated dependence on God is not an inconsequential thing: "Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (Jas. 4:17). These words may relate only to the immediate context. Christians who omit to plan their futures with God in mind commit sin. On the other hand, the words may relate to all that has gone before. In a real sense, these words form a summary of the entire Letter of James. What one omits to do may be as serious a sin as what one does.
Reprimanded Rich (5:1-6)
Arrogant pride about future plans may lead to a more dangerous possibility. Those who plan and plot for future gain can become unjust, unscrupulous, and unfair toward others. They can use people to fill their own greed. They can manipulate the weak to feed their egos. James unleashed a tirade against the selfish, godless rich. Nothing in the Bible exceeds its vehemence against those who live for material prosperity alone. Some contemporary popular "health and wealth" theology casually joins Christianity with a voracious materialism. Under the slogan "name it and claim it," this superficial materialism promises Christians anything they may want. From James 5:1-6, one can guess James's attitude toward such perversion of Christian values.
Brace Yourselves! (5:1).
The godless rich receive only an ominous warning. Before an airliner makes a crash landing, the passengers are told to brace themselves for the inevitable impact. In 5:1, James did the same for the insensitive materialists: "Brace yourselves; judgment is coming." The "rich" whom James addressed appear to have been non-Christians. Unlike the people who were addressed in 4:1-10, verse 1 has no call to repentance, no hope of salvation.
"Come now, you rich...." implies that getting the attention of the godless affluent was not easy. Nature is replete with examples of animals that appear to be alert and aware, but who, in reality, are lost in slumber. The horse actually can sleep while standing up. The huge hippopotamus snoozes in the water. Bats nap while hanging upside down, suspended from their feet. More remarkably, the rich person who forgets God may appear alert, aware, successful, and on top of things; yet, in reality, that individual is unaware of judgment's impending doom.
"Rich" translates a Greek word that, combined with another Greek term, comes into English as plutocrats. Ploutos means wealth and krateia means rule or power. Hence the word in Greek and English denotes the people who are ruled by the god of wealth. The godless rich in James's world accumulated wealth in several ways. James had in mind exploitive landlords who abused poor peasant farmers. Others charged high interest that crippled the poor.
James called on the rich to "weep." Scholars agree that this is not a call for repentance. Rather, James warned them of coming disaster and called for anguish as the only proper response for the judgment that no one could stop.
For James, God's certain judgment on godless materialists was so inevitable they should begin weeping before judgment. This grief should express itself in a "howl for the miseries" that were coming on them (v. 1). Twenty-one times in the Old Testament, the word howl describes the violent grief of those who stood face-to-face with divine judgment. In horror of the coming disasters, the godless rich were to weep in anticipation. The vivid use of the present tense coming suggests that the waves of successive judgments could be seen on the horizon. Like tidal waves, nothing could stop them. The rich people's only appropriate response was to weep and mourn with heart-rending wretchedness and intensity.
For Christians in the "me-generation" of the 1980's to forget Jesus' sobering words is easy:
'But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets' (Luke 6:24-26). }}}
Today, the values of Americans are distorted with greed. Recently, the highest paid corporate executive in America received $22,823,000 for his annual salary. The average pay for baseball players is more than $300,000 per year. Scarcely more than a decade ago, their average pay was a fraction of that figure. On a typical Sunday afternoon, a professional golfer can make thousands of dollars for the best score on seventy-two holes of golf. Some of these people are professing Christians. Whether or not any one of them deserves such wealth is not the point. The point is that in such an environment, luxuries quickly become necessities. James warned against a personal and national value system that catered to such a philosophy.
Long ago, Amos pronounced God's judgment on people who lived in animalistic self-gratification while they ignored the needy around them. Amos' words have a strange, contemporary ring. He warned those who reclined on expensive beds, ate delicate gourmet foods, listened to idle music, drank fine wine in greater quantities, and anointed themselves with expensive perfumes and after-shave lotions (Amos 6:4-6). His words almost describe an indulgent American society.
W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist, Dallas, since 1944, identifies affluence as the single greatest threat to Southern Baptists. It will bless or curse the denomination, depending on the response of God's people to stewardship.
Rotted Riches (5:2-3)
James's readers accumulated riches in three basic forms: hoards of food, accumulation of garments, and collections of precious metals. From the standpoint of God's judgment, each already had been blighted, had rotted, and had tarnished. James was so certain of God's judgment on godless wealth that he used the perfect tense verbs of future judgment. Judgment was so sure that James viewed it as already having taken place.
James could see mildew rotting the people's excesses of food, moths gorging themselves on expensive garments, and precious metals tarnishing. Although gold does not rust, Strabo, the Greek geographer, added an interesting comment on James's world. Strabo noted a vapor arose from the Dead Sea that caused brass, silver, and even gold to rust. He probably referred to a change of color in the metals due to the strong vapors from the Dead Sea. Even so, as the wealthy man looked in horror at the dimming luster of his treasure chest, he should have considered his wealth's temporal and vanishing quality.
James echoed Jesus: "'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal'" (Matt. 6:19-20).
How dramatically life can cause money to lose its luster! Robert Hastings recalled the experience of American soldiers evacuating Corregidor during World War II. As they left the famous rock in the Philippines, everything that might have been of value to the enemy had to be destroyed, "including neatly stacked bundles of U.S. currency. The tired, battle-weary soldiers watched quietly. One soldier picked up a hundred dollar bill and used it to light a cigarette, saying, 'I always wanted to do this.' Time was running out on Corregidor, and money had very little meaning" in the face of the coming enemy. Paul Geren's Burma Diary detailed a similar situation: Refugees streamed from Burma to India during the early days of World War II. Survival was their only concern. "Finding their money of no value, many of them threw it away." They realized that in order to escape, a given weight of food would do more to save their lives than the same weight of gold. As such, their precious riches rotted!
Modern American goldbugs might do well to ponder the refugees' story. If the threatened calamity actually comes, how will they turn gold into food? If an ounce of gold suddenly is worth $6,000, who will make change for a loaf of bread? Any ultimate security short of God never is adequate.
Indeed, godless wealth will act as testifier and tormentor in the judgment to come. James warned: "Their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire" (5:3). Their rotted riches would become Exhibit A at God's final trial. Unused garments that could have clothed the naked will scream out accusation. Grain that might have filled empty stomachs, but had been stored until it mildewed, will take the witness stand. Both will testify that they were hoarded in selfishness rather than shared in generosity.
Then in some strange way, the testifiers will become the tormentors for eternity. The rust that destroys what it clings to will become the fire of God's judgment. James exhorted the materialists to look at the tarnish which stained their silver and to see in it the fire of judgment that would more than tarnish them. The perishing quality of their riches should have revealed the perishing quality of their lives in God's judgment. Indeed, those who treasure up wealth may be treasuring up nothing but judgment.
Americans especially never seem to lose the delusion that great money is great happiness. Gail Sheehy was almost poor, if not poor. She lived with her baby in a fourth-floor-walkup apartment on East Seventh Street in Manhattan. Quietly, she wrote her book Passages, which became a huge best-seller. Did sudden wealth solve her problems? No. "'It makes me sweat a lot more, it makes me embarrassed and guilty—I mean, truly, it's terrible.'" When it became clear that Passages would make her a lot of money, Sheehy chatted with her Random House editor. His advice sounded prophetic: "'Yes, well. Money. You will find, Gail dear, that it will now be a dull ache in the back of your head. Forever.'"
"'It was so ominous,' Gail says, 'and it was exactly how I felt!'" Few who pursue wealth consider that it will be a dull ache in the back of their heads. The consistent testimony of many affluent people would be just that. Yet, James warned of something even more ominous. Wealth that is used without God can become not a dull ache but a burning fire forever. The pervasive, temporal satisfaction with wealth is only a harbinger of things to come in the judgment.
Money Talks! (5:4)
When rich persons get their way because of money, we often say: "Money talks." James also said "money talks," but in a different way. Money gained or withheld unjustly will talk at God's judgment. In fact, such tainted money taken fraudulently from innocent people cries out to God at this moment. Furthermore, God hears and responds in judgment. This represents James's first specific charge against the unjust rich.
Earlier, James's warnings of judgment were general; in verse 4, he made a specific charge. Day laborers mowed and harvested the fields for absentee landlords. Such modestly paid laborers were numerous in first-century Palestine. Their earnings were pathetic, and survival could be a serious matter if they found no daily work. To work under the blistering sun only to find no pay at the end of the day was even worse. James described such humble, powerless, poor men bilked of their meager wages by powerful men who owned large estates. The word fields suggests huge estates, extensive lands. James's word suggested that, initially, the meager wages were withheld and continued to be withheld.
James dramatically depicted the withheld wages' shrieking cry. The cry was as though the starving, unpaid workers were too weak to cry; therefore, the withheld wages cried out! From inside the cheating rich man's securely locked treasuries, the money cried out. Money does talk; it can even cry out to God. Withheld money cries out against wrong and robbery; it cries for vengeance and deliverance.
The God of the Bible makes clear the affluent people's responsibility to the poor in all matters. Jesus stated: "'The laborer deserves his wages'" (Luke 10:7). God gave the same instruction to His people during the Exodus: "'The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning'" (Lev. 19:13). The end of the day was the time for just pay. In many instances, to deprive a laborer could leave him and his family on the edge of starvation. This was so important that Moses included the same emphasis in his farewell address. Indeed, Moses expanded and strengthened the emphasis: "'You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy,... you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you'" (Deut. 24:14-15).
The God of the Bible is not locked in the sanctuary. He is present in humanity's marketplace. He watches every transaction between traders. He sees the poor and the plutocrats who plunder them. In fact, James asserted: "The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (5:4). Here, James employed an expression used 246 times in the prophets, who also were concerned about injustice. Lord of Sabaoth, Lord Omnipotent, God Almighty, or "Lord of Hosts" all translate the same Hebrew words. The expression pictures God as the Commander of heaven's armies. He leads innumerable, invisible spiritual hosts. The word even has cosmic dimensions. He commands all the twinkling, starry hosts. He is the God of the Exodus and the Conquest, Gabriel and Michael, planets and stars. Yet the cosmic God's ears stay turned to the defrauded poor persons' cries. The unjust rich will meet that God in judgment. They may brace themselves, but they will be no match for Him. The tables will be turned. Those who exploited the powerless will find themselves confronted with ultimate power. Justice will be more than served. What an awesome day that judgment will reveal!
Stop the Banquet (5:5-6)
In contrast to the deprived poor people, the unjust rich persons lived life as a perpetual banquet. The past-tense verbs look back on the indulgent, affluent people's lives as a whole. In verses 5-6, James wrote as though he were looking over a just God's shoulder at the judgment and listening to His verdict. Such a reflection well might sober anyone.
The rich lived "in luxury." The phrase suggests a life of delicacy that moved in the orbit of a soft, effeminate, lax existence that broke down discipline. This was the rich man's style of life in Jesus' famous parable (Luke 16:19-31). President Theodore Roosevelt advocated what he liked to call "the strenuous life," a combination of mental and physical discipline. The turn-of-the-century population was amazed that the rough rider could read a book a day and preside over the nation. The unjust rich lived lives dedicated to weakening pleasures that were just the opposite of anything strenuous. James's word "pleasure" suggests a life of prodigal waste, wanton hedonism, or satisfaction of physical appetites. While the defrauded, hungry poor waited outside the ornate gates, the luxuriating rich people feasted and played inside.
The rich liked to slaughter choice veal for gourmet meals. James ironically turned that phrase another way: "You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter" (5:5). While they gorged themselves on choice cuts of freshly slaughtered beef, they were fattening themselves for the slaughter!
The phrase "day of slaughter" probably refers to the great final day of retribution when God will judge His enemies. In the apocalyptic language of Revelation, the same imagery describes God's final judging activities (Rev. 19:17-18). Those who lived animalistic lives like brute beasts whose only concern was the next mouthful would meet God. Those who lived to slaughter veal for the next banquet would find themselves facing a similar, sudden end one day.
God would confront the hedonistic rich with the evidence that they used the legal system to bilk the righteous, poor people. "You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man" suggests more than murder (5:6). Those words were used for judicial murder. The sinful rich abused and slanted the judicial system to silence the defrauded poor. If the defrauded persons dared to complain, they found that the place of justice had been bought and paid for by those who had defrauded the poor. A plaintive quality echoes from the words "he does not resist you" (v. 6). A poor, faithful follower of Jesus did not attempt to resist evil (Matt. 5:39). Even if the poor man did, he could not Have matched the power of the rich people who owned the system of justice. Take courage! The Lord of Hosts will be the equalizer. The meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). The perverse value system of the Christless world will be turned upside down. Mary sang of this even before the Holy Child's birth. She foresaw that Christ's reign would reverse all lost people's fallen values:
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.—(Luke 1:52-53)
Lessons for Life from James 4:13 to 5:6
Christians need to plan for the future, but they must do so with faith and submission to God's will rather than with presumption.—Faith is the opposite of presumption. Faith commits the present and the future to a loving Father; it never takes tomorrow for granted.
Believers must have a healthy realization that life is fragile and brief.—Such a perspective reminds us that life is a gift and each day is to be used fully for God.
Christ's followers must guard against a pride or an arrogance that produces a false certainty concerning health, prosperity, and even life itself.—The opposite of such unhealthy pride is a humility that submits one's way to God.
Christians need to develop and maintain the proper view of money.—How money is earned, how it is used, and the place it occupies in one's life are crucial. A person can be consumed with the desire to amass wealth, can employ unethical means to get it, can use it or hoard it selfishly, and can let it become a god. Or, one can work hard and honestly to earn money, can share it with those who are in need, and can use it to further God's redemptive purpose.
Godless materialism will face God's sure judgment.—Things are deceptive gods that cannot sustain life. They last for a time and then pass away. To live for this brief, temporal life alone is to forfeit continuing life with God.
The Scriptures consistently confirm God's attentiveness to the poor and the defrauded.—People cannot run roughshod over the powerless and helpless persons without facing the inevitable consequences of such wrong.
Personal Learning Activities
1. In 4:13, James warned against __________________________ (Choose the correct answer from the list).
□ (1) Materialism
□ (2) Worldly presumption
□ (3) Unethical acts
□ (4) Planning for the future
2. According to Dr. Gregory, the Christian attitude toward future planning is ____________________ (Select the proper response from the list).
□ (1) Self-assertion
□ (2) Refusal to plan
□ (3) Deliberate neglect
□ (4) Submission
3. James called on the godless rich to repent.
□ True □ False
4. According to James, God hears the cries of the _____________________ (Select the proper answer from the list).
□ (1) Penitent
□ (2) Sick
□ (3) Righteous
□ (4) Defrauded poor
1. (2); 2. (4); 3. False. 4. (4).
James: Faith Works!.