Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.
The first eight verses of chapter 5 of James contain an excoriating condemnation of the rich. Yet one should not take from this passage that it is inherently a sin to be rich. An examination of Genesis through Revelation shows many instances of rich people who followed God and were considered faithful. For example, Job was considered blameless before God while being a rich man (Job 1:1-3), and when he persevered through his trials God brought him even more riches (Job 42:10-12). More examples could be cited, showing that it is not an inherent sin to be wealthy. With that said, the Bible also teaches that it is difficult for the rich to find salvation (Matt. 19:16-26; cf. 13:22; 1 Cor. 1:26). One reason for this is due to how easy it is for the rich to focus on their wealth instead of God and His will (Lk. 12:13-21; 1 Tim. 6:6-10, 17). Another reason, closely related to this, is the fact that many wealthy people give in to the temptation to do sinful things to others in the name of obtaining more wealth. Such was the case with the rich people to whom James was speaking in chapter 5.
The rich mentioned here had earlier been indicted as having oppressed and sued the Christians to whom James was writing, blaspheming the name of Christ while doing so (James 2:6-7). They were persecuting Christians to the point of putting them to death (5:6). It is therefore unlikely that these rich people were Christians themselves. They were almost certainly unbelievers, wealthy non-Christians who had financially poor Christians working for them and were cheating them out of their wages (5:4a). Subsequently, the cheated Christian laborers were crying out to God for justice, and God had heard their prayers (5:4b).
For these reasons God was planning severe punishment for them. The “miseries which are coming upon (them)” would cause them to “weep and howl” (5:1). James elaborates: “Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted…” (5:2-3a). Notice how God inspired James to write of them as if they had already happened, so certain were they of occurring. The loss of their wealth “will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire” (5:3b), meaning that their sudden free-fall into poverty would clearly show that they were guilty of these sins and were being punished for it to such a degree that it would be comparable to being burned alive. James’ subsequent statement that “it is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!” (5:3c) might give us a hint as to when these terrible punishments would take place. While “the last days” at times refers to the final age of human history which is the Christian age (Heb. 1:1-2; cf. Acts 2:17ff; 1 Cor. 10:11), in this case it might refer to the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. James’ exhortation to his oppressed brethren to be patient and wait for “the coming of the Lord” in the same way a farmer waits for his crops also points to Jerusalem’s destruction since Jesus also prophesied that He would figuratively come in judgment against the Jews through that terrible event (5:7-8; cf. Matt. 24:1-34). James’ book is estimated by some to have been written just a couple of decades before that terrible event. If this is what he was referring to, then the rich who were persecuting these Christians were wealthy Jews who would be punished severely by God when the Romans destroyed their city, robbing them of their wealth and likely their very lives. They were enjoying their luxuries and storing up their wealth (5:5a) with no idea that it was about to be violently taken from them (5:5b).
We who live in America – including the middle class and many whom we consider poor – are actually rich when compared to the majority of mankind worldwide throughout history up to today. May we learn from the sins of the rich here in James and not follow their example, or we may suffer a punishment similar to theirs!