Let’s dig into James 5:1-6 as we look at sinful indulgence today.
James 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
James begins this next section of this letter with another round of warning and reproof for those who live for sinful indulgences. He opens with the words “come now.” Other translations say, “Listen now.” This is James’ way of saying, “Don’t miss this.” He wants his hearers to hear so they can be warned and so they can repent and honor God with their lives. May it be this way for us as well.
He says, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (James 5:1). Let’s first ask, “Is James saying it is wrong or sinful to be wealthy?”
Our goal is to, first and foremost, let Scripture interpret Scripture. We want God to inform us and direct us in these things and not popular culture or trendy movements. If we relied on popular culture to inform us, we would say it is the goal in life to be rich, to do well in school, and work hard to make as much money as possible. Culture would even say it is okay to do whatever it takes to outperform others to get to the top of the pile.
The culture-at-large looks up to the wealthy and aspires to have what they have. This fuels the sin of coveting and envy. This pursuit has caused parents to miss out on actually being parents, marriages to end, and people to live miserable lives overworking in order to fulfill what the culture says we should have and do.
An unbiblical position has been formed even in so-called churches when preachers teach that God’s desire is for you to be rich in what we call the prosperity gospel. This is a false gospel that is sinful and self-indulgent through and through.
On the other side of the spectrum are trendy movements whereby people condemn any form of wealth and believe all wealth should be mandated to be redistributed among the masses in an effort to relieve poverty and to create a more “fair” economy. This unbiblical position, that has been formed in so-called churches where it has been taught that any form of wealth or prosperity is sinful, is what has been called the poverty gospel.
Neither of these are what God’s word teaches. Consider with me some of what the Bible says about being wealthy.
1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
The key clarity we must see here is that “love for money” is what is sinful. A sinful craving for, or indulgence in, money is what is sinful—not money in and of itself.
Paul is clear in Romans 14:14 when he says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself …” Money is not the root of all kinds of evil. Money is not sinful. But the way we can handle or crave money is what makes it sinful. Therefore, the person who God ordains to be successful at making lots of money is not in sin as long as he is not driven by money in a sinful way. God has used those He has gifted to make good money for all generations to accomplish His work, just as He has used those He has called to be poor for His holy will as well.
In holy Scripture, God’s charge to His people is not to stop being wealthy but to steward their wealth in such a way that it honors God and helps others. The charge is to watch out for their hearts to not be consumed or caught up in their wealth as their hope or identity but in Christ. The Bible does not condemn wealth, and neither should we. The Bible does not uphold poverty as the pathway to righteousness, nor should we.
We can know that the presence or absence of money is not the way we measure God’s blessing. Proverbs 22:2 says, “The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the Maker of them all.” God uses both rich and poor for His perfect will to be done in this fallen world.
1 Samuel 2:7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.
So, no, James is not saying it is sinful to be wealthy. But he is speaking about those who sinfully mishandle their wealth and life.
James’ emphasis is that these people who are rich are not sinful because of their wealth but are sinful because of their indulgence of life and their handling their wealth.
Verses 2-3 says they have hoarded their wealth.
Verse 4 says they have defrauded their employees.
Verse 5 says they live a self-indulgent lifestyle.
Verse 6 says they oppress the righteous.
Here is one more general thing the Bible says about the wealthy that is worth reminding you of before we dive deeper into the text. With access to money comes many blessings, but our sin nature means there are many temptations to sin when it comes to money. We have seen this struggle from the beginning of mankind. Jesus Himself warned about how hard it is for the rich to remain untangled by the trappings of their wealth.
Luke 18:25 “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
While this is not a condemnation on those who are wealthy, it is a high warning that with wealth comes a great battle not to find our identity or treasure in it but in God.
Next, let us delve into James’ warning and admonishment to those who are sinfully indulgent in their wealth or management of it.
James 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
Those who are rich that James is condemning and admonishing are in sin because of their wicked practices and selfish endeavors. James’ admonishment here fits in his overall theme, in that those who are of true, saving faith will put that faith to work and continue in it. In other words, they won’t become people who are known for sinful indulgence and manipulation like those whom James is pointing out here who are deserving of God’s righteous wrath.
Notice that James says, “they will weep and howl.” The word he uses here for “howl” means, “to wail.” This is the only place we see it in the New Testament, but it occurs regularly in the Old Testament as the prophets used it to describe the reaction of the wicked when the day of the Lord arrives, and they are condemned to eternal judgment. It is a picture of an intense outburst of despairing, violent, uncontrolled grief.
For example, Isaiah 13:6 says, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!”
Also, notice here in verse 1 the word misery used is in the plural—miseries. This is James’ way of emphasizing the fact that in eternal judgment misery is not short-term, but the miseries are many, and they are long-lasting.
In verses 2-6, James lays forth his case for why these particular wealthy people are unrighteous in their ways and worthy of eternal condemnation. Let’s first look at verses 2-3.
James 5:2-3 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
James’ emphasis here is on the hording of wealth. This is the sinful practice of making more and keeping more than you need to live on and provide for your family. Instead, it is stored up and/or put into selfish indulgence in stuff, or storehouses. The problem with this is that the wealth is not being used to help others or to advance the kingdom. It is selfishly sat on or spent on things that just rot.
As Christians, we are to provide for our families and then advance the gospel, make disciples unto the nations, and care for the needy. For those of us who belong to Christ, we are not to amass a fortune and uselessly or selfishly stash it away without regard for God’s purposes for our days in the here and now. God has given us today to make much of His holy name, so let us live for Him today; if He gives us tomorrow, then we live for Him tomorrow. So, it is our joy to live openhandedly and to bless others. But our flesh is at war with this, and so the struggle is real. It’s a battle we must fight because the trappings of our sinful, over-cling to the treasures of the world will mean a great demise when those fleeting, temporary things fail us or are stolen from us.
Have you ever worked so very hard for something only to have it break on you or be stolen from you? This can bring such feelings of despair and letdown. When we make the created things of God our treasure, we set ourselves up for great letdown. To build our lives on things that are temporary is to “build our house on the sand,” as Jesus would say. When the waves come, the house is destroyed and carried away. All our hopes, joy, and identity are swept away with it—I have seen it.
I have seen great and successful men and woman who have staked their lives on their careers, their money, their kids, their stuff, or their looks only to lose those things which they had come to live for and be identified by and then be utterly ruined—led to despair and even for some addiction, depression, and suicide. Here is the thing. While these temporary consequences are real, James’ emphasis is not on the consequences of what will be experienced in this life but the consequences that will be experienced in the next. In addition to pointing out that things rot, are moth eaten, and corroded, James warns that their corrosion will be evidence against you in eternity. He says it will even eat your flesh like fire.
For those who stand apart from Jesus, their sinful over-grip on the treasures of the temporary will be the very means of suffering in the eternal—almost like a perpetual drowning in the very gold that once defined them. Wow! These are strong and sobering words by James. One sign that these penalties and sufferings are in eternity and not just the temporary is the fact that gold can’t rust. So, the corrosion James speaks of is a metaphorical eating away that will not be experienced in this life but in the next.
The fact that the wealth they lived for in this life will testify against them in the next is a way of saying that everyone will be represented by something or someone. We will stand before the judgment seat of the holy God represented by our sin and false idols, thereby earning us eternal condemnation; or we will be represented by Jesus in all of His holy perfection, forgiven for our sin and graciously given eternal life with God in holy heaven.
I want you to make this very personal for a moment. What are the things, or people, or accomplishments that you hold up and show off to others as a marker of what you have done with your life: a house, a car, a motorcycle or boat, a vacation portfolio, a fit body, good grades, successful kids, a spouse? Think about the utter lack of representation that any of these can make for you when standing before the judgment seat of God and your lifelong sin is what stands between you and His holiness. None of these will do—only Jesus. This is why we must only boast in Jesus.
Paul says it so well in Galatians 6:14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Jesus preached this very point in His famous Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mathew 6:19-21).
Let me ask you plainly this morning: Where is your treasure? What is so very important to you in this life? Do you have a right grip on the good things God has entrusted to you like money, family, skills, etc.? Or do you have an over-grip, a sinful indulgence, on these things—to the point that they are why you wake and live, and they are what defines you and makes you sing? Are you storing up treasure in heaven by living open-handedly with the things, people, and skills God has given you? Or are you hording these things for sinful, selfish indulgence?
Look with me at verse 4.
James 5:4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
Again, the injustice of sinful selfishness to not pay a worker his fair wage is stored up as an evidence, or a witness, against us in the final judgment. These testimonies are before the omnipresent Lord. Consider the decisions you make in private in regard to how you pay others, handle money, how you do your taxes, or how you receive handouts from others. There are so many ways our character either reflects and honors the Lord in faith or reflects our sinful indulgence and selfishness, thereby making a stronger case of our guilt and deserved punishment.
Notice with me what matters most: The Lord sees all and knows all of what we do. There is not secret from Him. There are not decisions in the dark that He doesn’t see. So even the decisions we make in private matter and testify as to who we are. Christian, is your faith at work behind closed doors? When no one is looking or will know the difference? When doing the right thing will cost you in the temporary but honors God and His name forever? For whom are we really living—our comfort and our personal prosperity or the Lord and the good of those He puts before us?
James says in verse 5, “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The word James uses here for self-indulgent is only used in two places in Scripture.
In the Old Testament:
Ezekiel 16:49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
In the New Testament:
1 Timothy 5:5-6 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.
These speak of a person who lives in sinful, selfish indulgence. She is concerned only or foremost with her own well-being.
The mode of operation is to take good care of self and disregard the need of others.
The self-indulgent widow is dead while she lives. This means she stands in her judgment already. This is the similar wording of James who says those who live self-indulgently have fattened themselves for the day of slaughter. That is a reference to the day of judgment. They are caught red-handed. The evidence of their crimes is all over themselves. It is their testimony. Their wealth is not used to glorify God and advance the disciple-making emphasis of the New Testament church. It is used selfishly for gluttony of self.
This is a similar wording to that which Jesus uses in a parable He tells in Luke 16 about a condemned man and a delivered man. Luke 16:25 “… ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.’”
This is a mega-theme of the biblical narrative and surely one that God wants people to understand and not miss: To only build this kingdom, to only live for the here and now, and to only live for self, is to enjoy these things for this short time and then to suffer for eternity.
Luke 6:24-25 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
Those who give up many things, are generous in the here and now, invest in the Kingdom, and make their days about the Lord have little in these days, but they are blessed beyond measure in eternity in the presence of God.
James condemns the sinfully indulgent in verse 6.
James 5:6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
The sinful lifestyle of those only concerned with themselves carried over into unjust manipulation of the court systems and other means by which righteous people were falsely condemned or judged in order to preserve the lifestyle of the wealthy. This kind of unjust activity was rank in the Old Testament as well:
Amos 5:12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.
This was happening in James’ day as well, as we read in James 2:6, “But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?”
The term “righteous man” in James 4:6 is simply someone who is morally upright. These were victims who were defrauded by others but remained committed to God and trusting in God even when falsely accused.
This was the emphasis of Peter for the elect exiles in 1 Peter 2:21-23: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Church, on which side of this are you—the sinfully indulgent, living of your flesh and manipulating others to hoard and consume and self only you and yours? Or are you the righteous one whose identity is in God—when threatened or treated unjustly you do not revile in return, but you entrust yourselves to Him who judges justly. Oh, how I pray you are the latter. And if you are the former, the one guilty of selfish indulgence, I pray that you repent, for the day of judgment is near. I pray that you trust your life to the only One who can save you from your sins.
For Peter continues in 1 Peter 2:24-25, “He himself [Jesus] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Oh, how I pray you repent and believe in Jesus for salvation and new birth to live for God and no longer for yourself. Jesus said very clearly in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Who do you serve? May the Lord be our source of joy and our power for living generously with others.