Go to now, you rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come on you.…
This apostrophe is so dreadful that we cannot imagine it to have been addressed to professing Christians. It would rather seem that the apostle here turns aside to glance at the godless rich Jews of his time, who were in the habit of persecuting the Church and defrauding the poor (James 2:6, 7). His words regarding them are words of stern denunciation. Like one of the old Hebrew prophets, he curses them in the name of the Lord. Its design in doing so, however, must have been in unison with his life-work as a Christian apostle, laboring in "the acceptable time;" he sought, by proclaiming the terrors of the Lord, to persuade to repentance and a holy life. The paragraph breaks naturally into three sections. Ver. 1 refers to the future; vers. 2, 3 to the present; vers. 4-6 mainly to the past. We shall consider these three sections in the inverse order.
I. THE CAUSES OF JUDGMENT IN THE PAST. (Vers. 4-6.) James mentions three.
1. Heartless injustice. (Ver. 4.) The humane Law of Moses forbade that the wages of the hired laborer be kept back even for a single night (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15); but these wicked men had paid no heed to that Law. They had grown rich by defrauding the poor. Instead of relieving the needy by a liberal charity, they had not even paid the lawful debts which they owed them. And does not this sin linger in the heart of Christendom? What was American slavery but just a crushing of the poor? What was villeinage in our own country but a defrauding of the laborers? It is net yet a century since the Scotch collier was attached by law to the coal-work where he had been born - the right to his services being bought and sold with the mine itself. In more recent times our poets have once and again given voice to great social wrongs in weeds that have rung like a tocsin through the land (e.g. Mrs. Browning's 'Cry of the Children,' and Hood's 'Song of the Shirt'). Or, to take the form of labor referred to in ver. 4, we may ask - Is the condition of the English ploughman even yet what it ought to be, and what our rich landlords ought to help to make it? James says that the robbing of the poor is a "crying" sin. The victims themselves cry; and even their wages, fraudulently withheld, "cry out" also from the coffers of the rich. But there is One who has ears to ear, and a heart to resent, the injustice. "The Lord of hosts" will avenge the poor of the people who trust in him.
2. Lavish luxuriousness. (Ver. 5.) The wealthy, wicked Jews sinned, not only against righteousness, but against temperance. They were luxurious in their living, and prodigal in their expenditure. And this wasteful life of theirs was largely maintained at the expense of the poor whom they defrauded. It was "the hire of the laborers" that had built their magnificent palaces, and bought the beds of ivory upon which they lay. They did all this "on the earth," and as if they "should still live forever" (Psalm 49:9) here. They forgot that in their godless self-indulgence they were acting like "mere animals, born to be taken and destroyed" (2 Peter 2:12). Unconscious of impending ruin, they were still living voluptuously; like the fat ox, which continues to revel among the rich pastures on the very morning of the "day of slaughter."
3. Murderous cruelty. (Ver. 6.) By "the righteous," or "just," many understand the Lord Jesus Christ; this statement being a historic allusion to the scenes of Gabbatha and Calvary. And it is very probable that the murder of our Lord was in the apostle's mind. But we judge that the words are rather to be regarded as describing a prevalent practice of the wicked rich in every age. They apply to the death of Jesus Christ, but also to that of Stephen, and to that of James the brother of John; and they were soon to be illustrated again in the martyrdom of the writer himself. For our apostle, by reason of his integrity and purity, was surnamed "the Righteous;" and he was by-and-by condemned and killed by the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem. But why all this oppression of "the righteous"? It is inflicted simply because they are righteous. Every holy life is an offence to evil men. Because Christ was holy, he was crucified. Because Stephen was "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," he was stoned. Because James was truly righteous, he was thrown from the battlements of the temple, and killed with a fuller's club. Finally, the apostle adds, "He doth not resist you." The righteous man submits patiently to your persecuting violence. He endures your murderous cruelty with holy meekness. Jesus did so (Isaiah 53:7). Stephen did so (Acts 7:60). James presently would do so: he is said to have offered the very prayer for his murderers which his crucified Master had done. Such patient endurance, however, only increases the guilt of the persecutors, and shall make their doom more awful.
II. THE FIRST DROPPINGS OF JUDGMENT IN THE PRESENT. (Vers. 2, 3.) The material for their punishment was being prepared, in accordance with the law of retribution, out of the very wealth on which they doted. "Of our pleasant vices" Divine Providence makes "instruments to plague us." "Your riches are corrupted;" that is, their treasures of grain and fruits were already rotting in the storehouses. Since these were not being used to feed the hungry, God's curse was upon them all. "Your garments are moth-eaten;" because these rich men did not clothe the naked out of their costly wardrobes, the moth was cutting up these with his remorseless little tooth. "Your gold and your silver are rusted;" that is, their money, not being used for doing good, lay in their treasure-chests morally cankered by the base avarice which kept it there. And that rust shall not only eat up the wealth itself; it shall also gnaw the conscience of its faithless possessor. It shall be a witness-bearer to his sin, and an executioner of it, is punishment, By-and-by, the remorseful thought of his unused riches shall torture his soul as with the touch of burning fire. (Vide T. Binney on 'Money,' p. 126.) These men had "laid up their treasure in the last days;" that is, immediately before the coming of the Lord in judgment to make an end of the entire Hebrew polity. And their wealth would avail them nothing in the presence of that great catastrophe. These corrupting treasures of theirs would corrupt still further into treasures of wrath. After the first droppings would come the deluge.
III. THE FULL FLOOD OF JUDGMENT IN THE FUTURE. (Vex. 1.) The "miseries" spoken of refer primarily to the sorrows connected with the impending siege and ruin of Jerusalem. These were to fall with especial severity upon the influential classes; and the Hebrews of the Dispersion, in whatsoever land they might be, were to share them. The wealthy men among the unbelieving Jews had sinned most; so they were to suffer most. Well, therefore, might they "weep" at the prospect, as only Orientals can weep; and "howl" as only brute beasts can do. But these words point onward further in history than to the destruction of Jerusalem. The full flood of "miseries" which providence is preparing shall overtake the ungodly rich only at the Lord's second coming, when he shall appear to judge the whole world. The ruin of Jerusalem was but a faint foreshadowing of the" eternal destruction" of the wicked which shall begin at that day (Matthew 24.). These "miseries" suggest solemn thoughts of the doom of eternity.
1. To remember the moral government of God, and to make ready to meet him in the judgment (vers. 1-6).
2. The sin of the wicked prepares its own punishment (vers. 2, 3).
3. One of the greatest social wants of our time is that of mutual sympathy between the capitalist and the laborer (ver. 4).
4. A Christian should avoid debt as he would avoid the devil (ver. 4).
5. The right use of wealth is not to spend it upon self-indulgence, but to do good with it (ver. 5).
6. A man has reason to suspect the purity of his own character, if no one ever persecutes him (ver. 6). - C. J.
Parallel VersesKJV: Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.