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"The Howling of The Oppressor"
James 5:1-6

Wednesday AM Bible Study
October 8, 2003

So far, James has been a tender pastor. But as we come to this point of his letter, we find him suddenly to be otherwise. In fact, this passage is among the harshest 'fire and brimstone' passages in the New Testament.

As we read these verses, it may seem to some at first as if James were saying that it's evil to be rich. But would not be the case. Many of the Bible's most notable saints, after all, were also blessed by God with prosperity and had acquired substantial material wealth. Abraham, Jacob, Job, and King Solomon are notable examples. Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe, was a wealthy businesswoman (Acts 16:14). Even Paul himself was able to say that he had learned by experience the secret of both having abundance and suffering need (Phil. 4:12).

James isn't speaking these harsh words to believers. In fact, he seems to be very careful to make the distinction between these folks and believers. He speaks first to "the rich" in verses 1-6; and then, he suddenly begins again to speak words of comfort to Christians in verses 7-8. And we need to note that these unbelieving rich people were people who are doing something particularly evil (2:6-7). Apparently, there were some people who were using their positions of wealth and power to harm the believers to whom James wrote. If we take James' words literally, they were (1) openly oppressing these believers, (2) using their wealth and influence to personally drag the Christians into courts, and (3) arrogantly blaspheming the name of Jesus Christ in the process.

Christians suffering under such oppression would be tempted to despair, or to take vengeance, or to grow envious and bitter. And so, as a good pastoral counselor, James first points believers to the broad theme of this new section (5:1-11) - the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ. He shows how fixing our minds and hopes on the return of the Lord sets us right. And then, he encourages the believer to be patient when oppressed and treated unjustly, because the coming of that same Lord Jesus Christ is near (v. 7). Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will Himself make all things things right in His perfect time; and our job is to be patient in our trust in Him, and to fearlessly and faithfully go on with His work until He comes.

This morning's study is the first part of our look at this broad section. In the first six verses of this section, we see that judgment is immanent.

A. James draws much of his teaching from the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus Himself has addressed the matter of Christians being patient while suffering oppression (Luke 6:20-26). Jesus told the unrighteous, arrogant rich people of the world who "laugh now" that they will one day "mourn and weep." And in these verses, James is calling upon the ungodly rich to do now what Jesus said they will do at the judgment.

B. James literally tells them, in chilling words, to "weep, howling", or to "cry, crying loudly" - using a Greek word that is "onomatopoetic", that is, that itself sounds like howling or loud crying: ololuzo. A related word, alalazo is used in Mark 5:38 to describe mourners in the house of the synagogue official whose daughter had died; that there was a commotion, and that the people were not only loudly weeping but "wailed loudly".

C. And James tells them to do so "for your miseries which are coming upon you" - literally, according to the tense of the Greek verb, coming upon them even as he spoke!

A. They were, first of all, hoarding their goods (vv. 2-3). James said that their riches (probably perishable food-items and consumables) have rotted, their garments have become moth-eaten, and their gold and silver have rusted.
1. This is an indictment against them; because the only reason such things would happen is because these rich were hoarding more things than they could use.

2. Such hoarding always comes from a sinful motive: either from being motivated by a fear of the future that comes from a lack of faith in God's providence, or from a desire to impress men by the display of their goods in a 'showy' way, or simply from a desire to gorge like pigs on the things of the world in a selfish, self-centered manner.

3. James speaks of the condemnation of their hoarding in three ways

a. The rust and rot of their goods will be a witness against them.

b. The rust and rot will consume them like fire (1 Cor. 3:12-13).

c. They made the foolish investment of storing up in the last days (Luke 12:19-20).

B. They were withholding the pay of their laborers (v. 4).

1. The Bible condemns strongly the evil of withholding the pay of those who work hard for it. The Bible connects it with 'robbery' (Lev. 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

2. According to James, the pay they withheld - not the workers, but the pay itself! - cries out against them.

3. The cry of the oppressed has reached the ears of none other than "the Lord of Saboath" or "the Lord of Hosts"; that is, the Lord of Armies!

C. They were engaging in sensual self-indulgence (v. 5).

1. The word James uses for living in luxury literally means "to break down"; and it almost suggests the idea of someone passively "going to pot" in the process - as if the 'good life' isn't really bad for them.

2. But he also uses a word that describes them as actively giving themselves over to self-indulgent and sinful pleasures (Amos 6:4-7). It's as if the goods of the world, and the people on it, were made only for the gratification of their own lusts; and in their pursuit of their own pleasure, they'll ignore the needs of other people, and use them selfishly, and even openly oppress them.

3. And notice the tragic irony of their self-indulgence will end! They fattened their own hearts in a day of slaughter - just like hogs before the butcher's shop, or turkeys before Thanksgiving (Romans 2:5-6).

D. Finally, they were unjust and oppressive to the righteous (v. 6). This is both a general statement of the oppressiveness of the ungodly rich, and the most indicting witness against their behavior.

1. Notice that they "condemn" the righteous man; and this may have reference to the fact that they dragged believers off to courts of law.

2. But notice also that it says that they "murdered" him as well. One Jewish writer, Joshua ben Sira, wrote, "The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood. To take away a neighbor's living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood." And so, it's possible to take James' words in a figurative sense. But it may also be literal as well, in that the were, apparently, "dragging" the Christians "into court." (Acts 9:1; 26:10; see also 8:1).

3. And take note of James' condemnation to the rich for this. It's in the form of the response of the righteous man toward this treatment. James says, "he does not resist you." These persecuted "righteous" Christians faithfully followed the instructions of Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42).

* * * * * * * * * *

Hopefully, it's plain in all this that James isn't condemning the possession of wealth. He isn't saying that it's evil to be rich. Rather, he's condemning evil behavior of wealthy people who oppress others. The ungodly rich people who hoard their goods to the point of wastefulness; who withhold the pay that they owe to their workers; who greedily consume their wealth in wanton, sensual self-indulgence; and who openly oppressed the righteous - even perhaps to the point of murder - these are the things James condemns.

Next week (if the Lord wills! - James 4:13-14), we'll consider the second half of this section; and of how the hope of the return of the Lord is the basis of James' instruction to patiently endure these oppressions (vv. 7-11).

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