The Misery of the Rich

My first sermon in 2020! Given during the Ikthus East-Bacolod City Midweek Service, January 1, 2020.

James 5:1-6 ESV

[1] Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. [2] Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. [3] 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. [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. [5] You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. [6] You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.


An interesting aspect of this epistle concerns James’ negative attitude towards rich people. (See James 1:10 and 2:1-7)

This can lead to misunderstanding, for surely James does not intend to denounce all rich people but only those who have acquired and use their riches wickedly.

At any rate, this passage does not seem to be directed to faithful believers in Jesus Christ. The rich here are not called brothers; no hope of pardon is offered to them, no call for repentance is given to them, and their destiny is that of destruction. It seems therefore that this passage is intended to console the poor and oppressed rather than to warn the rich, although one may also take a warning from it.

An important point from this passage is the fact that misery is coming upon the wicked rich, and not just any misery. According to one N.T. scholar, the word “howl” depicts the frantic terror of those on whom the judgement of God has come. “It is the word which describes those undergoing the tortures of the damned.”

Misery is coming upon them because –


“In the east there were three main sources of wealth and James has a word for the decay of each of them.” (William Barclay)

A) Their corn and grain will rot.

B) Their garments will be ruined – eaten by moths. “In the east garments were wealth.” (WB) So Paul says in Acts 20:33, “I have coveted no man’s silver, gold, or apparel.”

C) Gold and silver will rust. What is interesting is that gold and silver do not actually rust. So this is just James’ way of saying that “even the most precious and apparently most indestructible things are doomed to decay.”

Wealth does not last. It is therefore foolish to pin our hopes and happiness on wealth. What is worse is that our idolatrous love for impermanent material wealth will “witness” against us on judgment day. It will be the evidence that proves that we are not fit for heaven, but ought rather to be cast into the fires of hell which will consume our flesh forever and ever.

One other thing: Note the sarcasm in this statement: “You have laid up treasure in the last days.” We are living in the last days. Jesus Christ will return any time now. He will lift up the poor and cast down the rich. He will burn up all our gold, all our silver, and all our wealth. “Yet here you are trying to make yourself richer!” As N.T. Wright says, “In this new age one of the most inappropriate things you could do was – to store up riches.”


A) They have gained their wealth unjustly.

They have exploited their laborers, but their cries will be heard.

“The day labourer in Palestine lived on the very verge of starvation. His wage was small; it was impossible for him to save anything; and if the wage was withheld from him, even for a day, he and his family simply could not eat.” (WB)

“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)

“Woe to him that builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbour serve him for nothing, and does not give him his wages.” (Jeremiah 22:13)

Proverbs 22:22-23 ESV

[22] Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, [23] for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.

B) They have used their wealth selfishly.

1. They live in luxury.

This does not mean that you should not enjoy the fruits of your labor.

“This is what I have observed to be good; that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them – for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil – this is a gift of God.” (Ecc. 5:18-19)

It does mean you should not enjoy the gift of wealth in way that shows no concern for others, especially the poor, and no interest in matters of eternal value. What is worse is when you show off your wealth to mock the poor and to indulge your lusts.

However, all their self-indulgence is just a fattening of themselves for the day of slaughter, like pigs being prepared for a feast.

2. They practice cruelty.

“He that taketh away his neighbour’s living, the bread gotten by sweat, slayeth him; and he that defraudeth the labourer of his hire, defraudeth his Maker, and shall receive a bitter reward, for he is brother to him that is a blood-shedder” (Ecclesiasticus 34:22).


A) Don’t envy the wicked.

Psalm 73:2-3,12,16-19 ESV

[2] But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. [3] For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. [12] Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. [16] But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, [17] until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. [18] Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. [19] How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!

B) Don’t avenge yourself.

Romans 12:19-21 ESV

[19] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” [20] To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” [21] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

C) Don’t desire to be rich.

1 Timothy 6:9-10 ESV

[9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [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.

It is not a sin to be rich. Riches can be God’s reward to those who work hard and smart. Solomon asked for wisdom and God gave him riches as a bonus. Riches are often the by-product of good stewardship. But to desire to be rich merely for the sake of becoming rich, to love money for money’s sake, is idolatrous, wrong and dangerous. Sometimes we justify our desire to be rich by saying to ourselves that this is the way we can do a lot of good for God and others. However, it may be nothing more than self-deception. The fact is we can do a lot of good even without a lot of money. Besides, our accountability extends only to the resources God has gifted us with, and with these we must be content, because he has clearly said, “Be content with what you have.” (Heb. 13:5)


Remember Jesus, the Righteous One, whom the rich have condemned and murdered. He did not resist them in order that we might be saved. Put your trust in him and you will be truly rich.

1 Peter 1:3-4 ESV

[3] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, [4] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

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