We do not often write complete letters these days. We write emails and notes, but letters are becoming obsolete. It used to be that the letter was the only way to communicate with people who were not physically with you. I’ve written a few letters in my life since I was almost 20 when email started to become a thing. What I have never done is write words to my friends and family like James does in these first 6 verses of chapter 5.
Listen, you! Weep! Wail! Misery! …eat your flesh like fire…..crying out against you….You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter…You have condemned and murdered the innocent.Words from James 5:1-6
Those words are quite the change from the earlier tone of this letter. Now lest we think that James is condemning his dear brothers and sisters, we should remember that these verses are not directed at the group of believers, but at those who are making their lives difficult. So why are they included in this letter? Well one reason is to check yourself. Am I doing any of those things because if I am, there will be consequences. Another reason is to remind the believers that God sees and He is just and there is a day when that justice will be delivered.
This passage is very similar to passages in the Old Testament (OT) written by prophets. Weep and wail are words used by the prophets to describe the type of mourning that will take place on the day of judgment. Sometimes in the OT that looks like an actual event where an army comes in and conquers, and sometimes those phrases are referring to a future day of God’s judgment. Prophets often used harsh language for the rich. The rich were condemned not because they had money but because of how they used it and the power it gave them and because of how they trusted in it instead of God. Read these words from Isaiah:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,Isaiah 10:1-3
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.
Isaiah and James are both warning the rich that there is a judgment coming that will be decided based on how they have treated the poor, the innocent, and the vulnerable.
Specifically, James charges this group of rich with the crime of failing to pay the workers their wages. There is actually a command in the Law (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) about paying workers daily. Deuteronomy 24:15 says: “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. ” In Deuteronomy and in James, these workers call out to God. James calls God “the Lord Almighty” here. That name is used frequently in the OT and often is used when God is bringing justice. Some translations translate this name as “Lord of hosts,” which is a battle term. Because they call out to God, God will bring justice on their oppressors.
And then in James 5:5, he says that these rich people have “fattened themselves in the day of slaughter” or “for the day of slaughter,” depending on your translation. That sounds bad. So what is it? Jeremiah, an OT prophet, writes about it as the day when God will give justice to the innocent and oppressed. You can read about it here in Jeremiah 12:
You are always righteous, Lord,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.
Yet you know me, Lord;
you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!…
Moreover, the people are saying,
“He will not see what happens to us.”
Jeremiah lived to see a day of slaughter. God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah as a consequence of their behavior. Jeremiah left a pretty detailed picture of that day in Lamentations chapter 2. It isn’t reading for the faint of heart. Remember this is before Jesus and the new covenant of the New Testament. James is not condemning the scattered believers to this judgment. Rather he is reminding them that the God they serve will judge their oppressors. The reason the people in Jeremiah’s time were judged is because they forgot God. God was not enough for them. Even though God had done amazing things for the Israelites, they had left Him and were following other gods.
These verses in James are written as a prophetic warning to unbelievers and as an encouragement for the believers just as OT prophecy was. Today we have access to God through Jesus. Praise the Lord! But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a day of judgment coming for those who disregard God. We can trust God to provide justice for us because we know Him. We have access to Him. He loves us. Jeremiah reminds his readers of that too. And these are some good verses to memorize as we cultivate intimacy with our Lord.
This is what the Lord says:Jeremiah 9:23-24
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.