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274

CHAPTER XXIII.
THE FOLLIES AND INIQUITIES OF THE RICH;
THEIR MISERABLE END.

"Go to now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are rusted; and their rust shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh as fire. Ye have laid up your treasure in the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth out: and the cries of them that reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure; ye have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned, ye have killed the righteous one; he doth not resist you."—St. James v. 1-6.

HERE, if anywhere in the Epistle, the writer glances aside from the believing Jews of the Dispersion, to whom the letter as a whole is addressed, and in a burst of righteous indignation which reminds us of passages in the old Hebrew Prophets, denounces members of the twelve tribes who not even in name are Christians. In the preceding section such a transition is in preparation. When he is condemning the godless presumption of those seekers after wealth who dared, without thought of their own frailty and of God's absolute control over their lives and fortunes, to think and speak confidently of their schemes for future gains, he seems to be thinking almost as much of unbelieving Jews as of those who have accepted the Gospel. Here 275 he appears for the moment to have left the latter entirely out of sight, and to be addressing those wealthy Jews who not only continued the policy and shared the guilt of the opponents and murderers of Christ, but by scandalous tyranny and injustice oppressed their poor brethren, many of whom were probably Christians. The severity of the condemnation is not the only or the main reason for thinking that the paragraph is addressed to unconverted Jews. The first ten verses of chapter iv. are very severe; and there also, as here, the affectionate form of address, "brethren," so frequent elsewhere in the Epistle, is wanting; but there is no doubt that those ten verses, like the paragraphs which immediately precede and follow them, are addressed to Christians. What is so exceptional in the passage now under consideration is the entire absence of any exhortation to repentance, or of any indication that there is still hope of being reconciled to the offended Jehovah. They are to "weep and howl," not in penitence, but in despair. The end is at hand; the day of reckoning is approaching; and it is a fearful account which awaits them. In this respect there is a very marked difference between this paragraph and the one which follows it. In both the nearness of the Day of Judgment is the motive; but this nearness is to "the rich" a terror, to "the brethren" a comfort. This difference would be very difficult to explain if both paragraphs were addressed to believing Jews.

Throughout the Epistle there are strains which sound like echoes from the Prophets of the Old Testament, with whom St. James has much in common; but the passage before us is specially in their spirit. It would not surprise us to meet with it in Isaiah or Jeremiah. 276 One or two similar passages are worth comparing: "Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! When thou hast ceased to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou hast made an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee" (Isa. xxxiii. 1). "Woe to him that getteth an evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the hand of evil! Thou hast consulted shame to thy house, by cutting off many peoples, and hast sinned against thy soul. For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it" (Hab. ii. 9). In the New Testament the passage which most resembles it is our Lord's denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. xxiii. 13-36).

"Go to now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you." We have the same combination of words in Isaiah: "In their streets they gird themselves with sackcloth: on their housetops, and in their broad places, every one howleth, weeping abundantly" (xv. 3). And in an earlier chapter we have a still closer parallel to the spirit of this verse: "Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand" (xiii. 6). The miseries to which St. James alludes are those which shall befall them at "the coming of the Lord" (ver. 8). It is the impending judgment of the tyrannous rich that is primarily in his mind. He may also have foreseen something of the horrors of the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem, and in accordance with Christ's prophecy may have considered these calamities typical of the judgment, or part and parcel of it. In the Jewish war the wealthy classes suffered terribly. Against 277 them, as having been friendly to the Romans, and having employed Roman influence in oppressing their own countrymen, the fury of the fanatical party of the Zealots was specially directed; and although the blow fell first and heaviest upon the Jews in Jerusalem and Judæa, yet it was felt by all Jews throughout the world.

They imagined themselves to be rich; they were really most poor and most miserable. So sure is the doom that is coming upon them, that in prophetical style St. James begins to speak of it as already here; like a seer, he has it all before his eyes. "Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are rusted." We have here three kinds of possessions indicated. First, stores of various kinds of goods. These are "corrupted;" they have become rotten and worthless. Secondly, rich garments, which in the East are often a very considerable portion of a wealthy man's possessions. They have been stored up so jealously and selfishly that insects have preyed upon them and ruined them. And thirdly, precious metals. These have become tarnished and rusted, through not having been put to any rational use. Everywhere their avarice has been not only sin, but folly. It has failed of its sinful object. The unrighteous hoarding has tended not to wealth, but to ruin. And thus the rust of their treasures becomes "a testimony against them." In the ruin of their property their own ruin is portrayed; and just as corruption, and the moths, and the rust consume their goods, so shall the fire of God's judgment consume the owners and abusers of them. They have reserved all this store for their selfish enjoyment, but God has reserved them for His righteous anger.

278 "Ye laid up your treasure in the last days." There was the monstrous folly of it. The end of all things was close at hand; "the last days" had already begun; and these besotted graspers after wealth were still heaping up treasures which they would never have any opportunity of using. The Authorized Version spoils this by a small, but rather serious, mistranslation. It has, "Ye have heaped up treasure together for the last days," instead of "in the last days" (ἐν ἐσχάταις ὑμέραις). The case is precisely that which Christ foretold: "As were the days of Noah, so shall be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall be the coming of the Son of man" (Matt. xxiv. 37-39). "Likewise even as it came to pass in the days of Lot; they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but in the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all: after the same manner shall it be in the day that the Son of man is revealed" (Luke xvii. 28-30).

That the "last days" mean the days immediately preceding the Second Advent can scarcely be doubted. The context renders this very probable, and the exhortation in the next section renders it practically certain. "Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Murmur not, brethren, one against another, that ye be not judged: behold, the Judge standeth before the doors." That the first Christians believed that Jesus Christ would return in glory during the lifetime of many who were then 279 living, will hardly be disputed by any one who is acquainted with the literature of the Apostolic age and of the period immediately following. Nor, perhaps, will many at the present time care to dispute that this erroneous opinion was shared, for a time at any rate, even by Apostles. "Ye are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time," says St. Peter (1 Peter i. 5). "We that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in nowise precede them that are fallen asleep" (1 Thess. iv. 15; cf. 1 Cor. xv. 51); and again, writing some years later, "In the last days grievous times shall come," about which Timothy is to be on his guard, says St. Paul (2 Tim. iii. 1). And much nearer to the close of the Apostolic age we have St. John telling his little children that "it is the last hour" (1 John ii. 18). Some twenty or thirty years later St. Ignatius writes to the Ephesians, "These are the last times. Henceforth let us be reverent; let us fear the longsuffering of God, lest it turn into a judgment against us. For either let us fear the wrath which is to come, or let us love the grace which now is" (xi.).

Only very gradually did the Christian Church attain to something like a true perspective as to the duration of Christ's kingdom upon earth. Only very gradually did even the Apostles obtain a clear vision as to the nature of the kingdom which their Lord had founded and left in their charge, for them to occupy until He came. Pentecost did not at once give them perfect insight into the import of their own commission. Much still remained to be learned, slowly, by experience. And if this was the case with Apostles, we need not wonder that it was so with James, the Lord's brother. It is remarkable that Christ's solemn warning 280 against speculating as to the time of His return seems to have made only partial impression upon the disciples. "Of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is" (Mark xiii. 32, 33). But it is our gain that they were allowed for a time to hold a belief that the Lord would return very speedily. The Epistles and Gospels were written by men under the influence of that belief, and such influence is a very considerable guarantee for the honesty of the writers. It was because the rich whom St. James here denounces had no such belief in a speedy judgment, indeed had very little thought of a judgment at all, that they were guilty of such folly and iniquity.

Having indicated their folly in amassing wealth which was no blessing to themselves or others, but simply deteriorated by being hoarded, St. James passes on to point out their iniquity. And first of all he mentions the gross injustice which is frequently inflicted by these wealthy employers of labour upon those who work for them. The payment of the wages which have been earned is either unfairly delayed or not paid at all. "Behold, the hire of the labourers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth out." Several passages in the Old Testament appear to be in the writer's mind. "Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: in his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 14, 15; cf. 17, and Lev. xix. 13). "And I will come 281 near you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against ... those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn away the stranger from his right, and fear not Me, saith the Lord" (Mal. iii. 5; cf. Jer. xxii. 13). Perhaps also, "Their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage" (Exod. ii. 23); and "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground" (Gen. iv. 10). The frequency with which the subject is mentioned8484   In addition to the passages quoted in the text see Job vii. 1, 2; ix. 24; xii. 5, 6; xxiv. 1-12; xxxi. 38, 39. seems to show that the evil which St. James here denounces had long been a common sin among the Jews. Tobit, in his charge to his son, says, "What is hateful to thee do not thou to others. Let not the wages of any man, which hath wrought for thee, tarry with thee (abide with thee all night), but give him it out of hand" (Tobit iv. 14). And in Ecclesiasticus, which St. James seems so often to have in his thoughts, we read, "The bread of the needy is the life of the poor: he that defraudeth him thereof (ὁ ἀποστερῶν αὐτήν) is a man of blood. He that taketh away his neighbour's living slayeth him; and he that defraudeth the labourer of his hire (ὁ ἀποστερῶν μισθόν μισθίου)8585   It is uncertain whether the word which St. James uses is ἀπεστερημένος or ἀφυστερημένος. is a blood-shedder" (Ecclus. xxxiv. 21, 22).

But none of these passages determine for us a point of some interest in the construction used by St. James. The words translated "of you," in "of you kept back by fraud," literally mean "from you" (ἀφ' ὑμῶν, not ὑφ' ὑμῶν). Two explanations are suggested: 1. The fraudulent action proceeds from them, and hence "from" becomes nearly equivalent to "by;" and the 282 use of "from" (ἀπό), rather than "by" (ὑπό), is all the more natural because the word for "kept back by fraud" has the former preposition compounded with it. 2. "From you," being placed between "kept back by fraud" and "crieth out" (ὁ ἀπεστερημένος ἀφ' ὑμῶν κράζει), may go with either, and it will be better to take it with "crieth out:" "The hire kept back by fraud crieth out from you." The wrongfully detained wages are with the rich employers, and therefore it is from the place where they are detained that their cry goes up to heaven. The passage quoted above from Exodus ii. 23 slightly favours this view, for there the Septuagint has, "Their cry came up unto God from their labours" (ἀπὸ τῶν ἔργων); but the passages are not really parallel.

The word used for "fields" (χώρας) is worth noting. It implies extensive lands, and therefore adds point to the reproach. The men who own such large properties are not under the temptations to fraud which beset the needy, and it is scandalous that those who can so well afford to pay what is due should refuse. Moreover, the labour of mowing and reaping such fields must be great, and therefore the labourers have well earned their wage. The words "into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth" probably come from Isaiah (v. 9), and perhaps St. James was led to them by the thought that these extensive fields are the result of fraud or violence; for the verse which precedes the words in Isaiah runs thus: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land!" No other New Testament writer uses the expression "the Lord of Sabaoth," although St. Paul once quotes it from Isaiah (Rom. ix. 29). Bede may be right in thinking 283 that its point here is that the rich fancy that the poor have no protector; whereas the Lord of hosts hears their cry. And there is possibly another point in mowers and reapers being selected as the representatives of all hired labourers. Calvin suggests that it is specially iniquitous that those whose toil supplies us with food should themselves be reduced to starvation; and to this it has been added that the hard-heartedness of the grasping employers is indeed conspicuous when not even the joy of the harvest moves them to pay the poor who work for them their hardly earned wage.

The second feature in the iniquity of the rich is the voluptuous and prodigal life which they lead themselves, at the very time that they inflict such hardships upon the poor. "Ye lived delicately on the earth, and took your pleasure; ye nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter." The aorists should perhaps be translated as aorists throughout these verses: "Ye laid up your treasure, ... ye lived delicately," etc. rather than, "Ye have laid up, ye have lived," etc. The point of view is that of the Day of Judgment, when these wealthy sinners are confronted by the enormities which they committed during their lives. But it is a case in which it is quite permissible to render the Greek aorist by the English perfect. "On the earth" may either mean "during your lifetime," or may be in contrast to "entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." All the while that the cry against their iniquity was ascending to heaven, as an accumulating charge that would at last overwhelm them, they were living in luxury on earth, thinking nothing of the wrath to come. It was the converse of the old Epicurean doctrine, so graphically described by the Laureate in "The Lotus-eaters." There it is the gods 284 who "lie beside their nectar" in ceaseless enjoyment, "careless of mankind," who send up useless lamentations, which provoke no more than a smile among the neglectful deities. Here it is the men who revel in boundless luxury, careless of the righteous God, whose vengeance they provoke by persistent neglect of His commands.

The meaning of "in a day of slaughter" is not easily determined. The "as"—"as in a day of slaughter"—must certainly be omitted. It was inserted to make more evident one of the possible interpretations of "day of slaughter." "Ye fattened your heart with perpetual banqueting, as if life were made up of killing and eating." "And in that day did the Lord, the Lord of hosts, call to weeping and to mourning, and baldness, and to girding with sackcloth: and behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die" (Isaiah xxii. 12, 13). If this be the idea which is expressed by the words in question, then the meaning would be, "Ye fared sumptuously every day." But it is possible that "in a day of slaughter" here balances "in the last days" just above. As the folly of heaping up treasure was augmented by the fact that it was done when the end of all things was at hand, so the iniquity of voluptuous living was augmented by the fact that their own destruction was at hand. In this case the wealthy owners, like stalled oxen, were unconsciously fattening themselves for the slaughter. Instead of sacrificing themselves to God's love and mercy, they had sacrificed and devoured their poor brethren. They had fed themselves, and not the flock; and unwittingly they were preparing themselves as a sacrifice to God's wrath. 285 For a sacrifice, either willingly or unwillingly, every one must be.

Did any of those whom St. James here condemns remember his words when, a few years later, thousands of the Jews of the Dispersion were once more gathered together at Jerusalem for the sacrifice of the Passover, and there became unwilling sacrifices to God's slow but sure vengeance? As already pointed out, it was the wealthy among them who specially suffered. Their prosperity and their friendship with the Romans provoked the envy and enmity of the fanatical Zealots, and they perished in a day of slaughter. Josephus tells us that it was all one whether the richer Jews stayed in the city during the siege or tried to escape to the Romans; for they were equally destroyed in either case. Every such person was put to death, on the pretext that he was preparing to desert, but in reality that the plunderers might get his possessions. People who were evidently half-starved were left unmolested, when they declared that they had nothing; but those whose bodies showed no signs of privation were tortured to make them reveal the treasures which they were supposed to have concealed (Bell. Jud. V. x. 2).

"Ye condemned, ye killed the righteous one; he doth not resist you." Does this refer to the condemnation and death of Jesus Christ? This interpretation has found advocates in all ages—Cassiodorus, Bede, Œcumenius, Grotius, Bengel, Lange, and other modern commentators; and it is certainly attractive. St. Peter, addressing the Jews in Solomon's Porch, says, "But ye denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted unto you, and killed the Prince of Life" (Acts iii. 14, 15). St. Stephen, in his speech before the Sanhedrin, asks, "Which of the prophets 286 did not your fathers persecute? and they killed them which showed before of the coming of the Righteous One; of whom ye have now become betrayers and murderers" (Acts vii. 52; cf. xxii. 14, and 1 Pet. iii. 18). It is certainly no objection to this interpretation that St. James uses the aorist—"ye condemned, ye killed." That tense might fittingly be used either of a course of action in the past, as in the aorists immediately preceding, or of a single action, as of Abraham's offering Isaac (ii. 21). Nor is it any objection that in "He doth not resist you" St. James changes to the present tense. In any case the change from past to present has to be explained, and it is as easy to explain it of the present long-suffering of Christ, or of His abandoning them to their wickedness, as of the habitual meekness of the righteous man. Nor, again, is it any objection that the Jews addressed in this Epistle could not rightly be charged with the condemnation and death of Christ, for twenty or thirty years had elapsed since that event. It is by no means improbable that among the Jews then living there were many who had cried "Crucify Him" on Good Friday; and even if there were not, the words of St. James are quite justifiable. The Crucifixion was in a very real sense the act of the whole nation, far more so than was the murder of Zacharias the son of Jehoiada, and yet Jesus says to the Jews respecting Zacharias, "whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar." If at the present day the English might be told that they condemned and killed Charles I., and the French be told that they condemned and killed Louis XVI., much more might the Jews in the middle of the first century be said to have condemned and killed Jesus Christ.

But nevertheless, this attractive and tenable interpretation 287 is probably not the right one; the context is against it. It is the evil that is inherent in class tyrannizing over class that is condemned, the rich oppressing the poor, and the godless persecuting the godly. "The righteous one" is here not an individual, but the representative of a class. The iniquitous violence which slew Jesus Christ and His martyrs, James the son of Zebedee and Stephen, illustrates what St. James says here, just as his own martyrdom does; but it does not follow from this that he is alluding to any one of these events in particular. The Book of Wisdom seems once more to be in the writer's mind: "Let us oppress the poor righteous man; let us not spare the widow, nor reverence the ancient grey hairs of the aged.... Let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings: he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and objecteth to our infamy the transgressings of our education.... He is grievous to us even to behold: for his life is not like other men's; his ways are of another fashion.... Let us examine him with despitefulness and torture, that we may know his meekness, and prove his patience. Let us condemn him with a shameful death; for by his own saying he shall be respected" (ii. 10-20).

Julius Cæsar on one occasion stated his financial position by confessing that he needed half a million of money in order to be worth nothing. The spiritual condition of many prosperous men might be expressed in a similar way. Cæsar never allowed lack of funds to stand between him and his political aims; when he had nothing he borrowed at enormous interest. So also with us. In pursuing our worldly aims we sink 288 deeper and deeper in spiritual ruin, and accumulate debts for an eternal bankruptcy. Riches are not a whit less perilous to the soul now than they were in the first century, and yet how few among the wealthy really believe that they are perilous at all. The wisdom of our forefathers has placed in the Litany a petition which every well-to-do person should say with his whole heart: "In all time of our wealth, Good Lord, deliver us."


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