From:  A Torah Commentary on James 3-5                         Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2014

 

 

 

[Page 429]

 

Chapter 5C:

Problem Texts—Verses 1-10



            5:1:  Are the wealthy considered automatically as sinners and the poor as righteous?   One body of thought assumes that since certain (some?  the bulk?) of the rich are counted as sinners, that James intends to imply that all the wealthy are automatically counted as such as well.  In that case, those poor they are contrasted with are to be taken as the entire category of the poor.  It should be noted that the interpretation is open to the challenge of inserting a universalism which the language need not require—though it admittedly permits it. 

Furthermore, the contrast in the verse is between the rich and “the just” (verse 6).  The first is a financial category and the second is a moral / ethical one.  How then could “the just” possibly equate to the entirety of the poor?  Most aren’t “just,” are they?

Furthermore, the specific type of “laborers” under discussion (verse 4) are the morally upright of verse 6.  That would not be to condone the murder of the immoral poor, but that they are not the subject of attention. 

[Page 430]                  In modern society this equation of poverty and the poor has tended to become wrapped up in the ideological issue of the propriety of possessing great wealth and how one handles the perpetual gaps between the wealthy and those who are not well off at all.  Of however great an interest this is, it does not remove the fact that moral behavior is the center of James’ analyses and the proper behavior of both those with and without wealth.  Once one recognizes that only the pious poor are under specific consideration, the political use of the text has a crucial support wrenched out from under it. 

For James is simply not concerned with any political theory at all; he is concerned with proper and just treatment of others—with moral behavior.  He is not out to destroy the wealth of the rich or incite some revolution of the theoretically (or actually) oppressed, but to warn those with an abundance that all they have will not protect them from the far greater power of the God of Israel.

 

            It has been argued that during the intertestamental period that the term “poor” even became self-adopted by religiously devout groups who were also at the bottom of the contemporary economic totem pole.[1]  On the psychological level this provided them an element of moral superiority to the poverty they had to endure.  

The number of devout poor was certainly high due to the degree of deprivation in their society.  A basic sociological reality of the ancient world needs to be remembered:  most people were in that group.  Indeed, around 90 percent of anyone alive in the first century was either poor--or even worse off.[2]  0

[Page 431]                  Hence, by definition, most of the religiously dedicated were poor.  That doesn’t mean all the poor were pious.  It only means that the proportion of them within the believing community as a whole was very large when compared with the number of the prosperous and well-to-do. 

Furthermore, the rich were in the position to do far more damage (monetarily, physically, and legally) to the poor than vice versa.  When the rich abused their position the results were onerous for the poor; rarely was the reverse true.  But the poor are “just” not because they are poor but because of how they live and conduct themselves.  They are the righteous poor.

It is inherently probable that the unrighteous poor bought into the concept as well:  it permitted them also to “feel” superior to the rich.  They knew they were also poor and therefore “deserved” to receive the same blessings of the other poor--but glossed over their lack of having the level of moral character they possessed.  Hence, like our modern ideologues, they surely defined “righteous poor” as “righteous because poor” rather than “righteous in spite of being poor.”  (Casually, but effectively, degrading the “righteous” element out of the equation.)

 

The high percentage of the poor in the early church does not, however, justify all the “righteous” references being to the community as a unit.  Indeed, the faithful community can be counted as “righteous” only because the individual members are such.  (At least a sufficiently high percentage that they dominate the congregation and justify the application of such language to the group as an entirety.)  Hence one is hard pressed to actually justify making any of James’ references to the “righteous” as being communal—rather than personal—in nature.

[Page 432]                  And even if one is somehow able to do so, the fact that the community is “righteous” still would not require that every reference in the chapter must be communal as well.  For example, Robert W. Wall, citing several other commentators, insists that, “The ‘pious one’ [in verse 6, rw] is not a reference to a particular person whether to Jesus or to James himself; rather, the ‘pious one’ represents an entire community of the pious poor.”[3] 

This is surely a manifest exaggeration.  If valid, then the “entire community of the pious poor” had been annihilated for the subject of that verse is those who have been put to death.  Admittedly any poor person could be a victim, but since there were those alive to receive, hear, and read this epistle, obviously this/these death(s) did not affect the bulk of them. 

 

            That the rich are condemned not for being rich but because of their behavior can be seen in the fact that their excesses are spelled out and emphasized.  To “condemn the rich” requires one only to mention those few words.  It does not require any elaboration at all.  Once one starts to pour out the evils being done, the argument is immediately shifted from punishment for earth status to punishment for flagrant misconduct.[4] 

Furthermore, there is also the not insubstantial problem of assuming that there were no prosperous or wealthy among those James was writing to.  In one place, perhaps, but this is a general epistle—would it be true in all communities receiving the correspondence?  Surely not!

It is their attitude and actions that appall James for their wealth could just as easily have been used for good rather than self-centered advancement alone.[5]  If James [Page 433]   has in mind Christian believers in particular, it is quite possible that they had fooled themselves into believing that their wealth provided “evidence of God's approval of their lifestyle and attitude.”[6] 

They may well have thought of the richness of Job, but if they did, they had forgotten his determined policy of treating others with justice and fairness.  Wealth serving good purposes, rather than wealth ignoring the opportunity to constructively utilize its resources.   

 

             

            5:1:  Are the rich in the epistle believers?  To repeat our cautionary words from the Problem Texts section of chapter 2:  To further complicate the interpretive picture, it should be remembered that in chapter 2 it is the rich attending services of the church that are under discussion; in contrast, in chapter 5 they are introduced as oppressors of its members.  The same type of rich need not be under consideration in the two places.

 

A related controversy to the one just examined in the first question of this chapter concerns whether the rich depicted in the epistle are to be considered as believers in Jesus.  Once we introduce the matter of faith into our discussion, the rich = bad people and poor = good people correlation becomes increasingly difficult to retain.  Indeed, if the rich in the epistle are conceded (either in significant part or in total) to be believers, then the rigid distinction becomes untenable:  in the New Testament the believers are the “good guys” and those who fail to measure up to the standard demanded of them are internal deviants from that ideal.  Not an external, different group. 

[Page 434]                  The same result is even more certain if we approach the question from the standpoint of identifying the poor under consideration:  no one denies that even among the temporally poor of the first century, only a small minority ever became Christians.  From the New Testament perspective, the bulk of the poor still lacked something vitally important for full acceptability to God.  A poor person wasn’t automatically righteous because of their poverty, but because of their virtue.  How could it be any different for those who were well off?

            It has been claimed that “taken literally . . James cannot be thinking of Christians.”[7]  Christians would not act that way, would they?  As a general rule that may well be true, but one would be misguided as to real world conditions to deny that some in any age are capable of just such excesses if the financial benefit is sufficiently strong. 

And having seen how some brethren treat dissenters back in my preaching days—“crush at all costs”—I remember thinking more than once:  “If people like that ran the nation I’d either be dead or in prison.”  So, depending upon your life experiences, the rampant abuse of justice and decency does not seem so improbable after all.  

On the basis of James 5:1-6 in particular it has been contended that they weren’t believers—at least in this chapter--since the text does not “acknowledg[e] any saving faith in them or hope for them.”[8]  The assumption in the text is that wealth has made the individuals hard-hearted and oblivious to their obligations and responsibilities toward the less fortunate. 

But when has the wealth done this?  Did this transformation occur because the changed individual is in the category of “never believed” or is he one who turned back to bad attitudes and behavior after temporarily reforming and embracing Christ?  Or one who goes through the motions of becoming a believer but has not allowed the gospel to work out its desired full moral reformation?  Would not James’ argument in these verses be just as relevant in all these cases?

[Page 435]                  Backing the unbeliever status up—though equally applicable to the hard-hearted believer--is the lack of a call for repentance.  The sentence structure of 5:1 is particularly pointed to:  “He tells them directly that they are to ‘weep and wail’ not as a sign of repentance but that they recognize their coming judgement and misery.”[9] 

Yes only the latter are mentioned, but would the fact that the fate is avoidable for another decade or two or more—assuming the Jewish Revolt is in mind—not carry with it the implied opportunity for repentance?  If the threatened judgement refers to the physical return of Christ, then it still hasn’t occurred:  Therefore they had the opportunity to repent through the rest of their lives. 

The point was that “the clock was ticking” and time was running out.  The question basically came down to why they were to “weep and wail.”  Was it just because their delusions of being able to get away with evil “forever” was to be crushed?  Or was it also because passionate regret can lay the groundwork for moral change?  James neither goes and makes an explicit plea for repentance nor explicit rules out the possibility.  He leaves the choice to them.       

            In all fairness, though, some folk are beyond repentance.  They’ve hardened their soul so much that they may still be able to weep about physical losses, but weeping over their spiritual loss is far beyond them.  This is also true of some who claim to be Christians and regularly worship.  They are locked into a way of behavior and nothing can quite dynamite them out of it and into a different frame of mind.  Habitual habit has effectively destroyed their once existing freedom of choice.

[Page 436]

            Furthermore, the fact that the sinful rich are directly addressed in chapter 5 would most naturally imply (though it does not absolutely have to) that they are considered part of the believing community--at least in sufficient number for them to be addressed as a distinct group.  The Old Testament prophets similarly addressed the rich in their rebukes because they also were expected to hear the message. 

John MacArthur presents the case this way:

 

Some have wanted to say he's not talking to people in the church, then why would he talk to them in the second person and why would he be speaking to people who aren't there to hear or reading to people who aren't there to listen?  The fact that he addresses them in the second person means that he has those in mind who will hear the letter, who had attached themselves to the church in some way.

It would be pointless for him to be giving this kind of message to outsiders. Maybe if it was in the third person and he said, “You tell them what I want them to know,” but this direct approach assumes their presence and that they would be in the sound of the hearing of this letter when it was read to the whole church. 

These are people who, to some degree or other, want to be identified with God, to some degree or other want to have Christ in their life.  But they don't come on God's terms.

[Page 437]                  On the other hand, are hypothetical listeners impossible?  After all, when the prophets in the Old Testament speak to various foreign nations, it is very unlikely that they expected their words to actually reach their ears--at least not in any significant degree.  (Though if one acknowledges that there was an international passing of wisdom literature from one nation to another, one can’t help but wonder whether prophetic writings might also--at least occasionally--go into other nations as well.) 

But we must remember that the Old Testament text itself makes clear that such foreigners are under discussion.  For a convincing parallel, an explicit identification of them as outsiders would need to be the case in James as well, which it is not.

 

            What is the situation in the other chapters as to the identity of the rich hearers?  In chapter one there is a contrast between a “lowly” individual (1:9) and a “rich” person (1:10).  Since the lowly one is described explicitly as a “brother,” the contrast would most naturally be with a rich “brother” rather than merely a rich “person.”  Indeed, any other reference would be unexpected.[10]      

            In James two, the rich individual is actually in the Christian assembly (2:2).  An oddity unless he was a fellow believer.  (Though perhaps a visitor since he is pointed to a seat in 2:3.)  Even if we assume that this was a judicial meeting of the church, why would the rich person attend and be involved unless joined in shared ties of faith?  Furthermore 2:4 warns that when favoritism for the rich is shown then “you have shown partiality among yourselves.”  In other words, the rich person is one of “yourselves,” a fellow follower of Jesus.

[Page 438]                  Hence the fairest judgment seems to be that the “rich” James is particularly concerned with, are the believing rich, though his logic—especially based upon Old Testament warnings to the wealthy—would be applicable to either the traditional Jewish or Jewish Christian.  (Or the outright pagan, for that matter.)  The temptation to abuse mostly comes from the wealth and the assumed authority and “rights” that grow out of being wealthy and even the believer can be quite vulnerable to that kind of temptation.  

James is not in a position, however, where his words would mean much to outsiders; he is in a position of prominence where his teaching should mean a great deal to fellow Christians.  And that also argues that even if the non-Christian wealthy are primarily in mind, the teaching is quite consciously aimed at fellow believers as well.      

           

 

            5:3:  Gold and silver do not actually rust.  Several approaches are used to deal with this matter.

           

The unused resources approach.  It has been noted that the underlying Greek word rendered “corroded” also covers both rusting and tarnishing.  Although gold will not literally corrode or rust, it can become tarnished.[11]  “The tarnish was [an] indication of how long the horded wealth had lain idle.”[12] 

It represented a physical indictment of the possessors for not using their possessions--not merely for not doing good with them, but with being so possessive that they hadn’t even used it for evil behavior either!  Such individuals are ones to whom both virtue and sin are secondary to possessiveness.  Yet unless possessions are used, they lose their very purpose for existing.

[Page 439]                  Evidence for such an intended interpretation can be seen in the other type of possession specifically mentioned:  “your garments are moth-eaten” (5:2).  “This implies that these clothes weren’t worn, but sitting somewhere – that the owner has more than he/she can wear and, in fact, never wears these. The last I checked, no moths ever ate any of my clothes while I was wearing them. No clothing article ever rotted while it was being worn and cared for.”[13] 

Just as the abundance of clothes were stashed away and never (or rarely) used—the pride of having was adequate to gloat over them—hence the gold could easily have been treated in a similar manner.  Not for bad and not for good.  Not for any purpose.  It became something to wallow over--possessing as an idle end in itself.  This would make the two illustrations of rust and moths as being intended to make the same point.[14]  

            The “destruction” of the money becomes an image to describe the destruction of its usefulness:  we ultimately lose the benefits or lose what we expected to gain from our ill-gotten gains.  If we do not lose the benefits in the here and now, we inevitably lose the advantages they could bring when we answer to God for their misuse.[15]

            Some have noted that the Greek tense used in this connection can carry the connotation of “ ‘completely rusted’ or ‘rusted right through,’ where no integrity to the base metal remains.”[16]  By our own actions and inactions, we turn it into something utterly unusable and of no importance—reversing what they normally would be.  They have made valueless what normally has great value—all due to misplaced priorities and warped values.

[Page 440]                 

Another approach:  Pseudo-rust due to debasement.  Isaiah 1:22 speaks of how “your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water.”  The parallelism argues that something has been added to the silver to reduce its value and make it appear you have far more than you really do.  A cheaper substance of some type.  Just like water is added to wine to make it look like you have more and it can be served to far more people.

The Pulpit Commentary suggests, however, “Primarily, ‘thy great men have deteriorated.’  From pure silver, they have become mere dross, the vile refuse of the smelted ore, only fit to be cast away as worthless.”  Instead of them having true silver, what they have—in genuine value—is only the valueless and useless leftovers of its creation.  In other words, they have transformed something of value to something of no use (which would lead us to the unused resources approach that we just examined.)

            Just like silver, gold could likewise be debased.  When ancient Athens discovered the economic pressures of sustained war were beyond their ability to finance the conflict, they found an effective way to get additional money:  they started adding copper to their gold—then more and more of it.  As public recognition of the con became widespread, inflation pushed prices ever higher.  Their copperish gold still purchased goods, but far less of it.[17]

            When the Roman Empire faced economic pressures, chipping edges off coins provided a short term solution as the fragments could be remelted into additional coins.  Copper would be added to increase the number even further.  Another “creative” trick was to remint existing coinage—and giving it a higher face value, which it did not really possess, due to the cheaper substances being mixed with it.  By the ascension of Diocletian in 287 A.D., virtually all the coinage was copper or bronze with a plating of tin.[18]   

 [Page 441]                 Now copper does not rust—but it visibly appears to because oxidation gives it a “patina” (coating).  It is produced by the copper itself when exposed to moisture or the air.  Now since “padding” the gold with copper was not that uncommon, the imagery of gold “rusting” might well have been born from it—since the (more or less) gold coin gave the appearance of rusting.    

 

Language does not have to be literally true to convey a powerful point.  Whether literally true or not, the gold rusting imagery is the kind of language intended to convey a vivid illustration--to get across the intended spiritual truth.  Hence Jesus utilized similar imagery when he spoke in terms of temporal “treasures” (rather than gold and silver in particular) and how that “moth and rust destroy” and that “thieves break in and steal” them (Matthew 6:19). 

The fact that both Jesus and James utilize the same image argues that it was a well recognized one in their society—literally true, perhaps not.  But both speaker and audience would know that and still grasp the truth being driven at:  The very items testifying of their temporal prosperity would testify against them, being evidence of their twisted priorities.[19]  

            We might wish to think of James’ remark as sarcastic:  Those of his day knew full well that gold and silver don’t actually rust.  What he implies, in effect, is, “You’ve done the impossible.  By your behavior you’ve even made your valuables of gold and silver rust through non-use for righteous purposes.” 

 

[Page 442]

            5:3:  “Treasure in the last days:”   “Treasure.”   What they had was a treasure of money; useful, even desirable.  But they had sacrificed the treasury of helpfulness and humanitarian concern in order to obtain and enrich it.  It was not evil to have temporal treasure; it was evil not to have used any of it in a non-self-centered manner.   

The image of true “treasure” being something beyond mere temporal possessions and that of wealth rusting away (James 5:1) was not a new one.  They were combined in the admonition of the deuterocanonical book of Sirach that one cultivate the benevolent mind-frame James advocates in the second chapter of his book,   

 

                        Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances, and

do not keep him waiting for your alms.  Help the poor for the

commandment’s sake, and in their need do not send them away empty-

handed.  Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let

it rust under a stone and be lost.  Lay up your treasure according to the

commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. 

Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every

disaster; better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear, it will fight for you

against the enemy” (29:8-13; NRSV).

 

[Page 443]                  It is often assumed that the above words encourage the wealthy to take the risk of loaning to the poor (see the headings in the TEV of this chapter, for example).  The preceding section does include a discussion of the risks of lending (verses 1-7) and the following one a discussion of what we today would call cosigning on a loan and embracing the idea of doing so--as long as one protects oneself against dangerous financial exposure if the other person defaults (verses 14-20).  So this approach is not without its merits, but verses 8-13 still read as if embracing generous charity giving in addition to the other two types of helping the poor that are mentioned. 

            And such “almsgiving” is labeled as a form of “lay(ing) up your treasure.”  Not for oneself—since one is giving away something.  Hence saving “treasure up with God” seems the virtually certain intent of the words.   

 

 

            5:3:  “Treasure in the last days:”   “The last days.”  This leaves us with the question of in what sense is the term “last days” utilized?  If one assumes that James has in mind the physical termination of the world, then the thought would be that their sins were so large in number that they constituted the moral equivalent of a monetary “treasure” and that when Jesus returned they would answer for accumulating that pseudo-treasure of sins.[20] 

            A judgement of some kind is clearly being anticipated.  It is not explicitly described as the judgement of Christ—or of God.  Yet since it is clearly coming because of their sins, it can hardly be described as anything other than Divine judgement, whether delivered personally by Christ or through their use of earthly intermediary tools.

If the event when this was to occur is literally near-term, the probability is that James has in mind the fact that his readers were living in the last days of Jewish national [Page 444]   independence.[21]  When the people threw down the gauntlet to Rome, the new governing authorities only partially controlled the situation and the rich were natural targets.  When Rome struck back, her forces destroyed independence and burned Jerusalem and the temple.  The wealthy were natural targets for retribution and outrage during those years as well—by resentful Romans and even more so by locals who were suspicious or outright doubters of their support of the attempted revolution.         

            Again, if the predicted event is literally near-term, the expression “last days” naturally grows out of that imagery of nearness and closeness.  If it was that close, how could it be anything other than the “last days” for them?  Working from that background the text is implying what we have in the ATP, “You have piled up treasure that will convict you in these last days.”  In other words, they were living within that period when they would have to answer for their accumulated abuses.

            Perhaps one useful means of helping determine the intent of the language is by asking ourselves how a Jewish Christian of say 80 or 90 A.D. would have interpreted its intent.  Would it not be extraordinary if they interpreted it as NOT including the disaster at Jerusalem in particular and the Jewish Revolt in general (66-70 A.D.)?  Not to mention the Year of Four Emperors in which the Empire floundered and seemed near destruction (69 A.D.)?  (The first would surely have been the primary thought of those living in Palestine, while Jews living in other parts of the Empire could hardly avoid having their minds just as firmly glued to the Roman centered imperial catastrophe as well.)

           

[Page 445]                  Some have suggested that the “last days” are the last days of their lives.  In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the very night the braggart boasted of his wealth and plans for his abundant possessions was the very night he died (Luke 12:19-20).[22]  A similar lesson is found in an ancient Jewish tale of the individual who purchased enough shoes to last seven years, but he died in seven days.[23]          

This interpretation works best if the individuals addressed were sickly or in immediate danger.  There is nothing to indicate they were. 

On the other hand, one could attempt to deal with this by arguing that—in a destruction of Jerusalem setting—they were (with obvious exceptions) living in the last days of their lives though they had no knowledge of the exact timing.  Even if it was still two or three decades away, that would still be arguably correct. 

However, taken this way, James’ argument would seem to require that the majority (if not the bulk) of the rich would be facing punishment, but did that kind of percentage die in the Great Revolt?  On the emotional level, of course, it took only a significant minority for it to seem that a “generation of wealthy” had been destroyed.  Shifting away from the last days of their lives to a last days of Jerusalem scenario would seemingly eliminate this problem.  That would be perceived as a catastrophe to them all, but not necessarily one envolving the loss of their lives.    

            Others who see a parallel in the story of the rich man, present our text as being based on a play of words between the intent of the rich and what is actually going to happen.  The “rich have stored up treasure for their own latter years (‘in the last days’)” [we would call it retirement] while they are also currently living in their “last days” chronologically.  And they are facing all their possessions being dismissed as insignificant and irrelevant in the eschatological judgement of the “last days.”    

[Page 446]                  Finding a “retirement” element with the wordage “in the last days” would seem an unusual stretch.  Would not the wording more properly (and likely) be, “for your last days”?  Although one may find a few less widely used translations rendering “for” as a replacement for “in,” it’s hard sailing to find any that speak of “your.”  Of course a quiet parallelism would not necessarily have to be made this explicit, but barring it, why search for it in the text in the first place?    
 

            Even here we are still working with a variant of a strict short-term chronological “last days,” the end of which was literally not all that far distant.  But can the expression also be legitimately used of a far longer period of time in addition to or in place of this?

 

            A.  The “last days” as exclusively the period of time from Jesus to the physical return of Jesus—excluding the short term usage by inference.  In this approach, the “last days” began at Pentecost and end with the second physical coming of Jesus.  Jon W. Quinn sums up this common approach this way:[24]

 

When the Bible uses the term last days, rather than referring only to that time just prior to Jesus' return, it refers to the whole period of time from the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ to the end when He comes again.  Yes, we are living in the last days, but so was Napoleon, Christopher Columbus and Constantine.  The whole age of the gospel is the last days or last time or even last hour in the Biblical definition of the phrase.  It is called the last days because there is no future age as far as this world is concerned; we are in the last one.  We live under a new, and final covenant, the testament of Jesus Christ. He will not be establishing another one to replace the one we are now under.

[Page 447]

Arguing this allows one to take to task that multitude of preachers who discover “signs that we are living in the last days,” interpreting the term to mean something that has only now begun.  If the last days included Pentecost, then they began two millennium ago and such interpretations have to be overwrought speculation at the best.

At least in passing it should be noted that the “last days” seems to have begun a bit earlier than the typical formulation of “at His death.”  Hebrews 1:2 speaks of how God “has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.” 

Would that not mean that Jesus’ teaching ministry was part of the last days—that it began prior to His death?  One could attempt to avoid this by arguing that the text refers just to teaching Jesus delivered after His ascension via the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:12-15), but wouldn’t that seemingly arbitrarily and needlessly limit when Jesus “spoke to us”?

 

B.  The dual usage scenario:  of the expression “last days” as referring to both before a specific event AND as the duration from Jesus to the physical end of the universe.  Which it would be would vary according to the specific text under consideration.  The threat to the rich is relevant to both, though in different senses—physical loss of wealth at the time of the earthly disaster and the rejection by God at the end of the world. 

[Page 448]                  In place of an either/or situation, we then have an either/and situation:  Some texts that use the expression refer to what happened at the fall of Jerusalem (and or other times of temporal judgement, at least theoretically); others were intended to apply to the far later bodily return of Christ. 

Or to find fulfillment in both events, for that matter—since there can be temporal judgements long before standing in front of the judgement seat of Christ.  One could easily lose everything in this world, but still have to answer to Christ for how that once held wealth was gained and used.  There would be a “judgement” in both contexts.  

One can also come to the dual usage approach as a deduction from the fact that the earthly judgement spoken of by James—whether interpreted of Jerusalem and/or other first century events—clearly did not result in the visible and physical return of the Lord; hence, the expression “last days” can not be intended to be limited to either event alone.

Some argue that the expression is used of only one event, but that other texts imply the same concept without invoking the language:  they insist that all New Testament usages of the expression refer to the fall of Jerusalem but that the Book of Revelation teaches the concept of another set of last days preceding Jesus’ return.[25]      

Yet others, advocating Full Preterism—in either its Covenant Eschatology or other form—insist that, “All prophecy was fulfilled in C.E. 70. . . .  We are not living in the Biblical ‘last days.’  We are living in ‘the ages to come’ . . . .”[26] 

Of course this scenario argues that the physical ending of the world traditionally found in 2 Peter 3 represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how such language is used in the Old Testament.  There it certainly meant vast temporal disaster and even the elimination of whatever city or empire is specifically under discussion in a given passage.  The language was not used in the sense of “total elimination” that we customarily accept in 2 Peter 3.

[Page 449]                  On the other hand, in those earlier cases the earth continued quite well while the specific city or empire lost its power and control.  2 Peter speaks, however, of “the earth” (verse 10) and not of some specific geographic location on the earth.  A universal and not geographically limited intent can be seen in the fact that the world wide flood in the days of Noah is given as precedent (verses 6-7).  In other words, world wide and not location specific destruction.  To make the text apply to the Jerusalem disaster of 70 A.D. violates this fundamental fact—it localizes an intended universal event. 

The world could always survive flooding but can it survive the global conflagration pictured in verses 10-11?  One might be able to take the text to mean a total purification of physical and spiritual evil—a recreation of Eden, if you wish.  (And some interpreters occasionally make this or something like it the intent.)  But even that makes a lot more to be under discussion than just the fate of Jerusalem.

       

To further complicate the picture, some passages that do not even mention the term “last days” are introduced into the discussion (Matthew 24 and its parallels).  One commentator sums it up concisely, “The key passage in determining the meaning of the ‘Last Days’ is Matthew 24, the Olivet Discourse. While other passages hint, suggest and offer tantalizing glimpses, Matthew 24 lays out a specific prophetic agenda.”[27] 

I must confess a certain difficulty in using a text that does not use an expression to explain the meaning of that expression.  It’s not impossible, I would think, but it would seem to put a person under unusually strong obligation to clearly prove the propriety of invoking it.  

[Page 450]                  Indeed, I have no problem with the conclusion that at least much of that chapter does concern the last days of that city, but since Jesus conspicuously avoids invoking the language of “last days”—and would not a specific introduction of it have fitted perfectly?—I find the greatest difficulty with introducing a different controversy into a passage that does not require it for its valid exegesis:  Fulfillment in the first century of at least a goodly hunk of the chapter.  

Likewise there seems a lack of wisdom in introducing a text that is city specific and assuming that the implied subject of its last days is the only specific meaning possible for wherever else the expression is used—and without any mention being made of the city in those other texts!     

Matthew 24 and its parallels are interpreted by varying commentators as (a) exclusively of the fall of Jerusalem, (b) as entirely referring to the end of earth time, (c) of certain major divisions referring to one or the other event, (d) individual verses jumping from one of these to another, and (e) at least some having double application to both events.  My own approach can be found in my book on Matthew 24:  Where Apocalyptic and History Merge:  A Historian’s Perspective on Matthew 24 and Its Parallels in Light of Old Testament Precedent.      

            Although Jesus is clearly describing the “last days” of Jerusalem in part of that chapter (though not using the term), it requires that the entire chapter have that topic under discussion if we wish to have any hope to limit the expression to that one event.  Furthermore, if other texts—as they have traditionally been interpreted—do, indeed, refer to an event still even in our future, then the New Testament would still implicitly teach a “last days” fully independent of anything that happened to Jerusalem.            

[Page 451]

            Aside:  Covenant Eschatology advocates argue that “the last days” refers to the last days of the Old Covenant and that this period ended with the destruction of the Temple.  True, it had been nailed to Christ’s cross already (Colossians 2:14), but its authoritativeness, it is argued, continued until then. 

Its practice certainly extended that far even though, in God’s sight it was already “obsolete;” it was only then that it “vanish(ed) away” (Hebrews 8:13)--when the Temple was no longer available to practice its rituals within.  But that refers to its practice and not its authority.

Be that as it may, the relevance of this in the current context lies in the fact that we are examining how James speaks of the punishment of the unjust rich occurring “in the last days.”  I find it very hard to believe that James’ point is, “You have heaped up treasure in the last days of the Old Testament.”  We have no indication that these are particularly pious people at all; indeed their behavior argues against it.  “Last days of the Old Testament” would have been a nearly meaningless argument to them.

Shift it to the “last days of Jerusalem”—which would have at least sentimental ties to virtually all Jews, no matter how nonobservant—and it makes far better sense.  Even more so, “the last days of your life.”  And, as we have argued, the direct disaster most likely to be in mind as resulting in this, was that very war which would destroy both Jerusalem and its Temple.  So we are back to that once again.      

Although he does not explicitly urge them to repent, it is hard to believe that he did not wish them to do so.  Could the destruction of the Old Testament motivate them to repent?  Why?  Of Jerusalem—perhaps it might.  Maybe.  But of themselves—well, if that wouldn’t motivate them, what possibly could?    

 

[Page 452]

 

5:6:  Who was the righteous man who was killed?   The use of the language of killing/murder in verse 6 fits well with the picture of the rich in verse 5 as engaged in “slaughter.”  The connection would be that they have prepared themselves for destruction, just as they had inflicted destruction upon their contemporaries.  An alternate connection (but less likely to be intended) is that they made possible that luxurious life style by the destruction--whether literal or figurative--of those who labored to produce their wealth for them.[28]  But that still leaves us with the need to identify the individual(s) being killed. 

 

            Jesus as the “just” victim.  In behalf of this person being Jesus is the fact that the honorable individual is called “the just” in 5:6 and this is an expression applied to Jesus in Acts 3:14.  There is also the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah’s prediction to keep in mind as well (53:7-9). 

Because of this and the fact that the death of Jesus was the preeminent first century example of the just being unjustly executed, it is not surprising that ancient post-apostolic sources utilized the phrase in this manner though not using it in a way indicating that this particular text is in their mind.[29]  Older modern commentators (rather few twentieth century ones)[30] have adopted this approach or adopted a dual innocent contemporary/innocent Jesus interpretation.[31]

[Page 453]                  Much can be said against the linkage, however.  The admonition is that “you” have killed this righteous individual.  If the Jewish leadership of the Sanhedrin is being targeted—and they were the individuals that successfully advocated and pushed through the arrest and prosecution—would not that identification be more clearly presented? 

Here the connection is between wealth and killing the righteous poor.  In contrast the Sanhedrin’s wealth was not challenged by Jesus nor was He executed because of His poverty.  The conflict was over credibility as religious leaders—something significantly different.  They did not kill Jesus to exterminate a poor thorn in the flesh but a quite successful religious opponent.   

The more years that had passed since the crucifixion the less likely the connection seems possible.  The fact that the victim did not resist is in the present tense--as if the event(s) were either very recent or represented an ongoing abuse.[32]  

            Furthermore, although in a sense all who dwelt in Jerusalem bore at least a partial guilt for their passively tolerating what happened (cf. Peter’s rebuke in Acts 2:23), James was written for those in the Diaspora--who had not even a token connection with the judicial murder that was inflicted upon Jesus.[33]  (To the extent that the epistle had a regional Palestinian target audience, to that extent this argument is partially undermined.)

            In addition, there is nothing explicit in the preceding text that leads one to expect an introduction of the example of Jesus.[34]  As already noted, the sufferer in James is spoken of in the present tense as one who “does not resist you,” an unexpected tense when referring to an event a number of years in the past.[35] 

[Page 454]                  Not to mention that there is nothing in the Biblical record that blames the death of Jesus on the category of people under discussion by James, that is, the rich.[36]  No doubt the religious hierarchy behind His injustice was stuffed with the rich, but it is never their wealth that is singled out as cause for their conduct toward Him.

 

            The killed one as James, the author of this epistle.  In church history James gained the appellation “the just” or “the righteous one.”  To give but one source, “In describing the various accounts and traditions about the death of James, the brother of Jesus, Eusebius says things like this:  ‘. . . since he was by all men believed to be the most righteous . . .’ and ‘He was called the ‘Just’ (or ‘Righteous’) by all men from the Lord’s time to ours . . .’ and ‘So from his excessive righteousness he was called the Just.’ ”[37]      

Having James use the term of himself does, however, strike one as a tad egotistical or manifesting an unexpected amount of brazen pride.  This seems manifestly in contradiction to the general moral tone he strikes in the remainder of the book.  Furthermore there seems a serious incongruity of his insistence on teachers (and others) watching what they said and then throwing in, in effect, “but remember that I’m the just one.” 

These tensions perhaps could be removed if one assumes that the book was based upon James’ teachings or writings and that this is an allusion to the one whose material is being compiled, preserved, and circulated.  On the other hand this requires the interjection not only of an uncertain specific identity for the “just one,” but also the embracing of a far from proved scenario that the book is actually a compilation.  The use of Occam’s Razor appears clearly called for.    

[Page 455]

            The killed one as any righteous, Christian poor individual.  The term “just” (or “righteous one”) surely includes more than one individual, for the abuse of power that crushes one person who is an obstacle is just as likely to crush any other inconvenient individual who can be abused.  At the very least, it must never be forgotten that the innocent individual is the one under consideration so the terminology would fit both Jesus and whoever else became a victim of the naked power of the wealthy.  There is nothing in the context to make it refer to a specific individual at all.  

            Furthermore, the Old Testament certainly warns of the danger of the just being crushed by their powerful enemies—not in regard to any one particular person but as a generic, ongoing danger for whoever is powerless and poor.  For example Psalms 37 speaks in such language, equating the poor and the just in verse 14 (since in utilitarian terms they are always more abundant in that group than in the rich),

 

12 The wicked plots against the just (as here in James 5:6, RW), and gnashes at him with his teeth.  13 The Lord laughs at him, for He sees that his day is coming (as in James 5:7-8, RW).  14 The wicked have drawn the sword and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, to slay those who are of upright conduct.  15 Their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.  16 A little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked.  17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous.          

 

[Page 456]                  30 The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of justice.  31 The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.  32 The wicked watches the righteous, and seeks to slay him.  33 The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged.  34 Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you shall see it.

35 I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a native green tree.  36 Yet he passed away, and behold, he was no more; indeed I sought him, but he could not be found.

 

            Note that the Psalmist sees a kind of “comeuppance” for the unjust rich in this life.  He speaks of how he had seen those with “great power” who seemed to be prospering with no end in sight “like a native green tree.”  Yet he passed away, and behold, he was no more.”  In other words, whatever other judgment God may bring upon him in the Final Day—he will still die in the current world.  Money won’t buy him eternal life. 

And the Psalmist himself found it nigh impossible to believe for, even after hearing of his death, he still “sought him, but he could not be found.”  His death was simply “impossible.”  But it had still happened!
           

            The “murder” being committed:  directly so or indirectly?  In our exegesis section we briefly considered the possibility that open and clear-cut assassination / extermination might be included, at least in certain cases.  (When one believes one can abuse power, the inclination is to go as far as prudence permits.)

[Page 457]                  Specifically, they are accused of striking out at their laborers and denying them their rightful wages (verse 4).  To deny a working person his due wages was to (sooner or later) kill him.  If you wish, it can be called “indirect murder” rather than “direct murder.”

            There was an ancient Jewish tradition that took such actions in exactly this manner.  The ancient Sirach had made this connection explicit, “The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.  To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood” (34:25-27, NRSV).  Although James does not make this point explicitly, it is certainly one that fits well with the preceding verses.

           

We recognize that extreme punitive action has been inflicted upon the undeserving but the text does not explain why it happens.  In many cases it would be sheer economics—impoverishing others is a quite successful tool for enhancing one’s own income.  Nothing else is really envolved beyond “the bottom line.”

However, there are times when other factors can be wrapped into the situation as well.  In the kind of case discussed by James, those victimizing others may well have had contempt for both their poverty and their devoutness.   It made them feel guilty.  It was a way of striking out at those who had the “naïve” idea that the wealthy should embrace non-self-serving ideals as well.  It was a way of striking out against those who were doing so with none of the advantages their economic “betters” possessed.

[Page 458]                  Hence we read of the reasoning of the oppressors in the Wisdom of Solomon—in which the poor are targeted specifically because they are morally upright:

 

(10)  Let us oppress the needy just man; let us neither spare the widow nor revere the old man for his hair grown white with time.  (11)  But let our strength be our norm of justice; for weakness proves itself useless.

(12)  Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for our transgressions of the law and charges us with violation of our training.  (13)  He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the Lord.

(14)  To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us,  (15)  because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways.  (16)  He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure.  He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father.

(17)  Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him.  (18)  For if the just one be the son of God, H will defend him and deliver him from the hands of his foes.  (19)  With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.  (20)  Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

(21)  These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, (22) and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls’ reward (Chapter 2; New American Bible). 

 

[Page 459]

If one seeks to dilute the apparent literalness of the James 5:6 text in describing death being afflicted, one should consider the possibility that James is rebuking the destruction of the confidence, respect, and hope of the poor.  Death by character assassination.

This would tie in well with James’ earlier repeated rebuke of the misuse of the tongue.  In a class orientated society such as that of the first century, ridicule and denunciation would be even harder to bear than it is in our age when such divisions are far less pronounced.  If James’ intent is to speak of the hurt and injury verbal excess can produce, then he is reproducing the kind of imagery found in Sirach 28:18, “Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.”  

 

 

Notes

 



[1] Davids, James:  A Commentary, 44.  

 

[2] For evidence see Nystrom, 56.

 

[3] Wall, 232.

 

[4] Neufeld. 1.

   

[5] Del Oke, “James 5—What Measuring Rod Are You Using?”  Posted May 24, 2010.  At:  http://www.wordlibrary.co.uk/article.php?id=658.  [July 2012.]

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Bowman, 112.

 

[Page 460]   [8] Stulac, 80.  For a detailed discussion of the question from this perspective also see 190-201 of the same work.  

 

[9] Neufeld, n.p.

 

[10] For a discussion of this text from this perspective, see Mitton, 36-38.  Contrast his views on the identity of the rich in chapter 2 (175-176). 

 

[11] Burdick, 199.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Bryan Shoemaker (?), “Wrong Preoccupations—James 5:1-3.”  Dated March 29, 2012.  At:  http://www.runningafterpapa.com/?cat=86.  [July 2012.]  

 

[14] Ibid.  His preferred approach is that the reference is to gold becoming debased in value--and this man’s gold being assumed to be just as valueless as the newer issues.  What was intended to assure his future would not now be able to do so.

 

[15] Morris, 89.

 

[16] Explaining the approach without necessarily embracing it, McCartney, 232.

 

[17] Mike Pagach, “How Great Civilizations Fall by Debasing Their Gold and Silver Money.”  At:  http://thenumisnetworkreview.com/943/how-great-civilizations-fall-by-debasing-their-gold-and-silver-money/.  [July 2012.]

 

[18] Ibid.

 

[19] Cf. Scott Sperling.  “James 5:1-9.”  At:  http://www.scripturestudies.com/Vol2/ B5/b5_nt.html.  [July 2012.]

 

[20] McCartney, 200.

 

[21] Plumptre, 97.

 

[22] Sidebottom, 57. 

 

[23] Ibid.

 

[24] Jon W. Quinn,  The Last Word on the Last Days.”  Expository Files 6.3 (March 1999).  At:  http://www.bible.ca/ef/topical-the-last-word-on-the-last-days.htm.  [July 2012.]

 

[Page 461]   [25] Mark H. Miller, “Why We Cannot Preach These are ‘the Last Days.’ ”  From Nazarene Commentary 2000.  At:  http://www.nazarene-friends.org/articles/Why

%20We%20Cannot%20Preach%20These%20are%20The%20Last%20Days.php.  [July 2012.]

 

[26] J. W. Bernard, “The Last Days.”  At:  http://www.jerrybernard.com/lessons/ LastDays.htm.  [July 2012.]

 

[27] Brian Abshire, “The Meaning and Significance of the Term ‘the Last Days’ in New Testament Prophecy.”  At:  http://www.preteristarchive.com/PartialPreterism/ abshire-brian_pp_01.html.  [July 2012.]  

 

[28] Cf. Sidebottom, 57.    

 

[29] For citations see Laws, 205-206.  

 

[30] Songer, 129.  For a lengthy and passionate defense of the text as a reference to Jesus see Woods, 269-271.

 

[31] Songer, 129.

 

[32] Lenski, 652.   

 

[33] Plumptre, 99.

 

[34] For this idea in different language see Williams, 133.

 

[35] Ibid.

 

[36] Hartin, James, 230.

 

[37] As quoted by McKnight, James, 398.