Your money is no good here.
1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your 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. 4Behold, 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. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
James makes a run up to the subject of wealth in chapter five by first addressing conflict and how grace changes our fighting, and then shows how our planning betrays that we naturally don’t rely on God.
James concludes chapter four by showing how normal planning betrays our unbelief in the gospel. He then takes aim at a people group you would expect to be happy with the outcome of their planning: the rich. At all times in history and in every place you can hear the refrain “the rich are blessed by God.”
However, James invites the rich to mourn (weep and howl) because the gospel devalues earthly wealth and bankrupts our pursuit of happiness through money.
Now, in verses two and three, James pushes the logic of verse one to show the the counter-intuitive glory of the gospel. Notice specifically the the tense of the words: “rotted,” “moth-eaten,” “corroded,” “laid up.” James is talking about the advent of some new industry that devalues “riches,” “garments,” “gold and silver,” and “treasure.”
Imagine having an entire trust fund invested in a company with the highest rating, compelling prospectus, solid history, and a bright future ahead. Then an entirely new industry arises that renders your investment not just worthless, but leaves you looking foolish.
James is saying the system you have relied on to retain value is bankrupt, and a new value system appears in the cross and grace of Jesus. In every way, Jesus was rich and became poor so that we could find our wealth in him. Jesus’ sacrifice is payment in full for an entire industry of sinners who, having trusted in money as an idol, are confronted by a God that tells them, “Your money is no good here.”
An important historical note: James refers to the times in which they live as “last days” and in the following passage he will refer to the imminent return of Jesus. It may be here that the last days are the Jewish eon that will terminate in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. The age to come is the advent of God’s grace that started at the cross of Jesus.
James addresses these rich people frankly and makes an example out of them so his gospel-believing readers can see the error of their ways. They have contracted with field workers who are ostensibly poor and then refused to pay them. When James says “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person,” he is referring to the poor who are living paycheck to paycheck and are devastated when the income they are counting on fails to arrive.
The gospel turns the goals and priorities of the world upside down. James warns us, “Every time you have worshipped money and cheated people, every time you have devoted your energy, attention, and time to luxury and self-worship, your devotion to the best of this world has primed your heart for ruin.”