Even with all of the explanations so far this week, James’s choice words for the rich can still seem harsh. Further unpacking the context can be helpful to gain further insight.
James 4:17 is the verse directly before James 5:1. Chapter separations, though incredibly helpful in organization, are not necessarily inspired; one chapter’s thoughts do not end with its organizational end. Said another way, James 4 and James 5 are not as separate as they might look in our modern Bibles. At the end of chapter 4, James explains that sin is not just doing evil, but it is also abstaining from known goodness. This is incredibly relevant for the rich.
Jesus shared a parable of two servants who disobeyed their master while he was gone. The servant who did not know his master’s will was not punished as severely as the servant who did know his master’s will, because “everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Like talents and gifts, increased money gives both an increased chance of greater blessing and greater evil. It’s up to the individual as to how it will be used.
Despairing over the wickedness of His people, God described them through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “ ‘As a cage is full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit. Therefore they have become great and grown rich. They have grown fat, they are sleek; yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the fatherless; yet they prosper, and the right of the needy they do not defend’ ” (Jer. 5:27, 28). Like the rich that James describes, the wealthy were not using their gifts of influence and power for selflessness, for helping others. It only gave further expression to the wickedness of their hearts. Evil abounded because wealth was used as an opportunity to gain even more wealth.
As God warned His people throughout the Old Testament in order to have them return to Himself, James warns the rich not out of hatred but out of love. He seems to be sharing the inevitable destruction of their beloved riches as something that this particular audience doesn’t seem to be aware of. They are accruing riches as if they can be depended on. They are trusting in riches as if they are eternal. Instead, these precious materials will be a witness against them and will eat their flesh like fire; the very thing they trusted in will harm them.
James uses these harsh words because he’s doing what he can to alert his listeners to their dire circumstances. The world may say the rich are great because they are rich. They may seem to get away with corruption and fraud, but a day of reckoning is coming when reality will be revealed. It would be best, James urges, for them to acknowledge this reality, right the wrongs, and change their ways before they are forced to.