(KJV)James 5:1-6

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you . [2] Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. [3] Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. [4] Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. [5] Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. [6] Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Could the apostle have been addressing unbelieving Jews or professing Christians who were Jews

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    Is there any way at all, on the basis of the text of James, to justify taking it anything other than literally, i.e. a warning to "rich men"?
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 12:14

3 Answers 3


According to the timeline at BibleHub James wrote his letter in 45 CE, just 15 years after Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. That's not a lot of time for those who weren't already rich, to acquire fields and employ labourers to reap their crops, given also the general behaviour of many of them was the antithesis of that which would create wealth, i.e. "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." (Acts 2:44-45)

Since James opens his letter with, "James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.", the people he is is referring to in James 5:1-6 can only be Jews of substance who have been converted to the faith -- those he suspects have done so because they see the "last days" are upon them, and need to store up their riches in order to survive.

James' depiction of these Jews as those who would defraud their brothers, is reminiscent of those spoken of in Nehemiah 5, and James is moved, as was Nehemiah, to rebuke them for their love of mammon (James 4:13, James 5:5) and lack of compassion (James 5:4).

Just like their brethren who were chastised by Nehemiah, these Jews appear to be as disconnected from their God as ever they were. They are still depending upon their own initiative and their own strength, as if YHWH were nothing more than a word written on a scroll -- still praising the Scroll, and not the One the scroll testifies of.


There is little doubt that the passage quoted by the OP is referring to "professing Christians who were Jews"


There doesn't seem to be any Church Father or ancient Christian writing that took this passage in much more than the literal sense.

What may be an allusion to the passage can be found in the Shepherd of Hermas:

Give heed, therefore, ye who glory in your wealth, lest those who are needy should groan, and their groans should ascend to the Lord, and ye be shut out with all your goods beyond the gate of the tower

Book I, Third Vision, Chapter IX

Bede also wrote an extensive commentary on James and does not seem to see anything beyond the literal meaning of the text (i.e. an admonition to the rich).

Not only does the visible fire of hell torture the wicked and unmerciful rich in torments but also in the very memory of decayed and worthless riches by which they might have been able to redeem their nefarious deeds will very easily burn up their souls no less before the judgment and after the resurrection their flesh as well, when they begin to be seriously angry with themselves for having been unwilling to cleanse their wicked deeds by alms. Accordingly, the corrosion of riches has been turned into a witness of wickedness and into an increase of punishment for that rich man clothed in purple when he heard through the rebuke of Abraham, Son, remember that you received good things during your life, and Lazarus in like manner evil things [Luke 16:25].

On the Seven Catholic Epistles (tr. Cistercian Studies Series No. 82, p.55).


See Why did Paul collect and deliver an offering for the Jerusalem church?

When James was writing, Jerusalem was experiencing great hardship. Specifically Jerusalem food supplies were short due to severe crop failures in Egypt around A.D. 45-46 and subsequently the Judean famine of 46-47.

These hardships caused Paul, who was in Antioch, to collect for the Jerusalem church. Had Paul not done this, many in Jerusalem would have perished. Yet in Jerusalem, there were Jews and Christian's alike who were hording, looking only after themselves.

As noted in this commentary

The apostle {James} denounces the judgments of God upon those rich men who oppress the poor, showing them how great their sin and folly are in the sight of God, and how grievous the punishments would be which should fall upon themselves.

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