In an age where access to music is almost instantaneous, an argument I sometimes have with friends and family members is which version of a song is better. For some reason, as I get older, a higher percentage of the older versions are better.
James 5 is a bit like a remake of a song we’ve heard before with slightly new words and sounds. A major theme in this chapter is endurance, which is also a major theme of chapter 1.
James 5:1-6 is a passage that probably doesn’t make it on many encouragement cards because of the stern words. We saw some necessarily harsh language in chapter 4 about repentance, but James issues no call to repent in 5:1-6. In this passage, he also never refers to his readers as brothers as he does in 4:11 and later in 5:7.
They are simply “the rich.” He says that the cry of those they oppressed reached the Lord, which sounds like the way Scripture describes Cain’s murder of Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah’s treatment of the poor, and the Egyptians’ oppression of the Israelites (Gen. 4:10, Gen. 18:20, Ezek. 16:49-50, and Ex. 2:23). In each case, God condemned the perpetrators. Those factors lead me to believe that the “rich” aren’t Christians. But if not, why would James speak to unbelievers in a letter addressed to Christians?
Like an Old Testament prophet, James speaks to unbelievers as if they were present. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos all at times address nations other than Israel — even though these nations, as a whole, wouldn’t have heard their words. James (like the earlier prophets) probably had at least a twofold purpose.
First, his words would encourage oppressed or persecuted Christians. His words pointedly remind persecuted Christians that their situation will not always be what it is. God will judge the unrepentant, and the wealth they’ve put their faith in will be useless.
Second, these words warn Christians not to slip into worldly patterns of thinking and living. Christians sometimes can fall into the trap of prioritizing wealth above everything else in life. On judgment day, wealth will be nothing.
James pivots to believers in 5:7. Although he addresses several topics, the overall point is to persevere in light of Christ’s coming and in light of the previous saints who also persevered (5:8-11). James calls them to be patient or longsuffering. The word James uses that’s usually translated as “patient” carries the idea of someone who doesn’t quit or blow up at the slightest provocation.
It’s the same word translated in the King James Version of 1 Corinthians 13:4 as “suffereth long.” Christians can be patient when they remember that the Lord is compassionate and merciful; He will not allow His children to be persecuted forever (5:11).
To persevere, Christians must resist the temptation to cheapen their words. Christians shouldn’t even need oaths (5:12, see also Matt. 5:33-37). They also must habitually turn to the Lord in peace or difficulty rather than away from him. Prayer and praise are evidence of this Godward disposition (5:13-18). Lastly, some professing believers will wander. Faithfulness requires urging those who drift to return (5:19-20). To persevere, we need each other.
There are many vital topics James never mentions in his short letter. He never speaks about the death and resurrection of Jesus or (arguably) the Holy Spirit. James, therefore, shouldn’t be the only book of the Bible Christians are familiar with, but it’s a book worth reading slowly and prayerfully by all who long to please God in the way they live their lives.